My fingers scraped the bottom of my backpack and traced the outline of my Go Pro, then my wallet, a pack of gum, snacks, and my book — but not my iPhone. Sitting in the Quito bus terminal at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, I tried not to panic.
A few of my friends sat next to me joking and laughing and I smiled along, but in the back of my mind I kept going over every move I had taken since we’d gotten out of the taxi an hour earlier. I was trying to find my phone in my mind.
As much as I hate to admit it, I love my phone. Whether I’m scrolling through Instagram, keeping in touch with friends and family back home, or, most importantly, taking pictures, I use my phone constantly. I couldn’t believe it was just gone.
For 15 minutes, I searched through my backpack, coming up empty-handed each time. There were only three options. One: I had dropped it somewhere in the bus station. Two: it had been stolen. Or three: I left it in the taxi. Either way, I was left without a phone for the the long weekend and the thought of the eight hour bus ride before me without music or social media to drain my battery was almost unbearable.
I shoved my belongings back into my backpack and scurried up the stairs onto the bus for a long night ahead, furious with myself for being so inattentive.
I was traveling from Quito to Montañita, a village on the coast of Ecuador, with three other exchange students for the Carnival holiday.
Carnival, the equivalent to Mardi Gras in the United States, is celebrated in Ecuador, as well as many other prominent Catholic countries in Latin America. It’s four days to party and, for lack of better words, sin before Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent for those who observe the Catholic tradition.
For us, however, Carnival meant a longer weekend and more time to travel.
After sleeping through the bus ride through the back roads of Ecuador, we reached the town of Manta around six in the morning and waited for a second bus that would take us to Montañita, a small village that depends on the tourism industry, discotecas, and good waves for surfing.
My perception of time was skewed — I felt as if it had been a week since I lost my phone, not just eight hours.
We crammed onto the hot, crowded bus and took turns sitting next to the window to feel the wind on our face, trying to hide the sweat running down our necks and backs.
Reggaeton played on the crackly radio and families laughed and chattered away in Spanish. It may not have started off as an ideal bus ride, but I realized it was an ideal opportunity to immerse myself in culture.
Instead of being upset about my phone I began to realize that this trip was the perfect opportunity to completely disconnect from everything except the present moment.
As I sat in the back of the dusty, old bus I began to take it all in.
I eavesdropped on conversations, practicing my Spanish by trying to decipher what other people were saying. I played peek-a-boo with babies across the aisle and smelled the salt water and the occasional fish market as we passed rusty fishing boats in harbors, as the world outside the windows change from tall mountains to miles of ocean stretching to the horizon.
We arrived in Montañita after three hot hours and I had a new outlook as our weekend began. For the next three days, I focused on the little details I would have ignored if I had been distracted by my phone screen. I tried to capture the moments I was experiencing in my mind, not with a camera.
By the end of the weekend, I had memorized the dirty cobblestone streets of Montañita, the smell of fresh ceviche, the way surfers paddled out to sea, the menu of our favorite breakfast stand, the faces of the people we met, and how the setting sun looked from the roof of our hostel.
On the bus ride home at the end of the weekend, as the sun set and I hung my arm out of the window, I felt the wind on my face and didn’t worry about anything except for experiencing the moment as it was. My worries about the outside world had disappeared and I found that I was unbelievably happy.
I might not recommend leaving your phone in the back of a taxi in Ecuador, but I can recommend unplugging to be where you are.