Bahia de caraquez, Ecuador
Of all the differences between living here and in San Francisco there is one that creates a paramount necessity. It is the millimeter close proximity of organisms that use the human body for their own purposes and other natural effects. This slim space eventually becomes a factor in most activities if not a near obsession.
There is a hospital quality about life in highly industrialized countries that isn’t so apparent as when it disappears. Entire populations live almost as they were Bubble People within transparent plastic domes, sealed off from injurious contact with potentially detrimental species or natural elements. Society in these countries takes on the responsibility of exterminating or otherwise warding off influences that might harm or annoy its citizens. If for some reason public measures fail there is a huge inventory of poisons, sprays, traps, electric zappers, high pitched noise producers, filters, humidifiers, air conditioners, and other ways to privately adjust natural environments. Bubble People are usually unaware of the wealth of organisms and spectrum of environmental variations looming beyond the distant guarded perimeter.
Ecuador manifests a strong presence of natural forces even in the cities. The most urban of them, Quito, was heavily dusted by volcanic ash for days two years ago. Other municipalities have more continuous interplay with multiple wild elements. Rural places are awash in them. The contrast between industrial civilization insulation and equatorial exposure is so striking that it lifts several important issues to consciousness. Which way of life is more desirable? Which is more expensive? Which is more costly to the biosphere? Which is more realistic?
The following examples of daily occurrences here aren’t meant as cautionary or negative appraisals. Hopefully they’ll frame some of the most pressing questions that are raised.
Amid the abundance of life on the equator, mosquitoes of several types are so common and unavoidable that they are treated as expected company. Swarms are problematic because thirty or forty bites on the face and neck or even an arm is a distractingly irritating experience. Otherwise everyone seems to tolerate a few itching bumps at all times. One variety’s bite stings fiercely for fifteen minutes and then subsides. Yesterday the downstairs ice cream vendor called them “tigres” (tigers) and claimed they have stripes. Another leaves an irritation that lasts several days and causes uncontrollable scratching. All can become infected.
The act of drawing blood by female mosquitoes to feed its eggs may incidentally impart other life forms that take up residence within the blood stream or tissues. Malaria and dengue fever are the most common, carrying out a full cycle of reproduction over several weeks in feverish prostrate victims. Many people who live here have had one or the other, malaria being easier to contract and the high fever of dengue more serious to endure. Brian’s stay is less than a year so far and he has had both.
Walking barefoot or even in sandals around animal wastes invites niguas to bore undetected into feet, a favorite spot being between toenail and skin. Niguas lay an egg sack preferably in a hidden place that can grow large and difficult to remove. Brian informed us about them a week ago, explaining that they should be credited with some of the missing toes and fingers of people around town. He became expert at removing niguas from several other people after ridding himself by making a small incision and squeezing. No more than a day later Chris began hopping on one leg examining the bottom of the opposite foot. He pressed both sides of a bump and forced out a round pink egg sack.
The impact of ordinary natural elements such as the sun is also magnified. When I visited San Vicente by river taxi for a celebration commemorating three years of independence as a separate canton (county) from Bahia de Caraquez’s Canton Sucre, it was mildly breezy with a typically overcast November sky. On the main street in San Vicente a grandstand held at least twenty dignitaries including the mayor, his French wife, and the Captain of the Port. They rose when the Ecuadorian flag appeared at the head of every marching group in a long parade that while only head high featured salsa dancing knee-high booted school cheerleaders performing extraordinary routines, stilt walking costumed boys, and solemn processional groups of teachers and artisans. The sun came out at some point and I admired marchers who kept pacing in place when they halted in the growing heat. Keeping a place on the unshaded sidewalk with spectators pushing from all directions held most of my physical attention, until I began to feel a mild floating sensation. Sunstroke comes fast here, so I was compelled to walk back to a boat while I still could. On the way ice-cold perspiration dripped into my eyes and my head began to throb. Lightness was now lifting and tipping me toward the ground. The pier gangway was a tiresome puzzle requiring totally focused thought. After I stumbled on board and sat in the first available place, I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we docked fifteen minutes later. At a riverside restaurant I asked for water on the way to a chair, and when seated put a spoon into a mustard jar on the table to test the need for salt. It was as sweet as a banana. The whole round trip was without exertion and lasted only two hours, but heat exhaustion had come as close as the floor. Such an extreme reaction might have just been my own disposition except when Cheo caught up the next day he told of head-throbbing dizziness following the parade that forced him to sit down in the shade.
There are countless similar and more severe incidents. People who live here don’t dwell on them in the same way as foreigners who out-horrify themselves relating painful personal experiences and stories of misadventures. Taking an appropriate level of responsibility for one’s well being is hard-won for most Bubble People and talking about consequences is obviously part of the preparation. Then come decisions about whether to put on sunscreen, use mosquito repellent, brush teeth with bottled water, omit salads, take malaria pills, wear long sleeve shirts, forego sandals for shoes, check yourself for ticks, put on a hat, carry a water bottle …the list can become very long. Some considerations about taking various precautions are personal susceptibility, whether or not there’s time to get sick (if untreated the typical local gastro-intestinal condition usually consumes three days), and attitudes about living here authentically. Everybody draws a line somewhere.
Here’s a final image to highlight the contrast. Someone who recently arrived decided to go along with Chris and Patrick when Marcelo led a trek to see howler monkeys. It was at least four hours in and back through brush and wooded country that included an unusually humid coastal forest. Good hiking shoes were called for but she only had sandals and some new white tennis-type shoes carried as a last resort. Inevitably the time came when they were needed because of scratches from thorny branches and she noted ironically that there was a warning label: For Indoor Use Only.