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.

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