steps of Guayaquil
Saturday, December 26 2015
location: Marriott Courtyard Hotel, Guayaquil, Ecuador
When we came down to the dining room from our big beautiful room, we found a long table seating 14 other people, only some of whom I knew. I'd actually met all these people before at Gretchen's brother's wedding back in 2002, but that was a big traditional wedding, and my memory for names and faces is not all that good. Half of our sixteen-person contingent would consist of the usual family group that went to Curaçao and Belize, but the other half would be another family connected to my inlaws via an old college friendship. Gretchen's mother and Maria, the matriarch of the other family, had been friends at the University of Michigan fifty years ago. Maria's husband's name is Peter, and twenty years ago they'd visited the Galapagos with Gretchen's parents. They'd all decided back then that they would have to come back to the Galapagos again some day when their grandchildren (none of whom were yet born) were old enough to appreciate it. And so now here we all were. With Maria and Peter were their daughter Leah (who is about Gretchen's age), their son Andrea (who is unmarried[REDACTED]), Leah's husband Jeff, and their three kids: Alexandra (14), Cloe (12), and Peter! (9). (Initially, due to his even bronze complexion, I assumed young Peter! to be a local Ecuadorian child that my nephew M had somehow quickly befriended despite his shyness.) To a person, everyone in this family can trace all their ancestors back to Greece. No ethnic mixing for them! They're also much more conservative and (with the possible exception of Gretchen's brother's family) conventional than Gretchen's family. But, as with all things, there were complexities that would reveal themselves over time and I would be finding things worthy of admiration even among the most conservative and hidebound of the Greeks in our group.
For now, though, I would do my best to restrict my socializing to the people at breakfast whom I knew. One of several advantages to being with Gretchen's parents at breakfast is that they aren't eating eggs, the sight of which can ruin my appetite. On a day-to-day basis, this is one of the most tangible perks of sealing myself within a vegan bubble. Unfortunately, as with most breakfasts offered by large hotels, there was little other than unbuttered toast and fruit that a vegan would be willing to eat. And the coffee, though not Nescafé (as it almost universally was the last time we were in Ecuador), was not great.
Up on the roof of the hotel was a small pool and sunning area, and a group of us went up there after breakfast for a swim. The pool only measured 9 by 22 feet, but the kids seemed to enjoy it, and it made sense to me to take advantage of any situtation where a pool is offered at a hotel that I am staying in. After I got out, I went to the nearby shower and my bare feet suddenly slipped out from under me on the smooth wet tiles. When I fell, I banged the outside of my right foot on something and it hurt in a way that implied it would be giving me problems for the rest of the day. And so it did. After that, I sat in the shade talking with Andrea (the member of the Greek contingent who is single and about my age) about drones, which is an interest of his when he isn't working at the Chicago hotel that has employed him for the past 20 years.
Gretchen and I went for a walk around the hotel neighborhood, which was home to a gas station, a mall that was decidedly fancier than the Hudson Valley Mall, and a range of restaurants, none of which seemed capable of serving a vegan meal. We managed to get some snacks at the gas station, including a weird kind of corn chip with a strong lime flavor and almost no salt at all. Evidently one can only buy non-alcoholic beer in an Ecuadorian gas station (and Pilsener happily produces it).
Gretchen's parents like for these tropical vacations to be a bit more educational than Gretchen and I would prefer them to be, so they'd scheduled a walking tour of Guyaquil for the afternoon, something we looked forward to with a certain amount of dread. There would, after all, be no sea lions, boobies, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, or even lava fields. Instead we'd be looking at buildings, people, and a wide river full of muddy water. [REDACTED]
Cabs took us from our hotel to near "the Point," a seemingly-twisted white skyscraper situated at the base of steep hill jutting out into the Rio Guayas. When we arrived, the river was a churning mess of muddy water hurrying southward towards the ocean, powered by the retreating tides (which are unusually high in Guayaquil). Among the clumps of vegetation was the bloated corpse of a cow, which Gretchen and Peter! wanted to believe was actually a sandbag (though, of course, sandbags do not float).
Our guide's name was Carlos, which probably meant that his name was actually Karl, since he was obviously a German immigrant with a good tan. He pointed to the colorful houses atop the hill with their gorgeous views of the river and told us that these were actually residents for the poor, since the only way up there is via a long staircase. Once I knew that, I could see that the houses were actually rather shabby and featured drying laundry, stray building materials, and other indications of Third World conditions. Carlos then told us of the sequence of mayors in Guayaquil's recent history, including one who was particularly corrupt (leading Jeff to chuckle and make comparisons to various infamous democratic American mayors).
Eventually Carlos led us up a series of steps towards the top of the ridge. The steps were each numbered, providing a sort of elevational address for locations along the way. After many dozens of steps, someone (and it was almost certaintly me) had the idea that we should stop for cerveza. Something about climbing all those steps on a hot day in the tropics overwhelmed whatever puritanical inclinations some in our contingent might normally have expressed, and soon all of us adults were drinking big plastic cups of Pilsener, the Budweiser of Ecuador. The kids, meanwhile, were gorging themselves on icecream. There was no shortage of vendors capitalizing on the energy-sapping grind of those numbered steps. The rest of the walking tour was a lot more pleasant once I had some cold beer in me.
Beyond a certain point, police forbade us from carrying our beers any higher, and we were forced to sit and drink them. At around step 400, one reaches the top of the ridge, which is dominated by a lighthouse containing a spiral staircase (which can be climbed) and a church. At the topof the lighthouse, the air smelled distinctly of burning plastic, another unmistakable signifier of the third world. The guide Carlos explained that people in Ecuador can rarely be compelled to do anything unless there are obvious benefits for them. He went on to tell me about the time he tried to encourage everyone in his condo complex to recycle, and they only got into it after they learned it had raised $20 for the otherwise nonexistent general fund (apparently condo roofs never get fixed in Ecuador).
After returning to the bottom of the ridge, we eventually caught a set of cabs and for a ride to an Iguana Park, which turned out to be a conventional urban park (similar to the one at Washington Square in the East Village) that just happened to be festooned with many dozens of semi-tame iguanas. There were signs saying we weren't to touch the animals, but these were widely ignored, especially when their tails stuck out into the sidewalk. People seemed to be treating them with kindness, but there was a little girl running around with a stick terrorizing the pigeons, and this detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the iguana park. If were to have a kid who displayed such behavior, he or she might have ended up in the turtle pond.
Gretchen and I briefly went to a nearby church to have a look around. Though the building itself had a stately old-world charm, its interior decorations were among the tackiest we've seen outside of the United States.
Later back in the iguana park, Gretchen tried to buy a piece of bread from a sandwich vendor, though she had to stop him as he tried to slather it with butter and insert of a slice of meat. A couple little Ecuadorian girls came by trying to sell candies, but became so absorbed in watching the kids in our contingent playing a game on a smartphone that they lost track of the task at hand. They didn't snap out of their screen-induced torpor until their mother came up and ordered them back to work (though I think the mother was herself momentarilly spellbound by the smartphone as well).
When we got up and started walking to our next destination, a vegan-friendly hotel/café called El Manso Boutique Hostel Restaurant. At this point, I realized the injury my foot had suffered from falling earlier today had been aggravated by all the walking I'd undertaken. I mentioned this to my brother-in-law, and after determining that I hadn't torn a ligament from a foot bone, prescribed a 600mg dose of ibuprofen. He went on to nerd out on my foot for something like six blocks, asking detailed questions and providing detailed answers to my questions. Later, at El Manso, Jeff would produce an analgesic even more perfectly-suited to my injury than ibuprofen which he just happened to be carrying on his person. This was to be the first of several occasions on this trip when Gretchen or I benefitted from either Jeff's tendency to overpack, his professional skills as an orthopedic doctor, or both.
The food (especially the veggie burgers) at El Manso was great even for those, like Jeff, who wouldn't shut up about how important meat is to his diet. Inevitably, when Jeff ordered both a vegan and a not-vegan plate of appetizers, all the non-vegans attacked the vegan food first, leaving me nothing but an untouched plate of non-vegan foods. But at least there was beer. I had a Pilsener and then a non-very-good locally-brewed porter.
I talked to Carlos about what it's like to be a German living and working in Ecuador. He'd been forced to move here after his Ecuadorian wife insisted; she basically refused to go outdoors in the winter time in Germany. These days, Carlos says he makes a good living (by Ecuadorian standards) writing German translations of Spanish ads intended for internet advertising. Informed by my recent reading of The Master Algorithm, I asked if he produced a variety of similar ads to be tested in a Darwinian sense to generate "big data," and he replied in the affirmative. Regarding our ability to get meatless food in Ecuador, Carlos made an interesting observation: in Ecuador, if one doesn't offer food containing meat, it's assumed that the person doing the offering is poor. The class implications of vegetarianism would subtly poison our experience for the rest of the trip, even when dining on an ostensibly eco-conscious boat in the Galapagos.
Back at the hotel, Gretchen busted out a big tray of chocolates she'd carefully prepared and packed. It being Boxing Day, it was also the birthday of her father, who turned 71.
Originally we'd planned to maybe all go to the nearby cineplex to see the latest Star Wars movie (The Force Awakens), since it seemed like a fun thing to see the reaction to something so American in a place like Ecuador (similar to that time we watched The Wedding Crashers in Istanbul). But Gretchen's sister-in-law was insisting it was "too scary" for their nine-year-old daughter (who really wanted to go), and our 11 year old nephew had already seen it (though he would have seen it again). Ultimately, though, the day had already been so long that all we wanted to do was go back to our rooms for some much-needed down time.
A pillow made for us by our sister-in-law. It would be in my backpack for the rest of the vacation.
A sewer lid in Guayaquil.
Carlos with my nephew (foreground) and sister-in-law (background) on the streets of Guayaquil.
Gretchen (foreground) with Jeff (background in red), Cloe (on the left in a pink shirt), my niece (midground in purple shorts) and Alexandra (right). Click to enlarge.
Gretchen and me atop the lighthouse. Click to enlarge.
The poor but colorful neighborhood atop the ridge. Click to enlarge.
The spiral stairs of the lighthouse.
Erotic public sculpture in the park along the Malecón Simón Bolivar.
Iguanas in the iguana park. Click to enlarge.
An ugly stained-glass window in the church near the iguana park.
An ugly Jesus in the church near the iguana park.
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