Jay Bjerkan Photography

- Tales from Ecuador 1977-78


Home Ecuador
Shortly after our trip to the Oriente, we received a visitor. He was a young Ecuadorian named Gabriel Pedro Serda Tapuy. He said that he was a language professor and claimed to know 12 dialects of the indigenous inhabitants of Ecuador, including Shuari and Quechua, and 2 dialects from Columbia, not to mention Castellano and the English that he picked up from a couple of years at a university in Salt Lake City, Utah. Coincidentally, he was native to the area that we had just returned from. He had just come from Cuenca with his last few sucres in search of an “evangelista”, a missionary, named Smith who lived in Gualaceo. Somehow he had been directed to us. He had a great sob story. He said he hadn’t eaten all day, so we gave him some food. His family lived in Limoncocha, in Ecuador’s Oriente. His mother had just died, and he was trying to borrow the money to make a trip home. His monthly salary, paid for by some church, had not come through yet. Mr. Smith, hopefully, would advance him the dough. We discovered Smith’s house but, unfortunately, he was out of town. I decided that I would lend him the money. He said that he’d be returning in several days, but, in any case, I could recover the money from an evangelista in Cuenca with whom I was already familiar. He left us the gift of a notebook in which he’d written quite a few Quechuan words with their Spanish equivalents, plus some conjugated verbs. A few days later I went to Cuenca and looked up Gabriel Tapuy, but he was not to be found. In fact, it was said that he’d gone to Quito and was not expected back for several weeks. The plot had finally started to dawn on me. I went to the bookstore of the missionary and learned that Sr. Tapuy made a habit of requesting loans, but hadn’t developed one of paying them back. I began to consider the loan permanent.

As our supply of sucs and travelers’ checks dwindled, we were forced to consider taking advantage of our return trip tickets from Quito to San Francisco. We had arrived in Ecuador with some hopes of finding work that would enable us to extend our stay. While there, we wrote letters to various businesses and went through some extensive negotiations with the Centro Interamericano de Artesanias y Artes Populares (CIDAP) for a commission to do some field work studying Ecuadorian crafts. However, there was a general movement in the country at the time to employ only Ecuadorians if at all possible, and to limit the issuance of work permits to foreigners. Our job-seeking was unsuccessful.

To make living in our apartment in Gualaceo a little more comfortable, we’d purchased a minimum amount of furniture and necessities. A straw-stuffed mattress, which we suspected, and convicted, of harboring fleas, served as a bed at night and a couch during the day. We’d bought one rickety wooden chair in Cuenca and a set of cooking utensils. Most of our other purchases, pottery and woven goods, we expected to take back with us.

As we began to realize that we didn’t have enough money to get to Quito, we started considering what we could sell. Potential customers weren’t any problem. When people heard that we were leaving, they usually asked three questions: Were we sorry to be leaving? Were we going to return? Is there anything you want to sell? Our friends were particularly interested in some of the goods that we’d brought from the United States, such as a guitar, camera equipment, sleeping bags, and backpacks. Our sale appeared to cause some strife among people we knew. We agreed to sell to Leonardo the mattress, and when a woman came up to the apartment to inquire about it, we told her it was already sold. The woman was apparently a relative of our neighbor, and a few minutes later Noralma came up to find out who we’d sold it to. When Leonardo and Claudia came by that evening, they told us that, for some reason, Noralma was mad at them. One night we were supposed to go to Leonardo’s house for wine and crackers, but Noralma informed us that he and Claudia were coming to our place. We stayed home and waited for them, and eventually Leonardo came by to inquire why we hadn’t come by. We attributed it to Noralma’s sense of revenge for the sold mattress. Leonardo was one of our best customers. He’d ask about some item, and if we didn’t want it, he’d immediately pull out his money. “Saco la plata!” he’d say.

Our color Polaroid pictures had been very popular wherever we had gone. We’d given them as gifts to our friends, and they were helpful in meeting people in the places we’d traveled to. We had some film that hadn’t been used, and decided to augment our resources by selling some photos. We made a sign advertising the fact, and went down to the town park on market day, but we gave up after an hour with no customers. Instead we hung the sign at the entrance to the building housing our apartment, and waited for customers to come to us. When the word got around, we were quite popular. As we neared the end of our film supply, the girl who lived with our landlord, Leticia, requested that I come down to the convent where some of the girls wanted pictures of themselves together with the nuns. The convent was located in a building across town. When I entered, there were about twelve girls seated at tables in the room. They were busy sewing, knitting, or crocheting. It was obvious from their dress that some of the girls were from town, others from the surrounding hills. Only the local girls seemed to be interested in having their photos taken, although lack of funds might have been the cause for the other’s’ restraint. By the time I only had two pictures left, my customers were arguing among themselves over who would get them. The girl who was to get the last picture wanted it taken in the company of all three nuns plus the Mother Superior, who wasn’t there, but was due back shortly. When she did arrive, she brusquely refused the invitation. However, she allowed herself to be prevailed upon, and several minutes later with empty camera I gratefully departed.

The morning of our departure inevitably arrived. Our belongings were all packed and the birds were deposited in a wooden carrying box. We said farewell to the people we’d come to know in Gualaceo, and took a taxi to the airport in Cuenca. We immediately spent most of our remaining money on an excess baggage charge for the flight to Quito. From then on, we traveled on credit. When we arrived in Quito, we were forced to stay in one of the most expensive hotels because it was one of the few that accepted our popular credit card. This was quite a change from the pensions and residencials of our earlier travels, although not as nice as the Jaguar Hotel. We were anxious to release the birds from their traveling prison, and left them sitting atop the bureau in our room. When we returned several hours later, there was only one bird there, the large parrot, Huino. We searched the room several times, but found no trace of the two smaller pericos. We talked to the maid who had entered the room while we were gone. When she had turned on the lights, the bird on the dresser had frightened her, but she had not seen the other two. They could be very noisy together, and we suspected that someone with a key had heard their racket and either enchantedly stolen them away, or irritably disposed of them. After another search yielded no trace, I decided to go down to the hotel desk to report two missing birds. The clerk thought the whole affair was a little amusing, and didn’t quite believe that the birds had disappeared. One of the porters remembered me, and offered to accompany me back to the room. As we walked down the hall, the maid passed us and said to me very firmly, “They are in the room, sir!”. And so they were. The maid had discovered them cowering behind the trash basket in a corner of the bathroom, conspiring in silence to embarrass us for keeping them in a box all day.

The next morning we went to the airport to meet our flight to San Francisco. We were quite pleased with all the money we’d saved by buying our Ecuadorian crafts in Ecuador, rather than in America where they would have been expensive imported items. Our satisfied smirks faded away when we were billed for 39 kilos of excess baggage. We were achieving a good head start on the American plan of debt as a way of life. Our cash supply was critical, but we were now almost on the plane. We paid our airport exit tax and handed our flight tickets to the next official. She represented the United States authorities, and was to collect the U.S. Civil Aviation tax, $5 each, please, cash, or no tickets. We only had enough money for one of us. Here we’d been struggling with Ecuadorian red tape for days and weeks, and when we’d finally succeeded in breaking through, the United States wouldn’t let us back in for a measly $5. Peggy went to the airline desk and complained, and they advanced us the money in return for a signature. So, eight hours later, and a body search at Los Angeles custom as suspected drug smugglers, we arrived in San Francisco. The next thing we knew, we were driving down the Bayshore Freeway and suffering from severe culture shock.