Tropical Winter Sketches

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

At this moment hundreds of thousands of tons of water hyacinths are floating down Ecuadorean rivers headed for the coast. Heavy rains that flooded out the shallow places where they overgrew during summer and fall have loosened stalks and leaves in long drifting lines that now artfully illustrate the river current. Occasionally there are large patches of plants that tore away together. It isn’t possible to view the river without seeing bright green reminders of how strong the rains have been that pulled so many hyacinths loose. More are heaped on the riverbanks forming temporary dunes. Those that finally make it to the ocean are a gluttonous belly-swelling treat for the offshore food chain with ramifications throughout the Pacific. I have even heard that some of the animal life forms on the Galapagos Islands hundreds of miles from the coast evolved from progenitors that floated there atop similar ships of debris.

Rain in this season is sometimes violent and relentless. In the short space while I was talking to a friend water disgorged so strongly from one towering black cloud that the downtown streets became instantly impassable. A half-foot of brown fluid suddenly ran as fast and with waves similar to a mountain creek, swirling through the city from the surrounding hillsides. Even sandaled walkers were reluctant to wade across because of the force that sometimes rolled rocks and propelled chunks of wood. Crowds grew on each corner as more people finished their business and emptied stores or came out to watch fascinated, smiling to each other at the marvelous display. As abruptly as it began the rain died away and the flood subsided like dish water emptying from a slow-draining sink. Residual mud and gravel in streaks on the street were the only evidence of a first-class natural display that everyone who experienced it added to their memory of this winter. 

Plant growth has been astonishing. Hillsides that were barren only two months ago are now so dense with high foliage that we are placing tall sticks tipped with red paint beside our revegetation plantings in order to find them for watering later in the year. 

Mud is everywhere. Field work is made twice as difficult because of slipping and slogging in mud. Some streets are sealed with it. All vehicles are coated or streaked with brown splotches. Clean shoes and pants are instantly soiled. Floors have small piles of stiff dirt and the light thud of a broom hitting the baseboard is a nearly constant indoor background sound. 

When people ask what is so appealing about coastal Ecuador I usually answer, “Nature is closer there.” These sketches are part of what I mean. 

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