My weekend in Banos (ie on a bus)
Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
99Trip End May 04, 2007
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My "uncle" Gustavo and I caught the 7:30 am bus literally by one minute (at around 7:40). Gracias a Dios for Ecuador's lack of punctuality. The bus was incredibly slow--what should have been a 3-4 hour journey turned out to be a 5 hour ride. Nevertheless, it was my first bus trip in South America and I really enjoyed the people watching, the mountain scenery, the tiny towns we drove through (Saturday is of course the main market day, so everyone was out and about selling, cooking, and buying things in the streets), and even all the various vendors who would hop on and off the bus every twenty minutes or so. Okay, I admit the vendors were annoying after awhile, particularly the guy who droned on about what seemed to be the Ecuadorian equivalent to Miracle Grow for a full thirty minutes at the top of his voice, but it was still interesting to hear how every vendor advertised his or her product, usually via a rapid repetition of the item name multiple times in a specific intonation and rhythm. Gustavo and I spent most of the ride talking (en espanol, claro). I also managed to make a sizeable amount of progress in deciphering my camera's complicated operation manual. So all in all, it was a relatively productive and enjoyable ride--and only a little over three dollars!
We finally arrived in Banos around 12:30 pm, and shortly thereafter ran into my family on one of the main streets. Banos is a relatively small town that lies in the valley below Volcan Tungurahua at an elevation of 1800 meters, so quite a bit below Quito. It is particularly famous for its thermal baths, waterfalls, and of course, volcano watching. The weather wasn't exactly ideal for any of these activities--the sky was overcast and threatening rain--but that was irrelevant given the fact that we almost immediately hopped into my family's SUV and made our way to Puyo, a small jungle town about an hour away (and at a much lower elevation of 950 meters), where it was sunny and incredibly humid. The 60-kilometer road to Puyo is known as "La Ruta de las Cascadas" for the absurd number of waterfalls one encounters along the way. Although I did not have an opportunity to stop and admire them, we did briefly stop at the first "waterfall" (ie the hydroelectric plant).
My parents took us to the jungle branch of our Banos hotel, Hostal Monte Selva, so that we could go swimming and later on go on a jungle tour to see some animals. We didn't have time for the latter unfortunately. This monkey
After a few hours of chilling at the pool, I was getting antsy and more importantly was starving. We finally left at 4 pm and drove to an outdoor restaurant on the side of the road back towards Banos to have a late lunch. Our party consisted of my family plus 3 other members of the extended family, and our two-hour meal was in every sense family style. Although we all ordered our own food, everyone was grabbing from everyone else's plates throughout the meal in order to taste each of the insane number of different meat, fish, and vegetable (ie potato and plantain) dishes that covered the table. I ordered a whole grilled tilapia, which was incredibly fresh and delicious, with beans, fried sliced plantains (patacones), and of course rice.
The food was fabulous, although unfortunately I was a bit too distracted and frustrated to enjoy it fully. As I had feared the night before, Maria approached me before we ordered and asked how I felt about the hotel. In other words, she wanted to make sure that I could pay twenty dollars to share a double room with Gustavo for the night (and as I later discovered, that I could cover all other expenses as well). Even though I had sensed the potential for misunderstanding before, I really did expect them to at least pay for SOME of the weekend--such as the $3 lunch that I was about to eat, since I already had paid them quite a lot of money for daily food and lodging. I was a bit flustered, as it's hard enough to have this type of conversation in English let alone with my relatively new host family in Spanish. I tried to explain that I had thought the money I had already paid would at least partially cover for my weekend, that 20 dollars for a hotel room (particularly one that is shared) is a bit over my budget, all while trying my best to be polite.
In the end, I said I would pay for everything as they wished. My goal for the weekend was to grow closer to my family, not to create any further tension. Plus, John and Gustavo were making me feel really uncomfortable by asking me several money-related questions...I mean, it's none of their business how much money I have in my bank account! I instead explained how long and hard I worked in order to earn enough money to come here so that they didn't think I'm simply a spoiled brat. Clearly I was being naive. Maria responded by saying that they work for years to afford a weekend or two in a place like Banos, and they are relatively well off. It goes without saying that many families here struggle to survive each day. Of course I realize that no matter how real my budget concerns are during my travels and no matter how hard I worked to make this trip happen, I am extremely wealthy and fortunate in their eyes simply because I have the time and money to do an extended trip like this. That doesn't necessarily justify me having to pay more than I should, but the amount of money is obviously trivial in the grand scheme of things.
After lunch, we visited the small town of Puyo briefly
Needless to say, I was extremely relieved when we finally reached the hotel in one piece. The pool at the hotel was freezing, and the indoor pools were quite dirty. I was dying to get into the jacuzzi, and was disappointed when I discovered it was lukewarm. That unfortunately was the extent of my bathing experience in a town famous for its baths. Oh well. At least I took my first HOT shower in over a week, which I enjoyed very much, and our room was fairly comfortable. Gustavo and I walked around town a bit, which was extremely lively with tourists and locals. I was quite surprised by the number of clubs and bars! I wanted to go salsa dancing with Gustavo and one of his other brothers (by the end of the weekend all four brothers, their families, and the grandparents were in Banos), but had a stronger desire to change into my pj's, get under the covers, write in my journal and get a good night's rest. I felt bad being antisocial, but when I woke up feeling refreshed and saw Gustavo at our early breakfast the next morning hungover and looking like hell from his late night of drinking, I definitely did not regret my decision.
After a breakfast of fried eggs (what I've been eating every morning), fresh bread, juice, and coffee, I was feeling very frustrated again, as I had come all this way and was not enjoying any of the amazing activities that the area had to offer. Instead, I found myself once again watching the kids play in the pool. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and asked Gustavo if he would like to walk around town a bit more. It was slightly cloudy out, and the mist was beautiful against the lush, green mountains.
I waited another hour at the hotel until finally the family checked out and dropped me off in time to make my 1:30 pm bus back to Quito. My ride back was once again enjoyable and quite productive. I finished reading my camera manual, and I also got some nice views of the damage the last volcano eruption inflicted upon the neighboring villages. Here is the best shot I got--the bus was moving quickly so it was a little difficult to capture.
I got another dose of the third world when I arrived at the bus terminal and tried to catch a cab home. Even though it cost only two bucks to get there from the house, no one would take me back for less than three. They all have meters but refuse to use them at certain opportune moments, like nights, weekends, and/or when they see someone like me. I tried bargaining with a number of cabbies, and my Spanish is definitely good enough that I can communicate well (especially after a weekend of non-stop Spanish speaking), but they all banded together and stood their ground. Finally I caved and my cabbie honked and waved at the others as if they had communally won some sort of great victory.
I came home to an empty, food-less house and was somewhat obsessing about what had happened over the weekend. I did my best to put it all behind me though, complete my Spanish homework, and get some rest. There's always next weekend I suppose...