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Living on River Guaya Living on River Guaya
by Alexander Mikhaylov
2008-08-07 08:49:06
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River Guaya that borders an Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, is awfully wide. In morning, it rises with a high tide, swelling as it goes, then stops and turns the other way around, exposing a narrow strip of mud along its banks, littered with rubble and urban junk that, when the river is full, are unnoticeable. During the rain season, the river carries masses of river grass, creating an impression of thousands floating islands, often crowned with little blue flowers, scattered across the surface.

Since we have moved into a riverfront apartment, I can study river’s life on daily basis.

Occasionally I spot an iguana, swimming in the water with a graceful ease or crawling along the bank. A current in the middle is strong but closer to the banks the river flows colonially slow. A number of fishing boats that plough its surface look like oversized, incredibly long and sharp-nosed canoes, often with a tarpaulin atop, carrying a crew of two or more people.

Many a time I observe one of these crafts, anchored directly opposite our balcony, jogging on tiny waves for the whole night, with people sleeping under a plastic canopy. It is a bit unnerving experience at first: I almost expect these people to paddle closer and try to climb over the guardrail. I do not know if that is my imagination or the danger of intrusion really exists: in any case, our windows are reinforced with massive metal bars that we leave padlocked when we go to sleep or leave the apartment. 
During the rain season, the river swells so much that I am genuinely afraid it will flood our place. Although it never happens, a sound of angry water and complete darkness, filled with torrents of rain, awake in me a strange feeling, almost an echo of primordial fear.

One evening I witness something close to a boat wreck. It has been raining hard for hours and there is one of these boats, dancing on waves in close proximity to our balcony. I lean on the guardrail and watch for half an hour as a drunken old couple bales water from the bottom of their sinking craft with white plastic baskets.

*   *   *   *

Living in a riverfront apartment gives life another interesting dimension: I have to watch for the animal kingdom that constantly tries to invade our quarters. One morning, my wife discovers a toad sitting on the rubber mat next to the shower stall. How did it get there? A mystery… We shoo it outside through the balcony door. I have barely enough time to snap a few pictures, as it paddles across the floor and jumps into the river.

Iguanas are also frequent guests of our place. Here in Guayaquil they are as common as cats. I step out on the balcony and find one of them gazing at our hammock. I try to feed the silly beast a cracker but it only looks at me and does not move. I wave the cracker in the air. The iguana opens its mouth, I see its pink tongue but then my resolution leaves me. How can I be sure it knows where the cracker ends and my finger begins? My wife makes fun of me later on. ‘They don’t even have teeth.’ Well, I know they don’t, but still…

It gets really funny when we find a bat sitting on the balcony floor and take a picture of it then prod it with fingers, encouraging it to move on. The bat seems to be unafraid of us until Natalie tries to give it a leaf of a green salad. Apparently, the vampires are deadly afraid of green salad: the bat immediately takes off and never returns.

Every once in a while, I feel overwhelmed with new impressions. I sit down and write them one by one, without particular order in a futile attempt to organize elements of my ‘culture shock’ into something at least remotely logical, like a diary of a shocked traveler. Writing is a wonderful thing when you try to sort it all out. I want to squeeze my anxiety on a page. It is late evening and I sit at the only table in front of a dark window, typing away.

Within half an hour, I grow restless, tear my eyes away from the computer screen and glance down at my feet. There is a huge scorpion crawling slowly across the floor: its ugly body with a raised tail is only fifteen centimeters from my bare feet. I jump up and run to the tiny entrance hall, grab the heaviest shoe, return and smash the bastard. It takes three good blows to kill it. I collect the dead scorpion with utmost precaution and throw it down from the balcony, then disinfect the spot where it was killed.   

*   *   *   *

We arrived to Ecuador at the very beginning of the rainy season. As far as I know, the rain would continue for four or five months. Not that it falls endlessly. Some days it takes a break and the sun shines for all it is worth but the air is so swollen with humidity that the smallest physical effort – a climb up the stair or a short walk -- makes you break into sweat. Oh, this infernal sweat! It trickles down your back, darkening your clothes, it never dries up completely and it keeps your skin in a state of a permanent dampness and stickiness. You change your clothes twice a day or more but to no avail. Slowly you are getting used to it -- heat, humidity, damp hair.   

Imagine a shock when you arrive to the tropics directly from Finland, where it is the very peak of winter and your memory of biting wind and wet snow is still too fresh. Just look at your pallid skin, which makes you stand up in a crowd like a rare bird, sneeze for the last time and be done with it.

It was in Madrid airport when we began to discard our heavy clothes, throwing them in a garbage bin one by one. My heavy shoes went there the last. They were a good pair of shoes. Why I felt little sorrow throwing them away? 

Mosquitoes are a real problem. They multiply in dampness and heat in frightful quantities and they sting you day and night. Somehow, during the rainy season their sting is especially bad. Perhaps it is due to the quality of a fresh poison they carry in their miniscule bodies. Ugly devils never leave you alone. Soon, way too soon for my liking, my entire body is covered with mosquito bites; some of them a couple of weeks old and I scratch and scratch my skin, scratch myself into madness, into a real frenzy, causing bleeding sores to appear on my toes, heels, legs.

*   *   *   *

Mount Santa Ana – one of the places where poor live (In Brazil they call such places ‘la favela’ but here it is just a barrio). Non-residents and foreigners are strongly discouraged to go there. Well, at least I can snap a picture!

*   *   *   *

I am learning a few things. For instance, crossing the street might be a challenging business. What if I am late for an appointment, for work, for a meeting? I would have to run to the bus stop across the major thoroughfare but wait! Is there a street light anywhere nearby? No. Then the chances are high that I get stuck for ten or fifteen minutes, standing on a sidewalk in a helpless, impotent rage, searching for a gap in the endless river of cars, busses, vans that keep racing past as so many mighty beasts, roaring, honking, spitting exhaust.  

Ecuadorian drivers never stop to let you cross the street.  They stop on a red signal. Not always, though. I do not think they are vicious. It simply does not occur to them to slow down. In fact, a ride in a taxicab often takes your breath away. I have no idea how all these people manage to stay alive with their peculiar driving techniques, which ignores all the traffic rules, and their love of speed that seems to ignite them with a mad desire to squeeze out every available horsepower from their new or rickety cars alike.

‘One day I ride in a taxi,’ – One of my local acquaintances says, ‘and I notice that we ride on a lane divider. I ask the driver why he does not keep the car in the lane and he replies ‘Nah! It’s wrong. The line should be under the car, not on the right or the left, see? Right under us. That’s why here’s the line.’

To watch people boarding street busses is another interesting sight. There are no designated stops so instead you must hail the bus. It makes a full stop if you are a woman or an elderly person. It merely slows down if you are an able man. The same goes for getting out. I guess it takes guts and some practice.

*   *   *   *

Guayaquil is permeated by a fever of entrepreneurship. Even the city’s cemetery tries to do its best by throwing a promotional campaign – ‘Bury one and get the second burial free’. Its entrance is adorned by a huge placard that proclaims: ‘Welcome, friends!’ whatever that means under the circumstances.

Children, selling cigarettes, chewing gum, or red roses are common sign. Some of these children are no more than six years old. They congregate close to bars at nighttime and try to sell their stuff to drunken passers by, or simply follow them, yelling for money, ‘One dollar! One dollar! One dollar!’

I am puzzled by the sheer quantities of copy shops that seem to be on every corner. Why Ecuadorians need to make so many copies of whatever they have to make the copies of? Some guys simply place copy or fax machines on a sidewalk and run their copy business under an open sky. It cost only a few cents to make several copies. Peddlers of water, skinned fruits, fried bananas and coconut drinks are numerous but so are the sellers of Coke, who strike me as the most unusual of the lot.  

They carry with them an open bottle of Coke and a pack of little plastic cups, and sell the Coke by the cup. Same goes for sellers of cigarettes, who sell two, three or five cigarettes at a time. I once tried to buy a whole pack from one of these guys but he was astonished by the very idea. In fact, unlike many places in Europe, people around here do not look at smokers with a disapproval: cigarettes are luxury and if you smoke in public, you automatically place yourself in a category of a higher-class people, who live by the different rules. 

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AP2008-08-08 13:53:35
great report, alexander. it must in fact be overwhelming, to experience such a place where nature looks so powerful that it makes you balance between enthusiasm and fear. I like the way you look at things, with curiosity and honesty, no snobbishness involved.
‘la favela’ is "a favela" in brazil ("la" is tipically spanish).

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