In the middle of a banana tree grove, a few kilometers away from Proyecto Samán, there is a small building filled with shiny, metal containers. The floor is swept clean. The glasses are stacked in rows on shelves. A poster: Beer Kingo, the name of the brand. A plastic Viking hat, perhaps a lucky token worn while brewing beer, beckons to be picked up. A single table rests outside the front door, surrounded by five chairs inviting conversation.
Osvaldo is the only beer brewer in Rio Canoa, a small town about twenty minutes from the beaches of Canoa. When Zach and I first arrive at Proyecto Samán, we catch up with a friend from Cuenca, Geoff, who is the general manager of the camp. Standing well over six-feet tall, with white-blond hair and twinkling eyes, Geoff is the kind of man who sticks out whether he’s in California or Ecuador. He has been at the camp since its inception five months ago, and in his time exploring, he’s learned some local secrets.
He pulls us aside at the end of our second day doing volunteer work, smiles wide and asks, “You want to go get some craft beers?”
“Craft beer? Around here?” Zach, with his Colorado roots and high standards for the craft, seems skeptical. Geoff nods and says,
“My friend Osvaldo up in Rio Canoa brews his own. He’s got an IPA, Stout, Saison, and a golden. We should go visit him.”
The nighttime drive to Rio Canoa from the town of Canoa is hauntingly beautiful. We leave the sound of waves far behind and wind deeper into the curves of rolling hills. The mountains are speckled with farmland and long stretches of open green. You can see the glowing windows of houses tucked away from the road, hidden in a nest of trees somewhere. Right off the curb, large patios are filled with families eating dinner. A soccer field in the waning sunset still draws a few scraped-knee boys and men until they are called away. Heads turn when we drive by; eyes follow our trajectory. We don’t see any other cars.
Osvaldo’s house would have been impossible to find on our own. Drive across a soccer field, curve up one alley but not the other, continue over bumps for a few minutes, and then you’ll see the dog. Welcome. As I get out of the truck, I can see Osvaldo’s silhouette outside of the small, glowing building in the middle of the banana trees. He is nearly as tall as Geoff, a rare site in Ecuador, and his large body waits patiently for us to walk up to the brewery door.
When I get into the light and kiss his cheek, I instantly feel comfort. There’s something about the warmth in his face that makes me feel safe. He has dark skin, big hands, and a shining white smile. His face has eluded the markings of time. He could be my age, mid-twenties, or twenty years older, or a young grandfather. He gives Geoff a giant hug, a hug exchanged between friends who have spent many an evening discussing love and the pathways of life over beer. In few words, delivered warmly, he welcomes us inside.
The brewery is immaculate. Perhaps I expected something a bit more rustic: wood barrels, the sighs of an old refrigerator, the dirt from the driveway hidden in the corners. But this room shines. Though I haven’t seen much of the beer brewing process up close, Zach has, and he admires the machinery. Three cylinders, nearly my height, sit upright in the middle of the room. Cogs and wheels, levers and buttons, pipes and pumps. I wouldn’t know where to start. Osvaldo lets us look at everything as we walk around the small front room, about fifty square meters. Then, with a polite indication to the table, he asks for our preferences.
We sit down outside, our faces lit by the glow of the brewery, and Osvaldo brings us a flight. I haven’t had a flight of beer since Angel’s Trumpet in downtown Phoenix. I wouldn’t have expected to find many in Cuenca, let alone here, hidden from the sounds of civilization on a rural drive where no one could find me. We sample the four and decide on our first pint. $2.50 a glass. I choose the Saison because I like the name, imagining it’s named for the artist, and the breathy burst of citrus. Next, the IPA. Then, the Stout. I want them all: the crisp grapefruit and the pulp of nuts and the burnt marshmallow dipped in chocolate. For someone who tends to not like beer, I surprise even myself by drinking four pints, my hesitant Spanish smoothing out which each sip.
What was meant to be one hour turned into four. During the course of the evening, two new people arrive, their headlights blazing in the darkness. Somehow, we’ve been found. The Venezuelan man sits down and starts sharing his world. We talk of rebuilding, of the definition of community, of surviving the earthquake. He tells me something that I won’t forget. He says that he lives his life with curiosity. He teases my future plans by stating,
“Most people don’t know how to harvest rice? Do you?” I do not.
“Neither did I, so I went to a rice plantation and asked if I could work. I wanted to see how the food I eat is actually made.” He talked about how he did this with cacao, how he is now building bamboo structures on the coast. He picks a subject, studies it, and practices. He is a man who challenges structures, society, the assembly line. He drinks slowly and smokes cigarettes, and I imagine that he’s the type who wakes up full in the mornings, ready for a new day.
Osvaldo is like that too, I think. During the course of the night, I realize he’s only drinking water out of a metal cup. I wonder if he’s had too many of his beers, but that can’t be it. He is proud of his creation, and I think that he enjoys basking in the slight separation between proprietor and customer. He is eager to share his beers, each one offered with a description of ingredients, rather than share his own stories.
One of his sons comes to hang out, pouring the beers and bringing the glasses. Osvaldo sits beside me and we talk back and forth slowly. Most of the other men have left the table, gone to seek bladder refuge amongst the shadows of banana leaves. Osvaldo tells me how he kept hoping he would have a daughter. His age still unknown, I learn his oldest son is nearly eighteen. He has four sons, and he loved the fact that his first was a boy. He tells me that’s what he’d hoped for.
But after each new son arrived, he imagined how nice it would be to have a little girl. After the fourth, Osvaldo and his wife said no more. She was made the queen of the men, and she has an army of boys to protect her. Although Osvaldo doesn’t speak much when everyone else was there, his presence extends beyond words. He doesn’t need to speak to be known. I wish I could learn to value silence over words. When we leave in the pick up truck, I look back and see the shadow of Osvaldo’s frame against the brewery door. His hand waving in the air, he watches us pull away. He seems satisfied with everything and everyone around him, the epitome of a man at peace.
Up there in the hills, beneath the banana leaves and the tall trees, you feel safe, tucked away, the king of your world. Not even the quakes under the earth could shake you from your feet. We are only a few kilometers from the coast, but the houses are still intact. The metal machines for brewing beer are so shiny you can see your reflection. The crops are still standing. The walls of the brewery and Osvaldo’s home don’t show cracks. I imagine the earthquake was felt here, it must have been, but it didn’t leave its mark with the same magnitude.
I think to the residents from Proyecto Samán who don’t want to return to the coast in Canoa. A majority of the thirty-two families want to lay down roots in this mountain dirt rather than the salty sand. Many families are planning on staying on the same property where Samán is located, a halfway point between the beach and Rio Canoa. The goal is to save up to pay for the land within two years.
Others, perhaps, will move even further from the skeleton of their former homes to where we currently are driving in the mountains, where we just sat with a warm buzz in our bodies. I imagine survivors want to find a place where earthquakes or the fear of tsunamis won’t find them. They want to find a sanctuary, a place where they can dig in posts, construct new walls, and dig their bruised dreams out from their hiding places. They can build up a small house around their dreams, however vast they are: an empanada restaurant for Maria, a tienda filled with life’s necessities for Rocío, a brewing companion for Osvaldo. Sanctuary can be found in the most unexpected of places.