Tsunami Warning!

Nothing quite like the end of the world to put things in perspective. This was a crazy day. Not only because of the horror that hit Japan but because we thought the horror was headed our way. My thoughts and prayers and condolences are, of course, with the Japanese people who truly suffered the consequences of this Tsunami and this story is not intended to make light of their tragedy. But it’s interesting to read this old notebook and witness my own self responding to apocalyptic possibilities. Me and Ms. B.; riding the storm out…

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Tsunami Warning!

Canoa, Ecuador; March 2011

It’s early morning but after sunrise. I have a hangover and a headache. I awake groggily to the sound of sirens and loudspeakers. The words are in Spanish; I’m half asleep; I can’t understand. I get out of bed and go to the window. We are staying in a beach front hotel. Only a dirt road and about 100 feet of sand beach separate us from the ocean. We can watch the waves wash on shore from our bed. But we closed the window last night because of bugs. Now I open it and look outside. There are several police vehicles driving up and down the dirt road and on the beach. Sirens blaring, loudspeakers blasting. Evacuation!! Evacuation!! We are under a Tsunami Alert. Evacuation Evacuation. The hostel erupts into chaos. People run around in a panic; shove things into backpacks and scurry about as they talk excitedly. An earthquake has hit Japan. A tsunami is coming here. Evacuate. Evacuate. Holy Shit, we have to evacuate… Hmmm…. I guess that means I should probably wake up Ms. B…

After four days of fun but difficult hiking in the cold high mountains of Quilatoa, Ms. B. and I are ready for the beach. Ecuadoran Carnaval is now over so the beaches shouldn’t be crowded. I oh so badly want to kick back and relax. But not quite yet; first we have to get there. And transport between Latacunga in the mountains and Canoa on the beach is not exactly straightforward. As a matter of fact, it’s a regular odyssey. We leave the hotel at 7:00 am and go directly to the bus station. From Latacunga, we take a bus to a place called Aloag which is basically just an intersection on the Pan American highway. We cross the busy highway, dodging traffic in full packs, and climb aboard a bus parked on the opposite side of the road facing perpendicular towards the crossing road. This bus goes downhill through a steep canyon until it comes to the traffic mishap. A water bottle truck flipped over and plastic water bottles are everywhere. We are held up for a long time. Jean Claude Van Dam on the video monitor entertains us while we wait. Eventually, they allow us through the water bottles and we arrive at the crowded bus station in the city of Santo Domingo. We negotiate the chaos to find our way to another bus. No time to eat, just chips and snacks as we are rushed aboard. Another long, hot, crowded bus journey terminates at a town called Pedernales on the coast. Again we have to switch buses. We shout out the name of our destination and we are led through the sandy streets of a beach town from one bus company office to another. Eventually, we find the correct bus, load up our bags and head south along the coast for a few more hours. Finally, we arrive in Canoa at just about sunset.

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Someone from Vilcabamba has recommended to us a place called the Sundowner Inn which is located a few kilometers outside of town. But we don’t have reservations, there are no taxis and we don’t feel like walking. So we decide to spend a night in town and move to the outskirts the following day. The first hostel we come across is called The Coco Hut. The place is not awesome but it’s not bad. It’s owned by a friendly Mexican guy and his very pregnant Alaskan wife. They have a very decent double room with a view of the ocean for 22 bucks. We don’t want the room for the long term but it will be fine for a day or two.

The first evening is uneventful. The beach is beautiful and it’s nice to be here. But I’m too tired to enjoy it. I wish I had some weed. I’m sure it’s available somewhere. But maybe it’s just not easily available. We have a nice seafood dinner and a couple of beers. We go back to the room to rest. I want to go out later and drink some beer; maybe hunt down some weed. But I don’t. My short little nap turns into an all-nighter. Exhausted from the long bus journey, we lie down for an early evening siesta and don’t wake up until the following morning.

We stay another day at the Coco Hut. We sleep in to a late morning, have a leisurely breakfast, do some laundry and stroll down the beach. We find the Sundown Inn in the early afternoon. It looks perfecto for our purposes with its isolated location. I can imagine many wonderous days lounging in its shaded hammock area. So we make a reservation for the following day. With one last night in town, I want to make the most of it. We have cocktails at sunset and a fine seafood meal. Ms. B. returns to the room fairly early but not me. I go out to experience a little nocturnal beach reality. Once again, I am on a theoretical quest to find some marijuana. Luckily, such a quest involves drinking beer in dingy bars which is an activity I enjoy all on its own. So I wander from bar to bar. Drink beer. I eye all the suspicious and unscrupulous looking characters hoping someone is selling weed. Why does this have to be complicated? Finding weed should be easy. It sure used to be. For many years in South America, all I had to do was walk down certain streets and someone would offer it to me. But now; no way; I have to drink beer, talk to people, ask around and act suspicious. Yeah maybe there is a certain existential thrill involved in the challenge of the game. But I could really do without the extra hassle. No doubt there is still weed available. I just have to find it.

It’s after midnight when I finally meet the appropriate unsavory character. I’m rather drunk at this point and therefore rather reckless and stupid. When the scoundrel offers me a packet for ten dollars I don’t even hesitate to check the quality or content. I hand him a ten dollar bill and he stuffs a wad of paper in my pocket. Can you say dodgey street corner transaction? Man am I stupid sometimes. So drunk me is now paranoid me as I stumble back to the room. But I don’t get busted and I didn’t get ripped off. It really is weed wrapped up in the paper and it’s enough to make several joints. It’s not a ton of high quality kind bud but hey I wasn’t expecting miracles for ten bucks. I consider smoking some to test it out but I’m already drunk and I don’t want to waste it. It will be better tomorrow. Oh yeah. Tomorrow! It’s going to be perfect. We’re moving to the Sundowner with its beach front hammocks in the shade. I got weed. I can hardly wait. A far away beach….hammock heaven. With these thoughts in mind, I turn out the light and pass out drunk on the bed.

And the next morning I awake to the sound of sirens and loudspeakers. Tsunami warning. Tsunami warning. Everyone has to evacuate…. So I awake Ms. B. and we join in the relative chaos. Where should we go? What should we do? Head for the hills? But how? Bus? Truck? Walk? Run? What should we bring? How much time do we have before it gets here? We start randomly stuffing important things into packs. We get dressed. We prepare to flee. This is an emergency. Let’s get the fuck out of here. But then, Elizabeth, the eight and a half month pregnant owner of the hostel stands in the middle of the courtyard to make an announcement. We can see and hear her clearly from our bedroom window. “Calm down everybody,” she says, “I have just spoken with the authorities. Please calm down. Yes there is a Tsunami warning. A massive earthquake hit Japan last night and they are afraid that a very giant wave is heading our way. But it is not projected to arrive here until between 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm. We still have plenty of time. We are attempting to arrange a pickup truck to take hostel guests up to a safe place in the hills for the afternoon. Or, if you want, there are extra buses running from the town center towards Quito. Or you can take a taxi or leave on foot. One way or another, you have to leave. The entire town has to be evacuated by 4:00 pm today.”

So we do have time. No need to worry. Let’s figure out a plan. I guess we are not going down the beach to the Sundowner today. And I sure as hell don’t want to go to Quito or back to the mountains. What do you suppose we should do? It’s quite a dramatic moment. Literally like a scene from a Hollywood movie. The apocalypse is coming, my love, what do you suppose we should do?

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We decide to wander around town and see how others are reacting. Shops are closing down, restaurants are not opening up. Two buses on Main Street are packed full of people. Lots of people with full backpacks are heading out of town… escaping; leaving, evacuating. We find one eatery open and I get a breakfast of rice and shrimp. They overcharge us Tsunami prices. We go to a shop and buy emergency supplies: water, crackers, fruit, snacks… We still don’t know what we are going to do. We walk along the beach and look out at the ocean. The waves look big, scary, ominous. Usually, the ocean is so friendly, beautiful and scenic; now it just seems threatening. Everybody in town is talking about the tsunami; informing, debating… making plans to leave. The evacuation order hovers over the community like a dark cloud with kinetic energy. The atmosphere warps and a hypersensitive reality is imposed on our world. Oh how quickly our universe can change. Yesterday… laid back beach town. Today…emergency response evacuation.

Back at the hostel, they’ve turned on the big screen television above the bar and everyone is gathered around watching CNN. Images of the massive destruction in Japan flash on the screen as overly excited meteorologists rant and rave about the disaster that is continuing to unfold. Not only is Japan semi-apocalyptic with multiple nuclear reactors ready to blow but the massively destructive Tsunami is heading towards the west coasts of North and South America. This is the biggest weather event of our lifetime. You will never see anything like it. Batten down the hatches. All hands on deck. Prepare for destruction. The End of Times is Here!!!

Anyway, that’s the basic idea. And I’m not exactly a fool. I know that news coverage has a tendency to be sensationalistic. I don’t entirely buy into the apocalyptic predictions. But as I stand here looking back and forth between the ocean and the crazy man on the screen predicting catastrophe, I do feel fear, my own fear and the fear that seems to permeate the atmosphere. This is crazy shit. A big wall of water is going to engulf this very place we are sitting in just a few hours.

The pick-up truck arrives around noon. The hostel owners (Mao and Elizabeth) are going in the truck up to a place in the hills called Rio Muchacho Farm to wait for the Tsunami to pass. They invite everyone who can fit from the hostel into the back of the truck to go with them. Ms. B. and I decide to choose this evacuation option. We pile on our backpacks and climb aboard. What fun. Seriously… 13 people, 2 dogs, a pile of backpacks and a box of beer and booze in the back of a pickup truck. We are fleeing a Tsunamai. It’s like the first line of a joke or a parable. Perhaps the beginning of a television sitcom or mini-series… Tsunamai Survivor… 13 random backpackers bound together by circumstance… will they survive the harrowing ordeal…

The ride to Rio Muchacho takes about 45 minutes. The road is rough and several times we have to stop and unload everyone from the back to walk across a stream and then load up again on the other side. The mood in the truck alternates from festive to frightened. We drink beer, we laugh, we tell jokes. But everyone is thinking in the back of their minds that this could be the SHIT. What if it really is crazy bad?

We are hesitantly welcomed at the farm. They are not expecting us. They already have a group of visitors and are not prepared for more. But because of the emergency circumstances (tsunamai evacuation), they help us out. They give us a place to store our belongings and tell us we are free to make use of their grounds. The Rio Muchacho Organic Farm is an amazing enterprise. It is 100% organic, fully functional, self-sufficient, garbage free, non-waste operation. They teach classes; hold seminar and have interns. It is, essentially, a 21st century model for how organic agriculture should function. They are teaching Ecuadoran students and international students how eco-friendly farms can work.

We, however, are not here to learn about organic farming. We have just stopped by to wait out the apocalypse. So for the next several hours, that is what we do. We frolic in the stream as we search for a place deep enough to swim. We relax in hammocks in the beautiful lush garden. We eat delicious stew from the farm kitchen and go for walks through the fields and forests. All in all, we have a wonderful time in comfortable surroundings. It certainly doesn’t seem like the end of the world.

I finally get a chance to smoke a joint in the late afternoon. I’ve had the weed I bought last night in my possession the whole time but I hesitated to smoke it before. It was a bad time for paranoia, there were too many people around and the circumstances were not right. Now, however, is perfect. Ms. B. and I are on our own, we walk along a trail beside a stream some distance from the main compound. I light that baby up and we burn it on down. It’s the first time I’ve smoked weed in several weeks; And now, as luck would have it, the world is ending and I’m in paradise with my one true love. It’s funny sometimes, how reality becomes so metaphorical that I feel as if I must be making it up. But no, it really does happen this way.

We watch the sunset from a meditation hut that sits on a bank above a bend in the river. There is a tiny stone altar, a thatch roof, and a straw matt to cover the dirt floor. We sit there cross-legged yoga style watching the forest and the stream and the distant field and the background blue sky. There are birds fluttering about, a few cows in the field and no doubt fishes in the stream. The sun slowly falls behind the green hills on the horizon. Meanwhile… the world is ending; Tsunamai strikes; for all we know the entire planet might be plunged into chaos.

In the grand scheme of things, a self-sufficient organic farm is a pretty good place to be for the collapse of civilization. If you add to that the fact that I am accompanied by my one true love, Ms. B., I’d have to say that my subjective reality is still pretty much sunny side up. In a way, it’s the perfect ending for this year’s journey. The End of the World came but they made it to Paradise and lived happily every after…

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But, of course, our story does not end there. We can’t just simply hang out in Paradise and wait for the apocalypse to pass. We have to go and look the apocalypse in the eye. Even as we load up the truck, I think it is a stupid idea. I mean, it does make some sort of sense. The warning was from 4:00 – 7:00. It’s now 7:00 so it should be over. It’ll take us 45 minutes to get there. It’ll definitely be over by then. But still, perhaps we should give a Tsunamai a little bit more time cushion. Call me crazy, but an hour lee way doesn’t seem enough. But Mao and Elizabeth are concerned about the condition of their hostel. We haven’t heard any Tsunamai news. It must have happened by now. And curious creatures that we humans are, we want to go see the aftermath. Accordingly, it’s about 7:15 in the evening when the backpacks, dogs and 13 people are once again piled into the back of a pickup. We leave the idyllic Rio Muchacho Farm behind and head back to Canoa.

Once again, the ride in to town makes me feel like I am playing the lead role in a late night low budget disaster movie. It’s a cliché’. 13 people and 2 dogs drive head first into a tidal wave; it’s too absurd to be real. It can’t happen that way. The road is noticeably quiet. No other traffic at all. We stop to pick up a hitch hiker. He is a very big very fat man. We don’t have room for him. But he climbs aboard anyway. The truck is so weighed down it feels like it will collapse beneath the weight of all the passengers. It creaks and squeaks and bumps and shakes. We stop for a stream. Everyone gets off the truck, we cross the stream and get on the truck again on the other side. We continue slowly into town. No one speaks. The night time hovers around us. We think about the scene we may be approaching. How crazy is this world? Does Canoa still exist? Are we driving into a disaster? Is this going to be scary? 13 people, now 14, crammed together in the dark, huddled together in the dark; thrilled and frightened by what we might see.

There are no cars on the road going the same direction as us but we do see several going the opposite. They are full of people (evacuating?). They honk and honk and flash their lights at us to communicate some urgent message. Maybe this is not a good idea. Perhaps it’s too early to go back. We pass a crowd of pedestrians walking the opposite way as us. They wave and shout telling us to turn around. Okay. I get it. The evacuation is ongoing. We shouldn’t go forward. But apparently, the driver doesn’t get it. The truck continues onward, down the hill and into the center of town.

A bizarre scene; the streets are empty except a few police vehicles with flashing lights. There’s no high water and no damaged buildings. What is going on? Has the Tsunamai already passed? Was it a dud? A false warning? Or maybe it has yet to arrive? No people are around except in one center building. The truck stops there and Mao goes inside for information. He comes back outside with very scary news. Evacuate Now! A 30 meter wave (100 feet) has just hit the Galapagos. It should reach Canoa in less than a half hour. Holy shit! Let’s get the hell out of here!!!

So now the scene is really like a late night low budget disaster movie; Destruction imminent, over-weighted pick up truck, piled high with people and possessions flees the horror. It’s uphill, the engine strains, the springs creak and groan, will we make it, the Tsunamai is coming, the Tsunamai is coming, the Tsunamai is coming. Run away… run away…..

Of course we make it. I would not be writing this travelogue if we got swept away in a Tsunamai. The truck drives about 10 kilometers outside of town up into the hills. It drops us off in front of a somewhat classy hostel with a swimming pool and bungalows. It’s a bit more expensive than we like, but under the circumstances, we are quite happy to pay it. Fortunately, they have bungalows available. So we swim in the pool, drink some beer, eat some food, and wait for the emergency to be over. As it turns out, the Tsunamai was a dud. No doubt, the devastation in Japan was horrific but the effect on the coast of Ecuador was null. In truth, it was only a 3 meter wave that hit Galapagos and by the time it hit Canoa, it was little more than a splash. When we return to the Coco Hut Hostel in the morning, absolutely nothing has changed, it seems almost as if the whole crazy day was but a dream or an elaborate entertainment designed for our amusement. Okay everyone, the show is over. We will now return to our regularly scheduled program.

Ms. B. and I have one final delicious breakfast at the Coco Hut but then continue with our previous plan. We check out and walk several kilometers down the beach and check into the rather isolated Sun Downer Inn. Now, finally, we can sit in a hammock in the shade, smoke a joint and watch the waves roll upon the beach.

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