Sunday, December 23, 2012

Guayaquil, Ecuador on the 17th, just written today finally

Here's a video of the band we got to see playing later in the afternoon of our day in Guayaquil.  Their music was terrific! video


Las Penas neighborhood, up on the hill

a typical juice shop in Guayaquil

This is six days after the fact, but I simply haven’t had time to write about our stop in Guayaquil, Ecuador before now!  

The talks at Pre Port about Guayaquil left me feeling nervous about going into the city because there was a lot of discussion about pick pockets and muggings and dangerous areas and crime and who knows what else.  We were told to only take an official taxi from the port, and, when in Guayaquil, to go to a hotel to ask the porter there to call an official taxi for us because otherwise we might get a taxi driver who would kidnap us and hold us for ransom – a very unpleasant thought, of course.  Then there were the warnings about washing our hands and not drinking the water or eating anything uncooked or raw.  The pre Port lectures are not enjoyable at all – I had hoped they would contain interesting information about the city, the inhabitants, the history, etc., but instead they are generally, so far, a list of warnings about how dangerous the places we’re about to visit are.  I don’t like going into a place perceiving it as dangerous.  I think it sets the wrong intention.

We got off the ship and took the shuttle to the gate of the port.  We didn’t see any taxis within the port, so we stepped outside the gate where we saw some other passengers.  We decided to ride with them.  The man of the couple went up to the first yellow taxi he saw and asked him to take us into the city.  $5 for four of us.  We we’re exactly following the rules, but it ended up just fine.  The driver drove like a man on fire through the crowded streets, ignoring lane markings, but thankfully paying attention to red and green lights.  His horn as well as those of the other cars offered steady punctuation during the ride.
He let us off next to Las Penas, a neighborhood I wanted to explore because there was a street of galleries right next to it.  I felt very curious to see what sort of art people in Ecuador are making these days – if it’s all touristy or if it (hopefully) diverges from trite and banal.  The first thing we saw was a set of steps with numbers on it.  They drew us in, so we began ascending them.  Smaller alleys with more steps branched off of the main staircase.  It reminded me of Venice with the narrow alley ways and pretty scenes throughout.  What was different than Venice though, and felt quite odd, was that there were very few people out and about.  We could hear evidence of life emanating from the houses in the form of music, sometimes Christmas carols in Spanish, but we only rarely saw people on the street.  The older man sitting on the steps was one of the only people we saw as we went up the stairs who appeared as if he might live in the quarter.  We did, however, see policemen – about 20 of them – in their blue uniforms with pistols and billy clubs.  I was surprised to see them, and then to see so many, since the area seemed so quiet and peaceful and pretty.  Then I started to look into the alley ways where it wasn’t quite so pretty and fixed up.  And down over the outlooks where I could see into the backyards/courtyards of the houses.  And at the framed pictures on every house next to the stairs – the pictures showed what the houses used to look like – decrepit, unpainted, falling down, patched up – barely.  It reminded me of movies I’ve seen of Buenos Aires with the extremely narrow alleys and 1000’s upon 1000’s of people’s houses perched on top of each other, made of every material salvageable.  I asked a policeman what was up.  He said that the region had been renovated (presumably with LOTS of government funds) in 2002.  I don’t know the history of it except that many of the houses are 400+ years old and many artists and musicians and politicians were born there and have made their homes there over the years.  Apparently artists moved in more recently and the area has been on the upswing.  I couldn’t find any written material talking about the renovation, but it seems to me that there must have been a major push to make it safe for tourists, given the pictures on the walls, the abundance of policemen, and the large number of cleaners who were sweeping the stairs and washing them and picking up trash all over.  

We saw evidence of Christmas in a few places, like the crèche scene next to a house, which was mounted on cardboard painted green.  A lone dog slept next to it on the stairs.

As we climbed higher, we realized that the houses had the same numbers as the stairs to facilitate finding the houses, I presume.  We also saw that there was an ultimate destination at the top of the hill – a lighthouse.    We slowly but surely made our way there, then up to the top of it, of course!  Wherever there is a vantage point and a tourist, the two must meet.  It offered a comprehensive view of the city, including the plaza directly at its base with an anchor mosaic and a small chapel with a very bored guard sitting waiting for Godot.  We also saw a large school with a massive inner courtyard where hundreds of children were playing.

When we came down from the lighthouse, we went into the chapel where I was very curious to see a stained glass window of a woman playing the piano.  I asked the guard who had looked so bored the story behind the window.  He pulled me over to the opposite corner of the chapel to show me the piano there and told me it was the same piano.  I asked him why there was a window of it and who the woman was.  I don’t think he knew, but I know I unfortunately couldn’t understand his Spanish well enough to know if he had a story to tell or not, so now I’ll just have to make up my own story about this woman and her piano…  The other windows were more typical ones depicting the stations of the cross with a suffering Jesus, poorly rendered, going through his crucifixion yet again. I need to figure out a friendlier interpretation of the story so I can be with it more comfortably.  I get so itchy when I see the Stations of the Cross and all the suffering in the Catholic churches.  I wonder what that is about…
One thing that was much more comfortable for me was the statue of Mary.  She was very loving and open and friendly and nurturing.  There were also two windows depicting her next to her.  I think that all the depictions of Mary are vestiges of the matrilineal culture that existed at some point in South America’s long history.  I guess she’s a counterpoint to the intense manmade suffering that is otherwise the main story of the religion.

After taking in the view from the top of Las Penas, we descended the stairs.  On our way down, we started to see some people in the streets – still not many at all, but a few.  Most of them were vendors bringing in cases of water or large bags of rice to restaurants which still weren’t open.  All the stores were still closed, though some of the houses were starting to open their windows and put bottles of drinks out on their grates along with signs offering them for sale to tourists like us.  At some point it finally registered that everything that went up and down those stairs went by foot – all the food and drink, all the tourist stuff, all the people, all the babies. There was simply no room for cars or carts or baby carriages or anything else.  I gained a lot of respect for everyone living there in the instant I realized that!  What a way to live!

When we finally got to the bottom of the hill again, we decided to go into the Art Museum, but not until after we went into a building where there was air conditioning so we could try to cool down a bit.  It was about 90 degrees afterall and the middle of the day very close to the equator.  We figured that Las Penas was probably a very busy place in the later afternoon when there was more shade and probably even more so at night when there was no sun at all.  It made me wish we could have stuck around to see the place full of the locals who must have enjoyed the atmosphere greatly.

We walked towards the art museum after cooling down and stopped in the tourist office to ask our way.  The woman there told us that everything was closed because it was a Monday.  I felt so disappointed – the museum, all the galleries – the things I really wanted to see.  We asked her what she would recommend instead.

She said there was an artisanal market not too far away which we could walk to if we were very, very careful and didn’t veer off the street she suggested.  With that strict warning in mind, we began walking the four blocks to our new destination.  Along the way we saw a bum sprawled out on his stomach sleeping the morning away – I could sympathize with him!  I could have used a nap right around then as well. There was a store selling safety equipment for fire fighters and one selling stuff like Walmart sells – plastic storage bins and things like that for the household.  I sort of wanted to go in there and explore but didn’t follow that desire.  Finally we arrived at the market.  It consisted of many small shops – VERY small shops – packed to the gills with wares – alpaca of every description – blankets, scarves, shawls, hats, gloves, etc.; straw Panama hats (Gerlinde bought one in the first store.  It looks great on her!) (Panama hats are somewhat of a misnomer- they’re actually made in Ecuador but are named Panama hats because so many tourist in Panama ended up with them that that country provided the name for them instead of the more accurate Ecuador.); clothing native to Ecuador; trinkets made from brightly colored cloth such as pencil bags, wallets, etc; leather goods such as belts and, again, wallets; jewelry of every description, generally out of silver with attractive, large stones inset in the metal.

One of the things I found most interesting about the market was that there were several women working there with their children.  Sometimes the children were sleeping over to the side of the 5’x4’ floor space in the middle of the store; other times the women were nursing the babies/toddlers.  I was very happy to see women nursing so openly in public. When we left the market to go find some lunch, we wandered into a street I’m sure our guides would have warned us away from and saw there a large woman whose very large breast was right out in the open feeding her 2-3 year old son.  She looked at me with as much curiosity as I looked at her and we each moved on.  When my babies were young, I was a very strong advocate for nursing, in public when the need arose.  I am aware that it isn’t the most socially acceptable behavior in the US still, so it made me very happy to see it done so openly in Ecuador, many times throughout our day. 

To find food, we wandered into an open air mall which had a roof over everything but no windows – it was covered but open. I saw a sign which said, in Spanish, something along the lines of “Teleshopping here.  Buy everything you see on TV.”  There were rows of booths set up, adjacent to each other, selling all the kinds of junk we see advertised on TV too – garlic mashers, erection helpers, toe grunge killers, magnets, T shirts, etc., etc., etc.  It was fascinating getting a glimpse of all the crap a society can produce and try to sell to avid consumers. 

From there we found a restaurant which was offering ceviche which Gerlinde was particularly hoping to get to eat.  I chose to get something I assumed was a form of tuna for $1. It came as tuna wrapped in some sort of batter, served on banana leaves, with limes as garnish.  It was surprisingly excellent.  Gerlinde’s ceviche took a while to arrive but when it did, we found it was worth the wait.  They didn’t have any more fish to use, so they made it out of shrimp.  It was more like soup – the shrimp was marinated raw in a mix of lemon and/or lime juice, chili, cilantro, and onion and left in the broth.  It was served warm, unlike most ceviche which I understand is served at room temperature.  Gerlinde let me taste it – it was delicious.  Complex and fascinating, a very satisfying mixture of flavors.  It was served with dry plantain chips which I didn’t particularly like – they were too dry and had too little flavor, but Gerlinde seemed to like them pretty well.  While we were sitting at our table, the proprietor of the indoor restaurant next to our open air one came out and asked us if we had anything valuable with us.  I chose to tell him no – what was I supposed to answer?  That question sure seemed like a set up to a robbery if any was!  The man was very kind, though, and said that we should be very careful and not have anything valuable with us and we should not go into the neighborhoods around us (where we’d already been and had seen the nursing woman I described before).  It was kind of him to be concerned about us.  It’s hard for me to know what to do with such information – ignore it so I can enjoy my day more?  Heed it and walk through each region worried and on guard?  Be suspicious of each person we encounter?  Or be grateful for the kind concern folks show us with their warnings?  I choose to do the latter and to be aware but not anxious.  So far that approach has held us in good stead.  I prefer to be naively optimistic and trusting.  Even if something bad happens, I won’t have spent my time expecting it and will have enjoyed the time more when nothing bad was happening.

After lunch we returned to the artisanal mall to conclude our shopping.  We saw a startling sight – shrunken heads which looked very realistic.  They were made of cow skin, not human skin, thankfully, but still – they were gross!  I also saw a very wise man there – Julian Bond, one of the passengers on board the MV Explorer – who had apparently had enough shopping and had taken a seat on a stool in the passageway where he had enough light to read while his wife did the shopping.  I was impressed by his choice.

Before we had to return to the ship, we still wanted to walk the promenade along the coast, called Malacon 2000.  It was a government initiative to bring tourists into Guayaquil.  It turned out to be a beautiful area with a lot of plants, including an area showcasing bonsai trees and many small sections with native plants growing lushly around well-planned paths and fountains.  The shade was quite welcome.  The walk was again fairly sparsely populated – some native Ecuadoreans, some tourists – but fewer people than I would have expected.  I came to the (perhaps erroneous) conclusion that the city simply does not come to life until after dark. 

At one point we came to a larger plaza where we heard music.  A 40 piece police band was playing fantastic salsa music for the community which had gathered to listen.  There appeared to be many townspeople out there for a stroll and to hear the music.  It was wonderful!  We also ran into a group of fellow passengers there for a tour of the area.  There were many booths set up along the way for Christmas things including an opportunity to get ones picture taken with Papa Noel (their name for Santa Claus).  These things were also not open at this time, about 4 PM.

We wandered across the street to another artisan mall, this one in what appeared to be a former government building which had been renovated and was now used for commerce.  It was a splendid environment.  The wares were similar to those we had already bought, so we wandered through fairly quickly and began to look for a café where Gerlinde could get a cup of coffee.  I asked several places if they served coffee and learned that none of them did.  They suggested we return to Malacon to a place there.  We kept looking.  Finally Gerlinde figured we could give in to the culture and have a fruit drink instead.  There were many stores offering freshly made smoothies with no additives – just fruit – so we each got one.  I got a mago one with milk.  It was about a quart of liquid for $2.80.  It tasted fantastic.  Gerlinde got one with papaya and ice, no milk.  Hers was very good too.  Somewhat refreshed from the break, we went to find a hotel, like dutiful tourists, to ask the porter to call us a cab.  The first one we came to had a gentleman seated outside seemingly ready to help us out.  I asked him, in my fairly poor, but adequate Spanish, if he could call us a cab to take us to the port.  He asked which port.  I told him THE port.  He asked again which port.  I told him I thought there was only one.  The one where the cruise ships go to.  He looked at me blankly.  I showed him my ID from the ship along with the Daily Explorer, the paper we get each day which has emergency numbers on it, etc.  More blank looks.  I realized he wasn’t going to be able to help us.  I told Gerlinde what was up and suggested we return to Malacon to see if any of our comrades were still in the area and could tell us which port we were supposed to return to.  We walked swiftly there, wanting to try to catch the group we’d seen before.
As we crossed the busy street back to Malacon, we did indeed see two of our fellow passengers standing there, seemingly waiting just for us, though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case.  We asked which port, and they knew – the one on 25. Of July Street.  Two other people showed up, and we decided to take off together to go back to the hotel to get a cab.  We started rushing a bit because it was getting a bit too close for comfort to the time we needed to be back, and we were very clear that the ship would leave without us.  At one corner, I saw a policeman and tapped him on the shoulder to ask if he could help us get a cab.  He asked what kind, what company, where we wanted to go, etc.  I told him we wanted an official taxi, a safe one, to go to the port at 25. Of July Street.  He helped us cross the street then stood there and flagged down a taxi for us, put us in it, then told the driver where we needed to go.  Only three of the six of us could fit in the taxi, so he did the same for the other three folks.  Such kindness!  The driver was a determined to get there FAST as our morning driver had been, but he had to go around a long, busy block to get to the highway exchange, so he cussed for about 5-10 minutes as he shoved and honked and wheedled and coerced his way through the heavy traffic until he made it to the freeway entrance.  Then, finally, we were moving with some speed, and we were able to let go of our worries.  We made it back in plenty of time for the ship’s departure and even for dinner – what a bonus!
the neighborhood next to Las Penas, it looks much like las Penas does as well.  We didn't go into this one.

can you see the numbers of the stairs?  there were 444 to the top, plus the ones to the top of the lighthouse, 500 total, I believe someone told me


looking down the many stairs in Las Penas

a poem written about las Penas.

overlooking the city from las Penas

This picture is for Chris - see where someone has been building stretchers for a canvas down below?  This is the backyard of one of the galleries, presumably - they were all closed so we couldn't go in.


my wonderful travel companion, Gerlinde


picture of how the neighborhood looked before the renovation in 2002

a mail box!  What a rare sight!  Sadly we didn't find a corresponding post office where we could buy stamps, so it was but a teasing reminder of what could be... perhaps... one day... if the stars would align!

a glance inside one of the shops in Las Penas.

part of the Malacon, the art museum, I believe





signs of modern life among 400 year old buildings


the lighthouse and stairs with one of the many cleaners

The word, Vuelve, written on this building means "return!"  A request to those in the lighthouse, perhaps?


the chapel and Ecuadorian flag from the top of the lighthouse

a school yard from the light house along with the flag

the bored-looking guard in the chapel next to the lighthouse

the stained glass window with the piano player - a mystery to me who she is

The statue of Mary, offering relief from the immense suffering of Jesus' crucifixion

the back courtyard of one of the house in Las Penas - I wonder if all the houses are this much in need of cleaning?



looking down on the city from the hill

the hospital in the neighborhood we weren't supposed to go into for fear for our safety

the Christmas tree and creche in the indoor/open air mall where we ate lunch

my tuna fish lunch served on banana leaves

the restaurant where we had lunch

shrimp magnets, just like you see on TV!


relief from toe grunge, just like you see on TV


someone who loves me was in Guayaquil and brought me back this T shirt.

Julian Bond wisely taking a break out from shopping.

shrunken heads.  Gross!

one of 5-6 women I saw openly nursing her baby/toddler inthe city

a gentleman taking a midday nap

Gerlinde in her Panama hat

a cool fence in the malacon

Pepsi stand along the Malacon

An invitation to spend Christmas at Malacon with Papa Noel, starting at 6 in the evening

recycling station along the way

nativity scene, replete with fresh fruit offerings

one of the band members playing the salsa


Xmas tree along the malacon



beautiful building housing another artisanal market

typical fruit stand
After dinner, I lay down immediately to let the heat and strain of the day wash out of me, falling asleep for a solid ten hours of dreamless sleep, glad to have avoided all the terrible things that could have befallen us, happy to have had such wonderful experiences in their place.

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