The Bangkok Of Ecuador
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A RIDE UP THE GUAYAS RIVER TO THE FOOT OF THE ANDES-THE FLOATING TOWN OF BABAHOYO, WHOSE PEOPLE LIVE UPON THE WATER-A VISIT TO THE CACAO PLANTATIONS WHENCE OUR CHOCOLATE COMES-ECUADORIAN FARMING AND ITS ENORMOUS PROFITS--WAGES AND THE COST OF LIVING.
THE Guayas river is to South America what the Columbia river is to North America. It is the biggest stream on the Pacific side of the continent. It is the outlet of a great network of streams which flow down from the Andes and in the rainy season, from December until May, convert much of the country into a vast lake.
We entered the Guayas estuary just opposite the island of Puno, on which Pizarro landed when he started south to conquer Peru ; and, skirting this, we came into the Gulf of Guayaquil, which forms the mouth of the river. At this point the estuary is sixty miles wide, and as we sailed up to Guayaquil city we seemed to be passing through an inland sea. The waters were of the colour and thickness of pea-soup. They were spotted with patches of green—great trees and other débris, which they were carrying from the Andes down to the sea. At Guayaquil the Guayas is more than a mile wide, and over twenty-five feet deep. It furnishes a safe harbor for the largest of the South Pacific steamers, and is filled with craft of many kinds, from great ships to the dug-outs, rafts, and cargo boats used by the natives to bring their wares from the interior to the markets.
I left Guayaquil in the little American built steamer Puigmir for the town of Babahoyo, which is far in the interior, at the foot of the Andes, where mules are obtained for the highlands on the other side of the mountains. Shortly after leaving Guayaquil we passed the mouth of the Daule river, and a few hours later came into the river Babahoyo, which is the headstream of the Guayas. We sailed up this stream all night, and in the early morning came to anchor among the floating houses of Babahoyo, the Bangkok of Ecuador. Owing to the floods the houses are built upon piles, and at such times the people practically live upon the water, and go from one place to another in canoes. Only a small part of the town is out of the water, and even there the streets are little better than rivers. On landing I was carried ashore on the shoulders of a half-naked Indian; and it was on bridges of logs that I crossed from street to street. The business section of the town is on a short strip of elevated land, so that the stores are free from water. As you cross the low places, however, you must hug the buildings, and balance yourself on logs.
Babahoyo is so different from an American town that it is difficult to describe it. Its houses are of wood. The larger ones are of two stories, the ground floors being taken up with cave-like stores, and the floors above forming the living quarters of the people. There is nothing in the way of pavements or modern improvements. The town has neither sewers nor gutters. Its only bathroom is a floating shed with holes in its floor, through which you may dip yourself into the river, with the possibility of losing a leg by the nip of an alligator. There is not a fireplace nor chimney in the city. There is not a glass window, the rooms on the second floor are ventilated by a lattice work running around the ceiling. The front walls of the lower stories are movable. They are thrown back in the daytime, so that you can see all that goes on, as in the ground floors of Japan.
The houses of the lower parts of the city are built high upon piles. In dry seasons the ground under them is used for chickens, donkeys, and cattle; in the rainy season, as now, these animals are kept with the family on the second floor, or upon rafts swung to the piles so that they rise and fall with the tide.
Today there are hundreds of houses which can be reached only in canoes. The children go to school in canoes, and the marketing is done in boats. The poorer houses consist of little more than one room, about six feet square, built upon piles, generally ten feet above the ground, and reached by a ladder outside. The houses are thatched with broad white leaves tied to a framework of bamboo-cane. The floor is of cane, and it has so many cracks that the women do not need to sweep, the dirt of the household falling through to the ground or into the water.
Modern conveniences and sanitary arrangements are practically unknown to the natives of Ecuador. In the houses of the common people there is no privacy whatever; men and women, boys and girls, wives and maidens, all herd together, sleeping in the same clothes they wear in the daytime, lying indiscriminately on the floor, or in the hammocks which form the beds of the country.
The cooking is done in clay pots on a fire-box filled with dirt. The fuel is mainly charcoal, the pots being raised upon tiles or bricks to allow room for the coals underneath. The chief food of the tropical parts of the country is the potato-like tuber known as the "yucca," and plantains, or large bananas. Much rice is used, being cooked with lard, most of which comes from the United States. The people do not seem to know anything of butter, although the country has many fine cattle. Indeed, about the only butter-eaters in Ecuador are foreigners, the butter chiefly sold being Italian, in one and two pound tins. It sells for fifty cents gold a pound, and at this price the profit is small, as the tariff and selling charges are high.
Landing at Babahoyo I was at a loss how to make myself understood by the natives. No one about spoke English, and my Spanish did not seem to be understood. At last, however, I heard that an American lived in the city. This was a Mr. Klein, a carpenter and undertaker. I found him among his coffins. He left his work and devoted himself to me for the day. Together we went to visit one of the biggest plantations of Ecuador, that of Mr. Augustin Barrios, a man who owns thousands of cattle and horses, and who sells hundreds of thousands of pounds of chocolate beans every year. The plantation was then under water, and we had to take a canoe to visit it. Our canoe was about thirty feet long and not over thirty inches wide. It was a dug-out, and was poled and sculled by two lusty brown-skinned gondoliers, one of whom stood at each end of it. Mr. Klein sat in the bottom, and I was given a place in the centre of the canoe, and told to hold myself steady.
Leaving the city we were pushed along through the wide streets of water, between the floating huts, until at last we moved on into the tropical forest. We rowed for miles among the tree tops, now grazing a great black alligator and again chattered at by monkeys who made faces at us as they scampered away. The trees were full of strange birds which fluttered and made cries as we went by. We got a shot at one, a beautiful thing as big as a pigeon, with a blood-red bill, long legs of a golden yellow, and feathers of royal purple. Later on I shot at an alligator, but the canoe swayed as I stood up in it, and the ugly monster dived down unharmed. There were wild ducks and other birds which I had never seen before, and Mr. Klein told me that he often bags a deer on the highlands and sometimes a wild hog or a jaguar.
The ride was wonderfully beautiful. Under us there were twelve feet of water, where a few weeks before all had been dry land. The trees made a thick arbour-like shade over us, and we wound in and out through their tops, now making our way along a narrow canal of green, and then shooting out into a great green-walled chamber of water, the trees about which were loaded down with orchids, which in New York would be worth many dollars. Insects were plentiful. Bugs and ants of every description fell upon us as we floated onward, and Mr. Klein told me how a boa-constrictor once dropped down into his boat from the branches above. The vegetation of this region is all strange and tropical. There are rubber trees, trees loaded with alligator pears, and here and there a tall palm had hoisted its green head above the others. The silence was almost oppressive. The soft air was heavy with peace and rest, and the ripple of the water as our long canoe worked its way onward invited us to sleep. At one point a canoe with a family of Indians passed us; at another a great cargo-boat, loaded with cacao, was shoved along on its way to market.
Nearly all the country over which we travelled belongs to the millionaire planter. When we left the forest we came directly into the grazing lands of his plantation. The grass was under water, and his herds had been taken to the highlands on the edge of the Andes. He was in a wide waste of waters, above which, here and there, the tops of wire fences were to be seen. We rowed right over the fences, now and then passing tenant houses of bamboo thatched with palm leaves. The houses were built upon piles like those of Babahoyo. Under each, just over the water, was a platform on which the chickens and pigs of the owner lived within six inches of drowning. As we neared the great white house of the planter we saw more and more of these houses. We passed a butcher's shop where the animals which furnish the meat for the planter are killed. It floated on the water. We went by a great barn upon piles, and sailed over the front gate, amid a lot of steel cacao boats, to the second story of a large three-story building roofed with red tiles, the home of the planter.
We were met at the door by the owner. Our boat was tied to the veranda, and we were at once made at home. Wine and cognac were placed before us, and a breakfast was ordered. While we waited the two pretty daughters of the planter were called in to entertain us, and we drank to the better relations of our countries and continents. Later on the planter sent out an Indian servant to climb one of the cocoanut trees in the back-yard for fresh cocoanuts. He gave us a drink of cocoanut milk, and then sent men with us in canoes to the cacao orchard and other parts of the estate.
During my visit I learned much about cacao and the profits of Ecuadorian farming. The planter told me that he would harvest 300,000 pounds of cacao this year, and that his net profits from this source alone would be about $30,000. Cacao orchards pay well in Ecuador. There are few plantations which do not net ten per cent annually, and many about Guayaquil bring in from thirty to forty per cent. It costs about three cents of our money to raise a pound of cacao, which sells in Guayaquil for fourteen cents, making a clear profit to the farmer of eleven cents gold per pound. The amount produced here is enormous, about 40,000,000 pounds of cacao beans being annually shipped from Ecuador to Europe and the United States.
Until I came here I had an idea that cacao beans grew on bushes. On the contrary they come from trees from twenty to thirty feet high. The cacao tree is much like a large lilac bush; it is ragged and gnarly. Its fruit, which is bigger than the pomelo, grows close to the stem or trunk. It is of the shape and colour of a lemon, although much larger, and the seeds are the chocolate beans of commerce. Each ball of fruit contains from twenty-eight to thirty seeds about as large as Lima beans. These are washed out of the pulp when the fruit is ripe, and are then dried and shipped to the chocolate factories all over the world.
The cacao trees are grown in orchards. They are planted close together, so that several hundred trees can be grown to the acre. Cultivated orchards are sold at the rate of sixty cents a tree, but wild land is cheap; and as it is only a matter of five years to bring an orchard into bearing, it is much more profit-able for the investor to buy the land and raise the trees.
The first thing is to clear and burn the ground. Then banana plants are set out about ten feet apart to furnish a shade for the young trees, a hill of cacao beans being set midway between each two banana plants. Three beans are put in a hill. They sprout quickly, and during their first few months look like little orange trees. At three years they begin to produce fruit, and at five years each tree should yield from one to two pounds of chocolate beans every year. The care of the orchard is very easy. It is necessary only to keep down the vegetation, for such a thing as hoeing or ploughing a crop is not known in tropical Ecuador.
The greatest trouble of the farmer is the lack of good labour. Senor Barrios told nie that he lost a part of his crop every year because he could not get hands to harvest it, and this, notwithstanding the workmen on his plantation were in debt to him to the extent of about $80,000 in gold. He looked upon this sum as his labour capital, for the debts were to be worked out, and on this account he held back every day a certain proportion of the wages of each of his debt slaves.
It is said that slavery no longer exists in Ecuador. It may not exist as it did in the days of Pizarro, when the Indians were branded, whipped, and killed at the will of their owners; but it is really in force through the debt laws and the customs of the peons, which keep them in debt to their masters. The wages are so low that, once in debt, it is almost impossible to get out. Near the coast peons are paid about eight dollars a month, but in the interior they do not receive over half this, and one-tenth of their earnings goes to the church.
The planters give their labourers twelve ounces of meat, four-teen ounces of rice or beans, and a little lard or salt a day. Each also gets a hat, three coarse cotton shirts, three pairs of cotton pantaloons a year, and a house such as I have already de-scribed. Their hours of work are from sunrise to sunset, and if a man skips a day, it is charged to him. The women and children must work as well as the men, and if a man runs away he is put in prison for debt, and stays there until some other planter is willing to pay him out and take him into his service. Even should a man get out of debt, the conditions are such that he is soon in again. If there is a death in his family, he has to borrow money to bury his dead. If he would be married, the priests will charge him six dollars for performing the ceremony; and if he wants a hog or a donkey, it is only by going into debt that he can get one. As to marriage, he usually prefers living without the ceremony to paying the marriage fees, and to-day it is said that, on this account, seventy-five per cent of the births in Ecuador are illegitimate.
Wages in Guayaquil and along the coast are much higher than in the interior. In the cities common workmen get seventy-five cents a day; carpenters, a dollar and a-half or two dollars; masons, painters, and blacksmiths about the same, and men servants employed by the month, from 810 to $12, with board. Women receive from $6 to $10, with board. Tailors and shoemakers receive from $6 to $12 per week; and printers; bakers, and barbers about the same.
Living is in some respects cheap, but as regards imported articles it is exceedingly dear. I paid a dollar a pound for canned meats; and a camp bed, which I carry with me, worth perhaps $3 at home, cost me in Guayaquil $8 of our money. Chairs, which could be bought for fifty cents at home, cost here $3. They come in pieces, and are put together by the furniture dealers.