Day 37: Ecuador!

Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
Trip End Dec 25, 2007

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Friday, October 12, 2007

I'm finally writing about Ecuador. More than two weeks late. I'm gonna make this short and sweet for all of our sanity.

I had the Guayaquil 101 tour today, just a basic city tour of the port city of Guayaquil. I had signed up for a thermal mudbaths tour too, but they ended up running the same day and I chose the city tour. I don't really know why; I've had so many city tours I'm not sure I can handle too many more. But it turned out not to matter in the least because there was a strike or some other political unrest out in the area the mudbaths were in and they closed down so many roads that the group couldn't go anyway and were reassigned the city tour. Turns out I made the right choice after all.

Our guide was named Rocío, which means 'morning dew', and she was really good and shared a lot of information with us about the history of the city and the things that are going on now. People in Ecuador consider their country the only country that has been truly blessed by God because they have the Equator running through the country East to West and also the Andes mountains running North to South. She explained how Guayaquil was experiencing a time of relative prosperity, compared to the way things had been only a few years earlier. Where bamboo structures had been, now cement buildings stood. Parks throughout the city had been redesigned and were now kept in proper order, and private police patrolled all the parks and pedestrian-heavy spaces. She kept saying things like "I'm not going to lie to you, this is how it is" when she talked about the poverty in Guayaquil, but she is proud of her city and it showed in her presentation of it.

She warned us about how the weather may be - that it had been sunny for days but that the forecast called for rain this afternoon, but that in Ecuador you never really knew what the weather would be like. Sounds familiar. Her words were "I don't know how is the mood of the one that we have upstairs." One of the things I thought was interesting was the list of exports Rocío cited for us. Ecuador gets its money from oil, shrimp, tourism, cocoa, and roses. Roses! Roses in Ecuador run about $2.00 a dozen. I wanted to fill my entire room! I'll never be able to pay $20 at home knowing how ridiculous the markup had become.

We spent all of our time in tourist locations - along the recently constructed Malecon 2000, in parks, and in the Anthropological Museum. This is natural, of course, logically a guide would want to show off the nicest parts of the city. But it was clear what we were missing as we drove through town, past the grungy shops and the women with too many children and the men pushing their wares on every passerby. It was hard to think of this as a time of economic prosperity.

Our first stop was Seminario Park, nicknamed by the tourists the "Iguana Park." Aptly named. This left Mara's iguanas back in Guararé far behind. Rocía warned us fervently about the trees: "don't stand under the trees because if you do the iguanas might 'babticise' you." Seminario Park is so named because the Seminario family donated fencing for the park in 1985. There were iguanas everywhere - on the lawns, on the statue pedestals, and especially in the trees. There were dozens of them! You would have loved it Mom. Don't worry; I took lots of pictures.

We went into the cathedral across the street to have a look around; churches and cathedrals must be particularly interesting to tourists as we seem to encounter huge numbers of them in every country we visit. This one was beautiful too of course, but this one was unique because it was being remodeled. There were bamboo scaffolds everywhere, and men in makeshift rope harnesses carrying cans of paint climbing and swinging all over the place. It was an interesting way to see a church; they always seem to me to be the sorts of places that people just go to, the sorts of places that keep up themselves. There was dust all over the ground, and extension cords crisscrossed the cracked cement floor.

We walked around for a while, took some pictures. Then we left, back out past the stained glass and the peeling pews and the old ladies sitting at the entrance asking for money. I hate those situations. Or rather I hate myself in those situations. What on earth are you supposed to do? At least this time I truly didn't have any money on me; at least this time I wasn't lying when I told them I had nothing to give them. I am always reminded of that Mark Wills song about the crippled man on the corner who says "And don't think I don't notice that our eyes never meet." What do you do when you do meet their eyes? What can someone like me possibly say to someone like them that wouldn't just compound the injustice of the whole situation? What business do we have being there at all, witnessing that when we have no real power to change it?

And just like that it was back on the bus and off to the next beautiful place, past all the ugly places without a word, past the miles of men and boys polishing shoes and women selling dates and cups of coke out of three-liter bottles. Ecuador's unemployment rate is 12%. Do these people qualify as unemployed? That can't be called employment, can it? Or are they somewhere in between, falling through the cracks?

Next we drove to the Malecon, making several stops along the most beautiful parkway in Guayaquil. It was funded by the government and commissioned by a recent mayor of the city, who was also responsible for the beautiful parks, for remodeling and painting the outsides of all of the homes on Cerro Santa Ana, and for the condition of prosperity Guayaquil had found itself in in recent years. The Malecon was absolutely beautiful, there was no mistake about that. But what about the sidewalks with gaping holes where the tiles were missing and 18-inch-deep culverts full of garbage cutting into every curb on the streets only a block or two away? We could only hope they might come next, but each of us knew privately that they probably wouldn't.

There was a place on the Malecon where the flag of Ecuador flew in the center of a ring of poles flying the flags of each province. Ecuador's flag is yellow, red, and blue in horizontal bands: yellow for richness, blue for the sea, and red for the blood of heroes. The Malecon is situated along the river. There is several miles of botanical garden on the other side of the Malecon, separating large parts of it from the rest of the city, even hiding some of it from view entirely. Classical music (Mozart today) poured from speakers strategically placed every two or three light poles. There were little cafés dotted along the strip, and stands and carts set up to sell water and ice cream. The Anthropology Museum is there, along with the IMAX and other attractions. There are several monuments as well, and also four towers constructed along the water representing the four elements.

It's a beautiful part of the city, and for a while it is easy to forget what most of the rest of the city really looks like. Next we walked to the north end of the Malecon to Cerro Santa Ana and Rocío explained about the government paying to paint the outsides of all the houses. The hill is beautiful; all the houses are done in bright colors and there is a lighthouse stationed right at the top of it all. 440 steps lead up to the lighthouse and you can even climb up inside the lighthouse tower. We went up the first hundred and something stairs to a little craft market where I found the perfect shoulder bag. Perfect. Yes, Anna, I bought a... gulp... purse. So now I have three. But it was worth it I promise check this out. It's suede leather and handmade, big enough for a book but flat so I can't stuff it full of unnecessary crap, has a wide shoulder strap that adjusts like a belt, and a peace sign on the fringed flap. It's the coolest bag ever. I'm so excited. I wasn't sure if I was going to buy it and then my friend James (and believe me, he would know) goes "Oh honey, that's YOU." So I bought it.

We walked to a little overlook where we could get a great view of the city and take a few pictures, then were on our way back down again. I decided I'd have to come back later in the week and hike the other 300 stairs to the top. That's where the real view of the city would be. Next was the museum; it wasn't much to speak of but it probably would have been interesting if I hadn't been to so many already. I hope our AFP in Sidney doesn't go to too many museums or I might just lose my mind. The guide was really cute though so that helped. There wasn't much more to the tour than that. I learned a lot and it was a fun day but I was looking forward to doing things on my own terms the rest of the week.

After the tour I met Rachel and Ricky to go back into the city to find an internet café and research possible plans for independent travel in New Zealand. Ricky has pretty good Spanish and found us a café without much trouble. As it turns out, all the things they're going to do are things I'm going to do with my family when they come so I didn't want to cheat and do it without them, so I just hung out with them while they got it figured out and then we went looking for a mall and phone cards. We never found phone cards, but we got Ricky a camera store (finally) - his camera broke in Panama - and me some batteries. They wanted to stay out but I had promised to meet Stephanie (my Politics of Terrorism professor) for dinner on the ship to plan our tentative trip to Quito so they walked me back to the shuttle stop so I wouldn't have to go by myself. We had a quiet night on the ship, made some copies from the Lonely Planet Guide for arts in Quito, and went to bed early.

So much for being short and sweet.
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