Coca is shitty.
Believe it or not, I chose this adjective to describe the town where I am staying—also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana—carefully. It would not, for example, be fair to say that Coca is poor. In fact, according to my interviewees, Coca is, thanks to oil money, pretty well off, a claim that seems corroborated by a high number of new pick-up trucks and preponderance of electronics stores. It would be similarly inaccurate to say that Coca is particularly dangerous, at least compared to Quito or Guayaquil.
That leaves shitty. The city has grown explosively in recent years because of an influx of highlanders who came to the rainforest looking for work and land. The city is bursting out of its seams, a chaotic and jumbled mass of shoddily constructed buildings and half-paved streets, with no central square or parks to speak of. I’m fairly sure that if someone vomited on a topographical map, played connect the dots with the splatter, and built roads along the lines, the result would be a more logical layout. I suppose Houston Texas doesn’t have zoning either, but Coca seems worse thanks to the stark contrast between the natural beauty of the selva and the excrescences of human creation.
I suppose that as long as I’m heartlessly ripping into the city, I might as well put it all out there. As a ‘fronteir town’ in Ecuador’s Wild Wild East, Coca has something of a rough edge. The city is absolutely filthy, one part thanks to a careless citizenry and another part thanks to a constant drizzle that turns everything into mud. The hotels are all chucked into the center of town, where the noise of tanker trucks and buses crossing the Napo River to the south is just constant enough to drown out the non-stop shouting and reggaton of the bars catering to oil-boom bachelors. My position on the city is further biased by the utter absence of any food that isn’t greasy fried chicken.
While I’m on some level writing this just for the sake of description (I’m in the Amazon—which is awesome—so I’m not really expecting much in the way of sympathy), I’m also writing because tonight, Francisco de Orellana is celebrating. I’ve yet to really get a handle on what this festival is about, though I think it is marking the time when two administrative cantons were combined to create the present jurisdiction (Can I get a “hell yes?”). Whatever the reason, though, the Coco-ans seem to be having a good time: the streets are full of food stands and beer carts, music is blaring, and a nearby deserted lot has been turned into a gigantic dance floor.
AidWatch—the blog of NYU Professor and development-hater* William Easterly—had a great post recently about how poor people in rural Ghana do not, primarily, think of themselves as poor people. They think of themselves, above all else, as Christians. That’s not to say that they are ignorant of their disadvantaged position in the grand scheme of the world; just that they don’t identify by it. I suppose the same could be said of the Orellanans. Perhaps when I see them, I see residents-of-a-really-shitty-town, but if I asked them, I’m sure they would describe them as De Oriente or Catholic or Kichwa or Ecuadorian or any number of other things. They may know that their town isn’t the greatest, but tonight they are celebrating it anyway, because it’s theirs.
That’s enough thought for now. The Meringue is heating up—it’s time to make like Freshman Year at Princeton and go awkwardly dance with myself.
* Three-fourths kidding. Everyone should read Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden.