Skip to content

The Cut-off Ponytail from the Run-Down Everything.

August 31, 2011

Text by Keith Birthday of Norwegian Arms. Images from Ecuador by Gillian Grassie.

I’m probably half delirious.

Fifteen hours of airport the previous day, twelve hours late to our destination – Quito, Ecuador. Fuzzy-headed with the altitudinal change. Five hours of sleep, maybe. Bussed to the edges of town, poverty stricken, we are told. Looks that way.

A small, hot room with some people inside. A man setting up some PA equipment. Dark complexion, middle-aged maybe.

He walks up to us, speaks in Spanish. Our broken skills put it together: he makes instruments. He’s going to go get some right now. He lives next door or something.

He comes back with a black case, pulls out some homemade pan flutes, starts to play. They sound good, as far as I can tell. I don’t know much about pan flutes. We thank him and start getting our things together to begin our workshop.

To clarify our geographical location: the fourth stop of the South American ESLfolk tour. Myself and three others, funded to go to various cities along the Andes and introduce a self-written curriculum/textbook about teaching English through traditional American folk music. This is the first stop where we are being ushered around by the embassy staff.

Next day, wake up in a gated community, pile into a twelve-passenger van. Drive to the place deemed ‘impoverished’ by the US government, get out. Watch the whole city fly by in between.

After our workshop, the man approaches us again. I study his face some more. Looks like he is descended from the actual natives of the region, exclusively non-European features. Looks like he has recently cut off the ponytail common for men of the regiom. His hair sticks out awkwardly, cut in a straight line in the back. Later, it would be implied that maybe he had done this specifically to make himself seem “less native” to us.

Apparently, it’s possible to guilt a ponytail off.

I had already judged him earlier, had decided that he was just a novelty or something. Foreigners have a tendency to attract bullshitters. I assumed he was one of them.

He says he lives next door, wants to show us his workshop. We’re polite, say we are interested. I don’t really want to, don’t want to see a pan flute workshop.  Our host from the embassy looks hesitant, strained-faced. He repeats he lives next door, wouldn’t take long.

We file out and walk about three houses down, to a rather inconspicuous house. He leads us around back and through a small gate.

We step into a guitar workshop, pieced together. Woodchips on the floor, machines and scraps of wood everywhere. The machines he uses have been assembled from what appear to be discarded parts from various types of unrelated equipment.

All of it looks unfamiliar, non-standard, like he invented everything himself. To the left, a half-made guitar, the sides of the body being formed, held in place by at least one hundred binder clips. The air is wood-perfumed and I take a deep breath.

Meanwhile, our host disappears into the house, returns with a mostly finished guitar. It is crafted expertly, smells like a tree. I ask him what he does with them. He says he sells them. He says he gave classes. He says that he teaches people from the neighborhood how to make guitars and only charges them for the cost of materials. I ask him if has any finished guitars and he says no, has sold them all.

I stand in silence for a moment, try to take it all in. Impossible to stay. Want to.

It’s time to go, our embassy guide ushers us out of the workshop. She still looks nervous, unimpressed. I feel upset and embarrassed because she has no idea what she is seeing. I look at my companions and feel reassured because they do get it.

Later, snapping out of the delirium, it feels more like a dream.

I don’t get to see much of the city, am limited to the small groups of people who attend our workshops. Usually faces that just stare and smile. But I know there’s a man with a cut-off ponytail, making guitars in a slapdash workshop in his backyard. I’m pretty sure he’ll never be able to escape his slum on the outskirts of Quito, and while that seems sad on the surface, I can’t help but feel jealous.

I’m pretty sure having met him is better than only having dealt with tourism and its nonsense but as I look around the neighborhood, at all the run down everything, it’s hard to be sure.

But for now, out of the fringes of town, we head away from the poverty, back toward where the money is. To stop at a massive mall for lunch at an “American Sports Bar.” To eat a terrible hamburger. To return to the socio-economic comfort zone.

Keith Birthday is otherwise known as Brendan Mulvihill, a founding member of The Ox.

One Comment
  1. August 31, 2011 10:01 pm

    Great article! Being able to just happen upon a craftsman like that sounds like an awesome experience.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: