Manabí: Under the waves

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The sun reaches its final destination: the beaches of Manabí. With it, a cloud of dust, sent flying from the coastline’s eroded cliffs, blurs the silhouette of a donkey waiting patiently outside its owner’s bamboo hut. A renegade straw hat makes its way south, rolling like a wheel on the dry sand, stopping suddenly, and then tripping over itself as the wind pushes it forward.

Time and again, I dream of a dawn like this in Manabí. Ecuador’s veritable Wild West, it’s a country of nostalgic shores and silent seas; of people born from palo santo forests; of clay souls that remember the dawn of civilization. In the distance, fishermen seem to maneuver the frigatebirds that dance in the air overhead, above the wooden boats that lay stranded on the beach, with their fishing nets. Once, thousands of balsawood rafts congregated here at this massive port, their ghosts carrying the sea with them, inside long-lost Spondylus shells traded to bidders from other shores. The beach is reflective like a mirror; along it scurry sandpipers. Behind the horizon, we also see waves of mountains dressed in blue forests.

A typical Manabí home halfway between the ocean and the alluvial plains.

A clanking metallic bus breaks the silence, but as it stops to wait for its passengers, the sound of a tinny radio buzzes out a salsa hit from the ’80s. Five children burst out from a bamboo home; they run up the metal steps, saying goodbye to their mother, competing for a window seat. Their faces betray their heritage: they are modern-day versions of ancient chieftains and sea princesses. Six-thirty in the morning. Backpackers jump off the bus and head straight for the beach. More children, kitted out for school, appear from another sleepy hamlet and jump on. A farmer with a hat and machete places a freshly-cut branch laden with green plantains in the middle of the aisle. A man with a tray of local delicacies steps over them, filling the bus with the smell of peanuts and cilantro. More children push through. The entire vehicle shakes over the smooth-road-today, pot-holed-road-tomorrow. This school bus is everybody’s mode of transportation.

Waves form like breaching whales over the endless body of water, escorting the coast with the islets Pedernales, Los Ahorcados, Salango and La Plata; where the sacrificial rites of ancient times seem silenced by the tumult of the ocean. The bus sets a handful of children free at the entrance of each village with a school; Salango, Machalilla, Puerto Lopez, Pueblo Nuevo; and continues along; seeking the hills of Jipijapa, where what was once the glory of the coffee industry is today a gust of wind. Dust and memory today, greenery and life tomorrow as the dry season gives in to the rains. Montecristi and the master straw-hat weavers follow, until we finally reach the big city, Manta, where a painted-faced chief once flaunted an emerald goddess, Umiña, around his neck. To reach his temple, one had to walk along a road flanked by stone statues three meters high, but a Spanish priest ordered them to be destroyed as soon as he saw them. Today, modern buildings rise over the ancient chiefdoms.

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