Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Travels on the Equator

Margaret and I, plus my sister Maggie, have been in Ecuador for the wedding of Tom and Lucia.
Here’s a few immediate impressions of the country:
Roads:
Ecuadorian road builders love their speed bumps, I have never seen as many as were stretched across the roads over there. Urban areas of Quito have them placed every hundred metres or so, which, considering the general state of roads in town, seems quite unnecessary.
But perhaps that explains why the urban speed bump is such an evil destroyer of cars. The roads in town are so bad that if you put an English speed-bump across the road drivers would think “hmm that was a nice smooth section.”
The bumps have to be big and nasty to make people slow down – and slow down you do.
There’s no standard size or profile, but I identified three main types:
  • Triangular: designed to scrape your exhaust even if you crawl over it; try a bit more speed and you’re going to lose a silencer box.
  • The quick rise: exactly the right profile to send passengers’ heads crashing against the roof- especially if they’re sitting in the back. This type can also auto unload the contents of pick-ups (unless they’re lashed down).
  • The ski jump: constructed by Mr Nice on one side, Mr Nasty on the other. A “gentle” rise and a quick come-down on the other side.
Speed-bumps are everywhere, even on what would be classed as a trunk road. As soon as you get near a town or crossing, the planners feel a need for traffic calming. The bumps are all painted bright yellow, so you can’t miss them and someone clearly has a sense of humour because the other trick is to paint a thick yellow line across the road. This can have you braking desperately, only to discover there’s no bump, just a bit of yellow paint.
Out of town a new type of speed restrictor is used – a series of fierce corrugations. Take them fast and they’ll shake out your fillings, take them slowly and it’s like sliding downstairs on your bum.
Roads in town tend to be poorly maintained, some clearly are never maintained. In the countryside, roads can be brilliant – smooth and with great, constant-radius bends. Others are unsealed rubble. One section, between Papallacta and Quito, where road widening work was being done, varied between smooth, wide tarmac sections with no road markings and hardcore (with no road markings).
There are some road tolls, but they are really cheap. Toll booths are manned which is, perhaps, another form of traffic calming.
In older parts of Quito, some roads are paved (just like Belgium) and these are like a combination of all speed-bump types rolled into one.
Driving:
You’d expect driving to be a little scary, but it’s surprising how kind people are to each other. There’s a lot of horn-blowing in town, but it tends to be a toot-toot, rather than a blast. People will often let you in or out and if someone does something really stupid (like overtake on a blind bend) cars move aside to let the errant driver in or through. A British driver would defend his rightful piece of tarmac and would rather see a head-on crash than let someone in.
Speeding doesn’t seem to be an issue (see speed bumps, above), but even where there are no speed bumps, people don’t drive that fast. The exception, of course, is the 4x4 ‘yute’ – these crew-cab pick-ups are the Audi A4s of Ecuador. If there’s someone up your arse, you can bet your life it’s a pick-up.
Out in the country, lots of people beg lifts and are quite happy to sit in the back of a pick-up or truck.
Cars:
There are very few British cars. I saw a couple of Range Rovers and a Discovery in a richer part of Quito, but that was it. Chevrolet seems to be the most popular make and lots of things are badged as Chevvies. The most common are the old Daewoo models (now also sold in the UK  under the Chevrolet banner), but also Suzuki and Vauxhall/Opel models, such as the Corsa. There are also plenty of Kias, but the car to have is a Toyota 4x4 pick-up (or look-alike model).
Four-wheel-drive cars and cars with high ground clearance are very popular. There’s no market for big executive cars like an Audi A6 or BMW. If you can afford one of those, you’ll buy a 4x4 Toyota.
There’s no frost, therefore no road salt and therefore no corrosion issues. Cars tend to get shaken to pieces before they rust away, but you do see some old gems and some old heaps. The older heaps tend to be customised within an inch of their lives. Having lived through the 1970s when adding spotlights, a vinyl roof and go-faster stripes was de rigueur, I don’t mind a bit of accessorising.
Petrol is very cheap, you can fill up a small car for less than $20 and diesel is just over $1 per gallon (20p per litre).
Motorcycles tend to be low capacity and Chinese or Indian brands, many of them new to me. I did see one Harley-Davidson – a genuine one as people tend to stick Harley badges on lots of other bikes – and a couple of Suzukis, but it’s very much the exception.
Buses form the main type of public transport and they seem to vary in quality. Along the main spine of Quito, there’s a protected bus lane and buses run up and down this, packed like rush-hour tubes, belching out clouds of filthy diesel smoke.
Urban planning:
There isn’t any - build what you like, where you like as long as it’s make from breeze blocks. Favourite trick is to build one storey and leave the top unfinished until you have enough money or enough children to add another floor.
In the countryside, you still see some small huts made from adobe brick and thatch, but most are breeze block and corrugated steel.
Quito is the biggest city and it’s expanding north and south along a narrow valley. As the city becomes richer, more expensive development is pushing poorer people out and they’re moving south or being shoved up the hill. It’s not uncommon, in poor areas, to have no mains services.
Richer people are very concerned about security and tend to live in gated communities with security guards, or in houses protected by high walls and steel gates. I’m not sure if crime is a problem; I guess it is judging by the security measures employed, but I never felt threatened.
In a country where the scenery is magnificent, man generally makes an ugly stamp on the landscape. The exception is Quito old town, where there are some magnificent buildings, plazas and churches. That’s about the one good legacy of Spanish colonialism; almost everything built since the turn of the 20th century is ugly.
Food:
Salad can be cold vegetables, restaurants serve rice and chips with almost every meal and the country is in love with blackberries.
I did see Guinea Pig on the menu in one restaurant, but it was my first day in Ecuador so I gave it a miss. I might have tried one, but didn’t get a chance again.
Actually I ate really well. I had a couple of nice steaks, some chicken and pork. Breakfast was often juice, bread rolls with cheese and eggs – fried or scrambled.
Wine is quite expensive, but beer (bottled pilsner) is cheap. I tried some new fruits (including tree tomatoes) and liked everything.
Street dogs snuggled together in Banos

Dogs:
There are lots of dogs in Ecuador and none of them are on a lead. Street dogs are common everywhere, they start barking at around 5.30am, but apart from that, they don’t seem to cause too much trouble.
Little groups hang around together – an unlikely mix of small and tall hounds. Some are distinguishable breeds, but most are mongrels and most seem to fall into either a brown, short-haired terrier or a small, shaggy dog, like a shrunken labradoodle.
Dogs don’t seem vicious, most were very happy to have a stroke, but a small proportion will chase your car and try to bite the tyres. This seems more of a problem for the dogs than it does for the motorist.
Cotopaxi is only a few miles from the centre of Quito. Imagine this just
outside London - in Slough for example.
Geology:
This is amazing. There are very high mountains along the centre of the country, the Amazon basin to the east and rainforest and beaches to the west. There's also the Galapagos way west in the Pacific, of course.
We tended to stay high in the Andes, in a landscape dominated by volcanic activity. There are volcanoes everywhere, including one – Pichincha – which is just four kilometres from the centre of Quito. It last erupted in 2002 when the city was covered in ash. Just a few miles to the south is Cotopaxi (almost 5,900 metres high). This has erupted 50 times since 1738 and has twice destroyed the town of Latacunga (and I mean levelled). It’s clearly visible from Quito and 2 million people in the southern part of the city would be at risk in the event of a major eruption.
Just to the north of Quito is Cayambe (the highest point on the Equator and the only glacier to be found on the Equator) and to the south east is Antisana, so Quito is essentially surrounded by massive volcanoes.
No-one seems unduly worried by this and, in fairness, if you didn't build near a volcano, nothing would be built. People just rub along with hot lava, ash and pyroclastic flows. The volcanoes are, of course, magnificent to look at on a clear day and are a major tourist attraction. For me, I'd never seen anything like it!

Modern technology means there would be some warning of an eruption. Volcanic activity is colour-coded - orange means pack your bags and red means run!