The river turned toxic, the fish died and then the earth moved

I felt the earthquake whilst sat in our house drinking a cuppa and deep in an email chat with a friend. I looked up at my housemate to check he could feel it too. It got stronger and the triple bunkbed I was leaning on, not the most stable construction anyway, started to creak. When I looked back my housemate was gone, running from the house, leaving the door swinging open. It took me a good few seconds for my brain to register that I should do that too! Once out of the house the shaking was subsiding and felt like waves of movement, just like the sea. Of course I loved it,  it felt like I was surfing the land! It was incredible, barefoot and feeling the warm earth beneath you gently lifting and falling like the ocean. The force of mother nature.

Outside the dogs were barking, the electricity had gone and there was an errie void without the music playing. Voices  could be heard and pinpricks of light could be seen as people carrying torches made their way up to the hills. Tsunami? My housemate and our neighbour said yes we should get up to the hill. It’s strange how your brain reacts to unexpected situations. I am naturally anxious and worry over the smallest thing but I was completely calm. To the point of going back to the house for a clean t-shirt (important to look your best!), money, torch, oh and my camera – I was already thinking about what I would write in my blog. But really, I shouldn’t have even gone back into the house at all.

I met more of the other volunteers on the road and together we walked up towards the hill. More and more people came and the momentum added a panic that wasn’t there before. Without the ever present music you could hear the ocean. It got louder and louder and without light to see there was a good half a minute where we all thought this was it – the tsunami was coming. Go, go, my friend was shouting and we were all running. But I wasn’t panicking. My main thought was wow, I am really unfit, I should have done more runing to be better prepared for this. As I stopped to get my breath I was completely calm, completely accepting that this was just how it was – my destiny. I turned round and there was nothing! We all took a collective sigh of relief and resumed walking.

Up on the hill the impromptu gathering  took on a party atmosphere as people swapped stories of what they had been doing when the earthquake struck and what they had heard. Someone turned on music and spontaneous applause broke out. The song was Radiohead ‘Fake plastic trees’ and it was perfectly suited to the moment. One of the volunteers said she felt like this was a film and the song was the sound track – and that is exactly how it felt! As the music played everyone stopped talking and I took in my surroundings. Sat high up on the hill overlooking the ocean, looking at the stars, the clouds encircling the moon giving it a rainbow halo, I felt in awe of  Mother Nature and her power.

Tsunami party up on the hill.
Tsunami party up on the hill.

We stayed on the hill for another half hour. It was a test of nerves and wills to see who was going to take the step to go down first but as soon as some people made the first move then more and more did. Back in town people were on the street and the same weird party -like atmosphere that had been on the hill could be felt. With the lights back on and one of my friends still at the restaurant I began to feel a little silly for racing up the hill. I went to buy a beer and was surprised for a moment to see the beer bottles all awry in the fridge. It was like my brain had forgotten the last hour as town was looking so relatively normal. I sat in one of the restaurants still open (and doing a roaring trade – like me the extrodinary last hour had made people hungry!) and watched the news as footage of Quito and Guayagil made me realise how serious this was.

The house on the hill is where we sat. Only noticed how steep it was on the way down.
The house on the hill is where we sat. Only noticed how steep it was on the way down.

Sick fish and sick people

Environmental disasters happen on a regular basis and never fail to make me sad.  But I have never had to watch one unfold in front of my eyes. If you hearing about it on the news it is a five minute segment before something else takes your attention. Watching the actual event in all of its toxic gore was a long drawn out experience. The fish in the river took a long time to die. I first saw them in distress at 8am in the morning. They were still dying at 6pm as the sun was fading. During the day lots of people stopped on the bridge to see what was going on. You couldn’t not, the smell was unbearable and the sight so strange people were gathered there all day. As it got dark the police drove past warning that the river was contaminated by loudspeaker.

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There is nothing that prepared me for what happened next. Once it was completely dark people were in the river with nets and buckets picking out the fish. To sell. Someone said the police arrested seven people for doing this. I wonder how many others were doing it that got away. Off with toxic dead fish for another town to buy and serve in restaurants and homes to people who know nothing about what has happened here.

What was left of the dead fish started to decay in the hot sun the next day and so the smell got worse. I saw tiny little fish ( how did they survive?) nibbling away at the bodies of the dead fish that were left. So in  few months time or maybe in a year when they have grown, been caught and are on someone’s plate the toxicity will continue along the food chain.

Last night I sat on the beach away from the foul smelling mouth of the river and looked onto the sea. In the distance you can make out the lights of the fishing boats. The poor fish. We give them such a hard time. If we are not leaving our rubbish to go into the sea then we are polluting the rivers leading to the sea or hunting them down at night. They are attacked on all sides.

It’s impossible for me not to feel negative. Last Sunday Francisco and I pulled out rubbish from the river which stops at the beach. Two days later pretty much everything in that river was dead. Was there any point? All that beach cleaning every week and then there are tiny fish flailing about dying in front of my eyes as I try to desperately get them back in the water. Hundreds, maybe a thousand dead.

The call to the environmental minister never happened (as if!)  and the same guy that suggested it now just shrugs and says it has happened before and I shouldn’t make myself upset over it. I’ve been in a zen blissed out bubble since I have been here – a state of mind where worries have been unabke to penetrate –  but the bubble has well and truly burst.

Montanita is the place it is because there is little regulation. People here talk about how up to seven years ago even the police didn’t venture her, everyone literally turned a blind eye to the lack of property deeds, regulations and drugs, it  was a place where you really could do what you wanted. Nowadays the police are everywhere but it is a superficial show of some authority. There still isn’t a system to prevent this happening again. No news coverage, no fines, no one actually cares that much. The guy who did suggest the call to the environmental minister went on to say that maybe I could publicise what happened; use Facebook and make the event a bit more well known. But in reality, what would that do ? Bad press means less tourists and all the people that I have got to know in the time I have been here that work here and depend on tourism for their livelihoods would be affected. A thousand or more fish are still dead. It’s happened before; nothing has or will be put in place to stop it happening again.

 

Sick fish

The last two days it has rained hard. The Glastonbury style mud to wade through on your way into and out of town is back.

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The rain also brought tragedy. I woke up to the smell of sulpher. The river next to the house had depleted leaving only a few pieces of plastic and a muddy river bed. On my way to work there was a crowd of people looking over the bridge. I can’t describe the sight without tears welling up. So many fish huddled at the side of the river all poking their heads up out of the stagnant and now toxic river. So many fish – and all dying.

Worse was to come. At the beach there were many tiny fish and shrimp out of the water flailing about on the beach. I carried two at a time running to get them back into the water. I have no idea why or what happened but feel absolutely devasted.

At work Francisco talked about the cycle of life. The cycle of life stinks. The toxic river – the same one that me and him pulled bottles out of on Sunday to try and clean it – stinks. Ecuador’s water system stinks. And the people on the beach who carried on sunbathing and swimming while these poor souls are dying there in front of them stink. I don’t know if I saved any lives of the fish I threw back in. Maybe they were river fish and that was why they were on the beach or maybe they were too weak for the tide but I couldn’t not do something. And there was nothing I could do for the fish in the river so it was at least something. One of my Ecuadorian colleagues says we can get in touch with the environmental minister. Great, I can email him I said. No, we can ring him – only in South America surely – just get him on my phone! Well, language wise that is something I will definitely need help with! It’s too late this time but maybe at least something could be done to prevent this happening again.

Sickness, happiness and synchronicity

The last week I’ve been sick. It’s only a cold but it’s wiped me out- these Ecuadorian germs are feisty. And with sickness the very things that I love about being here have become some of the things I hate. The sun and heat is extreme, when I am not well, a constant 30 degrees and three showers a day is an annoyance and no longer something I revel in.

I’ve spent the last five weeks talking to people; either enticing them into the restaurant or badgering them into a beach clean. I now know a lot of people. Great when you are full of beans and love to stop and chat; not great when you look and feel like poo and you just want to pick up your laundry, buy a juice and get home to rest!

Communal living isn’t so much fun.  An  uninterrupted nights sleep became so important to me I took me, my germs and my bad mood off to another town and spent the night there.

The view from my sickness retreat - tough times!
The view from my sickness retreat – tough times!

I’m not writing this to grumble but to put into words my own realisation that my happiness is dependent entirely on my mental perception. The things that made me happy no longer do. Yet those things haven’t changed, only my perception of them. So in reality, I don’t need those things to make me happy, it was my frame of mind that was doing that.  I saw this again yesterday. We have a lot of musicians at the house and I love the constant soundtrack of their singing or playing. However, trying to talk to a friend on the phone yesterday and being bombarded with music everywhere I went I hated the fact that this house is never quiet. But only for that hour. Later, lying down on my bed and listening to Alfredo singing Oasis on the rooftop,I could do nothing but smile!

My week of feeling meh hasn’t been completely without smiles. The day I started feeling ill my boss gave us an unexpected day off the next day and I really needed it to sleep and rest. It was perfectly timed.

The next day back in work his friend dropped off a plant. This is anamu. You boil it up to make a tea.

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And what is it for? It’s said to boost your immune system and relieves (amongst other things) colds, coughs and flu. Just what I needed!

Three beach cleans and dolphins!

Three beach cleans in one weekend – the self belief is flowing! Saturday’s beach clean was only me for the first ten minutes or so. Self belief is a funny thing. My fear last week was that no one would turn up and yet a week on it had finally happened and I genuinely didn’t care. However, that is not to say that the sight of my boss walking along the beach to join me ten minutes in was the best ever! Despite my cajoling and general pestering he had never made it to a beach clean yet so to turn up when no one else had was unexpected but perfect timing. 

Later that day I went for a swim. For the first time ever I saw a big school of fish in the sea. I swam side by side with them as they poked their heads up to the surface to eat the plankton. In my head they had come along to say thank you ( my head is a great place to be somtimes; reality seldolm gets a look in!).

Beautiful Montanita - how could I not try to keep it pristine?
Beautiful Montanita – how could I not try to keep it pristine?

Sunday morning the numbers were back up. Five people helped and  we were rewarded with the sight of a few dolphins swimming by. Again, I’m taking it as the ocean’s way of saying thanks!

Sunday afternoon I went down to the beach to meet a man who organises ocean cleaning dives. He had organised a beach clean for that afternoon and together with five others we cleaned the beach. He wasn’t the man who I had talked to last week about ocean cleaning dives but he had heard about my beach cleans and had called into the restaurant a couple of times to ask me to help – that felt pretty good – look at me with my beach cleaning friends!

Sunday afternoon was the culmination of a three day surf competition  so not only were there loads of people on the beach but also they had a sound system set up for the surfing scores. Once it was announced on the sound system that we were cleaning the beach lots of people brought rubbish to us. One man even asked for a bag and joined us. I like to clean the beach early in the morning to get the rubbish cleared up before the tide takes it away. But it was really good to do it in front of so many people and get their attention with the microphone. Small ripples and new beach cleaning friends – very happy!

Sunset at Montanita - and an ocean where the dolphins and fish say thanks!
Sunset at Montanita – and an ocean where the dolphins and fish say thanks!

 

Easter beach cleans and maintaining self belief

There are no Easter eggs in Ecuador but they do have an Easter soup! It is called Fanesca – it is made from a selection of Ecuadorian grains (yum) but also salted codfish (not so yum, well that’s not entirely true for me to say- I love salted codfish so much but these days I love fish alive and well even more).  But any recipe can be veganised so without the fish element the restaurant made a vegan Fanesca. Definitely yum!

For Montanita Easter is the biggest weekend. The town has never been so busy since I’ve been here. More people means more rubbish on the beach. Originally, I thought I would leave the beach cleaning for this weekend.  It is hard enough to convince people to get up early at the weekend anyway so doing it during Montanita’s busiest weekend was asking too much.

As I left work Friday night my boss asked about the beach clean as town was so busy and the beach was going to be a mess. With his words on my mind I woke up early the next day and as I now have a stockpile of bin bags and gloves thought I might as well head down to the beach by myself and see what I could do. One person might not make much a difference but it is still more than doing nothing.

As I was walking out of the house a friend was also awake and came with me. I was really glad we went, even just the two of us we collected a lot. Motivation to get more people on board for another beach clean the next morning.

I printed this on the Saturday thinking it was still Friday..ooh, that holiday feeling when you lose track of days!
I printed this on the Saturday thinking it was still Friday..ooh, that holiday feeling when you lose track of days!

With less than a day’s notice, four people joined me. One of whom was Andy who not only collected rubbish but also spoke to as many people as possible to tell them about what we were doing and why. This is one of the families he befriended!

Easter Sunday beach clean. Searched the entire beach but not one Easter egg to be found!
Easter Sunday beach clean. Searched the entire beach but not one Easter egg to be found!

He said instead of flyers I should be handing out bin bags to people. He’s got a good point but I would rather people choose to help instead of telling them they must. He  also did a sterling job in re-kindling my flagging self belief too. I hate to feel as if I am harassing people and (even worse) hate to spoil the party. Saturday was nice because it wasn’t planned and was just me and a friend seeing what could do. And we could do a lot! Knowing that Sunday would be worse motivated me to get other people on board. Four other lovely souls up early, one of whom had only had a few hours sleep, and with less than a day’s notice was good going. We collected a lot and thanks to Andy talked to a lot of people. It’s a good feeling.

Yesterday I read that it is estimated there are 46000 pieces of plastic in every mile of ocean. Not a good feeling. But it is facts like this that motivate me to keep going. A little later I spoke to a man who organises beach cleans up and down large sections of this coast. More reaffirmation that I was at least doing something useful. He is a diver and looking for volunteers to dive and pick up rubbish in the sea. What a fantastic project! I told him I could  put up a poster in the restaurant to try and find volunteers for him.  Today I read about the autopsy of two whales had found a lot of plastic in them. And it’s sad stories like this that bolster my self belief. Knowing things like this how can we do nothing; every small effort counts whether it’s preventing more rubbish or making people think a little more.

 

 

 

Los Frailes and Ayampe

There is life outside Montanita! And this is what it looks like!

Los Frailes

Just an hour away by bus (along the Ruta del Sol – love the name, it is as good as it sounds!) is Los Frailes, a beautiful beach in Machalilla National Park. As it is Semana Santa I expected it to be busy but there were just two other families when I arrived.

Los Frailes

I swim everyday but this was magical. The water is calm and clear and apart from one pelican I had the water all to myself. As it is National Park the list of things you are not allowed to take onto the beach was impressive. They are even particular about maintaining the colour of the sand.

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If you follow the guidelines only yourself, water and an umbrella for shade can be taken on the beach. This makes it impeccably clean. There isn’t anyone there to police this but you know you have found a little piece of paradise and people act accordingly. This is the solution – if we gave every beach in the world national park status they would all be this clean. How amazing would that be? In fact, why stop there, the whole planet could be paradise if we treated it so, we should make anywhere outside of towns and cities national park.

The town nearest to Los Frailes is not so pleasant. For a start it is a fishing town. Menu boards full of fish and even fish cooked on the street are sad sights to a vegan.

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Puerto Lopez - too many (fishing) boats of death makes it hard for me to warm to this place.
Puerto Lopez – too many (fishing) boats of death makes it hard for me to warm to this place.

But it does have some great graffiti showing ocean love.

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Also in its favour are the prices which after Montanita were a happy surprise.This is probably my most authentic (veganised) Ecuadorian meal yet.

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Plantain, rice, salad and potato sauce - carb heavy but epic!
Plantain, rice, salad and potato sauce – carb heavy but epic!

It cost 2.50 dollars for everything including the drink. In Montanita that would get me a juice. It also gave me the chance to visit my first supermarket in Ecuador. For me this was the cause of great excitement! No really! I love food shopping but in a different country even more so. I love seeing new fruits and vegetables and getting a ‘flavour’ of what people eat.

Back on the bus and I stopped at the small town Ayampe. It already reminded me of Costa Rica before I knew it was a turtle beach.

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It’s a nice beach but could be cleaner. I say this not because I am obsessed with this stuff ( ok, maybe just a little) but as a place where endangered species are laying eggs this place needs to be pristine.

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That aside the sunset was spectacular.

Ahhh, Ecuador!
Ahhh, Ecuador!

And early the next day my heart lifted when I saw a young boy picking up rubbish from the beach. The next generation are a wise lot; more of this and the future will be bright.

Best job in the world (for me)

The location is perfect. It’s one short street from the beach. I can drop my things off, pick up a surfboard, walk barefoot to the beach and be in the water in less than five minutes.

Vegan food & surf - it's a winning combination. Feeling the love for both!
Vegan food & surf – it’s a winning combination. Feeling the love for both!

Likewise if I am heading back from the beach after sunset it’s only a few minutes after finishing that cocktail and dusting the sand away that I am in work and ready to start my shift.

Vegan pizza with potato cheese swirl.
Vegan pizza with potato cheese swirl.

But it’s not really work. If you love what you do then you don’t feel as if you are doing work. There’s music playing, yummy food cooking, gorgeous colleagues, lovely customers and a whole lot of love and good vibes going on. I love talking about vegan food, I love cooking vegan food, I love eating vegan food. I love doing something I believe 100% in.

Yucca cakes and vegetable empanadas.
Yucca cakes and vegetable empanadas.

When you are having a meh day (only one so far) and you walk into work and this is happening how can you not smile?

4 metre surfboard ready for wax and some action!
4 metre surfboard ready for wax and some action!

Francisco ( the boss) and another volunteer took this 4 metre monster out for a surf. As a guide to it’s side look at a normal surfboard in comparison!

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All the time I have been here I thought it was for decorative use only but why not use it too? A surfboard made for two…or three, four, five!

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Ocean love – two beachcleans in one week

An impromptu beach clean last Sunday morning and a sunset beach clean this weekend brings the total to four beach cleans in two weeks. Much love to the ocean!

Early and hot on a Sunday morning but still smiling!
Early and hot on a Sunday morning but still smiling!
Saturday sunset beach clean.
Saturday sunset beach clean.

Hats off to the good folk of Montanita who not only tolerated but actively encouraged all efforts. One lovely man let me tape flyers to his beach chairs and two others helped collect rubbish and bought us beers when we were finished. Big smiles all round! There were a fair few people who walked over to put rubbish in our bags and some lovely people who thanked us for what we were doing – spreading some ocean love and hoping my tiny  efforts make some ripples to bring about lasting change.

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But it’s not all beach cleaning fun. Most mornings I can be found swimming or inexpertly flailing about with a surfboard.

Love this board! Shortest board I've ever stood up on....albeit for milliseconds at a time!
Love this board! Shortest board I’ve ever stood up on….albeit for milliseconds at a time!

And in the evening more often than not I’m back on the beach with a cocktail or a beer in one hand to watch the sunset.

Everyday is spectacular.
Everyday is spectacular.

Vegetarian, pescatarian and vegan ceviche!

Making the switch from meat eater to pescatarian was the easiest transition for me. Of course it was because I was still eating flesh. Only I didn’t view it as that, I saw it as being vegetarian  and supplementing my diet with protein now and again.  Poisonous protein, protein that is full of toxins and now plastic because our seas are toxic and full of plastic.

Plastic Oceans

It took less than a minute of footage from a fish farm documentary to know that I couldn’t ever eat fish from there.  Hundreds of fish packed so close every scale touched another fish, all fighting for room to swim. Fish that is packaged as sustainable. No method of fishing is sustainable. A 2006 study preficts that if fishing rates continue apace the global fisheries will collapse by 2048.  And much closer than that if current trends and methods continue in fish farming the aquaculture could outgrow the supply of fishmeal by 2020.

A huge problem is that we are taking out without putting anything back in. And what we are taking out is not even being used wisely. 31.5 million tonnes of fish caught from the ocean each year is ground up for animal feed. So the sea is sustaining animal life on the land but nothing is sustaining the fish in the sea. In fact the world wildlife fund has concluded that 90% of the oceans large fish have already been fished out.

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The effects can already be seen. I got chatting to a conservationist in Costa Rica who says all of the fishermen and boat owners older than 40 talk about how the sea has changed during their lifetime. Before the fish were visible from the boat and now, well, now, they just aren’t there.

No fish means the sea will die. And if that happens then so do we.

limit fish

For all of my many pescatarian years I thought I was contributing to a healthier planet and a healthier me. But I couldn’t be further from the truth. I was not part of the solution, I was part of the problem.

For every lb of prawns, 26lbs of fish have been caught. A difficult ratio to stomach :(
For every lb of prawns, 26lbs of fish have been caught. A difficult ratio to stomach :(
Mango ceviche from Amor Infinito. The only mangoes that died in the making of this are the ones you can see! And the mango tree is still alive and well and currently producing more mangoes for the next batch of ceviche!
Mango ceviche from Amor Infinito. The only mangoes that died in the making of this are the ones you can see! And the mango tree is still alive and well and currently producing more mangoes for the next batch of ceviche!

We don’t always have choices over what we eat but if I continue to be fortunate to have a choice then my choice will always be vegan. I wouldn’t dare tell someone what to eat ( although in my early vegan days and months I did !) but make an informed choice. Meat is not something I can buy into but may make more ecological sense than fish. Cows, pigs and sheep are not at a critical point where they will run out, fish really are. In fact, it may already be too late.