My legs ache for space, my backside throbs dully. I twist again and try
and imagine I am vertical as my head props up awkwardly against a stiff
headrest. Why did I agree to do this 143 hour journey by bus? Oh yeah,
to avoid feelings of contradiction as I fly above the melting
climate-warmed Andean peaks on my next adventure. The sheer devastating
impact of flying means that choosing to fly when I have an option feels
ever more like a choice to condemn the environment of my grandchildren
or probably even my children. It is a contradiction that as a Brit in
Bolivia is impossible to escape.
Yet in the day, aches and doubts dissipate and I settle back into the
journey that has taken us through the whirling landscapes, climates and
eco-systems of the Andes. The diluted light in the cloudy altiplano of
Bolivia, the brilliant browns and gold hues of the dry coastal desert
in Peru patterned by wind into intricate swirled designs, along
thousands of miles of sea where early morning mist mingles with the
wave crests, winding up lush-green countryside in southern Ecuador
dotted with farmhouses strangely reminiscent of Wales, stirring in our
seats as we are swept into the stream of lights that suck us in along
with thousands of other vehicles into the megapoli of Lima and Quito.
One journey stands out: a long bumpy ride on a badly sloping seat from
the industrial city of Guayaquil in Ecuador to the border with Peru.
The journey is not remarkable for its beauty as it takes us past miles
of monotone-green banana plantations and scrubby small towns.
7 hours, a series of passengers enter the bus like part-characters from
a Dylan Thomas play. The charismatic seller of herbal medicines who
empties his suitcase of sachets with seductive words, the weary,
sun-etched men with blunted plantation machetes who slump into seats,
school children in smart uniforms who clutter the aisles with chatter,
the street sellers who crowd the bus with the smells of warm corn and
meat and then are gone, the women who enter the bus with mysterious
purple-blue blocks which turn out to be live crabs, their tied claws
vainly swaying, thankfully far enough away from my sandled bare feet.
The stereotype of any road movie, of course, is that the physical journey maps an emotional and personal journey. Perhaps it is because in our daily lives, we no longer have enough time to unravel and explore conversations, thoughts and feelings in any depth. But it is probably also because when we cut away the ties of familiarity, daily rhythms and the safety of home that we have a chance to open up to something deeper. That process isn’t a comfortable one but perhaps a necessary one. I didn’t like a Hollywood movie discover the importance of family rather than my high-stress job at the bank or feel like defiantly driving off any cliffs, but I did find myself consolidating intuitions, desires and resolving conflicts into something more stable and certain.
In Ecuador, interestingly, they have a ritual for doing this – that doesn’t involve getting into a vehicle for a long journey – which is celebrated on New Year’s Eve. I first noticed them several days before on various street corners: rows of faceless bodies made of stuffed cloth, next to them often grotesque and gaudy masks. They seemed almost sinister. Their purpose came clear a few days later on the eve of 2008 when bodies joined faces to be paraded throughout the city of Baños, often accompanied by home-made scrawls condemning a local politician, figure or even a common public trait or behaviour. At midnight, the puppets were burned, filling the star-lit sky with the acrid-smell of smoke. Juliette joyfully joined in a burning of a giant Bush puppet. Several told us that the custom was about putting things behind from the last year before embracing the new. A collective catharsis writ large.
I was privileged to share the journey with both my partner Juliette and one of my closest friends Graham. I might have shared more journeys with Graham than anyone else. It has taken us from the early forming of friendship when he crashed on my floor for a couple of months in 1997 to living in neighbouring countries thousands of miles from home. It is somehow comforting knowing that Graham is in the same part of the world, even if more than a thousand miles away. Arriving by bus to his hometown Lima made the connection feel even more real.
One day we decided to head up the hills from a town called Baños, which traverses the boundary between the Andean sierras and the Amazonian jungle. We started at 11am, Graham grumpy that it is so late and me feeling slightly guilty because Juliette and I had taken for ever to get going. We hoped to see the volcano which we know dominated the town but hadn’t seen due to constant cloudcover. As we climbed moods and clouds slowly lifted. Then suddenly I heard the belly-deep growl of the volcano before seeing the cloud of ash burst like dandelion heads into the sky. We ate lunch awed by the belching power of the mountain across from us.
I watch Juliette taking the piss out of Graham. We laugh. We debate. We sit in silence. Each individual tie of friendship deepened because it is mutually shared. In the afternoon, I unravel thoughts and news with Graham as Juliette falls back. We circle the ridge in golden afternoon-light admiring the patchwork of fields below us broken in places by dark flows of lava. We stop in a ruined schoolyard pretending to throw imaginary basket balls through rusty hoops. Adults un-self-consciously embracing a vivid child-like imagination.
It seemed Ecuador was also on a journey. One of defining its identity. A constant challenge for a colonised country dominated by an imperialist nation: starkly obvious in the fact that Ecuador’s money has the face of US Presidents, but also in the US military base in Manta, the attempts to impose a Free Trade Agreement, the ever-present culture of consumerism seen in chains of US companies that litter the streets of Ecuador’s cities.
Efren Calachupa, a leader from the main indigenous federation, CONAIE, preparing for the national Congress, spoke enthusiastically about the challenge of building a society that is not “competitive, individualist, that cares for mother earth, that replicates values found in our families and communities so that they resonate throughout Ecuador.” His words were echoed by the President of the Constituent Assembly, Alberto Acosta, who we briefly interviewed in the quiet town of Montecristi – once famous for its Panama hats and for being the birthtown of a 20th Century Ecuadorian President, now for its elected delegates who have a duty to deliver a new constitution. “We have an opportunity to rethink Ecuador.. to put forward a diferent path based on a vision of growing qualitatively not quantitively… The whole world needs to look beyond measuring everything by economic indicators.”
Acosta was behind an innovative plan by the state to choose not to extract oil from the rich biodiverse region of Yasuni in the east of Ecuador in exchange for support in raising half the income from those worldwide committed to conservation and preventing an ever-growing climate crisis. The same buzz of possibility and creativity in politics resonates in Ecuador as Bolivia.
Yet Acosta and Calachupa’s visions have strong opposition, including from Ecuador’s President Correa who dismisses a development that doesn’t make the most of extracting Ecuador’s rich natural resources. Squaring the circle of providing jobs and economic security with preserving Ecuador’s stunning environment is no easy task. Yet clearly development that never accepts our natural limits is bringing us to a crisis that affects everyone.
On our return trip, the costs of blindness to the environment become obvious as we lose our sight. We are on a bus down the Peruvian coast and pass through a town dimmed to a thick soupy-blur by a factory that belches out thick clouds. Beyond it we pass miles upon miles of factory chicken farms, uniform black blocks next to big ominous towers set starkly against the desert, then the distant lights at night of coastal shrimp farms that salinate all surrounding soil and continually discharge toxicity into an unconscious sea. Peru’s president seems to almost relish dismissing environmental concerns and embracing the ‘free market’, boasting of a growth rate that has almost reached double figures. But the cost is no longer hidden from sight.
We clamber off the bus at 6.30am, early morning light dissolving off the green-hazed hills. We catch a taxi up the bumpy red-brown road and arrive with some trepidation outside our house abandoned for a month. We open the rusty gate and find a garden that we had left as dense-packed soil exuberantly burst into green-leafy life. Juliette clambers through the plants, shouting out her vegetable discoveries. As I clamber tired into a horizontal flat bed, life quivers in sharp relief.