Saturday, December 26, 2009


This is Guayaquil:

Or at least, one very exceptional part of it. Most of the city doesn't look like this. In fact, over the years Guayaquil has developed something of a bad reputation. I've made my way down from the mountains several times to go to Guayaquil, usually purposes other than sightseeing in the city, and have seen some of its sights nonetheless. Over the course of my various trips to the big, sweltering city, I'll say that there's plenty to see and do here, after all. I've been told that much of what I'll present to you here is recent development. That Guayaquil was (and still is) plagued by crime and poverty not plainly seen in a walk along its touristy bits. Recent city mayors have focused their attention on cleaning up their town and making it more attractive to locals and visitors alike, and while there still may be lots more to do, let's take a look at some of the finished products.

The first place on our tour, and the first stop for most people visiting from out of town, is the Malecón 2000. Completed around the beginning of the decade, as the name would suggest, it represents the greatest portion of a massive renovation of this part of town. Enjoyed by guayaquileños as much as it is by tourists, this pedestrianized center overlooks the river Guayas and is home to many of the popular sights in the city. Like the park featured above. Located in the middle of the Malecón, the park is loaded with statues, tropical birds and trees, fountains, ponds, and benches from which to enjoy them.

I won't be showing you all of it here, but the scenic avenue extends for about two miles along the river, connecting other popular stops on the tourist circuit, and is heavily patrolled by security guards. As a result, you can safely and conveniently see much of downtown Guayaquil on foot. Ducking into the nearby city blocks around the Malecón, it becomes clear to the visitor that the surrounding area is benefitting from the restoration as well. Foot traffic is good business, and by providing a safe, walkable avenue in the heart of downtown, the local economy has benefitted as a result. Not to be left out, big business is also well represented on the Malecón; a shopping center, McDonald's, and an IMAX theater are all featured prominantly along the boardwalk.

Heading north along the riverfront, the iconic Rotonda.

I'm happy to report that in renovating this part of town, plenty of attention was given to recognizing its history as well. And the biggest, shiniest example of this is the monument above, which commemorates the famous meeting of two of South America's greatest revolutionary agents. Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan, who envisioned a plan for Gran Colombia, a united nation spanning the South American continent, fought the Spanish crown in the north of the continent. And, José de San Martín, Argentinian, who commanded the revolution to the south. San Martín had fought his way to become the Protector of Peru, and the Battle of Pichincha, fought by northern troops, had sealed the revolution in the mountains around Quito. The paths of these two liberators were drawing closer to one another. And so, the two great generals, having previously corresponded but never met, chose Guayaquil as the place to discuss how the revolution would continue. The details of their meeting were kept a secret, but San Martín's subsequent withdrawal to Argentina, and later Europe, leaves it pretty clear that the decision was to leave the revolution in the hands of Bolívar.

Continuing north, the flat boardwalk gives way to the uphill streets of Las Peñas.

The place of the original Spanish settlement of the area, many of the buildings found here today predate the fires of 1896 that forever transformed the face of the the surrounding areas. Thus, a walk here is a walk back in time. And, hopefully, a walk into the future, as renovations begun here, with luck, will continue into other nearby neighborhoods. Most notably in need of attention is the next hill over, here seen rising up above the backdrop of Guayaquil's steaming downtown.

For the time being, the visitor can content himself winding his way up to the top of the Santa Ana hill, which is topped by a lighthouse and chapel, and where the history lesson continues into Guayaquil's maritime past. As the locals will warn you, however, it's important to stay on the route marked off for tourism. As I innocently wandered through an open iron gate into what I would consider a more authentic corner of the neighborhood, a boy spotted me and called to his father, who politely told me that I ought to be heading back the other way. Was he kindly directing me away from perceived danger, or just telling me to get out of his neighborhood? While my wife optimistically suggested the former, I couldn't help but sense a no trespassing current underlying his words. Either way, I took his advice without much protest. I was, after all, the visitor.

This particular visit to Guayaquil came during the days before New Year, which in Ecuador is a big party loaded with unique and interesting traditions. Here, you can read about my impression of New Year's back in Cuenca, if you'd like to know more about how it goes. By the looks of things in Guayaquil, things are more or less the same this time of year as they are in Cuenca:

Here, on the stairs back down from Santa Ana, a man with his monigote. Also known as años viejos, these papier-mâché dolls make the rounds on the streets in the days prior to the New Year's celebration, with which, by donating a few coins to the doll's bearer, you can unload some of your Old Year gloom, which will later be burned in effigy. Indeed, not long after this photo was taken, two boys came to us with their own painted devil, asking for some change. We gave them enough for some candy and went on our way, a modicum of bad energy lighter than we had been.

Back down to the Malecón and to the Rotonda, which marks the entry into Calle 9 de octubre, named for the Independence Day of Guayaquil in 1820, and which fittingly begins at the monument dedicated to the two revolutionary generals who met there two years later. Today, 9 de octubre is a bustling commercial avenue, lined with tall buildings, restaurants, and retail. And lots of people. Walking, driving, sitting, selling. Selling water, selling food, selling all manners of random plastic merchandise. Crossing the streets in this part of town is an exercise in patience, and in following the herd. Each intersection is a bottleneck, and at each corner you'll find yourself in a flock of pedestrians all waiting for the right time to go. And, traffic lights or no, the right time is when enough people start across that you've got safety in numbers, and everyone takes the cue.

A few blocks going like this, and you've made it to the Plaza Centenario. Home to this massive monolith:

It's also a home for the napping homeless, to tropical birds, and, more unexpectedly, to iguanas. There's a separate city park not far from here dedicated specifically to the iguanas, but somehow, a lot of them have ended up here, too. A better place to live, in certain ways, as this park is as big as four city blocks. These iguanas, clumsy as they are, like to climb trees. A common sight and sound here is the scratching of their desperate, clambering ascent up a tree trunk, and almost as common is the sudden drop of one of the reptiles, often from a high-up branch. And yet, despite the fall, each one I watched fall somehow managed to walk away from the scene with no visible fall-related injuries.

It was here, in this park, where I've ended almost all my trips to Guayaquil. It was here where I rested after getting my official document from the US consulate which I needed to get married here in Ecuador. When we went on our honeymoon, it was here where we relaxed during our long layover between flights. Here my wife and I recently found ourselves again, this time with our daughter, after my 2nd visit to the consulate, for her US birth certificate and passport.

And here, our little tour of Guayaquil will come to an end. I've left out plenty of what I've seen, and I know there's plenty more to see and do that I still haven't discovered. And I know I'll be to Guayaquil again, if only to make my way to its airport or massive three story bus terminal on the way to somewhere else. But if I've got the time, I'd like to give Guayaquil itself another look, and see what else this big, tropical city has to show me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cartagena de Indias

Last December, we got on a plane in Guayaquil, and by the end of the day were here, in Cartagena. Its narrow streets and balconies, and its colorful, crumbling walls greeted us as we sped by taxi inside the old stone walls surrounding the historic downtown.

Actually, we got there at night, and the narrow streets and crumbling walls were a little disconcerting as we formed our first impressions. We scanned the dark and empty street that was the backdrop to the front door of our hotel, it little more than a painted metal gate opening into a set of white tile stairs, flickering under the fluorescent bulbs above, leading up and around a corner inside the building.

I had made a reservation at this hotel while we were still in Cuenca. I followed the standard rule that you don't go with the cheapest nor the most expensive place when it's sight unseen. But I did go lower than I originally intended to. When I called the first place on my list and inquired about the price per night, I heard "seijenta mil pesoj" from the man on the line, breathing through his s sounds. Wait a minute. 60,000 pesos? I admit I hadn't taken the time to check the conversion rate before the call, but that sounded like a lot!

So I told him no, thanks. Then I called the next cheapest place. It was 50,000 pesos. I still didn't know what that meant in dollars, but these were certainly not the hotels at the top of the list in my guidebook as it was, and I didn't want to keep going lower. So I agreed. And now, here we were. And, 50,000 pesos turned out to be about $25.

As we wound our way up into the building, we saw that the white tile of the stairs matched the white tile floors and white tile walls, and the smell of floor cleaner and mothballs was slowly invading our noses. The man at the reception desk checked my name and showed us to our room, which had an air conditioner, no windows, and a broken doorknob. We examined the doorknob skeptically, and asked for a different room. The alternative was upstairs, still lacking a window and also lacking A/C. But the lock looked good and it wasn't that hot, so that was where we stayed.

The next day we began our exploration of the city. It was a blazing, dry, sunny heat that embraced us as we left the building, disoriented in time by the lack of windows. Part of our agenda for the day was to scope out some better lodging, and that we did. One with a much nicer traveler's feel. One with wood floors, an airy common room with big couches and internet access. It also had a wide common balcony that overlooked the street, the public square on the corner, and the orange church you see above.

Although the picture above was not taken from the balcony of our new accomodations, but from Cartagena's famous murallas.

Cartagena, historically, was a strategic port for the Spanish colonies in South America. As such, it was a ripe target for foreign attackers, like Francis Drake in the late 1500's. After being sacked numerous times by the English and French, the Spanish crown began an extensive investment in Cartagena's defense, including these walls, which encircle all of the historical heart of the city. The project took two centuries to complete, and while they were effective in protecting the city from subsequent attacks, the walls were not fully built until 1796. Considering Cartagena won its independence from Spain in 1821, you might say the Spanish never got a full return on their ambitious investment.

Today, the walls have become many things. Museums, restaurants and shops line them above and below. Parks have sprung around them, both inside and out. And tourists like ourselves stroll along them from end to end, pursued shamelessly by vendors and beggars.

And within the walls lies the maze of streets, plazas and alleys of old Cartagena. To further confuse the visiting wanderer, literally every block of every street goes by a different name. We indulged in exploring these streets without a map, turning left or right or not at all, as we pleased.

At the time, I was reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, one of the most exemplary tales of his life, going from café to café around Paris, in constant search of that delicate balance between seclusion and stimulation that got him into the writing mode. Guided perhaps by this fine example, we made a point to try and have every meal in a new place, and often wandered for over an hour before settling on a place we'd passed a half dozen times. All in the name of good dining and exploration.

One popular dining spot was here, the outdoor plaza in front of Cartagena's Santo Domingo church. There were six competing restaurants in this plaza, by my count, and all of them featured waitresses eager to greet you with a smile and put a menu in your hands. This aggressive strategy wasn't always well received by us, but I've got to admit how effective it was. This plaza was almost always full, regardless of the time of day or night. In the end, we ate there a couple of times, at two different restaurants, despite the fact that at either one of them a plate of ordinary pasta ran about $20. Maybe that sounds like a lot and maybe it doesn't, but after a couple of years in Cuenca where lunch regularly runs me $2-4, it felt steep to me, especially considering the food wasn't that great. But, it was a great place to watch the locals and tourists and enjoy some superb sunshine and sea breeze.

While we could have spent all our days leisurely strolling the streets of Cartagena, stopping at our whim for coffee, juice, lunch, or simply a rest in a shaded patio. And many days were spent doing just that. But Cartagena lies on the edge of the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, and so many days were also spent in search of the perfect beach.

Our first attempt was the nearby Bocagrande.

While Cartagena faces the sea, it faces it with a rocky coast and the back of its formidable walls. Ships seeking to enter its ports must therefore do so through one of two mouths of a bay leading to its gates. The innermost waters of the Bay of Cartagena is girded by the peninsula of Bocagrande, while the mouth of Bocagrande itself has been blocked by an underwater wall which confounds the passage of large vessels. As a result, pirate ships were forced to approach the city through the smaller mouth much further to the south, the aptly named Bocachica.

Bocagrande today is Cartagena's answer to Miami Beach. The narrow, sandy peninsula has given rise to tall hotels and condos, a stark contrast to its colonial old town, and only 15 minutes by foot from its limestone walls. We did find beaches there, but I'll say without hesitation that the greatest beaches are ruined by ambitious developers the world around, and we were quickly turned off by the tall buildings and swarms of people crowding them from end to end. So it was that we spent little time there before we made our way back downtown.

Another journey led us to the promising Playa Blanca. This beach, lying two hours from Cartagena by boat, is located on the Isla de Barú, and all descriptions painted a picture of a peaceful and natural beach:

And indeed, upon our approach we caught this glimpse of an archetypal Caribbean beach. Palm trees, straw huts, nice sand and impeccably warm sea, with a lush tropical forest nestling it from behind. The trouble was that we made our approach in a big double decker tour boat, flanked by a couple more just like it. We brought the party with us, and soon that nice beach became overrun by throngs of tourists, and the locals who prey upon them. A relaxing moment in the sun and sand was quickly interrupted by people plying coconut water, massages, suntan lotion, seafood, or candy. A soak in the soothing waters was frustrated by the lack of regulation of watercrafts, which pulled up to the beach wherever they wanted, while whatever swimmers in the way were expected to shove off.

I suppose this beach would be a very pleasant place when visited independently of an organized tour. Unfortunately for us, we were unaware of the scope of the tour we had embarked upon, and our experience in the beautiful Playa Blanca was tainted by the sunbathing masses.

Fortunately, our third attempt to find a pleasant, beautiful and peaceful beach was the charm.

This is the beach at Bocachica. Lying at the southern tip of Isla de Tierrabomba, its shores form the top of the smaller mouth of the Bay of Cartagena. The Spanish constructed the outermost fortifications of their colony here, at both sides of this sea passage. And so, before we got a look at this uncrowded and authentic Colombian playa, we first saw the relics of Spanish ambition:

El fuerte de San Fernando.
This stone fort once bristled with cannons, and its walls are lined with slits that widened into the interior, allowing soldiers to fire out of them while preventing enemy fire from entering so easily. On the other side of Bocachica lies the Batería de San José, another, smaller fort. Between these two battlements was once stretched a heavy metal chain, one more line of defense against attack.

Today, safe from piracy and what have you, Bocachica has been dredged through, creating a deep underwater furrow that modern shipping vessels use to transport their cargo. This has helped Cartagena to maintain its importance as a major South American port of the modern age. Indeed, on our way over to the beach we saw this big ship on its way into the bay:

It was surprising to see a massive boat like this one able to pass through such a narrow corridor in the sea. Fortunately for our beachgoing, however, this was one of only a few big ships to pass by us that day. Enough to make the scenery more interesting, but not so many to have marred the beauty of our surroundings.

And so, around the corner from this big fort was the village and beach of Bocachica. The island of Tierrabomba, to the north of which has remained mostly wooded and wild, has to its south a small and fascinating community. Tourism has passed this place by, for the most part, with the majority of travelers heading directly through the mouth of the bay on their way back and forth from Cartagena to various islands and beaches further to the south. And so this village, while eager to receive tourists when they come, is otherwise by and for the villagers themselves.

That left the beach to us, and some kids out for their day in the sun. We took our time enjoying the peace and the warm waters that the beach offered, and then found a hut in the sand where a woman sold lunches. Fried fish, veggies, and coconut rice, with lime for seasoning, and a cold beer. Nice.

Plus, this fellow, who frankly, and smiling, told us that he wasn't going away until we bought a necklace from him.

We put him to the test, and went about our lunch without paying him much mind. He sat there, unobtrusive except for when he had something interesting to contribute to our conversation. But sat there he did, for about half an hour. We had finished our lunch, and the beer, and were contemplating our next move. But, since Nancy had souvenirs to get for her sisters and family, and we had here before us a hardworking but friendly salesman, we caved and gave him some business before we left.

Our walk back to the docks led us through the village, and in the late afternoon breeze, people were gathering together for some shade and refreshments outside their homes. On the way past a house where a few dozen people were hanging around, a man came up to us and handed us a couple of beer bottles, and motioned for us to have a seat in the shade. And so we did. The man went into the house and left us be to enjoy the afternoon and the beverages he had offered us.

The people around smiled at us and gave us welcome, but also left us in peace, to be part of their scene without any overt attention. Some cumbia was playing, of the sort that belies its Caribbean and African roots the best. The whole house was full of people, and so was the yard, sitting, standing, some dancing, talking, singing. After we hung around for awhile and finished our drinks, we got up, and I suggested to a man sitting near us that I pay someone for the beer. A shake of the head and a motion of the hand made it clear that no payment was necessary, and the smile we shared afterwords said the rest.

Satisfied at last with a day at the beach, we turned our tourists' eyes towards another piece of Cartagena's long history of self-defense, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

Lying across a small lagoon from Cartagena's old town, this massive fort began as a more modest fortification sitting atop this 40 meter high hill. In the mid 18th century, however, it was extensively expanded until it appeared much as it does today, completely covering over the hill that it was built upon. Loaded with cannons and designed with a myriad of techniques with strategic defense as their aim, this fort was never taken, despite several attempts to do so.

The walls were built at steep angles, sheer enough to prevent enemies from easily scaling them, but at enough of an angle to allow soldiers from above to spot oncoming attackers without looking out far from the edge. A maze of tunnels riddle the fort's interior, carved out in such a way that sound reverberates throughout them all, allowing even the slightest sound to be carried to the ears of the defense. To enter the tunnels, one must make a steep descent into total darkness, after which the tunnels generally adopt a level slope. Defenders lying in wait at these points could easily see and shoot anyone entering, long before the tunnel's entrance would carry them low enough to see inside, even if their eyes could adjust to the darkness that quickly.

Further taking into account the limitations of human sight in low light, the tunnels are lined with small alcoves to the left and right, where soldiers also once waited in ambush. While the tunnels admitted enough light for a man whose eyes were well adjusted to the darkness, anyone fresh into the tunnels would have no awareness of their presence, until they were blindsided by the attack.

All of these and other methods of defense were explained - and sometimes demonstrated - to us in detail by our helpful guide, whose English was at least as easy for me to understand as his Spanish. He also explained Cartagena's many rings of protection. The outermost ring, he told us, was the Spanish Armada. At all times, ships were strategically deployed in and around the Bay of Cartagena, ready to defend and call the alert. Inside of this were aforementioned defenses around the two mouths of the Bay of Cartagena. Further in were the forts such as this one, scattered throughout the islands and peninsulas that surround the city. Then came the city's walls themselves. Lastly came Cartagena's own human resources, where espionage and information were as valuable and convoluted as they must still be today.

Which led me to ask, why is protection so important? Why did the Spanish endeavor to spend so much of the wealth that they funneled out of the Americas in order to ensure its safe passage back to their ports in Europe? I suppose every wall has the same story. In our often mindless pursuit of wealth and prosperity, there comes a point where the need creeps in, to protect everything we've worked so hard to scrounge together. And so while Cartagena's extensive fortifications represent an extreme example, may we all think for a moment, every time we lock a door or set an alarm, about the other side of human ambition, our constant clambering for all things deemed valuable, or beautiful.

On our last night in Cartagena, we sat in the Plaza de Bolívar. Here is the statue commemorating El Libertador, who saw, and briefly realized, the dream of a united Gran Colombia, hundreds of miles to the south and a few short decades after the first great experiment in American independence, by the British colonies. Before it was the Plaza de Bolívar, it was the Plaza de la Inquisición, where the Spanish once publicly delivered punishment to those found guilty of blasphemy. In 5 public autos de fe held in this small square, an estimated 800 received that ultimate consequence, as public examples.

A visitor to this park today, listening to the band playing la pollera colorada, doesn't need to know any of that. Instead, one sits peacefully, drinking coffee, or eating yellow pineapple, watching the big fountain overflowing. All the history, the greed, the pirates, the people who died in centuries of battles posturing for their own tenuous hold on a place, all that has led to this moment. Sitting idly, in peace. That's what we want when we build our walls. To create a respite from the wind, from the sea, from change, from the masses and their collective ambitions. And like the music that rises up into the air, we enjoy it, we breathe it in, while it's there. All while we know that it all still will change, and drift away.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ayampe Memories

Ayampe, at low tide. Walking along a seemingly endless strip of beach like this, with the one you love, where the sea rolls into the rolling hills, it's hard to decide when it's time to turn back. Here was the last stop of our weeks along Ecuador's central coast, a little wooden shack town like so many others. Lying along an exposed stretch of coastline, the ocean tumbles into the beach here too hard for a port to have emerged from this little patch of green amongst the surrounding drylands. And unlike the party town and gringo haven of Montañita to the south, the surf's not big enough to draw many people with their boards, although we did see a couple of people giving it a try one afternoon.

Once again, though, I've started at the end of the story. Before we got off a bus at what appeared to be a stretch of road like any other, and I walked down the dirt road into Ayampe for the first time, we had spent a few more days in Puerto Lopez after our trip up to Agua Blanca. Or perhaps it's better to say that we spent our nights there, as the days there were dedicated to exploring as much of Machalilla National Park as we could.

El Parque
Nacional Machalilla is divided into three primary sections, both politically and geographically. The village, ruins and surrounds of Agua Blanca, which made up the first area of the park we explored, lie further inland, along the fringe of the divide between low dryland scrub forest and higher up, cloud forest. The second principal area of the park, as you can see, is made up of the coast itself, alternating repeatedly as you go between beaches and cliffsides covered in palo santo, until the view disappears into the clouds. Those clouds, representative of the weather constantly carried inland from a cold Pacific current, help keep Ecuador's temperature perennially mild even here along the coast. Just as the northern Pacific renders the US west coast balmy at times of year that the rest of the country is buried in snow, the central Pacific cools much of what would otherwise be constantly sweltering lowlands.

Here we spent a day, wandering the trails that led us in and out of beaches, dry aromatic forests and high up overlooks, before hopping into one of many motorcycle-driven taxis back into Puerto Lopez:

Another night along the town's beachline malecón and the next day had us on the way to the last principal section of Machalilla's diverse spread of ecosystems tucked into one of Ecuador's many corners: la isla de la plata, which lies two hours by boat from Puerto Lopez. And, as fate would have it, we embarked onto Pacific waters that day during the height of humpback whale season.

It turns out that humpback whales, spending the bulk of their days feeding in polar waters, come down to the tropics to breed and bear their young. By the time we got there, these whales were already rearing their calves, born at around 2 tons. Despite their enormous birth size they still looked small next to their 40 ton mothers, who swam and occasionally breached the surface alongside them, seemingly unperturbed by the flocks of tourists in boats doggedly pursuing them with their cameras ready (myself included).

We chased the whales for an hour or so, taking turns with the rest of the day's tripulation, climbing onto the roof of our small speedboat. At that height on our little vessel every pitch was exaggerated and threatened to knock you off your feet, or hands and knees, but we were willing to put up with that to get a better look and with luck, a better snapshot of whatever part of those massive shapes might poke out from the depths. Like any good fisherman, I'll say that I saw plenty more than I managed to catch, on film. For those of you absorbing all of this vicariously as you are, this tail will have to do.

Soon we were nearing the desert isla de la plata, known casually as the poor man's Galapagos for its similar (but smaller) slice of fauna and much more accessible location from the mainland. In some ways it might be said that here the wildlife is under less threat from human pressure despite its vicinity to the coast, as here there are no permanent settlements. While the burgeoning Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos' main tourist reception area, swells to a population of over 10,000, the only structures to be found here are a ranger's station near the wet landing area and a few lean-tos for shade along the trails. Perhaps part of its relative isolation is due to its shape:

A jagged rock poking out from the sea, this island harbors no calm beach to welcome the visitors who wade to the shore. Once you're on land, however, there are few physical barriers presented by the local flora, as la isla de la plata is a true desert island and what plant life there is is stout and sparse. Nonetheless, the relative lack of predation here has given sanctuary to those same birds that have made their home on Ecuador's more famous archipelago. Most notably, the blue-footed booby.

It had been a year since last I'd seen this mating dance, but once again I bore witness to the long, ceremonial courtship punctuated by the male boasting his greatest attributes. Which consists of some ritual waddling to feature those big, blue feet, intermittent wing stretching, followed by hollow whistling, as well as the male picking up twigs in his beak, presumably to demonstrate what a good nest he'll build for all those eggs she'll soon be laying. As was also evident in the Galapagos, here these birds pay no mind at all to the scores of babbling onlookers crashing their party. Indeed, this pair was photographed right next to the trail, worn well into the sand by the many tourists that have crossed it, and still the birds go on.

Here were also to be seen other, less famous sorts of boobies. The masked booby for example, so called for the black face it wears in contrast with its otherwise white feathers, is the biggest of the boobies. The red-footed, smallest of all boobies, is notable for its more conservative custom of nesting in trees, as opposed to the brazen nesting on open ground practiced by the other varieties, where any predator would have easy pickings.

Our tour guide told us all this in Spanish. Other than Nancy and I, though, our group consisted of Europeans and Asians who spoke English in addition to their own languages, but no Spanish. The guide nominated me as the unofficial translator as a result of these circumstances, which I was happy to do despite the lack of compensation. I was arguably able to absorb more of the information than I would have otherwise, having to think about it enough to render it into another language. Also, I suppose I'd heard it all before when I visited North Seymour the year prior. It also filled my head with the notion of someday returning to Puerto Lopez during whale watching season, getting a part time gig on a boat doing interpretation and otherwise digging on the beach lifestyle for a few months. Doesn't sound too bad, maybe it will even happen someday.

So, while we were given all this information about red-footed and masked boobies, we were also lured by the temptation of more humpbacks, and in the end our group opted not to follow the trail to these other birds but to get back on the boat, do a few minutes of snorkling, and then head back out into open waters for a chance to get another look at the whales.

After some time swimming with the tropical fish in the shallows around the island, we sighted up a few more whales on the way home. That night we took our dinner in the preferred way when we're on vacation, on a streetside patio with a deck of cards and a cribbage board. That's the kind of set up that can leave you for hours to take in the environment. Our meal was punctuated by a visit from a couple from Singapore who accompanied us on the whalewatching trip, and after awhile we learned they were staying at our hotel as well. The next morning we shared breakfast with them, after which we said our goodbyes to them and to Puerto Lopez.

We headed back up to the dusty main strip of the town and got on the first bus heading south. The road stayed close to the coastline for several kilometers, weaving along a few other small villages before it veered out of sight of the ocean. As will often happen on road trips of even short distances in Ecuador, the landscape began shifting noticeably from dry to lush. It wasn't long after this little change in climate that we were deposited alongside the road, at the intersection with the little dirt road into the woods that led to Ayampe.

So it is that we've ended back up where our story started, in this little town by the sea. There's an ecolodge situated on the outskirts of the town, right along the beach. It had quaint straw huts with well-appointed interiors and prices rivaling the more tourist-oriented accomodations back in Cuenca. It also had a restaurant in the main hall with a nice menu, and while we took them up on a few meals during our stay, when it came to sleeping we chose Cuatro Estrellas, a more modest set of cabins carrying a $5 a night price tag and a shower like a garden hose. But while the bathroom was less than ideal, our cabin itself was quite nice, and for that fee we had all two stories of it to ourselves, complete with a porch and balcony, each with their own hammocks. Cuatro, the owner and namesake of the lodging, was napping in the downstairs hammock when we arrived. He awoke as we walked up to him, and flashed us a grin which belied his name: four gold teeth, shining in a row. He obligingly gave up the hammock and left us be, after we had hammered out the details of our stay, and once we had gotten ourselves settled in, we went for one of many walks around the village and the sea.

Ayampe was settled along the banks of a stream that must have once flowed unobstructed across the beach and into the ocean, but as often seems to be the case in beach towns like these, at some point the locals engineered a sandy dam that created a freshwater wetlands suitable for their needs as a community. And as for our needs, it served as a fine place for skipping stones.

It was on these walks that the reality of the imminent close of our extended vacation began to reveal itself, and a dull melancholy settled into me one night as I sat with Nancy on the sand, watching the evening tide. Here the ocean had been lapping the beach of Ayampe for countless days and nights, always, through the histories of all the people and cultures and civilizations unfolded near and far from this little place and then, with time, faded away. This particular night, we were there to see its centuries of motion all represented there, and the next night, we'd be back in our own bed, high up in the sierra. What is it about the last moments of a carefree vacation that can project one into time in such a way, backwards and forwards? That night in Ayampe a hundred memories flooded my mind, from all corners of my experiences, and I shared a few of them with Nancy before they receded once again into the darker depths of my mind, not to be thought of again, probably, until now. She listened, and witnessed the sort of mood that was washing over me, and after some time like that we walked in our bare feet back towards the town.

Indeed, the next night we were back home, clearing out all the funky things we'd left in the fridge and settling into our bed, many hours, hundreds of kilometers and several bus rides away from that little beach which we chose for the last days of our trip. After we had washed the last of the salt from our bodies and we drifted into the deep, long sleep that only your own bed will grant you after weeks on the road, I was there again for a moment, on the edge of the sea, in Ayampe.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Agua Blanca

The road into Agua Blanca. Seeing such a pathway, you might wonder just where it is, and to where it may lead. These are the just the kinds of questions I'll be answering, so you're in luck! Because this is part two of my recollection of last summer's trip along Ecuador's ruta del sol.

Where we left off before, Nancy and I had just climbed onto a bus which went barreling into the misty hills that constitute the northern reaches of the Cordillera Colonche, dividing the country's lush and prosperous agricultural land from its dry central coast. As diverse as Ecuador's many ecosystems are, places like these, for me, represent this country best. Green, steaming hills all around, covered by wild, relentless vegetation from top to bottom. I suppose it was a vision like this that filled my mind when I first dreamt of Ecuador, and first impressions such as these, even when conjured by one's own imagination, are hard to let go. I can also imagine that the first people who spoke languages like English and Spanish to land in the area were greeted by sights and sounds like those found here.

As the bus rolled along, en route to Puerto Viejo, we passed through several villages like Pichincha, El Progreso, San Placido, and Alahuela. The bus made a few stops in these little settlements, little more than strips of wooden cabins and shanties built along the narrow highway. So small are these towns that they share their schools between them, and at one stop what appeared to be the entire student body of the local high school piled on board, packed in tight until the next town over. Also boarding was a woman and her daughter, who had a small tropical bird in her charge. The bird, looking a bit over-handled and bereft of much of its original plumage, was nonetheless clearly the beloved pet of the girl, who kept it perched in her small hands, and did her best to protect it from the mob of people all around her, casting her eyes nerviously around at all the lanky teens looming over. Luckily for her, a young man gave up his seat in the front row, and the mother, daughter and bird all fit in snugly.

So it went until the next village. Nancy and I secure in our seats, surrounded by the sea of uniformed teenagers rocking with every curve, the boys doing their best to let the movements of the bus send them into the nearest girl. Nancy remarked how healthy and happy they all looked, and attributed it to the impeccable climate we found ourselves in. I pointed out that they probably don't look so happy when they're on their way to school rather than on their way home, but I couldn't deny how beautiful and undisturbed the land was, all around us, nor how alive the air felt. Neither too hot nor too cold, the humidity contributing a freshness to the air absent at the higher altitudes we were accustomed to, and the untouched surroundings themselves contributing a like freshness to our spirits.

When we arrived in Puerto Viejo, we changed buses at the terminal and were soon back on the road to Puerto Lopez, by way of a little town named Jipijapa. Passing through both of these towns, we got enough of a look to pique our curiosity about them, but not enough for us to actually get off the bus and spend any time there. Puerto Lopez and the beach were definitely much more on our minds, and these two places were too far inland to tempt us into checking them out, despite the obvious intrigue of a place called Jipijapa.

By the time we got into Puerto Lopez, the sun was going down and we were on a bus with standing room only. Tucked into the aisle, hanging on to the luggage rack with every curve in the road, I did my best to get a look at the landscape, and maybe a look at the ocean. I had noticed on the previous bus how our surroundings had quickly become dry and sandy upon leaving the mountains, but now, ducking to get a look out the low windows, I saw the trunks of trees girding the road on both sides.

Finally the bus pulled to the side and a lot of the people onboard got off, the two of us included. We found ourselves on the curb of a wide, dusty road with low buildings on each side. In the dusk, it looked like a scene out of an old western. As you might expect upon disembarking from a bus in a small, tourist town like this one, a few locals approached us and started trying to sell us stuff. In this case, the offer was for lodging, and the prices were plenty cheap. But we reckoned there was still enough daytime to wander around a place as small as this, and take a look at our options for the night on our own.

Indeed we did find ourselves a nice place, and after a walk along the shoreline and something to eat on the beach, we retired to our room and watched Ecuador's own Jefferson Perez earn Olympic silver for his speedwalking prowess.

In the morning, we got a better look at our choice of lodging:

And then we went back down to the beach for breakfast:

Thusly fortified, we decided to make a trip for the day to a place in el parque nacional Machalilla we had heard about, called Agua Blanca. We didn't know what to expect from it, other than that it was in a national park, and so ought to afford us a walk in nature, and that the road in was just about 10 minutes outside of Puerto Lopez by bus.

And so we walked back over to the town's dusty main strip, bought some fruit in the market there, and hopped on a bus heading back the way we had come. We told the bus driver where we wanted off, he charged us a quarter each, we saw the first ten minutes of a Van Damme movie, and just like that, we were there.

Here you can see the peculiar landscape that is inland Machalilla. The dry riverbed, while not actually conveying water along the surface, still bears it underground. Hence the green riparian area seen all along its wide flood basin. As I discovered in New Mexico, even dry rivers are still wet, as can be divined by the presence of big cottonwood trees lining the intermittent streams of the high desert. While there are no cottonwood groves to be found in Ecuador, the principle is the same, where this lush greenbelt is thriving amidst the desert. Also like the mountain drylands of the southwestern U.S., higher altitudes bring more precipitation down to earth, and so you can see the desert sandwiched between subsurface moisture and thick cloud cover above. The higher reaches of the surrounding hills, smothered as they are by these nimbus banks, harbor yet another ecosystem, a cloud forest perennially hidden from below.

Our hike brought lots of cacti, donkeys and songbirds onto our path. The cacti and birds were no surprise, but the sight of donkeys made me wonder just why there was grazing going on in this national park. The answer soon began to reveal itself:

This wooden hut with a banana plantation for its backyard was one of many dwellings we came upon as we entered the comuna de Agua Blanca. Here we had found an intentional community of sorts, dating back to the early 20th century, before this area's designation as a national park. We soon learned that the people of Agua Blanca, which proved to be a thriving village of several hundred residents, were organizing tours throughout their portion of the park, and had also turned some of its land to their own use, including agriculture and herding of donkeys and pigs. Living in the desert as they are, they also were diverting water for irrigation of their small scale farming. This water was high in sulphur and thus unsuitable for drinking, but it looked like it brought up their produce just fine, and also provided one other benefit for the villagers, and for visitors like ourselves:

A sulphur spring. Good for swimming, even if it turns any metal you might be wearing an amber yellow. Also good for the skin, apparently, as a number of people dove to the bottom of the shallow pond for fistfuls of brown-black mud which they spread all over their faces and entire bodies. Near this place, considered sacred to the people of Agua Blanca, as our guide told us, they also hold temazcal ceremonies, which I've described in previous stories.

That leads me to the spiritual, and political, side of this community. First, I ought to mention that the current residents of the area are far from the first.

Here lie two people buried together in a funerary urn. What is known about these people? According to the description card, these two might have died anywhere over the span of more than 700 years. But the culture lived on until after the arrival of the Spaniards, and it was the people living here who were among the first that Europeans met in the area. This particular civilization, however, was the last of at least a half dozen cultures who had influenced this area before the modern era.

The people living in Machalilla today have endeavored to portray a connection between themselves and the ancient cultures of this place, from comparisons of photographs of the present day residents to faces on ceramics that they've discovered, to a true reverance for the ancient people's traditions and ruins. Having now visited Agua Blanca, seen some of its practices, and spoken with a few of the villagers there, I can say that I have a respect for the way of life they have cultivated. That said, I can also see the conflict that exists by virtue of a modern village operating within a national park.

The interesting mix of ecosystems I described above is peculiar to this park, which contains the overwhelming majority of these types of forests. In fact, of all of Ecuador's coastal area, only 1% of that area is dryland forest like this. However, this range of forest once encompassed one quarter of Ecuador's western lowlands, and it is probably by virtue of its protection as a national park which has allowed it to remain here in the midst of encroaching agriculture and development on all sides.

It can't be denied that the activities of the village of Agua Blanca are also impacting what's left of this ecosystem. Having been in the area before it became a protected zone, they've got a right to be here, but it's to their credit that they've worked as actively as they have with a worldwide coalition of NGOs and governmental organizations alike in order to assert their presence in a positive way. Amongst the inevitable effects of humanity existing inside of a place meant to be wild, there is a palpable sense of conservation to be found throughout the village. One that is bolstered, in my view, by the naturalist philosophy inherent in this community's own brand of spirituality.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer road trip! August, err, 2008.

It's July 2009, which has gotten me to thinking about Summer vacation. From last year.

Last August, I was living here in Cuenca, upstairs from where I live now. I was living with my wife Nancy, who wasn't my wife yet at that time. Now, as I sit writing, two flights of stairs down from our previous home, counting the last few days before our baby is born, I've found the time to recount part one of our trip around Ecuador's central coast. Seeing as how we didn't get the camera out until the second leg of this trip, I hope my words will paint a clear enough picture.

Being the couple of teachers that we are, we were looking at the first few days of an extended summer vacation. We agreed that a fine way to spend this time would be to visit some of her extended family and take a road trip along the coast at the same time. Her uncle Jorge has established his family in Quevedo, a busy town in the middle of the country's tropical banana belt, the flat, broad agricultural area situated in a sweltering climate between the cool of the Pacific and chilly heights of the Andes. In recent decades this region has been devoted largely to the production of the banana, that cash crop for which tiny Ecuador is responsible for about a third of the world's production. Tio Jorge is involved in some agricultural projects in the area and his wife Nelly had invited us up for a visit while we were at a big family reunion in La Troncal a few weeks before.

Quevedo, about halfway between the mountains and the coast and considerably further north than Cuenca, seemed like a great jumping off point to hit the coastline from. So we hopped on a bus and watched the climate change from eternal spring to tropical summer.

Cuenca is an Andean city situated at high elevation, like many South American communities. These places were colonized originally by native people drawn to such areas by virtue of their mild climates year round, natural defenses from outside attack, and freedom from disease-carrying insects like mosquitos. It's easy to see why these kinds of places were attractive for colonization, as Cuenca truly enjoys a predictable, lush climate that never reaches temperatures I would consider uncomfortable. Low latitude and high altitude are a great combination.

As you wind down the mountainside, however, you can see in minutes how the landscape changes dramatically with the rising temperature. The equatorial latitude affords as steady a climate near the sea as it does higher up, but lacking the thin air of the mountains, the pressure builds up the heat and humidity to a level that scarcely diminishes even at night. Often, this ecosystem at the margins of the coast and the Andes is cloaked in a fog, making the trip - along steep, twisting roads plagued by landslides - hair-raising and exciting. Other times, the view is clear and you can see the endless tropical plains from a high vantage during your descent. At first, a few houses appear along the road with a few scraggly banana plants scattered around the property.

Then, if you doze off to unplug from the stomach-churning, winding journey, you open your eyes along a road cut straight through a massive plantation, the big leaved bananas all around you defining the tropical environment as much as the locals sitting outside their wooden shacks, darkened and shining in the heat. The riders on the bus have all been stripping off their jackets and long sleeves, and the windows open to a hot breeze with the faint smell of slash-and-burn smoke curling through it. You reach Puerto Inca, the bus slows and stops in traffic, and through the window la musica costeña playing on the street reaches your ears just as a man climbs on board selling juice in bags tied to straws, his s's all heavy h's and all his consonants run down by the vowels.

This goes on for hours, plantations then towns, bananas, sugar cane, rice paddies and African palms. Napping, looking out the window, watching your loved one in the seat next to you, eyes closed and chest rising and falling gently under her tank top, maybe her head on your shoulder, maybe her hand on your arm. Then, back to sleep. So it is that you arrive in a far-off place by bus.

And, eventually, we arrive. Us standing along the highway breathing the humid air and Tia Nelly walking up a dusty road towards us, smiling, hugging and kissing us. Then we're in their home, me in the hammock and eating ripe plantains with cinnamon in a bowl of fresh milk, Nancy making juice with Nelly in the kitchen and her two teenage girls who would be my cousins sitting on the couch together, watching me quietly.

The next couple of days are there in Quevedo. Tio Jorge shows us the house he's building on the back of the property, made almost entirely of wood from tropical trees he grows on some land he owns outside of town. We sleep there in his new house, in a bed draped with a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling, almost giving it the air of a four poster. Jorge works all day, during which Nelly takes us downtown. A quarter bus ride provides a handy tour of the city, from the dusty outskirts where we stay, across the river and into Quevedo's heart.

Quevedo, a steaming city of 100,000, a fraction of Guayaquil's chaotic metropolis, still captures for me the essence of city life in Ecuador's coastal interior. A walk down the street puts you in the thick of heavy pedestrian traffic sporting t-shirts, flip flops and shorts, all navigating in and out of ground floor retail shops resting at the foot of several stories of glass and concrete. Street vendors hawk their cheap sunglasses and cell phones, and if you look out of the ordinary you're that much more of their target. Billboards perch above the congested boulevard running past its center plaza and it seems like every window of the mid-rise buildings girding the lanes of traffic are advertising something.

That night we shared a final dinner with Jorge and his family. Also joining us at the table were a couple of distant cousins who lived around the corner, a humble husband and wife with their little newborn.

Nelly, to whom I had mentioned off-handedly in La Troncal that I enjoyed plantains, had been dutifully serving them up to me with every meal, both green and ripe, and cooked more ways than I had known were possible. So far I had sampled her bolón de verde, molo, tigrillo, patacones con queso, as well as the ripe plantain with milk I mentioned before. We were in banana country, and there was no shortage of material, nor variations on the theme.

Tonight came more ripe plantain, boiled then fried, and served alongside piping hot rice and beans. A simple but tasty dish. That night I was feeling Quevedo's heat, though, and the hot meal was provoking me into a sweaty and unenthusiastic guest. Along with our meal came a cool and sweet, fresh raspberry juice, of which I downed three glasses in short order. These extra portions of juice were all served to me with gusto by Nelly, but it seemed I had prematurely exhausted her reserves of refreshment for the meal, and I was still good and thirsty.

At one point in the meal I retired to our room to chug down some of the water I had stored in our bags, and then to the bathroom to rinse off my face. This gave me the wherewithal to power through the rest of my dinner, although I had apparently excused myself hastily enough to alarm Jorge and his family. I had to insist a few times that I was going to be alright, after all, before they would take my word for it.

Inwardly, I imagined that they were amused to see the new gringo in the family trying to tolerate their heat and humidity. Most Ecuadorians who have voiced their opinion of the North countries to me have implied, one way or another, that it's cold up there. Truly, lacking the distinct seasons that we are accustomed to in most parts of the U.S., it would be hard for someone who had never left this latitude to internalize the two different worlds presented by Ohio in January, compared to Ohio in August, for example. Conversely, I've watched people from the U.S. try to wrap their heads around Ecuador's eternal Spring or Summer, doing their best to divine some sort of seasonal change out of the subtle variations of the buds on the trees or minutes of sunshine at the end of the day. We all carry our conditioning around with us, even after we leave our own borders.

After dinner we walked the cousins home, and Jorge and I shared a chamilco - a cigarillo - rolled by hand into a tobacco leaf. I'd picked them up while we were in Vilcabamba a few weeks before, and Jorge's moustachiod face lit up upon their mention. I'd never seen him smoke, but I thought he might appreciate them, somehow. Hell, I don't like tobacco much either, but we all enjoy a nice treat from time to time.

The next morning Jorge was already gone when we woke up, and after a shower and another satisfying breakfast by Nelly, we decided it was time to get back on the bus. Nelly and her daughters accompanied us to the terminal, on another roundabout tour of Quevedo on a city bus. On the way Nancy pointed out some of the sexual innuendo being spouted on the talk radio. It would seem that the social conservatism of the Sierra was one of many cultural variations not shared at lower altitudes. She told me you could never say those things on the radio in Cuenca, and indeed, a quick glance at the faces of our fellow riders revealed an indifference to language that was making my expressive companion blush.

A few minutes later we were off the bus and onto another one, having just made our round of goodbyes. The next time we would see Nelly and her family would be in Biblián, at our wedding at the top of the hill. But at that moment, the furthest we were looking ahead was the beach, Puerto Lopez, and Ayampe.

Friday, February 20, 2009

El presidente

Last night I was walking home from work and decided I wanted to take a detour down to Parque Calderon, where I'd heard there were a lot of Carnaval festivities going on. Sure enough, there was a big castillo and people sending glowing globos floating up lazily into the sky. I hung around for a few minutes, watched the people and their families, and then proceeded on my way home.

Rounding the corner, I saw a small group standing on the sidewalk, facing a parking garage exit expectantly. Remembering that one of my coworkers had said that Presidente Correa was in town and having dinner in the area, I asked someone if that's why they were there and got an affirmative nod. Bueno, pues. I had nothing better to do at the moment, so I joined the little throng of loiterers.

Also present was a large group of police officers and military men, some in riot gear, others in their dress uniforms. Further confirming the eminence of an important figure was the motorcade of parked vehicles taking up the entire block. The officers weren't at any kind of attention and none of the cars' engines were running, which made me think we could be waiting for awhile. Indeed, about twenty minutes passed before there was any action whatsoever, during which our little group had more than a few cast changes, as some people lost the will to wait and others filed in to replace them. During this time I managed to casually work my way up into the second row and right in the middle of the group. Only a few stout, elderly women were now standing between me and the front line of the action, and they were stout enough that they didn't pose much of an obstacle to my view, anyway.

We all stood around, shifting about with waning patience, when all the engines of the motorcade started one after the other. A renewed air of anticipation ensued, as people shuffled closer together, and the militares were ordered to give an about-face towards us, just in case we got out of hand. They obligingly stood at attention, facing us stiffly at first, their clear plastic riot shields raised. Then, as the minutes once again ticked by uneventfully, they lowered their shields and, facing us now as they were, starting making some casual conversation with the crowd. The younger ones, in a bid for greater relevance, began revealing what random bits of information they had about the President's goings-on. He was here in Cuenca to talk about the economy, he had dined on trout from Cajas, they would say, with knowing smiles.

Meanwhile, the castillo of fireworks one block over on Parque Calderon began letting fly, and loud cracks, bright flashes and the smell of sulfur filled the air. This seemed to put some of the soldiers on edge, some of whom once again raised their shields and stood yet again at attention. It was probably good that they did, because it wasn't long after the castillo expended its arsenal of assorted noisemakers that the President and his entourage made their sudden appearance.

They emerged from stage left of the parking garage, and through the door we could all see him. The crowd around me began pushing forward in excitement. He made for his car at first, but the crowd erupted in a collective cry that urged him over. The man at my right yelled repeatedly, "Presidente, una palabra con el pueblo!" and his sentiments were echoed all around. And yes, Presidente Correa emerged from the parking garage and approached us in the street, the military now pushing hard against us as the small crowd rapidly turned into a crushing mob of people. Somehow in these few seconds a lot of people managed to get between me and the front row, which was probably for the best because those little ladies in front now had plastic shields pressed against them and a mod pushing their faces into them. Unmindful of this, the ladies held out their hands and the President pressed them in his, saying a few quiet words to each of them, or at least they sounded quiet to me as my ears filled with the increasingly wild yells of the crowd.

People pushing frantically around me to get closer to the front, I stood and looked at the face of the man who had in the span of 4 months achieved the passage of a new Constitution that would allow him to be the first in generations to be permitted to run for a second term in office, pushed forward a controversial mining law that set him against many rural communities who had helped put him into power, and who in recent weeks saw a heavy new tax leveled on imports which would drastically affect the sales of wealthy merchants and small importers around the country. The man who had with the New Year announced that he would renege on the greater part of Ecuador's foreign debt, calling it the illegitimate dealings of past dictators. Here he was, smiling and shaking hands, receiving the full brunt of unbridled mob support. I caught the wild eyes of one of the young military men, pushing hard against the enthusiastic crowd.

Seconds later, the President climbed into the white SUV that had pulled out of the garage and into the street behind him. Once in the vehicle, the guards let up their front a bit too early and as the motorcade moved forward, some few people broke free from the crowd and in a moment of abandon went chasing after the car of the president. The motorcade kept pressing forward and picking up speed, and soon left even these wildest supporters behind, though some of them continued running after. I, still standing where I had been the whole time, was far behind the action. The crowd was dispersing, and once again I began the walk home.

The sidewalk was still full of people, and as we moved slowly towards the end of block together, I watched the faces of the people around me. Everyone was smiling; the little girl in front of me, her hand in her mother's, recounted excitedly everything she had seen. I noticed that two of the people ahead of me were amongst the women who had been in the front of the crowd, their faces now lit up with a shared and wordless joy.

When this moving remnant of the crowd reached the corner it split up further as people went their separate ways. As I went my own, I thought about this smiling, confident President and the wildly enthusiastic reception he had just received. Decades have passed since the last time a President has completed his four year term and not having been ousted or assassinated. Presidente Correa has enjoyed a level of support that few people can remember and has lately been spending his political capital seemingly more freely than ever. In more recent memory, Ecuadorians have watched their currency inflate and collapse, to be replaced by dollar bills bearing a foreign language and the dead Presidents from another place.

Today, Cuenca's finest streets are lined with banks full of people who choose to put their faith once again into a system that corrupted their Sucre rather than stuffing it under the mattress. Today also, they put their faith into their President, and hope for the best. As we from the United States do with ours. Que nos vaya bien!