Thursday, February 17, 2011

La Despedida Larga...

I walked down that long dirt road for the last time, on my way to the Community Development Committee meeting in town. Like so many times before, me and a local friend Juan Carlos casually strolled along the dark back streets of Data de Villamil, using my headlamp to reveal our path. As we walked, a well known dog came bolting out of his home barking and charging us from behind, demonstrating his fierceness. It is a game I have come to learn with the dogs. I’ll continue walking and they’ll charge my legs from behind with the intention of snapping at me, and when they get really close I bend down and pretend to pick up a rock to throw, which of course sends them running. I turn around and continue walking and the game repeats itself over again.

We continued our walk deep in talk, philosophizing about life, reflecting on my experience here in Ecuador. We approached the highway and a group of tiny green growing lights could be seen flickering in the shine of my headlamp. We came closer and the glowing lights slowly faded into the eyes of a flock of goats which parted as we passed by, grunting disapproval at being disturbed.

We sauntered on through the centre of town, Juan Carlos stopped for a cerveza; it was my final night after all. Several members were already waiting in the park as we arrived and they smiled at me brightly as I approached – those genuine smiles on their sun-darkened faces that reveal a unique sort of kindness particular to the folk of small town Ecuador. I thanked them for everything, and they each took the time to thank me. I left that meeting sad and proud, knowing that I was saying goodbye, knowing that they would move forward as a community.

Now I’m sitting in an airport in Houston connected to Wi-Fi internet, sipping on a coffee, waiting for my flight to Canada. Just twenty four hours ago was strolling for the last time through Guayaquil, pushing my way through the crowds in the Bahía, joking around with the incessant venders determined to sell me some cheap underwear. Just a couple of days ago I was paddling around in the Pacific Ocean, riding powerful waves with joy, strolling on white sand beaches. I am so far removed from that life now, so suddenly, like waking from a dream. I wonder what my friends from the small communities in Ecuador would think if they were to see me now, in this different world here in North America.

I often write about goodbyes, if only because they are so frequent in my life. I’ve never been a very emotional person, but saying good bye to Ecuador and to the people I’ve been working with here has been difficult. My degree of involvement in the lives of many people here has left me feeling committed and accomplished, but at the same time sorrowful and regretful. I feel as though I am abandoning the communities after becoming so close to them, even though I know that they will move forward whether I am there or not. Six months is a difficult amount of time to live somewhere. It is just long enough to build deep and meaningful relationships with people, but not quite long enough to grow any roots. I suppose this is the nature of my line of work, and something I need to get used to.

We left for the airport at 4am this morning, and over the last two nights I’ve slept for maybe five hours. I feel exhausted and down right now, as I often do in airports, but this low is well worth the long and meaningful goodbye that I experienced in Ecuador.

I said goodbye to all of the community members with strong embraces and words of kindness; to the Pacific Ocean with one of the most memorable surf sessions I’ve experienced in my life thus far. I said farewell to the different friends and acquaintances that I met along the way; to the owner of my favorite little restaurant in Guayaquil; to the security guard that smiles at me kindly every time I walk by. I parted ways with my work associates at the University and with the other people I worked with here in Ecuador; with my project supervisor that inspired me and taught me so much. Last night all of the interns went out for a final beer at a local bar that we often visit, I left early in order to pack and get some sleep. After dozing off for about an hour I was awoken by the door at around 1am, it was some of the local guys that we know, come to say goodbye and share a drink. And so it was that I spent my last hours in Ecuador sipping red wine beside the Río Guayas in the cool Guayaquil night, sharing memories of the last six months, discussing our hopes for the future.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Surfing Ecuador: The Final Sessions...

I’ve done a lot of surfing over the last six months, on a wide variety of breaks. I’ve had my ups, on those days were I was by myself in the warm water riding perfectly peeling waves, and my downs, when a wave put a hole in my eardrum and kept me out of the water for almost a month. Surfing has become an important part of my life, and I knew that it would play a large role in my overall experience here in Ecuador. So, after some often difficult and incredibly rewarding work, I treated myself to a few days of strictly surf before heading back to Toronto, Canada where I’ll be away from even the smell of the ocean for the next couple of months. I surfed in Montanita for a couple days, but knew the distractions of festivities would make it hard to concentrate, so I headed with a friend to Ayampe, my favorite beach break in Ecuador. Nature was somehow favoring my goodbye to the Pacific, and she provided me with a perfect swell to see me off. We surfed often and hard in those pounding waves, and our exhausted bodies fell into deep sleeps to the sound of chirping birds and the coastal wildlife outside the canvass of our rented tent. My final day on the ocean consisted of two of the most memorable surf sessions in my life thus far - one of sheer terror and one of pure bliss.

We woke up and had a relaxing morning, taking our time to get into the water. The swell was already hitting the beach hard; there was a clear difference in size to the evening before. It was almost too big for the spot, mostly just closing waves that crushed into a powerful rolling white wash. It was a very difficult paddle out and my arms grew tired quickly. We had been surfing for about an hour with a few decent drops here and there, when I got caught in the worst spot on the inside and the biggest set of the day came rolling in. I saw it rising in the distance as I was paddling hard but moving very little from the suck of the wash heading into shore. Every experienced surfer knows that feeling when they see a huge set forming. It is that point when they have to make a very important decision to either keep paddling and try to dive under the wave before it breaks or to hold back and hope it breaks before you and looses some power before it hits you. I opted for the former – I usually do, and it usually pays off. I made it past the first wave of the set after paddling extremely hard, and as I came up from my duck dive I saw the next set rising above me at its peak. I had no choice but to ditch my board and try to get underneath it, but as I let go of my board the force of the wave snapped my leash and sent me rolling underneath the water. I came up gasping and exhausted, more big waves were coming, I was a long way out from the beach, and I knew when I felt that leash come apart from my ankle that I was in trouble. The first thing I looked for was my friend and I spotted him in the distance on the inside – it would have taken him a while to get to me – I was panting, my arms were like jelly. My next hope was that my board somehow hadn’t got washed in towards the shore, I looked around frantically and finally I saw it bobbing about twenty feet away. I looked towards the horizon and saw the next wave forming. It was a race now, and if I didn’t beat that wave to my board, I would have been helpless and defenseless to the power of the ocean. I used all of the strength I had left in me, paddling for my life, and as my final stroke finally landed on the board, I experienced one of the greatest senses of relief that I’ve ever felt. I clutched that board like never before only to be smashed again seconds later by the next wave. It sent me rolling under the water but I wouldn’t let go of the board - it was my ticket into shore. My friend had reached me by this point and I finally was able to collect myself and get in front of a rolling white wash, letting it push me speedily towards the beach. I sauntered onto the sand, panting, exhausted, and somewhat in shock. My friend later told me that as that first wave hit, the suck of the wave from underneath that kept me submerged for so long also kept my board almost stationary, tomb stoning out of the water. He said he didn’t think I’d make it to my board before that second wave, and he was surprised at how fast I paddled to it. The mind can do amazing things to the body when in a state of distress I suppose. We headed to camp to relax and recover, it was my final day of surfing and I wouldn’t let anything stop me from a sunset session.

We got on a bus mid afternoon, heading towards Río Chico, a famous left-hand point break. I had surfed a lot of points here in Ecuador, but this was going to be the first left out of the entire six months, and being a goofy-footed surfer, I was ecstatic. The day before I had asked a local about Río Chico and he said that it was a super heavy and powerful wave that gets huge at low tide with a south swell beyond four feet. Well, we had a five foot or more south swell, and we arrived at Río Chico an hour before low tide. 
Río Chico is a beautiful, protected beach located within the lush coastal jungle of Manabí province. There is no development on the beach besides one small, eco-tourism focused hotel that had a beautiful garden with all sorts of flowers and trees that I had never seen before. We surveyed the water and the point looked rather unimpressive at first glance, but as we started to walk towards it and as the tide continued to go out, the waves kept coming in bigger and longer. We entered the water and made the long paddle around the breaking waves to the point in the distance, we were the only ones out there, and it was getting better every minute. We kept our distance from the point at first, weary of the way the wave peaked up so suddenly, and unsure of how fast it broke. After time though, as we felt that the wave was quite fat and heavy and we couldn’t paddle into it from the outside shoulder, we slowly moved closer to the point. Our Chilean friend that accompanied us caught the first wave, being the only one willing to wait in front of the rocks at the point, but after seeing him go we gained our courage. It was my final session after all; I needed to make the most of it. I moved towards the point and tried paddling into a few huge waves, but they were so thick that the only way I could drop into them on my short board was to basically catch it right as it was peeling over my head, which is incredibly intimidating in such heavy and big surf. But I was determined, and so it was that I committed myself to the wave, catching it at the last moment, dropping almost vertically down the huge slope of the wave and immediately turning up towards the top of the wave again in order to make the section before it crashed down on my head. After getting the feel of the wave I began to catch quite a few, getting more comfortable carving up and down the giant face of the wave. I surfed until I couldn’t feel my arms and then caught the perfect wave in, riding it flawlessly right from the point until it closed out near the beach, laying down on my board to let it take me into shore. I never imagined my final session to be so perfect, and as I cruised into the beach in that white wash I felt like my entire six months here in Ecuador, all of the ups and downs, culminated into that final wave.