Guaranda is the provincial capital of Bolívar province. It has no tourist attractions, but I am oddly taken by it. An air raid siren blares three times a day: at six in the morning, six in the evening, and nine at night. I was startled the first time, wondering what George had done now, but it was laconically explained to me that the Indians don’t have clocks, and this was to tell them when to go to bed and get up.
There is a hyperactive marching band that plays at all hours. It may be a measure of how much I’m adapting to Ecuador that I enjoyed a particularly rousing tune under my window at 6.30 this morning. The band wears snazzy white uniforms, and the horns are white, too. As I write this by streetlight they’re playing again. Last week it was an anti-war rally, then there was Palm Sunday. Yesterday was a funeral, and today, who knows?
A small platoon of marines takes a training run through the city streets shortly after the morning siren. They wear fatigues and shout army songs.
They look very young.
The town is mostly mestizo, and therefore much friendlier than the indigenous villages I’ve hiked through so far, where people are reserved to the point of being dour. (As well they might be; their history justifies suspicion of strangers.) In Guaranda, people want to know how long I’m staying and when I’m coming back. They seem slightly hurt by any answer of less than two weeks, even though there are no other tourists, and this is as likely a vacation spot as, say, Dayton, Ohio.
I am staying at the Café Siete Santos, as the first ever overnight guest. It’s an unusual find. The café is in a colonial house arranged around a courtyard. It’s hung with good artwork, eco-posters, and anti-war stickers. They play Rubén Blades and Beethoven and serve excellent coffee in a Nescafé part of the world. There’s a bookshelf full of mildewed Southern gothic—Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Faulkner, Truman Capote—and a single issue of Men’s Health from 1996, which I have pored over. They light candles and a woodfire every night to keep out the chill of the sierra, unsuccessfully. It has all the trappings of a gringo haunt, but the gringos don’t come to Guaranda much. Instead, it’s filled with schoolkids who nurse coffees—indolent girls in white kneesocks who bat away the darting boys—and prosperous grown-ups.
The café is run by two nunly sisters and a son, who are the kindest hosts I’ve had on this trip. They opened a lovely sunny room for me, with wooden floors and good paintings, and then unlocked the formal parlor next door so that I would have a place to ‘converse’. They ply me with cookies and spirit away my laundry. The place has an air of an old family home with gracious hosts who cannot any longer afford to host for free, though they would like to.
The local indigenous used to come in much more often, they said. They wanted the café to be a place for the whole community, and for a while it was. There was an indigenous mayor, very dynamic, and a lot of confidence in the town. But he died two years ago and the Indians started to melt back into the countryside. Mestizos are pushing them around again, and the town is disintegrating. The owner was sad.
A few blocks up the street, La Madrina Cevicheria was full at 11.30. My guidebook warns darkly about cholera from raw fish, but if I still paid attention to the Lonely Planet I’d be much skinnier, and I wouldn’t be in Guaranda. The ceviche was very good: a tepid black broth tangy with lime rather than the iced, pallid fish I’ve tasted in New York. It comes with a dish of popcorn and plantain chips to dip. I enjoyed it more before I discovered that concha was not conch but giant black sea snail, but the fresh little prawns made up for the the slimy mollusc. When I finished, La Madrina herself—Do�a Blanca—waddled over, frizzy and gold-toothed. ‘Good, eh? Sweetheart, this is the only place to come for ceviche in Guaranda. None of the others make it good, because I’m the only one who’s from the coast, and I go down to Guayaquil to pick out the fish myself. Then I prepare it myself so I know it’s right. You won’t get better. Unless you go to Charo, then you can eat at La Madrina 2. And there’s La Madrina 3 in Cuenca.’
Do�a Blanca could be transported straight to a Brooklyn pizzeria to boast about her marinara. I was enchanted: she was the furthest removed from the reserved mountain types I’d met so far. Then her son, Carlos Alberto, sat down, though it was the lunchtime rush. Happily assuming I spoke fluent Spanish and was a hiker, he offered to let me join him on a caving trip with some friends at the end of the month. Also, they could take me in a dug-out canoe to the Amazon jungle—he had a friend from the tribe that used to be headshrinkers, and if I was prepared to eat pre-chewed yucca and a saliva cocktail, he would introduce me. And there was an amazing waterfall a few hours from Ba�os… He wasn’t a guide, he said, but he loved hiking and camping, and it was fun to show foreigners around. Ecuadorians generally thought camping was weird, and we were more receptive to exploring.
He didn’t like Guaranda much. Mountain people were so closed off compared to the coastal types he grew up with. They called coastal people monkeys, he told me indignantly. They had no idea how to enjoy themselves, or how to be hospitable.
We made plans to meet in Ba�os on the first of May, and then Do�a Blanca posed like a professional outside La Madrina 1.
Back at Siete Santos, a very pretty girl in a convent uniform edged up to my table. Leah was from Madison, Wisconsin, it turned out, and was one of three international high school exchange students who had been posted to Guaranda. She was seven months into her year abroad and hungry for company. She talked about racism in Ecuador and the US with disconsolate passion, and worried about going back to a country so obsessed with ‘body and stuff.’
‘In my tiny town outside Madison, there were five girls in my class alone who had anorexia. And here having enough to eat is a big deal.
That’s just sick.’
It was hard being the resident gringa.
‘The men—well, the mestizo men—just look you up and down and leer, all the time. It took a while to get used to. And all the rumors are about the gringas. Nobody cares that there’s no truth to it or that we’re a lot more conservative than previous students. If there’s a bad story going around, they just attach it to us.’
‘My family here, they don’t have running water or a phone. And that’s fine for me. They’re happy, and I like them. I don’t need running water any more. But next year I’m going to private school, and I know there will be people who are depressed because they don’t have the latest car, and it’s going to be a big adjustment. On the one hand, I’m really homesick, and on the other, I’m kind of dreading going back there. Though I think I might want to come back here to work some day, in some kind of ecological tourism.’
At the market, where Indian women in flat straw hats sell bananas and lurid ice drinks, a huge St. Bernard pads around like the mayor. He looks perfectly at home here, and so he should, for Guaranda is 3200 meters above sea level. I may strap a flask of brandy under his chin and drag him on my next hapless Andean stroll, if I ever leave Guaranda.