29 November 2006


A day in paradise followed by an evening in hell

Living in a city like Machala definitely has its benefits, although sometimes they're hard to recognize. While we're here during the week, we toil and sweat and work our volunteer fannies off to get our students to appreciate and enjoy learning English. The weekends, however, are our playtimes when we travel and see other parts of the country, or even other countries. Living in Machala means we don't feel guilty about leaving for the weekends because, let's face it, it's not a pretty place and there's not a lot holding us here (besides the occasional guilt-trip from the families or local friends). So last weekend, Melissa and I decided it was high-time to take a real excursion and go to Máncora, a touristy beach in northern Peru. We heard it was beautiful and well-worth the 4 hour bus trip. Our weekend started out on the wrong foot: we missed the direct bus from Machala to Tumbes, the northernmost significant city in Peru on the west coast. But we didn't let something like a bus pop our dreams! We caught the next bus to Huaquillas, the border town on the Ecuadorian side. It was a smooth ride and we sailed through immigration. As soon as we got to the actual border, which is a bridge that one can just walk across with no questions to get between countries (and people wonder why there are so many illegal immigrants?!), even before we had paid our taxi driver, we had three men halfway into our taxi, pointing fingers at us, yelling "Tumbes? Zorritos? Tumbes?" I ended up asking them if they wouldn't mind getting their stubby fingers out of our faces and letting us pay the cab driver, before we went off with them. They were a bit taken back, perhaps by the harshness with which I sternly told them to back up, but that didn't stop them from throwing themselves at us the minute we got out of the car. So Melissa and I walked across the bridge as this one man began asking me, again, "Tumbes? Zorritos?" I told him we wanted to go to Máncora, and he said $35. I got him down to $30 as we walked up to a green stationwagon. Everything seemed fine, until the guy who I made the deal with opened the driverside door and his friend got in...and they started yelling at each other! Melissa and I didn't really know what was going on; I tried to listen, but all I heard was "30 dollars?! 30 dollars?! to Máncora??" but I figured, hey, this guy made the deal and they're all working together so screw it, I'm definitely not offering more money. An hour into our drive, and 4 stops later during which the driver took care of random errands, while we're literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand dunes on the right and edging up against the ocean on the left, when Melissa and I are happily chatting away about, well, whatever we women like to chat about, the driver says, "this is Máncora. Where do you want me to drop you?" I knew for a fact that this was NOT where we wanted to be, with little straw huts intermittently lining the coast, with flotsam and jetsom strewn about. I told him the name of the hostel we were looking for and he said, "Ah! But that's in Máncora grande! That's another hour away and you need to pay me extra!" I told him to quit messing around and that the man I'd made the deal with told me $30 and that's what we were going to pay him. He said that the guy told him Máncora chico, which was where we were, and that he wasn't going to go all the way to Máncora grande without more money. Then he proceeded to yell at me about how I should have asked him, the driver, the price and not made a deal with some other guy. I told him that they other guy is his business partner and that the misunderstandings between them two were not my problem. He kept yelling at me and trying to make it my fault for not realizing that the man I'd been speaking to wasn't going to be the driver. In the end, I started yelling at him for being a horrible businessman who was just trying to milk money out of two gringas. He was a bit shocked, I think, that I'd fought back and hit it right on the nail. He came down from about $60 to $45 and although he kept trying to weasel more money out of us for the rest of the trip, he accepted the $45 we gave him. In the end, I figured out that we had been cheated out of $5, but it could have been worse!

So Melissa and I spent 1.5 wonderful days on the beach, relaxing and meeting other travelers (who'd had similarly horrifying experiences).

We'd reserved a car for 8 soles each (less than $3) to go the 1.5 hours to Tumbes at 3pm Sunday. Of course, the car never showed but a huge bus pulled up, and the lady at the bus "station" asked us to pay 4 soles more to ride the bus. I told her the deal we made was for 8 soles, and that we'd wait until the car showed. The car never showed and she just shoved us on to the bus. Upon arrival in Tumbes, more people with jabby fingers accosted us, asking if we were trying to get to the border. One guy had an official looking vest on and I decided he was probably the safer bet. We told him we were on our way back up to Machala. He said that because of the elections (the left-wing Correa won, by the way) there was a huge strike planned for the evening and that the border would close at 6, for 10 days, not allowing people in or out of Peru. Melissa and I had heard stories like this from previous volunteers and proceeded to panic, internally, as we discovered that it was 5;15 and it would take 40 minutes just to get to immigration, which was another 10 minutes from the border. And, of course, the car was a crappy engine-on-patched-tires and couldn't go faster than about 60km an hour. But we made it on time! Our guide told us that to ensure our security, we would have to pay $20 each to a guard on the border, and after remembering horrendous stories, Melissa and I handed over the money. And then we paid the cab driver. And then the security guard went away, and we were left with the guide in the official-looking vest. At this point, I had no idea what was going on and Melissa, who understands less Spanish than I do, looked at me with panic-stricken eyes. Where the hell was the security guard going?!?! Our guide took us across the border, though, with no incident, and up to a bus station. Phew, we thought, and breathed a sigh of relief. We were back in Ecuador! Except now, this guide is asking us to pay $10 each for his service. What service, we thought. I straight out asked him what the $20 bucks each for the guard was and he said that was to ensure that nobody would rob us. I told him that the guard didn't even come with us, so how could he have done anything even if something had happened? He said that the guard ensured our safety in covert ways and that the money was gone. The problem was, we had 100 soles (about $33) and the guy didn't have $13 for change. He started harrassing us for dollars, saying he had no way of changing the money. I reminded him sternly that he lived on the border and that we had met him in Peru; what did he mean he had no way of using the money?! He told us we could change the money back at the bridge, but we were totally against going back to the border, where there was supposed to be a strike. So he asked some random guy on the street, who seemed like he was high on cocaine and didn't seem to be able to control his nostrils or the twitch in his eye. The guide then told us that this coked-out guy could give him the $20 and that we should wait around until his friend showed up to exchange the money and pay the drug addict. At that point Melissa and I decided the money wasn't worth our time or lives and just told him to take the money and leave. When I got home and told my family the story, they said that there was no strike, that there were no problems in Ecuador, and the whole thing had been a scam to get money. So that $40 we gave the security guard is probably feeding somebody else's drug or alcohol addiction.

Needless to say, it was a hellish weekend and if I were to do it again, I'd make sure I knew everything about the different bus routes. The problem was, the guide books we used don't talk about any of this transportation in the detail that is necessary and for that reason, so many people have problems crossing the border! But we did come back with nice tans, so maybe it was worth it...

Never a dull moment in the life of a volunteer - is there? I am a former Peace Corps Volunteer from Cameroon. I am trying to get from Tumbes to Macahala the last week of January. Any suggestions as the best way to do it? Is there a scheduled bus from Tumbes to Machala? I could really use some help because I can't find any information and I would love to avoid the hellish experience you went through!
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