Wednesday, July 14, 2010

El Progreso

I ventured up to the highlands Sunday, to the small settlement of El Progresso. Not a town, only about one hundred people, mostly farmers, living in the first historic settlement of the island. In the past this area has served as a sugar cane farm and mill, penitentiary, commune, and Norwegian fish-packing factory. All that really exists now are the scattered homes and farms and the skeletons of buildings and homes.

Most everything that stands still long enough has lichen and moss spread across its surfaces. Lime green, delicate fur cushions the corners of houses of plaster and stone staircases, coarse deep-green beards of moss hang from trees, and white, flaky sheets of lichen peel from fence posts and tree trunks.

We were on a mission when we hunted for a taxi at noon, kickoff time for the final match of the World Cup between Holland and Spain. Bacquerizo Moreno seemed like a ghost town itself: no kids playing in the streets, no music carried out of open windows, no vehicles on the brick roads. Everyone had abandoned this for a TV, radio, and friends with whom to watch.

We were in search of “aguado de gallina,” a special kind of chicken soup, typical to Ecuador. Boiled chicken with white quinoa and thick slices of yucca (if potatoes were to become more dense and starchy, this would be the yucca root native to South America), and with some celery herb, of course. The chicken, they refer to as “crilloa,” which is pointed out to be natural, without chemicals, essentially free range, which also implies local, since they are also the entertainment as we sit and eat.

Finding a man who was on duty, we got our ride to the “parte alta.” He was older and not even listening to the match on the radio, instead listening to Andean folk music. He dropped us off at the restaurant, an open patio with several plastic tables and chairs, bowls of salsa on the tables. Down the street there was a local soccer tournament in progress: middle-aged men in red and yellow jersey uniforms. José pointed out which one was the mayor and immediately after I watched an opposing player knock him on his rear and steal the ball he had been managing. He jumped up and ran after the action, without even brushing the grass off his shorts.

After eating our Ecuadorian comfort food, we walked around the village. With the usual chickens and dogs pecking and nosing along the streets and sidewalks, we followed the road up a small hill, towards where the historic Cobos homestead once stood in all it’s glory. The man who was once in charge of the sugar mill and some dare to call “slave camp,” lived with his family in a grand house, overlooking the small settlement of El Progreso and a view to admire the port itself. A short set of stairs, along with two walls, aged and weathered, no windows, moss and blackberries growing up the cracks, this is all that remains.

We gathered a few oranges from a nearby tree, as José told me a little history of the place. How Cobos used to banish some prisoners/workers to a lagoon for punishment, and that he demanded the first night with a new bride, like a king or dictator. No surprise, that after years of this system, some people rose up attacked Cobos, shooting him twice and then finishing him off with a machete, returning the same heartless treatment he had shown them.

Soon, the mist began to fall, and we headed back to town as the air cooled and the plants perked up to receive the moisture. As we returned to town, everything was as it should be: children were outside playing with wooden tops, motos and taxis cruised up and down the streets, and people walked to the store. This is a peaceful place, people live in harmony, for the most part. In this laid-back island, there are no strangers.