Welcome to Ecuador

Otavalo market day 3Fascinating to hear of all the interest in seeking asylum or retirement to Ecuador lately.  Following on my last posting, a recommendation of some of my favourite travel books, there is one concerning Ecuador that springs to mind: “The Farm on the River of Emeralds” by Moritz Thomsen (Vintage Departures / Random House edition, New York, 1989).  It paints an up-close-and-personal picture of the author’s determination to build a rural homestead in the coastal jungle province of Esmeraldas, northern Ecuador.  Thomsen (1915 – 1991), an American Peace Corps veteran, wrote with sensitivity, insight, and engagement, about his ambitions and disappointments in trying to make a life for his 53-year-old self, and share the realities of the rural-poor folk around him.  The writer Wallace Stegner called it “…a heart-breaking book about good intentions and idealism crashing against poverty and cultural differences…bound to be read with fascination, amusement, and something close to horror.”  Dating from his experiences in the 1970’s, it’s not that bad by today’s standards – no looming disasters, invasive development, or shifting battle-lines, just the average rural challenges of the ever-encroaching jungle and the traps of poverty, in a hot-house environment.
I haven’t read his earlier memoir, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle”, also set in Ecuador, but I came across a wonderful metaphor he constructed that could be the book’s epigraph: “Living poor,” he wrote, “is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things.”  Then there is a sequel to his experiences in Ecuador, “The Saddest Pleasure” (from “travel is the saddest of the pleasures”, a line by Paul Theroux), even more intensely self-reflective.
Otavalo market day 1 In 1976, I travelled for two and a half months in the Andean countries of South America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.  I was still pretty naive, but by this time I had already taken a year-long sojourn to Europe and overland to India, in 1972-73.  Come to think of it, I am still pretty naive, travel has done little to change that, and the sense I make of “the saddest pleasure” is that it is entirely pleasurable except that all those pleasures are eventually left behind.  We are all travellers, threading our ways through the tapestry of this world.  Anyway.Otavalo market day 2
Overland along the backbone of South America meant following the route of the Pan-American Highway with few alternatives, so very often it meant falling in step with other travellers, stopping or moving-on by consensus, partnerships forming and re-forming due to coincidences, pick-up relationships, information-sharing.  The cultural environment was a lot more familiar, but more raw and dangerous than west or south Asia – to me it approximated the “Wild West” of open landscapes and the rough imposition of modernizing habits and developments on defensive indigenous peoples.  On an earlier visit, a Colombian friend had pointed to the juxtaposition in a village square of a church facade and a billboard advertising a soda-pop brand, calling them the twin oppressors of his culture.  Maybe I am just naive about my own role in all this, not one of the shock troops of western development, but a camp-follower.  Maybe there is no such thing as “asylum”, retirement, or pleasure without reflection.

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~ by Peter Harris on 21/07/2013.

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