Kerri and I got the Cuenca early in the week, so the town wasn't really hopping. One night, we stopped by a bar near our hostal for a couple drinks. The music was good, but there was American football playing on the big-screen TV. There were only a few customers, all up in the loft, but the two bar-tenders, who looked to be about 16, had several friends hanging around. They kept going into the back room. A few nose-rubs as they exited led us to speculate that they were doing coke. I'd earlier commented on how kids in Ecuador, unlike in the US, are given full responsibility for shops, and everything works out fine. But this made me wonder how wise it was to leave a couple of teenage boys in charge of a bar.
Two days later, when we were in the bus station, our bar tender came up to us and started chatting. I recognized him, but Kerri didn't remember him. His name was Manuel. He asked where we were going, and when we told him, he said that's where he was going too--it was his home town. He'd take the same bus. On the bus, he sat across the aisle from us, showed us a picture of his 3-year-old daughter, and said he'd stayed up all night, but he was chipper and awake. I wonder why. He made me a little bit nervous. When we got to Loja four hours later, where we'd need to catch another bus, he stuck with us and told us he knew a faster, cheaper way to get to Vilcabamba. We could go with him. We'd take a local taxi to a different shared taxi company that would take us the rest of the way for about a dollar.
Since getting robbed, I've been a bit jumpier. Someone taps me on the shoulder to ask me a question, and my heart starts racing. I've heard stories about people getting in taxis in Latin America (not Ecuador in particular) and being driven to a dangerous slum or the middle of nowhere to be robbed, beaten, or worse. So I kind of just wanted to follow the guide-book's directions. He motioned to a taxi, and Kerri and I looked at each other and quickly and quietly discussed whether this was one of those things you shouldn't do. Against our better judgment, we got in the taxi, perhaps just to avoid the awkwardness of saying no. I rode nervously, trying to tell myself that it was a real taxi, he'd picked it at random, but then wondering if it was all an elaborate set-up. I had no idea where we were going. It didn't seem right. I quietly slipped my credit cards out of my wallet and snuck them into my underwear.
When we pulled into the taxi depot rather than somewhere dangerously deserted and out-of-the-way, I was relieved, but still wary. We got in the next taxi and waited for more passengers. When they squeezed two young women into the front seat, I started to feel better. We drove through the spectacular hilly countryside listening to a soccer game on the radio.
Manuel told us about Vilcabamba, suggested places to stay. The main theme was that we shouldn't pay too much. There were plenty of businesses overcharging tourists. I partially agreed with him. It's frustrating to know or suspect that you're being charged more for the exact same product or service, just because you're a tourist. But he also didn't seem to see why you would pay more than the average Ecuadorian price for something that was genuinely nicer. He discouraged us from staying at Madre Tierra because of how expensive it was. But we went there anyway, and thought it was completely worth it. From the perspective of an American tourist, the price wasn't a rip-off, it was a deal. The same accommodations would cost ten times as much in the US.
When we arrived in Vilcabamba, he walked down the sidewalk with us, and I wondered if we'd be hanging out with him our whole stay. But he had to go find his girlfriend and catch another bus to go right back to Cuenca. Before leaving, he told us to pay no more than a dollar for a taxi, and told a couple of other locals to help us recognize the right taxi and to send it in the right direction.
It turned out that, sketchy coked-up teenager or not, he wasn't out to get us. It probably did speed up his trip to have us get in the shared taxi with him, so it would fill up and leave sooner, but his real motivation seemed to be that he just wanted to be friendly. He liked talking to us, and, glowingly proud of his native land like most Ecuadorians, wanted us to enjoy his home town and his country. Despite the frustrating aspects of Latino culture--the machismo, corruption, and petty crime--being friendly and helpful is also a big part of South American life, and, along with the natural beauty, it makes traveling and living here a pleasure.