Perceptive Travel - The Peanut Fiends of Guayaquil

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The Peanut Fiends of Guayaquil
by Darrin DuFord



Our author learns the virtues of a reverse petting zoo in Ecuador's largest city.


Downtown Guayaquil is a formidable example of urban hegemony. It's carpeted over with concrete, car honks have ousted bird songs, and the bordering Guayas River is an opaque procession of death and stink. Architects of the new boardwalk have recalled the site's jungle days with a few manicured garden strips, but nearby, the builders lessened the effect by installing a bunch of welded, airport–generic doohickeys in a McDonaldland color scheme. Just one more ton of cinder blocks and the city might have nature bound and gagged.

Trick ice cream

So that, at least, was the first impression the city slid my way when I arrived in a taxi squeaking out the requisite honking before every intersection (horns keep traffic moving better than watching mute stoplights, apparently). Here, the vibrancy of tropical lushness has given way to a different kind of life, Guayaquil's unstoppable street bustle: scooters carrying two or more people, trick ice cream that never melts, nipple–studded tabloids, violent cracks of sugar cane juicers. I stepped over cords of handsets––dragged outside storefronts and placed on stools––which served as improvised pay phones. I dodged the soda men, each with a two–liter bottle in one hand and plastic cups in the other. For a quarter, they'll pour you a serving to combat the sticky sunshine. Fanta is a welcome friend when tree shade is wanting.

The city's downplaying of the environment seemed all the more punctuated when I remembered that Guayaquil was the birthplace of Mike Judge, whose animated delinquents Beavis and Butthead routinely use frogs as baseballs and throw dogs and cats into washing machines.

But, as I would discover, not all critters have succumbed to a sarcophagus of heat–preserving concrete (or to the hands of off–duty Burger World employees). I'm talking about two hundred frolicking iguanas that sized me up and surrounded me when I stepped into the city's pint–sized Parque Bolivar, or Bolivar Park.

From the street, the block appeared as another standard park featuring another standard statue of the hero of northern South American liberation, Simon Bolivar. But make no mistake: it's clear who rules this rare enclave of foliage. As I felt my shirt gripping the sweat on my back, a chunky scent––like that of a lair––weighed down the shade under the park's 50–foot trees, and refused to be carried away by the breeze. I entered with care because so many iguanas were selfishly sunning themselves on the crosswalks, leaving a slalom course of three–foot tails to navigate. Was this one of the biblical plagues that the scribes had accidentally omitted? Perhaps an early rough draft of the scriptures included the passage "And then God sent the nonbelievers legions of ugly dragons whose hunger could not be quelled…" Or something like that.

Then I looked up. For every iguana in front of me on the path, I was able to spy another two or three holding court in the branches above, and another few noisily clawing their way up or down the tree trunks.

It didn't matter how many gawking people were in the park. There were always more iguanas than people. And who is gawking at whom? And who is truly fenced in? While a low gate kept humans from entering the grassy patches, the iguanas stomped their claws wherever they pleased––on the stone paths, through the fence holes, on the grass, hunkered down in burrows, up in the trees, all over the heads of statues. Yes, that's right: it doesn't matter if you're the mother of Jesus. The iguanas will still camp out on the forehead of your chiseled likeness, and give you that king–of–the–hill taunt. The sight provided me with a sampling of what will probably happen if humans suddenly and magically vanish from the earth: our architecture would become the jungle gym of all the world's critters. It would be permanent recess.

iguana in burrow

As thick reptile musk crawled into my lungs, I imagined what it must be like to cling about in the iguanas' airy perches high up in the canopies. From their vantage point, the flat walking paths at ground level must look like an ant farm for lumbering bipeds. Any human far below could serve as your makeshift toilet.

How could have urbanization failed to squeeze out the park's little squatters? Guayaquileños, or folks from Guayaquil, don't always agree. They have two theories: either the iguanas were always in the area and eventually became confined to the park as development incrementally muscled in; or the block became an unwanted pet repository––kind of like Manhattan's Central Park––and the dynamics of feral lust took over. And then there's the recurring biblical plague theory that I just made up.

In any case, these iguanas have no predators. Despite being on Latin America's menu for centuries (in Latin America, iguanas are referred to as pollo de palo, or "chicken of the tree"), it is forbidden to hunt the lucky herps in Parque Bolivar. Chalk up one more liberation for Simon B.

In fact, their only means of population control seems to be curiosity. When the guard wasn't busy fishing turtles out of the park's pond with a pool skimmer for lucrative photo–ops, he mentioned to me that iguanas occasionally feel the desire to explore outside their park and wander out into the street. Sadly, that's where the tires of Russian–made Ladas serving as the city's cabs promptly cut the iguanas' vacations short. Pollo de calle (chicken of the street), an opportunistic Guayaquileño might say.

Get your protractors ready.  It's time to rumble.

For the ones that stay in the park, it's all about free lunch. Every noon, park guards toss in a few buckets of cucumbers or lettuce cores to supplement the iguana's leaf–devouring diet. Other than that, though, the iguanas take care of themselves, breeding at will (your branch or mine?), snorting in polluted air, their drilling eyes––especially right before a fight––not unlike those on a crowded subway car.

I even happened upon the beginnings of a three–way fight right on the heat of the slate walkway. By that time, the lair–like odor coursing through my capillaries acted as reptilian Ritalin, helping me notice that the three huddled iguana noses lay poised and motionless at perfect 120–degree angles from one another. I even blocked out the nonstop beep–beeping of stuttering Lada horns as I studied the conflict.

But such beautiful symmetry began to degrade into displays of slimy tongues and ominous head–bobs. Without a sound, the gathering burst into a twirling brown ball––like fruit on a slot machine––but eventually ended in a stalemate for all three participants. They just split up and resumed sunning themselves, as if they had changed their minds about the whole pecking order thing.

After all, they had much more enjoyable things to do. Like scaring children. It's as if the Ecuadorian parents are in cahoots with the iguanas, because the parents keep egging on their kids to grab the creatures' tails, while all but the bravest kids form peanut–shaped horror mouths and nod sideways and whine.

Speaking of peanuts, a bag of them will bring out one of the iguana's more memorable urban adaptations. Sure, their skin has already turned from the fresh green of a wet–behind–the–dewlap jungle iguana to a hipster brown––to match the pollution, of course. But anyone who sits on a bench and opens up a bag of peanuts will be accosted by a bunch of hungry lizards that will beg like dogs. (Give them a few more generations and they'll probably start wagging their tails too.) Naturally, the kids get it the worst. I think I'll always associate Guayaquil with a pack of mini–dinosaurs pawing at a child's thigh, begging for a handout, all while the kids are wailing, their trembling extremities pulled in and away from thrusting, scaly cheeks. A new slogan for the city could be Guayaquil: where the animals pet YOU.

New old building

My memories will be atypical, however. The most common memory of Guayaquil is none at all, because tourists tend to avoid this metropolis of over two million people. Most treat the city, the largest in Ecuador, as a necessary evil en route to a mojito–splashed tour of the Galapagos Islands. "Nothing to look at," they have been programmed to say. It's true that the city has worn out the novelty of concrete. And it's true that most of its buildings are less than a hundred years old, owing to the city's talent for catching fire every few years (or could it have been nature repeatedly attempting to purge a lumber–crusted lesion from its flesh?). To the architects' credit, however, many of the replacement structures were tastefully rebuilt to appear much older, complete with arches and balconies from a car–free era. And I didn't find any colors reminiscent of a plastic fast food empire on them.

The city's current skyline may not boast a long and glorious pedigree stating that it survived such calamities as earthquakes, fires, sackings by pirates, and petty decisions by inbred royals. But Guayaquil can claim a homegrown enclave of well–adapted fauna (take that, Galapagos). Thinking of visiting? Make sure you bring enough peanuts for…well, everyone.



Darrin DuFord is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, a ForeWord Magazine Travel Book of the Year Award finalist. A past contributor to Perceptive Travel, he has also contributed articles to Transitions Abroad, The Panama News, and GoNOMAD.com. Read his latest travel pieces and recipes on his web site, www.omnivoroustraveler.com.

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