Two dogs covered in Santiago street dust wait patiently for the man in the back of the refrigerated truck. They don’t notice the car horns or the speeding motorbikes that miss them by inches. The man jostles a hanging cow carcass and pulls it along a track in the ceiling, past its brethren to the truck gate. The brown dog does recon, standing back where it can see the man over the gate. The black dog lies in wait underneath, out of sight, watching the brown dog’s eyes for his cue.
I am now, for the first time, in a place where almost nobody speaks English. I’m alone in Ecuador, trying to figure out what the hell is going on and where to get food and clean water.
Monday through Friday I wake up at 6:30 am start my 5 mile walk along the deserted beach to Montañita where I take Spanish classes. The town of Manglaralto has a rocky point that sticks out from the coast, so when the tide is high the beach is gone. Those days I climb the rocky steps and pass through the small town to get to back to the beach to the other side. When the tide is low I walk the whole way on the beach, nodding occasionally to a pickup truck full of fishermen speeding along the hardened beach sand.
As I near Montañita I walk through the wreckage of an old concrete pier. Giant chunks of concrete and metal have been abandoned to the ocean. At low tide, I’m careful to note the location of the erosion-sharpened pieces of rebar that stick up from the sand. At high tide they will lurk just below the surface of the water, ready to stab unsuspecting beachgoers.
It feels good to be in school again, to interact with people. I’ve been working remotely or for very small companies for a few years, and while I met some great people doing so, I’ve realized I miss the camaraderie of working with a team in-person. Being an introvert, I’ve come to realize I need to build that interaction into my life.
In Spanish class we talk about our lives and ask each other questions. I really enjoy it. I think I could live abroad, teach English, learn Spanish and write, surf, meet people, make art. I’m starting to feel that pull. That longing for creativity. I need to move, make art, written, visual, whatever. I simply can’t tolerate working at home for 40-60 hours a week on the computer. It’s destroying my body and making me lonely.
On our coffee break I sip weak coffee on the roof. I see designs in the cracks at the bottom of the coffee cup, and think about the colors and shapes I’d put on a canvas and that short story I never finished.
During our lunch break I grab my surfboard and run down to the beach. At mid-tide the surf is decent. My board was shaped by a local, it’s a 6′ fish with balsa edges and it’s pretty much perfect for me. I lucked out. After about an hour I’ll paddle back in and eat a big bowl of ceviche at the yellow carts lining the streets and beaches of Montañita before running back up the hill to catch my second class session.
As soon as school’s done, I make the trek back down the beach, board under my arm and walk back to the house on the hill in Riochico so I can throw some food on the stove and start my work day (or work night). I write code and listen to podcasts until I can’t stay awake any longer and then I crawl into bed pass out.
I had big plans to surf today, the swell is picking up a bit and the tides are perfect for a good morning session. But I’m violently ill and delirious. I can’t eat more than a bite of bread every few hours and I’m almost out of drinkable water. Anita and Joaquin are gone for the weekend and my phone stopped working a week ago. I’ll have to make my 12 ounces of clean water last til tomorrow, hopefully by then the nausea will have let up enough for my to make the walk down the muddy mountainside to the mini-mart so I can buy a bag of clean water.
I’m laying on the bed outside, watching a documentary on The Grateful Dead. I’ve never been particularly moved by them, but right now the music and imagery in the documentary strikes me in a way it wouldn’t have before and I’m realizing I need to create and it can be weird and not perfect. I just need to try and commit to trying until I drop dead because we get one chance and I’ve tried to play the game and do things the smart way, the safe way, and it doesn’t feel right. It’s time to accept that my life is mine and I am the way I am. The wheels in my head are in motion, I need to make a change.
Things are done a little differently here in coastal Ecuador. It’s been raining the past few days, and the streets are wet and muddy. I was waiting for the bus and a man on a motorbike pulled up, behind him, a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 4 years old sat on the bike. She was holding on to his sides with her tiny little hands. The man was wearing a helmet, the child was not. She was wearing a small pink backpack, totally unfazed by the experience.
They stopped in front of me momentarily. The girl looked at me with vague interest, probably wondering who the strange looking person with the white face and large beard was. Then a woman walked up carrying an even smaller child, a boy, and placed him on the seat behind the girl. The woman put the boy’s backpack on him, and the boy’s hands on the little girl’s backpack so he could hold on with whatever force a 3 year old boy could muster. I looked at his hands on the girl’s backpack, and the girl’s hands on the man’s jacket. They weren’t even straining. If they held a glass of milk like that it’d fall and shatter on the ground. This was all that would keep them on the motorbike, as the man drove off down the busy, rainy road to take them to school.
Despite my exhaustion after 24 hours of flights, cabs and buses, every little sound wakes me up. Rustling in the brush outside, creaks inside. I hear pigs squealing 100m away. I saw a man beating them with a stick today while feeding them. They were all squealing in what sounded like a terrifying pig orgy.
Suddenly I can feel the distance between me and anyone I know. The 3,000 miles is a physical force weighing me down. I try to calm myself down by focusing on breathing, but my chest is tight, like when I was 10 and I had asthma attacks, and no matter how hard I tried I could not get enough oxygen. I think of the 2 cigarettes I smoked the other day when I was stressed, and how a friend recently died of cancer in her 30s. I’m certain I’m going to have a medical emergency alone on this hillside in Ecuador. A three hour bus ride from a city. 3 hours past cinder block shacks with exposed rebar, half of all the buildings unfinished. Past gray, depressing beaches, empty, devoid of the lush color and beauty of the Maui Beaches I once called home. Why were they so gray? The water and sand and sky. The relentlessness of the gray made it feel permanent.
I breathe in and imagine myself floating in the water at Paia Bay, where the deep blue ocean meets the orange-yellow sand, black volcanic rocks and lush greenery, all beneath the blue sky interrupted by occasional wisps of white cloud. It used to be my lunch break every day, and its cartoonish beauty spoiled me. I float and wait for a good wave to bodysurf onto the beach. Then I’ll walk up to my old pickup parked beneath the 40-foot palms, grab a shirt from the truck-bed and walk to Paia, past the vibrant storefronts, full of friends & neighbors and tourists.
Back in Ecuador, roosters crow in the distance. And for the first time in my life I’m glad to hear the sound. It reminds me of my old house in Makawao, on a Hawaiian hillside goat-pasture. I close my eyes and for an instant I’m back in the lofted bed, trying to sleep while my neighbor’s roosters try their best to keep me awake. They used to drive me crazy. But now as I struggle for breath in an unfamiliar country, surrounded by mosquito netting, more alone than I’ve ever been before, the crow of the roosters is reassuring. Maybe these places aren’t so different after all. Roosters still crow. Roosters still crow. I’ll be alright.