Saturday evening found me sweaty and in tears. We had just been told that our reservation, which I had made a month or so in advance, had been cancelled, because we had shown up after the 4 pm check-in cut-off. This was after I had called the day before to confirm my reservation, and had gone to check in at 1 pm but was told to return later because the woman with the room assignments was at lunch. I was exhausted from a day of surfing and battling the waves, and feeling desperate because I knew we would not find a room in the small beach town of Canoa that evening. It was a feriado, and it seemed like all Ecuadorians had raced to the beach to enjoy their three-day weekend for Ecuadorian independence day. So, myself in tears and Gonza silently fuming, we returned to the hotel where we had stayed with the volunteers and asked to use their hose to rinse off and their wifi to make a back-up plan. While I scoured the internet for any hotel in the vicinity with availability and a semi-affordable price, Gonza walked around searching, but after a good thirty minutes we resigned ourselves to the fact that there was not a single space available. I was feeling sorry for ourselves, because this was one of two times during the entire year where Gonza had neither school nor work to worry about–and we were trying to take a little bit of time to enjoy ourselves and relax. Besides that, work has become more stressful for me in the past couple of months, with all the conferences we have had (conferences=lots of work and lots of working weekends) and the fact that my supervisor is on leave and my two coworkers are leaving our organization at the end of this month. God damn, I thought. Of course this would happen to us when we are just trying to take a little break from how stressful our lives have felt lately.
Then the empleada who works as part of the cleaning staff at the hotel we stayed at the night before saw me crying and expressed her disapproval. Por que lloras? No llores. Estas cosas nos pasa. She was not having any of my self-pity. She immediately was coming up with ideas for how to fix the situation, sharing that since the earthquake and the fact that several large hotels collapsed, there was a shortage of rooms available. She told us she could ask her friend across the way if she would rent us a room for the evening. She also advised us to ask the hotel manager about borrowing a matress and sleeping on the floor in reception, telling us that it was very safe because the guardia who worked the hotel stayed outside the entire night. We could even enjoy the fresh sea breezes by sleeping there. Then she confided that she herself had to sleep in the laundry room of the hotel. She gave the impression that she had been through far worse, and knew that the answer was not in giving in to desperation and pity, but rather lie in searching for a solution that would help one get by. This had the effect of sobering me up, reminding me of just how tiny my problem was in comparison to the crises that Canoa has faced in recent months.
Indeed, the little beach town of Canoa has been through a lot in the aftermath of last year’s enormous terremoto that struck the coastal region on April 16th, measuring a powerful 7.8 on the Richter scale, felt all across the country. Its epicenter was near a coastal pueblo called Pedernales, just 2 hours north of Canoa. Hundreds of people died in the aftermath of the quake all along the northern coast of the Manabi province. Infrastructure was devastated. The people lived in fear, especially during the course of the many aftershocks that continue to shake the coast more than a year later. Many costeños still rely on aid to survive.
We got a closer glimpse of the earthquake’s impact in the place we eventually were able to stay at that night. Gonza had happened to see his former band mate Danny when we were walking around just before we found out about our hostal situation. Danny had shared that he was staying at a small campground, and suggested that Gonza meet up to play bass at a local bar that evening. He turned out to be our saving grace; when he heard that we were without a hotel and at a loss for what to do, he offered to share his tent with us. So, we trekked over to the campground and after he explained our situation to the campground host, she graciously allowed us to stay with him. Kris is a German woman who has been living in Canoa for close to twenty years. Her “campground” is a small, sandy lot in front of where her home used to stand. Kris’s home crumbled in April of 2016. The earthquake, like it did to so many others, destroyed what had been her house, and had left her with just a shell. Kris was now living in a blue tent. The tent, it seemed, was aid offered to locals who had lost their homes as a temporary shelter. It had large, white Chinese lettering on the siding, with clear plastic sections to let in some light. Kris has been slowly rebuilding her home, with what money she could gather from her little campground. Despite all the traumas, she has managed to maintain a mini-animal sanctuary, caring for four cats, two dogs (one of whom, a black female named Noche, has a disease which causes her to tremor uncontrollably), a Blue-Footed Booby named Pancho with only one good eye and an injured wing, and a Fragata which also has a permanently damaged wing. Kris, for her part, maintains that she would never want to leave Canoa; that she loves the tranquility and the freedom she finds in Canoa, even after the quake. She seems content enough with what she has for the moment.
In the afternoon after our eventful camping evening, Gonza and I were strolling through town, looking for a snack after spending several hours in the water. We wandered into a small green shop on a side street a bit away from the main drag that was advertising greasy snacks. I was craving some salchipapas, so that’s what we ordered. Though we had originally asked for them to go, we ended up eating them at the restaurant and striking up a conversation with the woman who was preparing our food. Her name was Denise, and she lived upstairs. With little prompting, she told us about how before the earthquake, this space had been a Cyber Cafe. With all the foreign tourists, she as able to make some good money from her business. But the earthquake had destroyed all of her computers and equipment–some $8,000 in supplies. So she had decided to try opening up a restaurant. When I asked her if she hoped to open another Cyber Cafe, she said that she could not, because it required too much capital. While $8,000 perhaps doesn’t seem like such an insurmountable sum for someone earning a US salary, when you consider that Ecuadorian minimum wage is somewhere around $375 per month, it is an enormous amount of money. Denise, however, recounted her story in a very calm and matter-of-fact way. She was not complaining, but rather sharing her experiences. She also shared that the fear that followed the quake majorly reduced the number of foreigners visiting Canoa, and that locals were all struggling to make ends meet with the decreased business opportunities. Many locals, she said, wanted to leave but couldn’t, and some already had left. We bought a hamburger from Denise as well, supporting her business as best we could, and left feeling a little melancholic.
Then there was Kiki. I met Kiki when I was scouring the town for a surf school. Kiki is a strong, fit, Afro-Ecuadorian, probably in his mid-30s, who owns what is now the only surf school left in Canoa. He is set up right on the beach itself. His “surf shack” is an intricate bamboo structure. He has a slackline set up in front of his sign that says Happy Happy Kiki Surf School. I had arranged for a group surf lesson for the volunteers through him, and afterwards, had the chance to chat with him a bit. I had told him about trying to find a surf school online before coming to Canoa and how every call I made ended in an unanswered ringing, and he shared that prior to the earthquake, there had been multiple surf schools, but he was now the only one left. Kiki had grown up in Canoa, and started surfing at the age of two. Before the quake, his surf school had been located in a building, which presumably crumbled. He had built the new surf school spot out of bamboo, as it is a substance that can resist quakes, and is in the process of building himself a small home out of bamboo on his family land. Kiki talked about what it was like in the aftermath of the quake. The stench of decaying bodies in the spring heat lingered in the town for weeks. Entire hotels had collapsed upon themselves, killing many more foreigners than locals. One entire Canoan family had been wiped out by a crash: the grandmother, parents, children, and a cousin. The blocked roads, both north and south, trapping residents in town. The lack of food and water, and the dogs that walked the streets eating the appendages of the dead. The official statistic that 37 had died in Canoa, and the locals’ observation that the actual number was likely closer to 90.
Despite the horrors he had experienced, Kiki truly exuded a radiance of positivity and a sense of profound peace, even after such a tragedy had befallen his hometown. When I asked him how he survived, he shrugged and said something along the lines of You have to find a way–echoing the sentiment of what the empleada at our hotel had said. When I asked him how business was now that he was the only surf shop, he said it was a balance, because while there was no competition, there were also far fewer toursists. And yet, despite the economic challenges the town and he himself have clearly gone through over the past year, he did not hesitate to loan me a board free of charge the day after our group lesson so I could practice a little more. He invited me twice to surf with him in the evening, after he finished work, to give me some tips on how to have better control of my board, mentioning Esto no tiene costo. He had a slackline in front of his shop that he used to start his surf lessons, and he let non-surfing beach goers use the line as they wanted. I saw him Sunday afternoon stop and share tips with a litte boy surfer, helping him with his form, as he was walking down the beach. Rarely have I encountered such a generous, kind spirit. Though I only met him briefly, I doubt I will ever forget it.
Boarding the bus to leave Canoa, I couldn’t help but feel a sadness for the beautiful little town’s residents who have endured so many challenges since that fateful day in April 2016. I wanted to stay longer, hear more stories, and continue supporting tourism for the place that had so quickly captivated me. Though over a year has passed since the earthquake, its reverberations are both literally and metaphorically still felt strongly in the region. Recovery after disaster of such a scale cannot happen overnight. The Manabitas will likely forever be impacted by the quake: be it emotionally, physically, economically, or otherwise. The resilience of the people is astounding, and almost beyond comprehension. How does one forge forward with life when so many obstacles lie in your path? And how do people like Kiki continue on with such an incredible attitude, and a brightness that seems like it could light up the world?
As we left and the bus took us towards Quito via Pedernales, further signs of the quake were evident. The white plastic containers labeled “USAID”. The blue tents with the lettering “UNHCR”. More Chinese-character shelters, all evidence of the foreign aid that rushed to assist immediately after the quake but has now long evaporated. Ecuadorian goverment signs advertising reconstruction, with the slogan, ReconstruYO (I reconstruct, emphasizing the “I”). The bus terminal in Pedernales itself, with the words Terminal Temporal, indicating that the patch of dirt serving as bus terminal was only temporary as the town built a new terminal after the original was destroyed. And this sign on one of the buses there, that reads Manabi Mas Unido que Nunca. Manabi more united than ever.