By Caitlin Flannery, Palma Real, Ecuador
It is a true waterworld.
With the entire four-square-block town center precariously balancing on bamboo stilts, every detail of this place fascinated me from the moment I stepped out of the turquoise lancha into the vibrant and forgotten community of Palma Real. Running toward the dock to take an afternoon dip, gaggles of unsupervised children dodged mangy dogs, while svelte, hard-muscled men, wearing rubber boots and carrying motors (the equivalent of a suit and briefcase in many places) headed home after a long day on the job. Rickety wooden walkways and tin-roofed raised houses kept the nimble children above the trash-filled, chicken-pecked marshy muck lying below (or oil slicked water, depending on the tides). Women lethargically wielded machetes, chopping up the catch of the day. Confident teenage boys strolled by with woven baskets full of “conchas,” black shellfish collected in the mangroves in which the community is nestled. Despite no electricity, phone service, or internet on the island, salsa music blasted from speakers and ubiquitous color TVs blared Colombian channels, fueled by generators. As I greedily struggled to absorb all the sights, sounds, and smells with mental pictures (a camera just doesn’t do the place justice), what continuously caught my attention was not only the sheer number of children in the community but their daily unsupervised activities.
Maybe it’s because I was a teacher, or maybe just because I was raised in middle-class U.S. culture, but I was constantly worrying about those unsupervised children, even though the community is effectively one huge playground, enclosed by mangroves, jungle, or beach on all sides. Toddlers as young as two years old wandered alone up and down the wooden walkways, where one wrong step gets you a rusty nail in the foot or a Home-Alone style loose plank to the face. Remember that warning about never, EVER putting a plastic bag over your head, no matter the circumstances? That rule doesn’t apply here in Palma Real; in fact, it only adds a fun challenge to walking on the aforementioned dock. Putting shoes on to go out in public? Nope, no need. Taking candy from strangers? That’s fine too. Rolling old bike tires while running naked down the beach? Crawling in foot-wide crevices between and underneath dilapidated houses supported by bamboo poles? Just another day on the Palma Real playground.
Well, apparently those kids all had the same worries about us being unsupervised at any moment in the day, even when going to the bathroom. I have never felt so popular as I did in Palma Real. At any given moment, we had three to eight children (ages 4-16) accompanying us, yelling our names and greetings in broken English, or just plain staring. Whenever out in public, whether it was sipping our only real coffee of the visit in the Colombian man’s living room bakery, preparing for the workshop in the community government building, sitting on the dock doing interviews with workshop participants, or watching a community soccer game, we always had our faithful companions by our sides. Even when we needed a break, kids were banging down the door to hang out with us—literally. One night, hearing our names being called and frantic pounding on our tin door at decibels likely to cause permanent ear damage, I descended the stairs to discover the source of the ruckus. I opened the door only to find some teens who wanted help with their English homework.
One of my favorite moments with the unsupervised children was when Kelli, Lala, and I set out with our cameras to try to capture (unsuccessfully) the beauty, filth, and character of the community and its people. As I strolled along the walkway, feeling like the Pied Piper as more and more children fell in step behind us, I felt a tug on my shorts and looked down to see a tiny little girl with wispy hair looking up at me with huge innocent eyes and open outstretched arms. I immediately knelt down and gave her a hug, and Kelli snapped a picture of us. Before I knew it, the three of us had transformed into professional babysitting photographers and all of the Top Models of Palma Real were clamoring over each other to have their photo taken, subsequently grabbing and peering at the camera, giggling and shoving each other out of the way, then scampering to pose again. Each click of the camera drew in more timid, curious kids and revealed more silliness and personality in our Top Models. Our primary school subjects led the shoot, running in front of houses and throwing gang signs, climbing on and into boats, posing on the beach, and pulling even littler siblings into the frame along the way. As the children continued to invite us into their world, I found myself letting go of the worry of possible accidents – a splinter in a bare foot, sand in the eyes, or broken bones from a fall into the mud pit – and relaxing into the free and adventurous life of a Palma Real child.
Post-project, although mentally still on the Palma Real playground, I was once again exposed to my own culture’s norms when we came upon an American TV program while channel-flipping in Lala’s Tonsupa beach condo. Despite my initial reluctance, I found my curiosity piqued as the reality-TV guest set up a complicated technical contraption, with a large sliding weight on a vertical pole, on a U.S. playground. He explained that by releasing the weight from various heights, he could test the shock absorbency of various playground surfaces to see if they were up to U.S. standards. As I watched, he continued to administer various safety tests, while the screen flashed cartoon pass/fail graphics complete with kitschy sound effects. The man’s last test was to verify adequate clearance distance between jungle gym bars with a foam sphere the size of a child’s head. As the program cut to commercials, the spell broke, and I once again became aware of my current reality; I glanced at the other girls and after a moment, we all burst out laughing.