Andean Mountain High: a day in Chimbo
The sun comes on strong. At 6:30, when my alarm sounds, it's still pale and grey outside, but by 7:30, when I get out of the shower, I have to draw the drapes lest my little third-floor hotel room overheat. The heavy yellow fabric turns the room golden while I dress. Dance music fills the building as the receptionist begins cleaning. I leave my key, bid her good day, and walk downstairs to the street, past the taxi drivers' union and the mysterious "multiple room."
The lady who sells roast guinea pig isn't out yet, and some stores are closed, but most doors are open while women sweep away the night's grime, or hose down the sidewalk. I wave to the man with the enormous mustache across the street, and marvel that the guy who hand-builds sofas is already at work; he finished two yesterday.
There's confusion at the corner as a pickup-for-hire waits for a box truck, even though the pickup has the light. By the time they resolve this impasse, a motorcycle has raced up from the other side. Not for the first time is there nearly an accident due to people being too hesitant.
I put off navigating the intersection by sitting down at the open-air joint on the corner where a lady with a long silver braid makes cheese-filled tortillas with exquisite slowness. The coffee is sweeter than teen romance.
Crossing to the plaza, I run into the young guy with the white cart full of syrups who concocts drinks and snacks out of what looks like an array of potions and powders. He always greets me warmly even though I've never bought anything.
The shoeshine men have already erected their yellow-awninged high chairs, but they let me go quietly, even though my shoes are filthy--just as well, because I'm short on coins and time.
The litter-collector is circulating with his broom, long-handled dustbin, and oil drum-on-wheels. I don't see any of the gardeners, but they're probably at work somewhere, evening out the grass with hand clippers, pruning the flowers, and running endless hoses that create vast puddles while leaving the grass dry.
I might get a stare from one of the taxi drivers, who are lined up and waiting, the one in back vigorously toweling down his spotless yellow Hyundai, with the hood up and the doors open, the radio blasting cumbia. No one ever yells at me ("Gringo!" or something), and by now almost everyone knows who I am--no longer the strange foreigner, but the foreigner who works at the cooperative.
The taxis congregate below some of the loveliest balconies in town. All the more charming for being crooked and cracked, some are meticulously painted in contrasting colors--white and teal, salmon and fuchsia, beige and chocolate--while others are fading and flaking down to raw wood. Always vacant, they seem to await Romeo and Juliet. Once I say a girl toss a key down to her boyfriend just like in Life Is Beautiful.
Vicente, the security guard at the cooperative, greets me with a smile and a firm handshake, and I go through the daily ritual of signing in. Today is an office day, which means I'll be inside at a desk from 8 to 5, writing up borrower verification visits, working out APR calculations, monitoring repayment reporting, assessing loan volume and projections, examining social performance metrics, translating videos, interviewing the Kiva Coordinator, and uploading photos, with a one-hour lunch break. Accustomed to the pacing and room-changing of teaching, I find it very hard to sit still for so long. Yet somehow I end most days exhausted.
The light is fading by the time I leave the office, and it's cool enough that I no longer mind my blazer. Though my phone predicted daily thunderstorms, and locals complain regularly about the "cold," Chimbo enjoys almost perfect weather--never colder than 60 or warmer than 80, and even in "winter," it only rains a few times a week, usually for less than an hour. Instead of worrying about raincoats or umbrellas, people either wait it out, or dodge the drops by walking under the generous eaves that protrude from almost every building.
Just past my hotel is a corner store where Dalton, a little old bespectacled man, sells me a Coke in a glass bottle out of his antique mustard-colored fridge. Always thrilled to see me, he calls me by name and once again asks, "How long are you here for?" Few can believe that a foreigner would last a month. I stroll back to the plaza and claim a bench. At this hour I practically have the place to myself, yet by 7 pm it'll be almost crowded, as it can be early in the morning. No matter how I nurse the Coke, it's always too soon for The Simpsons when I get back to the hotel.
At 7 pm I go to Doña Bernadita's house for dinner. (I went there for lunch too, because there are virtually no restaurants.) For two dollars a meal, she welcomes me to the family table like a son. Tonight she serves beet salad to accompany the ubiquitous rice and chicken or pork, and I'm so excited by this rare vegetable that I take a picture of the plate, which her husband, Don Rodrigo, finds funny yet flattering. They both urge bread on me as if it were the elixir of life. A locally produced sitcom on TV plays hard on stereotypes of indigenous culture, buck teeth, short men, and fat women.
After bidding Doña Bernadita and her family good night, I hike up to the church. Tucked high in the mountains 5 hours from Quito and 4 hours from Guayaquil, Chimbo is nicknamed "the pot" because most of the city lies in a deep valley ringed by the highway. No matter how you get here, it's always a coast in and a climb out. Arriving from Guaranda, you make a complete circle of town before getting to the main bus stop near the church, where blue-smocked women sell bread, roast pork, coffee, juice, and tortillas. On Sundays a sweet old lady serves hand-churned ice cream out of a barrel. Most afternoons there's a game of volleyball, and by evening a group dance and exercise class breaks out, as vendors set up shop selling French fries, hot dogs, and soda. The first time I ventured near the church at night, two little girls ran up and peppered me with questions for twenty minutes. There's no stranger danger here, and even children treat everyone to a formal greeting at the very least.
Wandering back down to the plaza, I pass several declarations of love spray-painted onto buildings--graffiti has replaced greeting cards here. Since it's Wednesday, things are pretty quiet: small groups of women stroll arm in arm while a watchman circulates to scold toddlers away from the edge of the fountain, or the grass. Lone men sit on benches checking Facebook or Whatsapp thanks to the free WiFi piped in by the "Illustrious Municipality of San José de Chimbo, Autonomous Province of Bolívar."
Old men congregate in groups of two and three on benches at all hours, looking like sages or holy men except for their fedoras and flat caps. Everyone over sixty wears a suit. On Saturday nights young men race up and down the main street--the only flat spot--on unmufflered dirt bikes, trying to catch girls. Children hoard coins to buy popsicles or gum, and teenagers pool their resources to buy a giant bottle of beer and a few cigarettes, laughing and gossiping around the car they've parked with the doors open, salsa or reggaeton blasting out.
After circumnavigating the plaza a few times I amble back to the hotel and try to get some writing done. A symphony of car alarms, fire alarms, delivery trucks, people yelling, dogs barking, and smoke from the guinea pig lady keeps me from getting bored. Almost on cue around 10:30 everything goes quiet, and by then it's cool enough for a cozy sleep and dreams of hand-churned ice cream, or the view on a clear morning almost to Chimborazo, and another quiet day tuned to human rhythms.
You can pay tribute to the beautiful people of Chimbo by making a Kiva loan of your own at http://www.kiva.org.
To support the microfinance organization where I'm working (Cooperativa San José, San José de Chimbo, Ecuador), click here.