Good Neighbors

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We set up headquarters in the province’s main port, Puerto Bolivar, a kind of bedraggled, slum Venice of cane shanties standing on stilts in a terrain of crushed oyster shells that was totally under water at high tide and was a mud flat at low tide, with interconnecting causeways, again of crushed oyster shells, providing the streets of the town. From Puerto Bolivar’s deepwater dock, extending out from a stone seawall, ocean freighters had once carried away forests of bananas and mountains of the best cocoa beans in the world, bringing fortunes to absentee landlords who spent most of the year in Paris and London. But in the 1920s a predatory growth, called witchbroom disease because of its resemblance to just such an object, had devastated El Oro’s cocoa plantations.

Here in Puerto Bolivar the two dozen members of our mission lived in shanties of split bamboo that were papered on the interior with the newspapers of years gone by, in the vain hope of keeping out insects. Each morning, on opening my eyes, I could read of a “stupendous conflict” predicted in the coming basketball match between the Lorca Panthers and the Chimboya Lions as of May 9, 1936. (I never did find out who won.) The wall also informed me that, as of August 1938, Adolf Hitler was demanding the Sudetenland. (That outcome I knew.) We kept our clothing not in closets but on laundry lines stretching across our rooms to stop the ever-present scorpions with their paralyzing bite from hiding in shirts, pants, and jackets, and we shook out our shoes carefully each morning for the same reason. Over each cot hung a mosquito bar, a kind of bridal canopy of netting under which we took shelter each night against the malaria mosauito. For all our precautions, at any given moment about a third of our crew of approximately twenty-five was down with dysentery, raging skin rashes, or other tropical complaints.

Our personnel was a medley of government bureaucrats, idealistic amateurs, and “tropical tramps,” as they called themselves, technicians who had worked areas like El Oro all over the world but mainly along the west coast of South America. The problem was that with the United States fighting a global war, it was almost impossible to enlist first-rate engineers, physicians, and even agriculturists in less urgent projects such as ours. It was tougher still to locate the iron pipe, locomotive parts, rails, surgical equipment, pumps, bulldozers, plows, and insecticide that were vital to our El Oro program. And yet the pressure was on—from Washington, from Quito, and from our own rather frantic mission chief, a former Army colonel—to come up with some solid accomplishment or, at the very least, to “make a showing.”

By the summer of 1942 the Japanese flag was flying in the Philippines, the Marshall Islands and Marianas, Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. The Germans in their own sneak attack had seemingly pulverized the Russian armies and were besieging Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. In North Africa, Rommel was driving the British back to Egypt and threatening to knife through the Middle East and join up with the Japanese in India.

 

Thus it was no time for our little mission to appear anything but confident, knowledgeable, and effective. Instead, a series of disasters befell us.

For instance, there was the eight-kilometer pipeline we promised to install for bringing water from the provincial capital of Machala to Puerto Bolivar, which, standing on its salty, contaminated mud flat, had no fresh water but that which a rusty railroad tank car brought daily. This was a brackish cargo that was then distributed from door to door in old oil cans by retail water sellers. Unfortunately there was no iron pipe to be obtained anywhere in Ecuador, except possibly from Nazi-sympathetic firms, with which we were strictly precluded from doing business by embassy blacklists. Our engineering department decided to use creosoted wood-stave pipe in hopes that it would, in the suppurating tropical soil, at least outlast our stay in the province. But hardly did we get our wooden pipeline into the ground and start water flowing toward Puerto Bolivar than a series of mysterious leaks cut the flow down to an unusable trickle. Again and again the tank car had to chug into Puerto Bolivar with water to be distributed by the oilcan.

After weeks of this we sorrowfully came upon the solution with a tip from a sympathetic local. We had overlooked one critical factor: the dozen or so small businessmen who made their tiny and precarious living by peddling water from door to door in Puerto Bolivar. The water sellers, like the Luddites fighting the machine age in England, were taking strong measures of their own. Night after night they were digging down to sections of our wooden waterline and shooting it full of holes.

We had no recourse but to abandon the waterline. The Axis crowd, all over Ecuador, hurried to make the most of it: “Uncle Sam, the great Colossus of the North. … He can no longer even make water like a normal man. He dribbles … like a poor old goat with prostate trouble.”