This was right at the end of our two-year stint as Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador. My wife and I were heading back to site on a bus snaking its way through the Andes.
The voyage was indeed long and painful, more so than usual. Maybe it was because we had been traveling for about a week now, probably spending half that time sitting down on various buses, but the hours were starting to feel like days. Three bus rides out of the Oriente and we made it to Latacunga, one more five-hour trip before we’d be able to hop on the back of a pickup and take it an hour more back to site.
The buses from Latacunga were probably some of the worst in the country. Where I’d classify the majority of Ecuadorean buses as too small, the three or four bus lines that cross the Andes from Latacunga to La Maná were even smaller. And these buses were always packed. They left the Latacunga terminal full, and then after crawling through city traffic for two or three blocks, there would be another stop to let on a couple dozen or so more people. Most of these latecomers would be indígenas who lived throughout the various mountain communities along the route. The aisle would be packed with people standing against the seats, the women’s long, traditional shawls hanging in the faces of all the people sitting down.
The indigenous people lived apart even from other Ecuadoreans. Their fellow countrymen were practically foreigners, so us gringos might as well have been from another planet. On those crowded buses, even though tickets were sold with assigned seating, you needed to board very early and claim your seat as soon as possible. You might hop on the bus only to find an indigenous family of four sitting in your seats.
Thankfully this never happened to us, but I’ve seen confrontations like this play out in a very formulaic way. The person would ask them to get up, showing them the ticket with the seat number. This person would be ignored. The next act would be to request help from the bus driver or his ayudante, who would also try to get them to move. This would also be ignored. Maybe the passengers might say something in Kichwa that nobody else understood. And that was usually as far as these situations went.
On this particular trip, we had our seats and the bus was packed. Half an hour or so out of Latacunga, the bus stopped outside of a bakery. My wife and I had always noticed this exact stop, everyone got off the bus and bought bags of bread. Whenever we took this trip, we were always so exhausted from just settling into our seats, so we never felt compelled to go and check out what the fuss was all about. But we only had a month left to go before our service was over. I was starting to feel nostalgic for all of the things that would soon be nothing but memories. I got off to get some bread.
After two years in country, I knew how the lines worked. Everybody walked right up to the front and shouted out their orders. “Fifty cents worth,” I held out my money. The lady working the counter ignored me and proceeded to help everyone else. I started getting impatient, especially as more people started entering the store long after I did and were served before me. I kept repeating me order, but my presence wasn’t even acknowledged. Finally after everyone in the store was helped, as the bus started honking and revving its engine, the lady handed me my bread without a word and took my money.
I’m not looking for special treatment, but I just hated it when random people acted as if I barely existed. No matter how comfortable I felt in Ecuador, no matter how well I spoke Spanish, no matter how many friends I had back in Pucayacu, as soon as I left the comfort of site I was just another dumb gringo, just another tourist at the mercy of the crowd.
Pissed off, I hopped on the bus just as it was pulling away. And as soon as I got on the bus, I ran straight into a bar running alongside the aisle, slamming my head right above my left eye. I’ve hit my head countless times in Ecuador, but this easily had to be the worst. I was actually stunned. For a second, all I saw was white, my every sense consumed by a liquid fire that ran from my head and spread throughout every nerve ending in my body. I couldn’t breath. I could barely stand up.
The initial agony passed and I regained my senses to see four or five teenagers pointing and laughing at me, not even trying to hide how funny they thought the whole situation was. I was overcome with a rage that I hadn’t felt in a while. I can take the pain, I can take the humiliation, but I was absolutely fed up with being laughed at. Everything I did was under scrutiny. Every time I misspoke, every time I tripped over my own feet, every time I asked the wrong person the wrong question, I was laughed at. Every time I spoke in English, every time I walked by a group of people, every time I took a breath, I felt like people were taunting me. The constant spectacle that was my presence was enough to paralyze me, to make me spend days at a time indoors without showing my face in town. When I even suspected people laughing at me, I withdrew into myself, tried to ignore it, to block it out, to wait for the embarrassment to pass, hoping my face wasn’t red.
But this time was different. Maybe all of those repressed feelings had been bottled in for too long. Maybe the pain from the collision prevented me from swallowing my pride and finding my seat. But I lashed out. I got right in their faces and started cursing at them in a mixture of English and Spanish.
“Motherfucking chuchas,” I screamed through clenched teeth, “you want to laugh at me? I’ll give you something to laugh about!” The teenagers immediately stopped and recoiled in shock. That’s right, I thought to myself, not so tough now. I went on for another thirty seconds or so of rage, holding my head and lecturing them about how you shouldn’t laugh when somebody hurts themselves.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. My wife pulled me back.
“Rob, your head,” she said with a worried look on her face.
I pulled my hand away from where I had hit myself. It was red. There was blood running down the side of my face. My rage turned into shock and I sank meekly back into my seat, feeling suddenly very vulnerable and very hurt. The ayudante gave me a roll of toilet paper and I rolled up a bunch to put pressure on the lump that was beginning to grow. I was starting to shake. Finally coming to my senses somewhat, I looked around the bus to find every single person staring at me, open mouthed, not saying a word. I wanted to die. I wanted to disappear. Even worse, I felt like I wanted to cry. It was probably one of the most humiliating moments of my time in Ecuador. I felt like an asshole gringo who hit his head and took it out on a bunch of kids. As much as I loved my time in Ecuador, this had to be the absolute low point. I was sick of being the foreigner, the real or imagined butt of other people’s jokes, the source of everyone’s entertainment. I spent the next four hours nursing my wound, closing my eyes, and imagining that I was on a plane back to New York.