Bahia de Caraquez is a small city but its regional importance magnifies its size. How small depends on the particular perspective that a question might require. How many people? Twelve thousand or three times that depending on who is answering and why the number is important. (World Watch Institute uses 25,000 population as the standard for defining a city, so Bahia qualifies at the high end of the range.) The low figure accounts for year-round residents and the smallest geographic area. The higher limit includes both renters and seasonal second home owners as well as homeless or invasion (squatter) populations, and covers territory eight kilometers out from the city center. (The homeless/invasion throng was growing faster than any other group during the mud slides and earthquake two years ago, and is still growing although slower.) If the subject is how many people use or frequent Bahia, the number swells considerably because it is the municipal center of an entire canton (large county) that holds several urban parochias (suburban towns). It is the terminus of a four lane highway, a port for the ferry and water taxis across Rio Chone bay, a center for manufacturing and shops, a haven for professionals, and a destination for thousands of both Ecuadorian and gringo tourists. Altogether they might push the number upward at times close to six figures. Its residents are unquestionably proud of the city’s desirability and their unofficial civic motto which appears on various signs is, “Bahia, no tiene copia … cuidala! (Bahia has no equal … take care of it!) Evidence of fidelity to this sentiment can be found in everything from clean streets to generally well-maintained houses, and in a certain self-assured attitude.
One of the traditional mainstays of Bahian life is triciclos, tricycles with a railed cargo platform between the front two wheels and a driver’s seat forward of the rear one. They are work machines for an incredible array of uses, and their drivers are both strong and ingenious. Their anarchistically different colored frames and fenders (some still green from Ecological City Declaration Day in 1999) are commonplace in central Bahia and can often be seen peddling slowly throughout the city. They are capable of carrying a spectacular array of loads. People use them as taxis either as single passengers or in small groups, sitting erect as gymnasts on a center board placed between the side rails, gliding by effortlessly and decorously. The machine’s inherent heavy duty character is exhibited by massive piles of heavy cement bags or large black water barrels taller than the heads of their sweating drivers who must stand to gruelingly pedal even in flat places looking like their sporting counterparts climbing a mountain in the Tour de France. Anything can be carried on a triciclo it seems. Mirrors, toilets, bureaus, tables, chairs, altars, and everything else that can fit through the door of a house passes in frozen surrealistic moments. Stacks of lumber are balanced in ten deep V-shapes with the acute angle facing forward and two sides framing the driver in an exact construction that seems at least the equal of any that will be made from them. Decorative iron work may enclose the driver in a cage that protrudes forward and back of him. A few days ago I saw a cargo which convinced me that everything I had seen before was merely an introduction. Proceeding along in its own solemn and timeless space, a triciclo with a silver-handled gray coffin centered on its top rails, head and foot extending outward on both sides, calmly passed down the main street with a row of blocked traffic following behind.
High and low cuisine notes. We’ve put off buying cooking gear because our assistants who arrive today should approve of the things that are obtained for use during the months after we’re gone. This left two options, eat out or make things that don’t require cooking. There’s a definite stand-out among restaurant offerings. It is a version of the traditional camaron (shrimp) ceviche that is served at Herradura’s hotel restaurant by creator and owner Miguelangelo Viteri. Ceviche is fish, shrimp, clams, squid, or all of those mixed together that’s been cooked by the action of a solution of lemon or lime juice (Bahians boil the seafood briefly). To this basic mixture Viteri adds a number of finely chopped raw vegetables (onion is the only one I’m absolutely sure about), spices and some mystery ingredients to formulate a flavor that is zesty in an unusual way but also tropical tasting enough to want to drink straight. The finger size camarones are perfectly fresh and firm.
Judy and I have developed some favorite emergency rations that turn out to be triumphs of low cuisine. Avocados and papayas keep for a couple of days in the fridge and we make local bakery roll sandwiches out of them as small meals. Papaya aged a few days to a soft texture is especially good this way, but the hands-down prize culinary discovery is pineapple sandwiches. Why these haven’t gotten the attention they deserve is an oversight of civilization scaled proportion. I first tasted the singular magnificence of chunks from whole pineapples in bread when Carey brought me a loaf of San Francisco sourdough when she arrived here. Seizing on something to eat with it, I pulled a four day old, aromatic and candy sweet specimen of the noble bromeliad from the fridge, peeled back some skin and cut a slice to insert in a torn-off handful of sourdough. Since then these sandwiches have been made from fresh as well as aged pineapples, and the effect is fundamentally and spectacularly the same. Have faith that this isn’t a case of malarial delusion, and I’m not regressing to childhood in the way of some people who dive into a nearly bare pantry and come out raving about puerile combinations of peanut butter with onions or tomato sauce. Canned fruit won’t have the same flavor and is not advised. Judy favors mixing in ripe papaya, but save that for advanced variations. Start with nothing more than a whole fresh pineapple and a well-baked loaf to put an end to unwarranted gustatory deprivation.