Thursday, October 15, 2009

Saturday at the Beach with the Drug Lords

Friday, Oct 9, is a national holiday, celebrating the independence of Guayaquil, so we took advantage of the 3-day weekend to travel. Our friend, Rita, has an Aunt who lives near the coast, near the towns of Salinas, just outside of Santa Elena, and she arranged that we could stay with her in some "cabins" she has.

To get to Santa Elena, you need to go thru Guayaquil, so we left Thursday afternoon, and took the bus that goes thru the Cajas Nat. Park. The 4 hour bus ride is beautiful, climbing first to well over 9,000 ft as it passes thru Cajas, then dropping down to sea level in the course of a couple of hours. As we hit the coastal plain, the terrain changes to large scale farming of bananas, rice and sugar cane, and the houses become substantially less substantial, often elevated above the ground with walls of bamboo, or some other type of cane.

Debby had been to Guayaquil some 20 years ago, and remembered it as an ugly, industrial town, with not much worth seeing. But since we had to pass thru it on the way to Santa Elena, and since it was the holiday celebrating their independence, we decided to spend the night, and look around the next morning before heading out. It has changed a great deal in 20 years, with one of the biggest changes being the re-development of their sea walk, into "Malecón 2000." While they always had something here, similar to Havana's Malecón, Malecón 2000 is a beautiful, well kept linear park about 1.5 miles in length, gated with numerous entrance points, with art, sculpture, playgrounds, commercial shopping areas and places to eat. It is incredibly well protected and maintained, with armies of staff picking up garbage, shining the brushed steel handrails, and skimming leaves off the radio-controlled boat pond.

Before we hit the Malecón, we walked thru Parque Bolivar, which is covered with iguanas. They are on the grass, the sidewalks, and when we walked thru, mostly up in the trees (look out for the dropping).

Around noon we took off for Santa Elena. Our directions were a little sketchy, we were to get off at the "gasolinera" (gas station) just outside of town, but the helper on the bus we took looked as if he had never heard of it, so we decided instead to get out in the town of Santa Elena, and call our hosts from there. We had lunch, got our directions, and took a cab a few blocks up the road. We knew we were to get off at the gas station, then walk a hundred meters or so to the ice factory, but we didn't realize that the cabins were directly behind the ice factory. Rita's cousin owns the ice factory, and he, as well as his mother and father, live right there. The "cabins" are really just for family, and in fact, Rita's grandmother, "Mama Hilda" (who is 104!) is living there right now.

After getting settled in, we took a bus up to Salinas. We were heading to the main beach and malecón there, but we got off a little early by mistake. I love these kinds of mistakes, as it gave us an opportunity to see the little fishing port, with all the boats in harbor, and kids, who were off from school for the national holiday, playing with tops in the street. We found the beach, and walked it to the main malecón, where we had a nice seafood dinner, then took a cab back to the ice factory.

On Saturday, with a little more knowledge under our belts, we took the bus to the right place, and headed to the beach. We found our "spot" then decided to rent a umbrella and chairs for the day. Next to us was a larger shelter, with just a couple of people in it. It wasn't all that sunny out, so the girls checked out the beach a bit, then started construction on the sand castle of the day. Lots of food vendors on the beach, and although it all looked good, I was also a little leary. But the guy in the shelter next door finally stopped a couple of guys with a large mesh bag of oysters, and a cooler of lemons, and they whipped up some ceviche - the freshest I've ever had. After that, we got a little more adventurous with the food: a coconut, first punctured to drink the water with a straw, and then chopped up to eat the fruit; "choclo con queso," a sweet corn on the cob covered with a local cheese; some "patacones" (thin sliced and fried banana chips); and finally some sort of bread-like thing made of cooked plantain, formed into a patty and fried.

Progress on the sandcastle continued sporadically, and meanwhile, things were getting interesting next door. The one guy who was there when we sat down was joined, intermittently, by various others, Ecuadorians or other Spanish-speakers, who often acknowledged us in English. One guy, who didn't greet us, was a bit strange: a large gringo who didn't speak much Spanish, had shaved his body hair, and wore only a speedo, some heavy shoes, and a bandanna on his head. He was horsing around with the others, and seemed preoccupied with some very nice blow-up water chairs. More people came and went throughout the day, 5 or 6 of them whose Spanish was punctuated with English, and who sported a fair number of tattoos (not unheard of in Ecuador, but nowhere near as prevalent as in Seattle). At one point, the gringo stopped a passing vendor of "panama hats" (which are actually made in Ecuador), and purchased one for all of the main inhabitants of the shelter, pulling the money out of a thin leather portfolio. There were also a few more typical Ecuadorians present, one older guy with binoculars, and a few younger ones who asked permission before they took a drink, and who here helping out with the water toys. Towards the end of the day, they hooked up the water chairs to a ski boat they had rented, and took off like a bunch of kids just let loose in a candy store. There wasn't any drug dealing going on that I was aware of, but I did have just a tiny nagging vision of getting caught in the middle of a blazing gun battle, as someone, a group of rival drug lords or the police, realized who they were! (Sorry, no pictures of this crew - we just didn't think it was prudent!)

Well, we were ready to pack it in, so we headed back to the same restaurant we ate at the day before, for dinner and to watch the futbol game! Ecuador vs. Uruguay- a sort of "must-win" game for the national team in order to advance in the World Cup qualifying tournament. (They lost, sort of robbed, as it was 1-1 going into the final minutes, when the ref missed a clear "hand" on the part of the Urugyanos, and a minute later the Ecuadorian goalie got a yellow card for a trip, and the resulting free shot from about 20 feet in front of the goal resulted in a 2-1 victory by Uruguay.)

Sunday was head home day. Debby and I started the day with a walk thru the little village behind the ice factory. I kick myself for not bringing my camera, because it was a remarkable area in that it was the most colorless area I've ever seen. The houses were simple, made of split bamboo, and elevated, like we had seen on the bus ride. A few houses were made of concrete block ("bloque"), and the dustyness of everything in the town, from the dirt road up, matched the color of the bloque (the same shade of grey as US concrete block). I'm not exaggerating when I say that the only color visible was the laundry hanging in a few back yards. Other than this, it was an uneventful day, except for getting one of our backpacks stolen at the Guayaquil bus station (which, by the way, is huge, a sort of combination of a US airport and a shopping mall), and Nikki barfing on the bus as we crossed thru Cajas in the fog, which might have been attributable to the totally cheesy movie about a firefighter and a wife whose marital problems were solved by some serious vitamin J. But since my own case of the runs arrived the next day, it was most likely something we ate - either that fried plantain thing, or the Chinese food we ate at the bus station. In any event, we are both healthy now!

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