Under the Equatorial Sun
The buzz here is Brazil’s historic 1-7 World Cup loss to Germany. There has never been anything quite like it in terms of humiliation on center stage for a World Cup host, and especially as it is Brazil, well, you can only imagine. People in this part of the world take their fútbol seriously, but no one more than Dilma Rousseff. She has staked her political standing not only on the success of the World Cup as an international spectacle and commodity, but also on the success of the national team. For Dilma, the death and dismemberment of Canarinho (“little canary,” the team’s nickname) can only portend trouble for her in the coal mine of Brazilian politics. For the moment the purity of sport has prevailed. The games have been exciting and aesthetically marvelous. The subtext, however, guaranteed to come crashing down on Dilma’s plastic neo-liberal crown once the corporate festivities are over, is the rage felt by the dispossessed and poor, literally shoveled aside to make way for her Potemkin village, the construction of which has cost the country about 11 billion dollars, with maybe some bird seed thrown in the direction of the despicable masses. And this is only the beginning. The Olympics are coming in 2016, on which another 18 billion is projected to be spent.
To follow the glitteringly packaged proceedings on television has been, expect for the beautiful sport itself, nothing short of disgusting, not the least of which, especially in view of the wonderful mix of colors on the field, being the lack of dark faces in the stands. But more of this later. I have spent my first night in Rocafuerte, visiting my friend Gustavo and his wife Mirian. It is not unusual for me to sleep poorly in a new place and this night is no exception. I am okay until the electricity stops around three a.m., shutting off the air conditioner, a rattling old GE, and activating my waking brain, one electrical system powering down, another firing up. I remain on hyper-alert the rest of the night listening to Gustavo’s mad roosters and the growling yellow-eyed trucks with their mysterious cargoes pulling from the coast, destined for points east and elsewhere. As usual in such scenes I drift off just before dawn (not before cock’s crow but in spite of), but not for long as a few minutes later comes Gustavo’s knock on the door, surprisingly light for his heavy hand, though resonating like an executioner’s call. It is time to get up and go with him and his wife for their customary morning walk on the shores of the equatorial Pacific.
I stumble around their sons’ room cursing silently, pulling on my wet bathing suit all different kinds of ways before getting it right. Gustavo and Mirian are waiting in the truck and I wedge myself into the front seat feeling tired and a little uncomfortable, especially with Mirian, whom I hardly know and who is much more reserved than Gustavo and who I suspect may be less than thrilled to have a strange gringo staying in her house for a few days, perhaps one of those situations where the gregarious bear-like husband impulsively opens home and hearth against the natural inclinations of the wife. But she is friendly enough and greets me smilingly, asking how I slept, a conventional and polite question under the circumstances concerning one of our curious human commonalities, an experience easily communicated across barriers of culture and language, in this context a little embarrassing for I am slightly neurotic about sleep, a battle I have been waging my whole adult life, though generally, in Ecuador, I have slept surprisingly well. It doesn’t matter very much if Mirian really cares about my sleep, likely she does not, but it is the sort of question that acknowledges our shared humanity and even if formally posed eases my discomfort and allows me to contribute, albeit modestly, to my end of the conversation.
I ask about the electricity shutting down and Gustavo explains that this occasionally happens and we talk about a few more simple things and then I turn my attention to the scenes along the road as we drive towards Crucita. One of the things I love about Ecuador, and I see this all the time in my neighborhood in Quito, is the openness of life, the visibility of people and their daily routines, unselfconsciously going about their business, and here in Rocafuerte, because of the rural setting and climate, with people living outside their homes almost as much as inside, it is even more evident. There is a warm, sleepy, early morning sensuality to the people as they get ready for the day, the women especially marvelous in their casual loose clothing, sweeping, burning trash, feeding chickens, tending to their children, cooking. The men are loading trucks, or fixing them, repairing their homes, making things, some waiting to be picked up for the day’s labor, but there are others doing nothing, sitting with their morning coffee alone or with friends, watching the traffic. Some are already nestled in their hammocks. They will maintain this posture more or less the whole day, perhaps retreating inside for a siesta as the weather warms, because for many in Rocafuerte, as in all of Ecuador, there is no work. Even at this early hour the road is filled with bicycle traffic and it is common to see people carrying things as they ride on their rickety old bikes, sometimes very large loads, construction materials, bamboo poles, bananas, chickens, and together with the green and wet fields dotted with white egrets, the simple homes and modest businesses, it is a wonderful sight that stirs my imagination and when I see an old man pushing a pig in a cart I am once more in the middle of a novel by García Márquez.
Gustavo parks the truck at the same place as the evening before and we get out for a brisk walk up the beach, into the middle of a mass of fisherman and their small blue and white vessels hauled up onto the sand with the morning catch as great numbers of big frigatebirds with their distinctive forked tails circle and dive aggressively, sometimes swooping in and grabbing fish right out of the plastic bins carried by the men. There is a swirling bustle of colorful activity with men shouting and moving about, the morning work finished, teams gathered together to maneuver the boats on heavy wooden rollers for safekeeping up near the road, pushing, straining, everyone yelling spirited directions at the same time with much laughter and excitement, a seemingly chaotic scene recapitulated for the ten-thousandth time and you wonder why it all seems so random and disorganized, but of course it is not. The ocean is calm, as it usually is, and while most boats are putting up for the day some are going out, waiting for the right moment to advance, pushed through the waves by family members, friends or other fishermen. The majority of the catch is mackerel and sardine but bigger fish end up in the nets too, thresher and hammerhead sharks, tuna, bonito, billfish, and these are loaded into the backs of trucks and taken away. Occasionally sharks are left on the sand. There is a large open shed where the money catch, the mackerel and sardine, is piled and sorted for the first stage of preparation and shipping, with dozens of workers, mostly women, working energetically and rapidly midst much shouting and laughter.
Back at the house for breakfast we have good Ecuadorian coffee, which is made by adding essence of coffee, a kind of syrup, to hot water or milk, pan dulce with sal prieta, not someone who works for the Gambino family but rather a delicious mixture of ground peanuts, corn and other spices that is the staple seasoning of Manabi—each household concocting its own variety—queso and cooked sweet bananas. After breakfast Gustavo goes to his workshop and I sit in the backyard on a comfortable chair with Mailer’s book and soon fall asleep, a huge and very handsome reddish brown rooster resting under the table next to me. I fancy he likes me but obviously it is the shade that has his affection. I sleep most of the morning and then it is time for almuerzo, prepared by Consuelo, fish soup, rice and fish with onions, avocado and ají, the hot sauce found everywhere in Ecuador and which, like sal prieta, varies from place to place. It is delicious and generally not very spicy. As we eat, Gustavo and I discuss Ecuadorian culture. He tells me that the average South American does not read very much. Like his North American cousin, I respond, not really knowing to what degree either statement is true, and of course exactly what we mean when we talk of reading. As if to prove this, and I have already surmised that Gustavo is not much of an intellectual, he takes me up to his biblioteca, a tight, dusty, humid space with a few ancient moldering books and several dozen old Readers’ Digests in Spanish from the 70s, but the most interesting thing is a collection of small, dead murciélagos (bats), likely of the fruit variety, cluttered about the window sill. Gustavo says something about needing to clean them up and we go back downstairs, his point about limited enthusiasm for reading, at least as far as he is concerned, sufficiently proved. But who cares about reading when there is a World Cup semi-final to watch? We sit in shock as the Germans undress the Brazilians in front of the world. Gustavo is disgusted. We can only hope Argentina will salvage the continent’s pride and avert an all-European final.
Later that afternoon Gustavo goes back to his ex-lover’s house and waits for Jose Anibal, who jumps into the truck, chattering away, wearing a reindeer hat—it is early July—and he and I sing a round of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in English and soon we are in the actual town of Rocafuerte, a smaller, dustier, more bedraggled version of Portoviejo, where Gustavo drops him off at a friend’s house and where later he will pick him up. If these interactions are any indication, their relationship is fragmented at best, with most of their dialogue centering around Jose Anibal’s anxious relationship with his mother and Gustavo’s advice to calm down and not take things so seriously, difficult words for a fourteen-year-old to assimilate and indeed, Jose Anibal appears not to pay much attention.
Before returning home Gustavo drives to his assistant’s, Fernando’s, place to pick up a dish his mother has prepared, driving a couple hundred meters down a rugged dirt road bordered on one side by banana trees and small rice fields, and we are in the middle of Southeast Asia, a secluded green and watery world unseen from the main road, astonishing in its picturesque charm and beauty, and again I wonder, trying not to succumb to some sort of romantic rural Márquezean fallacy, how much superior is the wealthy person’s life in North America to this materially poor but in so many profound ways, exceedingly rich existence. Fernando appears from his house, which resembles something you might see in a production of Porgy and Bess, and hands the dish to Gustavo, smiling and waving at me. For dinner we have soup, rice, tomatoes and onions along with the dish Fernando’s mother has prepared, banana and pork, which is most delicious. Then after a short conversation with Mirian, Gustavo and Irene, who still seems to be pouting about something, I bid them good evening and retreat to my room, positioning myself under the mosquito netting for a bout with Mr. Mailer’s book, which, after the first two marvelous essays, now serves as handy soporific.
Tomorrow, another walk on the beach.
After a better night’s sleep I go again with Gustavo and Mirian to the beach, which is the same as yesterday, the fishermen and the frigatebirds in their ancient pas de deux, a marvelous sight that I hope continues for another ten thousand years, though I wonder what this beach will look like in the not-so-distant future. The fishing is good here, the fish stock and waters still healthy, but if things continue the way they are going, with Ecuador and all of South America determined to “develop” after the Western model, then there can be nothing but waste, pollution and emptiness. That this process is well under way is as evident as the equatorial sun, with a depressing inevitability that feels like a Greek tragedy. Correa talks a fine environmental game but jumps into carnal embrace with Chinese and Canadian mega-companies to mine and drill in the most precious natural environments remaining on earth, with their equally precious indigenous cultures struggling to survive in a changing world. Will the time come soon when the quaint little vessels of Crucita are replaced with factory ships to harvest the mackerel and sardine in massive numbers, threatening their survival and decimating all other species in the bargain as in so many other parts of oceans all over the world where the fishing has gone mad to feed a human population gone equally mad?
This will be my last day here. Tomorrow morning I will take a bus from Rocafuerte back to Quito and after a few days take another bus to Archidona to visit my friends in Rukullakta for a couple of days, possibly including a half-day rafting trip. Gustavo and I go for a swim and after a few minutes Mirian begins gesturing from the beach. A bit farther out is a group of large black creatures, likely dolphins, surfacing and diving in the distinctive manner of marine mammals, and when Gustavo starts making his way back to the beach I follow suit. We have seen several thresher sharks and a couple of small hammerheads on the beach this morning and though they pose minimal threat the idea of sharks in the water together with these animals close by stimulates that part of the brain that objects strongly to the idea of offering one’s body as nourishment for predators. It is almost certainly not sharks cavorting behind us but they are large, and, who knows, could they be orcas? The imagination is in equal measure fabulous and terrifying and as Gustavo and I make our way towards shore the threat indicator is in the yellow zone of circumspection, perhaps cowardice, red of course being unbridled terror. While our species may have originally emerged from the sea it has been a while, and the lower the water on my body the higher my level of comfort until at last we are standing next to Mirian, our toes gripping the sand, watching the dolphins or small whales, whatever they are, swimming not far from where we have just been, perhaps twenty of them, quite large and dark. If dolphins they are bigger than any I have seen before. Mirian says they are whales. Whatever they are, they are the size of small orcas, though with none of the telltale white markings.
Later, another trip to Rocafuerte, this time with Maria Estefanía, Jose Anibal’s sister, a year or so younger, at first shy but soon talkative as her brother. Birdlike, pretty, a little flirtatious, Maria Estefanía has me captivated. Gustavo buys a few things in one of these typical Ecuadorian stores that have piles of brightly-colored plastic goods and then we get some ice cream, frozen hard as stone. Like Jose Anibal, Maria Estefanía is deposited at her mother’s house. I can feel Gustavo mentally exhale as she passes through the gate. We return to the house for the second half of Argentina/Holland and suffer through a grinding affair that ends in a penalty kick victory for Argentina. At least there will be no all-European final. After the game, José, Gustavo and Mirian’s youngest son, arrives for a three-day visit with his parents. José, in his late twenties, one of the dark, handsome, muscular boys in the photos in the room where I am staying, is even more striking in person, with a movie star’s charisma. His parents are doting. He is formal towards me to the point of hostility. In the morning, when I leave, he is friendlier.
Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at: email@example.com.