Uphill Racing in Ecuador

It’s raining, there’s an impenetrable fog, and we’ve already had to dodge some rubble that’s fallen from the steep rock slides on the shoulder of a treacherous Andean road. On one side is a sheer granite wall, on the other nothing but deep space for 2,000 feet. There’s a sign that says “Reduce Speed” in Spanish, which is a good idea for people who value their lives (or for those who enjoy dry pants) because the road disappears behind a switchback turn, and, for those who can’t read, there are a dozen large yellow arrows posted on the curve ahead. Just for emphasis, roadside shrines dedicated to the recently departed decorate the numerous points along the road where the last words heard were “Hey, amigo, hold my beer!”, and the double yellow lines are probably there for a reason.

Naturally, of course, that is the exact moment when Jorge’, the driver of the van I’m in, decides it’s a great time to pass the truck lumbering along in front of us. He punches the accelerator with a look of grim determination (and, perhaps, a hint of insanity) on his face and turns out into the no-man’s land that exists in the wrong lane and beyond the realm of reason or visibility, which is in this case about 150 feet. I almost expect to see him crossing himself. He doesn’t, but I do. The Mercedes diesel rattles. It whines. It makes lot of noise, but what it doesn’t do is manage a burst of speed, which isn’t surprising, since we are going uphill in a van full of passengers at an elevation of 2 miles.

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So there we are, hanging out in the wrong lane with no clue who or what is hurtling toward us through the thick fog from the opposite direction with a similar devil-may-care, do-or-die attitude, when, to my dismay, I think I see approaching headlights. Then I hear the horn. I push my feet to the floor and grip the dashboard, bracing for impact. I barely have time to say, “Oh sh-t!” when Jorge’ slams on the brakes and veers abruptly back behind the truck, which is a good thing, since the oncoming car rockets past us like a meteor. A gasp goes up among my fellow passengers and prisoners of Jorge’s maniacal designs, followed by a sigh of relief, then some murmured whispers, no doubt of mutiny.

None of this slows us down, however. We later pass the truck and hurtle toward our destiny, whether that be in this world or the next we do not know. He attacks each turn like it’s the last bend at LeMans, and only victory or death are acceptable. On one “S” bend, we manage a four-wheel drift over rough wet pavement. A tire leaves the ground, and when it returns to earth we shudder sideways for a few feet, but that’s no big deal, since we are protected by the certain knowledge that the cheesy aluminum guardrail installed by a low-bid Ecuadoran contractor will certainly save us from doom in the event we slam into it at warp factor 6. But at least there was, in fact, a guardrail, a feature that’s missing for most of the trip.

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Eventually, of course, we arrive safely at our destination (a full thirty-five minutes early) after much cursing, hand signaling, and questioning of the maternal lineage of our fellow commuters. Yet, so far as I know, none of us in the van except the driver were in a hurry.

Jorge’ seemed like a nice, normal guy when I met him. Quick-witted and easy to talk to, he told me in Spanish that he had 5 children and a wife at home. That’s why I thought he had a reason to live, but when he drove me from Cuenca to Guayaquil down that notorious stretch of road (which features prominently in the newspaper under the “Death Notices” section) it gave me reason to doubt it, which got me to thinking about driving habits in general, and in particular how Latinos seem to take each occasion behind the wheel as some kind of macho challenge, in which the first driver to yield to courtesy and safety is seen as some kind of weak and useless gelding who should only be in the company of others of his ilk, which is to say, not behind the wheel of a car like a real man, but rather in the kitchen with the women, or, perhaps, cowering in the passenger seat, speechless, like me.

Nor is that unusual in Ecuador, not to mention much of Latin America. Take a look at the cars around you anywhere south of the US border, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any virgin sheet metal. All are veterans of the “crush hour” wars in the cities, in which 6-laneless highways become free-for-alls open to winning by the most aggressive and unforgiving drivers on planet Earth. It’s true, a taxi in Ecuador will set you back less than 5 dollars to go anywhere within the major cities, but I would use the money you save for extra hazard insurance because these normally gentle and friendly people become Incan warriors behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. You’ve been warned, gringo. Now, back to your seat!

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