I skipped out on old man winter this year. Yes, instead of shoveling my snowy driveway and skidding down the slippery sidewalks of St. John’s, I’m pursuing other 's' activities. I’ve taken a six month leave of absence. I started out with a sailing course in St. Petersburg, Florida. Now, I’m in South America learning Spanish!
Quito, Ecuador is my current home away from home. At 2,850 metres above sea level, Quito is one of the highest capital cities in the world. From my apartment terrace, nestled in the Andes Mountains and within 10 kilometers of the equator, I stare straight up at Mt. Pichincha, an active stratovolcano. Pichincha’s last eruption was in 1999 when she spewed several inches of black ash all over the city. A scary prospect for some, but for volcanologists, Ecuador is a dream. It’s home to 25 of the world’s active and inactive volcanoes.
Ecuador is also a flower lover’s paradise. This country is the third largest global exporter of cut flowers and more than 70 percent of those stems are roses. I often take detours through hotel lobbies on my walk to school to admire and steal a sniff from the fancy floral arrangements.
If the volcanoes and the lush blossoms weren’t enough to remind me that I’m far, far away from my Canadian east coast island in the North Atlantic, there was a moment in my Spanish class a few weeks ago that really drove the point home. My instructor sent around an instructional email with a startling title: “What to do in the event of an earthquake.” “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Newfoundland anymore,” I thought to myself.
Ecuador lies above two of the earth’s giant tectonic plates that mash and collide and send tremors to the surface. In the past year, there have been more than a hundred. Many pass unnoticed, with just a minor rumble, but on April 16th, 2016, a deadly “terremoto” struck. More than 660 people died in the 7.8 magnitude quake. Tens of thousands of people were injured.
Many of the people killed and wounded lived in Pedernales, the coastal community hardest hit by the natural disaster.
Once a bustling beach town filled with tourists and sun worshippers, Pedernales now struggles to rebuild.
Hotels that hosted hundreds now crumble in the hot sun.
Empty lots where houses might have once stood, now show remnants of tiles from a kitchen wall where a family once gathered to share meals.
I have to say, it was an educational and eye opening drive through town.
I thought about the challenges the inclement weather brings to the place where I live in Canada. I have suffered through winter storm after storm and whined and complained about every shovel full of snow but I have never had to live through an earthquake. I’ve never had to sift through the broken pieces of everything I’ve ever owned and start all over again.
As troubling as it was to see the devastation in Pedernales, I was encouraged by signs of optimism. Townspeople are rebuilding with stronger materials that they trust will withstand any future tremors or quakes and tourists are returning to enjoy the stunning beach.
On the outskirts of town, a large fenced compound area houses hundreds of earthquake survivors in sun-faded, blue tents.
They’ve lost their homes and many have lost people they loved. But even here, in a place where you’d expect for all hope to be lost, we observed another sign of the resilience of the human spirit. As the weekend wash dried on lines, cheerful music spilled out of the camp.
I look forward to going back to Pedernales and spending a little money in a town that really needs it. Observing beautiful beaches is one sure draw for tourists but there’s a lot to be gained from observing a community’s gutsiness and determination. It seems learning to speak Spanish is just the beginning of the valuable lessons for me here in Ecuador. See you soon, Pedernales.
Until next time,