Feb 24-Mar 2, 2014
Not long before I cross into Ecuador (which has some amazing scenery, btw), I find out about El Mitad del Mundo, or Middle Earth (for you LOTR fans). If it’s your first time crossing the Equator (takes me a few to realize where Ecuador gets its name) a ceremony of sorts must take place. If you’re doing the crossing on water and if you’re part of the British and US navies, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. The ceremony of transforming a Pollywog into a Shellback, goes as follows (from Wikipedia): “Wogs may be ‘interrogated’ by King Neptune and his entourage, and the use of ‘truth serum’ (hot sauce + after shave) and whole uncooked eggs put in the mouth. During the ceremony, the Pollywogs undergo a number of increasingly embarrassing ordeals (wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees on nonskid-coated decks; being swatted with short lengths of firehose; being locked in stocks and pillories and pelted with mushy fruit; being locked in a water coffin of salt-water and bright green sea dye (fluorescent sodium salt); crawling through chutes or large tubs of rotting garbage; kissing the Royal Baby’s belly coated with axle grease, hair chopping, etc.), largely for the entertainment of the Shellbacks.”. I decide to shave my beard, take some pictures of the aftermath and call it a day.
After I cross the border from Colombia, I want to stop at El Mitad del Mundo first on the way to Quito. Finding the monument is another ordeal though. Good ol’ trusty Google Maps shows yellow roads (paved), but halfway through, my paved road enters a village, and exits as a tiny, bumpy dirt road criss-crossing mountains. It’s getting dark and foggy, and I think to myself – if the car breaks down right now, I’m screwed. There’s no cell phone reception, and for more than an hour, nobody passes me. It’s bumpy as hell, and even though I’m going slowly, the zip ties holding the protection panel under the engine break, and I end up driving over it. In the process I crack it in two places. I pull over, put it in the backseat, and pray that I don’t hit a rock and damage the oil pan. I finally reach the monument around 7 at night, and… it’s closed. My best negotiating will not sway the young and eager security guy. I need to come back in the morning. This sucks, because with traffic, it’ll take me an hour each way.
I have no idea what part of town I booked the hostel, but it turns out it’s in the La Pradera neighborhood, a young and hip area filled with bars and restaurants. But most importantly, the hostel has gated parking. I go out to get some dinner, and for the first time in many weeks, it feels good to walk around. People don’t stare at you, it feels safe, and the air is fresh. In a word, it feels refreshing. The whole city has a good vibe. In the morning, finishing my breakfast, I overhear a young couple (Roberto and Elvira), asking the receptionist how to get to the Middle of the Earth. I offer to take them if they’re ready to go. We get in the car and exchange information (they’re from Chile on their way to the Galapagos) and shortly after we get pulled over by the police. Of course, I left my passport and permits back at the hostel. The police are a little baffled by my story, so Roberto tries to explain a little, and with a ripped-up B&W passport paper copy, they’re able to find me in their system (hi-tech Ecuador!). After a long sermon, and promises of having a color passport copy next time, we’re allowed to leave. We return to the hostel, grab my papers and start back all over again.
The monument, as you’d expect, is as much of a tourist mecca as you’re gonna get. It’s still pretty cool though, the idea that you’ve now reached the Equator. After paying for parking, we stroll through a sort of a weird mini fake village with huge houses resembling German lodges, selling either ice-cream or llama meat. There’s also a cornucopia of stalls with everything from hammocks to t-shirts and bracelets. We wait to take our photo on the line dividing the North and South hemispheres. We do all the other “less-gravity, perfect-balance” gimmicks, like weighing ourselves (yes, Stefan is a svelte 175lbs, 10lbs lighter than usual) and try to balance an egg on the head of a nail. This last trick takes a few minutes, but it’s doable. Many weeks later, in Santiago, Roberto and I try the same trick, and it works, which pretty much renders the whole thing, how do you say – bullshit.
At night I’m treated to dinner by Roberto and Elvira at a traditional Ecuadorian restaurant.
Afterwards, we stumble into Cats, an apparently famous bar/restaurant, that’s been in existence for the past 23 years. We only go in because of the really good music that you can hear from the street. We’re talking Steve Miller Band’s Serenade good. The décor is great, and the bartender serves some intense cocktails. The guy changing the music turns out to be the owner, Alvaro Hernandez, culinary school professor, restaurateur and internationally acclaimed chef. His appearance is unassuming, with messy hair and an old t-shirt. His corpulence gives hints of his profession. “Ah you like this music? You should wait for my wife – she’s the best DJ!!!” (And there you have it folks, that’s how you know if she’s a keeper). We keep talking to Alvaro the whole night and end up closing the bar, but not before I try one of the house specialties – which I hear, smell and see being slurped next to me. Sopa de pulpo is a miracle in-between miracles. In a large, burning-hot clay pot, a thick tomato-based seafood broth with onions, cilantro and other double rainbows, large tentacles of tender octopus bob up and down. Roberto quickly orders one as well, after seeing me slowly melting into my barstool. I come back the next night, for the soup, but also for Alvaro and his music. If Cats was in New York, it would destroy half the establishments.
The next day (after being put in touch by Nicolas), I meet up with Karin-Marijke Vis and Coen Wubbels, named “Overlanders of the Year”, famous for their 11+ year Land Cruising Adventure. They’ve been in Quito for a week or so, repairing their Crème Brulee (30 year old yellow Toyota Land Cruiser), at Pvillota, a pretty legit mechanic place. The owner, Pedro Pvillota, an ex-race technician for Ecuador’s team at Daytona 24hr, is welcoming, friendly, and more over, excited to have another crazy world travelling car in his garage. He looks at the plastic panel I used to have under my car, and laughs in disbelief as to how I was able to make it this far without destroying the oil pan. “No, no, you have to put a metal one. This is no good.” So we get into his son’s souped up Golf and drive to another workshop, where the owner promises to fabricate a new custom panel for $100 if I bring my car the next day. Through and through, Pedro was amazing, and I was lucky to meet him through Coen. We fixed a stripped headlight wire and added some “Japanese-technology” shock dampeners in-between the stock springs.
I go to lunch with Coen and Karin and ask them a thousand questions, in awe and respect of their unbelievable decade-long journey around the world. When we get back to the garage, they offer me fine espressos on the hour, accompanied by home-made vegetarian brownies. They are delicious. I get under Crème Brulee with Coen to help him with a spanner here and a wrench there and we talk about our trips so far, and what’s coming next.
From underneath, the Toyota is pretty much as close as you’d get to a tank. Everything looks to be made out of thick steel panels. Even though it comes in at a little over 3 tons, when we take it for a test-drive, it’s surprisingly cheery and fun to be in. I wonder what the psychological difference is between people making journeys like these for a few months, people making them for a few years, and then Coen/Karin – more than decade. At what point does it not matter anymore? Personally, I don’t feel the need to get back home, but the little creature comforts like a good pizza and watching a movie, I do miss a lot. It’s also interesting to see how hundreds of years ago, the Dutch went all over the world exploring and to this day, it is the nationality I meet the most on the road. Some things just never change.
And so I end spending a few days in Quito, talking to Coen and Karin and Pedro, waiting for the car to be ready. Pedro even takes us go-karting for free at a track owned by an old friend of his, who used to race go-karts 50 years ago in Italy. I meet Daniela, a great photographer, who’s nice enough to take me around town the next day, showing me where to get more traditional Ecuadorian food (I’m still thinking about the octopus soup though, the whole time).
The next stop after Quito is Quenca, where I spend the night and also eat two speed cameras on my way in. The speed limit is 50km and right after I pass the sign announcing it, I think surely they’re kidding, who’s gonna drive at 50km on a three lane beautifully – FLASH BOOM FLASH – speed camera. Now I’m like whaaat, surely they don’t have speed cameras (hi-tech!) in Ecuador, so I poke my head into the windshield trying to see if that was a real camera when – FLASH BOOM FLASH – I catch the second one. That second photo – and whoever gets it, bless them – is going my best rendition of Mr.Bean, twisting his face behind the windshield of his Mini, looking at I don’t remember what. Out of fear of this hi-tech Ecuador, I leave really early in the morning, before my name and my Mr. Bean face are in the system and I have to pay God knows what ridiculous amount of money. Goodbye Ecuador, you were pretty and I liked you.
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These are the personal views and thoughts of the author, and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally LLC.