My friends and I love to complain about Guayaquil. It's dirty, busy, hot, big, ugly. We get whistled at, we get stared at. It's dangerous. There's no place to gather and just hang out. We escape the second we can for fantastic weekends all over this truly amazing country--tropical beaches, craggy desert seasides, cool mountains, farms, dry forests, a magical land of lakes and mountains known as Cajas National Park (so far, my favorite spot in Ecuador). We warn other visitors away from our beloved city. "Don't bother," is our mantra.
Last Sunday, though, something shifted. I don't know if I just had a good day, or my mind has been opened up just a little bit more, but somehow I learned to love the city of Guayaquil.
I spent Friday and Saturday day at my professor's beach house a couple of hours from Guayaquil. He decided to hold our class (of a whopping five students) out there, on the seaside edge of a poverty striken city called Embagao, and feed us ridiculous amounts of seafood, including a raw shelled creature, dripping blood and all. (Yes, I tried it. You better believe it.) Then, after some bonding (unavoidable with such a small group), some drama (unavoidable when you spend 48 straight hours together), and far too much food (unavoidable at all times in my life), we returned to Guayaquil. Before the weekend was over. On purpose. A never-before-seen event in the Ecuadorian life of Hayley Currier.
Another never-before-seen event: cooking for ourselves. Four of us got together at one girl's host family's house, and we cooked, and we had exactly what we wanted. Vegetables--glorious green fresh vegetables that our host families seem to find sinful when preparing our meals--and not one bit of rice. Dinner was complete with a bit of wine and chocolate dipped strawberries and bananas, and the absolutely glorious, comfortable, amusing, and at times quite insightful conversation of good friends. Such things ARE possible in Guayaquil. We don't need to leave the wannabe modernity of our city to find comfort and ease. Step one toward enlightenment.
After dinner, a typical Ecuadorian night out commenced, but we roved new territory--Zona Rosa. It was busy and fun without being overly built up or touristy. Just people doing their thing, and I was one of those people. A Guayaquileno among other Guayaquilenos.
Sunday, though, was when enlightenment struck. Some friends and I decided to meet for a movie on the Malecon. The Malecon is the riverfront that always makes me edgy and frustrated--a multi-million dollar project to attract tourism to this export and business-oriented city. But the investment ends with the pristine sidewalks, where reality sets in quite quickly--where developing country big city norms abound. But last Sunday, that movie never happened. The weather was so nice, and the Malecon was so pleasant, my one friend and I just sat and talked for hours, watching the sunset over the river and eating two-foot tall ice creams. We walked through gardens and along boardwalks where Guayaquileno families gathered to let their children play on park equipment. Just normal people doing their thing. Guayaquilenos loving their city. Suddenly it just didn't seem so dreary.
The city somewhere along the line has become not only familiar, but comfortable. I know how to use the public buses--no one ever knows quite where they're going, or whether they are going to decide to stop for you or not, but I understand their irrational system. I'm amused rather than shocked to find a man passed out on the front seat, not moving a muscle as people step over his bare feet to their seats, and laugh rather than jump to find a live chicken stumbling around at my own feet, as the driver races through the city as if getting in front of just one more car is the only thing standing between him and a lifetime supply of Pilsener (the Ecuadorian beer of choice...usually because there IS no other choice).
If I don't understand, I at least can negotiate my way through the machismo catcalls. The group of older men I pass on my way home from school everyday used to have nothing for me but whistles and a dirty-sounding "hola mamacita!" Instead of just looking straight ahead, as I was instructed, I greeted them one day. Now I get, "Buenas noches amiga" and a polite head nod. And I slipped a bit further into comfort.
Streets are familiar, I know where to go to get things done. And with finding the beauty, the comfort, I've also recognized my own mistakes. How I've done this semester wrong in some ways. Why has it taken me three months to understand Guayaquil? Because I let my assumptions take hold as facts from day one, instead of giving myself a chance to explore, to get to know it. I got caught up in the flashy excitement of my weekend travel adventures, which are valuable in their own right, but have been taken at the expense of understanding Ecuadorian life in the Ecuadorian big city. Guayaquil is not for me--I could never live in a place like this, a place where I scrape city dirt out of my pores every night. A city so far from any place to freely walk, a place to be outside and be able to breath. But I let my weekend travel routine, dictated by my gringo tendencies and my desire to hang out with my awesome gringo friends, overtake what could be gained by letting myself get into a rhythm with Guayaquil.
I don't regret one second of travel, one moment spent exploring this absolutely incredible country. It is a traveler's dream--immense variety and diversity with cheap and relatively effecient public transportation. I can't stand the thought of missing one inch within these borders. But I also want to LIVE here, not just TRAVEL here. I'm striking a balance, and I've got seven months to go to perfect it.
On another note, I've had a few requests to follow up the whole "my host family's been stealing from me" incident. Not much to report, actually. I confronted my empleada, who flat-out denied anything. I haven't said a word to my host sister, because I don't have enough of a backbone. I left a note in my drawer with my money that essentially said, "I know you've been stealing from me, I know there is X amount in the drawer, don't do it again or I'll tell Maria Elena (host mom)." Things were normal between my empleada and I until she one day stopped talking to me, a good week after I confronted her. I now lock my drawer, and am keeping penny-by-penny tabs on my finances. Beyond that, I don't know what to do. I do, however, appreciate all of your messages and advice. If nothing else, I hope this little situation has begun some interesting conversations for you all. :)
To Guayaquil, to the city you are in, and learning to love everything from tree-lined bike paths to People's Park (a little Berkeley reference for you).