Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another walk through Guayaquil...

It is a city a beautiful city, not only aesthetically, but spiritually.  Guayaquil continuously provides me with new experiences and sensations, new thoughts and perceptions.  This weekend  I met so many interesting people and I got to know this city even better; my weekend was subtle in its passing yet vivid and memorable.

Thursday night I went Salsa dancing with friends of my room mate.  I once tried in Guatemala to learn how to salsa dance, but I got frustrated with the constrictive nature of an organized dance and gave up right away.  I know that the many salsa enthusiasts out there might take offense to this, but there is something about dancing that just makes me want to go with the flow and do what my body tells me, not what I'm supposed to do based on planned steps.  I think it probably takes a certain appreciation for dance to truly understand the beauty behind the salsa, which is something I'm admittedly lacking, but I know that when I'm feeling the music I like to just move with nothing holding me back, I don't like someone telling me I'm dancing wrong, that doesn't make sense to me.

Leaving the salsa club we accompanied a friend to her car parked a few blocks away.  She was a little drunk from what I understood, but she was insistent on driving her car just down the street to another friend's place.  A large discussion about what to do ensued beside the car until eventually a bunch of people got in and the girl started driving, I began walking to my apartment just around the corner.  Apparently the whole time that they were deciding who would drive, the transit police were sitting around the corner watching, and as soon as the car began to move it was pulled over.  Now, Ecuador definitely has very strict laws when it comes to alcohol and driving.  First of all, only on Fridays and Saturdays can bars serve alcohol past 12am, which in retrospect helped me figure out why the salsa club that night had looked like it was closed from the outside past midnight - so that they could secretly keep serving us drinks.  On Sundays, a new law prohibits the sale of alcohol all day, everywhere.  And of course, drinking and driving is strictly prohibited.
The girl who was driving got out of the car and was visually a little inebriated, consequently the transit officers told her that the law dictates that they must put her in jail for three days.  But where there are strict laws in poor countries, there are always ways around them.  After a long discussion with the transit police it was decided that one hundred dollars cash was enough to secure the girl's freedom and let everyone be on their way.  It is interesting the way we sometimes view police corruption.  Externally, we look at a given society and say that laws must be upheld and police must be honest in order to have a fair and just system.   Personally however, when you or someone close to you is the one being prosecuted for a crime with a clearly incommensurate punishment, police corruption can literally save your life.

 The next day I just relaxed in my 16th floor apartment, doing some work here and there, watching the people below happily walk along the Malecón.  I took another walk through downtown, observing the way people go about their everyday tasks.  The cab drivers, whether in an actual taxi or just some random car, that honk and point at you, trying to convince you to take a ride somewhere.  The Vendor standing on the corner of a busy street bellowing out the items he has for sale, over and over in an almost operatic voice.  The call of the vendor is something I've come to appreciate here in Latin America.  It is an art that must be refined over years, and the visually older vendors are the ones that truly have it mastered.  They are the ones that produce a loud sound that carries down the street, that is soothing to the ears and that draws you in to them.

As interesting as the weekdays can be in Guayaquil, I was anxious for the weekend and for the tranquility that it provides where I live downtown.  Saturday morning finally came with a clear sky and a light breeze - it was unusually perfect weather for this time of year when slightly overcast skies are commonplace.  Saturday is a stark contrast to the weekdays in Guayaquil, it is like walking through a ghost town, with all the fuming cars gone and the downtown workers relaxing at home.  The silence of Sunday is exaggerated even more, with almost everything shut down, this city certainly knows how to take advantage of its day of rest.  Needless to say, if one wants to walk around the city without a headache, the weekend is the time to do it.  I decided to walk to the top of Las Peñas, 450 stairs to a lookout of the entire city, from there I could see even better the city that grows on me everyday that passes.  I walked back down working up a small sweat as the sun beat down on me, and decided to pass by a friend´s place for a swim in the pool.  A couple hours of lounging around led to a decision to go the the Bahía to check out what we could find, I ended up buying a bootlegged DVD for a dollar.

The peacefulness of the daytime on Saturday is contrasted by wild nights, when once again the city comes alive.  I never used to be a big party person, but it is difficult to avoid when you live downtown and the beating music from the various bars below blare into your apartment calling you to come enjoy.  I ended up going to a quasi house party in the historic part of town.  It was in a huge courtyard surrounding a pool, with stone pillars and plants creating a unique ambient that was only complemented by the eclectic crowd of artists and intellectuals that showed up.  I spent the night talking Latin American politics with people from different parts of the continent, and then ended up at an after party in an apartment right on the river.  It was the first time in a long time that I walked home after the sun was already high in the sky, but somehow it felt good, if only because it was here in Guayaquil.  This city is one that I could make my home for so many reasons that I've already mentioned.  Its greatest asset for me however, is its proximity to the beach and to the pounding waves of the Pacific.  And so it is with sadness and excitement, that I am leaving my apartment here in the city and heading to the ocean, where I will be both working with communities along the coast, and surfing until my arms ache.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A walk through Guayaquil...

Downtown Guayaquil from my apartment balcony
Guayaquil – a city long dismissed as a dirty, industrial, crime-ridden coastal settlement.  It is a city that Ecuadorians come to when in need of work; that travelers merely pass through in order to hit the beach or catch a flight to the Galapagos Islands.  Living here in Guayaquil however, and experiencing the everyday life makes you realize how special this place really is.  It is a city trying to reinvent itself, and like every other Latin America city that I’ve come to know, it has its unique idiosyncrasies that make it both adorable and detestable at the same time.
I live on the Malecón, a stretch of renovated riverfront that runs along the Southern side of the city.  It is a relatively clean and secure part of the city where Guayaquileños come to relax and stroll alongside the impressive Guayas River, an arm of water that winds out of the city to eventually widen into the Pacific ocean.  The Malecón is one of the many signs that this city is pushing to rid itself of the reputation of being nothing more than an industrial port city and instead become a cultural attraction for Ecuadorians and foreigners alike.  It’s proximity to the coast and its thriving night life, complemented by agreeable weather and a series of unique estuaries that snake through the entire city, make it a place like no other.  Its potential as a tourist centre is obvious and living here while such a transformation takes place has provided me with an amazing perspective, especially considering the purpose of my position here – to assist with the development of sustainable tourism initiatives in this largely under-visited region of Ecuador.

            A short walk from my apartment in one direction and you find yourself in Las Peñas, an historic part of the city that still maintains cobblestone roads and classic colonial structures.  A walk in the other direction and you find yourself in the Bahía, the black market that is unofficially recognized as a commercial centre of the city.  There, you can find whatever it may be that your heart desires, and if you don’t bargain you’re a sucker.  If you take a little detour on the way to the Bahía you can visit the iguana park.  This tiny park, in the middle of bustling downtown traffic in the largest city in Ecuador, is the home to hundreds of iguanas that have essentially become domesticated.  The city cares for them and in return the iguanas allow those passing through to pet them – they actually seem to enjoy the attention.  There are no cages or barriers, it is just an open park in which the iguanas have made a home, they never try to leave.
The Iguana park in the middle of downtown
An Iguana hanging in the sun on a park path
            I like walking around the city as much as possible, it really allows me to get to know it on a much more personal level.  It is not a pedestrian friendly place and cars actually seem to speed up if they see you crossing where you are not supposed to.  Despite the dangers, it is probably one of the safer ways to get around.  One of the biggest problems that this city faces right now is what is being called “sequestro express” or “express kidnapping”.  Anybody who takes a random taxi here faces the chance of the driver, or an accomplice, pulling a gun on you and robbing you of everything you have.  If you carry your bank card with you then they will take you to a series of ATM’s and force you to withdraw the maximum, and then they will take you to the outskirts of the city and if you are lucky leave you with five dollars to get home.  This is undoubtedly an epidemic gripping this city, and the authorities cannot seem to figure out a solution.  It is happening to locals and foreigners alike, no one is immune. 
The problem of crime in many Latin American cities raises important questions about development itself.  Crime continues to be one the greatest impediments to improved standards of living for many parts of Latin America. Many of the cities that I’ve lived in have been plagued by gang problems, high homicide rates, and pervasive petty crimes.  Almost everywhere, the government response has been iron-fisted, putting more police and military in the streets, and raising defense budgets.  Crime however, is the direct result of poverty, which in turn is created by a lack of social infrastructure and failed development policies.  I realize that I’m pointing out the obvious here, but my point is to encourage a deeper analysis of the issues that affect us all.  As a foreigner here, it is important to always look at the wider picture before jumping to hasty decisions or developing prejudices.  There are places in Guayaquil that I am simply told to stay out of, especially at night.  I've accepted that my freedom of mobility is somewhat hampered by the crime in this city, but I enjoy it nevertheless, and I try to look at the positive side of things.
Despite the rampant poverty and the desperate situation of so many, when you see the ingenuity of people here to make money without resorting to crime, it makes you feel sad and hopeful at the same time, and it makes you truly appreciate the goodness of the human spirit.  Getting on a bus here you will likely be accompanied by someone selling some sort of product or by kids performing live music.  Walking through a park you will have people offer you a shoe shine or a plastic cup of soda.  People will do what they need to do to survive, and I often find that I need to check myself when I begin to get angry at the constant bombardment of people asking me for money.  When it comes down to it, I do have money, and they don’t, and at least they are asking me rather than forcing me, I appreciate that.
A walk through Guayaquil leaves me feeling refreshed and exhilarated, guilty and remorseful all at the same time.  It is a city that illustrates the marvels of human kind on one block and the misery that pervades this world on another.  My first impression after almost one month here is that this is a city I could grow to love, and that I'm going to learn a lot about myself and this world by being here. 
Sticking to the true traditions of this blog, I encourage everyone to come and visit this place.  By doing so, not only will you have an amazing experience, but you will be supporting people that have their arms wide open ready to show you the real Ecuador.