Zaruma Letter # 5
Queridos amigos y familiares, 17-18 de julio de 2001
Saludos a todos. We’re back in Zaruma, after a week of travel to the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, its smaller and quieter neighbor Gualaceo, and Machala, the banana-growing capital city of this province, El Oro (literally: The Gold). John and I were turned loose for a memorable evening in Cuenca by my mother (our first evening out alone this summer) and we visited several bookstores and dined on shrimp and goat. The actual name of the goat dish was “seco de chivo”, which means something vaguely like “dryness of goat.” Ecuadorean food is wonderful and WAY fresher than U.S. food. We will mourn the passing from our lives (our summer here is half over and a certain daughter of ours is celebrating) of very fresh eggs and chicken, and fabulous avocado, pineapple, papaya, and tangerines.
As for Cuenca, we enjoyed our beautiful hotel next to the Tomebamba River (luxurious hot showers!) and a trip to the Supermaxi netted us a version of maple syrup, two washcloths, and a knife for spreading peanut butter and jam. For the first time since arriving in Ecuador, we were among our own kind — tourists — and John found that he didn’t particularly want to be related to as a tourist. I enjoyed my solo trip to the Museo de la Medicina, which had all sorts of fascinating medical apparatuses dating back to the early 20th century. Some of the more interesting devices originated in the U.S. Can you imagine what Cunningham’s Incontinence Clamp looks like? Hint: it is about two inches long and includes two rows of metal teeth. Your guess is as good as mine about what the teeth clamp onto.
Our four days in Gualaceo were idyllic. We stayed at the Parador Turistico, a chalet-style hotel on a hill above town. It has a broad band of land around it, including a stream, a Eucalyptus grove, and a couple of pastures with cows, goats, sheep, and lambs grazing, attended by an old woman in the indigenous dress of women in the Andes (ample skirt, blouse, and long braids down her back). The kids played happily under the umbrella of an acacia tree. When John was down with a terrible bout of food poisoning, Paige pretended she and her family (Marcus) were so poor they lived under the tree, harvested their own food, and that sometimes people who stayed in the hotel gave them food. The new John is thinner, has a tan, and is having to grow his sideburns back because the barber here shaved them off. On our first afternoon in the countryside, we were all wandering up a path through the eucalyptus grove when my mother said, “Isn’t that poison sumac or poison ivy?” Two days later…. By the way, one of the most enjoyable things about writing this group letter is the mail we get back with your personal tales. Cockroaches were a rich topic.
We were struck by the number of beautiful new houses in both Cuenca and Gualaceo, so we started asking about the local economy. It turns out that a large number of people from those two cities work (usually illegally) in the U.S. (mainly in the northeast) or in Spain or Italy. They send the money back to their families, and the families in turn have the houses built. Sometimes the whole family gets to the U.S. in the end, sometimes the marriages don’t survive, sometimes children end up being raised by other family members. Since our arrival here, various attempts by visa-less Ecuadoreans to get to the U.S. have failed, though I’m sure many more have succeeded. The most distressing recent attempt we know about involved over a hundred people packed onto a rickety boat. We don’t know the details, but the crew abandoned the boat and left their human cargo locked below deck to die. Ah, but someone had a cell phone and called someone in Ecuador, who called the U.S. Coast Guard, who rescued them. The person who told us about it is the owner of a banana plantation in Machala; her carpenter was one of the rescued and he was quite pleased with how he was treated by the Coast Guard and has already left on his next attempt to get to the U.S. Apparently, a lot of the route is by sea in overloaded and rickety shrimp boats. Landfall is Central America, often Guatemala, from where the coyotes take people overland to the U.S. border. The cost is as much as $10,000, and people often deed their houses over to the coyotes (called coyoteros here) and if they don’t pay within three years, guess who owns their house? Another, sadder recent story is that this year a shrimp boat sank and all aboard were drowned, including a father and mother of five children who had been left with a neighbor. When it was learned that the parents had died, the neighbor approached a relative of one of the parents, who also has five children and said he couldn’t take care of five more. We don’t know what happened after that.
It’s not hard to imagine why people would risk their lives to change their destinies and those of their children, but why they would stay in the U.S. after earning the money is harder for us to understand, because each dollar goes so much farther here and because the southern highlands are incredibly fertile and beautiful and the climate is perfect. But all that fertility doesn’t translate into a living wage. I loved watching the Quechua-speaking women washing clothes on the bank of the river that flows through Gualaceo, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy standing knee-deep in the river, bent over a flat stone, scrubbing, year after year.
We went on a spectacular hike to the top of a hill overlooking Gualaceo and on our return crossed over the river on a wooden bridge that reminded us of walking the planks in the mine. When we got to the far side, we were amused to find the sign, “Danger: Bridge Closed”. It didn’t feel dangerous except for passing situations — if you’re the person next to the open water and the person you’re passing has, say, a bike. And you’re toting a squirmy, 40-pound child.
The banana plantation in Machala was wonderful in its own way. I finally thought I had found my way into a Dickens novel (specifically, Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations), because the tropical humidity has had its way with this elegant, large plantation house for over 50 years. I have never before heard such a clattering of songbirds. The owner was John’s aunt Betty’s childhood friend in Portovelo. She is an 85-year-old grande dame and I thoroughly enjoyed her. The kids enjoyed her Spanish-talking parrot and pet monkeys. The problem with the banana plantation (bananas for export to the U.S., by the way) is that the Ecuadorean government is paying only $2.90 a box for export-quality bananas and it’s a dismal price for the growers. The bananas have to be just so to suit the American mania for beautiful-looking food and this requires, you guessed it, chemicals. Sorry to sound so many sad notes, but that’s the way it goes when one learns more about the realities of a place we have already grown to love. I’d best not get started on the respiratory and other ailments suffered by people, including young children, up near the Colombian border because of aerial spraying to kill off the coca crop.
We were glad to come home to “our town” yesterday, after three hours on a hot bus. The amazing thing about the bus from Machala was that no one opened a window to the foggy air except us, which is why a little girl brought me her trash to throw out the window. I tried to explain why I didn’t want to throw it, but she was only about five and I think she just thought I was odd. The roads are always interesting — people often dry their coffee and cacao beans on the edge of the asphalt, marking off the thin strip of borrowed pavement with stones. There are a lot of landslide scars and rock falls on the highway to Cuenca and occasionally you’ll come around a curve and a steer will be staring you down from the middle of the road.
I was going to write about grocery shopping, but what’s on my mind today is the mail. People here say that if you want something to get through, send it by DHL or some other expensive private service. They don’t mention that the nearest DHL office is an hour away on the bus. The Correos (government postal service) in Zaruma consists of one amiable woman. If she goes on vacation, so does the mail. When we received an aerogramme from a friend in Illinois, she climbed our steep hill to deliver it in person. There are no house numbers, but I had named our neighbors for her. We have been awaiting a package from our friend Pattea in Boulder, but today learned that the Correos (or possibly Customs) is holding it hostage in Machala (that would be SIX hours round trip on the fetid bus). I am wondering whether we will have to pay ransom or merely show up with a passport and gracious manners.
Good news has been coming in over the wire about our documentary on Iwo Jima. We won a Golden Eagle in the CINE competition (which is big news for little filmmakers), will be screened at the Great Plains Film Festival, and have been accepted into the Independent Feature Market, which means a trip to New York for me in late September if we feel we can afford it. My dream is of a lucrative broadcast. Thanks to all of you who have helped in one way or another with the film (that would be at least half of you)!
I’ll turn this over to John, but before I do: imagine yourself at 8,000 ft. near the equator. Everything is green; there are patches of corn, stalks of sugar cane, fruit trees, animals cropping the grass, brooks tumbling down the hillsides. You are below the snow-capped volcanoes and above the broad-leafed bananas. The air temperature is perfect. You have entered Eden.
A final note: how do you know you’re off the beaten track in Ecuador? When you ask for salt in a restaurant and they bring it to you on a teaspoon. Paige is planning a Pacific Islands birthday party and we’re on day 52 of the countdown to the big event. Both children have learned to play happily and long with leaves, sticks, rocks, and found objects. Marcus walks his one beanie baby dog, Tramp, on a leash made from a travel clothesline, and Paige plays house by sweeping the dirt in the yard smooth and marking the invisible walls with small stones. Thanks for the wonderful letters. — Beret
OK, I’ll get the bit about the food poisoning out of my system (ark ark) first. Last Friday (the 13th as you’ll recall) Beret and I took the kids on a hike to a church we had seen perched atop a steep hill across the valley, above a grove of eucalyptus. The cobblestone path went up sharply, switchbacking past adobe walls, front doors, and pigpens; through deep grooves in the hill covered with ferns and moss; under squawking chickens, hissing rubber water pipes, and hanging parasitic orchids; and over a maze of splashing streams and irrigation canals. Dogs came bounding out to bark at us, stopping at the invisible limits of their territory sometimes too close to our heels. Paige now being an ace hiker led pretty much the whole way, and Marcus did well too though he needed carrying by the summit. The church at the top was locked, but the view was great — and as always it was the path getting there that was the real highlight.
We cruised back down in a quarter the time and headed into town for lunch at a restaurant that had been recommended in two guidebooks. Needless to say, after walking three hours and toting Marcus a fair piece I was a bit peckish, so I devoured my plate of chicken, rice, fries and (gasp) vegetable salad covered in a mayonnaise sauce. This last was against my better judgment, but these salads are so common in Ecuador and the place was full of well-dressed people, so I indulged.
That evening, Beret’s mom and I sat around after a nice dinner congratulating ourselves on how well our trip was going health-wise. We told war stories of The Worst Road Sick Ever, and smugly opined that it wasn’t so hard to stay healthy if you were careful. The restaurant was playing an old tape of the Carpenters, which felt nostalgic at the time . . . .
By four the next morning, I wasn’t eating my words, but rather — well, you know. I won’t go into the next phase, except to praise the age of antibiotics in which we live (long may it last) and to say that in the afternoon my fever broke enough to try to watch TV (you know you’re ill when the commercials are too hard to understand), and I watched parts of a VERY Catholic movie about the apparition of the Virgin of Fatima. Then my fever came back, and the Virgin of Fatima and Karen Carpenter got twisted together so that all these people were asking me to bless them but all I could do was sing Rainy Days and Mondays to them. I was on the road to recovery the next morning (thanks to megadoses of Cipro, as much gatorade as I could keep down, and the tender care of Beret), and am now completely fine.
Another surreal experience in Gualaceo was two days earlier, when I walked up the road above our hotel and stumbled on the little village of Quim-zhe. There, the locals were celebrating their local fiesta de Santiago with a horseback ceremony. Two groups of indigenous men, one dressed as kings with colored capes and paper crowns, the other dressed as women with ballooning skirts and panama hats, took turns galloping their horses in a circle. A brass band of men in their eighties with battered instruments stood among the stalks of a dried cornfield and honked out the same melody over and over again. The rest of the village stood by, watching silently and drinking homemade liquor from a shotglass passed from hand to hand, or eating ice-cream bars sold by a guy who came from down the valley. He saw me watching and said after a minute, “You understand nothing?” I confessed this was true, and he explained that this ceremony was based on a reenactment of the Moorish Wars in Spain.
The thing I liked most about the display was that there was nothing canned, nothing for tourist consumption, nothing for outsiders at all, about it. So much of Latin America on the tourist route is such a caricature, so far removed from people’s daily lives that I think it looks more at home in the fancy shops on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall than in the countries where it originates. So why didn’t I turn around and leave the people of Quim-zhe in peace? I did, after about ten minutes — though I confess it was for the purpose of going back to tell Beret, so that she could see it too (they had finished before she arrived).
Back in Zaruma, travel delays resulting from my food poisoning had caused us to miss some of the annual fiesta activities we had intended to film, but we were back in time for the fireworks in the square. Ecuadoreans, of course, lack funds for the pyrotechnic stadium displays we are used to back home, but they make up for it in danger. Indeed, they have managed to put the FIRE back in fireworks. The main event was a wooden structure about thirty feet high with various pyrotechnic pinwheels attached, which sprayed sparks and flares in all directions at unpredictable times to a radius of about thirty feet. The crowd kept some distance except for a maniacal group of boys who danced about five feet in front of the thing with their jackets over their heads as protection from the pelting flares. They had a blast, and so did I. As my Aunt Betty’s friend, Dona Luquita, had told me when we visited her in Machala, when you ask a Zarumeno how a fiesta went, the traditional reply is, “Not too bad. Only one death.” Half of me cheers to be in a society unchoked by tort lawyers.
But even I drew the line last night, when we took the kids to the little carnival ride setup they have here for the week. The merry-go-round, comprised of rockinghorses bolted to a circular platform powered by an electric motor, went nicely around, and both kids enjoyed it. But the “off switch”? The guy running the thing reached under the platform, pulled out the power cable, and untwisted the bare metal wire with his bare hands, sending a little pop of spark into the night. Then, of course, when the next round of kids got on, he put the wires back together, again twisted them with his bare hands with the current running, and tossed the thing back under. And then it started to rain . . . we didn’t wait to see how he did the procedure in the rain, but the kids want to go back tonight, so we’ll see if he’s still living. If he is, it’ll make me think these Catholics actually do have something on the inside with the Big Guy.
But that’s another topic for another week. A couple of you have asked if the film is taking shape yet, and I’m happy to report that it is. This week’s project is to write out the first draft of a treatment, pulling together the various themes we’ve been developing. Some of you may find yourselves dragooned in for advice before too long! For the present we’re well and happy. Marcus has taken to sporting a baseball cap and big plastic shades at all hours, causing Beret to call him Mr. Hollywood. “Mo-om,” retorts Paige. “He can’t be Mr. Hollywood if he has a blankie.” Sure he can, we say. Be well, y’all.
John. (ojo! Beret postscript to follow)
Okay, just one more story…. A carnival is a carnival is a carnival, but this one is almost too much for me. Both kids hang off the balcony during the day, looking lovingly at the Rueda Gigante (Giant Wheel), aka the ferris wheel. After we let the kids go on all the other rides (imagine a theme park with almost no protective barriers around whirring metal cars and electrical cables snaking across the bare concrete where everyone is walking), John decided to take both of my babies up in the Rueda Gigante. Here is Paige’s point of view: “It was really fun and it was beautiful when we were at the top. Marcus kept on sliding around in his seat. Bye bye.” My point of view: It was like watching my whole family go up in a small plane that had recently had mechanical problems. The amazing thing is that what drives it is an uncovered car motor with a skull and crossbones painted on the radiator. A young guy shifts up through the manual gears to get it up to speed. Acceleration sounded like a car peeling out, only screechier. The teenaged boys like to rock their seats as hard as they can. Everyone moves to the pulse of salsa music. I can hear it even now, filling up the night.