By Bani Amor
“What time are we headed to Playas tomorrow?” I asked my mom at her cousin’s house in Guayaquil.
“Seven in the morning,” she replied.
“So eight, Ecuador Time,” I quipped back.
She looked up at me for a moment from the mountain of luggage she was attempting to unpack — clothing for family she brought with her from the States — then got the half-joke and shrugged.
“Hopefully we’ll leave on time,” she said, returning to her work.
But I wasn’t so sure.
Tiempo Ecuatoriano alludes to Ecuadorians’ everyday disregard for clocks, their curious inner workings and our indifferent dispositions in general. This could come off as annoying to the outsider but I saw us as calm and unrushed, my Ecuadorian immigrant family like an oasis in the impatient blur that is New York, where I grew up.
We left Guayaquil the next morning at nine.
Accompanying us to the beach was my Tio (uncle) Carlos, a deadly serious middle-aged transit policeman with heavy bags beneath his eyes and a coastal drawl, if and when he ever ventures to speak. In the car, my mother pressed him about breakfast and after about a minute of silence he mumbled, “coffee … eggs … one dollar … close by.”
Like most places my uncle had taken us in Guayaquil, the operation was cheap, delicious, and entirely outside: a man cooked at a small mobile kitchen with plastic tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk. Across the way was a children’s hospital and single women cradling babies trafficked the street between us, looking neither worried nor happy. Or perhaps these emotions are more often an internal business in Ecuador, unwritten on the face. I struck into a bolon mixto, a ball of fried green plantains mushed together with bits of pork rinds and cheese, and asked Tio Carlos about the trip ahead.
“How long is the ride to the beach?” I asked. He slowly downed two-thirds of a tall glass of papaya juice before he answered, “One hour … or so.”
Four hours and three stops later we arrived in Playas, a small ocean-side city mostly sustained off of fishing and tourism, but with August being part of the South American winter, the only other tourists were families of pallid, quick-talking Serranos, or folks from the mountains of Ecuador. We shivered on the windy shore as they took turns coating each other’s seminude bodies in SPF 45. Oily mountain men played volleyball and fishermen paddled away from us into the cool waters of the South Pacific basin.
Before Tio Carlos disappeared somewhere he promised to guide us toward a hotel upon his return. He reemerged two hours later and, without a word, led us out of Playas and through the rugged terrain of the tropical savanna that surrounds it, which was full of arborescent cacti and the occasional glare of sun-colored flowers erupting from mangrove trees, offering the illusion of joy in the jagged landscape. There was no plan.
The semi-desert shrubland we wove through was craggy as hell, and we sped, then broke, then swerved to avoid potholes every 5 seconds or so. Mom and I exchanged uneasy looks and held tight to the Kia’s handles above our heads, swinging every which way and bobbing like corks.
After passing through two villages filled with kids, pigs and goats unhurriedly crossing the dirt road ahead, we reached the third and final one called Puerto de Morro, a port village situated on the bay. We noticed signs advertising dolphin-watching tours and realized we were being led to check them out. We joined some tourists on a fifteen-seater and buzzed off into the grey-on-grey gulf.
What ensued was more like a dolphin-seeking tour, kindred to ghost hunting on TV or stargazing in Manhattan. We would drive slowly in one direction for about 15 minutes, when someone would yelp that they’d sighted a fin or a fluke dip above the water’s surface, at which point we’d excitedly speed off in that direction and repeat the entire maneuver with similar results. Nearby hundreds of bleached birds cocked their heads and stared at us, vacantly.
After over an hour of this I conceded that the dolphins, too, were running on Ecuador Time. As the wind slapped our faces on the way back I lamely struggled to make sense of my opposing feelings. The American in me paid to see some friggin’ dolphins. The Ecuadorian me was kind of, like, whatever.
As the light dimmed from neutral to dark and a bovine stench receded in the dust behind us, we drove on another pockmarked road heading who-knows-where when the unexpected sight of an abandoned beach (save for one topless man siesta-ing in a hammock by a small amount of litter) came rolling into view.
A line of giant rocks ruled the littoral margin between water and land and the ocean’s waves crashed against their mossy exteriors like a short film on a loop. Vaguely blue ocean spray showered over me as I climbed the boulders. The tide withdrew as soon as it lapped at the shoreline, as if the water was breathing. Small spotted crabs scuttled away from my heavy-heeled footsteps into crevices. Tio Carlos smiled at me from the sand.
The scene was characteristically Ecuadorian: the muted tones of the sky, water and sand; the waft of saltwater mixed with trash and muddy livestock; an anticlimax of monochromes clashing that awaits the patient, if professionally bored traveler; the half-nude dude dozing the day away. Maybe he’s drunk, maybe he’s dreaming, but he’s definitely not trying to impress anyone.
The sun seemed almost bored as it set below the blurry horizon and while we drove away from it I felt that familiar sense of meh and finally settled into Ecuador Time.
Bani Amor is a travel writer and photographer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador whose mission is to decolonize travel media. Her work focuses on diaspora, international communities of outliers and the intersections between race, place and adventure.