Friday, June 21, 2013

Banana Republic

I had imagined Ecuador to be little more than an extension of Peru in terms of landscape and culture with a strong, Andean-indigenous influence; instead the balance between European, indigenous and even black are quite balanced. I entered the country along the main coastal road, the Panamerican Highway, that snakes down the west side of the continent all the way to Tierra del Fuego. As it was a Sunday getting across the border involved some closed offices, hitching, getting taken the wrong way and some more hitching before I finally got my entry stamp and could continue on my way. The desert that defines Peru's coast had by now petered out and had given way to verdant, tropical fields. Not that it wasn't any more tedious on the eye: vast expanses of sand were replaced by vast plantations of banana monoculture that stretch as far as the eye can see. Not surprising considering that this small country is the world's largest exporter of bananas. But surprising given how large a part of the coastal diet is taken up by the yellow funny-fruit. Not a single meal is complete without a helping of verde (unripe) or maduro (ripe banana). Although that is an over-simplification as they can be fried, mashed into flour, baked and steamed. Plus there are far more different varieties than the boring Cavendish banana that we are swamped with in the West.

Grilled maduro street snacks.

Before the discovery of oil in the country's Amazon basin bananas were pretty much Ecuador's only export. It was known as el oro verde - green gold.It's even the name of the poshest hotel in downtown Guayaquil. Though no matter the colour of the gold, over the past 100 years the Ecuadorean economy has been beholden to large American companies in the form of United Fruit Corporation (Chiquita bananas) and Texaco (now part of Chevron) amongst others. And although Ecuador wasn't the intended target when O. Henry came up with the epithet "banana republic" it certainly fit, especially in the 90's when Ecuador voted in Abdala Bucaram as president. Nicknamed El Loco and with a penchant for getting up on stage and belting out a medley of latino hits with a bevy of dancing girls (not likely to see Barack Obama doing that any time soon) he was quite a controversial figure and eventually got kicked out of office for being "mentally unfit". Recently though, in line with a left-wing political wave that has swept through Latin America (Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, etc.), the country has sought to distance itself from US influence with the rise of Rafael Correa who has recently come into the world media spotlight thanks to granting asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and (maybe) Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Although this has courted controversy at home he is almost universally liked for having used the windfall from the hike in world petroleum prices to drive a huge programme of infrastructure investment and industry diversification. The former is particularly noticeable to the transient visitor in the immaculate new roads and highways.

The main port city on the coast (and in fact the largest city in the country) is Guayaquil. It doesn't have the historic richness of Quito but being the business capital of Ecuador it has a vibrancy and charm all of its own. Guayaquil is also the jumping off point for flights and tours to the Galapagos islands. Having grown up on David Attenborough wildlife programmes on the BBC I would have dearly loved to have visited the islands that helped inspire Charles Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection. Unfortunately a trip out there is both expensive and time-consuming (surprisingly I'm feeling time constraints) and would also have required me to break my no-flying principles. I did, however, get to do the next-best thing. Plaza Bolivar, in downtown Guayaquil, is home to about 30 iguanas that laze indolently in the trees and on the grass as urbanites rest on the park benches and the Ecuadorean traffic honks incessantly on the other side of the park fence. Maybe not the ideal natural setting, but fun and a little bit strange. The city's university, not to be outdone, has a handful of Galapagos tortoises in its back garden. Other than that Guayaquil's only claim to historical fame is that it was here that south America's two heroes of independence, Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin met to discuss the future of the continent. It wasn't much of a meeting of minds, as they agreed to disagree, with San Martin heading back south to create Argentina and Bolivar staying in the north to work on his pet project of Gran Colombia (which fell apart soon after).

Don't mind me, just off to the supermarket to do my shopping.

Nevertheless I found it a relaxing town (I usually end up preferring the towns that are not so highly prized on the tourist circuit as they tend to feel more authentic and a little rough around the edges), despite its size, particularly the newly-developed Malecon (waterfront promenade) with its restaurants, cultural centre, public works of art, botanical garden and abundant, traffic-free space for flâneurs, loafers and courting couples. It's the sort of public space that has become very popular of late in Western cities, but that are rare elsewhere, and perhaps therefore all the more pleasant. Certainly not what I was expecting from a country whose only claim to fame is its geographical location on the equator and its abundance of funny fruit.

A couple sharing an intimate moment on Guayaquil's pleasant, pedestrian Malecon.

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