Gimmicks by Heidi Ayarbe

All you need is a gimmick, and tourists will flock to the place and pay a ridiculous amount of money for the “experience of a lifetime.” Not even the savviest traveler is immune to the lure (especially if it has a good write up in The Lonely Planet, Footprints or any other number of respected travel guidebooks.)

We bit the bait in Ecuador. Everybody raved about the train trip from Riobamba to Alausi, passing through la Nariz del Diablo (the Devil’s Nose) where the trip ends with a dramatic series of picturesque and breathtaking switchbacks in a steep ravine. How is this different than any other train ride you can take in any country with a couple of mountains? The aforementioned gimmick. On this train, you ride on the roof.

Our daily travel budget was about $15.00/each, so to pay $15.00 for a hair-raising train trip was lunacy. We knew, though, it was the chance of a lifetime (as someone had mentioned before), and we convinced two Danish friends to join us in the adventure. Kim, Janne, Cesar and I awoke early to assure ourselves a good seat on the roof.

At 5:00 am, the chilly mountain air and rain didn’t deter us. We clambered up on the car furthest away from the engine (having been told that the smoke and noise can detract from the pristine trip). We huddled together to keep warm. Every language could be heard: Hebrew, Swedish, German, English, Spanish, Danish and more. We were the proverbial “Train of Babel,” joined together by a gimmick.

Everybody cheered when the train chugged out of the station with toots and whistles. It putted past small villages, farms, green fields and mountains. Children ran to the tracks, hoping to catch candies and treats we threw to them. For a dreamy three hours, the train slithered through mountain passes. Suddenly, it stopped.

We looked ahead to see the engine continue on, leaving the cars behind. Did the engineer notice he had left us? Everybody was baffled. Some of the train workers were investigating the tracks ahead. One pulled out a hammer and began to work on the rickety wooden tracks while others searched for rusty nails nearby. This was a pretty good indication of the state of the train and track –run down by over-use and bad weather. Lack of government funding rendered it a death trap, only to be fixed with a couple of hammers and rusty nails found in the vicinity.

About half an hour later, the tracks looked parallel once again, and the engine returned for the rest of us. The little red warning light probably would go off in most people’s heads by this time, but intrepid travelers have a “conviction complex,” convincing themselves that anything out of the ordinary is simply part of the adventure. Usually, this is the case. Usually.
We resumed our positions on top of the train when word reached us that we had to return to Riobamba because the tracks ahead were washed out completely. I was a little relieved to know they weren’t going to ask us to shovel through the landslide. The train reversed and our car lurched toward a precipice. It stopped.

My heart raced and stomach knotted. We were ready to get off when the train started again, and our car came within a foot of the cliff’s edge. “Stop! Para! Arrête!” along with many other colorful words resounded in the canyon.
The engineer and his crew headed over with another hammer, and the process of re-building the tracks ensued. At this point, we decided walking was a better option. Many travelers, including the four of us, jumped off the train. Kim, normally a cool-headed Dane kept muttering, “I think I should die. I think I should die.” We collected our things, damned all travel guidebooks and gimmicks, and set out for the nearest village. From there, we would take a bus back to Riobamba.

95c96710Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Colombe, dismayed and drained. A sea of children brilliantly dressed in purples, pinks, reds and blues ran to us. Initially, we were slightly annoyed by the attention, and we began digging in our backpacks for candy to appease the crowd. Soon we were surrounded by twenty townspeople, curious about our travels and homes, the frivolous bags of candy unnoticed. Within minutes, they invited us to a wedding and the town’s festival.

The children escorted us to a small church with townspeople spilling out of the entrance. Streams of toilet paper decorated the ceiling, swooping across, making arches in cutout patterns. The ceremony was in Quechua, and everybody involved in the couple’s life had a role in the ceremony, speaking or singing, giving advice and suggestions. A community of people invested in the happiness of the young couple. Colombe was resolved to support the couple in their life and commitment together. Choirs of children sang and ran in and out of the church, excited about their role in such a significant event.
After the ceremony, the town festivities began. We gathered around the basketball court. Children carried our bags, held our hands, and bombarded us with questions about our lives. They were excited to tell us the English words they knew and talk about their lives in Colombe.

9607da70The hours flew by. We ate, sang, and danced with the people. There wasn’t a moment in which I didn’t have the soft hand of a child cupped in mine. They shared everything with us, and we felt foolish with our bags of candy. Humbled by their graciousness and generosity, we offered the only gifts of value we could – hugs, kisses, smiles and friendship.

96296710Colombe, being so small, didn’t have a place for us to stay. We had to take the last bus to Riobamba. The townspeople accompanied us to the bus stop. They gave us hand-made post-cards from Colombe and waved goodbye. The bus rumbled down the highway; Colombe and our new friends became dots on the hillside. Out the window, we saw the rickety old train chugging toward Riobamba. I smiled. Maybe gimmicks weren’t so bad after all.