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Driving in Ecuador

Earlier this month I flew to Ecuador. My daughter Kristen and I were visiting my youngest daughter Jamie, her husband Ron, and their two toddlers, Jackson, and Lucas. From the moment we left the airport in Guayaquil – a very busy port city, we were in for a frightening ride. Crammed city busses with standing room only surrounded us in every lane, trucks of all shapes and sizes carrying both passengers and produce lumbered along, and cars of all types vied for their piece of the roadway. Add to that, hundreds of helmet-wearing delivery drivers on scooters, weaving in between cars, hurrying to drop off hot food, prescriptions, and grocery orders. I found myself, between gasps, being thankful that I was not the driver and that it was just another day maneuvering the streets for Ron.

After relaxing with our family in their quiet gated neighborhood for a couple of days, the six of us piled into Ron’s Ford Explorer - excited for a trip to the mountains where we would stay two nights at an Airbnb. Surrounded by backpacks, overstuffed totes, bags of groceries, and a 75-quart cooler loaded to the gills, we made the five-hour trek to the mountains. As the front seat passenger, I was busy gawking at the sights along the road while at the same time often closing my eyes in anticipation of a collision. Most everyone else in the car had a good laugh at my expense.

Drivers in Ecuador never stay in their own lane and cutting off other vehicles is common and almost expected - especially when turning left in front of oncoming traffic. Maneuvering roundabouts in Ecuador, and there are many roundabouts, is not for the faint of heart. Stop signs are merely suggestions, and as Ron made several moves to get around other drivers, he would laugh and say, “Be aggressive.” Truthfully, as a driver in Ecuador if you are not aggressive, you will likely find yourself sitting in the same spot for hours.

When stopped at red lights (traffic lights seem to be the only rule that most Ecuadorian drivers obey) sitting cars are quickly surrounded by street vendors hawking everything from fresh strawberries to just-fried-cookies, to stuffed animals. Armed with squeegees, enterprising panhandlers will begin cleaning windshields – assuming the driver will give them money.

In one small town and while stopped at a red light, a street entertainer rapidly ran a tightrope from one light pole to the other – crossing it just above the stopped cars. His act was perfectly timed. With ballet-like moves, he tiptoed across the tightrope in front of us, jumped to the ground, juggled a handful of bowling pins, and proceeded to quickly unhook his tightrope from the poles, just in time for the light to change. As cars began to creep forward, the smiling young man stealthily walked between them collecting tips. At another light in yet another small town, a mime – a dark-skinned man in white face, walked between cars acting out scenes. A few drivers rolled down their windows and handed him dollar coins.

Once we began the winding ascent into the mountains, the fog-shrouded drive became even more harrowing! A two-lane road wound between steep rock cliffs and edges without barriers. Although the heavy fog often kept Ron from seeing the road in front of him, I was thankful that it kept me from seeing what lay beyond and below the road edge. As we came around blind curves, so did tour busses headed in our direction. Numerous times cars passed those busses – narrowly missing us as they barely swerved in front of the busses they were passing. Remnants of recent rockslides higher up in the mountains required waiting for oncoming traffic to pass before we could move forward. But fog and rockslides weren’t the only obstacles on the route to Choredeleg.

All along the narrow small-town roads are animals – mostly tied up while they graze and wait for their owners to return. Saddled horses, cows, donkeys, and pigs stand or lay inches from the roadway – their leads giving them just enough room to move but not enough to wander into the streets. Then there are the loose dogs. Dogs laying in the road behind parked cars, dogs walking down the road on their way to who-knows-where, and dogs running out in front of cars to reach the other side. At least twice I thought we were going to hit one of those crossing dogs, but they made it just in time and almost always seemed to look back at us grinning – as if dodging cars was a game for them. Surprisingly enough, and much to my relief, we never did see a dead dog on the side of the road.

Upon finally locating our Airbnb, we sat atop a tall hill at the beginning of a steep dirt road. “Oh-My-God,” I uttered, realizing we needed to drive down that road to get to the house. I covered my face with my jacket and said, “I don’t want to leave here again until it’s actually time to leave.” “Me either,” said Ron as he began the descent down that road – applying both the brake and gas pedals at the same time.

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