Monday, February 8, 2010


Our last trip to the coast,with our friends from Seattle, was spent mostly in and around Puerto Lopez. I've been wanting to come back to the coast, and I remembered that our friend Ron mentioned that he came to Montañita almost every month to go surfing. So I hitched a ride with him this month, and found myself in the surfing mecca of Ecuador. Our ride down from the sierra was mostly in the rain, and it was raining when we finally arrived here on Sat. afternoon. Ron took right to the water, and I wandered around the beautiful beach.

Montañita is a small town, that is seriously on the Gringo trail, and there are lots of young, hippie and surfer type tourists. But on the weekend, there are also a much larger group of Ecuadorians who visit, and pickup soccer games on the beach far outnumber the foreign surfers. I decided against taking a surfing lesson - I just won't have enough opportunities in my life to surf to make it worthwhile learning. So I just indulged in the other activity for which Montañita is famous - chillin' out.

This meant that I was able to meet a lot of travelers with interesting stories. While contemplating a tide pool, I met a Peruvian journalist, a woman traveling alone - a relatively rare occurrence amongst folks in this part of the world. I also met a group of "Porteños" (people from Buenos Aires) drinking their afternoon "mate" on the beach. (I've seen a lot of Argentinians here, and they all seem to travel with their mate, including the apparatus to drink it - a thermos of hot water, a cup stuffed with the tea, and a special metal straw which strains the tea as they drink it. I had my MP3 player with me when I met this group of 20 somethings, and I'm proud to say that not only did I have some hip Latin music with me that they knew (Gotan Project, Amigos Invisibles), I also had some hip Latin music that they didn't know (Federico Aubele), but liked, and I also turned them on to Michael Franti, Ozomatli, and some others!

I did not bring my camera with me on this trip, but no one would believe the pictures of the sunset, even if I did have any to post. In the west, they sky was on fire as the clouds arrayed themselves like a proscenium arch,reaching towards the beach, softly glowing orange as the sun left the stage. 180 degrees away, a double rainbow filled the jungle behind the town. As the light lingered, a lamp from a fishing boat took the place of the sun on the horizon, set in front of a small dark cloud at the edge, and by the time the sky was completely dark, it was joined by lamps from more than a dozen other boats.

Ok, so I didn't just chill out. On Sunday and Tuesday mornings, I also went for a run on the beach. The beach is flat and wide - ideal for running. (And coming from almost 9,000 feet above see level, I felt practically bionic as I ran!) From the north point, near where we stayed, to the south point is, I guess, about 2 miles. Just a beach run at the equator, but on my way I passed a small herd of cattle lounging on the sand; the center of Montañita, still not awake after what was no doubt a long night of partying (attested to by the Venezuelans in the room next door, who got back around 5:00 am); and two groups harvesting shrimp larvae. Shrimp is a huge part of the Ecuadorian economy - one of the top five sources of foreign exchange. I had seen this scene before, but I didn't know what it was. From a distance, one sees a line of about 15 - 20 people, arrayed somewhat equidistantly, all leaning slightly away from the ocean, as if blown by the breeze, like the trees on the nearby point. You need to get much closer to see the line they are pulling. The people are all locals: shorter, brown-skinned, men mostly, but also women and children, all dressed in a wet collection of old T-shirts and shorts. The line they are pulling extends into the sea, attached to the net, which is about 4' tall by I don't know how long. Although I didn't get to see them pull the whole net out, I know that once it is on the sand, they all fall to picking out the larvae, which are transferred to tanks, to grow to harvestable shrimp in about 5 months.

And after my Tuesday run? Well, a quick splash in the water, a shower, breakfast, and ... oh, let's see. How about back to the tidepools! Unlike the first time I visited (when I met the Peruvian journalist), the tide was coming in this time. These tide pools are really pretty spectacular - they are at the base of a steep, 50' tall cliff, which is clearly wave eroded, strata are visible up to the top. At the base, where it meets the ocean, the rock appears to be lava: pockmarked with holes and sharp edges. At the first pool I visited, I noticed that the anemones were all wide open, and I thought that the high tide is like sunlight for them: it nourishes them with fresh stuff to eat. This contrasted with my visit to the pool at low tide, when the anemones were all closed up. At low tide I also remember noticing that some of the small fish were very aggressive, defending their "territory" against other fish. I commented to the Peruvian that I wondered if it was because there wasn't much left to eat, given that the pool hadn't been refreshed for a while. My observation of the anemones makes me think my first idea on this had some merit. (Perhaps someone with some knowledge of marine biology can clue me in.)

After paying a little too much attention to the tide pool, and not enough to the tide (i.e., I got hammered by an incoming wave!), I started to wonder to what extent the incoming tide "clears out the neighborhood." But my eye caught on a fairly large (3") crab climbing the rock just above the waterline. Numerous strong waves didn't even phase him. And the fish - although I can't be certain they were the same ones I saw before and after the incoming crashing waves, I did see them swim in and out of little caves under the waterline, so they probably can be considered at least semi-permanent residents.

Eventually, hunger and the sun brought me back to the beach, and here are just a few notes and observations:
- For lunch, I ate (again) ceviche from a cart on the beach. I love ceviche at the beach, and it's probably the only place I ever eat it. In Montañita, there are a bunch of ceviche vendors, all pushing a similar looking cart. The front looks like the bow of a white boat with red trim, and it is attached to the frame, drive train and rear wheel of a bike. I asked the vendor if they were all part of a chain or what, and he told me that they all belonged to a 14 member cooperative. Each member buys their own food supplies, but the carts were given to them by the local government a few years ago. Additionally, the cooperative has a marketing agreement with a local "embutido" (processed meat) company, and their logo is on the red and white umbrella above the cart. They hope to replace "Gustadina" with Coca Cola, or some other top-flight sponsor when the current agreement expires.

- There are many beach dogs roaming the beach. They are kind of a mix of a playful, people friendly dog, and a feral street dog. But one of these animals, came up to me while I was sitting on the beach, eating my ceviche, and took off with my water bottle! He clearly wanted me to play fetch with him with it. This may have just been a ploy to get my lunch, but I wasn't going to take the bait. Eventually, he tired of me, and dug a hole in the sand into which he deposited my bottle. (Not that I would have wanted it back anyway!)

- This just in from the Fashion Desk: Butt cheeks are back on the beach. This is not the full-on (anal) floss of yesteryear, nor the siren-like string bikinis of years gone by, but rather a stylishly cut designer slab. Some critics have referred to this as the "mullet" of bikinis, since from the front they are surprisingly conventional, but from the back... it's Business Time! On the other side of the divide, the stylish Beach Boy this year is sporting... baggies. I'm not exactly complaining, but what's going on here? My guess is that those bikini bottoms were designed by (and for) some pudgy dude (in baggies) who averts his eye when Minnie Mouse comes walking towards him. Now, he can contemplate the waves like a regular sophisticate until the proper moment, and then..., it's a front row ticket to King Lear!

- Speaking of bikinis and baggies.... It sure seems that a high percentage of short, dark-haired Ecuadorian surfing instructors are walking back from the lesson with a tall blond student on their arm....

Yeah.... I could get used to life on the beach....

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