We can all tell just by looking at the calendar and by looking at the odometer on the Toyotas that the expedition is drawing to a conclusion. We are so close that border crossings and navigation around the infamous Darien Gap aside, we could probably drive right back to the US in less than a week if we did it in a straight shot from our current position in northern Ecuador. Aside from some of the obvious reminders that we have successfully completed the lion’s share of our around the world expedition, we are also starting to see a few subtle yet prominent examples of just how close we are to home, especially here in Ecuador.
Probably the most significant visual cue of just how close the United States looms on the horizon is the types of vehicles we are encountering on the road. In China, Russia, Central Asia and even Europe and Africa, American autos were pretty scarce and it was only on the rarest of occasions that we passed by a car or truck that had previously rolled out of an American assembly line. (I guess if it were not for the recent federal bailouts and aid packages to some of the American auto manufacturers, seeing American autos on the streets and highways of the US might have also started to become a rare sight.) We did see a few American automobile brands throughout the southern reaches of South America, but it was not really until we crossed in Ecuador that we began to see an unfamiliar and unusually large concentration of them. Not only were we seeing Ecuadorian drivers careening down the roads in Chevrolets and Fords, the cars are American but the drivers are still very much local, a lot of them were behind the wheels of full-blooded, full-bodied, honest-to-God, American SUV’s. Ford 150’s are plentiful in Ecuador as are Chevy Suburbans, Tahoes and Silverado pickups. We have always managed to turn heads on the expedition with our V8 engines, but in Ecuador, the V8 is a much more common occurrence. (It also helps that supreme unleaded gasoline is only $1.98 a gallon throughout the country) Even though Toyota is officially a Japanese auto manufacturer, the FJ Cruiser is pretty much all-American in concept and we have seen more than our fair share of them in Ecuador as well.
It is not just the types of vehicles on the roads in Ecuador that remind us quite a bit of home, but also the local currency. For those of you who do not know, in January 2000, in an effort to address some severe economic problems that the country was experiencing at the time, Ecuador officially adopted the US dollar as its national currency. That’s right, we are paying for everything in US dollars right now. We are pulling crisp US 5’s 10’s and 20’s out of the ATM’s and even in the smallest Ecuadorian villages, you can buy an outstanding lunch of freshly caught trout with good old American greenbacks. There are now a few more colors in the recently printed US bills, but they are still essentially green. Actually, using US currency has proven to be a bit tricky since our minds are so use to doing mathematical equations each time we purchase anything and we are constantly jumping on the XE currency converter to try and determine what the current exchange rate is at any given point in time.
Glimmers of home are also being broadcast on local television here in Ecuador. I am not talking about the trashy American reality shows on VH1 or MTV, those have unfortunately permeated into the program schedules of television networks around the world. In this case, I am talking about sports. American football, for all intensive purposes, ceases to exist outside the United States, being replaced instead by a game of the same name but with much more international fame and popularity. It was a total shock to turn on the television the other night to find that ESPN Latin America was broadcasting the Sunday Night NFL game between the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers. Usually, you have to seek out an ex-pat, American sports nut who has decided to open a bar in order to watch any American football games outside of the country. To see the Broncos playing on a regular, non-satellite equipped television set in a $5 a night hotel room further served as a poignant indicator that we are not that far from home, however, the $5 per night rack rate was also a strong reminder that we still have a way to go before we actually do get there.