It was 2010, and we had been in Canoa for a couple of years. We weren't as panicked as one
might be when first owning a business in a foreign country, where you don't speak the native
language and are unfamiliar with local customs and cultures. We were beginning to figure
things out. Our little beach bar/restaurant was coming into its own, and we were starting to
develop our systems and path forward that didn't involve throwing money at problems. A
crucial ingredient for any small business is a cohesive team. For the last 13 years of our
Ecuadorian adventure, we've had one constant on our team, and her name is Betty. We moved here when we were 28, and although Betty and we are the same age, we came from
completely different worlds until that stage in life.
Betty was the mother of four kids when we met and joined us to work in our kitchen at the Surf Shak on the beach in Canoa. Looking back now, it was the golden years of backpacking, and Canoa was bustling with a thriving international tourism scene, and we were right in the thick of it, serving gringo food to the gringos as fast as we could. Pizzas, burgers, and other classic bar food were our specialties, and Betty adapted amazingly to the new recipes we threw at her. As with most laid-back coastal towns, Canoa had no shortage of children running around. Betty's son, Anthony, became a staple of the Surf Shak and was always up for a laugh or messing around with the adult children that frequented our spot. It was great to have kids running around the place; it reminded me of growing up in the 80s in Montana, where every neighborhood had a local bar/restaurant with kids playing pool and drinking Roy Rogers.
Time passes depending on the pace of the environment you're in. We live on "island time"
here, so everything seems to move a bit slower than the clocks of our North American
neighbors. One of the original expats of Canoa is a man named James Dean Byrd. He's had an amazing life, starting out as a mechanic on diesel submarines in the Navy, followed by a career in the merchant marines that had him sailing the globe, chasing ladies and adventures to the far corners of the sea. After a stint in Costa Rica, Jimmy ended up leaving and planting his roots in Canoa. He stayed at the Bamboo Hotel for a couple of years until the rent increased from $6 to $9, and Jimmy said, "To hell with that," and moved to the South end of town, which at the time was the Surf Shak. If you're unfamiliar with Canoa, you could throw a rock from the Surf Shak to the Bamboo, so Jimmy didn't really move that far away. Canoa was smaller.
After Jimmy's time owning the Shak, he started a local private school in Canoa with the goal of teaching the kids English. Jimmy's life's work turned out to be a huge success, and many kids in this area owe their primary education to Jimmy and his generosity. The school, Los
Algarrobos, has been a project that most of the expat community has been involved in at some level over the years. It's been a focal point for our community, filled with annual fundraisers and board meetings. It's been a lot of work, but the benefits have come to bear fruit in a generation from Canoa that has a bit of a head start they wouldn't otherwise have. One of Betty's children attended the school, and most of our staff's kids have either gone to or graduated from Jimmy's school. Algarrobos is still open today and depends on private donations to keep the doors open and the hard work of tireless expats in the Canoa community that contribute their time and energy to a worthy endeavor (https://www.jamesdeanbyrdfoundation.org/index.html).
Let's fast forward 13 years to present-day Canoa, past a devastating 7.8 earthquake and more recently, a worldwide pandemic. Betty still works with us, but we moved a bit out of town; we built a little boutique hotel and restaurant just a bit further south. In the neighboring town, a community college has been built, specializing in the culinary arts. Think of it as a restaurant tech school; it's called Iche. Iche has been like a bright star against a dark night sky. As with any other developing nation, one of the surest ways to lift a population out of poverty is through education. Prior to Iche, there wasn't a viable next step for the kids in this area after they graduated from high school. The options were to follow your family into the artisanal fishing industry or into the agricultural realm. There is a tourism industry that provides when there are people, but the competition for restaurants with Ecuadorian fare is plentiful and stiff.
Like any rural environment, most of the kids wanting to continue their educational path had to leave for the city centers, migrate to where there's a larger population to sustain a university setting, leaving them with little option other than leaving their nuclear family behind and migrating to the cities.
After seeing the blinding success and transformation of his older sister Joss at Iche, Betty's
son Anthony decided to follow in her footsteps. Last weekend, he passed his final exam at Iche and is graduating from their culinary school, entering the workforce with some recognizable credentials. To say that Iche has transformed these kids would be a grand understatement.
Anthony changed from a rudderless adolescent to a young man with direction. The curiosity
ignited by the sparks of education can cause a forest fire of potential that can engulf an entire community. In the span of two years, both of these kids have had the opportunity to work hard and earn an education that will carry them through their early adulthood and give them a competitive edge against their peers. The magic of a tech school is the hands-on approach to teaching. In addition to classroom work, most of the learning experience involves cooking in the kitchen, experimenting in the culinary laboratory, or working on the restaurant floor.
Iche has teamed up with several non-profit organizations to offer partial and full-time
scholarships to kids who wouldn't be able to afford this education otherwise. Witnessing a
young generation on a path to changing their stars has been very rewarding. Ecuador has been through a bit of a rough patch in regards to political turmoil and an uptick in Narco news relating to the USA's failing war on drugs. Despite the often sensational international news about Ecuador, there are some truly inspirational stories happening in unison. When times are tough, it can be tricky to find the people doing the positive work, making a difference despite hardships. It is essential to look for the people shining the light into the shadows, the ones that are sweeping up the rubble. The "light-shiners" are always there, working away and trying to make the world a better place.
If we as North Americans cannot or refuse to address the demand side of the war on drugs,
then it's up to developing nations to work on the supply side, even though it can seem like a
futile effort. Part of reducing crime in a society is developing reasonable paths to gainful
employment that are more lucrative than the darker side of the economy. A precursor to
meaningful job development or entrepreneurship is education. Throughout my time in Ecuador, and across disciplines, it has been amazing to see what the locals can produce and create despite their lack of formal education. The natural culinary skills of the average Manabi kitchen are world-class just because they are more likely to eat at home than go out to a restaurant, as much as North Americans or Europeans. In a growing tourism market positioned in a developing part of the coast of Ecuador, the positive impact that a hands-on community college can make for this upcoming generation will be staggering.
The cliche, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed
him for a lifetime," has never been more relevant. Betty's first daughter to graduate, Joss, has made her way into the "real world" since graduating from Iche. It hasn't been all unicorn tears and high fives when the rude awakening of personal economics becomes a reality. She made her rounds through the culinary hotspots, and big doors were opened to her by flashing her Iche credentials. Just because the door of opportunity was cracked open didn't mean that it was going to be a free ride once she walked through, far from it. Work ethic passed down from her mother would be the winning ingredient. After calling home on the phone in tears and explaining the hardships to her listening mother, she was gently reminded that quitting was not an option; harden up and carry on, doing the best you can.
Working from 6 am until midnight in some very “top-notch" restaurants in Quito, she was molded into a culinary machine. The formula worked. Pay attention in school and strive to get a leg up by graduating from some sort of higher education. After you earn that first title, you join the real world and learn some things that can't be taught out of a textbook or in a classroom.
After succeeding in the big cities and cutting her teeth with some experienced chefs in some
prestigious restaurants, Joss experienced that being yelled at and treated badly in the real
world is a possibility, even by your boss. She's since come back to Canoa with a spring in her step and an air of confidence that is as rare as it is refreshing. It's refreshing to see the "tick-
tock" generation put their phones down and kick some butt in real life. Her enthusiasm in the
kitchen is contagious, so much so that we just let her have our restaurant over the last holiday weekend. It was pretty special to see Joss and her mother in there together, going at it and perfecting their craft, figuring out how to work as equals versus the mother-daughter
relationship they've operated under up until this point. It must have been hard to let the 23-
year-old take the wheel and steer the ship. As with most things in life, there can be only one
captain on the ship, and watching Joss take the helm and manage her team with grace and a
smile was astonishing. We sold out the event, and the reviews could not have been more
positive. In fact, one of our clients has connections with a restaurant in Quito and was inquiring about future collaborations with Chef Joss.
Watching these kids perform and live up to their potential despite growing up in a tough
neighborhood and despite natural disasters, pandemics, political turmoil and uncertain times in the Americas in general has been a source of faith. Faith that there is still hope in the youth and in our little efforts that we put in here and there as a community. The countless fundraisers and flea markets, bingos, and plain out begging that the incredible expat community of Canoa does to help Algarrobos over the years has been a testament to teamwork and being part of something is bigger than the individual. Seeing the fruits of the labor that was put into motion over 15 years ago come into the “real world” and actually fulfill the dream that was dreamt over a decade ago is special to witness and be a very tiny part of.
To all the expats, teachers, parents, and locals from Canoa over the years that have put their
blood, sweat, and tears into Los Argorrobos School, you have some kids to be proud of, some really positive and authentic stories to share when conversations start drifting to the more negative side of the narrative. Because of your hard work and generosity, kids like Anthony and Joss are going to have a different end to their “book of life” than they would have had otherwise. They were able to change their stars, and it took a community to do the heavy lifting. As with any great story, there is an element of growth and hope for the future. In steps Iche at a time when that sort of a “launching pad” is needed more than ever to help propel these kids into a productive life full of purpose and the pride that comes from being a productive member of a caring community. The circle of reciprocity has been completed.