story and photos by Lori Marquardson
So many reasons for going to Ecuador, but being stuck on a bus full of local Evangelical Christians in a mudslide was not one of them. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.
I had been backpacking alone through Ecuador and, deciding that a few days exploring the Amazon jungle was in order, made arrangements to meet up with a small group in the dusty oil frontier town of Lago Agrio. From there we would go to the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve for a few days of roughing it with iguanas, howler monkeys, piranhas and blue morpho butterflies.
A cool drizzle fell as I boarded the overnight bus in Quito. The driver’s personal touches of green fringe and dangling images of saints above the steering wheel couldn’t mask that the bus was more contraption than road-worthy vehicle. My fellow passengers were mostly short and dark, with a number of women wearing the typical Andean dress of black bowler hats, full skirts and rubber sandals while I, the obvious foreigner on board, sported beige zip-off pants and a purple windbreaker. We headed northeast, following the twisting mountainous roads leading out of the city, and despite the jolting motion, I drifted off.
At some point, I came to: the bus was not moving, no engine running, nada. I could see the driver had relaxed into what was definitely a non-driving position: head tilted back, mouth agape, arms crossed over his chest, and legs spread-eagled. Strange, but having been in South America for quite some time, I had experienced unexplained delays before and generally they weren’t show-stoppers, so I tried to fall back asleep. Then came a huge rumble outside, followed immediately by murmuring voices inside.
“What the hell is that?” I said to no one in particular and, being in the front row, I leaned over to the driver, and asked “¿Qué está pasando? “
“Hay un derrumbe.” A landslide. Hmmm, that did not sound good.
“En las montaňas.”
He wanted to go back to dozing instead of answering my questions. With no more details forthcoming and his apparent lack of concern, I leaned back and tried to relax. That, however, did not last long as more rumbles came, indicating more derrumbes.
A woman’s voice, shrill but commanding, like a frantic teenage babysitter whose charges had suddenly disappeared, shattered the quiet, asking in Spanish if everyone was awake. The resulting titters and mumbles encouraged her to launch without delay into a series of religious entreaties.
“If the mountain comes down on us, we’ll walk with God. God save us. Ask Him for forgiveness. Let us pray to our Saviour.”
Now, when I first found out we were caught in the mountains with mud continuing to slide, admittedly I was uneasy, but no one else seemed to panic, which led me to believe this wasn't out of the ordinary. But this god-talk put a whole new spin on my comfort level. If they were alarmed enough to involve a higher power, maybe there was something to be worried about, and the more it went on, the more worried I became. Feeling anxious and needing fresh air, I asked the driver to let me out.
Whoa! About seven feet out from the door, the black of the night got blacker as the edge of the road ended, and then a breeze coming from that direction made it clear there was a big void; on the other side of the bus, I made out a wall of rock going up about 10 feet but I could sense more solidity above as my eyes crept upwards along mottled, inky shadows. Behind our bus, a line of cargo trucks, buses and passenger vehicles stretched as far as I could see, with only a few dim headlights providing any illumination. Ahead, eight or nine vehicles stood between our bus and another dark, formless mass, which, like an expanding amorphous creature from a Star Trek episode, continued to grow with each new debris-filled addition from the mountain above.
After an hour of milling about, cold and so in need of sleep that I didn’t care about the continuing but less frequent rumbles and tumbles, I got back on the bus, hoping that the sermon was over. To my dismay, it had turned into a revival meeting with energetic singing and clapping about their Seňor. Just when I thought they were done, with resounding “Amens,” which were a strong indicator, off they would go again. "Sing His praises!" At this point, I began to wonder if they really were worried about our getting crushed under a mound of rocks and mud or if this was just a good way to ward off boredom till the cavalry rode in. Whatever their motivation, the intensity of their exhortations grew as did my crankiness and frustration that I would likely miss my group in Lago Agrio and my chance to sleep under the jungle’s canopy.
Perhaps with a little help from above, fatigue finally crept over even the most god-fearing aboard and the reprises of “Dios, sálvenos,” God save us, petered out. Silence...finally. Sleep...finally. Hallelujah.
At dawn, the growling and grinding sounds of a small yellow earth mover woke me. Groggy, droopy-eyed passengers and drivers stood outside and watched expressionlessly as a space was cleared wide enough to allow one lane of vehicles to pass. A dozen inched through from the other side of the slide. Then it was our turn and we were on our way.
Arriving five hours late in Lago Agrio, I was surprised to find that my group was still waiting for me. Thank goodness for the often loose attitude towards time and schedules in Latin America, and for my fellow passengers’ prayers. With their help, I made it and was on my way to the jungle.
For Lori Marquardson, bliss comes through travel, writing, art and gardens. And when the universe is feeling especially generous, all of these merge together in a single trip. Her travel writing has appeared in all of her own journals, and she is now in the process of sharing.