The date has come. I wake up before my alarm, triple-check my bag, and remember to slip a few allergy pills into my regular medication in case I need it. I am to catch Spirit Flight NK 1141 to Fort Lauderdale, then four hours later board another to Guayaquil, Ecuador. I have been planning this trip of trips for over a year. I have reconsidered different starting points, ending points, and everything between. Much of my plan is still up in the air (pun intended), but I have a rough itinerary that could very well keep me out of the country for anywhere from 6 months to two years in pursuit of visiting every country in the world, and learning as much as I can along the way.
Spirit Airlines, for those uninitiated, is its own small adventure. On my flight from LaGuardia, the flight attendants announce some contest where one lucky passenger with a yellow sticker on their tiny fold-down tray will receive a free flight. The cabin is not impressed, and when the winner is announced she seems wary. I have said before that Spirit is the only airline I have had the opportunity to fly with whose seats mimic both the style and comfort of an aging Norwalk City Bus. While the actual service and comfort offered by Spirit is consistently disappointing, the one thing that never disappoints is the affable, self-deprecating crew. When a woman in the seat ahead of me asked the flight attendant for a blanket, he actually says “what do you think this is, Delta?” While that most certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Spirit reminds me of all the shit I’d pull (and somehow get away with) while working at a movie theater in my hometown. The wage was minimum, so their standards were too. The atmosphere was electric.
The two flights averaged about 3.5 hours each, and when I walked out of the plane at 10:35 pm in the modern Guayaquil airport, I was setting foot below the Equator for the first time in my life. Not bad for a $138 fare. I breezed through immigration and began walking to the guest-house I had booked, which ran me only $8.50 and was a 25-minute walk from the airport. The person subletting the property had messaged me about my ETA, and wrote in native-sounding English, leading me to wonder what expat was renting a house on the cheap side of town. When I got there around 11:30 at night, a young-looking Chinese-American man opened the door and out bolted a German Shepherd, who immediately almost knocked me to the ground. Inside, signs with WiFi passwords and instructions to “please take off your shoes” were Scotch-taped to the walls in both English and Chinese and it seemed like the three of us, the dog, the subletter and me, were the only ones there. He explained that the dog was “probably just excited because they hadn’t had any visitors for the last few days.” Suspicion confirmed. This meant I’d get a 6-bed hostel dorm room with shower and bath all to myself for less than nine bucks. When I gave him a 20, he gave me back my change plus a one-yuan coin after I told him I was going to China at the end of the summer and could read a couple of the words in his Chinese signs. “You might be able to get a water with that,” he said warmly.
When he showed me the room, I was naturally nervous that booking the absolute cheapest (and apparently least popular) accommodation in Guayaquil would come back to haunt me. In fact, the room was decent though, naturally a no-frills establishment. There was no AC, which would have been a challenge for a a 6-person dorm room practically on the Equator, but two electric fans were provided, which I happily plugged in and pointed directly at my bed. “Not bad,” I thought. The room was supposed to come with breakfast (a perk of being a Genius Level 2 booker on Booking.com) but the subletter told me he stopped doing that, but would be happy to make me coffee or tea in the morning. After sleeping solidly through the night, I decided I should just go before the city got too hot. I was able to walk half the distance to the downtown before I broke down and hired an Uber, which ended up running me less than $3.
The driver let me off at the end of an extremely upscale block of hotels where maintenance people were watering the plants and cleaning the sidewalks. To the right the neighborhood of Santa Ana climbed higher than any of the hotels and, to the left, the Rio Guayas flowed swiftly but gently out to the Pacific, carrying large pieces of grass and plants in its murky brown water. Following the river, I reached Guayaquil’s long boardwalk, which starts in the north with the MAAC, a modern art and anthropology museum, and various amusement park rides, games, and stalls. As I walked, it became apparent that this was not what I expected. I had no idea that Ecuador would be so cosmopolitan, making the Jersey Shore look like, well, The Jersey Shore (2009-2012). To begin with, the entire boardwalk offered free WiFi and charging stations. As far as I know, few public places in the United States have even begun to figure that out. Unless it’s an area larger than a breadbox and smaller than a library, good luck finding a network to connect to in the U.S. that works, at least without paying. It was also surprising how clean the area was. The gigantic river was constantly bringing water bottles, plastic bags, and other debris from upstream, but at 9 am there were twice as many cleaning people as board-walkers picking up trash and sweeping to make the area look neat and appealing.
Next, it was time to find breakfast. An air-conditioned food court with a bakery, Chinese food restaurant (or “Chifa,” as it is known in South America), a KFC, and a couple of South American restaurants sat across from the entry to the amusement park, so I walked into the bakery to try to track down some local delicacy. However, I ultimately decided on a hot dog wrapped in biscuit dough and a smoothie, as my stomach was craving vitamin C and protein. The two items ran my 2.95, which I paid with a US 5-dollar bill, as American money is the official currency of Ecuador, aside from some of the smaller coins that they mint themselves.
The cashier gave me two presidential dollar-coins and an Ecuadorian nickel. I often wondered where all the dollar coins went. After Sacajawea it seemed like they tried to do the president thing and got bored, and they all just went into MTA machines. Well guess what, it seems they all went to Ecuador! I got back a John Adams dollar and a Martin van Buren one too. I need not mention the irony that Martin van Buren isn’t well known in the US, let alone in Ecuador where he is honored by placing his likeness on the day-to-day currency of that country. Way to go, Marty.
Passing through the amusement park section of the Malecon, or boardwalk, I came across miles of parks, statues, and a mall, all of which had WiFi. After the mall, the boardwalk turned into street, which I was to follow until I found proper lunch. The downtown first smells of gasoline, as the clean boardwalk disappears. But as you walk south, the chemical starts to smell sweet, and you start to think you’ve huffed too many gas fumes as it starts to smell like hot cocoa. Finally, the gas smell is gone and just when you think you are suffering from some sort of olfactory schizophrenia you come across a sign that says universal sugar.
You have arrived at Guayaquil’s chocolate factory....
On the ground floor, two cheery cashiers welcome me in and a guard takes my bag and seals it away in a locker. I am overwhelmed by the central air’s direct inundating of cold, chocolate-y air from the factory above. In my childhood (and who am I kidding, my adulthood, too) I would visit the Munson’s chocolate factory in Bolton, Connecticut. The store had the same smell, but not nearly as strong as these three floors of cooled confectionery particles, all pumped into a small storefront among bags of chocolates the size of 25-pound sacks of rice.
Three blocks and change downtown (and, unfortunately, upwind) is “Salchipapa ‘Boco’” which, if my high school Spanish and ability to create portmanteaus do not fail me, means “sausage-potatoes for the mouths of men.” It is a small corner shack, something that might have been the inspiration for the eternal New York City Papaya Dog/ Grey’s Papaya model. When I get my food I know my translation, if not linguistically accurate, is the best possible description of the food I receive. The fries alone are so salty and greasy that Ronald McDonald would blush through his white face paint, and so I am given a fork. As for the ‘chorizo,’ though most similar to a hot dog, it is redder and hotter than anything inside the Windy City, served alongside a creamy garlicky mayonnaise. The gigantic plate of salchipapas runs me a whopping $1.75. Picky eaters of the world: this is your heaven.
My GoogleMap of Guayaquil displays a thin sliver of green spanning across the river to Isla Santay, the area’s largest nature preserve. I have the afternoon to kill, and the sky is cloudy, so I decide to trek across this bridge and see what there is in the equatorial jungle on the island. When I get to the bridge, a young woman is renting bikes for 4 dollars, and I am relieved that I won’t have to walk with my fifteen-pound pack on a four-mile roundtrip journey through the humid rainforest. When I reach the other side of the bridge, I am stopped by a park worker and told that only one of the trails is open today. To the right, he explains, is the path to the Ecovillage, and I can take that if I’d like. I smile and say “gracias,” and press down the elevated laminate boardwalk to the end of the path.
The Ecovillage is a beautiful, modern, set of cabins on stilts above the marsh of the Isla Santay. The village children play tag, and a small child on a Fisher Price tricycle keeps pedaling backward then forward, backward then forward, into the railings that keep him from falling into the marsh. There is a woman telling me where I can lock my bike, a woman who sells bottled water and soda, and a third woman in another building who is operating a restaurant. As I walk into the the village a man stops me and shows me the way tourists are supposed to walked so as not to annoy the villagers. I ask if I can take pictures. He says I can and points to the area next to the restaurant where I can get a good shot. “And if you keep following the road there, he points, you can see the ‘cocodrilera.’” I knew this word. Where had I learned it before. I thought back to my high school Spanish classes but was drawing a blank.
“Cocodrilera?” I asked.
“Si,” he replied, holding his arms out in front of him like scissors, then clamping them together.
Ah yes, cocodrilera. Crocodile. I smiled and thanked him, following the signs to see some Ecuadorian crocs. At first, I just see two nostrils peeking out above the water, but the longer I stand, the clearer they become. One is hiding in plain sight, its camouflage perfectly matching the rainforest floor. Another has its head above the water, but its eyes closed and looks no different from a log. I am grateful for the four feet of boardwalk that keeps me from them. On the ride back to Guayaquil, I sweat perhaps a gallon of what was Gatorade the hour before, and feel the women secretly laughing at my soaking wet shirt as she takes back my bike.
I organize the rest of my day around where I can find air conditioning and water, as it is 93% humidity and I have been outside practically the entire day. I return to the mall and sit awhile, then continue on the the Anthropological and Contemporary Art Museum, which is free for all guests and displays many interesting pre-Columbian artifacts.
The sun is just about set, and my last critical tourist site is the parque seminario, which has a cathedral and several photo-worthy statues. However, it is most famous for housing several wild iguanas who get fed like pigeons from the local Guayaquileños. When I walked in, I saw pigeons picking at scraps, felt flies sipping the sweat from me, and heard birds of unknown species hiding in the trees above chirping. I took a quick look around and up and thought: “perhaps iguanas chirp?” I have never heard an iguana, and I could not recall being told in school what an iguana is meant to sound like. I settled down on a bench and looked right the way I was facing, and saw nothing unusual. Then, I looked left and saw some of the three largest goddamn lizards I had ever scene. One was being fed potato chips by a young man, who kept pulling back for fear the iguana would grip more than just the chip in its reptilian maw. I can’t say I am a lizard man. I also cannot say I am not a lizard man.
The truth is I have made it this far in life without forming an opinion on lizards, and I have to say I’m still on the fence. On the one hand, they are the much smaller brethren of Godzilla. On the other, they seem pretty slow moving, so if any of these little guys thought of terrorizing Japan, I am sure they would receive notice well enough in advance.
I walk inland to the local Red Lobster called “El Cangrejon ‘Mayrita,’” where they specialize in crabs a half-dozen different ways. I am hours away from my first night bus, so I order the filling boiled crab over rice. The presentation is great for a 10-dollar entree, and I down several super-sweet seventy-cent Cokes though the temperature has dipped to bearable levels. After dinner, I Uber to the bus station and board my bus to Sullana, Peru.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.