Archimedes is a tough man to compass. A tall 60-something bachelor with blue cataract eyes the color of the sea, he lives a quiet life in a wood-and-zinc structure on Playa África, in Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador. Ever since he’s lived here as a boy, the relics would come, riding on warm Pacific waves to the shores of África, or revealed beneath grains of sand after centuries of slow-rising from the tombs, tiny icons of civilizations past, like the Tolita-Tumaco culture. He began to collect them.
One day I got an e-mail from a fellow Ecuadorian-American who described herself as some sort of progressive entrepreneur. She was trying to raise money for a community center in Esmeraldas, and offered her expat Texan mother in Ecuador, Maryanne, as a local contact. Weeks later, I was sitting in her small kitchen in the city of Esmeraldas (capital of the province) quietly noting how many times she used the refrain, “That’s how it is in Ecuador!” (Five.) She spits when she talks – yells, really – and she yells non-stop without bothering to finish her stories or sentences even, while playing with the change in her hands or tapping her feet along to inaudible tunes. “My daughter thinks I have adult ADD,” she said when I asked her to please finish the story of how the city of Esmeraldas went bankrupt after a shrimp conglomerate cut down 75% of its mangroves, but she had already continued onto her passion for ethical development. She also kept alluding to an ex who lived in a shack with no running water or electrical power about an hour away. “It’s kind of romantic to live without electricity,” she said, chin in hand.
Museo San Rafael
Museo San Rafael is Archimedes’ house, a stilted structure that holds around 6,000 artifacts of archaeological value from the Tolita-Tumaco culture (600 BCE-200 CE) as well as a collection of semi-precious stones, gems and some pieces that bear near-identical resemblances to common sea glass. However, no one has validated their authenticity and the antiquities are layered in films of dust and tangled in years of cobwebs, deteriorating over time or showing signs of wear where the cats nudged them onto the floor. They are all piled onto shelves facing his bedroom and office in the main living space. Before visiting the museum, I had an image of this guy sitting on a goldmine and asked Maryanne, “Why doesn’t anyone take him seriously?” She looked away like someone had called her name, “Oh, they usually get scared off.” “Why?” “Because Archimedes is…unique.”
Maryanne first arrived in Ecuador for missionary work back in the day and when she returned to the US, happened to meet and fall for an Ecuadorian immigrant. They married and that lasted until he left her for someone much younger and Maryanne, saying ‘fuck it’ (I imagine) returned to Ecuador, decades later, alone. She lives with a young French expat, a lawyer who works with refugees and who was fussing in the kitchen the next morning, making small talk about travel. When I told her that my family is from Guayaquil she lamented the lack of a colonial center to make the city more ‘pretty.’ “I think that’s what makes it so beautiful,” I said, “That colonial shit was all built by slaves, anyway.” In the quiet that followed, her face got all stony. “It doesn’t matter who built it or how,” she said. “What’s pretty is pretty.”
Maryanne was in her usual high American spirits on the morning we made our way to Playa África. She enthusiastically greeted everyone on the skinny sidewalks, people who looked confused that she knew their names, and pointed out the prices of all the produce we passed on the way to the bus station. She’s all about the bargains. “You can get 25 oranges for a dollar!” She exclaimed. Esmeraldas is hot as fuck and when we passed a street butcher lazily swatting away a blur of flies, she leaned into me (my neck hurt so much from backing away) and proudly stated that she buys all her meat from the Gran Akí freezers at the bus terminal. A guy dressed in a top that read “Holly woo” passed by our parked bus and she leaned in to tell me how much she loves reading misspelled English words on second-hand gringo knockoff clothes. I stared out the window, trying to excavate some redeeming quality about her that would make the trip less sufferable.
Esmeraldas is fucked
If Ecuador is poor, Esmeraldas is fucked. Poverty is poverty, but black poverty in Latin America is structured to make social mobility virtually impossible. The power always going out. The garbage piling up. The water shutting off for three days out of the week. The rough-hewn streets are mostly unpaved and commonly impassable after a heavy rain, and that’s in the capital. The sole monuments to development that can be claimed here are the PetroEcuador refineries whose fires can be seen endlessly burning above a modest skyline. Esmeraldas accounts for most of the country’s black community and with its practical lack of any black representation in local (or national) government to rally for their needs, the province is treated like an afterthought. Like many other black enclaves in Latin America, Playa África is terribly physically inaccessible. But that’s exactly where the heirlooms of a royal ancestry have been recovered by their descendants for years, a literal treasure island that this community can make bank on. Instead, they remain ignored.
We disembarked in Montalvo, a town consisting of one street, a few shops and some people chillin’ on motorcycles. Maryanne hired a dude to whisk us off to África after buying bags and bags of provisions. I sat in the truck bed with the stuff bouncing like a fucking cork over the barely discernible path that had reconfigured after the previous night’s rain. It led us through a deeper, thicker green than that of the town’s, a color that seemed to rise, dwarf and surround us until we were plunged into a verdant darkness so total that magnanimous leaves reached out to pet my face and neck and hidden birds called quiet messages right into my ears. The bright panorama of the beach welcomed us at the end of the ride, blue-green as the earth is blue-green, with only a bridge of sand separating us.
A long, slow walk
The house stood on wooden legs in the middle of miles of uninterrupted coastal tropics. A man walking along the beach gathered all of Maryanne’s stuff and took it up the steep steps to the house without as much as a glance or thanks from her. Turns out he was crashing with Archimedes. A group of folks from San Lorenzo were just leaving as we entered, waiting on a young woman who read in a wiry hammock in the shade of a grapefruit tree, unbothered. Once inside, I asked Archimedes for the bathroom and his answer was a long, slow walk from one end of the room to the other that resulted in a window he pointed straight out of. Right.
La Isla de La Tolita lives at the mouth of the Santiago River just north of Esmeraldas, home to the Tolita culture which flourished north through the rainforest to Tumaco in what is now Colombia. They were a highly artistic people, manipulating ceramics, gold and silver to create masks of deities they worshipped and a near-endless line of human/animal hybrids that embraced the polytheistic. In Archimedes’ home, my eyes met with those of a smiling Venus, a sleepy prince, a fanged monster, two-headed angels. They buried their dead sideways in tombs known as tolas, decorated in brilliant metalwork as well as emerald, quartz, agate and turquoise. They were the first in the world to work with platinum. When Spanish colonizers first invaded this land they were met by leaders adorned with emeralds, and so they called it Esmeraldas.
The Brother from another Planet
Archimedes’ uniqueness became clear to me shortly into our interview on the museum. He was like, full disclosure: I’m an alien from outer space. His straight face and Maryanne’s muted tea-sipping in the corner drove home that the dude was not playing around. As I attempted to question him on his knowledge of Tolita culture, he’d quickly redirect the conversation to his past lives as kings in different eras around the globe, his prolonged life (hundreds of years and counting) and therefore immortal nature, the many civilizations he had ruled over and all the planets he had visited. And he wasn’t in the closet about it or anything; everyone who knew him knew his story and still regarded him as a wise elder. He looked after neighbors and was protective of friends, some of who believed his stories and others who simply respected Archimedes’ rendition of his own life experience. I nodded and asked clarifying questions while weighing his stories in my mind, but I’m no archaeologist. Eventually, I gave up on the interview and wandered to a hammock outside to watch the sun dim. When Archimedes and Maryanne came out to join me, I pointed out a particularly bright star. “That’s not a star,” he said, “It’s a NASA satellite. They’ve been watching us this whole time.” He gazed up at the sky, chin in hand.
Before I left the museum, I held the sleepy prince’s head in my hand, measuring its mass; hundreds of years of historical data just sitting in my small palm. I thought how cool it would be if its long memory could seep into my skin. Who was its maker? What were they thinking when they created this? Does it have a name? We would probably know the answer to some of these questions if we just dug a little deeper. I studied the fragments of the last few days, wondering which theory of events I would choose to place my faith in. I wondered what Archimedes’ real name is, and what rooming with thousands of recovered relics, heavy with history, had done to him. I imagined them coming to life after hours when the black water grips and pulls away from the earth. Does the smiling Venus dance? Does the sleeping prince dream? Does the fanged monster bite? Do we make up stories just to keep us company, or are they for real?
Bani Amor is a queer travel writer and photographer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador who explores diasporic identities, the decolonization of travel culture, and the intersections of race, place and adventure in her work. She has been published in Paste Magazine and Bitch Media, among other outlets, and is a two-time VONA/Voices Fellow.