The Land Of The Equator
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE WONDERS OF ECUADOR-TREES THAT WEAVE BLANKETS AND MULES THAT WEAR PANTALETS-THE CURIOUS CITY OF GUAYAQUIL-ITS POLICE AND FIRE DEPARTMENT-WHERE THE TAXES ARE LOW AND THE DEATH-RATE IS HIGH-ECUADOR'S DEBT SLAVES AND HOW THEY ARE OPPRESSED.
THE City of Guayaquil, how shall I describe it ? It is one of the strangest mixtures among municipal creations. It lies about forty miles up the wide Guayas river, almost under the shadow of the equator, and is frowned upon by the snowy peaks of Chimborazo and Sangai. Wooded hills surround it, and the moist miasmatic air of the tropics lulls it to' sleep. It is a strange combination of the Mediterranean and the Orient. Upon its wharves one is reminded of Naples; back in its business sections you are in a maze of bazaars, much like those of Cairo, Calcutta, or Constantinople. Even its smells smack of the far East. It has streets more slimy than Peking, and some of its customs are as vile as those of Seoul. Its sidewalks are filled with workmen who labor at their trades in the open, with fierce-looking Indians carrying bales and bags upon their backs, and black-haired Indian women peddling goods, who comb the insects from their own and their children's heads, and lunch upon them during the intervals of their sales.
Guayaquil has also its better classes. It has well-dressed business men and beautiful women. The latter usually walk in couples, dressed always in black, with black shawls picturesquely draped about their olive-brown faces. In some parts of the town you find many fine houses built after the ,Spanish style, with closed balconies extending out from the second story. The bal-conies are walled with windows, from under whose half-closed shutters dark-eyed beauties look down upon you as you go through the street.
The city has hundreds of donkeys. Here goes one loaded with boards so strapped to its sides that it walks along as if it were between two walls of pine planks. There is another with panniers across its back. The panniers contain loaves of bread, the donkey taking the place of the baker's waggon.
Guayaquil has about 50,000 inhabitants, and its buildings ex-tend along the west bank of the Guayas for a distance of two miles. It is one of the best business points on the west coast of South America. It is the New York of Ecuador, the only commercial port of a country three times as large as Ohio, having a population about the same as Philadelphia. Something like $10,000,000 worth of goods from the United States and Europe are landed at Guayaquil every year, and millions of dollars' worth of coffee, cacao, hides, and rubber are annually shipped from it to different parts of the civilized world. The Guayas river is so wide and deep that the biggest ocean steamers can sail up to the city, and all the ships which trade along the west coast come to it for goods.
Guayaquil has two banks, one of which pays dividends of 33 1/3 per cent a year. Its stores have stocks worth hundreds of thou-sands of dollars, and its warehouses are filled with bags of cacao, coffee, and sugar. It has daily newspapers, a tramway, and a line of river steamers; the latter were imported in pieces from the United States.
Guayaquil has an excellent club, at which you will meet as good fellows as anywhere south of the equator. It has numerous priests and a big church facing a beautiful park, where the band plays after worship on Sundays. It is, however, more a city of trade than of religion or pleasure. Its leading people are Italian, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese business men, who are interested only in exports and imports.
The city is so notoriously unhealthful that no one would live in it were it not to make money. I have visited many of the death-holes of the world, but I have yet to find one whose unsanitary condition equals that of Guayaquil. The streets are unpaved. In the dry season they are so filled with dust that the donkeys and mules wear pantalets to keep the gadflies and mosquitoes from eating them up. In the wet season the town is flooded whenever it rains, and between the showers the tropical sun coats the stagnant water in the streets with a sickly green scum.
This is the unhealthy season in Guayaquil—the season of yellow fever and malaria—when death hovers over the town, and the doctors make enough to give them summer vacations in Europe.
Still Guayaquil could easily be made healthful. The town lies between two rivers, and could be drained with a ditch plough so that the tide, which is here very high, would flush it twice a day, but its people let it remain as it is. The result is that every now and then there is a great epidemic. Yellow fever often carries off thousands, and during the rainy season some kind of fever is almost always present.
Guayaquil has no sewers. Its water-works are pit-holes sunk in the streets, into which pumps are inserted on the occasion of a fire. The result is that the city has been burned down again and again. There was a fire last year which consumed half of the houses, causing a loss of more than $30,000,000. This makes fire insurance extremely high, the current Guayaquil rate being seven per cent per annum on all city property. The American consulate has offices in a three-story building, which pays a' yearly insurance of $4,000; and there are other buildings which cannot get insurance even at the high rate indicated, because the various companies have already written up all the risks they care for in Guayaquil. At the same time the tax on real estate is only three-tenths of one per cent, and the natives would straightway have a revolution if you offered to tax them enough to pave the streets and establish a good fire department.
Guayaquil, however, has a wide-awake police. I know this, for during my first few nights in the city I heard the policemen every fifteen minutes yelling out that they were awake. It is a police regulation that every man on watch shall call out or whistle every quarter of an hour. The cry is, El sentinel es alerta (" The sentinel is alert "), and the whistle is a combination more wonderful than anything except the cry of the Guayaquil frog, whose hi-hi-hi is screamed out all night long. The Ecuadorian police are soldiers. They carry swords and guns, and both look and act in the fiercest manner. One of them almost dropped his gun on my foot the other day as I attempted to pass him. He said "Atras ! " which I suppose means "Back!" At least I backed, and walked around the other way. I have since learned that no one may pass between the police and the wall, but must go outside. I suppose, if the policeman has to fight, he prefers to have the wall at his back. Another regulation is that all people out after eleven o'clock P. M. must give an account of them-selves. The cry is, "Who goes there ?» and the answer must satisfy the police or they will take you to jail.
I doubt, however, whether there is a place in the world where it is so easy to break into jail as here. People are imprisoned for debt, and it is a common thing for a planter who wants hands on his estate to go to the jails and pay the debts of such of the prisoners as will agree to transfer their debts to him and work them out. He then gives them small wages, and takes out perhaps a dollar a week from each man's salary until the debt is paid. In the jail at Bodegas, a town further up the Guayas river, I talked with a Jamaica negro who told me he had been in prison for months because he had failed to pay a millionaire planter sixteen dollars which he had borrowed. Said he: "If I were free I could work to get the money to pay my debt, but they keep me here until some one buys me out, and then I must work for him, or he can put me in again."
But before I go further let me tell something of Ecuador. The name means "equator," and Ecuador is the land of the equator. It lies sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, on the west coast of South America, in the shape of .a great fan whose handle extends almost to Brazil and whose scalloped rim is washed by the Pacific ocean. It is one of the least-known countries of the world. Parts of it have never been surveyed, and to-day the geographical estimates of its size range all the way from the bigness of California to that of Texas.
The coast of Ecuador is low. A rich tropical vegetation ex-tends from the ocean back for one hundred miles or less to the foothills of the Andes. The Andes cross the country from north to south in two great parallel ridges, upholding between them a series of beautiful valleys, in which about nine-tenths of the people live. These valleys are from a mile and a-half to two miles above the sea, and give the interior a healthful climate, which is more like that of New York city than the equator.
East of the Andes, the country is a tropical wilderness. The Maranon river, a great branch of the Amazon, flows along its southern boundaries, and steamers go up the Amazon, enter the Maranon, and bring you within a comparatively short distance of Quito. In fact, you can come to within four days' mule travel of Quito by water via these great rivers and the streams which flow into them.
Ecuador has some of the highest peaks of the Andes. Scores of its high elevations are always covered with snow, and it has mighty glaciers. Chimborazo, which on clear days is visible at Guayaquil, is 20,498 feet above the sea; the volcano Cotopaxi is over 19,000 feet high; and the great valley of Ecuador is guarded by twenty-one peaks, ranging in height from three to four miles; while there are seventeen other peaks which are more than two miles in height. To-day in Guayaquil the air is filled with ashes which come from one of Ecuador's ten active volcanoes; and every week or so an earthquake-makes the ground tremble.
The houses of Guayaquil are built to withstand the earthquakes. They are of timbers so joined and spliced that they sway with the trembling of the earth, and do not break. The framework is covered with bamboo laths, made by splitting the cane§; and on these bamboos a coating of plaster is spread. This makes the houses look as though their walls were backed with brick and stone, when, in fact, they are really made up of good-sized fishing-poles. Just now a vast deal of building is going on, and the hammer of the carpenter nailing on laths is always to be heard. Much of the lumber used comes from Oregon and Washington, and some from Georgia.
The equatorial coast region is full of vegetable wonders. In my sixty miles sail from the Pacific up the river Guayas I passed vast meadows as green as Egypt in winter, in which fat cattle, horses, and mules stood up to their bellies in the grass, Which they ate without bending over. I passed rich plantations of sugar-cane, which here reaches the height of ten feet, and grows for twenty-five years without replanting. I saw cacao orchards loaded down with the fruit from which our chocolate comes, groves of cocoanut palms bearing bushels of green nuts as big as your head, and was offered so many strange fruits that I cannot give their names. They have, for instance, the papaya tree, which bears a fruit as big as a musk melon and of much the same nature. There are other trees which have very large fruit, among them the ivory palm, from which the vegetable ivory of commerce comes. This tree has burrs much the shape of chestnut-burrs, but eight or ten inches thick; and each burr contains a dozen or more nuts, which when green are filled with a soft jelly-like substance tasting not unlike cocoanut milk. As the nuts grow ripe the pulp hardens to a consistency so tough that it can be used for making buttons, combs, and other similar things.
One of the most peculiar trees of Ecuador has a bark which serves the Indians for clothes. I have a blanket made of it. The blanket is six feet long, and five feet wide, and is as soft and pliable as though it were flannel. It can be rolled up and put into a shawl-strap without hurting it, and yet it is merely a strip of bark from a tree. The Indians make cuttings about the tree, and tear off the bark in sheets. They soak it in water until it is soft, and then pound off the rough outside, leaving the inside perfectly whole. The inside bark is composed of fine fibres so woven by nature that they are not unlike cloth, and are warm enough to serve as a blanket, and soft enough to take the place of a mattress.