Monday, April 28, 2014

Pakistani cricket ambassadors in Quito

I was jogging through Parque Carolina yesterday when I spotted a game of cricket in progress.

I presumed they'd be rubbish (read: my standard) and wondered if I could worm my way in to hit those Latino chumps with a few of my famous fast deliveries (Max Rayner will know what I'm talking about).

When I finished my run I headed back to the cricket pitch and discovered about 100 spectators crowded around the action. At first I thought cricket was about to take Ecuador by storm, but as I jostled my way to the front I discovered the truth.

The game was being contested by two teams from Quito's Pakistani community. A decision had gone against the batsman and rather than walking slowly back to the pavilion (a Chinese temple folly with a gong in it) he went medieval with the willow.
Like this... only nobody was smiling
I've witnessed a few fights in my life but I've never heard such a vocal confrontation involving so many people and with so few punches thrown. The commotion was unbelievable and since the argument was being conducted in Urdu (probably) I have absolutely no idea what was the cause of contention. My guess is an LBW, that's always a bit of a loose rule.

The fight consisted of lots of squaring up and posturing. At one stage somebody took away the wickets in a sulk, only to return them a minute later. The ring leaders were the batsman and the bowler on the opposite side, who looked a bit like a fat version of Shoaib Akhtar.

The indigenous Indian family stood next to me looked very concerned by it all. The father explained to his daughter: “The Arabs are having a fight about their baseball game.”

One of the Pakistani players in the outfield sulked-away, radiating shame. He stood near me and I shook my head at him regretfully. “No es cricket,” I said.

Amazingly, after 15 minutes of bitter fighting the game restarted as suddenly as it had stopped. I didn't hang around to see the inevitable second round. I would not have umpired that match for all the money in the world.

I couldn't decide if the Pakistanis had been good or bad ambassadors for South American cricket. They certainly made cricket seem like the most exciting and important game in the world.

I decided not to volunteer my arm for a few of those famous fast bowls and went to eat a pizza instead.

Surprisingly Quito has a thriving Pakistani community. In fact, so many arrived in the 1990s that Pakistan is now one of the only countries in the world requiring a Visa to enter Ecuador – joining North Korea, Iran, Palestine and Iraq.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dogs are everywhere

In England, dogs are esteemed members of the family – not quite on the same pegging as a wife or a first son, but certainly on the same rung as a grandparent, and way above uncles and aunts. As shocking and incomprehensible as it might sound to English ears: in Ecuador people are valued more highly than dogs.

I love dogs as much as the next man. You might even call me a dog person. But the more I think about it, the more I think Ecuadorians are right.

It's not that Ecuadorians don't like dogs, because they do. In fact, I think I've seen more dogs in Ecuador than in the UK – although this is probably because most of them live out on the streets. I just think South Americans have a more sensible attitude towards animals than the British. After all, they're just dogs.

Whymper the Alsatian
Whymper the mountain dog... who left us to die on the slopes of Chimborazo
When I think of the treatments, therapies, operations and medicines friends' dogs have received in England I actually feel slightly disgusted. This probably sounds a bit Geldof-esque (in the worst possible way), but I've driven to remote Andean and jungle communities where people are dying because they can't afford antibiotics or the taxi fare to the nearest hospital.

Two years ago I visited a vet in Surrey who had just installed a hyrdro-therapy pool for dogs. He's known as the bionic vet because he fits prosthetic legs to dogs who've lost limbs to cancer. Two months ago I visited a remote village 3,500 metres above sea-level where a woman was suffering her second bout of tuberculosis in a year, having already lost her husband (and any means of financial support) to the same illness. If it wasn't for the NGO I was with, she would also have died leaving an orphaned child in a village full of alcoholics.

I asked the bionic vet if spending tens of thousands of pounds treating a dog was not obscene and he told me it was just personal choice. Some people buy Ferraris, others like to fit prosthetic hips on their genetically-faulty designer dogs. “It's their money,” he said. “They should be able to spend it however they like.” I agree... to an extent... because isn't buying a Ferrari also obscene?

But this brings me onto the flip-side of the coin. The perro callejero (street dog).

I realised I'd been in Ayampe (a coastal town in Ecuador) for too long when I was first name terms with six of the street dogs in town. What a pack we were! There was little Salchicha, the scaredy-cat sausage dog. There was Zuca the playful labrador puppy who ate three chickens one morning and Jose had to pay $30 for the loss. There was Oso, a sort of Jack-Russell, who hunts crabs on the beach – El Cangrejero they call him. Then there's Wiley! What a royal shit he is.

Wiley was the leader of the street dogs, so called because he looked like a coyote. He was a bully and made a sport of kicking Oso's head in. Lucy and I dubbed him Wanker, because he was always behaving like a complete wanker. He used to chase the poor, old donkey up and down the beach, barking at it and biting its tail. At night he would corner the donkey and bark until well into the madrugada. He was also known as rapey-dog because of his predilection for bikini-clad, blonde backpackers. He literally would not take no for an answer.

Like most street dogs Wiley got a nasty skin infection, he had a parasite in his head. Some bikini-clad, blonde backpacker took pity on him and packed him off to the vet at her expense. When she went on her way Wiley was left out on the streets once again.

Cure and release is a common theme. In Ayampe an American hotel owner once paid for a vet to treat all the street dogs in town. A generous act? In my opinion, it would have been better to put them all down. Dogs aren't bred to live without humans. Within a month all of their conditions had returned and we were back to square one.

In Quito the situation is even worse. Street dogs howl and bark all night. They forage for food and rip bins apart, which in turn encourages rats. Occasionally they bite children. They are always getting themselves run over – dead or wounded street dogs are a common sight on the roadsides in Ecuador and it's never nice to see.

But I don't want to paint too black a picture.

Of course, I've met some real crackers in South America. For example, Jacinto the ginger beach bum in Mancora was a beauty. And then there was Whymper the Alsatian who lived at the mountain lodge of Chimborazo. He followed Lucy and I on a hike to 5,000 metres... then we got lost on the slopes of the volcano and he swiftly abandoned us. He looked a rather sheepish when we returned sun-burnt and pissed-off four hours later. I should also probably give a name-check to Canela, Emila's pampered poodle who dances an Irish jig on her hind legs whenever she gets excited. And of course there's Randy Russett, Canela's sweetheart street dog who lives over the road.

Dogs are Everywhere, as Jarvis Cocker would say.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Marketing in Ecuador

The more time I spend in South America the greater my confusion. 

For example, why was I woken to the sound of a car horn honking through the village at 6am this morning by a man selling jewellery? I know he was selling jewellery because he was announcing it through a megaphone. 

And if it isn't jewellery it's mattresses, or shoes, or lengths of steel girder. The only purchase I've ever made at that time in the morning is a coffee and a croissant. Seriously, where's the market?

Which brings me onto another area of bewilderment. Coming from London, the marketing capital of the entire world, it's very strange the way businesses in South America choose to promote themselves - or not.

The most popular method of marketing is the "Gigantografia" - the giant plastic sign. Of course, why choose a simple, sleek effective design when you can go bat-shit mental with Comic Sans and every colour under the rainbow? It costs the same doesn't it? Might as well get your money's worth.

The most common addition to the Gigantografia is a greasy, blonde bird in a bikini. South American culture is toe-curlingly sexist, even in liberal, PC society. For example, a popular bumper sticker adorning the monster trucks bound from Guayaquil is "100% Machista" - that's 100% Sexist. Imagine one that said 100% Racist! In fact, I think that would be quite popular here too.

I get what they think they're doing by sticking a bikini babe on the sign for their shop. They're catching the rapey eyes of those 100% machistas. I can even imagine the thought process - "Sexy bird... tyre shop... need tyres... buy tyres." Which, depressingly, sort of works for the machista monster truck crowd, but on a cake shop? Or a florist?

In the capital Quito it's a different story. There are marketing agencies who attempt to replicate the very best of the London-ad market. Only without any clue what they're actually doing.

A case in point. Billboards started popping up around the city featuring a half-naked woman riding various jungle animals. In marketing terms, they were trying to fuse the Pirelli calendar with early Guinness surrealism. There's one where she's straddling a rhinoceros that I can imagine has already become firmly ingrained in the imaginations of Quito's 13-year-old male population. The crocodile one is the weirdest of all. Only because I was writing this did I bother to read the tiny small-print in the bottom right hand corner to discover what was being advertised. Of course, floor tiles. What else?

The next most common method of marketing is no sign at all.

For example, the very best corviche shop in the tiny village of Las Cabanas has chosen to advertise its presence by writing on a wooden board in charcoal. Considering the regular monsoon-strength rains that hit the coast, I rather think their preferred medium ought to have been oils. The horrible corviche restaurant in Las Cabanas has an enormous Gigantografia outside its front - it even has a name, unlike my place which is just called: "the Corviche place in Las Cabanas... no, not the one with the sign... the one deeper into the village... you know, near the cockfighting pit... that's right, where the drunks piss against the shed... yeah, that one with the vicious, one-eyed dog... sure, they're chaining him up now after the last incident... anyway... that one."

The result is, I rave about how great the corviche is in Las Cabanas and what amazing value they are - one dollar a pop. People think: "Tom's a switched-on guy with his ear to the pulse and his finger on the ground. I'll check it out." They go to Las Cabanas and head straight to the first restaurant with a sign that says corviche. Nobody wins, not I, not the customer, not the vicious, one-eyed dog. Well, actually, the restaurant with a sign wins.

Fucking hell Ecuador, it's not rocket science. You don't need to be Saatchi and Saatchi to know the very least you can do to advertise your business is to signify its very existence.

But as Lucy and I were once told by a shopkeeper swilling a cold beer: "I've already paid for my house. I don't want to work too hard... It's hot today, isn't it?"

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On the Buses: Part Two

Buses in Ecuador... haven't I already covered this topic? That's right, in some length with this rather amusing, little piece. 

I don't want to be a bus, blog bore but my last bus trip from Manta to Puerto Lopez was a corker.

The buses in Ecuador work in two-man teams - one drives, one collects the money and helps guide the driver out of tight spots (remember this second duty - it might appear again later).

There is no timetable in Ecuador, all buses are private so there's no schedule to keep. You sit on a bus until it is sufficiently full to make the trip worth their while. It took about 40 minutes to fill our bus before passenger protest forced our departure, but I could sense the driver was greedy for more.

On the motorway out of Manta, at about the spot where the raw sewage is dumped into the river, our co-driver thought he spotted some potential passengers. By the time he had warned the driver we were already two miles down the motorway. In Ecuador there are no bus stops, you simply hail a bus as though it were a taxi. The bus driver performed an emergency stop on the hard-shoulder and they debated whether to return for the passengers. It was decided they would.

The co-driver returned to the back of the bus where he was collecting fares and the driver casually performed a U-turn on the six-lane coastal highway. Unfortunately he had misjudged the turning circle of the bus and drove into a concrete barrier with a jarring crunch and the sound of shattering glass.

The co-driver came running to the front of the bus and began a heated argument with the driver over who was responsible for the damage. The driver caused the accident but the co-driver is supposed to guide the driver. 'Why didn't the driver call for assistance?' the co-driver wondered. 'Why did the co-driver not recognise the danger?' the driver questioned. 'Why was the driver always such a prick?' the co-driver snorted. Because 'your mum is the mother of all whores!' the driver quipped, as though he had been possessed by the spirit of Wilde.

The punchline is by the time we had traveled a mile back to the next roundabout and returned the passengers had decided to walk instead... or at least that would be the punchline if our two-man team hadn't attempted to rewrite the DaVinci Code.

The damage to the bus didn't look too bad to me. The safety-glass window of the door had shattered so the bus was littered with tiny crystals which the co-driver eventually swept away with the head of a broken broom. They carry few tools on board - a broom, a hatchet, a collection of plastic bags for vomit (because South Americans can't be on moving vehicles without throwing up their last meal, which was - incidentally - only two minutes earlier and bought and consumed on the bus, because South Americans also think the main meal of the day is best enjoyed on the rolling, sick-wagon).

A quick digression. In Peru there are signs on the buses that say: "Don't be ignorant and leave your litter on the bus, throw it out of the window." We were taking a night bus from Chachapoyas back to Chiclayo and were served an evening meal - like on an aeroplane, in the 1970s, if you were flying from Tashkent to Ulaanbaatar. I declined mine but the Indian man next to me tapped me on the shoulder and said: "If you didn't want it, I'd have eaten it." He then tried to jam his rubbish through the narrow crack in the window. Lucy prevented him, but he looked wounded and confused.

Back on the road from Manta to Puerto Lopez and our driver and co-driver have a problem. Specifically, how to account for the broken window? Their female boss was a dragon, we learnt, and she would make them pay for any damage they had caused. The co-driver attempted to get the passengers "to collaborate" and help pay for a new window, but we weren't biting. The only solution was to invent a story so plausible and water-tight that they would be exonerated. Unfortunately this pair weren't exactly up to Moriarty's high-standards... more like Norman Wisdom and Frank Spencer.

So the co-driver phones his boss (the dragon). Here's what he came up with: "There was a borracho (piss-head) on the bus who was causing trouble. We tried to remove him but he became angry. When we tried to throw him off the bus he hit the window with his bottle of beer. He ran away but we gave chase in the bus. We had nearly caught him but he jumped into a taxi. Again we gave chase but lost them in the traffic."

There was a silence at the other end of the line and our co-driver was sweating. Presumably the boss was giving him the opportunity to retract the bollocks and confess. But he didn't. She hung up.

"She sounded angry," the co-driver said in a conspiratorial whisper to the driver.

I heard the whole thing because I was sat at the very front of the bus, right behind the driver, and I had Lucy to translate.

We were making steady progress to Puerto Lopez and the breeze from the broken window was refreshing. The driver and the co-driver's spirits were returning and they had even supposed that taping a black bin bag over the window would do the trick. "It will look all right," the co-driver mused.

The phone rang. The co-driver's face dropped. It was their boss again. She had more questions and their loosely constructed story was proving less than water-tight, it had more holes than a teabag. He stammered and stuttered, babbled and became tongue-tied. Eventually he managed to spit out: "It was a Club Verde bottle."

So they had a murder weapon. A Club Verde bottle. At one stage it was considered stopping at a local tienda and buying a Club Verde to smash and leave the distinctive green shards and sticky beer on the bus... but this would have been embarrassing.

The pair had another problem, the window was in two sections (top and bottom). The impact had broken both. How had the borracho managed to smash both with one swing of a bottle? There was lots of theorising and consideration but eventually the riddle became too enormous, too convoluted.

The sun was shining, the turquoise waters of the Pacific were glittering, and soon the broken window was forgotten. Most Latin people like to live for the next five minutes. The bus wasn't due back in Manta for another three hours, so they had two hours and 55 minutes of chilling before they needed to find that Holy Grail answer to save them the price of a new window (about £50).