Ecuador Travel Tales: First flights, carry on surprises, bus tragedies on ice and odd memories that seem to last a lifetime
By Scott Fugit
It seems to be the strangest travel memories that stick.
Maybe this is age related, or maybe it’s a subconscious choice. Supposedly, memory retention and recall are selective. That may be true. For myself, I just wish I knew who was doing the choosing.
When it comes to traveling, useful information often eludes me. I might have to ask my wife four times for our next flight number and seat assignment. Yet, somehow, random bits of my traveling past seem to stay mind-lodged forever in vivid detail. This is not always welcome. These are not necessarily bad memories from a traveling past, more like just annoying.
Methods of relief have always existed, although some are harsh. Forgetting is one reason alcoholic beverages were invented. Others say sharing is what’s most important. Once revealed and out in the open, the most quirky recollections just drift off. Right? I’m hoping.
What follows is an attempt at pain free travel memory exorcism. A freeing of the faculties, minus any discomfort. In Ecuador terms, it’s my version of ayahuasca – without the vomiting.
Pile in the Aisle and the Tea of Towelette
It was a late night flight, on a foreign carrier, between two major capitals. Our takeoff had been delayed due to mechanical problems – for 18 hours. One of the engines got started on a different day than the passengers had planned to. We carried our own luggage to the plane. My seat was next to an elderly indigenous man, smiling, friendly, in a rumpled tie and suit which was at least one size too big. His straw hat was new. He carried on a worn, covered basket which he stowed under the seat as he settled in next to the window. We would be shoulder to shoulder for the next six hours. It was cozy enough for me to see his fresh shaving nicks. Tonight’s flight must be a special event. A combination of age and wide eyed innocence hinted he was a first timer. We had few spoken words in common, but he was delighted when I showed him how to buckle in. As we left the dark runway for his virgin jet takeoff, restrained fear and awe showed within the deep lines on his face. It was a confirming response. Between boarding and reaching our cruising altitude, we had shaken hands several times. He never slept, but I was soon dozing in our metal cocoon-filled with dim light and dull roar. Nothing moved inside, as we hurtled along at 500 miles per hour.
I hate strange noises on airplanes. What is that whimpering? Half asleep, I watched my travel companion reach down into the darkness and his stowed basket. There was movement. An upright tail swiped past my ankles. Out into the darkened aisle stepped a small, mixed-breed, male puppy, with a short coat, tan upright ears, maybe eight weeks old and very cute. Up front, the cabin crew was resting while passengers slept. Without a sound, the pup trotted down the aisle towards the cockpit. Ten rows ahead of us, the little dog stopped, squatted, and laid down an impressive pile – firm, nicely stacked. I hate strange smells on airplanes.
Almost like he didn’t want to get caught, the little pooper scampered back and was asleep in his basket well before a stewardess made the pungent discovery. Nearby passengers were stirring. If variety is the spice of traveling life, than contrast is its sauce. In a crisp blouse, fitted skirt and heels, the attractive, young employee gracefully kneeled, and being careful not to get any on her fabulous nails, used a tiny drink napkin to once again make the aisle safe for shoeless feet.
And our flight was not yet over. Breakfast soon arrived. Unthinkable for me at this hour, my new friend was digging in. He had soon moved through his muffin and eggs, and was busily brewing his cup of tea – and also contemplating his moist towelette. As he tore it open and gave it a sniff, I should have seen what was coming. I could have intervened. Good travel companions help. But instead I just watched, in sleepy disbelief, as he unfolded the towelette, held the top corners like a tiny wash cloth, and repeatedly dunked it into his tea. After carefully wringing out every drop, he set it aside with a satisfied smile. Mini oil slicks now floated atop his brown brew.
Maybe I overthink this stuff, but it seemed like another sensitive expat decision loomed. Do I let my new, old friend drink his sani-tea? How would I politely stop him? What am I, the tea police? Sanitizer has been drunk before. It’s a preferred cocktail in some places. The stuff isn’t dangerous, probably less scary than the non-dairy creamer. And what do I know? Maybe it’s his own traditional recipe, like chicha. As I pondered these weighty cultural issues, he happily emptied the cup in two gulps. Problem solved. The air between us turned zesty.
I don’t remember the landing, which means nothing weird happened. At baggage claim I met his family, we had our final hand shake, and then said goodbye while his grand kids played with their new puppy.
Lasting travel memories often include an initial airline trip. For myself that highlight is long gone. Yet,somehow, my old friend’s first flight has stayed with me forever.
Chordeleg Bus: Tragedy on Ice
Please read this and help me forget. It was one of our first bus rides in Ecuador, and we had gotten started late. We added to our basket of mistakes at Cuenca’s main terminal. After finding the correct loading area, we blundered into the constricted turnstile line without the essential two dimes in hand,squeezed and ready. As I dug for correct change, with a long line waiting behind us, someone was kind enough to drop two of the magic coins into the slot, free up the stuck gringos, and keep things moving. The bus was full so we had to split up. My first smart move was to assume the co-pilot’s seat, up front next to the driver, with leg room and an excellent view of everything happening just outside the windshield. It was soon an active scene, filled from side to side with real time, high definition images of oncoming traffic, sharp corners, steep embankments and slow moving pedestrians. My Spanish is poor, but I was quickly on a first name basis with the driver. I’m almost sure he appreciated my excited and supportive commentary, even though he mostly just smiled.
I now have a strict rule covering vendors selling all manner of goods on Ecuador’s buses. Always buy one of everything. For a miniscule price, you get excellent gringo PR, a good language lesson, make new friends, and have fun trying to figure out what you just bought. The edibles are easy. Excellent small bags of coconut water, sweet humitas, various fruits, baked goods and homemade candy. For me, the smiles and a few sentences spoken with these small town vendors is the attraction. I don’t actually have to like or need things to buy them, I’m an American. At one stop, a well-dressed professional gave an impassioned pitch for a powdered product in a small, green foil envelope. His belt level hand gestures, fore and aft, implied improved gastro function. I’m definitely down for fifty cents. After later translating the labelling, it remains undrunk mixed with either fruit juice or water. Still, it makes a perfect coffee mug coaster.
My absolute favorite money spent on the bus is for donations to needy locals. A man carrying a small girl comes on board, points out the child’s badly deformed leg while providing a heart-felt dialog to his captive audience. He ends with a plea for funds, and I’m immediately in. Yes, yes I’ve heard the hard ass arguments – it’s a scam, don’t encourage them, tell him to get a job, etc., etc. Maybe it was just my perspective at the time – a gringo on a crowded bus in Ecuador. For me, the grateful father’s high five fist bump made it the best two dollars I’ve ever spent.
As our bus pulled into town and the passengers begin to file past and unload, I remember how each of them acknowledged the driver. These were satisfied users of a cheap, and functional public transportation system gratefully thanking their operator with a smile. That occurs every day in the USA too – somewhere, maybe, I’m pretty sure.
Then, as I waited up front, I realized something was wrong. My wife Dee and I had been split up for the entire ride. Now, an elderly lady pointed back and said something to me about “esposa.” I jumped up and quickly moved rearward through the mostly empty aisle. Dee was clutching a wad of tissue with both hands, and sobbing. As I slid into the seat next to her, a woman with three children moved past, all looking at us and giggling.I remember thinking how odd that seemed.
“Dee, what’s wrong, are you alright?” I asked anxiously. She dabbed at her eyes, “Yeah, I guess,” she blubbered. I followed her teary gaze forward – and witnessed a very sad, tragic scene.
Specifically, it was the scene where the scientists are forced to leave their beloved sled dogs behind, abandoned on the windblown ice. The 2006 tearjerker flick, “Eight Below”, was blaring on the screen at the front of the bus – dubbed in Spanish. At my urging, we got up and stepped out the door and into Chordeleg, just before “Old Jack,” elderly dog hero, slowly died in the frozen wilderness. “I can’t understand them, but I know what happens. That movie gets me every time.” It was all the wifey could say, completely oblivious to any cultural embarrassment.
I hope telling these stories has helped – me. Sharing is dislodging, but it should be easier. There’s another solution, and it’s a good one. I’m certain there’s limited storage capacity, so the answer seems obvious. Bury those pesky travel memories under a new pile. More is better. It’s out with the old, and in with the new.
Traveling is the human experience in concentrated form. It’s shock treatment for the intellect, and there is always the need for another rejuvenating dose. As Dee and I prepare for our next trip to Cuenca, we look forward to a whole new collection of memories.
Personally, I’m hoping they might replace a few of the old ones.
All photos by Dee Fugit.
Scott Fugit retired recently to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment in articles relevant to expat life. He and his photographer wife Dee are Cuenca wannabes.