Never mind the fact that I got food poisoning. They told us, “Don’t eat the raw shellfish!” I ate the raw shellfish.
We ported in Manta, a city of 220,000 located 45 minutes north from where we would eventually settle. Manta’s pier, which boasts a spiffy new cruise terminal/convention centre, is an easy walk to the main shopping and nightclub district to the southeast; and to parks, a large fish market, the business district and barrios to the north.
Of course, Manta today is very different from the Manta we visited in 2013. Fewer than three years later, and shortly after we had committed to build our retirement home on the coast, the city was flattened in a once-in-a-lifetime, 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Today, the grand Mall del Pacifico stands directly across from luxury condos, the beach, a busy malecón, and the port. I don’t recall what was there before. A KFC, I think. One or two condo buildings. The immigration office where Chantal and I would one day apply for residency.
The first person we met was an American, a Mormon, who had retired to Ecuador with a gaggle of other Mormons and who drove to the city whenever a cruise ship came to town. “To hear English again,” he told us, after hearing our English and assuming we were from the States.
We carried a very simple map of the downtown. He helpfully marked it with a walking tour and the locations of restaurants where food was safe for foreigners to eat. (I ordered my first concha ceviche at one of those “safe” restaurants. It was a cold, inky, and unappealing substance that was not at all what I thought it would be. I ate it anyway – fearlessly, as Anthony Bourdain would recommend – and vomited like a firehose for three days.)
The Kindness of Strangers
It was our walking tour that most impressed us with Ecuador and her people.
At one point we became lost at the corner of Calle 15 and Avenida 13, a few blocks east of Iglesia la Merced. Lost is not the accurate word. We might have stopped for a minute or two to get our bearings. Streets are not reliably marked, so it’s easy to become disoriented. Especially if you’re directionally-challenged, like me.
The moment we glanced at our map, a very concerned-looking woman appeared out of nowhere to ask, in Spanish, if we needed help. We sputtered something incomprehensible, I’m sure. She then proceeded, with Spanish-for-the-stupid and wild gesticulations, to guide us to wherever we wanted to be. Which was interesting, because we had no idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. We thanked her profusely, turned the corner, and immediately stumbled into the centre of a massive community Bingo game.
When I say massive, I mean they closed the entire street. Several hundred players, music, vendors of street meat, and prize tents pitched along the curbs.
It was one of those times when you feel the eyes of the world upon you. Everyone stopped, even the caller, mid-call. They stared at us. We stared back at them. No one made a sound. For a moment, it felt like that dream when you’re back in high school and forget to wear clothes.
And then something happened: the one indelible memory of our day in Manta. The caller leaned into his microphone, smiled, and said: “Hola!” “Hola!” the crowd boomed after him, and everyone waved. We burst out laughing and waved back. Hola hola hola, we heard as we made our way down a row of seated players, entire families with children in their Sunday best. Hola, amigos. Hola.
There were other things we did that afternoon. But this was our takeaway: the kindness of strangers to strangers in their midst. Friendship, community, belonging: simple and genuinely offered. You don’t find places like this too often.
That evening, we watched Manta retreat behind us as the sun set over the ocean. I felt a sincere pang of regret for leaving too soon.
Later, at home in Ottawa, when the ad that changed our lives appeared in our local paper, it was this memory that brought us easily back to the country we now call home.