Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
Over the years, Ecuador has been a temporary home for many ex-pats and for a few it
has become a permanent one. We even had our share of blue blood in our midst. There was a Simon de Montfort, whose descendants go back to 1086 and were reordered in the
Doomsday Book. He was and perhaps still is, involved in agriculture in the coastal province of Manabi. A Bonham Carter, a descendant of John Bonham-Carter MP (1788–1838) was a violinist in the Ecuadorian National Orchestra.
There was even a Medici – genuinely the last of the line according to my Italian father-in-law. When I met him he was operating a primitive pizzeria in Santa Domingo de las Colorados, then a population of 60,000. Then there was Douglas Feasy, my Kiwi mate, whose forefathers, if he was anything to go by would have originally been deported from England.
In 1978 Doug and I decided to take a break from our Quito life and head to Pasto,
Columbia, where we had been invited by a girlfriend to attend the Carnaval de Negros y
Blancos,- Festival of Blacks and Whites. Rather than take what was then a four-hour
bus journey via the Pan-American Highway to the border, we chose to save time and took a flight from Quito to the mean frontier town of Tulcan. In the seventies, it was only known for its topiary garden cemetery and its shifty money changers.
By the time we took a short taxi ride from Tulcan airport to the border, we were
suffering no pain. As hapless as the town was, there were bars. Doug and I had managed to quaff down a number of aquadientes – the local sugar cane alcohol, to accompany a greasy, late breakfast of chewy lumps of unidentifiable meat, runny eggs and rice. Crossing frontiers in Latin-America at the best of times could be a tricky moment for foreigners, especially gringos like Doug and me, as one never knew what mood the border guards would be in. But that morning there was no hassle, in fact, there were none present on the Ecuadorian side.
The taxi driver did not stop and without being controlled we crossed into Columbia via the Rumichaca bridge, Doug did his bit of public relations with the Columbian border police, by pouring generous measures from our emergency bottle of aquadiente into their coffee mugs. Getting our passports rudimentarily inspected and stamped, we entered Columbia and negotiated a local taxi to take us the ninety Kilometres on to Pasto. This was a hair raising ride along, appallingly bad roads, during which time, the bottle of whisky I was taking as a present to impress my friend’s father was shared with the driver,
The alcohol helped calm us as he persuaded his ancient and battered vehicle through mud, across landslides, under waterfalls and panache for overtaking on blind bends. At one point he drove at full throttle, scattering a group of campesinos – peasants, who he claimed may have been bandits. We were warmly welcomed in Pasto, where the carnival was already in full tilt and everyone appeared to be as happy as were Doug and I. My friend introduced us to her friends and we moved from one house party to the next.
The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos takes place each year between the 4th and 6th of January. It has its roots in pre-Columbian history but over the years Christian and Afro-American traditions have become integrated from both the Spanish conquistadors and their one-time slaves. One of the festival customs is to indiscriminately throw flour over everyone. Being gringos, Doug and I were open season for the locals. By the end of two days, we looked like a couple of baked biscuits.
On the day of the big parade, which anyone could join in, we were offered a couple
of feisty horses to ride but common sense prevailed and we declined, preferring to watch the procession from the safety of the balcony of my friend’s house, where her family and their friends lavished the traditional Columbian hospitality on us. Somehow, before dawn on the 7th, a weary and still pleasantly inebriated Doug and I said our fond farewells and took the bone-rattling taxi ride back to Ipiales. The journey in good weather would have taken around three hours but in the inclement weather, it took six.
The bad weather was the least of my problems because on our arrival at Ipiales and just as we were preparing to take a further taxi across the frontier, I experienced every traveller’s nightmare – I discovered I had forgotten or had lost my passport. The possible implications combined with my hangover were frightening. Without any documents, I would not be allowed back into Ecuador and would possibly have to wait for
weeks for a replacement from the British Embassy in Bogota. By then I would have no
money left and temporally be stateless. I had heard of travellers in similar circumstances
being thrown into jail and forgotten.
I attempted to phone Pasto to see if I had left the document there but, due to the bad weather, there was no connection. The only course of action I could take was to bluff my way through the border controls. Fortunately, the devil was looking after his own that day. One of the guards Doug had plied with aquadiente some forty-eight hours before, was on duty and rather than leave the shelter of the guardhouse, recognized us and cheerfully waved our taxi on. I was now out of one country but I still had to get into another one.
Crossing the Rumichaca bridge that evening was like an episode from the film ‘The spy who came out of the cold’. As the queue of taxis in front of us inched its way across the gorge which separated the two countries to the, I knew just how Richard Burton must have felt when attempting to get through Berlin’s, Check-point Charlie. Once again luck or fate was on my side and the Ecuadorian official had no more intention of getting soaking wet than his Columbian colleague. I shall never forget the wave relief that swept over me as we came off that bridge into Ecuador.
As there no flights to Quito until the following morning, we had to overnight in
Tulcan but seeing the appalling quality of the hotels, we decided instead to drink our way through the night. Unfortunately, that idea did not last long and we were turfed out of the last bar at two in the morning. We spent a few freezing cold hours, trying to get some sleep under the arches of a church. Even then, the saga was not over.
At dawn, we eventually managed to find a taxi to take us to the airport, which in reality was then no more than a cement strip with one small, cement block office. Passengers were already queuing to board at the bottom of the aircraft steps when I noticed two Ecuadorian policemen were at the front, double-checking everybody’s papers.
There was no way I could escape from the line without bringing notice to myself. My
good friend Doug, realizing my predicament, was already smirking. As I came slowly to the head of the line, I deliberately fumbled through my jacket, as though searching for my passport. My hand found my driving license which was a German one from my past life. On the command “Pasaporte por favor”, I closed my eyes and handed the official the old, grey linen license, which he dutifully inspected.
His eyes scanned back and forth from my face to the photo and after what felt like an eternity, and to my utter amazement, not to say relief, he stamped the driving license and returned it to me with a curt “Danke Schon”, to show off his linguistic capabilities. I crept fearfully up those aircraft steps, expecting any moment to hear a voice
demanding me to stop – but I made it.
I was in my window seat before I looked down and realized Doug had been stopped. It seemed as if the officer had never seen a New Zealand passport before. Distrusting the foreign document,, he called for his colleague and together they perused it as though it was their mother’s last will and testament. By then it was my turn to smirk and
wave a cheery farewell to Doug, who appeared to be attempting to explain what or where New Zealand was. Finally, his passport was accepted as a legal document but I am sure the whereabouts of NZ remained a mystery to them.
Two hours later hour later we were both back in Quito, in the safety of El Pub Inglese
and telling our tale and showing my driving license visa to all who would care to listen to our story.
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