The Not-So-Innocent Bystandards
A young women, late teens or early twenties, sits in the seat next to me. Dark eyeshadow, liner, tight jeans, black Converse All-Stars. Her friend, a slightly older looking woman, sits across the aisle. There are plenty of open seats on the luxurious bus. The girl sitting next to me makes eye contact. It is a flirty, half-shy, half-seductive look. She reaches across my body for the lever that reclines my seat. She says it is more comfortable. I tell her thank you, but that I am fine the way it is. I ask her where she is going. Puyol, she tells me. My small satchel rests on the floor, squeezed between my feet.
The Setup Guy
White muscle-shirt, jeans with intentional wear and tear, gel-heavy doo, square face. He is moving all around the bus. There is a nice elderly couple sitting behind me when we leave Quito. The setup guy gets them to move to another part of the bus, reclines their seats for them, shakes their hands. He reclines the bystandard`s seat, tries to recline mine but, again, I will not let it happen. He finally sits down a few rows back.
The theif is a middle aged woman with long, curley black hair. She wears jeans with rhinestones on the rear pockets, a white fake leather jacket, a pink synthetic purse. When the seats behind me are vacated by the elderly couple, she takes their place. I do not notice these things happening, am too busy enjoying the views of the passing city.
There are two more men who are present simply to be available as alibies to the other criminals. One man sits at the very back of the bus, watching everything with his arms folded across his chest. The other man sits across the aisle from el ladron, acting completely oblivious to what is happening.
It is not long before the bus reaches the outskirts of the city. The green countryside zooms by. The bus is quiet, spacious. For a while, I read my book. The gently vibrating and bouncing words lull me to weariness. It is about 8:30am. The trip to Latacunga, where I will meet Mike and Kelly, will take another two hours. I put my book back in the satchel that rests between my feet. I lean my head against the rattling window and close my eyes. Sleep does not come. I am somewhere between a daydream and meditation. My eyes are closed for no more than 20 seconds. In this moment, the not-so-innocent bystandard removes the satchel from between my feet and shoves it underneath her reclined seat. El ladron grabs it, opens it up and begins rifeling through the contents. The overwhelming feeling that I have lost something jolts me from my restful state. I look down at my feet and realize that my bag is gone.
The moment I realize that my bag is gone, a manish looking woman with large hips blocks the aisle. She stands in front of my seat, bending over to open and close the window next to me. She plays with the window for a few seconds, as if she must adjust this particular window to the exact width that will make her, and me, comfortable. She acts as if she is doing me a favor, but really she is just making it impossible for me to do anything about the fleeing theif. Besides, I don`t realize what is happening until after the fact. El ladron hurries off the bus with a bulging pink purse. My satchel is shoved back underneath the bystandard`s seat. She looks up at me innocently.
My bag has obviously been rummaged through. Everything is out of order. My camera is gone. The memory cards that contain all my photos from the trip so far are gone with it. Over 500 photos. It is impossible to recover them. This hurts more than the camera itself. I check the hidden inside pouch and am relieved to find that my passport and money have not been touched. I realize how lucky I am for this. I begin searching the bus and find my sunglasses in their case underneath a nearbye seat. For a second, I am hopeful that I will find my camera, but the fact that it is truly gone begins to sink in. I am in shock. I move from seat to seat, asking people if they saw anything. This is when I begin to realize the elaborate plot. I notice the elderly couple in different seats. I notice that the distraction is sitting next to the older bystandard. I realize why they all wanted to recline my seat. I ask the backup what he saw and I am completely ignored. Twice. I remember that a big group of people got on the bus just outside the terminal in Quito. I now observe as this entire group, all the players, get off the bus a few minutes after the robbery. We are nowhere near Puyol. I try to explain it to the conductor of the bus, but he thinks it was only el ladron who was involved. This is impossible, but there is nothing I can do. They are all gone and the camera gone with them. I realize that they have also stolen the $4 wristwatch that I bought in Otavalo and that was attached to the strap of my bag. I take heart in the knowledge that these theifs are so stupid they cannot tell the difference between $200 sunglasses and a $4 watch. By the time I reach the Latacunga bus terminal, I am so fucking pissed off that I roar at the top of my lungs and grab Mike by the shirt collar, shaking him in mock rage. Everyone stares at the enormous, loud, angry gringo. I am glad they are staring. I want them to know what I will do to them if they try to rob me again. Afterall, we still have a four hour busride ahead.
The bus is absolutely packed with people. This is the first time that assigned seating has actually mattered. A rather large mother and her screaming child currently occupy two seats, one of which is mine. Sunburnt pouches of thin skin for cheecks, short legs, a pink sweater that is lifted chest-high to allow the child to breastfeed. I confront her multiple times about the seat, but she does not respond posotively until the engine has already started and the bus begun to move. I squeeze into the tiny space next to the window.
My knees are jammed into the seat in front of me. The child is resting his legs on my theigh. The mother`s girth presses against my right arm, the window presses against my left. I cannot move. Every once in a while the mother changes breasts and in the moment between the last nipple and the next, the baby screams. It is not very long before he grows tired of feeding, however, and decides to nap. Now his head rests on my theigh. The mother, too, leans her head on my shoulder.
The disintegrating dirt road switches back and forth as it climbs and descends the walls of a steep valley. The road is very narrow with many hairpin turns. I am sitting on the side of the bus that overhangs the bottomless valley. My seat is directly above the rear wheel. For hours, I watch with horror as the wheel flirts with the edge of the abyss. I have never been so terrified in my life. There are more than a few times when the wheel is half on and half off the edge of the road. Beneath me there is certain death. At one point, the wheel falls into a deep ditch and the top-heavy bus tips violently. The heretofore stoic passangers scream with fear. I am sure this is the end, but by some miracle the bus does not cross the threshold after which gravity would have taken us to the bottom of the canyon. The driver reverses. A few passangers jump out and throw rocks into the ditch. We continue on as if nothing has happened. I have more fear in these four hours than I have ever had on a mountain or rock wall. I have no control. What a horrible way to die.
When we finally reach Chugchilan, I am astounded we are alive. This is by far the worst day of the entire trip. My camera has been stolen and we have nearly been killed. My legs are sore from the ride. My head is aching. I am dehydrated and hungry. For the first time, I truly miss home.
The Hostal Cloud Forrest is beautiful. Breakfast and dinner are included. There is a nice communal living area that is heated by a wood stove. We meet people from all over the world. Just before dinner, some young girls knock on our doors. They are dressed in long, pleated skirts of yellow and orange. They have sequined fabric of the same color wrapped around their heads. It hangs down to the backs of their knees. They invites us to a dance. We come down to the living area and find that every guest at the hostal is there. The four girls hop and spin in unison. Their dresses swirl around them. They dance to the rhythm of reed flutes and guitarron. We all clap and cheer between songs. After a few formal performances the girls come into the audiance and drag people onto the dance floor. Everyone is obliged to come. We hold hands and create a gyrating circle. It is some kind of improvised polka. We make a train that snakes around the spinning girls in the center. For a moment, everyone lets loose. The free smiles and uninhibited laughter remind me, again, why I love this country.