Episode 47 – Manta…. Oh, Man!

We’re at sea today, so we have time to review everything we did yesterday. It was a very full day!

We docked early morning in the port of Manta Avenida, Ecuador, an absolutely gorgeous fishing port adjacent to a white sand beach with pounding surf, sand cliffs, and a view of the town of Manta. This is not normally a port that sees ships the size of the Viking Sun,as you can tell from how out of place we look docked there.

At breakfast, we watched massive nets of glistening silver tuna (the area’s biggest export) being loaded into containers. The efforts involved in getting “just one more net-full” of fish into each container were almost comical; at one point, the crew were throwing fish back into the nets, instead of dumping them out – there was just no room for even one more fish!

Ecuador exports 300,000 tons tuna per year, mostly fresh sushi quality to the US, like what we saw being loaded, but also frozen tuna (it has to be frozen since the huge boats that fish further out in the ocean may stay out for months before their holds are full) destined to become cans of StarKist.

Our morning tour guide, once again, was outstanding, giving us tons of information about his country. I didn’t know that the #1 industry was petroleum, which accounts for almost half of the country’s economy. The wide fluctuations in petroleum prices, and the resulting wild fluctuations in the value of the Ecuadorian currency were what led to the country adopting the US dollar in 1999.

We also didn’t know that Ecuador’s 2008 constitution protects biodiversity, giving the environment full recognition as a member of society, and focuses on prioritizing medicine and education. Ecuadorians and their government both seem to understand the importance of the fact that their country is home to the most biodiversity per square kilometre of any nation on earth (Google it!) … not to mention being the home of the Galapagos Islands.

We learned that Ecuador is recognized worldwide for growing the #1 quality cacao beans (that get turned into the most premium bars of dark chocolate), bananas (300 varieties from finger-sized to plantains, although only 5 kinds are widely exported), and roses. Learning about the flower industry brought to mind my mother’s stories of working for the Roy Nicholson flower importing company in Burlington in the 1950’s. She was Roy’s personal secretary and often had white roses on her desk – from Ecuador!

Ecuadorians cede #1 in coffee to Colombia … reluctantly … but the cups we stopped for at a café on the square were delicious.

The short bus ride to Manta was beautiful. It’s no wonder this town is full of Canadian expats every winter. Although there are a few buildings still being repaired after the 2016 earthquake, most of the town looks well-maintained and prosperous. The beach area is the most tourist-oriented place we’ve seen so far in South or Central America, complete with huge monuments to tuna!

The monuments to tuna made us smile!

Just past the daily fish market is an ocean-side shipyard dedicated to repairing mahogany wood fishing vessels. The government subsidizes the shipyard, since it is the only one of its kind remaining in Ecuador. An original wooden fishing vessel can cost as much as $500,000 USD. Modern boats are now being made of fibreglass instead of wood, with wood trim used decoratively.

Our morning tour was to the Colonial town of Montecristi, birthplace of the sombrero de paja toquilla, which later became known as the Panama hat. The hat was a design favoured by workers building the Panama Canal, and became a fashion statement after President Teddy Roosevelt was photographed wearing one during his 1904 visit to the canal’s construction site. Nonetheless, it was emphasized many times that the hat is not now, nor ever has been, made in Panama, and it is, in fact, a “Montecristi hat”.

Going around the major traffic circle leading to Montecristi, we were able to get a terrific 360 degree view of the new monument to the hat industry. The bent over position of the lady in the statue is exactly the position in which hat-makers work, but only a couple of hours per day due to the strain on their backs.

In town, we got a mini demo of the hat-making, from picking the plant leaves to finished product, in the town square. One of the strangest part of the process is what happens to the fronds after they are boiled and dried: they change from a wet fettuccine shape and texture to the shape and texture of dried capellini!

L to R: before and after boil and dry; leaning over to weave; close-up weaving; “pounding” the hat to flatten the weave and make it flexible; our morning guide Johnny in a Montecristi hat before the brim is trimmed.

Due to the arduous all-by-hand process of making the hats, a finished hat, worked on by a series of people each specializing in one part of the hat, can take anywhere from 60 hours to 4 MONTHS ! The difference lies largely in the tightness of the weave. An open weave hat (100-200 weaves per square inch) sells for $30 USD and up. The highest quality hats, with a weave so tight it looks like the finest linen, can cost $600 USD or more and may have the weaver working with 16 fine strands of toquilla at one time. Apparently Sylvester Stallone paid over $2000 for a hat made by Ecuador’s premier weaver, Simon, who only makes 2 hats per year.

I have been on permanent lookout for a sun hat that looks good enough on me that I will actually wear it (vain person that I am). I was convinced in Montecristi that a “Montecristi hat” is it! (I opted for an $80 version, at the coarser end of the weave scale.) The seller sized my head and made sure I knew how to tilt, bend, and care for my hat. Now I have no excuse not to wear a hat in the sun.

We had time to visit the artists’ stalls located near what was once Ecuador’s oldest girls’ school, established by President José Eloy Alfaro in the very early 1900’s to allow equal access to education for girls. His face is depicted in a beautiful mosaic (that’s not a painting!) here, and a large statue adorns the town square. While admiring the town’s vibrant core and Spanish-influenced architecture I didn’t resist the temptation to buy a finely woven lightweight cream-coloured shawl from one of the vendors.

While I was wandering the market stalls, Ted ventured inside the Basílica Nuestra Señora de Monserrate, Montecristi’s church on the square, with it’s bright interior and beautiful windows.

In the afternoon, I left Ted behind on the ship to curate photos, while I joined another tour group heading out to learn more about Ecuador’s artisan handicrafts. We got a first-hand look at two crafts that have almost completely died out due to the advent of plastics. Right now, only tourism is keeping these skills alive; hopefully as the world moves away from plastics, they will be revived.

First we visited the last remaining cabuya (a cactus fibre) weaving factory in Ecuador, located near just outside Manta. Here a local type of agave leaves are turned into a sturdy weaving material that can be used to make bags and ship’s ropes. At one time, all the cacao and coffee beans shipped out of South America were shipped in cabuya bags; now there is no industrial or agricultural market for them in the Western Hemisphere. We were taken through the process of scraping, combing, spinning and weaving, all done manually, and were each able to take home a small bag. The woven end result is very much like burlap.

Clockwise from top left: the cabuya agave leaf before and after “scraping” with a wooden paddle (the gentleman in the photo is 90 years old!); combing the leaf fibres; spinning the fibres into “yarn”; 144 spools of yarn fed into the weaving loom; operating the loom (done using two big foot pedals that work like an elliptical machine – no need for this worker to go to the gym!) ; our afternoon guide David with a finished cabuya bag.

As our final stop for the day we visited a Tagua nut factory to see how the nuts from the Ecuadorian Ivory Palm, commonly called the Tagua Palm, are transformed into eco-friendly jewelry and handicrafts. Thinking back to my mom again, in the 1960’s tagua buttons were very popular with dressmakers because their appearance could mimic wood, bone, and ivory in large-size buttons (think the kind you used to see on Jackie Kennedy style jackets). Ecuadorians refer to the Tagua nut as “vegetable ivory”. Once shelled and dried, it can be carved into any shape. Combining the creamy white colour of the nut with its shiny brown skin can make for interesting woodgrain-like patterns. The nut also absorbs natural dyes easily, so can be transformed into any colour desired, and then sealed by rubbing it with wax. Sadly, beautifully coloured and carved Tagua buttons have been replaced by mass-produced plastic ones.

Left top: the Tagua nut “pericarp” which hold multiple nuts. Right: banners describing the Tagua-related products, and several of the raw nuts showing their dark skins (similar to the texture of hazelnut skins). Left bottom: the creamy interior of the nut, used for buttons and jewelry.
I tried to do my share by buying a few souvenirs: slices of Tagua nut turned into keychains personalized for each of our grandsons, and a dyed nut bracelet for me. All are displayed on cabuya bags – one coarse and one finer weave.

Our day ended with a spectacular pre-dinner “destination performance” by an Ecuadorian music and folk dance group called Alas-de-Colibri (wings of the hummingbird). Their costumes and energy were fabulous.

And so we say good night to another day filled with new experiences, new learning, and interesting people. Tomorrow: Panama City.

One comment

  1. Wow, what a busy day! Loved the reflections of your Mom❤️ Funny, I thought coffee would be high up on the exports, but petroleum and tuna… cool.

    Enjoy the rest of your travels. Enjoy Christmas and continue having a fabulous time!

    Cheers, Lynne and John

    PS- your hat looks lovely on you! 👩🏻‍🌾


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