I write to you refreshed from my first excursion from Quito. This past weekend was the Canadian’s last, so we (two German girls (18), the Canadian (18), and an Australian (26), all female) celebrated accordingly by heading to the coastal town of Montañita, a destination renowned for its surfing and partying. Interested in the latter, we left the house last Thursday night at 8:40pm to catch a 10pm night bus. We arrived the following morning a little after 9am, but fret not- these guys know how to cruise in style. Spoiler alert: they also know how to party.
It was enlightening to leave a major metropolitan area. What I had considered poverty became luxury as we passed through towns and shacks smattered across the countryside at random. You couldn’t always tell which ones still had people living in them. You’d see piles of concrete bricks and oddly shaped metal objects next to half-finished foundations and you’d sigh, knowing they would never be finished. And if they were, they would drain the years from the hands that labored to build them, shackling the proud, new homeowner to that plot of land, and perhaps, if they weren’t any luckier, the generation that followed.
Then like an oasis, Montañita appeared. The town is incredibly small, spanning about twelve square blocks and consisting almost entirely of hostels, restaurants, and discotecas. I did not see a supermarket of any size, though the streets are lined with locals cooking and at night, mixing tropical fruits with generous servings of alcohol. There are a sobering number of large, stray dogs running around the town, many limping or missing a leg. I heard (but did not see) the encounter proceeding one of these injuries, and it was…ugly. There is also a church, and a school. And then there’s the beach, running along the town and beyond. That’s it.
The town attracts a lot of tourists (a word that conveys entirely the wrong image of the town as a family/ foreigner friendly place) from both around the country and the continent. Locals seem to own hostels or food carts or surf shops. There is a well-represented older generation, all with sun-kissed skin, dark and chapped, and long, tangled hair. I passed by the dilapidated school yard, full of school-aged children running around like they do, and I thought of these children going on to open surf shops of their own, staying for the party, and never leaving. It’s either a very happy sort of sad or a very sad sort of happy.
Marijuana (also known as cannabis, pot, weed, dope) is a Schedule I Controlled Substance, along with heroin and ecstasy, because it has a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical uses.” It is, however, legal to possess in insignificant quantities in Ecuador, though not to sell, presumably because small-scale home-growing really isn’t anyone’s problem. Prior to arriving, we decided that we were interested in tracking down brownies, and for one reason or another, I would be the one to find them.
Late Friday afternoon, I was sitting with the Germans on the beach. I left to hunt down a Gatorade, and returned to find two locals with surfboards flanking them. I can’t leave these girls alone for two minutes, I thought, and headed over with the intention of warding the guys off, the girls being 18 and all. One of the guys left, the other stuck around. We’ll call him Donnie. He turned out to be cool, and eventually only Donnie and I were talking. I decided that I liked him. At this point (after the liking was decided), I noticed a marijuana leaf on his board. So I’m sitting there thinking: this is my guy. “Do you like to smoke?”, I ask, and with a smile, he replies: “sometimes.” I ask if he knows where we can get something good to eat, and he says that he just so happens to be in the baking business with some friends. We negotiate quantity and price, and he says he will go track them down for me while we wait. He takes off his sunglasses. “These are important to me,” he says. “If you give me the money, I will return for these with your brownies.” Without hesitation, I hand him my $.
The Germans go back to the hostel to shower, running into the Canadian and the Australian on the way back and recounting with excitement the transaction. The Canadian and the Australian come to sit and wait with me. The sun begins to set. Five minutes go by, then ten. At this point, I examine the glasses I am holding, dutifully, and note aloud that they are worth far less than the amount that I gave Donnie. Twenty minutes pass. My friends continue to wait patiently, even as the Australian begins lecturing me about how you just can’t trust people, no matter how nice they seem. By thirty-five minutes I have to accept the fact that Donnie isn’t coming back, and I am crushed.
It isn’t the drugs, or the money. I consider myself an excellent judge of character, and I find it devastating that I could have been so wrong about my “friend.” Not just Donnie, but people in general. Now I am sitting on the beach, in the quiet dark after sunset, holding a pair of shitty plastic sunglasses and the realization that I am just another dumb gringo who had his money stolen. Take it from me: you should never, ever give someone your money until you have what you are paying for.
We head back to the hostel, and after showering, I wait for the girls on our porch. A moment after sitting down, a guy on a bike stops in front of the hostel, starts whistling, and holy shit, it’s Donnie! I run down to him, so exasperated I can only speak English, but he speaks a bit and understands- his friends are just starting to bake the brownies for us. No, of course he wouldn’t take the money and run. This place gets enough of a bad rep and he wouldn’t want to be another verse in the story. Haven’t I ever heard of karma? The brownies will be ready in two hours, he says, and then takes me back to his surf shop to show me where to meet him. With a gratitude I can hardly convey in any language, I hand him back his sunglasses.
Two hours later, I return with my friends to the welcoming arms of Donnie and his crew, who are more than generous with drinks and hospitality. We head out to a local discoteca with a live band that plays an eccentric set of American music, followed by a DJ, and we dance the night away. We stay out until we can’t, and then the next day, we rise (slowly), nurse our hangovers in the sun and the water, and then meet up with Donnie and his friends again for Saturday night shenanigans. The brownies, by the way, are delicious.
I took a leap of faith that forced me to reconsider the way I look at people. Had I not been foolish enough to give a stranger my trust and money, we certainly wouldn’t have seen the Montañita we did, we wouldn’t have had the same weekend. I am still floored and overwhelmed with how everything played out. No, I am not in any way saying that my actions are laudable, or that they will be repeated. There is much to be learned from this experience, but here is my takeaway: there are a lot of decent people in this world turned sour by necessity, and if that’s what you go looking for, that’s what you will find; yet there are always good people in the places you don’t expect them, and if you only know how to look and how to ask, they will be there for you. Trust your judgment.
So, in conclusion, the weekend was amazing for all the unexpected reasons. Tonight officially concludes my first month in Ecuador, and if you have made it this far with me, I hope you will agree that it has been more than I could possibly have hoped for.
Learn Spanish: “Conoces donde puedo comprar algo bueno comer,” or ‘do you know where I can buy something good to eat’ worked for me, but I’m not saying you should go and try it. Really, I’m not.
P.S. Now that the Canadian volunteer is gone, I’m trying this new thing where I’m not going to speak English this week. And probably next week. I want to accelerate the rate I am learning at, and putting my proverbial strong arm in a sling to learn to use the other seems like a good idea.