Our short time in Manta provided us with so many stories to tell, that there simply wasn’t enough time earlier. But, let’s take over where we left off, on the road to Montecristi.
As we approached the city, we began to see hints of what makes this place famous.
These chaps working on woven furniture waved as we drove past. The heat was building even though there was still a fairly heavy cloud cover and there must have been hardly a breath of air in that dark little corner.
As always, I enjoyed looking out over the ordinary streets, watching people going about their business. The flower shop was selling rather large and elaborate constructions, maybe for use in church? But driving past so quickly, I didn’t get chance to see what snacks were in the glass case, sadly.
Our first stop in the city was the home of former President Eloy Alfaro, because just as I’m spinning it out before we cut to the chase, so did Walter. There we all were, feeling desperate to get to the real business we’d come to do, and here we were, mooching around this rather empty and featureless house with a creepy dummy of the man none of us had heard of sitting at a desk.
Come on, Walter!
At last! Down in the garden behind the house was a handful of hat weavers, each one working on a hat in exactly the way we’d been led to expect – leaning over it and working “upside down”. I have to say, it looked really uncomfortable!
Each woman was working to a different pattern. We’d learned about the various hat quality standards, what to look for and how to choose a good one, so we did our best to put this new found knowledge to good use and did our best to speak with authority about it all!
In particular I admired this beautifully patterned hat, being made by this older lady. Walter told us that a hat such as this, of “superfino” quality, could take weeks to make. No wonder some were pretty pricy.
Having made the basic construction around a block, the hat was washed and cleaned before pressing with an old fashioned flat iron.
Then, of course, the edge would be woven and the hat pressed further into shape.
Yet again, I just couldn’t imagine working in this position for hours on end, can you?
Anyway, as the band stuck up another noisy number, we shielded our ears from the din and made our way across the road and into the square.
Let the hat buying begin!
To begin with, we were wary. We tried on a few and decided what shape and size we preferred. One that I tried was so very small, I could have played a leading role in a silent movie Another was so gorgeous, so silky and had an almost linen-like drape to it. Yes, you’ve guessed, it was a “superfino” too, and at $200, would be rather more of an investment than I needed.
So we went on further, to another stall and tried on more. Eventually, we each found our prefect hat – my hero settled on a beautiful “fino” quality one whilst the hat which fitted (and suited) me best was a mere “regular”. We were glad of expert advice from the gentleman who was doing the selling, accepting his guidance about the fit and the need for a second, horsehair band to make adjustment a little easier.
He packed our hats into their balsa wood boxes, showing us how to roll them so they will retain their shape for years.
He then gladly posed for a photograph!
We had a little time left, so we took a quick look at what else was on offer.
As well as the hats, there were bags and beads.
A little further on down the street, there were hammocks, too.
Everything was so colourful and hearing music coming from one of the shops, I stopped and savoured the moment. Yes, really, we were in South America and wasn’t it great?!
As we stopped for a break and enjoyed a cold, local beer in a small corner cafe, I decided to run off and buy another hat to bring home for our boy, so returned to the same gentleman who had sold us our hats earlier and he found me the perfect one, throwing a horsehair band into the box as well. With a smile and a “thank you!”, he packaged it all up in no time. A bonus!
And that was that – or so we thought. I quickly snapped a picture of the ceiling of the chiva which had stopped right by us and made my way back to our bus. But rather than head straight back to the ship, we had one last call to make.
OK, who has heard of a tagua nut? Not us, that’s for sure. But here, in the yard of a small factory, they were laid out in the sun, drying so they could be shelled and made into useful and (occasionally!) decorative items. “Vegetable Ivory” was the term Walter applied to it.
No, they are not edible. They appear to have little use beyond what goes on here, in fact.
Picking up the whole fruit, which contained up to a hundred individual nuts, Walter did his best to explain what, where, why… but we stood looking at a heap of what looked like pebbles and tried hard to work out what we needed to know about tagua and why we hadn’t heard of it before now.
We mooched around the jewellery stalls which held our attention for a while.
We looked at the ornaments created from these nuts and came to a swift conclusion that our shelves at home are far too full already and that we have no space for a blue footed booby or a leaping dolphin, for that matter.
Instead, we stepped inside the “button factory” – not really a factory at all but a small place where the process of creating buttons from these nuts could be demonstrated. At this point, I must issue a warning: If you have anything to do with Health and Safety (yes, I do!) or working conditions, then turn a blind eye to everything you see here and write it off as a tourist anachronism, because otherwise, you are going to shudder as I did!
So, the first process was to cut slices from the nuts using an electric bandsaw. Note the taped fingers and the wooden “pusher”? The lack of safety guard on the blade? Yes, I did too…
Next, put a slice in the machine to cut a circular hole. “"Oooh, yes”, said one lady in our group rather excitedly, “I guess the circle is going to be the button!”.
Assuming she was correct (!) the solid circles of nut were put through the next machine, which drilled two holes and shaped the top.
Result, one button. Simple, yes? Actually, these buttons were shooting out here and there from this machine and guess who was picking them up from the floor, thinking “I could do something with that…”
The final process was to watch as a chap carved the shape of a rabbit from one of these nuts. Once again, the consequences of a slip of the hand didn’t bear thinking about, for this circular saw had no safety guard at all, the operator wore no safety glasses or any other protective clothing either. At this point, I wanted to summon up all of those tutors I work with who question Health and Safety precautions and ask if this is how they’d prefer to work!
No, thank you!
But a rabbit was carved and offered to a member of the group and off we went, knowing as much as we were likely to ever know about the tagua nut and it’s potential as a material for both decorative and useful purposes.
Before we left, I took a minute to look out over this green and leafy corner of Ecuador, thinking how remote and unspoiled it appeared from this spot. Was it altogether a bad thing for these people to make their living from carving rabbits for tourists from an otherwise useless nut? After all, that beautiful green landscape might have been ripped apart for something far more damaging.
As we drove away and through the next village, school was turning out for the afternoon.
We continued back to the port of Manta, where the sunshine and blue sky was making the beach look rather more attractive than it had this morning.
We’d passed the shipwrights’ workshops on our way out, but now there was time to stop and take a photo of these great pieces of craftsmanship.
Walter shared our admiration and was happy to stop there as long as we enjoyed seeing what was going on.
And there, across the beach with the fishermen and their carts, was our home for the time being. One lovely white ship on the horizon, beckoning us back.
As we approached the entrance to the harbour we knew how lucky we were to have somewhere so beautiful to return to. Because, the joy of making a journey like this on a ship as comfortable as the Mariner is not only to go off each morning to new places and see interesting things, but best of all, to come back to a warm “welcome home!”
We made our way back up to our suite, freshened up and went for a spot of lunch on the pool deck. The grill was fired up, the beer was cold and we were feeling just a little more than peckish! Well, it had been quite an early start, hadn’t it?