Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Land of the Albatross

For the next four blog entries, we leave the shivering winter-scapes of Scotland for a much warmer and sunnier place, San Mateo on Ecuador's west coast.

San Mateo is not much of a tourist destination, even though the beach would make you believe you’re on California’s Zuma beach, only without all the people or traffic. Albatrosses wheel overhead. Pelicans skim above the surf, sometimes six foot high. High sandstone cliffs frame the endless beaches. Where are the surfers?


Walking to the fishing village you pass through a desert savannah of sandalwood and dry shrubs. As in California a few inches of rain fall once a year in February to March. Green shoots sprout from the ground, from trees you thought were dead. Within two weeks the hills turn green. You’ll find more kinds of birds than you can count: green and red breasted parrots, seabirds, vultures. An ornithologist’s Mecca.


Maria-Theresa, Juan, and Mary

Upon reaching San Mateo village any comparison to California becomes fantastical. Fishing boats are parked by dilapidated houses. Some have a wall or roof missing. Many have a dirt floor. The people live on the edge, own next to nothing, but always a television. They barely eke out a living from the fish the catch. The better off have their own boat from which they cast lines with hooks. Many others hitch a ride on a boat and work for a share of the proceeds. Often boats return from sea with no catch. Some houses have a small piece of land but it’s rarely cultivated. San Mateo has a one track existence, and it’s fish.

The beach where the fishermen bring their boats. Last year San Mateo built a new harbour, but the men still use the old beach. It's more familiar.

Well-to-do and not so well-to-do side by side.

Water is scarce. It’s trucked in from Manta, Ecuador’s fourth largest city about six miles away and dumped into each house’s reservoir. Sewer systems? Gray water seeps into alleyways and streets. The pipes connecting houses with Manta are usually empty.  Once a month a cry is passed from house to house, “The water’s coming!!” Dry pipes are filled for a few hours with muddy water. People hop out of bed to water trees and anything else planted, while the water lasts.

A few years ago my sister Mary and her husband Mauro moved to San Mateo, not particularly for the scenic beauty, but to get close to the people. The poverty. With money from volunteers in Italy and from friends, Mauro built an entire neighbourhood, about seventy concrete block houses. Each cost about $8,000, electricity hooked up and plumbing. For a recipient whose house typically lacked a wall or roof, it’s a palace. He also built a community hall, and a crisis house, mainly for women who need a place to land.

Houses can be built with bricks and cement, but you can only build so many. They don’t change the causes of poverty. Chief among those, Mauro suggested, is “Ignorantia”. He didn't know the English equivalent, but it characterizes a mindset that results from generations of social fragmentation. Men come back from sea and often drink away the proceeds. Marriages are little more than temporary liaisons, with typically eight children. Some are given away to whoever wants them. Women, often battered, move away to a man who might beat them less. Older people are left alone in rooms with no one to talk to. There’s also diabetes, spread out like a permanent epidemic, both genetic and acquired from a diet of fried banana and fried fish.

 There's a church but most villagers don't attend it. The priest sticks to his job of saying mass, preaching sermons and administering sacraments.

In the Palo Santo Barrio. Mario supervised the building of over 50 houses.

To make any meaningful change you have to heal the people and help them rebuild their community. At 5AM every Monday Mary opens the diabetic clinic. About fifty patients are already waiting, some camped out in front of the door for over two hours. She tests their sugar, measures blood pressure and administers insulin.  On Tuesday afternoons a doctor comes to work with the patients.

 Drawing mainly from women Mary met at church, she organized them into groups. Some get together and discuss their family issues. Others study the Bible. Some women organize fundraisers to buy medicines. Each Wednesday, neighborhood kids bake cakes and sell them in the barrio for 50 cents a piece. Or they make candles for sale.

 Twice a month Mary’s women bring the disabled to the church hall for cakes, drinks and games. The week I was there, it had rained and the mucky streets prevented the wheelchairs from moving. So we brought the cakes to the disabled. 

The girls making cakes for sale

  Most were delighted to get their cake and juice. Those who weren't, because they were PO'd that the trip to the hall was off.  Dolores sat on her wooden floor and related, once again, her life history. How she had hurt her foot so she cannot stand. She talked about her son, lost in a far away land. She heard his footstep on her porch the night he died. Her daughter, Corina has Down Syndrome or something related. She was  unconditionally happy. Laughing. Before I left she threw her arms around me and gave me a big smile.

We hadn’t solved San Mateo’s “Ignorantia” but we brought smiles to a few people.

Coming next: In San Mateo's  Back Alleys


  1. Just read what you wrote about San Mateo. A really good description of the place in a nutshell. You know you'd make a really good journalist. I can see you with a regular column in eg the Guardian or the Independent only much better than some of the stuff you get even in those papers. Can't wait to read the next installment. thanks Pawelku.

  2. I would echo Basia's comments: excellent journalism! Looking forward to the following instalments. The writing and photos were strongly reminiscent of my time there with Aunt Munia.

    Heather and I really appreciated the openness and warmth of the San Mateans, as well as the opportunity to provide some medical/physiotherapeutic help here and there.

  3. Thank you Basia and Adam for your feedback. I'll try and keep the next three episodes interesting.