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A Trip to the Coast

Ecuadorian Errands

by RICHARD WARD

Now that La Tri (Ecuador’s national team) has been eliminated from the tournament and I have no compelling reason to hang out with Quitaño friends in front of the television groaning in frustration (every cliché you have heard about Latin American football fans is false, understated by a factor of ten), I fly from the new Mariscal Sucre International Airport on the outskirts of Quito, in a medium-sized, thoroughly modern (alas, no 1940s Pan Am Clipper) AeroGal passenger jet to the coastal city of Manta, in Manabi province.  The flight is a tidy, non-eventful 35 minutes for $75.  The same trip by bus is 8 hours and costs $10.  My fellow passengers are a sampling of the Ecuadorian middle class, comfortably dressed, well fed—compared to ordinary bus travelers, veritable millionaires.  Across the aisle from me are two blond, tanned women in their twenties, their little bums pressed comfortably in their seats, dressed provocatively in expensive clothes, laughing and talking loudly, their manner radiating privilege, casual hedonism and Catholic virtue.  Likely they are not supporters of Correa and his modest egalitarian economic policies, window dressing at best, but at least offering marginal assistance to the poor.

The Manta airport is small, the weather hot, windy and dry.  I had anticipated more humidity, more vegetation, but the feeling is oddly barren, as if I have landed somewhere in the Middle East, Beirut, without the guns and uniforms.  Manta is known as a drug trafficking hub, its port the largest in Ecuador, with a complex network of cleverly-disguised vessels ferrying contraband of all sorts, not only drugs.  Manta also has a sizable tourist trade, a portion of which probably involved in the drug market.  I pass through the diminutive airport terminal and outside in the parking lot am greeted by my new friend, Gustavo, whom, with his wife Mirian, I met six weeks ago in Quito.  Gustavo reminds me of an old high school friend of bacchanalian nature and passion, a devout Catholic who assuaged his troubled conscience over riotous Saturday night adventures with heartfelt prayer and genuflection at the following day’s mass.  My own conscience naturally and thankfully unburdened of this particular impediment, I marveled at his agony, but occasionally went to church with him anyway, sinner, heathen, enjoying the solemn mystery of the Latin mass and keeping a surreptitious eye on the Catholic girls.

I shake Gustavo’s massive paw, greet him with my incrementally improving Spanish and get into his old, three-quarter-ton Chevy V8 pickup, immediately at home in this quintessentially New Mexico truck, horn falling out the steering column, balky ignition switch, Styrofoam cups, papers littering the floor, dust everywhere, cracked dashboard, cracked windshield, seats worn through to the springs, big rumbling engine, tailgate secured with bailing wire, rusty tools, straw, dirt in the bed.  Gustavo, white hair, craggy, doleful, Iberian visage, with the slightly weary but comfortable air of a man who has eliminated all but the essentials from his life, wearing an open, short-sleeved shirt, faded jeans and old leather boat shoes without socks, steers the big old rumbling truck east along the highway towards his home in Rocafuerte, about 30 kilometers away.  In keeping with the New Mexico feeling the land between Manta and Rocafuerte is brown, dry and barren, with flatland to the north and bleak hills to the south dotted with the odd-looking ceibo tree, which appears very much a cousin to the African Baobab.

A little awkward because of our new friendship, we don’t speak much and I am content to look out at the dusty landscape, different from anything I have seen so far in Ecuador.  Approaching Rocafuerte the terrain changes, with more water draining from the higher land to the south, supplying increasingly green and fertile fields of sugar cane, corn, peppers, bananas, palm trees, and, surprisingly, rice, lots of it, green wispy stalks sticking up through flooded fields looking like parts of southern Louisiana.  Rocafuerte is obviously poor, with dilapidated houses of cinder block, rotting wood, bamboo, sagging balconies, tin roofs, old vehicles puttering along the highway belching exhaust fumes, people young and old riding rusty, creaky bicycles with balding tires, the road in disrepair, chickens everywhere, gardens, pigs, distressing amounts of garbage alongside the road (Ecuadorians are notorious, unrepentant litterers, though awareness is developing), but despite the material poverty there is a type of wealth that is immediately apparent, certainly the abundant agriculture but also the activity everywhere, families gathered outside, friends hanging out, talking, the sense of community obvious, people waving to Gustavo as he drives past.

We arrive at his property, hidden behind a large sliding metal gate activated by remote control from his truck, and descend the steep driveway to the parking area.  Immediately upon entering one encounters in the spacious front yard filled with fruit trees a small, antique, colorful Ferris wheel with a capacity of about 15 people, as with one of the roadside bikes in Rocafuerte of dubious structural integrity, something you might see in a park in Montevideo or Buenos Aires 60 years ago, or so I imagine, certainly the sort of delightful thing you would encounter in a Fellini film or García Márquez novel, used many times, says Gustavo, but not recently. We walk down a cement path lined with flowers, through an arbor to the front porch where hangs a comfortable looking hammock and enter the house, a solidly middle class affair, not at all typical of the area.

I stash my things in his sons’ bedroom, their pictures covering the walls, two muscular, bronzed, handsome young men in bathing suits, swimming, surfing, scuba diving or smilingly saluting the camera with bottles of Pilsener in the company of young blond women, and meet Gustavo and his daughter Irene in the dining room, which has a glass china cabinet and a long dark polished wooden table with overhanging chandelier, where the housekeeper, Consuelo, serves us almuerzo, soup and a plate of chicken, rice and salad.  Irene is about 25 with an abundance of her parents’ sensuality.  Some Ecuadorians will tell you the best looking women in Ecuador are from Manabi, and Mirian, Gustavo’s wife, fits the stereotype.  Today she is working in Portoviejo, the provincial capital, and will return later this evening.  Consuelo, in her thirties, quiet and deferential, is also a handsome woman, dark, like most Ecuadorians, with a good figure, her self-effacing manner revealing the social dynamic that exists between her and the family.

After lunch Gustavo takes me on a tour of his property, lush with different kinds of fruit trees, mango, papaya, naranjilla, lime, tamarind and more that I don’t register.  There are chickens, ducks, geese, two cats and two dogs.  He shows me his workshop, cluttered with old tools, blackened and scarred heavy work tables flaked with metal fillings, huge bench vises, welding equipment, heaps of scrap metal, all in grimy disarray, obviously the environment of a retired person who putters absently when the mood strikes and not the organized workplace of economic necessity.  Gustavo is a retired mechanical engineer, formerly employed in the oil industry.  For the occasional customer who stops at his taller for repairs or other projects he has hired a young man, Fernando, a good-looking guy, dark, wiry, with a pleasant, gentle manner, dressed like many young Manabitas, dirty blue gym shorts, ragged t-shirt, backwards cap and flip-flops.

Inside the shop it is hot.  Latin music emanates from a dusty old radio on one of the oily tables while vehicles roar by outside.  They confer briefly about a job and then Gustavo and I get into the truck to pick up his youngest son, Jose Anibal, who, along with a younger sister, Maria Estefanía, is a product of what Gustavo describes as a troubled time in his life when for several years he left Mirian for another woman.  They live virtually around the corner and as we wait outside in the truck for his son Gustavo explains that the mother has not spoken to him in years.  This is related in a tone of sad resignation, as if internally reflecting on the absurd situation he has created for himself.  To his credit anyway, I think, at least he has maintained a relationship with his children and appears to share some of the responsibilities with his former lover.  That Gustavo and Mirian live a stone’s throw from his two out of wedlock adolescent children and former mistress who never speaks to him seems extraordinary, even comical, but I realize this fits a developing awareness I have about this country that begins to crystallize here in Rocafuerte.  I have felt this in Quito, this quirky, sometimes exasperating quality to daily life, full of frustrations and unexpected events, a difficult adjustment for someone from a more ordered culture like that of the US, but a necessary one unless you really have something against your teeth and want to grind them down to the gums.  Until now I have only played with the idea but finally the connection is unavoidable.  I have not read a great deal of Latin American literature but I have certainly read García Márquez, and have delighted in his magical realism, but the true wonder is that García Márquez, great writer and brilliant imagination that he was, in the end, like all artists, humbly served as but a conduit for the communication of a far greater reality, something so powerful and profound and absurd that any human with a spark of sensitivity and wit cannot help but be moved, and sometimes, as in the case of a García Márquez, inspired to the creation of art.

I see now that what the noble Colombian wrote, his magical realism, is absolutely a reflection of this seemingly illogical, sensuous and thoroughly marvelous culture, that all his kaleidoscopic flights of whimsy and phantasmagoria are grounded in the mystery of this unique confluence of the human and natural world that is Latin America.  Jose Anibal, a talkative stripling of 14, jumps in, sitting in the middle, and we drive to Portoviejo past more watery fields of rice and sugar cane with smoke on the horizon from burning stubble as I divide my attention between the sights and Jose Anibal’s incessant questions delivered in rapid Spanish despite Gustavo’s admonishments to slow down for the linguistically-challenged gringo.  I do my best to understand and respond, noticing that Gustavo, while clearly loving his son, is slightly irritated by his nonstop chatter.  I can only imagine the emotions both must feel in what is an unusual situation, but no more unusual than countless relationships in my own country, and there is a touching affection between them, though Gustavo has the air of a man awakened to a parallel universe wondering how did I get here and who is this chattering person sitting next to me calling me papi?

After about 20 minutes we arrive in Portoviejo, a poor, bustling, small city looking like so many other provincial semi-tropical cities all over the world, a myriad of color, haphazard, curious architecture, much of it from the sixties, buildings in moldering disrepair, volumes of colorful cheap merchandise, electronics, plastics, clothes, shoes, thousands of people on the sidewalks doing what people on sidewalks do, shopping, walking home from work, smoking, shouting, spitting, talking with friends, holding hands, eyeing each other, eating food purchased from one of the hundreds of sidewalk venders that clog these thoroughfares, skeins of power lines sagging over narrow streets, busses, trucks, cabs jammed together manically honking and spewing exhaust fumes, and Gustavo, clearly displeased and anxious about having to drive his big truck in this ruckus, finds a small parking lot down an alley and we get out and walk to a dingy, dark little cave of a pet shop, the purpose of our trip to buy some fish and a five-gallon tank for Jose Anibal.  Our mission accomplished, Jose Anibal clutching his tank containing colored gravel, small electric pump and a plastic bag of fish, mollies, a few angelfish, a couple of goldfish, we drive back to Rocafuerte, where Gustavo at his old lover’s house deposits Jose Anibal after a tender farewell with words of fatherly advice and a kiss on the cheek, seeming saddened and relieved as he watches his son pass through the gate.

Driving back from Portoviejo we had stopped for a cup of sugar cane juice and I’d had some with ice, realizing the mistake afterwards and anticipating a bout of diarrhea later.  The cane juice was delicious and made with a hand-powered grinding machine into which the stalks are fed.  I have been pretty good about minding what I eat and drink but it is impossible to be perfect about these things, nor, I believe, would you want to be.  It is late afternoon and after stopping at the house for my bathing suit we go to Crucita, a fishing village about 15 minutes away, a few small colorful fishing boats being dragged up on the beach for the evening, a mass of giant frigatebirds circling, and I go for a swim while Gustavo watches, the water very warm with gentle waves and filled with small round jellyfish of the non or only mildly stinging variety.

After my swim we go into a typical seaside bar across the street for five or six Pilseners and Gustavo talks with the proprietor, a garrulous fellow with ambitious plans for a big new bar in anticipation of increased tourist trade.  He shows us the wooden architectural model a friend has made.  We are there almost an hour and it is dark by the time we get home, greeted by a slightly peeved Mirian, who serves us a modest dinner of soup and leftovers from lunch.  Whatever irritation Mirian has dissipates quickly and soon she and Gustavo are teasing and laughing, clearly very comfortable and happy in each other’s presence.  Irene, on the other hand, seems upset about something and is quiet.  Tomorrow we get up early for a walk on the beach and a swim, something Gustavo and Mirian do regularly.  At 9:30 we bid each other goodnight and I read for a while underneath the mosquito netting, a battered copy of Mailer’s Existential Errands, purchased from a street vendor in Quito a while ago for two dollars, vastly enjoyable, the author at his brilliant and outrageous best, really strutting his stuff.

Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at: r.ward47@gmail.com.