Navy Seals, Politicians, Surf Lessons

A half-hour bus ride south on dusty roads takes me to the fishing village of Pedernales. I think that I am the only gringo in town, until I meet two hairy chests in the internet cafe. They both wear nothing but boxers and speak in loud rude English as if no one else can understand. They can`t. Paul–ex-Navy Seal, wooden cross dangling from his neck, teeth like a half-opened textbook–tells me how easy it is to find hot young Ecuadorian pussy to fuck in this town, offers to help me out. Chris–shorter and fatter with Don Quixote facial hair, ripe pimple just to the left of his belly button, the stench of cigarettes–seems less outwardly vulgar, but only slightly. Us, the three of us, are the only gringos in town.

I hide in my hotel room until just before sunset. The thatch-roof bars on the malecon pump terrible music onto their still empty dance floors, but their beachfront tables face the Pacific. I`m hoping to catch a green flash again tonight. The sky is as clear as I`ve seen it and the sun is an immaculate yellow. The bamboo posts that makes the soccer goals cast long shadows towards me. Sidelines are drawn in the sand. The downhill one is engulfed by the rising tide. Barefoot Ecuadorians trap, pass and shoot like its the Copa Mundial. Time is kept. The teams switch directions at half time. The games don`t end until every last bit of twilight has drown out, and the only green flash I see is from the little guy`s swim shorts as he strikes the ball between the bamboo posts. It skitters along the sand, curves into the water, an unlikely lure for an unlikely fish.

Seafood is the only thing I eat. The sharp acidity of the ceviche is contrasted perfectly by the salty starch of the patacones–plantain chips. Tropical sting mixes with savory ocean like dandelion fuzz mixes with the wind. I am thouroughly enjoying the flavor when I hear my name yelled from across the street. Paul and Chris join me. Their pale bellies reflect the street lamps. Paul immediatly starts describing his afternoon promiscuities.

“This sixteen year old girl with the tightest ass. I just couldn`t keep my hands off it. And you know what I did? Just asked her father. All he wanted was ten bucks.” His story, sadly, is undoubtedly true and probably not an uncommon one. He continues talking about how things like this are normal here, how the girl already has a child. To me, that doesn`t make it any more acceptable, but to him, it makes all the difference. “Its legal,” he says, and leaves it at that.

Chris is constantly revolving in and out of his seat. At one point, he hails a motorcycle taxi, muttering something about meeting a guy, and returns five minutes later, explaining that the guy was not there. I am on the verge of leaving, but something is holding me back. Paul and Chris intrigue me. They are obviously living in an altered state of existence outside the normal parameters of gringos in Ecuador. The moral citizen in me wants to just stand up and leave while the writer in me can`t stop listening to their outlandish stories. They tell me all sorts of stories.

Stories about a guy who was assasinated in the Mariscal district of Quito(unbenknownst to them, five minutes from my usual hotel), about a friend who was there a week later and was picked up by a truckload of police that stole $200 from him. Chris tells me about seeing a girl getting raped and himself intervening, with the outcome that he was beaten nearly to death. He shows me the scars from a stab wound in his shoulder, this from a different brawl. Paul tells me about his 20 years in the Navy Seals. He keeps saying he`s been trained to kill people, flexes his arm. The black crucifix that is stained into his skin fluctuates. Now I`m glad I wasn`t rude.

I`m relieved when the opportunity to politely excuse myself arrises. Paul compliments my handshake, asks how I got so strong.¨”Push-ups,” I say, “Push-ups.”
And I walk back to my hotel, fall heavily into bed, roll onto my side so I`m not laying on my sunburn, drift awkwardly to sleep.

************

Walking north for a few hours, I pass fishing dories rolled up the beach, resting on logs. A nice clean stretch of sand follows. I hide my things in a piece of driftwood and swim out into the Pacific. Tumbling foam goes up my nose, makes me sneeze. I play for a while, wishing I had a surf board, or some type of board with which to catch a wave. I entertain the idea of finding a piece of flat driftwood, think of splinters, decide against it.

On the return walk to Pedernales I see a cluster of birds hovering over a few dingies that rest their keels in the shallow tide. Two enormous trucks are parked on the beach in front of the boats. As I approach, it becomes clear that there is a group of men unloading tub-fulls of fish from the boats and dumping them into the beds of the trucks. Fork-tailed frigate birds swoop down and snatch fish from the tops of the plastic tubs, which the men carry on their shoulders. A man with a snow shovel fills the tubs from the hold of his boat until they overflow. The identical silvery bodies glint in the afternoon sunshine. Piled in the truck beds, the haul produces a rich stench. Seafood doesn`t get much fresher than that.

Made hungry by the scene, I have ceviche again for a late lunch. Walking back to the hotel, I notice that workers are busily constructing a scaffolding and stage in the main square. Later that night, I find out what for.

White banners with purple lettering exclaim ¨TATO!¨ The square is crawling. I squeeze between flag waving spectators, ejoying my height advantage, which makes it easy for me to see the stage. It is packed with suits and dresses. One politician presses the mic to his lips, proselytizing. Hundreds of amplifiers create a deafening echo that reverberates between the buildings. The man is screaming something about remembering Atahualpa.

The Ecuadorian elections are six days from the day that I write this sentance. The cities and towns are littered with posters that show pictures of nominees standing next to the encumbent President, Correa. They give a thumbs-up to the camera, smile. Looking around the square I see posters from many opposing parties, but the physical features of the different people depicted on the posters are roughly the same. The man on the mic is one of them. Pale tan skin, wavy hair, short nose. I understand that physical features are often a bias way to determine a person`s origin, but those prejudices, however incorrect, are usually a result of common genetic and geopolitical correlations, and for the sake of this story they are useful.

The man at the mic spewing rhetoric looks about as much like Atahualpa as Geronimo looked like Cornol Custard. The same is true for every face on every poster in the square. Not one of these people has the dark skin and straight black hair of an indigenous Ecuadorian. They are the ancestors of the conqueror, Francisco Pizarro. Just as the U.S. Senate is dominated by old white males, the nominees for Alcalde and Asembleista seem derived from mutual stock. All this is running through my head when the mic is passed to another man who launches into a passionate speech filled with flying spittle and the verb cambiar. Change. I wonder if he is borrowing a speech from Obama`s campaign. Besides a few scattered cheers, the crowd seems unconvinced. His silver watch glints in the spotlights. For the thousandth time today, I smell the stench of fish, only this time its rotten.

***************

I`m woken at three in the morning by roosters crowing and the sound of a revving engine. The rally, and the noise, didn`t end until midnight last night. As a result, I`m tired when I reach Canoa before noon. I can sense immediatly that the mood here is different. As opposed to a fishing village empty of tourists, this place has plenty of red hair and sunburnt shoulders. Strolling along the 200-meter wide beach,–the widest in Ecuador–I can see why. Gorgeous curling waves fold into the sand. Kioskos line the shore, offering cheap fruit juice drinks and surfboards for hire. I find a hostal that overlooks the break.

Young men with baggy shorts carve along the crests. I can`t stand it for long. I arrange a one hour lesson.

The teacher arrives half an hour later and pulls a long heavy green board out of the storage room for me. He carries it to the edge of the water, sets it down, tells me to ignore it. He draws the shape of a board in the wet sand with his fingers. I climb on. He draws another one and lays down on his stomach beside me. The instruction takes about ten minutes. He shows me how to paddle hard before a wave comes, how to push myself up into a standing position, how to balance with my arms and where to place my feet. After that, he considers me ready. We wade into the breakers.

On my first attempt, he pushes me and the board along with a line of incoming foam. I can`t even get my feet underneath me. I fall headfirst into the tumult, rise smiling. After four or five tries I finally ride some foam for a few seconds before the wave overtakes me and filters into shore. Now I`ve graduated to the actual breakers.

There are no waves larger than four feet, but the cumbersome board and my tiring shoulders make it difficult to get past the break point. Still, I fall and paddle and fall and paddle and actually ride a few waves here and there. I`m so lost in the moment that I don`t realize my teacher is gone until the tide has sucked me way down the beach. I half surf, half paddle my way to shore and walk back to where we started.

My teacher, a young dark Canoan with a head of curley sun bleached hair, introduces me to his friends who are sitting in the shade beneath the hull of one of the many boats that are resting on the sand. We talk in Spanish for a while. They offer me a joint, tell me about their dog that knows how to surf, about all the gringitas in town, the ones who bought them their clothes and boards. One of them, the quiet one with the square jaw, is actually married to a woman from Quebec. He seems serious about it, says she`s in school, that he`s waiting for her to come back. I`m enjoying the conversation, but the waves are beckoning. My teacher grabs one of his buddies` boards and runs into the water, motions for me to follow.

We surf together for awhile. Well, he surfs while I make a fool of myself, ask for pointers. The one hour lesson was over hours ago. My shoulders are exhausted. I can`t paddle. So much for the push-ups. I`m tired but exstatic when Ì finally give up. There`s nothing more I desire, except a bowl of fresh ceviche and a bottle of freezing cold beer. And I wish I had another month to spend. Then I would really learn to harness these endlessly curling beasts, these horizontal cones of salty water, these perfect, beautiful waves.

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