It was dark outside, the bus station was almost empty and I had been waiting for hours on a hard metal chair in Armenia, Colombia. FARC rebels fighting in the south had led to the border being closed the past week and I had a flight from Quito, Ecuador that l had to be on in five days.
I had heard rumors that the border had been reopened and so l had jumped onto a mini van leaving the mountains of Salento to get to the closest central bus station. But now I was starting to worry. They had sold me a ticket at the counter but the hours drifted by and every bus that pulled in the driver shook their heads when l hopefully asked Ipiales? Ipiales was the border town between Colombia and Ecuador and I hoped to catch a bus on the Ecuadorian side to Quito.
Frustrated at my lack of Spanish l tried enquiring at the ticket desk but only caught some rapidly fired words about bus and late. Not understanding the reason l went back to sit. Days like today I would feel the fear and loneliness of being on my own. I wish I had someone to tell me it was going to be alright, to joke with about the Spanish soap opera being shown on the dusty television screen, or to go get a drink with so l didn’t have to sit alone at a bar.
I have to be brave. I have to be brave.
It was 02:00 am it was so cold l had tucked my head into my jacket only my eyes showing under my knitted hat. Hands wrapped around my backpack using it as a pillow I drifted in and out of sleep. Then I heard the whoosh and rattle of a bus coming around the bend. This had to be it! It just had to be. The few others laying in various positions on the ground, started to stir. With a sigh of relief l saw that it was indeed my bus and I thankfully stood in the que clutching my ticket like it was a lifeline, which it was, to a soft seat and a safe place to sleep. Its really the little things you appreciate in life.
A few hours later I woke with a jolt, the curving road was twisting around mountain bends, each one narrower than the last. I stared in terror ahead of me, the driver seemed to be trying to make up for his tardiness in risking the lives of all of us on board. With non existent suspension we could feel every bump on the road. I held my breath at each bend praying that there would be no other vehicle around the corner, there was a drop on one side and the mountain on the other. Then it happened. There was a squeal of brakes and I was thrown forward, slamming my face hard against the seat in front of me. We had narrowly avoided a serious accident, stopping just in time to avoid hitting a tractor on a bend that was traveling slowly in front of us. I touched my face gingerly, it felt sore the area around my eye swelling rapidly. I felt like crying. I was tired, hurt and alone. I tried to stand to get to my bag which I had locked onto the overhead compartment but was thrown back by the violent jerking of the bus which had casually overtook the tractor, and was racing on. Pulling my mobile phone from my pocket l could see that my face was red and swollen the cheekbone bruised, eye puffy and leaking tears.
I was officially journeying to the middle of the Earth and l was ironically in the middle of my journey. Had l found my centre? Where was my balance? Some days I felt like I was a seesaw, tipping from one extreme to the other. Crazy parties, extreme loneliness. Thrilling adventures, hours of tedium. Where was the peace that was suppose to radiate from me. Wasn’t I on a journey of self discovery? Now I had a black eye and didn’t even know if I was going to make it across the border. The excitement I had felt at the prospect of standing on the equator had turned into a dull feeling of being far away from everyone that cared about me.
After several more hours we pulled into Ipiales and I discovered that the border had indeed reopened so I gratefully walked across the bridge into Ecuador.
I navigated my way through the shouting crowds of taxi drivers before finding one that took me to the bus station several kilometers away. From there it was a uneventful trip of two buses and a tram before I walked into the doorway of a hostel in Quito. By this time it was late, I was feeling discouraged and sad. I didn’t even enjoy my walk through the old town to get there. I had completely ignored the quaint cobblestone roads and smell of freshly prepared food.
I climbed into my bunk and prepared myself to read a book alone, I didn’t want to get food I had an old empanada tucked in my bag I would nibble on. That’s when I heard a girl in a bunk across the room welcome me warmly. She was in her early thirties and spoke with an australian accent. She was beautiful with wavy blonde hair and a skateboard strapped to her backpack. Finding out that I had just crossed over from Colombia she peppered me with questions as she had also been waiting for the border to reopen. A few minutes later and I had been enveloped in a new circle of friends, all staying in the same 6 bed dorm. They invited me to dinner so we all went to the supermarket to buy ingredients for a home cooked meal.
We made carbonara together. It was the worst carbonara I had ever been involved in making, it resembled a sticky mess of cheese and cooked ham, and it tasted even worse then it looked as we washed it down with cheap boxed wine.
It was wonderful.
The next few days we visited the city climbing onto cathedral roofs and eating at markets. We stood with a foot on each side of the equator and watched movies together. I felt surrounded by laughter and care, it reminded me that we are all just strangers waiting to be friends. Calm settled on me once again.
Sometimes you find your balance in the unlikeliest of places, with the unlikeliest of people. And sometimes you even get to do it in the middle of the earth.
For practical information on visiting Quito and the middle of the earth check out this post here: Visiting the Middle of the Earth