Sunday, 19 December 2010


26/09/10 - 13/10/10

With the amazing Galapagos trip freshly behind us, we had just a day back in Quito before our next new experience… just enough time to catch-up on laundry (for me, travelling is a constant battle to maintain sufficient levels of clean underwear). That same night we embarked on our first marathon South American bus journey… eight hours, taking us from the capitol to the coast all for just US$10. Our destination was Santa Marianita beach where we’d planned our third HelpX(.net) stint (and our last in the Americas).

HelpX is a bit like Mission Impossible (but without the cool gadgets); you have no idea what you are getting into. Luckily for us, our first two HelpXes were amazing and our best experiences in Canada (thank you; you know who you are). This time all we knew was that we had to get to a beach and meet someone called Linda Flierl Hooks (I know, obviously a secret agent name). Nothing self-destructed – phew!

Back to the bus and Unfortunately my digestive system chose this very point to ‘backfire’ (if you see what I mean). This also taught me my first lesson in South American travel: toilets on long-haul buses (or indeed any public ‘banos’) do not have toilet-paper (it’s a bonus just to have them open). Thankfully Katy was already aware of this fact. Also very thankfully she did not have the same stomach upset as me, so I depleted her supply of bathroom supplies whilst being thrown about the tiny cubicle. Did I mention the door had no lock?

Arrived at 6:30am in manta as scheduled, very bleary after not much sleep (partially for the above reasons but also due to the state of the Ecuadorian road system). This is the main town in the area from where we had to navigate to Santa Marianita. It was a bewildering place for us gringos (I’m sure I heard someone use the words carnes & fresco). We were just two blocks away from the sea-front but this was no tourist destination; the streets were dirty and buildings drab but even at this time in the morning the place was thriving with people walking around trying to sell freshly landed fish.

For a while we stood on a street corner with various people trying help us or rob us; I gestured that we were going to go to the café to mull over our options. It didn’t take too long as we didn’t have any. We were going to have to call Linda despite the early hour to come and rescue us. Frustratingly we couldn’t find a working phone (frustrating because almost every street had telephone ‘cabinas’ but none were open at that time of day). Eventually – and obviously with us looking helpless - an elderly but elegant lady named Maria came to our aid. With a complete lack of verbal communication between us, she took us to a ‘collectivo’ and organized for it to take us where we needed to be then waited until we were safely on our way… lovely little lady!

So, Collectivo’s are fun… white pick-up trucks that have a vague route plan but stop and start as required for people, 1 dollar per person wherever you’re going. Frequent stops along the way saw people clambering in and out of the back of the van… we had the luxury of seats. We tried to explain ‘donkey den’ (the place we were heading to) but for reasons which later became clear he had never heard of it. Anyway we were dropped off at the beach and walked along a deserted and windy seafront beach thinking this can’t be right, but it was! Linda was in the front garden and frankly not what we expected (we didn’t know what we expected, but it wasn’t that). Exact age unknown but over 65, she is an American ex-pat living here the last five years. She introduced us to another HelpX’er, Karl from Edinburgh (but living in south America for several months now) who had built an amazing garden at the front of the house which was his pride and joy. We later met Jazzy from Olympia, Washington (a place we’d driven through on our way to Seattle) and Denis from Ecuador: Linda’s unofficial translator and sorter-outer. Who would also help us try and understand and speak a little Spanglish.

The place was amazing: huge and right on the beach. But no time for that right now; we were going to get some rest but Linda announced they were all off to “… a gringo brunch at Mr Frogs”. Whilst I didn’t really understand what that involved, I knew it must include food! At first we declined (being newbies, but also very tired) but hunger got the better of us so we were whisked straight out again, all piling into Lindas MPV which is relatively new but seems like its seen its fair share of military action. With all seven seats filled beyond the imagination of Chevrolet’s designers we bounced and crashed along the dusty tracks and bumpy roads. All a bit hair-raising but we subsequently learned to relax. A little.

Got to Mr Frogs – another very nice place on a cliff face above the beach. Wooden framed and very open-plan (ie, no walls) containing chunky wooden tables and chairs on a stone-paved floor. This opens out to a balcony/patio area directly overlooking the ocean and with the sun beating-down the sea breeze provided that deceptive cooling effect which sees you burnt to a frazzle in the time it takes you to drink your coffee. To the right were some small cabins and a series of hammocks under a canopy of palm-leaves… HelpX is a hard life! The gringo brunch happens here every Sunday and for that time the place becomes a tiny piece of North America… unashamedly full of ex-pats talking American English.
With relief we sat next to Jazzy and she gave us the background to her and to this place while we consumed the breakfast buffet. She was lovely and the food was good.

A couple of hours later and back to base. Linda insisted we have a sleep and this time we didn’t resist.

When we awoke we had a full tour of the place. Downstairs was two very fancy self-contained apartments; big, spacious and well appointed. Upstairs a mixture of dorm type rooms mainly full of HelpXers, Linda and CATS… eight of them scampering everywhere.

At the front, a garden and a café area (both in development). In front of this there was a sandy & rocky road and then… beach! Huge crashing waves right on our doorstep. Apart from our next door neighbor – a kite-surfing school of similar size to Linda’s property – there was virtually no development along the beach… bliss!

Day 2 saw the start of our HelpX duties. But first, breakfast on the balcony, watching a whale and two whale-calves ducking in and out of the water as they passed… amazing! As Linda had to spend the day somewhere else, we were left to our own devices with the advice that ‘there’s always plenty to do’. Such a big place and right on the edge of a windy beach, she was right. Karl pointed toward the cat-litter trays; he’d been staying there for a while and I get the impression he’d never quite had the nerve to tackle them himself… am I right Karl?! Karl had his own pet project of the front garden which had been transformed over previous weeks from a sandy wasteland. In the meantime Katy had gone for her first South American run along the beach and came back happily announcing that she’d watched a baby turtle risking life and limb to get from its nest to the beach.

So our next few days were filled with various tidying jobs and trying to understand how the place worked. Then we got really lucky; we’d initially been staying in Linda’s room but as she was back and being a couple she thought we’d want some of our own space so she let us stay in one of the apartments downstairs… can’t really describe just how good that was for us, it was just like having our very own - very spacious - apartment!

But our new found apartment life was set to be short-lived, as a couple of days later Denis showed us to our new intended home… the Guard Room.

Personal security is a bit of an issue in Ecuador. There is a constant under-current of concern. Our beach was very quiet during the week and we were well outside of town but our stretch of road had its own guard. And so, when Linda had her place built she included a separate out-building as a guard-house but this proved to be unnecessary so the plan was to convert it to living quarters for HelpXers (ie,us).

So our new job was to get the room habitable. For some reason it was deemed that I would be best placed to do the plastering of the walls (despite having never done it before). Provided with bags of plaster I made a start… Spanish plaster… Spanish instructions. It all seemed to go ok but mixing with a stick took forever. Karl’s spark of inspiration arrived moments later: the electric food whisk from upstairs. With plaster mixed, the learning curve was quick; after the first few dollops landed on the floor some started clinging to the wall and looked pretty smooth.

This was good work for me… learning a new skill, iPod plugged in, days pass quickly and at the end feel like I’ve earned my beer… did I forget to mention the free beer?! I thought I’d misheard when the free beer fridge was first mentioned but sure enough, a full size domestic fridge full and free to access whenever you want! Linda was a very considerate and kind host and no one took excessive advantage of this which was nice. Originally she said the deal was that we had to buy our own food but we worked hard while we were there so she offered to buy our food too. I like to think that it worked out well for everyone.

The beach was like a ghost town during the week but at the weekends it was transformed. All the locals would come down to swim, relax, drink and kitesurf. The change was amazing. Because of this influx beach 'restaurants' also popped-up.

These were makeshift kitchens under wind-breakers which served grilled fish, ceviche, rice and salad... typically all the things that would normally turn my nose up at. But not any more! I ate all of it including shrimps / prawns for the first time and the whole lot was great. So fresh and so tasty... its taken a while but i'm converted!

On 30th September, Ecuador was temporarily in turmoil when police and army revolted protested over proposed changes to pay conditions. I found out fairly late in the day as I was in my little guard house; when I came outside I found everyone watching the TV which was showing gunfire and the president under siege in the hospital… crazy! There was genuine concern as the country seems to rely on a strong (if corrupt) police presence. It was during this that a new person arrived at the hostel, Laetitia (Letty) from France - with a guitar… I feared the worst.

Ecuador was pretty much back to normal by the following day and with plastering nearly finished (and I have to say not looking too bad!) I mentioned that I had also done some tiling before and before I knew it I had my next piece of work planned for me.

In the meantime, a couple had arrived to stop in the apartment adjacent to us for the next few weeks. Laurie (Bear) and Owen (Chief) were from Saskatoon, Canada and were here for a bit of r&r. Very laid back and very nice people to meet (as is everybody from Canada, of course). Always happy and always happy to sit and chat over a beer or three.

Over the next few days we painted the newly plastered walls and prepared for tiling. We also took some time off as the weather had improved a lot; we hit the sea and the sea hit us back! Short but big dumping waves… great for body surfing but get it wrong and they pummeled and tumbled you into the sand. Great fun.

All too soon, Jazzy had to leave. But she was heading to work in the Galapagos for a few weeks so wasn’t too upset. L&O put together a brilliant leaving BBQ in the café area and on this day I saw my first real life scorpion on the garden steps!

Spent the next few days alternating between tiling all day and taking the day off. During these times I was lucky to have the company of Katy and Letty who – despite being French (!) was really very nice and the three of us spent a lot of time together; I tried to pass on my tiling skills (such as they are), Karl came in but it became quite expensive in broken tiles ;o)
When we worked, we worked hard... way over that requested by Linda, but we also took time out to go to Monte Christo to buy ourselves lovely colourful hammocks (with the romantic notion of using them on a boat-trip down the Amazon some time).

With a patch of good weather which lasted for several days, we ended-up spending alot of time playing in the sea, avoiding the kite-surfers like Aldrin or walking along the beach watching the ghost-crabs scuttling along then diving for their hole when you got too close, usually accompanied by the dogs (our first time on the beach they all came down and guarded our towels whilst we went swimming.

Denis divided his time between our place and teaching Spanish. He too was a lovely guy and did his best to kick-start our Spanish, together with Karl but it was uphill work. In my spare time Letty also tried to teach me guitar (I’d never played any musical instrument)… I think spanish is easier. Both these things are very much work-in-progress for me but I would love to carry them on when we return to the UK.

One morning during breakfast we saw a whale with a cub very close to shore. Two guys from the kite-surf school swam and canoed out to see them (yes, they were that close), but the whales were faster than the men. Also, a new guy – Alex from Colorado - arrived today much to the surprise of everyone, including Linda. But he was welcomed in like all us waifs and strays and he seems like a nice guy. Another few days later, Liz from San Francisco turned up too… a real melting-pot!
And before we knew it 2½ weeks had passed and with all our jobs completed we decided it was time for us to move on. We never did stay in the guard room but hope it became a nice home for HelpXers.

Laurie & Owen were kind enough to throw us another BBQ – thank you sooo much guys, it was such a pleasure to meet you.

Everybody was so nice, it was very difficult to leave and we could easily have stayed another month, but there was still so much of South America to see and the clock seriously ticking. Linda, Laurie and Letty took us to the dodgy bus station and that was the end of our Manta adventure.

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