The Pearl of the Pacific: Navigating Guayaquil (Thoughts From My Recent Trip)

Robert Fenton. Guayaquil, Globalization and Development: Impressions of the “Pearl of the Pacific.”

Guayaquil is said to be a city of ferociously proud, hard-partying costeños, closely-knit families, fairly modernized infrastructure (by Ecuadorian standards), as well as the country’s center of economic activity (exporting and manufacturing). The people who call it home come from a variety of backgrounds (Afro-Ecuadorian, European, Chinese, Indigenous, and so on) and their everyday lives (food, music, dress, work, etc.) embody this rich mixture of cultures, reflecting their origins through this multiplicity of activities and rituals. The Catholicism, at times, can be suffocating to those not accustomed to the rather expressive and diffuse nature of it in Latin America—here Ecuador isn’t really all that different. It is through religion that Guayaquil, and Ecuador in general, can be tied to the first wave of modernization and globalization induced by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors who attempted to spread both economic relations and the cultural formations that applied to them—in this case a very baroque version of Catholicism. And yet the current developments the city is undergoing are not related to Catholicism at all, even as evangelicals, Jehovah witnesses, and Pentecostals amplify their position amongst the residents. Though the city is comprised of a mosaic of streets, plazas, parks, people, cultures, and the like; the one thing that unites them, which even forces nationality to take a backseat, is their identification as Guayacos, guayaquileños, or, as they are known in the Sierra, as monos.

After spending nearly three weeks here, even experiencing the festivities of the celebration of Guayaquil’s founding, replete with parades and fireworks, the city oozes pride—specifically self-pride—in nearly all facets of life. City flags hang from the cage-like bars that cover almost all windows in the city, are stuck to posts and on car windows, bumpers, and so on. Tourist excursions, such as the $4 trip to the Isla Santay across the Rio Guayas, and even dining out, specifically to crab houses (a popular dish in the city), exposes the ear to the patriotic songs of the valiant city of heroes and independence. Provincial seems like such a petty term to describe this level of attachment, but for the unaccustomed outsider this appears to be the case. And yet there is a cosmopolitan skew to this pride. The city prides itself on its modernity, on integration (definitely more racially and ethnically integrated than other parts of the country), on being an economic player on the global stage. Boasting one of the nicest international airports in Latin America, a World Trade Center, international hotel chains (Hilton, Wyndham, Sheraton, Marriot, etc.), being a primary shipping hub for agricultural goods and industrial materials, and so forth, the city is deeply entwined in global economic movements—even if that globality seems difficult to grasp on the streets. But it is in these same streets where “modernity” gets blurred and the effects of class on urban development become most pronounced. The intercalated mish-mash of rush hour most clearly illustrates this point.

As per my last blog, movement and transportation through the lens of globalization are of central importance to my own research interests. What really strikes my fancy are the layers of activity that I see at work in this city. Firstly, urban planning primarily follows a grid pattern with larger avenues linking districts of the city, which are called ciudadelas. Due to natural limitations, this is not a perfectly rectilinear grid pattern. From what I have been told, roads have been improved since early 2000’s when many streets were in extreme disrepair, but they still lag behind Western standards. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the roads tend to allow for the sort of “improvisation” required to navigate the city.

The roadways are utilized by a variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, cars, busetas, Metrovia buses, emergency vehicles, transport vehicles, and so forth. The introduction of the Metrovia in 2008, a bus-rapid transit system styled those popularized in Brazil and Colombia (see my last post), led to a reorganization of transportation and the utilization of roads in the city. The Metrovia reorganized bus service, so now “feeder” buses go to central terminals where passengers can transfer to Metrovia. The articulated Metrovia buses have their own dedicated traffic lane, which does not mean that other vehicles don’t improvise uses for it when it is empty. This dedicated lane is often right next to other traffic lanes and is separated only by a curb in most cases. The articulated Metrovia buses stop ever couple of hundred meters at dedicated, elevated stops where passengers enter and exit. A trip with all transfers included costs only 25 cents. Aesthetically the buses are nicer than the privately run, more hectic busetas, but they are not comparable to standards one might expect in the US or Europe. That said, the most palpable issue with transportation on the Metrovia, or any form of transport in the city, is safety; the criminal element causes people to clutch bags and hide jewelry at every turn.

To say that most people don’t own cars would not be a stretch, though at this point I am going mostly off of anecdotal evidence; though I am sure I could find Data to support this claim. That said, mass transit or by taxi seem to be the most common methods of transport. Taxis, which run from the gamut from an official, corporately structured enterprise to random people offering rides for cash, do not run on any sort of meter or metric by which prices are calculated: they are always negotiated prior to the service and agreed upon before the customer even enters the vehicle. Again, we find this may be totally alien to Westerners from the so-called developed economic centers, but this is a fact of everyday life in Ecuador, where price is always something open to negotiation in markets and the like (though malls, department stores, supermarkets, and restaurants tend to have a fixed pricing scheme—meaning little negotiation of prices at point of sale). Fares from the north to the city center run about $3, and taxis tend to congregate near malls and sites of interest, but one can almost always walk to an avenue or throughway and catch a taxi.

I could continue with the typological breakdown of transportation options in the city, which is something I am working on for a brief comparative analysis, but I want to highlight these two means of transport, because they sort of represent the (formal) working class and middle class modes of transport. How about the people that live on the hillsides surrounding the city in the invasiones? I have not the slightest idea, and it would be extremely dangerous to go walking around those places asking questions, even for someone native to the city (I was constantly given a dismissive laugh and second guessed by people to which I posed the question of going into these “slums”). This is something I want to explore later on, but for now I will assume that these communities are more isolated and insular than others which are more regularly serviced by mass transit—taxis don’t go into these communities.

What does all of this mean? I am still trying to wrap my head around the information, but I want to also correlate development in transportation infrastructure with urban renovation in the city as a sort of development project used to attract investment and tourism. All of the major urban renovation projects (Malecon 2000, Barrio Las Peñas, Inter-regional Bus Terminal, Airport, and so forth) are all linked together by the Metrovia bus system with stops dedicated to each (except for Malecon 2000, which runs some 2.2 kms of the city center. Moreover, all major tourist sites can be accesses by the Metrovia, save for the Parque Historico, which is located in Sanborondon just across the river from the Airport. This is a classic example of regeneration as an economic strategy, directly attributable to the city’s mayor since 2000, Jaime Nebot. This, if we are to believe much of the readings on the subject of gentrification and neoliberalism, is the sort of prototypical approach making a city attractive to capital and the middle and upper classes, who have fled to the suburbs (this is also the case in and around Guayaquil where the suburbs are mainly expansive tracts of gated communities).

My interest lies in the intersection of this sort of submission to capital as a policy and development initiative versus the actual engagement with everyday city life that we would expect on the ground, so to speak. Security issues are on the minds of all as they step out onto the streets, even for the most prosaic of purposes—which is not to say these people are paralyzed by fear. Yet, what we see is beefed up security in places most directed at tourism and middle-class lifestyles (shopping, banking, etc.). Furthermore, the rhythms of the city and its everyday life need to be analyzed, as well as how people understand the city as a whole and how it relates to their everyday activities. I would personally love to spend more time understanding how the city fuels itself on food, as that has been and still is a research interest of mine. Another thing I need to examine more thoroughly is the aesthetic dimensions of transportation in the city—of which I haven’t spent enough time thinking through and gauging how people view such phenomena. Anyway, I will try to get pictures up ASAP and will continue to test ideas on this forum in hopes that I can engage a few people and start up some conversation.