Spooky backwaters of Río Cayapas and Borbon

May 29, 2019 | 2 comments

Hailing from Louisiana, I’ve weathered many summers with 90-plus straight days of temperatures above 100 and humidity to match. A quick trip outside my home would have sweat droplets as big as buckshot scattered across my forehead and rivulets of the same running down my cheeks.

I grew up living on a bayou in Louisiana. As a boy, I didn’t cut grass for money. I fished with lines and sold my catch to the local fish market. I owned several boats and I went to high school via my own boat most days. I had a small pier, along the bayou near the school, where I tied up each morning. So, when I roll into Borbon, Ecuador, I’m feeling right at home. And, that’s very “at home” since the folks who live in this area use boats as water taxis and catch fish for supper and cash. But, there are other factors that affect travel near these frontier borders.

Edie and I had been in these spooky backwaters once before about two years past. It was a Saturday and we were in our truck, El Fantasma. The town was a literal sea of human bodies in motion. El was gently parting that mass, rolling steady if not slow at about 2 kph to avoid mashed toes and an ensuing riot. We didn’t want our truck flipped over or pushed into the river. Neither we nor our truck looked anything like the people or vehicles we were encountering. I’ve been in many tight places along life’s paths and I began to feel a little uneasy. However, all went well and we departed the area without incident but unfortunately, without photographs. This area is right near the Colombian border and is the territory of drug smugglers moving cocaine and coca paste through the area. Kidnapping is also a popular crime. Two years ago, three Quito journalists were taken hostage and then murdered near here. So was a young Ecuadorian couple on a moto. Who knows how many were murdered that no one knows of. It’s all related to the dope trade for the most part. Remember though, papers write that FARC is dis-banded. No need to worry right…??!!

I couldn’t stop thinking about the area. To me, it was interesting, mostly lawless and had some of the same threads in its cloth as the “wild, wild west.” Being prepared helps keep uneasiness at bay. Edie and I had spent the night in Same the night before. We were rolling toward Borbon early the following Monday morning with a little better idea about what to expect in this out-of-the-way place. If you approach photography from the standpoint of producing photojournalism, you cannot say no to these type of places. No one else may know of them or see them unless you make a record of what you find. It’s just part of what I do. Edie is not faint of heart. She’s smart, brave and a good partner for the work at hand. On El Fantasma rolled, the 141 slow kilometers to Borbon.

Borbon is on the Río Santiago not far south of its juncture with the  Río Cayapas. The Cayapas is named for the native people living in the area; there are only about 4,000 of them left in the world. They fish and hunt for food in the area further upriver and sell their finely made hammocks sometimes in La Tola or on the island of La Tolita. But, they are a quiet and shy people preferring the more remote areas further inland and shunning contact with outsiders when possible. In contrast, the people of Borbon and the few tiny stick-up communities along the river banks are a raucous and more or less outgoing group. It isn’t the Sierra, that’s for certain. Work is not embraced as tightly as partying and young and old alike are more interested in the swaying of the opposite sex to some calypso style tunes in lieu of attending a religious get together. The Caribbean and the practice of Voodoo have their influence here and while those inclined may take to the Catholic church in the morning, a blend of beliefs and cultures causes spells, visiones and chicken blood to come into play after nightfall. For example, stories of the visione La Tumba are told to misbehaving children. She eats the ones that have the worst behavior and I would assume she’s keeping a list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Two hours and twenty minutes and 87 miles later, El Fantasma nosed into Borbon with his best tire forward. Monday proved to be a little quieter than the Saturday market day we encountered in our previous foray into the area. However, it’s a busy place and there are plenty of folks on the move both in the streets and on the river. Many boats are plying the waters with cargos of people and plantains. We are out of the truck and talking to the inhabitants quick enough. Right away when a fellow tells me to give him some money, I just tilt my head back and laugh asking him if I look like a Gringo?! He didn’t quite know how to field that question. My intent was to set the precedent as Edie and I were a minority there in every conceivable form of that word. We were well received and people were pretty friendly, laughing at the jokes they made as most were about us! My truck is pretty fancy but we keep our dress and appearance to a bare minimum. I’m white and tall but I can get good and grubby and don some worn clothes. It’s best to blend in here. You can roll up your shirt to bare your belly if you like. Most folks do. After a little fruit and some chatting, I made my way further along upriver so I could make the accompanying photograph.

My photograph depicts a small community on the river banks; there are few of these here. Borbon is an actual town, though small. This is something very different. Nine buildings, a few boats, some barrels, lots of bamboo poles to tie-up to, dense jungle coming inland from the manglares and a few folks. The afternoon sun has popped out for a reprieve from the rainstorms darker clouds blowing out in the background.

It was getting on later in the day as Edie and I sat in the truck chatting and spooning out a couple of avocados with salt. I began to have that uneasy feeling so I hit the key and fired up the truck. I wondered why I was getting back on alert and then I knew. I’m a good guy but who knows … sometimes, I might be a little bad. And night was coming on now. It was going to be best to clear the area before La Tumba started inventorying her list of the naughty and nice still loitering after dark. Smiling, I whacked the gas peddle throwing some gravel back on the dirt road as the front tires got some purchase on the asphalt of the main road. “What’s that all about?” asked Edie, a little surprised. “Oh, just a little send-off or goodby to La Tumba,” I said in a sincere and evenly measured voice even though the corners of my mouth turned up ever so slightly.

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