[color-box color=”green”]Join Canadian Expat, Dodie Schadlich, in her weekly column for “Off the Beaten Path”. Discover La Libertad on the south coast of Ecuador in a way rarely seen by expats. [/color-box]
I love Road Trips but with my busy schedule, it becomes challenging to fit them in. The simplest trip to town can turn into an adventure with your eyes open. Some will become etched in memory for various reasons and this particular one, because of a chance meeting, came in very handy months later.
It was in early November 2015 when I planned an adventure with a rental guest to head to Pto el Morro for a riverboat ride to see the dolphins. This small pueblo sits quietly on the banks of a river that leads out to the Port of Guayaquil, located just outside of General Villamil (Playas). Playas is the closest beach community to Guayaquil so the area can be crowded during weekends and holidays. If you want a quieter tour, I recommend you go weekdays or off-season (May through Oct).
The tour itself is a South American adventure, in particular, if you opt out of a driver and travel like a local; which is my preferred method for entertainment purposes. To access the area like a local, take a bus from Santa Elena Terminal to Progreso. Change busses in front of the park. While you wait for your bus to Playas, be sure to try the papas rellenos sold by the street vendors; YUM. Once you reach Playas you need to walk about 4 blocks (just past the Mercado) where you jump on one of the oldest busses you will ever see in operation for the final leg of the trip. At your destination, get out at the ‘end of the road’ which is a traffic circle of sorts and then make your way down to the docks to choose your tour.
I enjoy the riverboat ride, with the dolphins, various birds, and fishermen along the way. If time allows, you can pay for the longer tour and head further out to the island of Los Pájaros (the birds). This is a mangrove island in the Gulf of Guayaquil that is home to an extremely large colony of Frigates. It is a surreal experience in some ways, like walking through an Edgar Allan Poe novel. The remote island is also home to a family that manages the shrimp farm found there.
Certainly, I could take this time to explain all the wonderful sights and sounds experienced during this tour, however, there are multiple tour guide books that will do the same thing. The point of my story is about to be revealed during our trek home.
To travel back to La Libertad from Pto el Morro is yet another adventure all on its own. This is also where I met the man that would later be instrumental is solving a big problem for me. Once you live here for awhile; it becomes obvious that who you know is much more important than what you know so one would be wise to act accordingly.
After the tour, you can shop for some souvenirs along the newly remodelled Malecon. They have food vendors however I strongly recommend heading to Juan Ostras in Playas for a seafood experience you will not easily forget. Simply make your way back to the ‘traffic circle’ in Pto el Morro, where you catch the decrepit old bus back to Playas. Once the bus stops you grab one of the many moto taxis to Juan Ostras for a bite to eat. All the drivers know how to find the place.
Meeting Juan is like speaking to a local legend. On the wall are pictures of
him with Bo Derek during a film making expedition where the movie crew stopped into his humble restaurant. Once a free-diver for Oysters, he had a couple of good recipes, set up tables in front of his home and eventually became a fixture in the community. Last year he moved to a larger venue about a block from the original location to try and accommodate the long wait lines that can happen on weekends and holidays. No matter his ‘fame; he is, more often than not, still serving his customers personally, and cleaning tables, with the most infectious smile.
After leaving Juan’s you grab yet another moto taxi to the bus terminal. From the bus terminal, you head back to Progreso and this is where things get tricky. The park, where the papas rellenos are sold, does not connect to any busses headed to Santa Elena terminal. The locals, always able to fill a niche when they see one, have a line up of little local pick-up trucks with canopies. Everyone piles into the back of a waiting truck for 50 cents and are driven out to a highway rest area where you then ‘hitch a ride’to Santa Elena Terminal. I know it sounds bad, but a number of things can happen while you are there, with a large group of locals, waiting to finish the final leg of your trip.
1) A bus may stop, but only if a passenger needs to get off the bus, otherwise it is not a scheduled stop.
2) There are vans or SUVs that have taken up the cause and go back and forth up the highways charging a little more than bus fee. They jam pack people into the vans like sardines and away you go.
3) There are also taxi’s that come along, as they are heading back to the city that you can wave down. I suppose there is a 4th option of just sticking your finger out and hoping for the best, but I prefer and have successfully tried options 1 through 3 multiple times without incident.
So let’s go back to the park for a moment. Jumping into the back of the canopied truck; you have to realize that our white smiling gringa faces are not a typical appearance as they pile into the back. Our faces are often greeted with a surprised look followed by a big grin. Our trip was filled with children, families, men coming home from work, locals, visitors and of course myself and my travel companion tightly packed in. Among this group and sitting directly beside me is ‘Enrique’ who lets me know he is an engineer with CNEL. To those not living here, CNEL is the electric company.
Considering my husband Randy and I had been trying unsuccessfully to get a new electric meter installed on our property; I thought, well isn’t this a great chance meeting. We had been into the office 3 times already and continually told next week someone would come; that was well over a month earlier.
The engineer took a liking to my travelling partner, Kim, a nurse from Canada that was vacationing in Ecuador. She did not speak Spanish and he did not speak English. I am not only physically sitting between the two but also acting as a translator and moderator between them. He was asking me questions, a few about me, but more about her; it was clear there was a little crush going on as we were crowded like chickens in the box of this truck.
Since he seemed so eager to converse, I took the opportunity to casually bring up our electric meter dilemma. Although I would like to say, he made a call and fixed the problem that is not what happened: instead, he politely gave me a typical non-answer answer and we carried on with other, more important topics, like the marital status of my friend.
We have a great conversation in Spanish and he gives me his name and phone number. I enter it into my phone as ‘Enrique’ CNEL Engineer. We all get out in Santa Elena, say our goodbyes and carry on with our lives.
A few weeks later, with still no electric meter installation crew in sight, our electricians hook us up directly to the power grid (for a fee) and say CNEL will eventually come and install the meter. I initially expressed concern, I did not want to go to jail or be fined for doing anything illegal. They laughed and advised that if someone comes along simply show the paperwork and file number to prove we are waiting; it will be OK. I thought; Fair enough, that sounds easy.
Well, as luck would have it; within weeks along came a fellow pointing out the ‘illegal’ connection and for a ‘fee’ he will leave it. We pay him $10 and off he goes saying someone will come on Tuesday to install the meter. Shaking our heads, we thank him and of course, three Tuesdays go by and instead of an install crew, we receive another guy, with a couple other men looking for a payout to keep the ‘illegal’ connection in place.
He seems serious that he is cutting it off, I am not sure how much ‘cola’ money he wants, but this time it is not a singular guy but rather three in all. I am now annoyed thinking what a racket they have going on here. Months later, no meter, but this will now become a regular routine of payoffs.
As I am having an unpleasant conversation with this man at my gate; Enrique the CNEL Engineer suddenly comes to mind. I ask this guy to wait a minute and run upstairs to grab my phone and dial his number. He answers and I ask in Spanish if he remembers the gringa from the truck in Progreso. He immediately says yes and asks about my friend (which made me chuckle; ever the hot-blooded South American man) I am however very grateful that he remembers me and immediately describe my dilemma. I explain the previous man, the current group that is here to cut my power and how long I have been waiting. You do need to know that my Spanish is very choppy, the conversation does not flow as easily as this paragraph may imply!.
As I am talking to him, I am walking back to the gate and when I am standing in front of the man, I say to the engineer on the phone, I don’t understand, they have time to come to cut my power, but they do not have time to install my meter? He says, let me talk to him. I then hand the cell phone to the man at the gate and say, the call is for you.
With a puzzled look, he grabs the phone and does a series of head nods, si, entiendo, si, gracias and then hands the phone to me and tells me to have a nice day and the 3 man ‘Cutting Crew’ left with bashful smiles and waves.
The following week, an installation crew arrived and we were hooked up without further incident. I see the ‘cutting crew’ around the neighborhood from time to time and still seem to get a wave and hello.
There are a few lessons here that help to reinforce how I interact when I am out and about:
1. It is truly who you know in this country, not what you know. Because of this simple truth, I try to get to know people. Remember them, their names, ask questions about what they do for a living, children they have, I try to show kindness, participation, and interest in local life.
2. Practice, practice, practice Spanish, it makes #1 far easier if I can actually converse with the locals.
3. Take names and numbers whenever possible and besides their name I put their occupation so I can remember later. Sure you can go on the Gringo based forums and ask for the who, what and where, but you will often be pleasantly surprised on where and who the locals will lead you to.
As a Post Script to this story; about a week after my meter was installed, I found a cell phone on the floor of a taxi and picked it up. The person that lost it called the number and I answered it. We made plans to meet for its safe return. The man, with his girlfriend, showed up in a company vehicle for a local Fiber Optic Internet company. Well, guess what number I have listed on my phone; Manuel, Fiber Optics Internet. You just never know when this may come in handy!