In Ecuador the rivalry between the coast and highlands is ancient, going back further than the Inca Empire’s control of the mountains and lack thereof in the coast. Culturally and politically the two most populous regions of the country are worlds apart and the rivalry has often stemmed from economic and social factors. In wartime often the two sides colluded with enemies to inconvenience the other.
To costeños (people of the coast), serranos (people of the mountains) are a deeply conservative, quiet and elitist people who eat nothing but potatoes. To serranos, costeños are lazy liberals who prefer to spend their lives joking and partying when they should be keeping their streets clean.There is truth to both of these of course but in general these stereotypes are highly exaggerated but yet the rivalry remains.
Throughout my pre-service training in Quito, the Peace Corps staff introduced us to Ecuadorian culture and society but with a heavily serrano perspective. This in part made many of us volunteers fearful of the coast, especially given the high rates of violent crime, robbery and sexual assault. Adding to this was a miserable visit to Guayaquil in the midst of the rainy season and the oppressive heat and humidity that accompany it. After this there was little desire for me to return to the coast but in the end I ended up being placed right in the middle of Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil, La Perla del Pacifico (The Pearl of the Pacific).
It’s no secret that I prefer many of the characteristics that are attributed to the sierra. From the cold winds that permeate from the towering Andes, to the clean streets and pristine roads recently built in the past 10 years, to the ancient traditions of the indigenous people and their struggle for autonomy and recognition. During training I remember people saying that your site and Peace Corps service is what you make of it; after finding out that I was going to the coast I scoffed at the idea, believing that I couldn’t survive for 2 years there. But the reality is that after living in Guayaquil for 5 months now, I don’t feel unhappy about my site placement.
It’s true that Guayaquil is dirty and that people feel the need to throw trash among other things) anywhere, that walls and sidewalks are essentially toilets for the city’s large population of homeless people, that people are very direct and stare at foreigners to the point of causing discomfort and that racist remarks are said casually and jokingly. Yet there’s more to the coast than these negatives; people are very friendly and willing to help, the food is a rich tapestry of diversity that derives from the mixture of cultures, there are less packs of rabid dogs wandering the streets, people are a bit more accepting of diversity (usually, sometimes).
After working in my school, getting to know students and teachers and being slowly integrated into society it feels strange to be away from it for too long. The past few weeks in Quito were difficult due to the long hours of training and limited free time. At the same time it was great to see all the volunteers again and enjoy the cold weather but after a few days I was ready to be back working despite the heat, dirty street and crime. Guayaquil has become my home, the place where I feel comfortable and I know that if I ever want to get away for a few days, the sierra is just a bus ride away.
In terms of a wider scope I realize that the differences between the people of the coast and sierra are an integral part of what makes Ecuador the country it is. You can never truly understand Ecuador by staying in one place, it’s neither Quito nor Guayaquil: it’s both. They may be different in many ways, but the process of exchange between them means Ecuador’s clashing cultures have produced the modern state that exists today.