By Peter Stromberg
The northern most coastal province in Ecuador is called Esmeraldas. It's home to 70% of the Afro-Ecuadorian community in Ecuador. According to Wikipedia, ``Most Afro-Ecuadorians are the descendants of enslaved Africans who originally arrived in Ecuador from the early 16th century. In 1553, the first enslaved Africans reached Ecuador in Quito when a slave ship heading to Peru was stranded off the Ecuadorian coast. The enslaved Africans escaped and established maroon settlements in Esmeraldas, which became a safe haven as many Africans fleeing slave conditions either escaped to there or were forced to live there."
Today Esmeraldas is one of the richest places in Ecuador in culture and raw beauty. The humble people are the greatest resource in this area and their style of hospitality is as impressive as the world's largest mangroves in which they live.
When visiting Esmeraldas, we traveled to the tiny island of Canchimalero. To say that this place is "remote" would be a funny joke, it is in the middle of NOWHERE. From Canoa we drove for six hours North along the coast, we stayed in a tiny beach town for the night, and then from there we got in an open canoe and traveled another hour through the mangroves to reach the island.
The people of Canchimalero are water people. Everything they do revolves around the cycles of the rainy season and the ocean. They are a part of an ancient rhythm that is on beat with nature. The community lives from a mix of 80% fisherman and 20% small farm agriculture. They grow coconuts in abundance. Most of the fishermen also have small plots of farmland in which they produce citrus and other staples.
Although they would be considered poor from an economic standpoint, they have no shortage of freedom. When you take money out of the equation you're left with the things that matter most in life. Family and friends, good times, and experiences that can only be created by the amount of time gained when not chasing numbers.
This area 20 years ago was a bit different and is changing rapidly. I met a gentleman named Manuel, or "Wow", as he was more locally known. Today he is 65 years old and considered the best fisherman on the island. He still uses a handmade wooden canoe, wooden paddle, and sail to navigate and perform his craft. He is the living version of Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea.
As we sat on the bench outside his makeshift cabin at 6 a.m., watching the tide roll out, I was trying to imagine the island of his childhood. We looked out on the passing river delta and he quietly described a scene that has fallen extinct. Wow is the last to tell the story.
Instead of the noisy outboard motors running up and down the river; when he was a kid it was the wind that propelled them along. He described a scene of 20 or 30 single-man canoes sailing up the river with the afternoon onshore winds at sunset. The hungry fisherman returning home from a brutal day's work, the women and children playing on the beach and waiting for the harvest from the waters.
Picture this in your mind: Moving at top speed, racing the hand-made canoes home, several generations of water people perfecting their technique of pulling the sail against the wind with the rope tied off of their big toe, steering the canoe with a wooden paddle and pushing the riggings to the limits to win the afternoon gambling wagers.
Another older local was explaining to me that although he doesn't have much by way of money, he's never thought that he's missing out on anything. One of his brothers of years past has left the island for a “modern” life in Spain. They kept in touch, and comparing their lives, there was not one hint of jealousy from the local man, in fact maybe the opposite. It was a story told from the side of a person that thinks he won.
The locals eat giant prawns, clams and crab, red snapper, and sea bass. Ocean to mouth. They eat like kings and queens. Because of the abundance of cocos, the local dish is called "encocado”; it's a coconut sauce paired with rice and seafood. Sweet and spicy at the same time, it's become my favorite over the years in Ecuador, and it was a real treat to try it made by the people who invented it. They also have their own tool that they use to scratch the meat out of the coco. It’s a kind of wooden saddle that you sit on with the file on one end. It looks pretty easy, but after giving it a try there is certainly a technique involved that I have yet to master.
Let's be honest, it's not all a happy kind of story. The poverty is extreme and generational and there is an unpaved and long road to climb out. The political will of the area is lacking and it seems to be up to the local leaders to help organize any form of community effort or development without any form of financial support. Teen pregnancy is common, and it's not uncommon to see children with children. Lack of education coupled with a remote location can make life challenging. But then again it depends on what you're after; wealth does not always mean happiness, and poverty does not alway mean misery.
In short....Canchimalero stole my heart. The smiles on the peoples’ faces and the way that they welcome strangers into their homes will never be forgotten, or probably matched. There is something special that can develop between humans when we receive guests with grace, and act like guests when we travel. In fact I think that is the act of being human in its most basic form.