As a Peace Corps volunteer living in a remote part of Ecuador, there’s no going anywhere quickly.
Quito is a nine-hour bus ride; Guayaquil, four; Cuenca, two. If I saved my Peace Corps stipend carefully, I could fly from Cuenca to Quito. But not regularly — and with Amazonian jungle, coastal beaches and highland vistas, there’s a lot I want to see.
I’ve just boarded a bus from Cuenca to Quito in the middle of its route, and there’s a movie already in progress, volume blasting. I glance at the screen — it looks pixelated enough (and the hair big enough) to be from the 1970s or 1980s — and I don’t recognize it. The actors are having a martial arts battle when I take my seat and the bus lurches away, but within two minutes, the screams start with graphic torture scene.
I quickly dig out my ear buds, pop them in to muffle the sound and look around the bus. Most of the bus is sleeping. A 7-year-old is watching with avid interest while his mother makes faces and winces at the action. A man near them laughs.
Fortunately, I live on top of the Pan American Highway, so there are always buses passing by in every direction. The buses all have the same false advertising on the outside: wi-fi (never works); air-conditioning (sometimes); comfort and style (rare, but we are talking about buses here). But on every inter-provincial bus I’ve taken, there are working TV screens.
While I can’t claim to like buses, I have fond memories of my high school ski bus to Snoqualmie, which was my family comedy education: I remember classmates being stunned that I hadn’t seen “School of Rock,” “Back to the Future” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Other than the occasional slip, movies with an R rating were out — as were overtly religious themes.
Ecuador being predominantly Catholic, many buses feature a decal of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or both; a proverb, blessing or prayer; and of course, the evangelical movies: “Fireproof,” “Miracles from Heaven,” nothing I’d heard of before moving here. But I’ll take the family friendly features over the B-list action movies.
If I’m lucky, the conductor might have a big-studio film like “Jumanji” or “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” but usually it’s something violent and unrecognizable. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve boarded or woken up from a nap to onscreen howls and intense spurts of blood that isn’t quite the right color. As disturbing as that is, it’s also unsettling to realize that every single one I’ve seen comes from the United States.
In my long-distance travels across Ecuador, I’ve seen families sitting on bags in the aisle, five people crammed up front in the driver’s compartment, a cat in a bucket and any number of people listening to music without headphones. Vendors toting soda, popsicles and snacks hop on and off at stops, as do musicians and naturopaths. Yet nothing is as distracting — or as horrible — as that uniquely American export: our movies. It’s humbling to realize that our cultural and economic dominance has led to widespread availability of our most violent conceptions of the world.
But whenever the situation is starting to look dire, the latest Nicholas Sparks movie shows up to remind me that there is still love out there. I never expected to be so thankful for the distractions of cheesy romance, buskers and the beautiful scenery out the window, but as a volunteer I think we could all do with a little more lighthearted happiness.
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.