Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
Whenever I return to Ecuador the first real taste of the country is the Guayaquil bus terminal (terminal terrestre). Serving the biggest city in the country, it feels like the commercial district of a uniquely busy small town of its own because there are thousands of people and hundreds of seemingly permanent features such as import and export delivery businesses, vendors, peddlers, and tour hawkers along with numerous food stands.
Into this frantic hub come hourly waves of all the varieties of Ecuador’s people to board or exit constantly arriving and departing brightly painted buses. Short, long-braided and hatted indigenous people from the Andes, stilty tall Afro-Ecuadorians from coastal Esmeraldes, tight slacks and short-sleeved shirt wearing urbanites whose faces and bodies carry widely varying reminders of their mixed native and Spanish ancestry. North American, Japanese, Australian, German, and other nationalities of tourists are easily identifiable with backpacks, water bottles, sun burns, and often bewildered expressions. Everyone is alert if not anxious about catching the right bus at the right parking stall. They are all caught up with readjusting clothes and baggage, searching for a rare empty bench and racing to fill one if found, and sweltering in the heat together.
Some immediate stand-outs of remembrance from the previous times I’ve been here are bright reds and yellows in signs and clothing, the huge number of children, many people peeling and eating bananas, oranges, and mangoes, massive loads of baggage including food sacks and boxes of goods that some passengers carry, and the conflicting sounds of different sources of mainly dance music added to the undulating roar of conversations and growling announcements bouncing dissonantly off the walls.
Because it’s the beginning of the weekend, more of the crowd is returning home from jobs in the city, going to visit relatives in the country, or making a recreational getaway. For me it’s a semi-annual visit of a month’s duration to initiate and look over Planet Drum Foundation’s ecological projects in the Pacific coastal city of Bahia de Caraquez.
The bus trip to Bahia takes about six hours careening over and around obstacles in the road, enough of an interval to prepare for the city’s ocean breeze and easy-going, quiet atmosphere (muy tranquilo say all of the residents).. Nine years after the catastrophic mud slides of El Nino combined with a 7.2 Richter earthquake that left as many as five thousand families homeless, the city has largely recuperated. There are recently constructed buildings, new paint, more people, and an immediately palpable upbeat feeling. The market is now packed every morning and especially on Saturday with vendors spilling out onto surrounding sidewalks where three-wheeled pedicabs (triciclos) wait to carry home customers with their goods.
After the usual few days of acclimation to a radiator hot sun and sometimes sticky humidity, it was time to set out on the first new undertaking for this trip. We need to build an access road into the land that has been secured for creating a bioregional institute. Located sixteen kilometers from Bahia near a small village named Pajonal, it is surrounded by farmers and ranchers on all sides. Only three of their places border the main highway and two of those have reasonable possibilities. On this visit I need to see both to decide which is most suitable for a route, and then negotiate terms or land price with the owner of the one chosen. If there’s enough time left after that we have to make arrangements with a brush-clearing, road-building contractor to do the work when I return in late fall during the dry season. It’s worth telling the story of the first of these land visits step-by-step to reveal how things usually proceed in this part of Ecuador.
Prepared for the trip to see potential sites at six in the morning in total blackness without electricity or water because a storm the night before knocked out the power generating station. Put shoes on the wrong feet and only realized it after walking out the door.
Met Clay, our new Field Projects Manager, and caught a bus that was gratefully on time. Arrived at Pajonal to discover that side roads were too muddy after last night’s deluge for even trucks to drive, and the horses we expected weren’t there. We waited the the traditional half-hour that is extended for keeping appointments. They still didn’t come.
Since we didn’t know the specific directions to the ranch we wanted to see as a site for the prospective access road, we walked down the highway asking various neighbors until one pointed it out. The land owner who had agreed to meet us there never showed up after a half-hour’s wait (maybe due to the muddy conditions).
So we slipped through the barbed wire gate and reconnoitered the place looking for a trail that might lead to our land. Found what seemed to be the right direction and made some headway across a creek bank that must be flood-prone judging from its nearly vertical banks, and started up the other side until it became too slippery to hike further. Saw enough to know that this spot needs a bridge and is probably a harder route for road construction than what I remembered about the second choice which I had taken to get the first glimpse of our land two years before.
I decided to try to find the farmer who owned that place. He had originally asked too much money to buy enough land for the road. Until now I had wanted to avoid further discussion until we knew the other options. But seeing him now would be a way to salvage the day and it was only a kilometer away. When we arrived at the house his wife said he wasn’t there but may return from working in the woods in a half-hour.
Clay and I decided to wait in the breezeway under their typical bamboo-sided house raised one floor above the ground on hand-hewn pillars, a sensible design for catching some cool air and avoiding mosquitoes. We were surrounded by three young boys, chickens, dogs, a cat, and a duck. Turned my back for a moment and a puppy grabbed the pieces of bread I had out to make lunch. Luckily there was one piece in reserve allowing Clay and me to share a gourmet-tasting tuna/avocado sandwich.
The farmer Quijije arrived with some family members riding a burro loaded with burlap sacks of just-made charcoal. He had originally guided us when the institute land was under consideration before we bought it. We recognized each other and quickly opened the subject of a prospective road through his place. His price is now only one-third of what he asked before and he wants the brush-clearing task as a separate paid job. I guessed that the passage of a year without response from us had the effect of making him reconsider the price and told him I would think about it after we made a trip together the following week to view the course a roadway might take. Our conversation concluded with the amiability that is appropriate for relations with future neighbors.
Clay and I then walked out to the side of the main paved road to wait for another half-hour (how many of those were there?) before waving down a bus back to town. “That was the real Ecuador,” Clay said about the people and land we had seen and he was right.
Small farms and ranches are much more numerous than big ones in this basically agricultural country and they are usually surrounded by conditions of wildness. It was also the frequently delayed, and face-to-face way business is usually done here. We had failed with most of the planned main objectives but may have ultimately solved the problem anyway. The way local people put it is, “Everything is possible but nothing is secure.”