We left Playas de Villamil behind, excited to explore Salinas. This town has a great reputation as a resort community, and it does not disappoint. Miles of beautiful Pacific beaches lined with luxury homes and high-rise condominiums greet the eye. Ice cream and sunglass vendors peddle their wares. The malecon is lined with restaurants featuring savory ceviches, sangos, and arroces of octopus, lobster, crab, and fish, in addition to less maritime fare. Children cavort with their pets in the foamy waves and surfers on short boards poise atop them. A sea turtle pokes its head above the surface.
I gave up my quest to personally wipe out the entire local population of corvina, and enjoyed some cheesy pizza, while Steve had steak. We checked into Hotel Boutique Playa Canela (Cinnamon Beach in English). The garden and pool area immediately took our
breath away. Gorgeous plantings, a perfect pool, a gazebo and fountain all overhang the crashing ocean waves. The sunset we watched that night ranks among the ten most gorgeous sunsets
I’ve experienced in my life. The owner of the hotel told us that, since it is the off season, if we wanted to stay in one of her one-bedroom balcony suites for six months, we could have it for $1,500 a month including all utilities, TV, housekeeping, and breakfast every day. Six months in Paradise! Tempting. But the suite is a little small for two crotchety old people to live in long-term, and has a sink, mini-fridge, and microwave, but no stove. The hotel itself is in stark contrast to its surroundings, a partially-developed wasteland of sandy unpaved streets between the working-class la Libertad and the skyscrapers of Salinas proper.
Walking the streets of Salinas and adjacent, less-commercial Chipipe, we noticed that the rows of hotels and condominiums on the beach are backed up by not much of anything. Small homes and vacant or half-built lots alternate with tiny tiendas. Children and skinny dogs play in the streets. The wide boulevards leading through town were deserted. Of course, some of this was due to the earthquake two weeks ago, which wreaked incredible devastation and killed hundreds, less than 100 miles away. Not only had this scared tourists away, but the viewpoint at the head of the peninsula, la Chocolatera (no chocolate is involved, I’m told), was closed due to concerns about structural safety.
We contacted a realtor who dealt in rental apartments. He told us to tell the taxi driver to drop us at Bank of Pichincha on the malecon, which we did. However, there is a malecon in every neighborhood here on the coast, so the driver took us to the one he knew, in la Libertad. That neighborhood reminded me of my adolescent years in the part of Manhattan which merged into Spanish Harlem in the late 70s.
Certainly, as the only gringos in sight, we were a little more comfortable being next to the bank guard standing on the steps as we waited. And waited. 15 minutes after our appointment, the rental agent called us because we were starting to be late even by Ecuadorian standards; we worked out the mistake and another taxi ride brought us into Salinas proper. He showed us some rental apartments, but nothing we really liked.
The next day, a second rental agent came and picked us up. Racquel is an American who moved here with her husband and has been here for over four years. One apartment, for $750 a month, was a penthouse only by virtue of being on the top floor of a tiny, ancient row house and having a small balcony. The elevator was barely large enough for the three of us, had no interior door (so you watched the floors go by in the shaft in front of the elevator), and hesitated a couple of times on the way to the 9th floor. The apartment had a bathroom down the hall, a suspended acoustical tile ceiling, and a door marked “please keep this door shut at all times” in English, behind which was a room which contained what looked to be the ventilation silos for the entire building, along with a sump pump for some reason, and various mysterious machinery.
The second apartment was a very nice one-bedroom in a high rise. The owner is a Canadian who wanted to rent it out for the six months of Northern Hemisphere summer, while he snowbirded it back home to Canada. We were talking about how to store our belongings from our Cuenca apartment, in the very nice elevator, on the way down to look at the pool area. Then, we spotted the buckled wall on the bottom floor. It was directly underneath the master bedroom of the apartment we’d just been looking at, seven floors above! “I’m not a structural engineer,” I said, “but I am a chiropractor, and that doesn’t look stable to me.” In the US, the whole building would probably have been evacuated.
Which brings me to the fear: Every moment I’ve been here on the coast, I’ve been aware that, although the peninsula here is less vulnerable than Manabí province, it still got the snot shaken out of it during the 7.8 temblor which cost so many their homes, businesses, and lifestyles, and others their very lives. A 7.8 is a very strong quake, not a common occurrence, but still not impossible to be repeated. And “less vulnerable” is a far cry from “invulnerable.” Every bus that rumbles by, every time my husband turns over in bed at night, the thought is there: IS THIS IT? Is this the Big One, the 8.9, which would bring even affluent California to its knees, but would absolutely lay waste to developing Ecuador?
The third apartment was in a very upscale building with marble floors, recessed lighting, and a keycard security system. That building was also unscathed by even the tiniest crack in paint or plaster, the only building we saw in all of Salinas which showed not the most minute sign of the earthquake. The apartment itself was gigantic, four bedrooms and five baths, with an amazing balcony overlooking the ocean and all the luxury amenities one could name. Because the new owner had recently inherited the unit and had to leave the country, the agent told us she could probably get it for us at a rate of $1,500 a month, including internet, cable TV, and water. We’d have to pay our own gas and electricity.
Wow. The place was fully furnished, but we could use one of the extra bedrooms to store our things shipped from Cuenca. This was what we had been looking for. But did we really want it?
The only consumeristic shopping mall on the peninsula is walking distance from the Hotel Playa Canela. We stopped in there on our way home, on a Saturday night, to grab some drinking water (a minus to Salinas is that the tap water is not safe to drink) and a snack. To our surprise, it was swamped! The anchor store is a Hypermarket, sort of an Ecuadorian Walmart. The aisles were crammed with local Ecuadorian families doing their shopping at 8:30 on a Saturday night. Just like many US small towns, apparently the Walmart is the only place to go on the weekend. We bought tents and cases of bottled water to donate at the gate to enter the big gala benefit concert for the earthquake victims the next day. The benefit turned out to be a rather uncomfortable affair involving perching on concrete risers in the hot sun in a dilapidated park, listening to locals sing karaoke to Ecuadorian pop music for as long as we could stand it, which was about two hours of a six-hour concert.
Then, there was the airport closing. This was the airport at our home base for the past year, the city of Cuenca. Some of you who have been with me since the beginning will remember how sad I was to learn that Ecuador’s aviation infrastructure was not the best, as I reluctantly acknowledged the need to sell my beloved Cessna 172 before coming here. I always thought it odd, by US standards, that a metro area of 700,000 people was served by a single runway. Five flights a day in, five flights a day out, passed over our apartment building to land at the airport, which is located in the middle of the city. Occasionally a military plane or helicopter will land, or the private jet of some politician, and every now and then we are treated to the sight of the only single-engine plane based at CUE, owned by the local fire department.
Last Thursday, a regular commercial jet flight was landing in heavy rain and slid off the end of the runway, burying its landing gear in mud and damaging its wing-mounted engines. In the US, the runway might have closed for as long as 12 hours, perhaps even a whole day. Equipment to move a stuck plane is, if not on hand at the airport, strategically positioned to be there in short order by truck or helicopter. But, this is Ecuador. And to be fair, the country’s insurance adjusters and aircraft recovery experts probably had a really busy week with the earthquake and all. The airport, it was announced, would remain closed through Sunday. Well, okay, our flight back was scheduled for Wednesday. But then, on Sunday, it was announced that the airplane could not be moved until the official inspectors sent by the country’s socialist government finished their evaluation. So it would remain closed through Thursday (yes, the day after your intrepid author was due to fly back). As a side note, the two Ecuadorian airlines LAN and Tame continued to sell flights into Cuenca, scheduled to land on those days the airport was scheduled to be closed. Hey, airline employees gotta eat, right?
Let me add that the reason I chose to fly to the coast rather than take a bus or hire a driver, is that the el Niño rains have generated frequent landslides and washouts on the mountain roads. My last trip back from the coast, two months ago, involved some rather scary detours onto mud shoulders overhanging 1,000-foot drop-offs.
A bus dropped off one of these roads in the Oriente on the east side of the Andes just last week, killing one person and losing six who were swept away by the swollen river below. However, with the airport closed, I have no choice but to take my chances on the roads. Fortunately, the very capable and safe driver Emilio Morocho, who took us on a trip to the Amazon, happened to be available the day we planned to leave. If anyone can negotiate the rough spots safely, it’s him. Cross your fingers that we make it.
Most of the shortcomings in Ecuadorian infrastructure we’d experienced to date had fallen into the category of inconveniences: rough sidewalks? Watch where you’re going. No online shopping or reliable mail? Plan ahead and buy what you need locally. Some things, like electrical service and cable internet, were actually more reliable in Cuenca than they’d been back in the capital city of Florida, and the tap water and medical care was way better. But now we were talking about some real safety issues. If the airport has no removal equipment, do local airports have fire equipment on hand? If the road washes out when we’re driving on it, how many days will our bodies lie on the mountain before they can recover them? The damage in the earthquake was reportedly worse because of the lack of enforcement of building codes.
The half-built homes in the neighborhood around Playa Canelas confirmed that what we think of as reinforced concrete-block construction in the US, is not what they call reinforced concrete-block construction here on the coast. Cuenca is full of solid buildings, some of which have stood for five hundred years, but other cities, including Salinas, maybe not so much.
We had a hard choice to make. The luxury beach apartment could be ours, below market value. Six months on the beach was tempting. But it just wasn’t Cuenca.
We talked for hours that night. And we finally realized that when we’d chosen where to start the next chapter of our lives, we hadn’t chosen Ecuador; we’d chosen Cuenca. Cuenca, that jewel of the Andes. Cuenca, with her European charm and strong indigenous culture. Cuenca, with her symphonies and street festivals. Cuenca with her cathedral frescoes and street art, courtyards full of surprises, and smiles and bienvenidos everywhere you turn. The stark views of the Cajas mountains juxtaposed with the gorgeous colonial architecture, the rushing rivers, the modern blooming parks.
We’ve come to love Ecuador (despite the socialist government driving her to where socialist governments always go), but only via our love for Cuenca. My heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys could not thrive at Cuenca’s altitude, and that is one of my life’s big disappointments. Over the last few days, we came to realize that no other part of Ecuador was a substitute for Cuenca. We will always be friends of Ecuador and her people. This is even more true after witnessing the miraculous, spontaneous outpouring of aid from individuals throughout the nation beginning the day after the earthquake: car and truckloads of food, water, clothing, bedding, picks and shovels, tents, diapers, port-a-potties, everything needed to stanch the suffering, were mobilized within hours and poured into the affected provinces and towns. People who barely had enough to feed their families found the wherewithal to help other families in dire straits. Our drop in the huge sea went with it. Ecuador abides. Ecuador suffers and overcomes.
So, this: we have decided to return to the US. Our children are there. Our friends miss us. We miss them all. We miss burgers and fries, speaking English everywhere, and, yes, flushing toilet paper. We are Americans, who lived a year as expatriates and learned that an expatriated American is still an American.
We will miss the mercados, the cholas in their bolleras, the constant parades. We have formed some real friendships here, and we will miss those friends. And we will carry those friendships, and the radiant sunshine of la gente of Ecuador, in our hearts always.