A while ago, back when we were still professors at the University of Virginia in the US, Esteban and I (Rut) would return every summer to our native Ecuador. We used to make this trip because we never wanted to set our minds on the north, we were professors of Latin-American literature, and it made sense to return to reconnect with the country, the region, and its literature. During the summer of 2012, after concluding the semester and headed to Ecuador, we had some articles waiting to be written and their deadlines quickly approaching. If we were to go, we would have to hide from family and friends to be able to write and turn-in the articles on time. We asked our friend Mercy Serrano to find us a little house on the beach: some place in Manabí, as remote as possible, without a phone, no internet, and even better, without accessible roads.
This is how we spent our first idyllic summer in Don Juan, a village in Jama county, at the 70 km mark on the Spondylus route. Indeed the little town (or bus stop, to be frank) lacked all forms of communication: the phone signal was very spotty, the little house we rented had no internet and the road was a dusty stretch where roadwork trucks would go to and fro without any promise of completing their task. The place was ideal for us to concentrate in reading and writing our articles. Then, one afternoon while we were at it, someone knocked on our door. We opened it to a young gringo with a wide smile, the kind of smile only cool gringos have, he introduced himself in perfect Spanish: “I’m James Madden, I live here in Don Juan, and I know you are literature professors”. I was quite surprised that he knew about us. We had just arrived a few days before and we had only gone to the corner store next to the bridge to purchase the basics. We had yet to make friends, how did he know our profession? Such is the nature of a small town: everything is known, even though we may never know how it was known to begin with… Anyway, after telling us that he had to leave for Quito the next day and asking us to come down to Don Juan to open a small library that he had organized, James stayed all afternoon telling us about his life, his commitment to the Don Juan community, and Tabuga, where he worked as a biologist and coordinator of student trips with Ceiba Foundation. His enthusiasm for the country, it’s plants, it’s geography, and the people from this province was truly moving. He told us, among other things, that he felt more freedom, more alive and owner of his life since he had been living in Don Juan, where he had built his house, next to the fishermen’s houses. His house was paid for, he had no mortgage -a token of adulthood in american culture- and that he thought people in the US were crazy since they spent their entire lives working to bestow their children with the mortgages that had tied them to servitude their whole lives. James is that type of person that exudes enthusiasm for what he does and his arguments, though a bit extreme, were irrefutably transparent.
After the conversation and immediate friendship, we saw James a few times during that summer but, what happened to us in the little library in Don Juan, was what changed our lives. The next day after James’ visit we headed down at the agreed time, since we were in vacation we headed down very relaxed without noting the exact time. When we arrived to the small building where the library was located, we encountered more than 15 children waiting at the door! This was simply unheard of. In a community of about 100 people, 15 children were waiting for the library doors to be opened. It was then that we re-evaluated what we were doing, working in the US and that same afternoon we decided to return to Ecuador and do everything possible to work again at James’ library in Don Juan.