We arrived in Tumbes around 8am. As soon as I stepped off the bus I was approached by an ebullient man holding a brochure for CIFA, a bus company that provided service from the border to several different cities in Ecuador. I recognized CIFA from my guidebook and asked the man about buses to Quito. “There is a bus that leaves at 9:30 this morning,” he told me, smiling broadly as he reached for my bag.
“How much?” I asked.
“It depends, there are different prices,” he said. “We must hurry if you want to catch that bus. First we have to go to the border and then you have to clear immigration.”
What the hell, I thought. I felt reasonably well-rested. Why waste a day in Tumbes when I could just push on to Quito? I let the man take my bag and followed him to his moto (the Peruvian version of a tuk-tuk), where he introduced me to Roberto, his brother. Before getting into the moto I asked again about the cost. “We take you to buy your bus ticket,” Roberto said, “and then we get a commission from the bus company.” Fair enough.
The three of us began the 30-minute drive to the border but didn’t make it very far before a Peruvian cop pulled us over, red lights flashing. The cop checked my passport and then walked off with the two brothers. “What was the problem?” I asked when Roberto returned.
“No problem. He just wanted a bribe.”
“How much?” I asked, remembering a similar experience in Nairobi, where bribes are a part of daily life.
“Twenty U.S. dollars?” I asked. Roberto nodded. Wow! That seemed excessive.
We soon reached the Peruvian immigration office. Roberto escorted me inside for my passport stamp and we continued on to the border. “The bus ticket is $55,” Roberto told me.
“Dollars.” I told Roberto that sounded expensive. “It is for the best bus, and some of it is for me and my brother,” he said. “You give me the money and I will go buy the ticket.” Ah, here we go, I thought. I knew they were overcharging me, but they did deserve to be paid for giving me a ride to the border. I handed over the money.
“Here is where we get out,” Roberto said a few minutes later. As I collected my bags I saw Roberto speaking with two Ecuadorian men, and as he shook their hands I noticed that he slipped one of them some money. “These men will buy your bus ticket,” said Roberto, who then walked quickly back to the moto and – before I had time to react – drove away.
My stomach sank. You have to be kidding me. Did I really just fall for such a simple, blatant scam? After traveling in developing countries for almost a year, could I possibly still be that naïve? Apparently yes and yes. The money itself wasn’t a big deal, but I was furious at myself for being so inexcusably stupid. Despite already knowing the answer, I turned to the new guys and asked, “So you’re going to buy my bus ticket to Quito, right?”
“No,” one of them confirmed, “the men you were with just asked us to take you to the bus company. They didn’t give us money for your ticket.”
“I gave them $55 and they gave you some of that money. They said you would buy my bus ticket.”
“What? Why did you give them so much? The bus ticket is only $11. Don’t you have a guidebook? Why would you give so much money to those liars?” They kept repeating this question as they led me through busy, winding streets to the Panamericana bus terminal.
“There is a bus that leaves for Quito at 9:45,” one of the men told me. “It costs $11.” The woman behind the Panamericana counter, however, didn’t want to sell me a ticket. She spoke too quickly for me to understand, but the two men told me not to worry and eventually persuaded her to take my $11. “Now we have to go to the Ecuador immigration office,” they said.
“But it’s already 9:30. Won’t I miss my bus?”
“Do not worry, my friend, the buses never leave on time, and the office is very close.” They hailed a cab and told the driver to take us to the immigration office. Halfway there they said it was time for them to leave. “Give us a tip for our help,” demanded the man sitting next to me.
“Are you serious? I’m not giving you anything. The two men from before already gave you money.”
“They gave us nothing!”
“With my own eyes I saw them give you money.”
“Do you have any coins, at least?”
I handed over about $1 worth of Peruvian coins that I wouldn’t be able to exchange anyway, and the two men got out of the cab. “My bus leaves at 9:45,” I told the taxi driver.
“No problem,” he said. “If the bus leaves before we get back we’ll pass it on the road.” We arrived at the Ecuadorian immigration office and as soon as I received my stamp the taxi driver took me back to the Panamericana bus terminal. My bus was gone.
“The 9:45 bus to Quito already left?” I asked the woman behind the ticket counter.
“Yes, it left. You didn’t have enough time. That’s why I didn’t want to sell you a ticket.”
“Can I use my ticket for the next bus?”
“No. Read the rules on the back of the ticket.”
“Can I get a refund?”
“No. Read the rules on the back of the ticket.”
My taxi driver acted astonished. “Your bus was at 9:45? You didn’t have enough time.”
At this point the morning finally crossed the line and became ridiculous enough that I had to laugh at myself. “Any suggestions?” I asked the taxi driver.
“You could take the CIFA bus to Machala. It’s usually faster than the Panamericana, so when you get to Machala you can go to the Panamericana office and try to catch your bus to Quito.” That sounded like a decent plan, so the taxi driver took me to the CIFA office and I shelled out $1 for the 90-minute ride to Machala.
“Now you need to pay me,” said the taxi driver. “Five dollars.”
“The two men who hired you said not to pay you more than $1.50.”
“No, you need to pay me $5.”
I began to raise my voice. The taxi driver had probably been the least predatory of the five new friends I’d made that morning, but he was the only remaining target for my frustration. And how could I know which of these guys were in cahoots? Did the first two guys regularly work tourist scams with the second two guys? Did the second two guys know the taxi driver? I handed the driver some change, about $2 worth of U.S. and Peruvian coins, and said angrily that if he wanted any more he could find the guys who hired him. He left.
By noon I was in Machala. I didn’t even try to catch the bus to Quito. I was tired, I hadn’t eaten a real meal since breakfast the previous day, and – based on my idiotic performance at the border – I clearly wasn’t in any shape to be dealing with the world. I decided it would be safer to just have lunch, find a hotel room, and head to Quito the next morning.
I spent the afternoon questioning my intelligence and common sense. What could I have been thinking when I handed Roberto that cash? Someone who possessed even a basic level of competence would never have done that, right? I dredged up other poor decisions I’d made over the years. Was there a pattern? Some of my most basic assumptions about myself were suddenly up for debate.
I’d been reading one of Paul Theroux’s travel books, The Pillars of Hercules – an account of his journey around the Mediterranean in the early 1990s (especially interesting in light of the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa), and I remembered an incident where Theroux ended up stranded alone in the Syrian desert as a result of a bad decision. It triggered in him a disproportionately extreme emotional reaction, and I took comfort in the passage because it meant that a far savvier and more intelligent traveler had also suffered a lapse of judgment and then turned on himself just as sharply: “Cold and unsettled at the edge of this desert, feeling thwarted, this enforced isolation filled my mind with memories of injustice – put-downs, misunderstandings, unresolved disputes, abusive remarks, rudeness, arguments I had lost, humiliations. Some of these instances went back many years. For a reason I could not explain, I thought of everything that had ever gone wrong in my life. I kept telling myself, ‘So what?’ and ‘Never mind,’ but it was no good. I could not stop the flow of unpleasant instances, and I was tormented.”
Even in a more positive frame of mind I wouldn’t have found much to like about Machala. My hotel was fine, but the city itself held little appeal. I lost count of the number of smashed cockroaches on the broken sidewalks. Cars waiting at intersections began honking the second the light turned green. Everyone glowered; not even the children smiled. The surly man at the Panamericana counter who sold me my (second) bus ticket to Quito wore a white tank top covered with stains. A beggar in the bus terminal used an exposed colostomy bag to provoke pity. It made sense that during a long walk around the city I never ran across another tourist.
I left early the next morning on what turned out to be a 13-hour ride to Quito. As we passed a particularly beautiful stretch of jungle the Ecuadorian woman in front of me threw a bagful of trash out the window. Another passenger across the aisle repeatedly spit on the floor of the bus. At a rest stop I watched our bus driver pick his nose, not a light scratch but a deep, lengthy excavation. Afterwards the driver examined the finger he’d just used, reminiscent of Judge Smails’ son in Caddyshack. Fifty bucks more says he eats it, I thought.
What a relief to finally arrive in Quito. I’d been to the city before, once on a month-long trip around Ecuador in 2001 and then again, briefly, on my way to and from the Galapagos Islands in 2008. I already knew my way around the touristy Mariscal neighborhood and, for the first time in days, I felt somewhat competent.
The next morning I stopped by several travel agencies and found a good last-minute deal on a 7-night Galapagos tour. Having been to the Galapagos twice already, I’d been debating whether or not a third trip would be worth the time and money. Ultimately I just couldn’t pass it up. The Galapagos is one of my favorite places in the world. Going back for round three may be a little greedy, but so be it.