The Road to Banos

Our escape from Quito and bus trip to Banos was as exciting
and as exactly choreographed as a chase scene in a blockbuster action
flick, except, of course, no one was chasing us and we never broke 50
miles an hour.  We arrived at the Quito bus terminal, a vast, multi
leveled cement catacomb seemingly built into the side of a mountain
at exactly
noon. Finding the agency "Banos Express" was easy; there was a nice new
bus just pulling out as we hopped aboard. We were literally still getting
seated as the big Mercedes diesel left the dock and headed out of town.

We were still in the outskirts of the urb when we witnessed our first
spectacular surprise.  As we were approaching the city-block sized
factory of the Chaide & Chaide mattress factory in a busy industrial
district at the southern extreme of the city, someone on board yelled,
"Look,
flames!  It’s on fire!"

Luckily he was not referring to the bus, but to the mattress factory,
which was indeed going up in flames.  The fire was obviously out
of control and recently started; while the flames shot 30 or 40 feet
into the clear blue sky, workers nonchalantly strolled out of the factory,
unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Cops on the corner stared
in confusion, uncertain what to do.

As the bus pulled slowly past the factory, just a few meters from the
flames, the heat became intense.  Passengers started yelling at
the driver, "Hurry up!" "Keep going!" and "Don’t stop!", obviously good
advice.  Not only did we hear a series of explosions as we pulled
away, but we were practically the last vehicle allowed to pass the site.
Out the back window of the bus we could see the cops shutting down the
street hand herding rubberneckers away in anticipation of the arrival
of the firemen.

The bus was full, the surrounding countryside was a rock of beauty,
there was construction going on all around the edges of the city. We
could hear a symphony of fire and police sirens as we pulled away. Fifteen
minutes out, the buildings started thinning out and the green hills,
shrouded in wispy clouds, became more visible.  The cobalt blue
sky was festooned with fluffy cumulous clouds, cartoon shapes and gigantic
cloud liners riding the ridge the road followed.  Behind us an ugly
black smudge of smoke marked the mattress factory fire.

The rolling hills along our route were divided; farms below and forests
higher up. Although the road was decent, the shocks on the bus were not,
and it was hard to write on the bouncing bus, just as it is hard to read
some of our notes now, the following day, as we transcribe them.

The farming areas outside of town were a patchwork quilt in shades of
green as the twisty road descended into a valley. Alongside the route
we could see roadside produce stands, mountains of bananas, corn and
cows in the fields.  The land was divided into ranches and villas,
obviously owned by rich farmers and merchants. Painted white wooden fences
and cruder strands of barbed wire separated pastures and planted fields,
little knots of habitation along the roadside, houses of brown brick
and cement, cinder blocks (known here as hormigon), painted in the Ecuadorian
style only on the side facing the highway, left raw and unfinished to
American eyes on the other three.

The produce being sold and transported changed from district to district.  Now
it was watermelon and long plastic bags of Andean limes. The predominant
trees were scratchy pines in the right, tall eucalyptus on the left.
The larger ranches and fincas were gone, now we saw stores and modest
homes with corrugated iron roofs, businesses selling farm equipment,
plows, tractors and backhoes. 15 miles out of Quito and still a thin
column of black smoke can be seen behind us.

For moments the bouncing of the bus make it impossible to write.  We
close our eyes to the afterimage of rain clouds on the higher hills to
the left and listen to the weird Andean pop music the driver has on the
bus radio, like a lite romantic cross between salsa and rumba.

30 minutes out, the rain hits the road, briefly, without obscuring the
sun – sun showers as we cross the dividing line between Pichincha province
and Cotopaxi. The fields here were speckled with little yellow wildflowers,
making them look like an impressionist painting in the pointilism technique.
As we approached the city of Latacunga we passed a flatbed truck staining
under the weight of two army tanks under blue tarps, their cannon sticking
out and crossing over the middle of the bed.

Norma Yvonne, who is a bit high-strung and has a low fear threshold,
keeps time to the music by tapping my hand, and clutches my arm and squeezes
every
time the bus breaks hard or tries a passing maneuver on
a curve. We are now on the wide valley floor, flat grassy fields on both
sides.  We pass an Ecuadorian Special Forces military camp, explaining
the tanks.  Over the entrance is a sign – Avenue of the Immortals.
Men in uniforms are coming and going in jeeps and on foot.

We enter Latacunga, a typical Andean market city, markets and stores
for farming supplies, modest houses and schools, soccer fields, pharmacies
and stores selling TVs and microwaves, mechanics garages and building
supplies.

Out of the city now and into a zone of dairy farms and roadside stands
selling homemade cheese. Norma is singing along to the radio – she knows
all of the words to all of the songs popular before we stole her heart
and Shanghaied her body to the States 10 years ago.

We pass a sign reading "Entering Salcedo – 2,876 meters above sea level"
a district famous for its flowers, honey and ice cream.  Ice cream
stores on every corner, sometimes five or six in a block.

Since we are on the main North-South highway down the spine of the Andes,
a route known as the Corridor of Volcanoes, there is really no unused
earth. The road is lined with access roads to higher, smaller towns,
capillaries of capitalism.

Now we are entering Ambato, one of the larger cities of the highlands
and only 45 minutes from Banos.  This is a real city, with large
lots dedicated to the sale of cars and heavy farm machinery, a university,
airport and major league soccer team. When the bus stops to let off passengers
near the train station a flaming gay sitting on the top of a cement bench,
seeing our camera, shouts "Take my picture! Take my picture NUDE!" Norma
thinks he wants to grab the camera and tells us to close the window.  We
don’t, but keep the camera clutched below window level.

The road winds up, out of town, 45 minutes now to Banos. Passing grain
elevators and a cement factory, a huge San Pedro plant with a hundred
arms and enough mescaline to float a thousand-man rave.  On the
outskirts a tourist zone featuring pizzerias, handicraft stores, hippie-influenced
cafes. For one brief instant we pass a loud radio tuned to the same station
as the bus radio and experience a sort of surreal stereo, right ear out
the window, left ear aboard the bus.

Quickly we fly through a town consisting almost entirely of two lines
of stores on either side of the road selling locally produced denim products,
jeans of all sorts and labels, including Levi’s and designer tags, skirts,
jackets, purses and shoes, popular with smart shoppers both national
and foreign.

During this last stretch, the smaller highway between Ambato and Banos,
we finally leave the incessant commerce behind, and pass through true
countryside. The road winds and twists downward through the hills, plunging
through a sea of green, steep rocky facades and terraced farmers fields,
occasional signed businesses like "Luna Bonsai", a Japanese botanical
garden. The road keeps dropping, as Banos lies at a comfortable 1,900
meters above sea level, halfway down the far side of the Andes towards
the hot, humid treasure house of the Amazon basin, less than an hour
from the true jungle.

At the entrance to Banos capitalism reappears in the form of billboards
advertising hotels, restaurants, vacation complexes, banks. We have arrived,
after an overlong absence of 3 years, at one of our favorite places on
the face of the planet – A Little Piece of Heaven on Earth – the city
of Banos, Ecuador.

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