We are in the domestic terminal at the Quito airport; the monitor reads our flight to Manta is now boarding at Gate 16. There is no Gate 16, only Gates 1-5. I ask the ticket agent if we are in the right place. She replies, “yes, you will board at 12:05.” I look at my watch, and then back to her, confused. It is 12:15. She taps my watch. “Don’t worry about it.”
Barely an hour later and we are touching down in Manta. By 3:30 we are lying flat on our bed under a cool ceiling fan in our hostel in Bahia de Caraquez. Cocobongo Hostel is simple but clean. The shower begrudgingly gives up a trickle of tepid water, the bed is hard, but the ceiling fan runs strong and we are steps from the ocean.
Bahia sits on a thumb of a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Chone river and estuary. It is spectacular. The vibe is beachy-touristy, similar to tourists towns in Florida. This trip is about more than simply a relaxing vacation. We want to live as close to “local” as we can. We want to experience the trickling shower, the power outages, and shop at the produce market.
The produce market!! An entire city block filled with stall after stall of succulent vegetables and fruits, fish caught that morning, live chickens, hot-from-the-oven breads, freshly made cheeses, plus all manner of herbs, spices, and little sticks in bags. Over the week we will spend hours wandering the market but very little money. Three huge avocados and three juicy tomatoes cost a total of $1.00. Paired with a soft roll and some queso (cheese) it will make lunch for days. We will eat for pennies all week.
We take a panga across the river to San Vincente. They recently built a beautiful bridge, so it is possible to walk or drive across the river.
But pangas run a regular, inexpensive ferry service and are quick. Only ten minutes shore to shore. The capacity states 20. I count 27 on our boat, not counting the two infants and a small dog. On the way back a tiny abuela (grandmother) boards after us. Her face is wrinkled, her hair is white. She looks ancient. She hesitates at the top of the steps, the small boat rocking in the waves. TG offers a strong, steady arm and her face lights up. She grasps his arm and comes aboard. I scoot over so she can sit next to him on the narrow bench.
There is a different sense of personal space in this country. No one seems to mind sitting so close together. We find this everywhere — not just on the pangas. Shop aisles are narrow and crowded. At 6’4″ TG towers above everyone. We pass another tiny abuela. She is literally the size of his leg. She is walking with a young woman and as they pass, they gasp. If one can communicate “holy sh**t!!” with a gasp, they just did.
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is like nothing we’ve ever seen. All day we have been accosted by “widows” – young men and boys dressed in black funeral drag, symbolizing the loss of their husband (the old year). They beg for coins to purchase fireworks for later tonight.
At 10pm we gather for a “concert” on the point of the peninsula. It turns out to be two hours of canned rock music, blaring from speakers. There are many families here and everyone is happy and friendly. Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers explode over our heads. At midnight, everyone kisses. “Feliz Nuevo Años, Año Viejo!” Happy New Year, Better luck next year!
And then the bonfires begin. We had seen the paper mache effigies for sale on the streets but were not prepared for the fires — everywhere. Figures, good and bad, symbolize out with the old and are burned along with any bad memories from the previous year.
Someone throws a brick of firecrackers into the middle of a burning pile. The streets are smokey and our throats hurt as we walk home. It’s a wonder no one is hurt, that no fire burns out of control.
New Years Day. We take a panga across the river to San Vincente again. We arrange transportation to Canoa. Canoa is like an overly crowded Miami Beach. We cannot see the water for all the little tents, the areas between the tents are crawling with people.
We sit at a street cafe and watch the crowds go by. The mood is light-hearted and happy. Used to the Florida sunshine we forget how close we are to the equator. TG has a horrible sunburn. A young man calls from a truck “Oh my got, meester! Mucho sol!” We laugh. “Si.”
The traffic is a snarled tangle of buses, trucks overflowing with people, motorbikes, and bicycles. People and dogs scurry back and forth between the stopped cars. Someone jumps off his bike to direct traffic. Soon everyone is moving again. It seems there is always a guy willing to jump in and get things moving. We saw the same thing at the concert on New Year’s Eve.
We stay in Bahia today. We walk for miles, all around town. Atop one of the hills is a lookout point with a huge cross. You can climb the stairs to the top of the cross for a spectacular panoramic view of the coast. We hike the road up to the cross and down the other side. We are comfortable on these streets — they are easy to navigate and we quickly learn our way around.
On our way back to Cocobongo we pass a small storefront restaurant with rows of chickens roasting on spits out front. It smells delicious. We purchase a chicken for dinner. It comes with rice, beans, and a small salad, more than enough for the two of us, for $10.
Marcelo meets us first thing in the morning. We are getting a tour of the nature reserve and his important reforestation work. But first we stop at the local grade school to meet Miguelito. American classrooms might have guinea pig or hamster for a pet. The grade school in Bahia has a 150-year-old, 525 lb Galapagos tortoise. We find out later that Miguelito has been at this school for 80 years. He was brought from the Galapagos when there were no laws protecting his status and at one point they tried to relocate him back. But he grew sick from missing the children so they returned him to happily live in the grassy playground.
A veterinarian by degree, it’s difficult to explain all that Marcelo does. He is a respected scientist who has traveled all of the world, lecturing on ecosystems. But he has chosen to live in his hometown of Bahia and tend land set aside as a nature reserve. He teaches us much about the tropical dry jungle as we hike. He offers me fruit from the Hobo tree. He says it is good for my brain. I eat it. It tastes bitter, like an aspirin. Later I will pay dearly for this.
We are far from fluent in Spanish, but Marcelo speaks clearly and slowly. We understand everything he says. He points to tracks in the dirt. Ocelot. He is excited. He has not seen any evidence for six months and now look, he says, father, mother and baby!
We reach the bottom of the valley, filled with towering ceibo trees, trunks thick as elephants. They are stately: royal. As we head back we hear the hooting of howler monkeys. I peer into the trees hoping to catch a glimpse.
It is James and Anna’s last night in Ecuador. They leave tomorrow for their long trip home to Tasmania. They have been watching Cocobongo for the past two months while Suzy, the owner, is in Australia, and tonight marks the end of a year of travel in Central and South America. We will miss them. They have a gift for bringing people together. We meet for a farewell dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. Anna, James, Marcelo, Teresa, Nick, Uli and Cleo: our new friends in Bahia.
We are up early to say good bye to Anna and James. We wait for them to leave and then walk to the ocean. The tide is out. We walk on the hard packed sand for many miles. Cars pass us, driving on the beach. At the white retaining wall we turn in and head up the road. This will take us back to Bahia. It is a beautiful walk through more of the same dry tropical jungle as Marcelo’s reserve. We are on the outskirts of Bahia and rather than head straight back to town we walk over the hill past the big cross again.
Later Dr. Don and his wife Marian seek us out at Cocobongo. TG has been communicating with Dr. Don via email for the past year. We go for helado (ice cream). They share their experiences of moving to Bahia two years ago. Others pass by as we sit: ex-pats, Mary Lena – the local tennis coach, our waiter from the restaurant last night. Hola! Hola! We’re finding Bahia to be a very small, very friendly town.
Lars meets us at 9:00am to show us his house and land. Lars and Lone are originally from Denmark, but after sailing around the world for ten years they settled here in Bahia about five years ago. They built a beautiful home on the hillside just outside of town. The view across the Chone and to the Pacific beyond is breath-taking.
After lunch we visit the archaeological museum. Carlos is as passionate about the fascinating history of this country as Marcelo about his reforestation. His English is fluent and we learn much.
We have made two special friends since we arrived. Teresa is Canadian; she is on hiatus from her job and has escaped the cold to stay in Bahia for four months. We are kindred spirits with potential to be great friends. Rosita is a small Chihuahua-Min Pin mix. She is the sweetest, friendliest dog I have ever met. Although she does not belong to anyone she has adopted Cocobongo as her home. She follows us everywhere and sleeps outside our room at night. I hope that Suzy will keep her. I will miss my friends Teresa and Rosie very much.
Our last morning in Bahia. We have arranged for Carlos to pick us up at 11:00 to drive us to Manta. But this is Ecuador. Carlos’ car was impounded for non-payment. Uli quickly helps us arrange another taxi. After breakfast we walk to the ocean once last time. The tide is high this morning and the surf rough. It is untamed and beautiful. Rosie follows along behind us.
I have never been so heartbroken to leave a place.
By 2:30 we are in Quito. It is easy for the taxi to find our hostel. The room is small, even by New York standards; we can barely squeeze around the bed with our two suitcases. It is in the middle of the old city, with ancient churches and buildings crowding in upon narrow cobblestone streets. Quito is 9000 ft above sea level. The altitude has affected us both with a mild headache. I find myself short of breath walking the hilly streets and up the stairs to our third floor room.
On our flight to Manta a week ago, a woman gave us a business card for her shop. After dinner we visit. It is located right across the street from Quito’s largest market and is filled with beautiful Ecuadorian handicrafts. Between the market and Plaza Naya we purchase many gifts.
Quito sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. It is like a large bowl and the houses and buildings sprawl up the surrounding hillsides. They are piled haphazardly on top of each other, every one of them ramshackle and wonky. If you tried to fix one, you would need to tear down the entire mountain. With their faded pastel colors of blue, yellow and pink the hills around Quito look like a Dr. Seuss illustration.
We take a taxi to the Mitad Del Mundo Ciudad: the equator.
There is a line extending through the park and we have fun taking photos at 0°00’00.” We down-dog yoga style across the northern and southern hemispheres. TG lays flat on the line, like he is taking a nap. There are shops surrounding the plaza and in one a man offers to stamp our passports.
The line runs straight through a little church: I name it Our Lady of Zero Latitude. It seems an appropriate place to say a prayer for Rosita. I slip into a pew and pray that she will be adopted. I am overwhelmed and my eyes well up with tears. Just then the music from the nativity scene at the front of the church registers in my brain: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. I smile and leave Rosie in God’s hands.
Home to Miami today. At this early hour it takes us no time to get to the airport. We arrive at 6:00am for our 9:30 flight. We check in. Our flight has been delayed for four hours for “maintenance issues.” This is Ecuador. They give us a voucher for breakfast. We have a massage and browse the shops to pass the time.
We are already making plans to go back. This is Ecuador.