Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Culture of Slow...

With the exception of the dangerously fast buses that I always seem to find myself on, everything in Latin America moves incredibly slow.  There is a culture of slow here that seems to be intrinsic in the lives of most.  It is both a blessing and a curse. 

This culture of slow entails more than just a lack of urgency in the everyday actions of people; it entails an outlook and a way of life.  It includes those slow walking people on the sidewalk that I struggle to pass, but it also includes the idea that what one says is not necessarily what one will do.  I might be accused of generalizing, but after three years of experience in Latin America I’ve learned that when somebody here tells you that they will do something you can never fully be sure that they will follow through.  This is not an intentional thing - people will say things here just to be agreeable and amicable.  Over the last three years I’ve asked many random strangers for directions or information, and only once can I remember someone saying they do not know.  Rather, people will just say something in order to seem helpful, even if they actually have no idea.  Such things are all a part of this culture of slow that I am attempting to illustrate here.

I have lived much of my life in a rush, always wanting to grow up quickly, to get to the next destination, to arrive early.  For me one of the greatest challenges of living and working in Latin America has been adjusting to the culture of slow.  Working in a small community has really brought out my frustration.  Every meeting that I schedule with people, no matter how much I emphasize the importance of beginning on time, everyone shows up at least thirty minutes later than the agreed hour.  When the meetings finally begin we end up talking about different things until everyone is either tired or thirty minutes late for their next meeting and we end up accomplishing nothing.  One can only imagine then, the frustration that accompanies somebody working in the field of development, where change is the desired goal of all parties involved yet it comes ever so slow.

I find myself wondering if a part of the lack of development in this part of the world is a result of this culture of slow, indeed scholars have attempted to argue along such lines.  But the more that I think about it and the longer that I live here, I come to realize that it is likely the other way around, and that this culture of slow is the result of a lack of development more than anything else.  The culture of slow causes its limitations on certain aspects of life, but it needn’t be a pejorative.  Despite my many grievances, this culture of slow is no doubt what causes Latin Americans to be some of the happiest people in the world.  I recently read an article about levels of happiness in different countries around the world, and eight of the top ten happiest countries were Latin American.  Despite high levels of inequality and poverty, a lack of basic social services and infrastructure, and often rampant crime, people in Latin America are simply happier.  In the “developed” world we have become fixated on hard work and punctual meetings and “growth”, but often at the detriment of happy lives.  Here in Latin America the culture of slow allows for leisure and recreation despite the fact that people have to work hard just to put food on the table.  It is an insight on life that we have somehow lost in the developed world.

I’ve tried many times to adjust to the culture of slow, but I think it will always be something foreign to me, a cultural trait that I will never pick up, and it is a shame.
They say that people in parts of Latin America live longer than anywhere else.  Indeed I’ve met many people that I believed were fifty years old only to find out that they were seventy.  The culture of slow is far reaching.  So for those that come to Latin America and inevitably become frustrated with the culture of slow, be sure to deeply consider what it ultimately entails.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Playas... The Surfing Frontier

I am sitting on my bed in my cheap hotel room, listening to music and writing. My room is small and has a permanently odd smell; the poorly painted blue walls are accentuated by the insides of squashed insects and mosquitoes, my bed sinks in uncomfortably every time I move. The thin curtain beside my bed flaps calmly with the casual breeze and as it opens the bright sun shines in and I get a glimpse across the street and down the beach. From my pane-glass window I can see the stretch of beach that extends to a rocky point and then wraps around out of site, the calm blue ocean that accompanies this extension of sand is interrupted at the point by rolling white lines heading towards the shore – point break waves.

There is a word that is used here in Ecuador called “Cholo”. It is hard to describe what exactly “Cholo” means, but my understanding is that its closest equivalent in the English language would be “white-trash”, or in this case “Latin-trash”.

I live in a coastal town called “Playas” which translates literally into “Beaches”.
Traditionally, those Ecuadorians who travel to the beach on weekends to enjoy the ocean and the sun have passed up on this town, despite its proximity to the big city just less than two hours away. Indeed, it is no place for the rich classes in search of secluded beaches and five star services. Rather, it is a town of cheap deep-fried food, stumbling drunks, and reggae tone. It is a town of rustic hotel rooms, dust filled streets, and urine smelling walls. It is probably the closest geographical representation of “Cholo” that can be found here in Ecuador. For me, it is paradise.

I’ve lived in my share of beach towns and none of them compare to Playas. Part of the reason for this I think, is that it is extremely difficult to find other foreigners around. People that travel avidly tend to seek out those places that allow them to be fully immersed in the local culture, and Playas provides just that. There is a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that comes with being the only foreigner in town; it really seems to take the experience to the next level.

With a lack of foreigners comes a lack of crowded waves, especially in a country like Ecuador where surfing is still a relatively new activity. Playas has at least ten different locations to surf close by, yet there is not one surf shop to be found. Finding a surfboard, wax, a leash, are not easy tasks for those just passing through, but finding a wave means a short walk down the beach.

The shape of the coastline here in Playas makes for perfect surfing conditions, especially when the south swells are rolling in. A series of rocky points north of town allow you to walk along the beach and have your pick of right-hand point-break waves. Those that venture the furthest away are sure to find an empty break. Despite the “Cholo” feel of Playas, the beaches are beautiful and relatively clean. They are of soft white sand and they stretch for miles, roaming across them one can always find perfect sea shells and sand dollars, or quite often washed up creatures from puffer fish to sea turtles.

Heading even further north in the back of a pick up truck for ten minutes and you find yourself in Puerto Engabao, one of the most consistent and powerful waves in this part of Ecuador. Engabao is particularly special because of its isolated setting and the openness of the local population to outsiders. It is a coastal-desert town, where the dry and open landscape meets blue pacific waters. The coast is highlighted by red cliffs and rocky outcrops where crabs are seen scurrying around as massive pacific waves crash upon them. It is a fishing town and nothing more, and the fishers actually embark right at the point where the waves break. To surf you must sit and watch until all of the fisherman have left the beach, and this is often a show in itself when the swell is big and the boats are all struggling to get past the break. Why they would choose a place where the biggest waves break as a port is beyond me, but I suppose it seems to work for them. Those surfers that are lazy often hop in the boats and get a lift out to the point – in Engaboa the fishermen heading out to make their living are happy to contribute to the recreation of others. Despite its reliance on fishing, the community of Engabao is making a clear effort to diversify economically by making their small settlement a haven for surfers. They have set up a lifeguard tower that is always manned in peak hours which acts as a safe place to leave belongings while surfing. Even more interesting, they have set up a community based hostel system for surfers that wish to stay overnight. This is a series of families around the community that have either converted or built private rooms in their homes to house surfers that want a longer stay. It is a communal system that allows for cooperation rather than competition in this steadily growing tourist area.

My illustration of Playas as “Cholo” is probably not the most appealing to those looking for a beach getaway. However, once you get over the initial “cholo” feel of Playas, a deeper undercurrent of beauty and authenticity reveals itself. It is not just the cultural authenticity that is apparent here, but rather the emotional authenticity of the people whose lives pass by here, or of those simply passing through. The smiles and the genuine sense of happiness and content is apparent as one strolls through the town. Playas is a place like no other, and for surfers, it is a frontier waiting to be explored. The empty line ups are undoubtedly a treat, but people here are willing to share. There are plenty of waves for everyone, there always will be.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Ecuadorians definitely know how to take advantage of their vacations. Last week there was a five day holiday consisting mainly of two important days: the independence of the city of Cuenca and the day of the deceased. I have never witnessed a country mobilize for vacations like they did here in Ecuador, it was as if they were preparing for war. Hotels repaired and cleaned their premises, stores and restaurants stocked up, I even saw businesses that have always been closed open the doors and brush the dust off the counter.

I spent the first few days of this holiday in the beach town that I’ve been living in for the last month, a special place that I’ll explain more about later. With the holiday came a lull in the waves here, and also an influx of obnoxious noise. The mayor of the town decided to set up a giant stage with hundreds of pounding speakers where music and dancing would be performed all day and night. This stage was positioned directly in front of my hotel.

I was lying in my bed at 4:30 am on the second night of the holiday, tossing and turning, fighting off mosquitoes as the worst singer I’ve ever heard continued to throw out horrible Latin songs. It was at that point that I decided I needed to get out of here, at least for awhile. I needed a break from the beach and the constant sun, from the ceaseless music and the dry landscape. So I would go to Cuenca I decided, the renowned colonial city in the Andes that was celebrating its independence.

I arrived in the evening and took a cab into the historic downtown. Everyone had warned me to book a room because everything would be full, but when I called a place earlier in the day they told me they had plenty of rooms available and that I needn’t worry. I found the hotel and walked up the stairs.
“Hey there, I’d like a single room please.”
“We have nothing available.”
Alright, so I should have reserved something. I took to the streets again and found a different hostel. It was full. This continued for the next hour with about ten different places. It was around 8:00 now and I had given up, I had accepted the fact that I’d likely be sleeping on a bench in the central park that night, the party would be going until dawn anyways.

I made my way to the park, having no idea where I was, I just followed the people and the music. I emerged from a small cobblestone street into a huge open area of giant trees and towering colonial buildings, there must have been at least five thousand people enjoying the festivities. There were fireworks and marching bands, glow sticks and cotton candy. I bought some street food and settled against a wall, enjoying the spectacle without a worry in the world. Things always seem to work themselves out when you are positive, and not too long later I got a call from a friend who had a place for me to crash for the night. We met up and the celebrations began. It was a long night and I had an amazing time from what I remember, I really liked what I had experienced so far in Cuenca, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I really came to appreciate the city.

I awoke the next morning on the top bunk in some sort of dorm room which turned out to be a fair trade organization, or something along those lines. I went outside, it was quiet and cool but the sun was shining, making the temperature perfect. There was a small park across the street that was covered by bright green grass, I was ecstatic. I quickly walked over, bought some sort of pastry from a vendor, and then sat down on the grass – an experience that I had missed dearly. Sitting there on the soft grass in my hungover state I looked around and noticed the cleanliness and calm, I realized that where I was at that moment was a place that I could not distinguish from any other small park in a rich North American city, except I was deep in the heart of Latin America.

My other friends awoke and we took a bus to the centre. Along the way I began to notice the architecture and layout of this city, it was perfect. There were small cobble stone streets everywhere which were lined by magnificent colonial buildings. There were museums everywhere, and churches that were clearly several centuries old. There were restaurants of all kinds and quaint cafes serving real coffee. There were parks and open spaces where trees and flowers were abundant. It was decidedly the most beautiful and perfect city I had ever seen.

I spent the next couple of days exploring this city by day, and enjoying festivities by night. I came to learn that it was a city full of foreigners, many of them living there permanently, which is understandable. Besides its aesthetic wonders, it seemed to be a perfectly functioning city. It was well maintained and clean, you could drink water from the tap, poverty and crime seemed to be under control, the transit system was organized and easy. I realize now that I had only seen but a small part of the city, and for a short period of time, but it was a clear example of a city that had taken the steps to organized itself well in a relatively poor country.

I’m back at the beach now, recovering and focusing on work. Seeing another part of Ecuador was valuable to me, it showed me how diverse this tiny country really is. In a few hours I went from a dusty, hot beach town where I was surfing, to a cool and magnificent city in the mountains where I needed a warm sweater. Whether it be the geography or the people, everyday this country seems to amaze me more and more.