It is just past dawn and the bedroom air is already warm and sticky, promising another hot, humid day at the coast. Unlike the Andean roosters crowing and dogs barking me out of sleep, here in Manglaralto I am awakened by the cacophony of vendors calling out products for sale from their bikes, motorbikes, and flatbed trucks.
First to pass on the rutted dirt road in front of our house is the man whose single-stroke motorcycle is piled high with hundreds of baguettes in enormous plastic bags. Next, trucks laden with pineapples, oranges, carrots, and the ubiquitous bananas announce their goods from roof-mounted speakers on full volume repeat. Occasionally a man rides by selling peeping chicks from a box on the back of his bike. Even the garbage truck, which comes three mornings a week, blasts music as it passes our open windows. Later, in the heat of the day, a man comes by honking a circus horn, selling shaved ice from his three-wheel bike, which a nearby work crew gathers around for a cooling treat.
I keep hoping to hear “mariscos” (seafood) or “camarones” (shrimp) but so far the men selling fresh fish have only biked down our road on Saturdays. Even though a handful of fishing boats line the beach, we may have to walk to the bigger town of Montañita, 40 minutes north by way of the beach, or further to find shellfish pulled directly from the water. We did intercept the fish vendor on his bike one Saturday and he sold us three beautiful, fresh, whole fish for $1.00. I then had the pleasure (not) of decapitating, gutting, and fileting them for our dinner, which we decided is probably not worth the effort if we can find fresh fish that someone else has already fileted.
Manglaralto is very much a small, working town. It has a few restaurants that keep irregular hours—one local family built a brick beehive pizza oven on their front patio, set up a few tables, and serve delicious thin crust pizzas in the evenings. There is one shop with a limited selection of dry goods, two dusty fruit and vegetable shops, and a surprisingly wonderful bakery which we visit almost daily for their whole grain bread, spinach hand pies (burecas), and sometimes a treat for dessert. Everyone we’ve met has been warm and welcoming. The couple who own the bakery greet us with smiles and have helped us learn how to ask for what we want. The owner of the beachfront bar knew our names after our first night and now stops to chat with us whenever we see him out and about. We already feel, in some small way, a part of the community.
At the end of our first week here we had a few days of rain. One night there was a solid 14 hours of rain and a power outage at dinner time that impacted the entire village. Al and I got out our headlamps and considered how to feed ourselves with no stove, no lights, and wanting to avoid opening the fridge. Just as we began to venture out and see what might be available to purchase, the power returned and we were able to cook our dinner as planned. I am guessing the food vendors are resourceful and have come to expect the occasional interruption in electrical power. We surely would have found something cooked with coal, propane, or wood. The locals appear to take in stride the impact of the weather.
Unfortunately, we caught Manglaralto during a major renovation of their buried water supply lines, so basically any previously paved street has been torn up, holes have been dug, and the central work site is across the street from our front door. That means constant noise, dust, trucks, motorbikes, and shouting six days a week. It also means that, after any serious rainfall, the roads become mud wallows deep enough to lose one’s shoes and as slick as ice. Along with accepting the power outages, residents seem to assume there will be mud. They wear their usual clothing and footwear on mud days and go about their regular business sloshing and slogging through ankle deep mud and puddles. But one day of sunshine restores the roads to their previously dusty state and the cycle starts over again.
The locals take full advantage of the beach and the ocean. On weekends and most evenings, young kids and families play in the surf and watch the sunset. Tweens and teens on surfboards and boogie boards, who clearly have grown up in the waves, stay out until it is nearly too dark to make them out. Even when it starts to rain, families will stay on the beach. Sometimes the elders will seek shelter under a thatched roof palapa, but mostly they don’t let a little rain divert them from their family fun time.
When we first arrived, we noticed a small mangrove-lined river that ended at the beach, forming a pool in which young children could play safely (see the picture at the top). After the heavy rains, we saw that the river’s pool had breached its border and now connects to the ocean to become a wonderworld of tidal fun for everyone. Old, young, and dogs alike ride the currents in and out of the pool now, hooting with pleasure. Al and I walk the beach daily to and from our Spanish lessons in the next town, and now fording the river is part of our walk. Each day we consult the tide chart to see if we have to wear our bathing suits and carry our backpacks over our heads just to get to or from school.
The beach here is sparkling clean. There is neither seaweed in the water nor washed up in piles on the sand, hence there are no masses of sand flies. That said, the beach is alive with creatures. The ground seems to move under your feet at the water’s edge but on closer inspection you see that there are thousands of small, flat-shelled snail-like creatures that spend all their time trying to burrow under the sand after each wave exposes them. The beach also crawls with ghost crabs (that’s really their name!) that dash sideways from hole to hole and make beautiful sand art with their “footprints” and a mandala of sand balls, the result of their feeding method. I read that ghost crabs are the fastest-moving crabs on the planet. Recently we took a long beach walk and came upon a yellow-crowned night heron who managed to snag a ghost crab as it emerged from its hidey-hole. I suppose being the fastest crab only goes so far when a heron takes you by surprise.
Besides getting to know the interesting wildlife, we have met a few gringos—relaxed, mostly older people who have fully embraced the laid-back, Ecuador beach lifestyle. They remind me of the “cruisers” we have met in our sailing adventures. I find them fascinating and I love to hear their stories of how they ended up in such an unlikely spot, what choices they have made along the way, and their views on America. Most of the folks we have met who have left the States seem to be a quirky mix of liberal-minded/conspiracy-theorizing/anti-government/pro-vaccine/aging hippies who live on social security benefits and barter. The other type of gringo we’ve encountered here is the young surfer-partier. They come from all over the world and mostly use English as their common language. Some are just passing through, others settle in for longer. They pad around, barefoot and deeply tanned, wearing hemp jewelry, board shorts, and open smiles. When the surf is up, they head into the water en masse, like beached seals spotting a shoal of fish, and ride the perfect waves.
The contrast between the mountain towns we’ve visited and the coast here is dramatic. Part of that is the climate. We were surprised to learn that our AirBnB apartment here doesn’t have a blanket—not just a spare blanket; any blanket! More importantly, it hasn’t been necessary. Nights are cool enough to sleep with the help of a ceiling fan; mornings warm enough to swim. We have pretty exclusively worn shorts, bathing suits, t-shirts, and flip-flops—all the clothes that had been sitting mostly unused in drawers while in the high sierra of the Andes. It’s not too hot, unless you are out in the midday sun, which continues to impress with its equatorial strength. There’s usually a cooling seabreeze and the temperatures rarely get above the 80s. And the ocean is similar to the Caribbean—warm enough to walk right in; cool enough to refresh.
But we also feel the differences in the pace. Things (and people) move more slowly here. Restaurant owners seem to open and close when they feel like it. Many of the cinder-block and bamboo houses are in a permanent state of partial construction, yet we rarely see anyone working on them. The main road up the coast has plenty of buses, taxis, and cars, but the streets in the small towns are more for people than vehicles, and dogs often choose the middle of the road as their napping spot. Our apartment is only a 5-minute walk to the beach, and our “commute” to Spanish lessons is a 40-minute stroll in the sand.
We’ve begun to wonder how the climate and culture of each place has influenced our pace—here we feel less motivated to go out for adventurous excursions and hikes and more inclined to stay local. We’re pretty happy watching the waves roll in, the pelicans soaring inches from the surf, and the families splashing and playing together. We don’t mind picking up fresh (albeit dust-covered) fruits and vegetables at the little shops in town nearly every day. It doesn’t bother us that the houses have tin roofs and the streets are dusty (though the mud can be pretty messy!). There are fewer tourist sites to visit, but, well, there’s the beach and it’s beautiful. People come to beach towns for a reason, right? Does their relaxed attitude shape the culture of the place, or does the nature of the place cause them to down-shift and slow down?
I’ll think about it and get back to you. But first, it’s time to chill…