The Land of Bananas and Boom-Boxes
Photo by Priya Lal
This tiny sliver of Ecuador rocks: with the waves of the surrounding ocean; to the beats at the Saturday night discoteca; and under the teetering mass of the world its weight unrelenting as the pull of gravity and industry. This essay is presented in four parts.
Lurching Buses and Perfect Beaches: Situation Cabo
There are two ways to reach the village of Cabo San Francisco in Ecuador. The first route takes the traveler from the party-happy coastal town of Atacames on the northern Ecuadorian coast via a three- to four-hour ride in a vehicle called "the ranchera" (which has been known to leave passengers stranded in the forest when the roads flood). The ranchera, literally, is a big wooden box on wheels without sides and filled with a few metal benches, drawn by a pickup body. It is generally loaded with gossiping women, snoozing men, chickens in makeshift cages, and occasional adventurers, like me. The traveler will probably fight for a seat on the border of the box so as to maximize her access to the stunning views of towering masses of lush tropical growth, to feel close to the vividly green trees of incredible shapes and heights zipping by as the ranchera lurches and bumps its way south. After the endless, disorienting hours of the ride through the forest, a bridge will transport the vehicle across a small, yellow-watered, dreaming river, into the final stretch of the journey.
This past April I lived in the village as a volunteer for the small, local non-profit Fundacion Cabo San Francisco, an organization dedicated to regional environmental conservation, the improvement of medical and educational services for Cabo residents, and improving the villagers' economic health. My mission was to complete a detailed survey of local plants used for traditional medicinal purposes to be used in conservation advocacy.
About once a week I would run away from my duties to the Internet-connected, newly commercialized, tourist-infested Atacames, the biggest nearby town just to soak up reminders of the existence I am accustomed to, an existence that takes technology and convenience, anonymity and options for granted. Once in Atacames it usually only took me a few hours to get my email, newspapers, converse in English, watch cable television, indulge in hot showers if I spent the night at a hotel, indulge in much-missed M&Ms, and get my overall post-modernity fix. To return to village life in Cabo I would embark on La Costenita, a large bus packed to unbelievable capacity with human bodies, and turn off my brain for the hour and a half that we zoomed south towards the small town of Muisne on a narrow paved highway. And, impossibly, I'd almost doze off amidst the cumbia and salsa music blaring from the bus speakers, the humid air whipping through the open windows, the insistent, impromptu sermons of traveling salespeople preached from the front of the bus, and the piercing sales pitches of the shirtless, scrawny boys who would jump on and off the bus at the vehicle's intermittent stopping points to hawk their sliced mangos, fresh orange juice, and cheese empanadas up and down the aisle.
At Muisne, I'd disembark onto the town's single muddy road and walk a few paces to a raggedy dock, mentally adjusting to the switch from semi-developed Atacames to a region of more obvious poverty. Here I had to hang out for an indefinite amount of time waiting for a little motorboat that would transport me to one end of Cabo's little peninsula. I'd pass the minutes in the blazing sun by staring lazily at the milling fishermen with their silvery, sometimes still wriggling loads of sea life for sale, and often buy a 10 cent zapote, a sweet, round, fruit with large seeds and juicy orange flesh, to slurp on. Eventually the boat would scoop me up and slowly rock north, depositing me after half an hour on an empty strip of land jutting out into the sea. Just 40 minutes away from the village now, I would walk along a wide beach of a beauty that even now makes me almost dizzy when I remember it. Occasionally a machete-toting fisherman or two would pass me and nod, or a young boy would gallop by riding bareback on a skinny horse, toting burlap sacks full of electric-green bananas, but otherwise the beach was empty. When I made it beyond a long coconut grove and a few large rocks, the uncrossable cape (cabo) that cuts the village off from the coast to the north would come into view, and I knew that in a few more minutes I'd be seeing the houses of the village.
The nature of this rather arduous process of travel to and from Cabo was perhaps the most central aspect of my existence during my stay there; it most shapes my memory of the village. Cabo's physical remoteness from the urban centers of Ecuador and the adjacent coastal towns impacts the lives of its villagers in hugely significant ways. And in many ways the journey to the village is symbolic of the conditions of village life itself. Stunningly beautiful and refreshingly unpretentious as it is, the trip (via either route) can also be maddening, hazardous, and often dysfunctional, much like Cabo itself. Though the village sits in the middle of an ecological paradise far away from most of the uglier aspects of overdeveloped concrete-and-chaos urbanity, it is a place of extreme poverty and its inhabitants live with the constant threat of environmental devastation.