Saturday, May 31, 2014

Wish You Were Here? La Mana edition

The Pyramid Paradise in La Mana fails to live up to its name... well the paradise part at least.

Imagine Butlins with pyramids. Now imagine Butlins with pyramids 28 days after the zombie apocalypse first struck Skegness. Welcome to Pyramid Paradise.

Whoever built this leisure park had lofty ambitions. There are four swimming pools, three water slides, poolside bars, volley ball courts, reception centres and a restaurant. The trouble is, the jungle wants its land back and nobody cares to argue.

Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Pyramid accommodation... this doesn't look so bad

Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
You'll get a sore arse sliding down this chipped concrete water slide
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Why wouldn't there be a knackered petrol pump outside the women's toilets?
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Not in the least bit creepy
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Relax in the lounge with a cool cerveza and watch the plaster peel away before your eyes
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Just shift the calculator, the hat stand and the pram and recline on the soft mattress in the bedroom
Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Butlins after the zombie apocalypse

La Mana is the largest town in the midst of thousands upon thousands of acres of banana plantations. Bananas grow here because the heat is suffocating and the rain is torrential. Bananas are big business, particularly for the export market. Check the label in Sainsburys next time you visit, your banana probably came from La Mana.

Bananas need a lot of TLC; plantations need to be kept clear of the encroaching jungle, the bananas need to be wrapped in plastic bags for protection, and picking the heads of heavy fruit is hard work. As a result there is a huge influx of labour to the area.

The owners of Pyramid Paradise probably imagined thousands of happy families arriving to town, all looking for some weekend diversion to escape the scorching sun.

Unfortunately the picture is rather different. Young, single men came, looking to make a quick buck to send home to their families. With the cool breeze and sunshine of the sierra just an hour away, why would anybody want to stay in La Mana unless they had to? Instead of happy families there are brothels everywhere and HIV is rife. So is tuberculosis, which will probably kill you first.

In La Mana everything rots under the rain and the sticky heat. Watch closely and you can follow the inexorable creep of the mildew tide and the plaster peel. 

Inside the crowded medical centre of La Mana it's a depressing scene. Living in Quito it's easy to forget the other side of Ecuador, but lots of the people in La Mana are in desperate poverty.

I met a 50-year-old man with HIV who is recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. The aid agency I was working for had found him living under plastic bags at the back of his niece's house. He had no other family. He did not understand the nature of his illness and would surely have died. The agency bought materials and the community built him a more permanent shelter in the village. His favourite things are cerveza and fiestas... so we've really got quite a lot in common.

He knows when the agency is in town and always turns up to get a free lunch. Once he arrived and broke down in tears at the dinner table. He had just begun to understand the nature of HIV and wanted reassurance that everything was going to be all right for him. His tears were uncontrollable, he knew full well the truth but wanted somebody to lie to him. 

I met another woman, just a year older than I am. She too had tuberculosis and HIV. She had contracted it from her husband, who later died of tuberculosis. She has two young children, who luckily escaped contraction, and is living in poverty in a remote village 20km from La Mana. She was stoic and found solace in religion but, despite new found evangelicalism, her's was not a happy lot.

Back to Pyramid Paradise for a spot of lunch. The chipped dustbin head of Micky Mouse grins back at me. The mosquitoes are eating me alive and I'm glad to be leaving for Moraspungo... but that's because I don't know what it's like in Moraspungo. There I would see what real poverty looked like and how short is the reach of Ecuador's impressive public health system.

Pyramid Paradise Park, Ecuador
Wish you were here?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wind and Oil

My local village (in Cambridgeshire) is locked in heated debate about the installation of a new wind farm. 

Opponents, deftly skirting the elephant in the room of their house prices, are horrified by the monstrous eyesore soon to be erected on this flat, featureless expanse of windswept bog. 

The opposition website provides a neat illustration of the size and impact of the wind farm, placing the looming silhouettes of doom next to Thorney's historic abbey and a Bedford cottage. In case you've missed the subtle message, apparently a wind turbine is much larger than a 19th Century farmer's cottage. I can't argue with the author's firm grasp of scale, however, their understanding of relativity is woefully askew. I don't think anybody ever proposed building a wind turbine ten feet away from the Abbey.

I didn't think point number two could be topped... until I reached point number six - public footpaths. The wind farm development will have a "negative impact" on our "unspoilt" bridleways. They're unspoilt because nobody uses them, only the Ordnance Survey knows they exist. I'd bet if I wanted to take a pleasant afternoon stroll down one of these idyllic lanes I'd probably get shown both barrels by one of the charming, local farmers who seem to have mistaken the Fens for Zimbabwe. 

Making things nice and simple (presumably because that's the easiest way to avoid getting bogged down in logic) the opposition has written a six point plan of their concerns - in essence, it's a less ambitious version of US President Woodrow Wilson's post war reconstruction plan.

Point number two is a corker - the noise. Apparently if the wind is blowing in the right direction (that's a prevailing south westerly, if you're interested) and you turn the television off, and prick an ear to the breeze you might actually be able to hear the sound of the turbines. Of course, it's more likely that you'll hear the sound of the A47 bypass, or a dog barking, or a human voice, or any of the other millions of things in this world that make noise.

The six point plan is so flimsy and surreal that I began to wonder if it was not, in fact, a work of masterful satire (like when Defoe suggested eating the poor in his 'Modest Proposal'). 

What has any of this got to do with Ecuador?

Well, while the great environmental debate of the modern age is raging in Cambridgeshire... meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government has signed permits for oil drilling to commence in the Yasuni National Park (just 150 miles from where I now live) - a single hectare of which is home to a richer mix of trees, birds, amphibians, and reptiles than the US and Canada put together. 

What biodiversity has a hectare at Gore's Farm got to offer apart from a couple of labradors and a dead crow?

We can at least be reassured by promises from the Chinese drilling companies that they will take good care of this UNESCO reserve. 

So, let's soak thousands of acres of the most biologically diverse land on the planet in viscous, black filth and spare fair East Anglia from the irrecoverable plague of green energy.

Why not be more honest, Thorney? Replace the six point plan with the slogan "Sustainable energy at Gores Farm might have a slight impact on my house price thus making me slightly poorer as a result... I'm not against green energy, in fact, I offset the carbon footprint of my trans-Atlantic flights with tree planting projects in the Amazon." It's just a shame the Chinese are about the swamp your Amazonian saplings in black gold.

The Yasuni