Montañita Carnival – Ecuador, South America
I wake up in a tangle of white. Have I died? Am I now in the feathery embrace of an angel? Am I drowning in albino silk? Nope, I'm stuck in my mosquito net again. My six-foot-three-inch body has difficulty with the five-foot-ten-inch net. Although it hangs from a frame suspended above me, I usually wind up all tangled in it. It's better than the alternative, however. At least I am able to confine the infernal itching to my lower extremities. God, it’s humid. My roommates forgot to open the windows before they went to bed last night, or perhaps it was partially my fault. All I know is that I haven’t been awake thirty seconds and I’m already sweating.
Memories of last night come back in flashes – bonfires on the beach, a bottle of sugarcane alcohol passed around, that girl from I forget where, salsa blending into pop blending into hip-hop as you pass one thatched roof beach bar to another. I pull myself up and open the window above my bed. A blessed breeze passes through the room. Looking around, I see the bodies of my companions strewn about, passed out in their bunks. I doze in and out of contented sleep.
Eventually, we wake and get ready for the upcoming day. We slather sunscreen all over each other. I let my friend do it this time, thin day-old strips of roasted red skin I missed yesterday still sting. We gather everything we need into a bag and get ready to go. It’s amazing how much preparation and materials one needs for a long afternoon of doing nothing.
Montañita is a small town waiting to fall. It teeters precariously on the edge of Ecuador where the Pacific Ocean swallows those who are careless. Like a chair on two legs, the small fishing village waits to topple into the greedy outstretched fingers of the tourism industry. It’s only a matter of time. Ten years ago, Montañita was a traveler’s secret. Good surfing and amazing seafood awaited the hardy traveler who made the four-hour bus trip north from Guayaquil.
The cat, as they say, is out of the bag. Now Montañita is prominently in all the guidebooks. Now busses to Montañita are stuffed with backpacks, surfboards and smelly-sunburned gringos. Nonetheless, it hasn’t completely lost its charm. Big resorts have not yet moved in. The town is still dominated by hastily thrown together hostels owned by ex-pats and well-connected locals, and you can still find a decent room with a fan for seven bucks a night. However, it’s clear that the tide is turning and soon the town will be accessible to the average holidaymaker, which will render the town obsolete to the tranquilo travelers who currently inhabit the haven.
I’m in Montañita for Carnival, the Mardi Gras of South America. Travelers from all over the world have converged for a long weekend of surfing, dancing and general debauchery. I’ve been studying in Quito for about five months and have come on the long overnight bus with seven of my female classmates. We arrived yesterday morning, sweaty and groggy. Within twenty minutes the cool ocean had already washed away the fourteen hours of discomfort it had taken to get here. Throughout the day and well into the evening, we reveled in the giddy feeling of freedom that comes in the first hours of a long weekend. This morning I find that the giddiness still hasn’t worn off.
We walk into the small town looking for breakfast, down the dusty street that divides the tall thatched-roofed hostels, each built with a haphazard mixture of bamboo and concrete. Paint is a resource not wasted on the outside of these buildings. It’s conserved for the inside, which are painted by artistic travelers who trade their time and craft for room and board and create virtual seascapes in every living space. Hammocks dangle like cobwebs on every balcony. Swimsuits and towels are carelessly slapped over bamboo banisters. Beachball-bellied, mustachioed local men shoot us welcoming smiles as they shoo away the small feral dogs that linger near the entrances of every restaurant, waiting for a handout.
Montañita is not an Ecuadorian cultural epicenter, but it has a culture of its own. Dozens of countries are represented. It's not uncommon to wake up in an Israeli owned hostelry, served breakfast by a Brit, buy jewelry from a Thai and rent a surfboard from an Argentinean, all in the space of one morning.
As we stroll through town, we’re coolly eyed by dread-locked, bare-chested hippies, who sit in front of the hostelries with their goods laid out before them: dijaridoos, tie-dyed cotton pants, hemp bracelets, hemp necklaces, hemp – whatever. They have that satisfied look in their eye, which seems to say, “Yeah, that’s right, we did it. We dropped out and now live on the beach selling felt hats, ivory nut jewelry and bamboo bracelets. Your vacation is my life.” Should I join them? Then I wonder: where do they go on vacation?
We sit at an outside table at our favorite breakfast restaurant, owned by a German couple. I sip a large mango jugo and drink a real coffee, the only non-Nescafé coffee that I’ve had in Ecuador. A fruit-filled crepe smothered in honey is my favorite tropical breakfast. The crepe is an explosive sweet taste of pineapple tempered by the mellow flavor of banana.
Finished with breakfast, we meander down to the beach with our bags carelessly thrown over one shoulder. We lay out our towels, securing a prime spot to watch the surf competition that starts today. I strain to see the action, soon realize surfing is not really a spectator sport; however, watching beautiful Latina girls in bikinis is. Their soft eyes apologize for their mocking smiles, as they tease me with their sultry saunter, their silky brown skin and their furtive glances perfectly cast to catch the corner of my eye that leave me wondering if they were real. I love it here.
A few of us walk into the water to cool off. Coming back to our towels, I catch a passing cevíche vendor and buy an oyster cevíche. He cracks open four or five fresh oysters, each the size of a child’s fist. He cuts them up and mixes them with raw onion, tomato and green peppers. He then squeezes two limes into the bowl and adds a little hot sauce. It tastes like nothing else. The fresh vegetables crunch in the soft sweet oyster meat. As each bite slides down the back of my throat, the hot sauce burns the top of my mouth, so I douse it with cold beer. This meal could never be recreated in any restaurant. My friends sitting next to me, the saltwater in my hair and even the sand in my swimsuit all add to its exquisite taste.
After lunch, I decide to rent a surfboard for a couple hours. The competition is on the north side of the beach, so I head towards the south side. There is something undeniably cool about walking down the beach with a surfboard under your arm, the rubber cord trailing from the board down to the Velcro strap around your ankle. Even though I have no talent and I’m carrying a pink long board that says Ocean Butterfly on it, I feel as if I’m a warrior about to enter battle. I saunter past the brown-skin bodies of three bikini-clad gringo ladies, who lay on their towels, and mercilessly assess the passing multitudes. I earn a slight smile from one of them. They don’t know. I could be the best surfer on the beach, as long as I walk far enough down the playa with my pink surfboard, they’ll never suspect.
I find a good spot and enter the water. The refreshing shock only lasts a couple of seconds before the ocean feels as cool as my sweat. I fight to get out to the bigger waves. I watch the other surfers nonchalantly duck under them with their board and then re-emerge paddling once the wave has passed them by. I try to mimic them, but the wave shoots the board out from under me and I end up tumbling end-over-end through the water and slamming down into the sandy bottom. I eventually figure out which way is up and get my feet on solid sand. I jump up and my head is just able to break the surface of the water and locate precious air before I have to brace myself for the next wave.
Finally, I get everything under control and work my way hand-over-hand on the leash attached to my ankle until I reach my board. I find that it’s easier for me to work my way through the waves by walking on the sand than by paddling through the water. When a wave comes, I jump and hold the board over my head. Though I get pushed back a step or two, between waves I’m able to move forward four of five steps and slowly struggle out to the bigger waves. When I get out as far as I can go, about fifty yards, I turn around and look for the right wave. When it comes, I paddle hard until I feel myself get picked up by the wave. My board races down the front of the swell and I wobbly start to rise to my feet. Just as I stand upright, my back foot slides off the board and I go tumbling after in a spectacular wipeout. Once again, I’m in a spin cycle. When I recover, I blow the salt water from my nose, dig the sand out of my ear, locate my board and repeat the process a couple of times before retiring to the stable sanctity of the beach. I still look cool walking with my board.
Four o’clock. I head back to my inn. I take a shower to rinse off the salt and sand. The nice showers in Ecuador have an electric head that warms the water. There are two settings, warm and hot, the price paid for this luxury for someone as tall as I am, is the opportunity for electrocution. When my head gets too close to the nozzle, the water drips electricity down my skin and if I accidentally touch it with my hand while I’m washing my hair, I might find myself lying on the floor with smoke rising from my shampooed head. I take a cold one.
The shower feels good, but my skin is tight, as if it has shrunk a size or two. I lie back in my hammock; I can still feel the waves, except now they’re gentle. I relax like a man with nowhere to go and nobody to be. It doesn’t last long. One of my friends pulls me up by my wrists out of the hammock. It’s time to go watch the sunset. We stroll down to the beach. Inti, the sun god, is getting ready to call it a night. Surfers are getting in one last wave against the bloody backdrop of a dying sol. Children are running, rolling and wrestling in the sand, their bright white ecstatic smiles flashing against their brown bodies that blend with the brown sand. Dogs are romping in the surf, gaunt but content. A respectful hush settles over the beach as the sun makes its descent. The surfers' shadows stop and sit on their boards. They float out beyond the break and put their hands over their eyes, giving the sun a final salute. The children look up from their entangled positions on the beach, oblivious to the sand plastered to their bodies. The dogs continue to romp. Finally, the sun succumbs and splashes down into the sea, defiantly throwing pink streaks up into the ever-growing darker sky. Love it here.
What will it be tonight? Seafood? Pizza? Perhaps we’ll try that vegetarian restaurant. We choose the barbeque place that had been tempting us with its sizzle ever since we arrived. For three dollars, we have the choice of large helpings of fresh fish, chicken or beef. Each comes with enough beans and rice to feed the small army of dogs congregated at our feet. After dinner, we sit in our favorite little spot, on our favorite part of the street, with our favorite bottle of rum and our favorite people. The world walks by. Everybody we meet we give a nickname – Fuego, Galapagos, Zoolander. We finish our bottle, buy another one and walk down to the beach.
The tide has deserted us and left a desert playground. Small bonfires illuminate the darkness. In the soft yellow firelight, everyone is smiling and beautiful. I watch where I’m going, careful not to step on those passed or making out. We decide which music we want to dance to and place ourselves in front of the appropriate thatched-roofed bar. Tonight we choose to dance to reggaeton, which is the popular hip-hop, salsa blend currently sweeping the nation.
The fact that I’m the only guy traveling with seven single, and very available women sounds good on paper, but I always have to keep an eye on them. At some point during the weekend, when sleazy men approach, I am forced into boyfriend duty with each of them, at one awkward point with two of them at the same time. I look at the two would-be suitors and say, “Uhh, Yo soy un hombre suerte”, I’m a lucky man. Nonetheless, there are benefits. When I walk through town, my reputation precedes me. Guys come up to me every couple of minutes and offer me a drink, but it’s not me they want to see; they quickly dispense with the small talk, “Sooo… where’s Laura?”
Back down on the beach, I find a hypnotic symphony of people playing flutes, tambourines and dijaridoos. I rhythmically tap a beer cap on the side of a bottle and fit right in. Our friend Fuego is fire dancing in the middle of the circle and earning his nickname. He finishes and steps out as two Brazilians step in and dance the capoeira. Once they tire out, another guy jumps in and starts juggling fire. When he is exhausted, he walks around the crowd shaking a tambourine into which people happily deposit change. As he does this, two men hold up a sheet and a woman dances behind it. A woman behind her holds a torch creating flickering shadow patterns on the sheet that bounces, tumbles and twists to the African beat. Finally, the circle breaks down into tribal dancing. We glisten with sweat underneath an observant Buddha moon. It’s watching, listening and smiling, but never saying a word.
After two hours or so of dancing, I find my sandals and shirt and walk up into town. I buy a 50-cent empanada, cheese and chicken in a fried doughy pocket. I’m tired. I stumble towards my inn, my eyes barely staying open for the journey. Once I’m there, I slip under my mosquito net and collapse into my bed with a euphoric smile. I love it here. Yo soy un hombre suerte, I am a lucky man.