For those in the know: Ruta PanAmericana: E35 Macará Internacional Border crossing > Loja.
"New country", strange but true, we've not been able to say that for some time. Last year's trip was in some ways a reprise of the previous year's curtailed travel, when the Navigator had a disagreement with a Chilean highway. (3 days hospitalisation and insertion of some ironwork). It then developed into some circulatory perambulation through southern Perú. This year's trip started from where the previous had left off, and after yet more deviations has finally managed to reach A New Country.
A New Place. That tantalising anticipation of something different. The most immediate being, what will the immigration and customs officials take exception to? Relax .... they're just not interested in us.
It's but a simple dotted line on a map, a short bridge over a stream, the tarmac shows no break, even the ceibo trees are no different, the parrots still scream from bank to bank. But we've entered a different place. I still find it remarkable, given South America's shared colonial, then independence history, how different each place is. It's what makes SA travel so fascinating. Sure, you can study the guidebooks, read the blogs, garner some wiki facts, but these are the gross simplifications, the broad-brush pictures. The realities are in the minutiae. And it's these that will colour-in my perception of this place.
Some things haven't changed. The bin lorry still plays a melodic lullaby. The light switch is still hidden behind the toilet door. The hot and cold taps are still transposed. The cockerel still sounds reveille for the pre-dawn. They are still selling 'prosperity seeking' yellow underwear for the New Year.
Yet, many things have changed. The solitary fork provided with my lunch comes with substance and a companionable knife; the rice is no longer mouldable into a 'gutty-ball', fit to go eighteen holes of golf. The dogs are occasionally tethered, and as a consequence the felines have a modicum of chances to survive. I've seen more cats in the last five days than we've noted in two Peruvian months. They still have to furtively slink around corners, and in 'Looney Tunes' fashion, I watch one bristle-haired moggy scale the face of an unrendered brick wall, remaining clamped there whilst the yapping terrier vexed its fury below.
Relax. That Peruvian War of Clarion Attrition, that uncontrollable armed decibel race for ever more strident horns, hasn't crossed the frontier. In part, because neither have the fume-belching moto-taxis nor the fare-honking combi buses, which makes for a relaxing, silent night if we've purchased a room in the vicinity of any Ecuadorean intersection.
Relax. Try a nice cup of the native caffeinated brew. Whist Ecuador isn't known for coffee production, it does have the favourable conditions around Loja to grow some, and unlike it's southern neighbour, doesn't export the best, leaving the floor sweepings for the local markets. However this new bounty is somewhat tempered by the relaxing electrical supply. It's a 110v system and when boiling the kettle, this translates as funereal sluggishness. We've given up on cooked porridge and now brew the morning's fix the evening before. Otherwise it would be an unexaggerated three hour session.
Relax. Macarà's sidewalk pavements are portico'd and pillared. Evil looking hooks stick out from said pillars, just at eye level, there to enable a hammock to swing. At four degrees south of the equator, the shadows have little creep; your siesta might not be disturbed from above by the near-stationary shadows, but by the speeding car passing within inches of your head.
Relax. You're standing at one of Loja's crossroads, the yellow taxi pulls up and hesitates, even stops, to check the state of the crossing, then encourages you to cross first. This is disconcerting.
Relax; "Ecuadorians are honest and friendly people....", you'll find variations on this redundant statement in every country's tourist info-fiction. Frankly, most people are! Only it's the actions that prove the claim. We're creating our latest substitution for bread, a variation on a pancake mix, by the side of the road. A car pulls up and we're presented with a selection bag of biscuits. We chat, they take a photo of the cyclo-Scots-gringos, leave.... Then turn around and come back with three kilos of mangos. We're filtering water at a well, and we get presented with a turkey sandwich in real, un-sweetened bread. (It's the 26th December; everybody's suffering turkey sandwiches, so why should we be exempt?). Two hours later and it's a wall poster, then it's more mangoes. All this and we're only a hundred kilometres into the country.
Relax. The next few kilometres are in a valley bottom, a rare few moments of level land. All too soon we'll be back to bottom-gear grind up those notorious gradients. Ecuadorean roads are always in such a hurry to reach their hill-tops. Then they either get bored or distracted and fall all the way down the other side. Relax, and scream "concentrate!".
Relax. It's old year's night. Try not to jump every time a howitzer shell explodes. Or you'll be a quivering nervous un-relaxed wreck before the evening is out.