Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Group Post, Travel Horror Stories. Me first, then you. An Ecuadorian Tale.

Bearshapedsphere and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, long-lasting voyage. With an invitation to group post at the end.

I was in Ecuador, which means it was 1996, and I was running away from the bar exam. I’d been living in Cuenca, studying Spanish and teaching English and eating a whole lot of llapingachos and quinoa soup and locro de papas, and quimbolitos and avoiding the dreaded mallocos (clearly the baby of a potato crossed with a bean, and a word I confused with the word for fraternal twins (mellizos) for some time) and the similiarly dreaded tomato de arbol (which I mentioned here) and drinking naranjilla juice and canelazo, when I found myself with a few free weeks to explore the country. I’d already seen parts of the coast and decided it would be a good idea to check out the jungle zone, which I did, and I may have fallen up and down over a few roots n things, and had mud suck in over my knee-high wellies that they insisted I hike in, and have my feet sweat right through my socks on a daily basis (see wellies) but for the most part, I was doing well.

And then began the next 48 hours, in which I traveled by private and public bus, boat, 4X4, tractor trailer and my feet, and experienced lies, trouble, poor nutrition, communication breakdown, transportation breakdown, heat, cold, torrential rain, two questionable sleepspots, a concussion and a partridge in a pear tree. Minus the partridge. And the pear tree.

I had been in a little jungle/tourism hamlet on the Rio Napo that involved a two hour 4X4 trip plus ferrying across the river in a dugout with a rope strung across, that the boat captain pulled us across hand over hand, and then an hour or so walk upriver to where the family stayed, with kids that were still amazed to see flashlights and the aforementioned bean/potato baby were served at every meal.

After my jungle whatsis where I saw phosphorescent fungus and felt the meeting of the tropical river with the snowmelt river as I floated down the Rio Napo on a tube and had one leg that was suspiciously warm and another that was freezing beyond recovery, a shamanic cleansing ritual that I probably won't talk about here and some Israeli girls that had really bad nightmares, it would seem, I got dropped off in some town or another, consumed animal protein (fish, tilapia if you were wondering) for the first time in a week, and weaved a plan. I wanted to see more of the river, the broad part, where it was used for transportation. I remember wanting to get to Misahuallí, and driving to a town up the wrong side of the highway, because the correct side had been blocked by fallen trees and other highway mishaps. When I got to the town, my two German travel buddies in tow, we were told that where we’d wanted to get to by boat was not possible because we needed either four tourists or eight Ecuadoreans (who paid half price) to get there. Ever discouraged, we looked at the map and asked if there were any busses from any of the wide spots in the river that claimed to be towns. Sure, sure, they said, and pointed to a spot that seemed wider than the rest.

We snuggled down into the dugout, spacily passing the hours and oranges back and forth, and watching as the driver pulled over to the side and delivered case after case of Fanta and other necessities to what appeared to be empty river banks, or picked up empty soda bottles from other river-dwelling communities. The trip droned on and on, and my legs grew a shiny pink, from sweat and sun, and finally, we’d reached our destination. No sooner were we off the boat than we realized that this wasn’t so much of a town as it was a future town. There were buildings, but no stores, no people. In short, we were screwed. And the boat motor slowly faded out of earshot, like in a movie. We figured out which way the road went, an easy task since it dead ended into the “town” and led away from the river. And away from the river we walked. Several hours later, we were picked up from the road by a road surveying team which allowed us to perch precariously in the back of their white pick-up truck as we shared more oranges, and the occasional improvised conversation in imagined and creative Spanish of the just-add-an-o variety.

When we finally arrived in Lago Agrio, the surveyors’ final spot, and which we knew nothing about, other than that it was a oil drilling boom town and that the name meant "bitter lake," we found out the truth. It was an oil town, true, and full of prostibularios. You do the math on what that one means. So we hunkered down until the next day, listening to ranchera music and trying not to slide off the slick polyester sheets on the strangely twisty beds as the rusty fan blade struggled to make its journey around and around. It was dank and hot, but openng the windows invited stares from the people in the next building. So we sat in our own sweat and willed the fan to pick up speed. Which it never did.

The next day came, and we decided to try to get to Quito, deciding that we would first stop at San Rafael Falls, one of Ecuador's natural wonders, of which there are many. Lonely Planet assured us that it was beyond a bridge a whole bunch of km from anyplace useful. And so we went. And we left our big packs and hiked happily to the overlook, seeing the giant maw that was the waterfall and the stunning flow of water that poured endlessly from it. What seemed like a fine mist of spray or rain turned into a ferocious rainstorm that soaked us to our filthy, travel-worn skin. But at least we weren’t in Lago Agrio any more, and the falls? They are lovely. These are two actual photos that I took of the falls, all those years ago. And yes, I found them, just so I could show them to you. See? Pretty. Even on film and disjointed because who can be bothered to stitch stuff together? Trust me, they overlap.

san rafael falls 1

When we’d had enough of the waterfalls, we decided to walk back out to the road and flag down a bus to take us to Quito. The park warden offered to let us stay, but he was looking at me, the itinerant single gal, with a bit too much interest, and we decided to get out. A bunch of his amigos were coming over that night to party, and I didn’t relish even more attention, so I was really urgida (in a hurry).

We sat and sat in the bus shelter, waving frantically at every bus that came by, and sucking down their exhaust fumes as they zoomed past us. Something was amiss, and we had no way of knowing what it was. In retrospect, it must have been a holiday weekend. Also in retrospect, I must have blacked out when I heaved myself up onto the window ledge and whomphed my head into the top of the window frame, crafted in cement. My head swelled and ached and my vision went blurry. As it got dark, and the snaky black wide-bore Amazonian oil pipeline was no longer visible and not just because of my newly-concussed head, we realized we had a problem. I was the only one with a sleeping bag, and we weren’t sure that the drunken amigos wouldn’t come out for a looksee later in the evening. We decided to get aggressive with the hitchhiking. Another hour or two passed, with me clutching my head and occasionally thrusting my thumb out into the darkness.

A truck that was very slowly hauling a heavy load finally stopped for us, taking pity on us and throwing two of us back in the extended cab, and me between the driver and his helper, moving my left thigh every time it was time for him to shift. We went over hill and dale, and six inches of mud, into which we spilled in a heap upon arriving to our destination for the evening, a town about 40 km away with a truck stop “hotel” behind a nonfunctioning restaurant and gas station, which cost us a cool $1.50 to stay. Dinner was a slop across the road in mid-calf-depth mud to the one snackbar that still had some food. I ate frenchfries and told myself that Sprite, by virtue of being lemon-lime flavored, was just like juice. I could have opted for potato chips, but the french fries seemed so much more nutritious, since they didn’t come with packets of ketchup and mayonnaise inside. To be fair, there was meat. To be honest, I don’t eat it, and I especially don’t eat it in the middle of a nowhere town on a wobbly chair at a formerly white formica counter that could use a good scraping with a putty knife.

mud town
mud town, possibly Salado, not sure of the name, and most of the rest of Ecuador is delightful, don't judge.

We awoke in the morning and got a tiny bus taking friends and families and boys with cowboy hats and white knuckles from gripping each other having seen three gringos in the muddy truckstop town. They were going to church. We were just getting to a bigger town, with more possibility of getting on a bus, that might get us to Quito, or so we hoped. It had been nearly 48 hours of transit, with many a mishap, aching head and poor nutrition included.

Busses came and went, and we finally grafted ourselves onto one, intermingling our very cells with the people that surrounded us. This was a problem of conservation of matter. We simply did not fit. But the driver took our money, and we squirmed and wormed our way on, with me announcing to everyone that would listen that we’d been trying to get to Quito for the last 21 hours and that we’d been having wicked bad luck for about the last 48. If they listened harder I told them the story of the bus traveling the wrong side of the highway, the boat to nowhere, the lies about transportation, the tippy boat, the sunburned legs, the tuna I ate with a fork right from the can, the abandoned town, the bouncy hitchhike, the creepy brothel town, the long bus ride to hiking in the driving rain, the unscrupulous park ranger and his amigos of dubious intent, my concussion and double vision, extreme cold, hitchhiking three hours to go less than 30 miles with a man who brushed my thigh with glee, and the sticky mud and the french fries and Sprite and the truck stop sleeping arrangements. And sometimes I complained a little bit about my German travel buddies who were really dour about the whole thing and spoke about four words of Spanish between them.

And then the people on the bus smiled and nodded, and explained to me that where we were right now was often attacked by armed bandits. And me? I just laughed. I laughed all the frustration and fear and annoyance and headache and Sprite and Germans until I almost peed my pants. Which would have been the only thing missing. Oh, and the armed robbers, who never came.

So, what’s your story?

Here’s the deal. You write your megaultrabad travel story, urban or rural, in your home country or beyond. Snowstorms count, as do improvised bathrooms, bad music, seat-kicking neighbors and all other layers of discomfort. Humor counts, and you get extra credit for inventing words, just because I say so. You tag me and I tag you and everyone gets linky love. Post this or rewrite it in your best words and let’s go viral babeeee. Don't blog? Leave it in the comments.

You game? Go!

Game Players so far:

Angry redhead tells her story of shame and woe here.

Sara shares her horror in Mérida with us here

Clare had written one way back in April (seems like I'm late to the party) here.

Emily had a bit of a close call that she talks about here.

Abby hooks us up with a good one here.

Lydia spins her tale of woe here.

Matt steps up to the plate with his heinous trip in Bolivia here

Reneé tells a few quick tales including a whole bunch of bad luck with language to match here.

Mein shvester, who taught me how to read and is killing me with the bearshapedspheredness of the post and created a blog just so she could participate in group blogs because she's good like that tells the famous smith-family hijacked taxi story here.

Kyle takes the time to tell how fast she can clear a tiny airport with a... I won't spoil the story! here.

Bystander tells a story that you should thank your lucky stars you're not the protaganist of here.

Margaret sneaks in a story that's more funny than scary, here.

Richard has no one to blame but himself for a teeny predicament he got a bunch of his friends (and family) into in Laos here.


Richard said...

Oh wow. That's a pretty savage trip. I'm going to have to go and fetch the story-telling elephant gun to come close :)

Sara said...

This is great. Look for mine sometime this afternoon.

I'm assuming you were caked in mud from the waist down? What would you have done if those armed bandits has shown up?

Anonymous said...

Hahahahahaha, that was so fantastic. And even though it sounds absolutely horrible, it also sounds exciting. I don't think I have anything that compares to this.

Eileen said...

south africa-dwelling richard is surely going to represent.

attracts-the-crazies sara will surely have something great to say this afternoon.

and angry redhead? you don't have to top anything, this is the communal misery of why is this not going smoothly, not a case of oneupmanship. Whiny toddlers! wounded strangers! horrible staring! broken down busses! Wandering-handed strangers. It's all fair game. You know you've got a good one!

Angry Redhead said...

Touche, Eileen, and I've responded on my blog!

Emily said...

Oh goodness...that is one hell of a story. And I can vividly imagine how you must have laughed after all that upon being told that the worst might actually be yet to come! I don't think there's really anything you can do but laugh or have a total nervous breakdown in that situation, and laughter's marginally more productive.

I'll get my story up hopefully this evening, if only because I myself had to laugh at your invitation to "go viral babeeee."

Clare said...

Does it count if I wrote it a while back? I will still link to you! http://claresays.wordpress.com/2009/04/24/chile-group-post-worst-travel-experience/

Kyle said...

My story is coming!

Matt said...

wait. what? you don't like tree tomatoes? seriously? but the sugar water juice made with them is delicious. and i made stewed tree tomatoes and ate them with ice cream when i lived in quito. tree tomatoes are awesome and i wish we could get them here in chile...

Eileen said...

you know what's missing here? a good-old-hijacking on the way to the airport story from my sister.

Also, thanks for participating, and looking forward to more responses. I thought this would be hotter, but I'll just have to go fan the flames.

Matt, I fully appreciate your comment, but will never seek your advice on anything involving fruit, unless it's wine-related. Tree tomato plagued me the whole time I was in Ecuador. Raw, cooked, as a juice, stewed, in dessert. (insert unhappy face) But there's good news for you, next time you're in Santiago, this juice place (http://bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com/2009/08/latin-american-fruits-in-gasp-santiago.html) has tomate de arbol juice! We can meet up, but I'm getting naranjilla! (and what? no bad travel stories? surely you must have some!)

Michelle said...

Eileen -- you know, I was wracking (racking?) my brain for a good story, and that one completely slipped my mind!!!! I'll write it up tonight, with SB's help, and post it...

Emily said...

My post's up! http://emilyinchile.blogspot.com/2009/09/group-post-my-worst-transportation.html

Eileen said...

Yay! thanks Emily, and it's linked. OY! what a lucky bunch of people we are in retrospect!

Fly Girl said...

That is surely the most hellish travel misadventure that I've ever heard. And you're still in South America? I think that little experience would have made me want to visit someplace a little further away from the region and more secure, like say, Manhattan. I can't even come close to a story like this either, I tend to avoid situations that look like they might be extra adventurous (really dangerous) when I travel. I guess climbing a volcano could be in that category but it truly wasn't half as scary as your trip. I think the most horrific travel experience was when I was forced to stay the night in a 400-year-old errie converted convent in a tiny Brazillian town. There was a lifelike sculture of Jesus being crucified in the lobby. My guide didn't saty with me because she always "saw things" in the place. My room looked like an insane assylum cell and I didn't sleep. In the morning, the necklace that a candomble priestess had given me for protection dissolved on the floor. I wrote about this experience in my very first blog post.

Abby said...

Mine is up too! Better late than never :)

Matt said...

You're on...I love that stuff, it tastes like mango if you add in enough sugar...and I like it bitter as well...! I might in Santiasco in a couple of weeks.

Unpleasant travel stories...quite a few, actually... 99% involve Israelies+bongo drums, buses and Thailand.

I'll try to find some time to write

lydia said...

mines up.

Matt said...

so i posted. but just realised i have a far, far worse tale to tell. for some reason i forgot about it. i'll try to add this new one over the weekend.

Sharon said...


Most of my stories are pretty tame compared to that. But during our strange trip to Machu Picchu we ended up stranded in a town in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a bus that was sold out, without a place to stay for the night and eating tune from a can while trying to shoo all the stray dogs that wanted our tuna. The whole thing was hilariously sad, but it ended up well, as the bus driver allowed us to travel right next to him (after bribing him) and we had an amazing view and witnessed a strange police raid we didn't really understand. Oh, and we made it safely back to Cusco with a fun story to share.

Renée said...

Gosh, I admire you're ability to just laugh all the bad stuff off. That's all you can do sometimes when life gets crazy.

Mine are pretty fome but I still decided to share them with the world. http://rms81alreves.blogspot.com/2009/09/group-post-horror-travel-stories.html

Kyle said...

K, posted mine...not as crazy as most of these, but kinda funny I think :)

Michelle said...

AWWWWW... props from my sister!!! I'm tearing up! Thanks!!!!

See you around turkey time!

Bystander said...

I didn't think I had anything really horror-like to add until yesterday. But here it is.

Margaret said...

Great stories one and all!
And Eileen... after all that, you're still traveling-- you're a die-hard and clearly in it for the stories!
I have a story I'd like to write up but haven't been able to get to it yet, but here's the one you reminded me of that I wrote for a different group blog- does it still count?
"I was a Peruvian dish-towel smuggler" http://cachandochile.wordpress.com/2009/05/08/i-was-a-peruvian-dishtowel-smuggler/

Scatter Joy! said...

I've been racking my brains for a good story to add to this group blog, but nothing that insane has happened to me (knock on wood. or is this a life experience that is necessary??). Reading everyone else's stories makes me feel like my life is pretty mellow...

Richard said...

Hah! Posted at last. Last across the post, but across nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Oh I love these stories! I want to play too! Is it too late? I am behind on blogging. Can I enter an old post? About the time I got to pee in full view of a taxi stuffed with men and an entire African village, all out to watch the white women? It's not as good as your story, but it's the first one that popped into my head.

Eileen said...

anyone can absolutely participate, and it is never too late. I'm going to make a sidebar for group posts, I think, based on how much we're all enjoying this one.

And I repeat, there is no competition, a bad event is magnified by how you felt at the time (and I felt fine, if frustrated, until the concussion, at which point I started to feel distinctly ill). Please, post! Let me know where the post is (x-post to this post, if appropriate), and I'll paste a link into the entry. Yay! love hearing how we call came out ok on the other end.

Plus now Richard didn't come in last. He likes that, I suppose.

Special K said...

This is my first time on your blog -- love it (saw a link to it on Lonely Planet's Ecuador page). I don't have a blog, but have a couple good/alarming travel stories from Russia in the mid-to-late 90s. I'll try to figure out a way to post them.

Eileen said...

Kendra, you are absolutely invited to post your travel horror story however you can, the more the merrier. Also, we overrepresented the horrors of Latin America because that's where "we" (which is a rotating crew, at any rate) tend to be. You could ask a friend with a blog to let you do a blog post, as one friend here did for another group post, or you could even quick like a bunny throw up a blog (oh, that sounds yucky) like Michelle did. Whatever you do, please cross post (or cross-pollinate) and let me know so I can link to you.

And thanks for your kind words!

Anonymous said...

oh right. Links! Sorry...head in clouds and all that.

I actually thought of a worse travel story but I haven't written it. This one's a bit more amusing.

Special K said...

Hi, Eileen --
I took your advice and quickly created a blog so that I could post my travel horror story to share with you.
The link is: