Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Travel mishaps often make the best stories

View of the Rio Shiripuno from our Day 3 camp.
If you travel enough, eventually you're going to encounter some oddball circumstances. Especially if you travel outside of North America, and away from the main travel routes.

However, if you've had good luck for quite a few trips, the caca hits the fan from all sorts of different sources, all at once.

Like that time in Ecuador...

What began as a leisurely morning paddle on a jungle river had turned into a race against time and the Fates - and it looked like the two of them were going to whip our butts.

When we arose that morning, our final day of a five-day kayak trip on Ecuador’s Rio Shiripuno, we knew we couldn’t lollygag along the river, as we had to be off the river and on the road in time for a noon flight out of Coca, back to Quito. Still, there was no rush, no sense of emergency as we paddled downstream after breaking camp. 

After all, we wanted to enjoy the jungle one last time, we wanted to try and stretch out our final hour on the water. Our guides assured us as long as we kept a steady pace, and didn’t take too much longer than an hour, there would be no difficulties.

Famous last words.
Maybe we should have paddled faster...
We arrived at our takeout where we had left the van that was to drive us back to the airport, about a three-hour trip down mainly rural dirt roads. We packed everything in, but when Ricardo, one of the guides, tried to start the engine, there was nothing but silence. It was dead.

Okay…so while the guides worked furiously, trying to figure out what was wrong and how it might be fixed, we had to prepare ourselves for the possibility of missing that flight. I mean, we’re miles from any town or service station, and there was nothing resembling cell coverage out there in the Oriente.

After half-an-hour of sweating and swearing in Spanish, they managed to get the engine started. But now we really had to boogie if we wanted to make that flight.

We were all aboard, ready to roll – except one of our fellow travelers, a lady from New York, decided to go around and say some drawn-out good-byes to the Huaorani natives who had accompanied us. “C’mon, Susan,” our head guide Alfredo said in an exasperated voice. “We really need to get going…”

Off we went down the road. We’d be okay.

Twenty minutes down the road, as we were driving past a farm, a group of four or five cows decided to wait until we were 10 feet away before crossing the road. We stopped in time to avoid hitting them, but then they just stopped in the middle of the road and stood there looking at us. And stood there. And stood there. It’s like these cows had it in for us – they really did not want us to make our flight. Ricardo honked the horn, Alfredo leaned out and yelled, waving his arms, we all started to yell at them, some of us in English, some in Spanish. When we started to make threats about turning them into hamburger for an impromptu barbecue, they finally decided to saunter the rest of the way across the road to the greenery on the other side.

Okay, that was just a short five or ten-minute delay. No problem, right? We’ll still make it. As long as we don’t experience any further delays.

Well, delays seemed to be our lot, that day.

Twenty minutes later, we came to a long, single-track bridge crossing a deep chasm with a river at the bottom. And par for the course, there were two large transport trucks parked in the middle of it, nose to nose, with two guys yelling at each other and shaking their fists. Apparently, they’d both arrived at the middle of the bridge at the same time, and neither would back up to let the other go across first. It looked like one of those Ecuadoran standoffs you always hear so much about.

As neither truck had its engine turned on, it was pretty obvious to anyone watching that neither of these guys intended to back down and move for the other one any time soon.

Ricardo turned put the brake and emergency brake on (we didn’t dare turn the engine off for fear it wouldn’t start up again), then ran down to the bridge to try to negotiate some kind of deal so we could get across.

We could've used a blowgun to break up the battle
on the bridge - but we didn't need to. This time.
We couldn’t hear what was said, and maybe some money exchanged hands, but he came running back to tell us after he’d explained about the van full of turistas (well, five turistas, anyway), our need to get to the airport and make our flight, the drivers had agreed to move in order to let us past.

So they both backed up, simultaneously, clearing space for the van to drive across the bridge, and we continued on our way.
Our van cleared the bridge and waved to the one driver, and as we drove up the hilly road, I looked back and saw the two trucks jockeying back into position on the bridge to continue their standoff. Maybe they’re still there. Or maybe they figured their operation was a good way to generate extra income, and decided to charge a toll to everyone who wanted across.

We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, at least I didn’t. Me, I was trying to focus on visualizing us actually getting to the airport on time, after all these delays. Don’t give the alternative any energy…

Okay, so we’re rolling along, we should still be able to make it on time for our flight. If nothing else goes wrong. Of course, no one would say anything like that, no one wanted to give it any energy. We actually were starting to enjoy the ride through the countryside after we were able to drive for 30 minutes without anything else happening.

That’s when we got a flat tire.

Oh well, it gave us a chance to get out, stretch our legs, check out the scenery, since the guides had to remove some of our equipment to get at the spare tire.

The tire change only took 10 minutes, but we were starting to inch past the point of no return for having enough time left to get to the airport in Coca.

We couldn't even call for roadside assistance, like this guy.
We had to change our own tires! And there was no cold beer waiting for us!

Ricardo put the pedal to the metal, and drove as fast as he could and still be safe on the dirt roads – and not lose another tire, since we had no more spares and another flat would doom us. Not that we weren’t already starting to feel a bit put upon…

But, what else could happen? We’d already encountered and dealt with engine trouble, stubborn cows, stubborn drivers and a flat tire – surely the Fates had dished out everything they could, right?

For the longest time, the rest of the drive went smoothly. When we got to within about 30 minutes of Coca, we started to see more traffic on the road. Not a big deal. We started to feel hope, we started to relax and thought, maybe we’ll get there on time, after all.

That hope continued to grow - until we happened to come across some hot dog who obviously had no real schedule and nothing better to do than play a slightly different form of “chicken” on the road.

We came up behind a pick-up truck full of locals, mainly young men and one older, matronly-looking woman riding in the back. The cab was full as well, filled by the driver and two others.

The road was still a dirt road, and there was some room to pass, as long it was done carefully. The guy driving the pick-up saw we wanted to pass, so he motioned us to do so and slowed down a bit.

As soon as Ricardo sped up and began to pull over into the other lane, the truck ahead sped up, forcing us to slow down. Ricardo swore, only partially under his breath.

We could see the driver of the other vehicle laughing. We could see the guys in the cab laughing. We could see the guys in the back of the truck laughing. They all thought it was hilarious. It was so hilarious in fact, the driver decided an encore performance was necessary. He slowed down, then motioned us, several times, and finally Ricardo started to try to pass – and the truck ahead immediately sped up.

This time we all swore.

This is how it continued for the next few minutes, a pick-up truck and a van zooming down the road, laughter pealing from one vehicle, expletives in Spanish and English flying out of the other one.

Where was a jungle traffic cop when you needed him?

Hmmm, we might be sleeping another night in tents.
This happened several more times before Fate joined the game once again, this time in the person of the matronly woman in the back of the pick-up who had apparently decided enough was enough.

The cab had an open top, as if someone had decided a sun-roof would be a good idea and cut a hole in it but never put any glass in the opening. Lucky for us.

The lady – who obviously was the REAL boss of this bunch – leaned in through the opening and started just hammering the driver with her bag, repeatedly. You could see her yelling at him, pointing to the side of the road – and it didn’t take long for him to slow down and pull right over to let us by.

She waved at us, as if to say, “Sorry for this idiot driver!” and we waved back as we zipped by and down the road.

It was really going to be touch-and-go at this point.

We got into town, and of course, encountered plenty of traffic. Nothing abnormal, but enough to make sure we had to drive the speed limit.

We pulled into the airport parking lot and piled out, grabbing our gear and rushing into the airport. We had about 10 minutes before our flight was to leave, but we still had to check in, go through security, all the usual airport pre-flight boarding protocols. We were hoping since it was a small airport and a small plane, the process might be quick enough that we could still catch it.

We got in and saw Alfredo, who had been checking at the counter, turn around shaking his head, which was facing down toward the floor.

Uh-oh. That’s not usually a good sign.

Then his head came up and we saw a grin on his face.

“The plane coming in from Quito was late leaving,” he said. “Our departure has been delayed for at least 45 minutes.”

There have probably been other announcements about flight delays that created the kind of reaction it did with our group, but I doubt if any group was ever so ecstatic about being told they’d have to wait an extra 45 minutes. We high-fived each other, hugged each other, breathed in huge sighs of relief that we would not have to say in Coca for the night, or worse – take the dreaded South American bus trip – back over the mountains and into Ecuador’s capital.

The Fates, as it turned out, were just toying with us, keeping us busy so we wouldn’t have to sit in the airport for an extra hour, just making sure we had a real travel story to tell to augment the ones we’d tell about our ecological and cultural adventures in the Oriente.

And maybe they needed a good laugh, albeit at our expense. I would imagine the Fates get bored some time, too.

I just hope they never get this bored on one of my trips, again.

Not every trip into the Huaorani jungle ends like ours. Mostly, they're more like this.

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