Galápagos Islands and Ecuador

August, 2004


August 1st

They roll up the streets in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Saturday night. Nothing ever happens on Sunday, like it or not.

August 2nd

Our flight from San Cristobal to Guayaquil was uneventful. We checked into Hotel Ramada on the advice of Hugo, our neighbor in Room 3 at the Isla Galapagos hotel in San Cristobal. He lives next door to the hotel, so he had good information.

A phone call to the shipping company after lunch confirmed that the container with our car had arrived.

We had dinner with Hugo and his wife and they related the rest of the mattress story. The fellow in Room 1 took issue with the loss of his fine mattress, so they took it from Hugo in Room 3. He couldn't complain because he was getting the room for free, a result of a friendship with the owner. But it did explain why Hugo wasn't too happy when I knocked on his door late at night to ask that he turn his TV volume down.

August 3rd

We appeared at the shipping agent's office at 9:00 AM to start the process of recovering our car. Fidel Lopez printed the Bill of Lading and handed it to us for a signature. Now alert to the necessity of checking every number on every line, I pulled out my California Certificate of Title and started to check the VIN number. The first digit was wrong. The information had been entered incorrectly in Panama and the office in Panama was required to make the change. We went outside to watch the grass grow while the changes were entered and transmitted back. An hour or two later, we were ready to move on the the freight-forwarding agent, so Fidel called Aduanesca, a company they had used without complaint in the past. Their man agreed to come and get us in a few minutes. Thirty minutes later, it was obvious that we had been forgotten, so Fidel walked us a block to the Aduanesca office.

We were seated and waited for the return of their President, who would personally handle our case. He was in the building, we were assured and would return in moments. Thirty minutes later, it was obvious that he wasn't nearby. In fact, we found he wasn't even in town; he had gone to Manta, as he does every Tuesday.

So his daughter, Daniella, was brought into the fray. She got a big book and started thumbing through it, calling Papi in Manta whenever she got stuck on an issue. She found a page with a list of the papers we needed: Bill of Lading, Certificate of Title, Passport, International Driver's License and a Carnet. We didn't have a Carnet, but she assured me they could provide one in two days for a fee of $200.00. We choked and gasped and ran through the list of all the countries we had passed through without one. Sure enough, if we made a list of all the items in the vehicle, the Carnet could be bypassed. Three of the office's most talented typists gathered around the computer terminal to type the list. When it appeared in print for our signature, it contained, guess what, an error in my passport number. All that was needed was a change of one digit, but the entire document had to be re-typed because they hadn't saved it after printing it.

August 4th

Aduanesca's main man accompanied us to the Guayaquil container terminal with a thick stack of papers and introduced us to Jose, his "inside man". We were prepared to open the container, let Customs inspect the car and be on our way by noon. But first we needed a signature. Or two. Or three.

Noon came and went, but at least we were in the spot where the container would be delivered. An hour later, the container was placed before us and the seal was inspected; no tampering was evident. The seal was cut, the door was opened, the ropes removed and I backed the car out into the Ecuadorian sun. Inspectors swarmed over the car, verifying serial numbers, license plate numbers, and making another list of the contents, the one prepared by the freight-forwarder being irrelevent. From there, an agent drove it into a locked storage area. We went back to town by taxi, having done all we could for the day.

August 5th

We appeared at he Customs office at 9:00 AM sharp, as requested. All our papers were signed and ready for us to go to the next step, Customs inspection of the car. For the first time, things were going at a reasonable pace. We could have Customs inspect the car and be on our way by noon. As we walked out of the building, heading for the next office, Jose, whose nose had been in the pile of papers, stopped in his tracks. Always alert for trouble, we immediately recognized this as a bad sign. It seems there was a mistake in one of the entries... Dios Mio! There were two mistakes! After a few cell-phone calls and some time on his walkie-talkie radio, Jose reported that the office that made the first mistake would call us back within the hour. In the meantime, he would get on the bus back inside the terminal and get the proper papers to fix the second error. We sat down to watch the grass grow some more. Jose returned in 45 minutes, with the papers he promised, but couldn't offer any hope for getting the first problem fixed until after lunch. The schedule was in the toilet and starting to spin.

Elsa thought the Customs agent we met earlier might be able to help, so back we went to his office. Jose, thinking he might miss something, was hot on our heels. A German freight-forwarding agent, 14 years out of Hamburg, stepped in to help. He found out from Jose that the person who could fix the first error wasn't in any mood to do so, because making the correction would cost $75.00. This got the Custom's agents attention; since the correction fee wasn't going to be any different tomorrow, they might as well fix it today, he argued. More phone calls ensued. More grass grew... After three hours of delay, the correction appeared on the computer screen and a new set of papers was printed. Now all we needed was the Jefe's signature. Our hearts sank when we found he had left for a lunch banquet and wasn't expected back until sometime in the afternoon. But miracles still happen and he appeared long enough to sign our document.

Now we could get in line for an inspection appoinment, to be assigned at 1:00PM. Not wanting to miss our turn, we got in line at 12:30, skipping lunch to do so. One o'clock rolled around but the military officer who needed to sign our request didn't. By 2:00 PM we had the signature, donned our rented hard-hats one more time and ran for the bus to the secure storage area. Elsa didn't expect to find a four inch high piece of concrete sticking straight up out of the sidewalk and did a full face-plant on the concrete, wrenching her right shoulder rotator-cuff in the process. Lying on the ground, throwing up from the pain, she briefly passed out, then got up and insisted that the show must go on, carrying her immobile right arm with her left hand in order to keep going.

We got to the inspection area at 3:00 PM, the inspector arrived at 3:05 and completed his inspection by 3:10. Out in a few minutes, we thought. Dream on. The inspector needed an hour to enter the result of his inspection in the computer system. We left the terminal to pay our storage and container movement fees at the office just outside the gate. The guard at the door let only five people in at a time and couldn't comprehend that Jose and Elsa and I were together. Jose got in and we didn't. We had to be back inside the terminal by 4:30 to present the receipt showing that our fees were paid, so we begged and pleaded and stuffed $65.00 through the little hole in the cashiers cage window at 4:15.

Back in the terminal once again, only to find that the bus that made our previous trip so fast had quit for the day. We had to run over more broken sidewalks with Elsa holding her arm as well as she could to keep the excruciating pain from getting worse. Jose got us a ride from one of his buddies, getting us to the car exactly at 4:30 PM. The receipt was accepted and we were given a release form to present at the gate.

The line at the gate was moving but so slowly we thought we would be locked in for the night. Jose got us over to the line reserved for exiting employees and whisked us out, past the scales that weighed each truck as it left and up to a final checkpoint. It was clear that very few people bring personal vehicles out of the container termanal, so the guards were at a loss as to what to do with us. As they pondered the situation, trucks started backing up and expressed their anger with their horns. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so we were forgotten at the side of the road while they cleared the trucks through.

Jose noted that our paperwork showed the car weighed 1500 kilos, but the owner's manual showed 1650 kilos. With our luggage, it was clear we would be over the number printed on the Bill of Lading and potentially subject to additional fees. But we had bypassed the scale and there was no way to turn around and stuff us back into the line. Jose leaned on the car and watched the grass grow.

Fortunately, an English speaking agent wandered by. We asked him what the problem was. In a moment he returned with the answer. There was no problem and we were free to go.

At 6:00 PM, we were released from container terminal prison.

Life in Ecuador
Playing the Waiting Game at the Container Terminal
We spent an entire week struggling to get our car out of the container and through the paper-work maze.
It was a constant battle from 9:00 AM Monday to 6:00 PM on Friday.
Instead of Happy Hour, we went back to the hotel to ice Elsa's torn rotator cuff.

August 6th

Postcards, carried from the Galapagos and dropped into the glass box in the hotel lobby on Monday, thinking that service in a port city of 3,000,000 would be faster, were still there. We had to have the hotel call the post office to come and pick up the cards.

We slept in, exhausted from struggling with error after error in trivial paperwork. If Ecuadorians made half as many mistakes, their economy would double overnight.

Hugo and Jenele invited us to lunch at their tennis club outside Guayaquil. We dined in style at a very upscale facility. Hugo presented me with a road-map of Ecuador, something I hadn't been able to obtain from any Tourist office or travel agent.

August 7th

We left Guayaquil and drove to Salinas where we had lunch on the Malecon. The travel agent we met at the Travel Show in Guayaquil had an office around the block, so we went there to get information on a hotel. She recommended the Hotel Carruaje on the Malecon. Our room on the third floor looked out over the lighthouse and the Pacific Ocean.

We bought a giant bottle of Kola Gallito to make a Guayaquil Libre or two and propped our feet up to watch the sun go down. We were in Salinas, billed by our travel book as Ecuador's answer to Miami. Life was good. Until 9:00 PM.

The Saturday night street party gets underway after dinner. Drivers stop along the edge of the street, open their doors and let the car-stereo system blast away while they drink beer and chat with their friends. As soon as one driver tires of his location, another replaces him. The din started to die down at 2:00 AM; the cars left, but the hard-core drinkers remained, yelling at their mates until the sun came up. That's when the delivery trucks started to roll through town. The night passed without a wink of sleep.

We went down to the hotel's restaurant for breakfast. One would think that serving an American breakfast would not be beyond the capabilities of the newest recruit to the waitress profession. After 20 minutes of waiting, Elsa prompted the woman in charge of the restaurant, who woke up the waitress, who brought the ham and eggs. A jar of instant coffee crystals followed. I put a two spoonfuls of crystals in my coffee cup and prayed for some hot water, apparently not part of the coffee-serving process. Before I could stop her, the lady in charge filled my cup with milk, making, in her mind, the cafe con leche that I ordered. The hot water arrived soon thereafter, along with the toast and juice which should have arrived first.

The manager of the hotel accompanied me a few blocks to the car-park to unlock the gate, so I gave him a ride back to the hotel where my luggage was waiting in the lobby. As he walked toward the rear of the car, I saw a yellow three-sided pen with a blue clicker protruding from his right rear pant's pocket. Thinking it was strange that he should have a pen just like the one which had been tucked into my car-door pocket for the last three months, I peeked into the car to see if mine was still there. It wasn't. I grabbed a piece of paper and asked him for a pen. He pulled a white one from his shirt. I asked again for the yellow one from his pant's pocket. "No tengo" he replied as his hand jerked to the pocket where I had seen the pen, pushing it out of sight. He knew he had been caught. I let the issue die there, letting as much bad karma befall him as a hotel owner who steals from his guests deserves.

Salinas, Ecuador, will never challenge Miami.