What I’ve Seen from Seat #24: La Madrugada

Mackenzie McMillen - Ecuador


April 23, 2013

It’s Wednesday and it’s 5:25am, which means I have to run. The challenge is to make it from my room to the bus station in under 4 minutes. The stakes are high; if I don’t make it there’s a chance I’ll have to stand for the majority of the 2-hour bus ride to Riobamba for Spanish class. This threat is enough to transform me from half asleep into a track star.  It can be done. It must be done.

I fly through the kitchen, spitting out a rapid “Buenos días” and a “hasta luego” to my host mom who insists I grab a banana and have some juice (which I down in two gulps). Then, cautiously, I feel my way down the pitch-black staircase, through the tricky-to-open metal door, and into the empty street, flooded with orange light cast by the streetlamps. I take off jogging, my hands on the straps of my backpack,  down the hill, the steps, and through empty dirt market square.

I make it on time. Luckily the driver’s in the middle of a conversation with the man selling hot aloe drinks and we don’t end up leaving for another 5 minutes. The bus is empty save for an old lady wrapped in her shawl and sleeping in the front seat and a girl my age with a backpack like mine; a student at the University in Riobamba, I’m sure. I settle into my seat, a little over half way back, cracking my window to relieve myself from the smell of sweaty bodies leftover from the day before and the thick flowery perfume sprayed to try to cover it up. At the last moment a few more board. The engine livens and we lurch forward.

The clerks, and teachers, and shop-owners are just now waking up. As I pass I see the florescent lights in their homes above tiendas and comedores flick on. Inside they’re making breakfast, putting on their work uniforms and getting their kids dressed in their school  uniforms; khakis, plaid skirts, ties, socks, sweaters, red, blue, green.

At 5:40am the Andean countryside is the color of silver. The long wispy pampas grasses are totally still; frozen from the night but in thirty minutes when the sun makes it’s way over the massive bald mountainsides they will wake up and again start to grow and sway. Eucalyptus trees tower over el Panamericano. Their black silhouettes against the slate colored sky look like paper cutouts, unmoving, everything about them tall and thin. The chilly misty air flows through the crack in my window. I let it sting my face and permeate my alpaca wool sweater until we pick up speed, climbing out of Alausí.

The whole bus creaks and vibrates as it staggers upward out of the tiny city. Unlike those in the town’s center the farmers have been up for at least an hour by now. Indigenous women tending their cows and pigs look up as we pass. Their turquoise, green, magenta, and orange skirts and shawls aren’t as vibrant in the pre-dawn light.

The breaks and shocks screech and hiss each time we stop for passengers alongside the winding highway. The chauffer leans out the door yelling “Rrriobamba, Rrriobamba”- taking his time on the rolling of the r. More students, or couples with business to take care of in the provincial capital. They jump on quickly, knowing the bus won’t wait.

Due to the cold air and my jog I am alert for the first 15 minutes but eventually I start to doze, putting my IPod in to compete against the raucous wailing of Bachata music that nobody but me seems to find inappropriate for this hour. By the time I really fall asleep the sun is almost over the mountain and turned the sky pink.

I wake up briefly at the now predictable intervals. Once when the equatorial sunshine through my window becomes so strong I have to close the curtain. Again, in Guamote, my eyes flutter open due to the bustle of people getting off and on at this halfway hub. One hour to go. One hour more to sleep.

The bus has become completely full as I’ve slept and now everyone is getting his or her things together as we move through the streets of Riobamba. We pull into the terminal and everyone rises. The students tug their backpacks from under their seats and sling them onto their backs. Young mothers tie their babies snugly on to their backs in felt shawls. Business men in slacks check their watches and pairs of old ladies, who spent their two hours discussing their health and the success of their children and thanking God for it all, kiss each other on the cheek and exchange affectionate parting words; “que le vaya bien”– I hope it goes well.

Mackenzie McMillen