Many reading this will confess, if not publicly then at least to yourselves, that the only reason Ecuador made it onto your list of retirement destinations is because you watched an episode of House Hunters International. It’s okay, you can admit it; you’re among friends. You fell for the glamour of sunset beaches, gently waving palms, and fruity drinks. Who wouldn’t? HGTV makes gardening look like high adventure.
Chantal and I followed a different path to Ecuador. But adventure was also very much on our minds. We both spent our careers in travel, she with the military and me on business. We weren’t at all interested in settling down. If you read my blog, then you know we’ve had fun here. Lots of fun. And more than a few inelegant blunders, because to put yourself truly out there the price is often your pride.
The scene HGTV never films is one in which that original thrill of adventure, that buzz of discovery, gives way to the drag of daily living. Taxes must be paid. Toilets must be scoured. Fish must be fried. There is an actual moment when you realize, as did I very recently, that none of this is new anymore. It’s not exciting. It just is. Particularly when one of you goes back to work.
As you might know from previous posts, Chantal has returned to her career with National Defence, doing her part to support Canada’s pandemic response and vaccine rollout. She wants to serve her country in its time of need. That’s my girl.
But it also means forget about adventure. Forget about anything except weekend groceries and the occasional cold beer poolside. She sits at her computer in the early morning, and ten hours later I drag her blue corpse to the dinner table. In most ways that matter, I am in Ecuador by myself. It’s not how either of us thought our Retirement 2.0 would unfold. And yet, here we are.
So I hatched a plan: Staycation in Manta! I wanted a break from cooking. Chantal needed to unplug. And when was the last time, or indeed any time, that we dedicated ourselves to sightsee our closest city?
I’ll answer that question right now: never! Hardly a surprise. Almost twenty years in Ottawa and I still haven’t toured the Parliament buildings.
Chantal and I would daytrip at home. Explore our own back yard. Discover the sites and sounds of a city we know too well to visit. ¡Qué genio!
Manta the Unconventional
Manta is not a conventionally beautiful city. It is not an old city. It is not a cultured city. But it does have an extraordinary sense of its own emerging greatness, especially as a tourist destination.
I like that very much about Manta. I like that it is quintessentially South American. Quito and Cuenca are Spanish. There’s a difference. Often in Ecuador, the more affluent sierrans look upon less privileged coasties with a patronizing blend of scorn and pity. Coasties gape back and say hold my cerveza.
Most neighbourhoods in and around Manta are of the low-lying cinder block hovel variety. I hate to use that word, hovel. South Americans don’t think of themselves as poor; they just don’t have any money. Their children are fed and educated. Their clothes are simple but washed so vigorously they gleam. Their social lives are full – in ways, fuller than we can imagine for ourselves. But many do live in what entitled, vainglorious, beer-bellied northerners might regard as suboptimal conditions. (After a short while, you see them only as homes.) They are not for the most part unsafe. Chantal and I have ventured into a few decidedly unattractive barrios, in search of the unmarked muffler repair guy or the equally covert tire repair guy. We never felt at risk. But these quarters offer little to the earnest vacationer.
We found an Airbnb in the comparatively ritzy Barrio Umiña. For those who don’t know it, Umiña is the tony restaurant district that runs south of Flavio Reyes to the Calle 32 split. Google calls Umiña a “laid-back resort area”. I wouldn’t say that, exactly. But there are a few nice places to stay and it’s central without the mayhem.
Our one-bedroom suite, in the older but well maintained Edificio Puntarenas, had been lovingly renovated by some guy named Doug who lives in Oshawa. His spritely co-host, Catia, met us at the front door. She explained that the living room air conditioner was on the fritz, that the washer-dryer didn’t work, and that the fridge had been recently repaired. After fiddling with the inductive stovetop, she announced that this too was malfunctioning, so we’d be eating at restaurants for the weekend. Good thing that was our plan.
Manta the Empty
We left our unpacking for later and walked to Mall del Pacifico for sushi at Kobe. This is my favourite restaurant in Manta. It’s a chain but I like what they do with local ingredients. Who knew you can make a credible maki with fried plantain and tempura shrimp? We eat at Kobe at least once or twice a month. Sometimes, during whale season, we sit on the patio and watch humpbacks breach. It’s a nice place and the service is terrific.
Later, we strolled Umiña to see what was what. Manta on the weekend is not a lively town, unless you’re at the playa el Murciélago, paying too much money for scarcely passable seafood. (The Malecón is where Chantal and I had our first experiences of the city we would one day call home. I ate ceviche de concha and vomited myself inside out.)
Umiña by day is a shockingly vacant affair. Half the barrio is given over to student housing at the nearby Universidad. The other half is for imposing, fortress-like condominium projects with weird Greek names. There wasn’t a soul around, except for light traffic. Our closest neighbours at Mirador San Jose, Alain and Natalie, passed by in their SUV and gave us a honk. I guess they were on their way to the mall. Other than that, it was yellow cabs and empty patios with chairs turned up on tables.
That evening we wandered down to Barbasquillo Beach. There, the curvy tight-skirted girls and their gangsta wannabe boyfriends tailgate with colossal stereo systems grafted onto the backs of their ‘roided out Ladas. We dined at nearby Alice, the Italian restaurant on Avenida Umiña 1 that local expats rave about on Facebook. We were owner Luciano’s only customers and he treated us like royalty. Chantal was quite taken with her ravioli in vodka sauce. I thought my langostinos al vino were underwhelming. Luciano, however, was a hoot. He speaks neither English nor Spanish, except in monosyllabic bursts. So he pantomimed his life story while we ate and it was very entertaining. He once cooked for Hugo Chávez.
Manta the Poisonous
We had many more ideas for how to spend our weekend. But they started and ended Saturday morning at Cafelito House.
Cafelito is a charming little breakfast joint at the corner of Flavio Reyes and Calle 32, next door to an elegant cevicheria named Fish. How meta. Chantal had classic French toast with fruit and yogurt. I ordered the more traditional tigrillo with a side of food poisoning.
It is difficult to describe the mounting alarm one experiences when one succumbs to sudden illness during a global pandemic. I was fine for two or three hours after breakfast. Then I felt faint. Then chills. Then cramps. Then getthefuckoutofmywayihavetobarf.
I spent the next 24 hours doubled up and shivering in bed. Between bleary bouts on the toilet and praying for a swift end to my wasted life, I pondered what the ICU at Manta General might be like. I expected to visit it soon. Every sip of water multiplied severalfold in volume and exited like a pressure hose. I really thought I might die. Even now, I am embarrassed to think what I left behind for Doug from Oshawa’s cleaning service.
The Moral of My Story
There are things HGTV, or your own ill-informed imagination, won’t tell you about life in Ecuador. First and foremost, it’s like life everywhere else: the new becomes familiar and then familiar becomes dull. Also, staycations are a crappy substitute for travel. There are obvious risks when food handlers forget to wash their hands after a bathroom break. And excessive walking in hot, humid temperatures is better done with a bra.
A goodly percentage of expats abandon Ecuador after only a few months or a couple years. This is well-known in our community. Some say they miss friends and family. Others blame culture shock. Personally, I think it’s because they expected Island Life and got Unsellable Houses.
If you come here, come all the way. But arrive with realistic expectations. Nobody ever sees what happens after Lyndsay and Leslie make their Big Decision in Guayaquil.
Often, they wind up eating at Cafelito.