April 02, 2014

by Stephen Jan in Ecuador

Our first night in Ecuador was at Hotel California in Tulcan. The room included two bedrooms, two bottles of complementary beer, and a karaoke machine offering the latest Latino hits. When we turned on the television, we weren’t too surprised to find it tuned to porn. Neither were we surprised that the ceiling and walls in the bedroom were lined with mirrors. It was, after all, a love hotel. What struck us as odd, however, was their policy of locking guests in their rooms. Whenever we needed to get things from our ambulance, we had to dial the front desk to get the guard to open our door. Then, the guard would stand by the door and watch us come in and out of our room until we were ready to be locked back in the room. But at 5 dollars a person, we decided there wasn’t too much to complain about, that was unless a fire broke out.

The stop at Tulcan was actually unplanned. The original plan was to cross the border and reach Quito all in the same day. Our online research indicated that the Tulcan border to be trouble-free and smooth. It was trouble-free, but it certainly wasn’t smooth.

Exiting Colombia was quick. We walked over to the immigration office and stamped out of the country within 20 minutes. We didn’t even need to fill out paperwork. The 2 minute drive over the bridge to Ecuador was also straightforward. Instead of the usual ambush of border helpers chasing our vehicle, one lone soldier pointed us to the parking lot in front of the immigration office. Once inside the immigration office, we filled out a simple 12 question immigration form, stood in line, and stamped into Ecuador. After picking up car insurance from a vender across the street, we were ready for the final step of clearing customs.

At this point, the time was 12:00pm. The drive to Quito was estimated at 3.5 hours, so we were pretty optimistic about reaching the capital by the end of the day. With all our paperwork tidily clipped, Cathy, Martha and I queued up at the customs window to wait our turn. 30 minutes went by and the line hadn’t budged. I decided to take a walk around the building, leaving Martha and Cathy to hold our place in line. I returned twenty minutes later, and we again hadn’t moved an inch. Martha explained that the lady in the front of the queue was importing several boxes of pink Hello Kitty backpacks. The customs agent had spent the last hour painstakingly inspecting, counting, and weighting each box.

I spent the next hour across the street trying to buy a sim card and data plan for my phone and returned to Martha. Surely the line must have moved. It didn’t. Martha told me that a fire broke out in the back office, and the facility lost power and nothing will be done until power is restored. So not only did the line not move, we were now facing an indefinite delay. Looking through the window, I saw the customs agent leaning back in his arm chair, hands behind his head and eyes closed.

At this point, I was pretty convinced that we would be spending the night at the parking lot. Stephen Alexis had fallen asleep in the back of the ambulance so he was completely unaware of the situation. Cathy had wandered back to the ambulance and patiently played fruit ninja on her Nexus. Paul sat in the Jeep, flipping though his 2 day old edition of the New York Times. Mike alternated between looking for street food and sleeping in the jeep. I walked over to the ambulance, opened the storage compartment and pulled out a bottle of $1.50 Walmart wine and started drinking.

At 6:00pm or so, there was a flurry of activity at the line. Power had been restored. Naturally, after 6 hours of inactivity, the customs office had a large backlog of people to process. There were several tense moments where some people tried cutting in front of the line, but anyone who had been waiting for 6+ hours would defend his spot rigorously. By the time we drove into Ecuador, the sun had set. We decided against night driving for two reason. First, Martha our local guide advised that the dense fog will reduce visibility, and could make driving dangerous. Second, I was still pretty drunk at this point so wasn’t in any shape to drive curvy mountain roads.

We stopped at the nearest hotel off the Highway: Hotel California.