Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ecuador doesn't want to let us go

Are they praying that we stay
longer in Ecuador?

It's time for yet another dreaded long border crossing...from Otavalo in Ecuador to
Popayán in Colombia. Although it's not involving as many transport change-overs as our last crossing it will still take two days to reach Popayán.

Thankfully, we will be able to break our journey in Tulcán, a mid-sized city with plenty of hotels, food choices and even a famous tourist attraction: the cemetery! First we need to find a decent place to stay which is usually challenging in a negligible border town, but to our surprise, Tulcán is not a dingy, hell hole. It's got a decent vibe and plenty of nice hostel choices. Julane had ransacked the internet for recommendations on where to stay. Yes a few people have chosen to stay and write about Tulcán, but too few people ever tell if they find decent accommodation. So let us be the first now to help out our fellow border hoppers. We choose "Hostal Frailejon" smack in the center and $1 taxi ride (2kms?) from the bus terminal. It's got all the amenities including large clean room, paint that isn't peeling off the walls, a large TV and decent bathroom, plus a Buena vista.

Talking about Hotels; one learns to appreciate the simple things in life in regards to hotel rooms:

1.) English news station.

2.) Hot water (which has usually been plentiful in most hotels...thank goodness).
We've discovered that Latin America has a special electrical device affixed to the shower head to heat the water.
The old-timer of "death showers"
The electrical wiring looks like a torture device out of Guantanamo Bay with it's wires sticking out haphazardly in all directions and there of course is no ground-fault protection device. Hence the backpackers favorite nickname: "death shower".
The latest model of
a "death shower"
Once the flow of water triggers the heating element, the you need to reduce the pressure until the water temperature suits you. Well we like our water hot so this means we end up with a minimum trickle of hot water. Perhaps this could be also called water boarding? So we get especially excited by the rare gas fired boilers since these get the water hot enough that you can actually add a bit of cold water.

3.) A bedside reading light. Patrick likes this. Why? Because most hotel rooms have only a dangling exposed spiral florescent light bulb and Julane likes to read until the wee hours in order to fall asleep.

The fun really starts when
the death shower has been
upgraded to gas and now only
the power outlet remains to
tell the history.
4.) A bathroom that doesn't have a nasty odor. They haven't yet understood the important of S-trap plumbing to block stinky smells. Probably you don't even think about this important little piece ov PVC piping, but we do. Incense sticks don't help. Even covering the drainage holes doesn't seem to always work. By the way, there is a drain for the shower, sink and also bathroom floor.

5.) Electrical outlets. Patrick carries an extension cord to combat the common problem of rooms with one electrical outlet mounted high up on the ceiling or hidden behind the bed..

6.) Beds that aren't shaped like a V...especially when it's the matrimonial type and you both end up in the middle. Some matrasses have W shape... at least you don’t gravitate towards the middle in these kinds.

    Well let's get back to Tulcán's famous attraction since you've been probably holding your breath in suspense now for a few minutes waiting to find out what lurks in the cemetery. It's actually rich with "life" thanks to the über-creative gardener, José Franco, the caretaker of the cemetery who in 1936 began clipping the huge bushes into imaginative shapes....well actually now the sons of the original Edward Scissorhands are in charge. This is one of only two topiary cemeteries in the world...quite a claim to fame, eh?

    The guardians of the
    cemetery in bas relief
    We arrive just as the sun is disappearing. It's a popular place with lots of visitors roaming about with cameras. We gasp in awe at the massive sculptures and archways carved out of shrubbery, which appears to be Thuja from the cypress family. They get more and more astounding as we creep deeper into the cemetery. The work turns into people now: Incas and warriors and birds and beasts.

    There are high hedges everywhere and it's getting darker and darker. Hey we forget we are actually in a cemetery. It's like being in Alice in Wonderland. Humm...Is this safe to be here. Ah , we spy a guard watchman. Well actually he spies Patrick and tells him that he needs to leave. So there is security even. Julane ducks the guard to try and get a few more photos now that she's in the most sensational part. Somehow safety is no longer a factor.

    The devil between the angels
    Unfortunately the light is dim and our camera has a hard time to get some pics without glare. After a continued game of "cat and mouse" with the guards, they literally kick us out of the central area where the best work is. So, we move into the section near the entrance that stays open an hour later and is even illuminated with colored spot lights. After taking another couple dozen photos, we leave the sculptures and souls resting in the shadow of darkness.

    Bird garden
    We want to cross over to Colombia very early the next morning in order to make it to Popayán before nightfall. To save time we decide to change enough money for the entire route so we won't need to make a detour to find an elusive ATM machine along the way. Our guidebook also writes that the exchange rate at the border itself is unfavorable. We ask a policeman for the whereabout of official money changers and he points us to a group of guys sitting on some steps by the plaza. He adds that they are "seguro" and that we can ask to see their "tarjeta" which we interpret as a kind of official ID.

    We haggle with the guys for a short while and agree on an exchange rate which is better than Oanda's rate by far (and also turns out to be slightly better than at the border). Before we hand our dollars over, we ask if they have a tarjeta. "Claro!" is the reply. When we ask to see it, they just smile and shake their thick wads of money: "Miras, soy cambista" (see, I am a money changer). Well, that much for the policeman's suggestion. Anyway, we go ahead and change a hundred dollars (the official currency in Ecuador is the US dollar) and inspect the Colombian Pesos closely for signs of counterfeiting... although we actually have no clue what they should look like or what security features their money has. But at least we put up a little show for the "official" money-changers... without proper ID.

    For dinner we have our traditional "last supper in a country": pollo al brasso and go to sleep early.

    We take a taxi at 6:30am to the nearby border town of Rumichaca. There are only a few people at the Ecuadorian immigration office. We are next in line and should be finished with the formalities in a couple of minutes. The two officers look at our passports for a long time, flip through all the pages over and over again and look puzzled at their computer screens. Finally after about five minutes, they tell us to take a seat and wait. Our names are not in their computer system, which actually means that we are also not really in the country – at least not officially.
    Great! So we wait for 30 minutes thinking that someone is putting us into the system. Finally Julane asks them how much longer it will take. The answer: "Until the supervisor arrives at 8 am."

    Here we got up early to make it to Popayán and now we're stuck in Ecuador, although we are not officially actually even in the country. We feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, we can't go back or ahead.

    Finally! Our permission to leave Ecuador
    Finally at 8:20am the supervisor arrives. She looks at our passports and our immigration cards and then starts to firmly instruct the two clueless guys how to properly handle the situation. We didn't understand everything she said, but we hope they learn how to do right now! There are only 3 border crossings after all, it shouldn't be that complicated!

    Patrick is just scratching his head: Why in the world did the guy in La Balsa enter our info into an Excel sheet if they don't even transmit that data to their central database? We definitely entered Ecuador through the backdoor and off the beaten track.

    Close to 9am we finally got our passports back with an official exit "stamp" that was actually computer printed directly into our passport. Wow are they modern in Ecuador, at least at some border crossings. ; -)

    Getting into Colombia was as easy as it gets, show the passport, give an electronic fingerprint and "Bienvenidos a Colombia." No forms, no excel sheets, no questions. At 9:15, we arrive at the bus terminal in Ipiales, the first major town in Colombia. The next bus to Popayán is scheduled at 9:30. At least no more delays, we hope.

    In the middle of the Panamericana
    We are in such a hurry to get to Popayán because the 300 km (186 miles) road from the border to Popayán is infamous for night time robberies. – the only road in Colombia that must not be traveled in darkness!

    It's 10:15am when our bus finally starts moving, that much for the hope of no further delays. As soon as we are rolling, a Colombian starts passing around some rum which is disguised in a soft drink plastic bottle. Obviously he's been enjoying some booze for breakfast already and he proudly says it's Domingo (which for him means Party Day, we think). He is a very jovial guy who soon has a bigger and bigger group of fans laughing and joking with him. Actually the whole front of the bus becomes his fan club. The bus is only half full, actually.

    The favorite travel companion of
    the Colombians on board our bus
    We stop shortly in Pasto to load more passengers (and more liquor). But this brief stop turns into a 45 minute wait, something is wrong with the air-conditioning. By now we have given up on the concept that we see Popayán in daylight and just hope that we aren't going to get stopped by bandits and that the "breakfast club" is not going to drink even more and starts to puke.

    Our first wish was answered, our second bluntly ignored. The front of the bus party animals used every stop as an excuse to buy more alcohol. What surprised us the most is that a few other men, who boarded in Pasto, also brought on some booze and soon made friends with the "breakfast club". They would stagger up to the front pass around a bottle around, yell back and forth, and surprisingly not fall over as they swayed back and forh on the narrow aisle. The words became more and more slurred and by 3pm, their language was a blur. Many of them were going to Bogotá which takes over 25 hours. Perhaps that's why they are drinking so much!

    Cheers and welcome to Colombia!