I’m sitting at the open bus window, enjoying the fresh breeze which is providing a bit of relief from the stuffy-dry air inside. The strategic choice of your seat is vital in order to survive the one-hour ride to Cuenca. An amateur may think that any seat with window will do the job, but what he doesn’t know is that the already closed windows can’t be opened 90% of the time. No matter how hard you push and pull and eventually give up, hoping none of the other passengers witnessed your sad attempts.
Outside the window, the mountain slopes of the Andes are passing by, covered in dry soil with yellow, dry grass, agaves and, from time to time, a small group of eucalyptus trees. We cross the Puente Europa, under which the muddy-brown water of the Rio Paute is frothing. Following heavy rainfalls, the water rises to a dangerously high level, and the city’s whole water-supply-system breaks down for at least half a day.
Riding the bus in Ecuador is a form of art, which I’m slowly starting to master. I, the naive European, couldn’t believe my ears when my host family first explained to me that there is neither an official timetable nor a price list here. When my host sister took me to the bus stop near our house for the first time, I tried my best to find any clue proving that this was an actual, official stop. However, besides the other people waiting – a small old lady dressed in traditional skirt and hat carrying a huge sack, a small group of teenagers in red school uniforms and a woman selling handmade ice-cream from a cool-bag – there was nothing indicating that there was a bus stopping here every half hour.
Colours play an important role when it comes to the choice of the right bus. Red buses, labelled “Rio Paute” or “Cutilcay”, almost always safely bring you from Paute to Cuenca, or the other way around. Yellow, small busses with the label “Helio” bring you to Puente Europa, from where you can take another small, red bus to Gualaceo. With green busses, it gets a little more complicated. The green bus in Descanso is conveniently already labeled with its destination: Azogues. At the bus terminal in Cuenca, however, it’s impossible to rely solely on colours anymore: if you enter a random green bus here you could end up in Gualaceo, but equally in Machala, Tena or any other place somewhere in Ecuador.
When it comes to payment, you also have to proceed with the motto “learning by doing”. From my observations so far, I can confidently say that you always pay one dollar for the red bus from Paute to Cuenca. If you leave earlier in Descanso, it’s 75 cents. However, if you’re going from Azogues to Descanso, it’s only 40 cents, and if you take the yellow bus from Puente Europa to Paute, it’s 30 cents. When I was going from Puente Europa to Gualaceo for the first time, I paid 70 cents, but the second time it was only 30 cents. Thus, especially as a foreigner, you need to be aware of the fact that the price range can vary a lot, depending on whether you get “gringoed” or are fully accepted as a local passenger. (From my experience, the mood and the stress-level of the busdriver also play a role sometimes.)
Even despite the non-existent timetable I claim to have discovered a pattern in the coming and going of the busses. Some of the other fellows don’t share my opinion and say there is no order whatsoever. Personally, I use this technique: I assume, the bus is officially supposed to arrive at 13:00. From experience, I know that it mostly comes earlier, so I count on its arrival within a timeframe of 12:45 to 13:05, and get to the bus station at 12:43, just in case. There may be people who disagree with me on this, but thanks to this tested method, I have never missed a bus or waited for longer than 10 minutes. In Cuenca, there luckily is no reason to worry anyway, as some red bus is always standing there, waiting for passengers and leaving after 5 to 10 minutes.
I clearly remember my first ride in this red bus to Cuenca. My host mom was accompanying me to show me the way and make sure that I don’t get lost or robbed. “You better keep your phone in your bag”, she warned me. “Keep your eyes open and put your backpack on your lap”. So I was sitting there for one hour, my arms nervously clutched around my bag, imagining all the ways a pickpocket could steal my valuables.
Two months later, I find myself sitting in this bus almost daily, my phone in my hands, headphones in my ears and completely relaxed. By now, I am actually kind of looking forward to the ride. After an exhausting day at work I get one hour in which I can’t and don’t have to do anything. I can just sit there, look out the window and marvel at the panorama of the Andes over and over. What sometimes can be annoying are the sellers, who are with you on almost every ride. Each of them has specialised in their own product, some praise the wondrous effects of their chocolate, some want to sell you the most delicious cookies in the world, and some even make the effort to host an interactive quiz with the whole bus, in which you can answer lewd questions and win candy. All have their own style of selling, loud, funny, insistent, and almost all of them tell you about their tragic life story, about their family they have to feed, or about their escape from Venezuela.
One of my favourite moments is when the bus slowly rolls out the terminal in Cuenca, and outside the window, the sun is setting. The whole city is drenched in a rose light, I can comfortably lean back (only if there is no child sitting behind me and kicking my back, which happens way too often), and use the busride to reflect about the day’s events – or just to chuckle about the music playing in the background. The radio is almost always playing, traditional Andes music blaring through the bus, or a weird remix of some old popsong. But also the music choices of the other passengers can be interesting. One time I startled when all of a sudden “DEUTSCHLAND DEUTSCHLAND ÜBER ALLES” (Germany Germany over everything) was shouted next to me. I did definitely not expect to meet a Rammstein-fan in the middle of the Ecuadorian province.
The drive back from Cuenca was very stressful in the beginning. Since there are no real “official” stops, it is on you to communicate to the busdriver when you want to get off. However, at first I didn’t exactly know where I had to leave the bus, and especially in the darkness it was hard to make out when we got close to Paute. After many bus rides and an extensive observation of the route, I have developed the perfect technique. Close to Paute, the bus drives past two gas stations. As soon as we pass the first one (EnergyGas, colours play a role here as well: it’s blue), I can slowly get ready to leave the bus. When the second gas station comes in sight (orange, Primax), I know that there are now only one to two minutes left to the entrance of Paute. So I get up, calmly make my way to the front, until the bus stops abruptly, I give the driver one dollar and jump out of the door on the pavement, while the bus already starts moving again. It’s a well rehearsed choreography, which took me a few weeks of practice, but now I master it flawlessly.
I could really go on forever with more bus stories, and who knows what new anecdotes will accumulate until the end of my time here. 😉