Friday, June 1, 2007

Trip of a Lifetime

Sylvie and I just returned from a trip up the coast to Esmeraldas, the beautifully green, African influenced part of northwestern Ecuador. On our way, we stopped in Crucita, a small fishing town in the Manabi province, where monied people from Cuenca keep the coastal homes. In Crucita, we stayed at a great little hotel with the best service you can imagine. Traveling on weekdays typically gives you the “run of the land” here in Ecuador. Being the only guests at all the places we stayed during our week-long trip allowed us the best in service and room selection. In Crucita, at Hotel Rey David (David was the owner and apparently a king in his own mind) we had a large room with a humungous shower and balcony facing the sea. We ate ridiculously portioned food at the restaurant. You really don’t need five fillets of fish for one dinner platter. Not only were the amounts copious, but the food was very good and the prices were reasonable. We borrowed the DVD player and a couple of movies for viewing in our own room. We talked for an hour with he hostess about Sylvie’s pregnancy and other topics. They even let us use the room for half a day after we were supposed to check out because our bus didn’t leave until 10:30 pm. We just really liked our hosts there. Only thing that was a little disturbing was Rey David’s apparent fascination with Nazism and paramilitary doctrine. You’re allowed to have one video in your collection about Hitler and his regime, not two. He had Fallen, which is supposed to be excellent, award nominated and all that. Ok, a movie about Hitler’s last days I can deal with. I’d been wanting to see it myself. However, when you compliment that with a documentary on the Nazi regime you’re crossing a line. When you then combo that up with a poster over your consierge desk of a goggled, helmeted, gloved guy pointing a high powered, scoped automatic rifle at some unseen victim you’ve got my wife making nervous eyes at me during dinner. The poster had a hand signed note made personally to David. It said something to the effect of “When they come we will be ready and they will know terror. Much love, Jorge”. I don’t know. Don’t ask. They were wonderful people to deal with. David even gave me a free shot of aguardiente (Ecuadorian moonshine) for my cold out of a gigantic Johnnie Walker Red bottle. Where did he get the two-foot, 10-gallon bottle on Johnnie? I don’t know. Anyway, we loved Crucita.

From there, we hopped on an overnight bus to Esmeraldas. After a bus ride and waiting at an exhaust–filled intersection for 45 minutes we broke down and caught a cab to the Cumulinche Club, an absolutely beautiful property with a private beach on the Pacific Ocean. Here, we found tranquility and envy. The room where we stayed was exactly what we wanted to build for Solidarity Travels. And we guessed that the owner managed to make the simple construction for a pretty good price. Either way, we enjoyed our time there. The only problems there: once I got bit in the eye by an ant that lived in the thatch room. I dried to rinse the poison with water, which only spread it all over the right side of my face. It stung for a good hour. Second, there was one spot in the bedroom that smelled like cowshit all the time. It was just one little area by the dresser. We still haven’t figured out how or why. But we loved the place and would recommend it highly.

On the way back from Esmeraldas we woke up at 5:30 in the morning because our bus had stopped. Due to the rain, the road, not concrete, was soft and muddy. There were a few buses and trucks stuck ahead of us. One bus had mud covering the entire metallic part of its wheels. The depressed faces of its passengers as we passed by, made me sad with empathy and glad our bus driver had avoided a similar fate. By 7:30 am we were moving again. So, the ride to Manta only took 11 hours or so. Then, after another 4 hour ride, we were back home. Sylvie was exhausted. I felt great. Plus, I had read about half of this really good book recommended by our friend Michael. Reading The Saddest Pleasure by Moritz Thomsen while traveling around Ecuador was a real treat. Thomsen is actually a fantastic, sad writer. Reading great writing is both humbling and inspiring. Periodically, on the bus I would laugh and wake up my neighbor across the aisle while reading about the sodomites of Istanbul or some other perverse, obscure reference.

The trip as a whole was cathartic. It marks the end of our time here on the coast. It marks effectively, the end of our business. It marks the beginning of our future back home in the States, and the eventual birth of our baby God willing. It was a trip about transition. I don’t remember having a trip before that was about something other than the trip itself. I suppose they all were on some level, but usually a trip is mostly about the places you’ll see, things you’ll do and the food you’ll eat. This trip was about finding something new that I want to do. It was about saying goodbye to a part of my life. It was about realizing the decisions that I had made without knowing. So, it was also about acceptance and gladness for what is to come. The trip was a preoccupation while we figured out the next part of our lives. Who knew? I thought it was just about finally going up the coast.

Friday, May 18, 2007

One Thing I Won't Miss

One thing I won’t miss about Ecuador is men pissing in the streets. When Sylvie returned from Quito after her first time here (junior year of college) she told of a shocking custom, the likes of which I’d never heard before. She told me that Ecuadorian men come on to women by showing them their members. You know, instead of whistling or making sucking noises like civilized men, these guys just pull it out. It was definitely the funniest, most forthright ritual I’d ever heard of in my life. I mean, it don’t get no more direct than that. When I told people this random little tidbit during dinner conversation I would always mimic the gesture. I imagined one hand holding the culprit, the other pointing in its direction, and this complimented with a shoulder shrug like “hey, why not. What do you think?” And the woman nods “no” and giggles hard as she walks past. After years of telling that story, Sylvie one day told me I’d been spreading vicious lies about Ecuadorian men. Honestly, she took my best foreign places factoid. That was the most interesting thing I knew about Latin America.

Turns out, the men here don’t show their privates as a way to attract women. What they do, in actuality, is pee indiscriminately in public. Of course, I’m not talking about all men whenever they feel the urge to go. Social class and levels of inebriation typically serve as determining factors in these situations. Now, I’m no prude when it comes to public urination. I’ve detoured through an alley or two in my day. But the level of shamelessness here in terms of this issue is just on another level. Our last time in Quito, we passed an old guy, drunk, just peeing straight onto the grass in the middle of a park. No bushes blocking him. No looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was coming. In fact, the path we were on was crowded with folk taking their Sunday afternoon stroll. Sylvie and I had just come from looking at some really nice Guaysamin posters in the artist stalls. And there is this guy with his mouth relaxed open, groaning, carrying on like he’s in his apartment by himself. I mean damn. We gotta see all that. It’s way too familiar to see someone’s expression during that particular moment. And this is just one example of many that I’ve witnessed over the past few months. I gotta wife! And she’s got to stand at bus stops and walk through parks just like anyone. So yeah, that’s one thing I won’t miss. At least now I can speak from personal experience and some grounding in the truth instead of unintentionally spreading ridiculous rumors. Though I have to admit, part of me still likes the original story better.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Babies Change Everything"

The way I found out that I would be a father is probably indicative of the unpredictable nature of the whole experience. During the month of February Sylvie and I decided to let fate work its magic in determining when we would have a child. We had come to Ecuador placing a two-year moratorium on child production. Since being here, we had modified the plan to “let’s wait til July to start trying”. I like winter babies. Now, we were at the point of saying if it wants to come now, let it come. Well, it came immediately. Sylvie had not received her regular visit from Aunt Martha, so we decided she needed a test. While we ambled around the shopping mall on our weekly visit to civilization, we happened upon a testing center. Ten minutes later Sylvie walks out and tells me that I’m going to be a father and that all that I understood about my life up to this point will now drastically change forever. She actually didn’t say that, but she should have. “I’m positive” doesn’t really capture the gravity of the situation. So, I never thought I’d find out I was a father in a shopping mall. That seems more like a teenager’s thing, but there I was dumbfounded tossing random items into the shopping cart at the supermarket even though we had a list. I was in this surreal haze of euphoria and knawing, perspiring fear. Not the terror of knowing the beast is hiding in the bush about to pounce, but before that just after the music changes and the protagonist only begins to sense something different.

So, since that fateful day we have confirmed the fact of Sylvie’s pregnancy with an actual doctor. We have also begun the process of evaluating our entire lives and the future. I have also seen my wife’s cervix, really, a fascinating experience. I don’t know if that opportunity is unique to life in the Ecuadorian countryside, but it’s definitely a lesson for all men out there. We’ve seen a sonogram of the littlest Howard. Everything seems tip top in there. The other day I carried an IV for Sylvie as we walked on the dusty road back from the clinic. I think that may have been a signature Ecuadorian moment. She’s fine; just needed to replenish some fluids from the nausea. In fact, she’s felt a lot better since. Sylvie’s given up her bicycle for the time being. Bumpy roads aren’t good for developing babies. We walk a lot now. Lots of things are changing. The most significant of which is our decision to go home. We have labored over this one and are saddened in many ways, but we also know it’s the right thing to do at this time. So, in July when we head back to Philly for what was intended to be a visit, we will be resettling into life in the North American wild. We had hoped and intended to give life here a try for at least 5 years. However, as the saying goes, “babies change everything”. As I get older my life becomes dictated by clich├ęs. I resent that deeply. However, the power of this one, in particular, is undeniable. Those who have children understand what I mean. I, now, am only beginning to get it. Despite being sad about the change in our plans, my pending fatherhood is the most exciting, humbling thing that’s ever happened to me.

I’m not sure where this leaves Ecuador Stories – the blog. I still have a few things to recount, and I plan to keep writing even after I return to the States. And, before we return we will be visiting a couple other places in Latin America. So, for now, things will continue as they have been. And when they change, you all will, of course, be the first to know.