Some things look good on the map, and from everything we saw about Guayaquil — a large population, the only pacific port city for 1000 miles, a warm climate with Pacific Ocean breezes — this had to be a good next stop to make while we were in Ecuador. However, when we mentioned we might go there, people looked away, a bit shifty. Our Spanish was embryonic, but there was some message. Something we didn’t know.
Quito had been gorgeous, a tiny European replica in the Andes, almost on the equator but high enough to be like spring year round. A lot of ex-pats, banks, coffee shops, big hotels. Pretty much the real South America if you could afford it and didn’t have places to go on dirty buses. Dirty buses were the way to see that world though. Buses with banana stalks and stowaway kids on top. Buses with chickens and goats and dirty diapers you lived with for hours. Buses which stopped quickly at every town and the vendors stuck frozen juice popsicles up for tourists to buy through the open windows.
And if you were a Gringo, the buses stopped at every state boundary and made you spread you belongings out on the dirt road for the local policeman to inspect along with your passport. As I was obviously a Gringo I qualified for every inspection stop. Brenda, however, had an Irish passport and, though we were married, she jumped at the chance to disown me. “No Gringo!” She said as she flashed her Irish passport. “Irlando. Yo soy Irlando.” So much, I thought, for death do us part. (I probably deserved about anything because I had forgotten her birthday that year, not in a flush of activity, but as the two of us waited patiently for half the day at a bus stop.)
The word Gringo, if you haven’t heard, comes from when Texans and other cowboys went down through Mexico with cattle herds and sang the mournful songs to put the cattle to sleep at night. One of their favorites (and likely the cattle favorites as well) started out “Green grow the lilacs in Oregon.” They slurred “Green Grow” into Gringo, and thereafter every American who ventured south of the Mexican border was a Gringo. Its usage spread clear down to the chilly tip of the southern continent. Brenda, by the way, just became an official Gringo last year, perhaps a world record for holding onto a green card.
Guayaquil, which provoked sideways glances and few endorsements from people we queried about it, seemed a little foreboding — but it wasn’t our first forebodement in Ecuador. Upon crossing from Columbia into Equador, right at the border, I pulled out a map I had brought from the States, and started to look for a route to Quito. I was lifted under the shoulders by two stout gendarmes and deposited in a room with no windows. Brenda was allowed in, but they took my map, and I could hear them arguing outside the door. Vaguely it sounded like they might shoot me for carrying this map.
“We take this map.”
“Can I have it back?”
“No, it is a crime.”
We did not like the idea of being criminals in a place where the jails were the dark hole of any political universe. “But it is not a crime if I give it to you.”
This sort of question is a horrible mistake when you use it on non-native English speakers. (Yes, it is not – or, No, you are right that it is not?) Spanish speakers cannot really comprehend how to answer a question asked as a negative question. It does not translate. The mistake could send someone to jail.
“We take this, and you stay here now.”
They came back half an hour later and with no reason at all, the head gendarme flicked his hand in a signal we could go.
Go we most certainly did. The taxi driver got a huge tip to hurry us to what was the dirtiest, dustiest, hangdog bus station on the continent, I am sure. Later I learned the story. My father had received the map when he worked as a petroleum engineer for Standard Oil in the States before WWII (which, sadly, claimed him). The map was in his belongings and so I took it along on our trip in 1970. As often happens in South America, I learned what follows from a drunken history professor who probably later got his tongue cut out.
Apparently two dictators in Colombia and Equador struck a deal when the dictator of Equador amassed humoungous gambling debts. Colombia demanded about half of Equador’s land mass in repayment. Probably the real story is far more complicated. In any event the two dictators apparently staged a war, prenegotiating the eventual boundaries and even estimating the what would be an acceptable number of dead and wounded. It had to play with the populace, of course, with harangues and bands and young men marching off to war. One can imagine it being managed by a Madison Avenue advertising agency like the product rollout of a new potato chip.
Mindless as I am of the details, this little war did happen in the early 1940s when most of the world’s attention was elsewhere. It truly resulted in the decision by a world tribunal in the Conference of Rio de Janeiro to change boundaries between Colombia and Equador to give Colombia about 2/3 of the Equadorian land mass. My father’s map displayed a much larger Equador. That is why the border guards confiscated it, as their politicos needed no reminders of this skullduggery lingering about, even this far in the future.
All of this brought us with a detour in lovely little Cuenca, to the big bad port of Guayaquil. On the map it had a large zoo and a race track. One could imagine families on weekends buying cotton candy on one of the large parks. What could be that bad?
To this day I cannot tell you why we had the feeling, shared by most who I’ve talked with, that Guayaquil had some sort of evil seeping out of its pores. When we got off he bus people looked at us a bit askance, not a friendly sort of askance, like here are more stupid Gringos (though Brenda quickly apprised them of the difference). Instead it was sort of a strange askance, like they knew something bad might be about to happen. Where we ate sandwiches was oddly unhospitable even to our money which was clearly their money and it was not refused, but everything seemed dirtier, as if disease germs were riding on our money, but they had to take it, reluctantly.
Across South American, we often were befriended by the first taxi drivers we hailed, who we asked to show us where to eat with no amoebas and to sleep with no rats. Usually that was an opportunity for him to make points with his friends (– we never had a female driver) or relatives. The understanding was that if we would tip him, and perhaps exchange travelers cheques with him at a rate higher for us than the bank, he would not send us to die.
He dropped us at a large hotel near the government buildings. Maybe the day was just grey, but everything seemed bland and tasteless in Guayaquil, and as I said, always steeped with foreboding. Our hotel room was clean, with a double bed in the middle of the room under a light bulb that hung all the way from the ceiling from its cord and was turned on with the little beaded string such lights have.
There were no windows in the room. All the rooms seemed to be accessible from a long balcony with stairs at each end. It was not a friendly place, but not friendly to rats either, so we slept soundly – until early the next morning. Of course with no windows we had no way of sensing the time. And then we heard the commotion on the balconies outside. The room was pitch black and I realized the only way to see would be to reach up for the light cord above. I reached – and it was not there. Groping this way for the light must have seemed comical to some creature with night vision, but it was weird to the point of panic. Then my fingers brushed the cord. The cord and its light bulb were apparently swinging in large arcs above out bed. I caught the cord on the next swing and pulled it, stopping the pendulum. We quickly pulled on clothes and opened the door to the balcony.
Guests were all out of their rooms, some making their way to the stairways, others staring at the sky. We stood at the rail of the balcony and stared at the sky as well. Government buildings of that architectural period have a crest upon which sit half of the birds in the city. Right now they all chose to fly at once, like a huge black swarm of bees, clouding the sky which had tried to turn bright this morning. It was the flight of nature from itself. The blackened sun seemed to represent the evil of Guayaquil.
We took the first bus we could get to anywhere, just out of Guayaquil. Though the small earthquake had subsided, I guessed later that the whole city must rest on some gigantic geologic fault that quivers enough to bestow a constant tension on the air, and only occasionally jiggles enough to disturb the animals. The buildings which still stood had probably made it, some inadvertently, through several earthquakes.
We fled all the way to the border of Northern Peru, where we discovered the city of Tumbes and its graveyard. The hotel was horrible but the people all proudly told us to visit the cemetary. And they had reason to be proud. The majestic sculpted shrubs there, many of which were two stories high, represented Alice in Wonderland with huge rabbits and queens, and clubs and diamonds as they would be on playing cards. I could call it therapeutic.
In Tumbes, it seemed as if the sheer effort and creativity of the gardeners at this cemetary were somehow the antidote to Guayaquil. This was a place which – though a cemetary – had happiness and humor and a vigorous confirmation of life.