El Triunfo: A Drive Through the Tropical Side

John Villanueva - Ecuador

January 4, 2013

It’s actually been a while since that time on the Ecuadorian coast: October 14, 2012, the day I made it to Guayaquil, the largest and most modernized city in Ecuador. My supervisors and I at Fundación UTOPIA attended a three day agro-ecological forum in Guayaquil that highlighted the Food Sovereignty Movement in Ecuador. It was inspiring: I soaked in the wisdom of Ecuador’s organic agricultural leaders, I allowed the science geek within thrive on every concept of transgenic engineering, and I cultivated a passionate interest in the social implications of agriculture and environment. Yet surprisingly, it wasn’t at this agro-ecological forum that I learned the most about myself – it was actually on the five hour drive there.

Allow me to rewind back to where this road trip began. We left Riobamba at 1:30 PM. Riobamba is nestled in a valley of Andean mountains and in literally every direction you look there is a grandiose, snow capped mountain or marvelous mountain range. These mountains beyond mountains however shaped the asphalt of the highway into a winding, twisting, and divided two-lane road with dauntingly steep slopes that pushed against the flimsy barriers at our left and formed the wall of a cliff at our right. At the velocity we drove, I found it impossible to stay calm, especially as we rounded the sharper turns or attempted to pass the insanely slow autobuses and cargo trucks that choked the traffic. So to quell the storm of stress and the pang of curiosity for our destination ahead, I slept, waking intermittently to sheep and llamas and cows, to slanted fields of farms strangely placed on the unnerving incline of hills, and to the mist of clouds crashing into the mountainside – typical Andean sightings. In fact, after spending my first month and a half in the Andean region of Ecuador, images like these pieced together my mental prototype of the country and, to say the least, set me up for a shock when I woke up two hours later. My ears were hurting. Atmospheric pressure pierced my eardrums. Obviously we weren’t in the mountains anymore, so I equalized the pressure in my ears with indifference. Though as I did, a jolt of cranial relief woke me up. I opened my eyes, and shock pulsed through my nerves, because in those seconds of utter confusion that followed my resurrection from sleep, I legitimately believed that I was once again in the tropical landscapes of the Philippine islands, just as I was half a lifetime ago. Thick leaves and long branches tangled into a uniformity of green. Purple, pink, and yellow fruits and petals dotted the vegetation. And the humidity of a thousand saunas, redolent of an ever-so-slight tinge of air pollution, permeated the deeper layers of my skin and filled my nostrils. For nine years, perceptions like these hadn’t encumbered my senses, and there I was, thrown back violently through time and into the memories from my month and half stay on those islands. Everything seemed so reminiscent of the Philippines, including the wooden shacks propped up to sell the local flavors and fruit (local as in they grew five meters away). And with every passing of these colorful shacks, nostalgic memories of waterfalls, coconut milk, and rice muffins flooded my mind. Never before had I felt the urge to return to the Philippines so desperately.

With the adventurous imagination, exotic environments, and lack of responsibility, vacationing in the Philippines exemplified childhood. However, my longing to revisit the islands stems beyond the clichéd estrangement of childhood happiness. If anything, portions of my childhood need to be estranged, like the perpetual insecurity relevant during my vacation in the Philippines. A thick language barrier triggered this insecurity, but was exacerbated by my interactions with the Filipino natives: I remember the materializing disappointment at the discovery of my English tongue; silently sitting in curiosity of ensuing Tagalog conversations; and the ferocious laughs that followed when these conversations uttered my name. It was hard not to feel isolated. Like a foreigner of another ethnicity, I found the coconuts of culture too far from reach to quench my thirst for understanding. My own ethnic identity seemed to reject me, and responding naturally, I rejected it back. From then on and throughout my adolescence, the Tagalog language became a hideous rip-off of Spanish, “Filipino Time” saturated my frustrations, televised Filipino programs blabbered petty nonsense, and I’d often blame the faults of relatives on their Filipino mindset (It’s unsettling to think my biases bordered on racism). But that’s why I need to return. My resentment for the culture comes not from what I know, but rather from a deep misunderstanding of what I don’t. To be clear, I’ve never been ashamed of being Filipino, yet I’ve never been proud of it either. It’s because I don’t know much about it.

Kilometers of reflection later, we finally made it to the flatter, open air region of the Ecuadorian coast. Cocoa, banana, and rice farms engulfed the vista, with side shops and low-lit buildings filling in the gaps. Men, women, and children wearing shorts and flip-flops hopped aboard carriaged motorbike taxis to traverse across town. And shining through the humidity, a juicy sunset laid low over banana leaves and rustic roofs – all this yet again reminiscent of the Philippines. In this city called “El Triunfo” – The Triumph – I felt triumphant over myself, finally winning the battle between resentment and understanding. And I’ve grown an open-minded thirst for Filipino culture, just as I have for Ecuador’s culture. While still in America, I seriously thought of Ecuador as just another Mexico, but because of the rich and unique people and customs I have encountered and experienced here, I’ve pushed past that ignorant impression. The three geographic regions of Ecuador (Coast, Sierra, Amazon) speak, dress, and cook differently, and they love how they live. Ecuadorians are proud of who they are, no matter who they are – and they don’t hesitate to let me know – leading me to discover that culture is an individual identity, yet a medium of camaraderie all the same. Culture is something to share, and something to be proud of, and most importantly, something more than meets the eye.

John Villanueva