Travel to Salinas, Ecuador

Twenty six hours on a bus really isn’t that bad. I say that because the actual bus journey took 32 hours and at the 26 hour mark I do believe I was rather ready to get off of the vehicle. I have to admit the bus ride could have been far worse. When we first walked up to the top floor of the double decker we found our seats and were impressed with the amount of leg room. I sat beside a lobbyist from Ottawa and we chatted about his adventures through South America and compared notes. As the bus drove out of downtown Lima I started to notice the city scape change. Suddenly sky scrapers vanished and we were coasting across sandy desert full of mountain side shanty towns. We drove past cluttered streets full of mattresses, used television shops and heaps of old broken fans. We continued north along the Peruvian coast for the next several hours with the ocean on our left and agricultural fields to our right. I stared out into the ocean and could not tell where the ocean started and the cloudy blue sky ended. It was as if they never met at the horizon. The farther you drive up the Peruvian coast the more desolate the desert becomes. The shore is also rather dismal, entirely undeveloped and not sun bathing friendly.

I peeled open my next novel entitled Diary by Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club). The hours oddly enough go faster than you would believe. In no time it was dark and our dinner was being served as a corny American chick flick played over the TV’s hanging from the roof. At the front of the bus there is a lovely little lounge area where you can sit on benches around a table. We sat there eating a splendid box of chicken fried rice and Inca Kola (the colour of urine, the taste of Cream Soda). We sat back and stared out the front window of the bus as the high beams from bellow blasted through the desert darkness. We settled into our seats and I threw a sleeping pill down my throat. The last movie we watched before “bed” was a Jackie Chan movie. A Chinese film dubbed in English with subtitles in Spanish. I dozed off moments after reclining my seat.

There is nothing better than being woken up at 5am by the police. They walked up and down the aisles with their drug sniffing mutts. After dozing back into my dream like state for a few more hours I woke up at 9am as we rolled into the beach town of Mancora Peru. Several people on the bus hopped off here and we picked up a few new comers heading to Ecuador as well. This surf town has turquoise waters, sunny beach’s…we were very excited to arrive in Ecuador’s warm climate. Further north we drove along the coast watching corny High School Musical. I wanted to jab my eyes out.

We arrived at the border where we walked into a small hall way (avoiding the locals who charge one dollar to use their pen) and filled out the necessary documents to exit the country. We had not experienced heat like this yet, we were dripping. We sat beside a group of Chilean university students. Two of the guys across from me both had casts on their arms. They told me they both got attacked outside of a Burger King in Santiago. Apparently they were just sitting outside the fast food restaurant and got attacked by a rather horrible man. They both said they would still eat at Burger King after the traumatizing incident. That is customer loyalty.

Our bus drove over a small bridge and stopped at the Ecuadorian border where we stood for over two hours in horrid heat. No one in line could understand why it took the immigration officers so long to admit each person into the country. I soon found out they don’t stamp passports here they actually type in all your information and print your details on your passport. All I have to say: major bottleneck. As we waited in line we were approached by men selling orange juice, coconut milk and ice cream. A little local boy walked around the corner of the building and stared at all of the gringos in line. He held his pet rooster with a small string around its neck acting as a leash. Our bus was now officially way off schedule as the border crossing took hours out of our time. We all slithered back onto the bus, screamed at the attendant to put on the air conditioning and jumped onto the highway.

The scenery takes a pleasant shift as you enter Ecuador. It suddenly becomes very tropical. We drove for what seemed like two hours through a huge banana plantation surrounded by mountains. I found it rather fascinating that the banana clusters are bagged on the tree as they grow. I presume that speeds up ripening or protects them from pests. Our bus lurched through several small Ecuadorian river side towns where we could see crowds gathering around a local foot ball match. As the sun turned crimson I watched several children run to their mothers who were cleaning the family laundry on rocks in the river.

We finally arrived in Guayaquil at 9:30pm in the pitch black of night. As we drove into the city I noticed several gated communities with beautiful town houses inside. The city is known for its commerce and wealthier populace. We hopped off the bus, stretched our legs, threw our bags over our backs and started to walk along the hectic highway to the entrance of the bus station. We nearly got hit by several faux taxi clunkers buses as they whizzed by. Attendants hung out the windows screaming their destinations. I was soon fuming as I was unable to take out money from the ATM. We hopped in a taxi and grabbed the last two available rooms at a cheap little hotel by the cities main square. The owner offered us a room with one large bed. Sarah made it clear to the attendant that she doesn’t sleep with me. His eyebrows raised. Everyone who interacts with us thinks we are married its hilarious. We each got our own private rooms for ten dollars each! I was ever so excited to see a toilet seat in my bathroom. Sarah was rather irritated as her toilet was not outfitted with a seat. I enjoyed a quick shower to clean off two days of grime off my body. We both walked down Boulevard de October the main street in town. We found a bustling Pizza Hut, munched on oozing cheese and walked back to our hotel room, skipping through the streets with the cool breeze passing through our hair.

In the morning we hopped in a cab for the cities expansive bus station where we jumped on a local bus service to the city of Salinas. The bus was half full of families and couples decked out in beach gear. We were ever so excited to be driving along the coast to our first true “vacation” of this South American adventure. Salinas is sort of like the Miami Beach of Ecuador. Outfitted with a long stretching sandy beach just moments from the waterfront main street bustling with seafood restaurants, bars, shops and condo skyscrapers. Sarah and I both noted how beautiful people from Ecuador are as our bus jolted north west. Ecuador does not have its own currency. Several years ago the process of “dollarization” occurred as the government decided to make the US dollar the official currency. It is a bit odd to use American money in a South American country. I wonder if any of these people actually realize what is written on their money. They certainly don’t recognize any of the presidents! The bus stopped at small ocean side towns, picking up food vendors at each stop. It is sort of hilarious when you think about a bus stopping and four or five men chirping up and down the aisles with skewers of grilled banana and BBQ chicken.

We arrived in Salinas and walked directly to the beach. Our mouths instantly formed a gaping smile. I was gitty with excitement. We decided to splurge on our accommodation in Salinas as we had slept in some of the roughest beds on earth in the past few months. We found an excellent little hotel just a block off the Malacone which was twelve dollars a night with cable TV, warm shower and plush pillows. While Sarah went through all of her dirty laundry I walked down the road to the Laundromat to ask for a few plastic bags. I spent the next twenty minutes playing a game of charades with an older woman who spoke not a lick of English. I was running all around the room pointing at bags and walking around like a penguin carrying an invisible bag. She must have thought I was nuts. All I wanted to say to her was “I need three bags so that I can come back here with my dirty laundry.” She looked at me like I was crazy. She finally realized what I needed (she initially thought I needed band aids).

We were starting to actually relax. We were excited to have fresh, clean cloths after dinner. We walked to the beach front and strolled along all of the restaurants. The menu’s are full of shrimp, lobster, fish and clams…anything from the sea is their specialty here. I ordered my first “traditional” bean and rice South American meal. Note that my first beans and rice meal did not occur until the very end of my trip. I ordered a huge plate of beans, rice, fried plantain and fried chicken with a bottle of local beer. A local band strolled through the patio and attempted to serenade us with sweet tunes. We were approached three times by small children holding huge boards around their necks which featured several dangling pieces of jewelry.

After lunch we walked down to the beach with iPods, books and sun glasses tipped down to our noses. As soon as your feet touch the sand ladies jump up at you and offer you beach chairs. Chairs cost five dollars each to rent for the day. We were soon bombarded by what locals call “beer bitches.” These are older woman who walk up and down the beach all day selling liter bottles of beer for a dollar. They are very pushy and basically force you to drink against your better judgment. The beach was an interesting experience to say the least. We never got to reading anything. We dug out feet in the sand and were soon entertained by the hundreds of salesman. We were bombarded by locals selling us everything from live crayfish to ugly, cheesy hand crafted sail boats napkin holders. The most vicious salesman are those selling jewelry and braiders.

The braiders are terrifying. They come right up to you and feel your hair and show you pictures of other tourists who were coerced into having their entire head braided. One salesman walked right in front of us yelling “onions and ice cream.” What a bizarre combination. Our favorite man was dressed in khakis cargo from head to toe and walked up and down the beach with an inflated toy killer whale. He charged two dollars to be in a picture with his toy whale. Good grief! We found the interaction with the locals very entertaining. Sarah had to be rude to several jewelry salesmen as they sit in front of you and just keep throwing their cheap necklaces in your face. One lady told her that her beaded necklace was imported from Spain. She offered us thirty dollars for the necklace, she claimed they sold in Madrid for over 100 Euros. We rolled our eyes. Some people can be so creative with their stories! Several men came up to us with their acoustic guitars. They assumed we were a couple and started to serenade us beach side. Rather embarrassing but a good laugh for later. The most disturbing moment was when an old woman came up to us. We had no clue what she was selling. Until she pointed at her wrist and we noticed that it actually wasn’t attached to her arm. She was begging and we were in such shock at the condition of her hand we couldn’t speak.

I walked up onto the Malacone and bought us a few donuts and ice cream. When I got back to my chair I gave into the Braider Nazis and had a rat tail woven into the back of my mullet. Sarah couldn’t even look at me without laughing. She has lost all respect for me, the little she had in the first place. A man selling sun glasses popped by. Seeing that I lost my only pair and I was going to be in sun filled Ecuador for the next two weeks I decided to buy a pair of fake Channel’s. Four dollars later Sarah chirps “you look like such a joke.” Rat tails don’t particularly complement Coco Channel.

After freshen up at our hotel we walked to the Malacone in search for our dinner. We stopped at a cafe on the beach and chatted with a retired couple from Vancouver who have been traveling the world the last two years on their yacht. It seems like a lot of retired folks sell everything and travel the world from one beach to the next. We met a man named Lewis at this restaurant. He is a whale watching instructor and offered to walk us along the beach to find a place to eat. He spoke pretty good English and told us that he was studying the language every morning before work. Lewis seemed to be somewhat infatuated with Sarah. He took us to The Red Rose which is a Tex Mex restaurant two blocks off the busy Malacone. It is the only ethnic restaurant in the city. The interior is beautiful…and empty. We walked in and soon met a 70 year old man from Texas who said we couldn’t eat here tonight as the chef didn’t show up and the bartender wasn’t around. He ended up calling a bartender who showed up to make us some drinks. We decided to find another restaurant and a minute after leaving the restaurant a local lady shouts “you want tex mex, tacos, nachos, I make it all!” We were a bit confused but I soon pieced the pieces together. She manages a restaurant on the Malacone but owns the Mexican restaurant which we had been sitting. She is about 30 years old and is married to a 70 year old man from Texas, oy!

We soon found out that he built this beautiful restaurant from the ground up for her. They thought that offering a different kind of restaurant for tourists would be a big hit. Apparently not. The demographic of tourists here is 98 percent rich families from Guayaquil. A short two hour drive to the beach from the busy city. Sort of like a Muskoka for the hectic city dwellers of Toronto. Ecuadorians love their own food. It was evident they didn’t want to eat Mexican food. We ordered a plate of burritos and sipped on pina coloda’s as we waited for our food. We saw the wifey arguing with her Texan husband. It became clear that they didn’t have a chef and she was going to be making our meal. Lewis had gone home and dressed up for dinner. He was clearly taking a liking to Sarah. Nothing like a beach front romance!

The owner pulsed Reggae-tone music through the restaurants sound system. We soon had our burritos in front of us. They were made of soggy “hard taco” shells. The guacamole was pureed like baby pablum. Sarah refused to eat what was on her plate. The owner came by and asked if there was anything wrong. She told us at this point that they had just opened the restaurant a week ago and the American cook had split and gone home. She wanted any feedback so she could improve the offerings of the restaurant. I instantly chirped in and told her everything that was wrong with the meal. Sarah told her that I studied restaurant management and her face lit up. She asked me if she could pay me to come in the next day and look over her menu and offer any suggestions. I refused any payment but said I would love to come in and help out in the kitchen. A little bit of pro bono free lance! We popped by our hotel and opened a few bottles of Smirnoff coolers and spent the next hour or so sitting on paddle boats on the moon lit beach. We then walked to Lewis’ favorite Salsa bar where we attempted to dance like true Latinos.

In the morning we walked to a grocery store and bought a few necessary items on our VISA raking in a hefty bill of $1.69. We arrived at The Black Rose at 11am and headed to the kitchen. I was rather invigorated to help out in any way that I could. I asked for a copy of the menu and we went through all the items. I asked her how she made her quesadilla and she looked at me funny and said “I’ve never made one.” She had a rather generic cookbook and had apparently been using it for her recipes. In the next few hours we drank courtesy Coca Cola and I taught her how to make fresh nachos, guacamole, caramelized onion quesadilla and hard tacos. I advised her to switch up the potion sizes a bit and tweaked a few of the items on the menu that didn’t make any sense. She stared over my shoulder with great attentiveness. I was so surprised that she had no clue where anything in the kitchen was. I asked for a spatula and she was searching for about ten minutes. It goes to show that you can eat at a restaurant when you should really just make the food yourself at home as you know how to cook better than the staff at the establishment.

Her husband popped into the kitchen a few times. Sarah and I both grew to love him. He is a sour old man from Dallas. He has never owned a restaurant or a bar. He used to be a developer in Texas building grocery stores across the state. As the story of the restaurant was told I soon realized this would be a great Hotel and Food Administration case study. Everything they did was wrong. They located their restaurant off the beaten track where no tourist would ever venture. They are serving food that the tourists (from Ecuador) don’t even want to eat. The cost of building the dining room and huge patio out back must have been outrageous. Apparently the lady next door had wanted to purchase the land for years but had no money. She did anything in her power to make the restaurant unsuccessful. She called the cops one night and told them that The Black Rose was functioning as a whore house. The grumpy old man looked up at me and said “if I had hookers in my restaurant I think I’d be the first to know.” He was a negative little fellow, I instantly took a liking to him. I suggested he turn the restaurant into a disco or up scale bar as the space was certainly not a problem. He responded “I’ll turn this into a retirement home with locks on the doors before I turn this into a disco.”

I was soon being offered a job as their new chef. They said “oh you must stay here for a few months, we’ll pay you well and you can live on the beach!” I can only imagine how ridiculous it would have been if I had taken them up on their offer. Sarah and I found their relationship rather bazaar. He doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish and tells us “I’ve never had a reason to learn it!” We both discussed later that some very good incentives for him to learn Spanish would be: He lives in a Spanish speaking country and his wife speaks Spanish and very little English. It is sort of funny to see them interact. She actually asked us if we thought her husband was “hard.” She was trying to say “difficult or cold.” We got the impression that their wasn’t much love in their relationship. Sort of a cliché situation where an old wealthy American man marries a local girl and buys her a restaurant she can’t manage. We shook hands and wished the couple well. In my mind I knew they were at a total loss. The place was going to go bust.

Lewis was now being referred candidly as Sarah’s boyfriend. After meeting her the previous night he kissed her cheek good night and they were now officially an item apparently. We arrived at his office and paid for our afternoon Humpback Whale watching excursion. The attendant offered us two motion sickness pills, a bit odd I thought. As we sat waiting for our tour to leave a few ladies walked down the street and forced candy into my hand. I closed my fists so they couldn’t force me to purchase their candy. She soon said it was “cocaine candy” and pretended to sniff the globs of toffee in her hand. She managed to get a few pieces of candy in my hand and said they were free. She then asked Sarah to pay one dollar for what she had given me. They have the oddest concept of commerce over here.

A truck pulled up along the road and a family from Holland jumped out and started taking pictures of the huge Sword fish they had caught. We walked down to the beach and hopped in a little dingy. A toothless 70 year old fisherman rowed us to our large fishing boat. We sat on the bow of the boat soaking in the sun. We passed the cities yacht club and were soon on the open ocean moving along the coast. It was soon apparent to us all why we had been given motion sickness meds. I have never been on such turbulent open ocean before in my entire life. It was thrilling. Sitting on the deck I was airborne for half the time. It was like being on a roller coaster except we had huge waves of salt water splashing in our faces. At several points I felt that my guts had shoved themselves into my throat. We soon slowed down and spent the next two hours staring out into the ocean at beautiful Humpback’s. Huge tails slapping across the water and several breaches. At some points they would swim just a few feet from the bow. The sun was blazing and casting a yellow glare across the ocean waves into our faces.

Arriving back at the beach we bought some vodka, Pepsi, nachos and a pizza. We sat in our hotel room watching What not to Wear while gorging ourselves on these unhealthy food choices. Lewis picked us up at 9pm and we walked to a Samba club on the Malacone. The place was full of locals. The pulsing beat created a perfect ambiance as you could faintly hear the lapping waves outside. The bars here don’t make cocktails at all. They only provide bottle service. I can’t imagine buying an entire bottle of vodka or whiskey but that’s what they do over here! Before heading back to our hotel we walked down to the beach and sat by the fishing boat, dancing under the full moon with only an audience of lapping ocean waves.

I woke up in the morning realizing my bed was full of beach sand. We walked down the street and stopped at a nice restaurant overlooking the harbor. We both ordered ice cold fresh lemonade and huge plates of chicken fried rice topped with a fried banana. We saw a rather odd sight. A man walking his bull dog which he had dyed purple. We spent our last day in Salinas on the beach with our feet buried in the sand. I heard the bells of the ice cream man and bought us each a cone. A perfect treat on a warm day. We waved goodbye to the beach and headed back to our hotel where I spent the evening obsessing over my novel. A favorite quote, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” As we packed our things I decided to get rid of a few of the clothing items that I was tired of carrying. I also left my vile and putrid smelling shoes. We hailed a cab and just before we hopped in the car the man at the front desk ran outside with a few of my shirts and shoes. He thought I had forgotten them. I told him “no no you can have them.” He smiled and ran back into the hotel. We were soon bounding through the streets to the small town of Libertad where we would be catching another local bus to the famous surf village of Montanita.



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