Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador
The political demonstrations a month ago as part of a peaceful roar which caused the president’s resignation in what eventually only amounted to a palace revolution in Quito finally erupted in Bahía de Caráquez. Whether ironically or with perfect poetic timing, it was on St Valentine’s Day.
With Flor-Maria at the wheel and Patricio as company, we drove out of town in the early morning of my last day of this visit to catch a plane in Manta for Guayaquil. Carey Knecht had arrived about a week before to take over at least until the end of March in order to complete the last two-thirds of Planet Drum Foundation’s revegetation project. A meeting with Marcelo and “Cheo” (school teacher Eduardo’s tag) a few days before had produced a realistic schedule that made everything “transparent.” Even though we’ve only known each other for little more than a month, I felt relaxed about Carey’s ability to deal with the considerable problems our work entails, which extend from constant mundane precautions to ward off gastro-intestinal disorders to hiring and overseeing workers, organizing logistics for obtaining and transporting seedlings, and the daily round-trip through mud soup when it rains from our apartment/office to the planting site. She is meticulous about improving Spanish fluency and that had already smoothed out our work together during the previous week.
We didn’t know why soldiers of the National Police stopped the car at a temporary bridge that remained from the mud slides more than a year ago. An overturned tank with burn marks lay in the road just beyond the bridge, and thick smoke was rising ahead beyond a curve. Flor convinced the officer in charge to allow us to continue over his warnings and we cautiously progressed to where burning tires and tree branches created a blockade across both sides of the road. “Careful, Mom,” Patricio said in English so that I could also be warned. “We don’t know the mood yet.” We watched seventy-five or so people at the junction of the dirt road from Fanca holding back traffic in both directions and cheering “Paro, paro, paro (Strike, strike, strike)!” When we got out to begin moving slowly toward the crowd, the smell of burning rubber and an ominous high-pitched, gravelly-metallic sound greeted us. Patricio whispered, “Do you hear that? It’s machetes scraped along the road as a warning.” Faces in the crowd quickly became familiar as people Flor knew from numerous trips to aid the destitute Fanca barrio. There were a few intense leaders, a high proportion of young men with machetes, some women and children onlookers and a few drunks. The fires had an out-sized heating effect as the day progressed because of the normally high temperature, causing everyone to perspire heavily. We had arrived just after the blockade had been built and other cars began lining up in both directions on either side of the burning line.
With a bare grasp of Spanish, I was thrown into a negligible role for what followed. Patricio handed me a camera, “Take a picture of Mom with those barrio leaders.” Flor listened intently in the center of a ring of onlookers four or five deep while some men explained the situation. She called to Patricio who pulled out a cell phone and began what seemed to be a negotiative dialogue with city officials back in their downtown offices.
At first there was some tension about my taking photos but it seemed to vaporize along with the columns of smoke rising from the barricade. Drifting away from the circle, I could see how the blockade dynamics were being played out. An informal group of less than ten men with machetes and some older women had stationed themselves by a sidewalk backed with a wall on the side of the road for incoming traffic. They called out and whistled at anyone who tried to drive through. When some passengers in stalled cars tried to walk through carrying sacks of rice and other goods, the guard group approached shaking machetes and shouting, “Paro, paro!” The blockade had been deliberately made at the closest point in the main road for Fanca residents to come out and join, and as time passed a steady line of them kept arriving. Soldiers were kept at least a hundred feet back from the blockade on the outgoing side. Their officers and local police slowly joined the discussion circle without incident.
At this point, the whole event could be seen as more playful and less potentially violent. Most of the participants had never done something like it before.
It was a piece of history but it was also a melodrama in which the actors were without a scripted conclusion. The air of anticipation had shifted from preparing for an attack to holding out until some favorable terms were reached. The difference in tone became clear when different people asked to have their photo taken and afterward said, “Gracias.” I emptied Patricio’s camera and began using what would eventually number three of the recyclable cameras in my pack. I was approached by Angel, one of the workers that had been hired for our project who told me in a perfectly routine way that he was only going to stay for another hour and then go to work at the site in Maria Auxiliadora. He brought over some other Fanca demonstrators and asked if they could work too. I explained that we didn’t have enough money to hire more of what Patricio called “revegetadores” until I could raise additional grant funds or donations and that I was headed to the airport for that purpose. It was the most unexpected discussion with protestors who continued throwing more tires on the fire that I could have imagined. One of them had a broken tree limb held under one arm by two stubs like a machine gun that he pointed at the soldiers with comic opera delight.
Patricio explained that there were several pressing complaints. One was the mired condition of Fanca’s roads since the rains began. Another was overflow from a large municipal sewage pond adjacent to the barrio that was held to be responsible for many of around six hundred cases of malaria in Bahia during the month of January. As we talked, a man approached Flor and began describing the horrendous situation of a sick woman related to someone for whom he was the godfather who dwelled in a shack that was flooded with rain water runoff from a garbage heap. Under normal conditions, Fanca is hellish. More than a year of continuous neglect and the additional problems of the rainy season had just become too much to bear.
The vice-mayor eventually arrived at the head of a line of debris trucks. After a few minutes of discussing the terms of an agreement, burning logs and tires were poked to the side and trucks speeded up to pass over hot char marks left in the road. Then they turned into the Fanca road, presumably to begin filling in muddy and rutted roads. Popular political action had prevailed.
It was too late when the road opened to catch the plane. A friend of Patricio’s who happened to be in the line of blocked cars offered to take me along on the three-hour drive to Guayaquil. The ride gave me a chance to think about the possibilities for changed conditions that may prevail in Bahia when I return next August. There were riots when I arrived this time and a blockaded road on the way out, but no one was hurt and the peaceful roar got louder and greener.