Two And a Half Doses of Realidad

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Eco-Gathering Report #3

Even when you know what it is, the government-provided shack village at Fanca for people who were made homeless by the mudslides and earthquake here is a powerfully stark and incomprehensible sight. All of the 50 or so rough-finished wood stilt and bamboo-sided dwellings are above your head and only reached by steep stair-ladders. They float peculiarly as a light brown mass without green features over the solid gray-brown mud ground. There are at least a half-dozen thin stilts per unit, and the houses are packed extremely close together, so that the view straight through the village is like looking through the slats of a wooden fruit box at a vertical jumble of sticks. It is a visual confusion that matches the violently disordered situation that brought the residents here in the first place.

These shacks could only be offered in good conscience as emergency shelters, but they will doubtless become permanent into the foreseeable future for many occupants because of the lack of economic opportunities to change their condition. Only about 15 by 15 feet in area — one smallish room to serve as bed space, kitchen and storage area — the shacks are low-ceilinged, without water or plumbing, and possess a strange ramada-like interior light due to the flimsy, bamboo-split roll-up walls. It is ironic that these tropical-style structures would otherwise be appealing situated on a beach for day-time use or standing alone in a forested area surrounded by banana and mango trees. Jammed so closely together with only mud and mosquito-breeding standing water below them, the shacks take on a sinister prison stockade look instead. There is an adequate number of concrete block outhouse toilets within the compound but it seems unlikely that they keep human wastes confined since, incredibly, the entire complex is built on top of a mud flow that filled up a former farm field near a creek bed. The outhouse contents must surely mingle with sub-surface water and leach out nearby sooner or later as a pestilential menace. As it is, the mud spaces under and between houses are already littered with pig, chicken, dog, and cat feces. Finally, this former mud flow could even begin moving again given continued rains.

Is there any conceivable up-side to this situation? The people express a sense of satisfaction at having been saved from horrendous disasters which included some of them being swept out into the bay clinging to tree branches. Surprisingly, even with the new La Nina rains turning roads into rivers and causing Fanca residents to sink up to their ankles in mud, they say that things are getting better. There is a cement slab floored, solid walled schoolhouse on one side of the compound. The residents own the shacks and the small pieces of land they occupy, and some of them are requesting assistance to rent nearby farmland to start gardens for sustenance and income.

After experiencing Fanca and numerous other after-effects from Bahia’s calamities (actually it is one long calamity entering its second year, with a few quick bursts highlighting many slower ones in between … and continuing), I’ve become more respectful regarding the depth of change that making an eco-municipality in this bioregion requires. Just as the visual damage which is so ubiquitous — missing floors of highrises, absent walls, piles of rubble in roadways along with mud mounds, and splits ranging from wide crevices to small cracks in streets, sidewalks, walls, and floors — can mask the structural distress inside a building that may necessitate tearing it down, the surface need for eco-city hides the requirement for deeper transformations. There are plenty of obvious things that can be done such as separation of trash in city collection boxes and picking up the tons of litter on beaches and roads coming into town. The city’s famous three-wheeled bike-truck/taxi “triciclos” could be painted bright green as a prominent symbol of Bahia’s new direction. Youth teams with uniform green t-shirts can answer calls when new projects need help. Household kitchen scraps can be collected to make compost for the farm which Fanca residents want to start. The list of these outward innovations might contain hundreds of similar items.

But to make a truly ecological city there needs to be an overhaul of basic infrastructures or those superficial, perhaps only cosmetic changes will be like painting a building that is about to fall down anyway due to cracked internal foundations and girders. Water, energy, sewage, garbage, and transportation systems have to be reconstrued in ways that match the bioregional realities here. So does education and media, arts and architecture, and other aspects of public life. Most importantly, Eco-Bahia must undertake these short and long term changes in ways that provide economic advantages for the destitute victims of natural calamities and otherwise impoverished people, and encourage their participation in creating what can ultimately become a better way of life in all respects.

A comparatively half-size reality appeared in the form of a new creek across the path when Patricio Tamariz and I were returning on an already mud-rutted road from a visit to the coast at Canoa. Ominous sheer clay cliffs rise a hundred feet high at 80 degree angles alongside the road at several points. Edges of rain-broken clay hang on their faces like draped theater curtains, waiting for enough additional soaking to ooze down across the road on the way to the beach. Only a few trucks had stopped for the water crossing the road when we arrived but the rain suddenly switched its volume upwards almost as though a faucet had been opened to full. By the time it was our turn the creek was beginning to flow at the level of the door bottoms. Fast-moving, brown, gravel-spitting water was verging on impassable when Patricio began to charge through and it became untraversable just as we entered the lowest point. Stuck with water rising quickly, Patricio asked me to take the wheel while he jumped out to slog in the current examining the situation with searching eyes and half-started gestures. If the water continued to rise, the truck would be carried across the embankment on the other side of the road. He threw a fairly wide log across the creek where it bordered the road, causing water to gush in both directions around the truck and fill underneath with gravel. Several local people and other drivers frantically dug out the front and rear wheels but the truck couldn’t budge forward. Everyone came to the front and pushed to get some movement in reverse, then they rushed like a team to the rear yelling and gesturing to heave the truck forward. It rose up onto the underwater gravel with uncertain slowness until a final heave carried it forward like a boat dragging bottom. I yelled to Patricio that I wouldn’t stop until the truck was down the road well beyond the point where it became dry. We had already seen the water rise by a foot while we were in it. The storm continued on the way back to Bahia and through the night. The road in that section might easily be a river canyon by now.

To comply with the wishes of proud Bahia residents, the next report will feature some of the intrinsically convivial and beautiful aspects of reality here.

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