Travel blogs read like user manuals. In one sense, that’s what they are: orderly guides on how to have Instagram-worthy experiences without getting held up at knifepoint. Or, at the very least, without being poisoned half to death by the Ceviche de concha.
Retirement travel blogs offend even more so. Now you have both tourism and financial advice. Perhaps with health-related stuff thrown in, and typically accompanied by that photo of a happy white-haired Baby Boom couple doing something with Norwegian walking sticks.
In either case, what these blogs have in common is that their writers clearly hope CNN will one day offer them a television series, à la Anthony Bourdain. Who wouldn’t want to eat their way across Vietnam on someone else’s dime?
I started Papa Jefe because I love to write. I wrote professionally in my career, but this was marketing copy for classical or chamber music performance. Not to say there isn’t an element of creativity involved in such work; only that it was in the service of someone else’s (enormous) ego and not mine.
Papa Jefe was never intended to be my express route to fame and fortune. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be widget instructions. I drafted enough of those in my tech days.
What I want to write instead is the experience of retiring to a strange culture. My experience. Your mileage may vary. And that’s the point: it is always about the peculiar lens through which we see our own lives. With one exception.
My neighbour Dennis once described Ecuador to me as a “land of many aromas.” What he meant is that Ecuador smells, in ways to which we are quite unaccustomed.
In Canada, the outdoors has three distinctive seasonal odors: none (winter), dog shit (spring) and botanical (summer, fall). In Ecuador, what you whiff is often a factor of where you are – and it’s unmistakable.
Travelling southeast along the E30 from Manta to Montecristi? The El Café factory is roasting coffee. Taking the ring road around Manta to the traffic circle at Avenida de la Cultura? Then you no doubt gagged on rotten egg when you hit the valley run.
Driving south along the Ruta del Spondylus, just beyond San Mateo? Why, that’s the scintillating aroma of shrimp rotting in the hot sun. At least, I think it’s shrimp.
Lately, at night, if it’s been raining, the ocean breeze carries with it a dank odor of wet campfire. They’ve been burning brush again, somewhere to the south. I saw smoke the other morning.
Puerto Cayo has this ineffable trace of bleach. I’m not sure what it is, precisely, or where it comes from, but there’s a hint of it in the beach shack restaurant food. Very odd. But I think I’m getting used to it. I don’t notice it as much as I once did.
Puerto Lopez is all about palo santo. The stores burn its oils and incense. In fact, palo santo is pretty much everywhere. We light it in the garden, to mask our biodigester emissions. It works well.
In cities and larger pueblos, the last of this life’s carbureted engines belches up thick blue clouds of exhaust. Back home, in Canada, I’ve seen young people hold their noses and fan the air in theatrical disgust as some coal roller blew past in his tricked-out classic Dodge. Kids, he’s just an asshole in a car. It’s another world here. One that can’t be waved away because you don’t enjoy the bouquet.
In pueblitos, there are no vehicles save the odd motorcycle. There’s also no sewage system. Villages like Pile, where they make the fino sombrero de Panamá Montecristi, can be quite pretty, some even scenic. They’re also a bit off-putting in the nose department. Such is life when it hasn’t been arranged to save us from our tang.
I despise the term Third World. Not only is it an outdated way to describe countries like Ecuador; it carries with it an unearned sense of desperation and uncleanliness. Ecuador is neither desperate nor unclean. It simply does not accommodate our northern delicacies.
To live here is to teem in the mass of Earth’s most abundant biology. What you smell is where you are, and where you’ll inevitably be. Ecuador is death and life. It’s flora and fauna and fragrant and foul.
You have to give yourself to its disorder; it does not bend to you.