Guest Writer: Akaisha Kaderli
We were stuck.
At 12,320 feet on a cloud-obscured road, with visibility close to nothing, in the Ecuadorian Andes, our bus could not get traction. – We had already been slippin’, slidin’ and fishtailing.
At five AM, daylight was not due for a full 47 minutes. I looked around. Everywhere nodding heads were trying to catch final moments of morning’s sleep before our first stop in Quilatoa.
“Que Paso?” the man in the red wool poncho in the seat in front of me urgently asked the driver.
A flurry of Spanish followed, and the red ponchoed man left the bus and slipped into the dark, dense fog outside. The bus driver’s helper was already out there assessing the situation, which apparently wasn’t good.
When my woolen ponchoed friend returned, I gingerly asked “Hay un problema?”
“Si” he said definitively with bright eyes, and made a dramatic slice straight down with his hand. That’s what I was afraid of.
Through our headlights we could see ghostly outlines of bushes and sometimes the mountainside that we deliberately hugged on our soupy dirt road through the mountains. Beyond four feet, all was shrouded; we were in the Cloud Forest of the Andes.
Having traveled this same road yesterday, (with little better visibility during the day) we knew what lay beyond; a sheer drop into oblivion.
Back and forth, the man in the native poncho and the bus driver’s assistant were doing mysterious things outside behind the bus. Soon, the man across the aisle also stood up, in an effort of support.
This was serious.
When men leave their comfortable seats, you know something is up.
Gripping moments passed with the bus driver gunning the motor and the bus not moving an inch. The single windshield wiper slapped against the front window, removing rapidly accumulating moisture. The driver’s head was out the window shouting orders. Our 50 foot bus was drifting backwards, filled with passengers and luggage.
We were entrenched in muddy tracks getting nowhere fast. Then, beyond my wildest fear, the bus driver began backing up. We are perched on a ledge, at breathless altitudes in the mountains with literally inches of visibility, and the bus driver backs his machine up into God knows where!
I smear the condensation away on the window with my hand, but can see nothing. I am not ashamed to tell you this – I began to pray to every saint in heaven and on earth at this time. I looked around again inside the bus, and people were catching on that the rhythm of the bus had changed. The annoying music tape had long been turned off. Over and again we went, the same few feet, but we were only spinning our rubber tires. I noticed that my breathing had become contrived, and my whole body was tense.
A few days before, we had read where a busload of passengers had fallen into the abyss below in the Peruvian Andes. Was this to be our fate? How could anyone tell that we had fallen off the cliff? Would anyone know? I shook these thoughts from my mind. At this point, I quit my chattering prayer and said very simply and directly “Get. Us. Out. Of. Here… PLEASE.” With every breath I imagined pulling the bus out of the mud.
People are mumbling now, inside the bus. My ponchoed friend is doing what he is able to do outside. The bus driver’s assistant mentions something about all the passengers disembarking so that the bus is lighter. The bus driver doesn’t like that idea at all and scrapes his hand through his hair. He lets out a gust of air through tight lips.
Interminably, this goes on for a half an hour; gunning the motor, sliding back into possible doom. Men are digging around the tires, working with our driver, and shouting back and forth. Everyone is awake now, and the situation is clear:
We’re in trouble.
At some point in this seemingly endless and fear-enshrouded situation, the momentum changes(!). The bus advances a few centimeters. The motor is at full strength. Even Billy is cheering the bus on… “C’mon! C’mon!” It seems that everyone inside is thinking “easy now… we can do this…” Literally – inch by inch – we actually move ahead! I want to clap or shout with relief, but am afraid it might be premature.
Then Billy checks his GPS, and states somberly, “We have 300 meters in elevation to go.” We are not safe yet. The tension in the bus is still palpable. Slowly, at about 10 kilometers an hour we strain-fully crawl through deep, wet mud. However, we are moving forward, and the driver has turned his raggy music back on. I take this as a positive sign.
“Hey Fatso, give me a hug”, the music blares… “Arriba los manos!! Arriba los manos! Es–so! Es–so!”
We sigh in collective relief. The danger has passed. We’re on our way towards Quilatoa, and passengers again nod off like nothing has happened.