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.