22 Dec

So how is it?

It’s difficult to answer when people ask us, “So how is Ecuador?” I’ve been trying out “different” as my first response. Some people want to know a lot more and so they ask more questions. Some people just say “yeah” and change the subject. It’s somewhat difficult terrain. In just three months, we’ve learned a lot. And in our interactions, there’s just a hint of the more profound alienation we’re gonna feel next August when we’re back here for good. What I mean is that we’ve seem some things that make this country, this state, this city, this school district, this sewage system, this everything seem so clean and efficient and effective. I know there are still problems. So it’s not that I don’t sympathize when people complain about the new “small learning communities” structure at West High School. But truthfully, Eileen and I have now seen much larger problems. On the one hand, I want to inundate people with stories about how corrupt the Ministry of Social Well-Being is in Ecuador and that they regularly find abandoned babies in dumpsters but the adoption process is horrible, etc. On the other hand, teachers here who complain about the small learning communities or about the stupid rules over having animals in public schools are certainly not being entirely selfish.

It’s just that we’re left in an awkward place. We have a certain amount of disdain for the so-called “problems” of well-off Madison. But, of course, we certainly don’t want to send the message that we’ve now seen the third world and as such are now “smarter than you.” The problem is that we’ve just experienced four months of living in Ecuador, and at some point, you start experiencing first-hand some things you don’t believe even as they’re happening to you. You experience things that defy your expectations, that stretch your cultural understanding. To convey these experiences through words is such a daunting task, that it’s often just easier not to speak at all.

So how is Ecuador? It’s different. Here, we can flush toilet paper, we don’t have to look for the bottle of boiled water when we brush our teeth, we can drink tap water, we can eat so much parasite-free food. But there’s a lot more to it. Here, every morning feels like Christmas morning. We are such a fortunate people.

17 Dec


We haven´t posted in a long time. In other words, Tim hasn´t posted in a long time. I´ve been a little sick. We both figured we´d get the illnesses over with before returning home, so Eileen went ahead and got herself a cold followed by some stomach issues. Then I had her spit on my food so I would get the same. Actually, no. I only had to breathe the same air. At various points next week, I will be able to say the following:

  • Last week I was vomiting over an Ecuadorian toilet.
  • Last week I was riding shotgun in a souped up VW Golf with three Ecuadorian off-duty policemen immediately after losing a soccer game for my team (also composed entirely of police officers).
  • Last week I was having illness-induced nightmares about a woman named Cathy Ames.
  • Last week I finally admitted to myself that the fluffy stuff growing on our living room wall was mold.
  • We will be sure to write an entry or two in the next couple weeks, but we will see most of our diminishing audience while we’re home. This may be the last Ecuadorian entry for 2004. I have been having the occasional narcissisic fantasy about our return, most of which include cheering, chocolate chip cookies, and phones ringing, but I´ll have to spare you a “Tim´s Narcissistic Fantasies Part 2” entry for now. We’re looking forward to being back.

    09 Dec

    Che Guevara

    A couple weeks ago, we went to Motorcycle Diaries, a film about Che Guevara’s motorcycle journey (which actually turned into a hiking journey) with his friend Alberto Granado through South America. The film portrays the awakening of Ernesto Guevara’s revolutionary ideals. He is a sympathetic character, sympathetic to the impoverished miners he meets in Chile, the disenfranchised indigenous people of the Andes, and the lepers he works with at a colony in Peru

    The movie ends with the end of his six month voyage. So the entire thing is pre-revolutionary Che. The Che you see in the movie is just becoming aware of the injustices of monetary inequality and exploitation. He is driven by principles. And he acts on them, talking with the impoverished, volunteering at various locales. It was humbling. I left the movie feeling like I’m not doing much to actually help people.

    On Monday a couple weeks ago, my police were busy fighting some sort of demonstration, so none of them were there. And since two of my civilians were also absent, I had two people in class, Natalia and Lourdes. I talked with them for the entire two hours about Ecuador’s poverty, about Bush, about economic greed, and about revolution.

    I asked about wages in Ecuador. I’ve had trouble understanding the fact that the middle class makes about two to three hundred dollars a month. If such is the case, how can people survive? Why aren’t they depressed? How can people own cars? How can they send their kids to high schools that cost $140/month?

    They explained that many people can’t really deal with it, that the situation is worsening and that the middle class is getting poorer, and so, many are leaving Ecuador. Recent figures show Ecuador’s unemployment rate improving but such improvement is due to the fact that so many people are leaving. They’re going to Spain, the US, Italy, Chile. Almost everyone now has family abroad; and those family members send some money home.

    Still, when you go into a poor neighborhood or city in the US, I explained, you know it. The property isn’t taken care of, people are depressed and angry and hostile. Why isn’t that the case here?

    “We are used to it,” they explained. We know how to live with it. On the coast, it’s even more odd. There is more poverty, and people are even happier. There, they have fish, bananas, pineapples; they can live off the land, so they don’t worry too much about the future.

    From what I’ve seen in my classes, this is true. The people from the coast are always laughing. They’re happy and they’re funny, but I know for a fact that they don’t make much money. Actually, one of my students from the coast, who is a maid in a hotel, is going to be a single mother sometime next summer. She has her moments where she’s a little down, but by the end of every class, she’s joking and laughing more than anyone.

    I asked a few of my policemen the other day about money. They told me that a policeman’s wage in Quito is $300 a month. They work 12 hour days. They don’t get paid overtime. They often work during holidays and festivals. Here’s the pay scale: In some districts, the police eat lunch in a policia cafeteria, so they deduct $70 a month from their wages. If you have a wife, you earn another $28 a month. For kids, they add $8 a month. Every year, you get a $5 raise, and every 5 years, you get a $45 raise. Diego, the one explaining it all to me, openly told me he gets $360 a month. He has a wife who doesn’t work outside of the home, and he has two kids. For a family of four, they have $360 a month. That’s what I’m making as a “volunteer.” He told me that every once in a while, some police will accept bribes because the wages just aren’t enough to live on. He’s a really good guy. I’d like to think he hasn’t ever accepted a bribe, but I can understand why he would.

    My Spanish teacher explained it this way: the economic situation here is horrible. The cost of living in Ecuador is higher than any other country in South America. Government corruption is rampant, and the economy is worsening. But it’s like people are drunk. They all know something is really wrong, but they walk around in this sort of drunken dream state. So to an outsider, it may not appear that people are as bad off as they are.

    She also explained that there’s not a lot of unity amongst Ecuadorians. There is still a lot of racism, and there’s no strong sense of national identity. “We haven’t had a strong history. We haven’t suffered a unifying tragedy,” she said.

    Back in my two-person English class, Natalia and Lourdes also lamented a lack of unity. The corrupt, the political elite, and the privileged classes have worldwide unity. They are organized. Their motive is to make money, and they work efficiently toward that end. The people, on the other hand, are not unified.

    There is a scene in Motorcycle Diaries where Che Guevara at his birthday party speaks about the lack of unity amongst South Americans. We’re all mestizos, he claims.

    Literally, mestizos are people of both European and Indigenous descent. Symbolically, mestizos are those who are both disenfranchised indiginas and power-yielding European conquistadors. And if all those mestizos realize that they can rise up, well, there’s your revolution.

    This recent education of mine concerning the poverty of Ecuador has been both inspirational and depressing. On the one hand, my conversations with people here (both Americans and Ecuadorians) give me hope that some sort of unity is possible and that a revolution here or even in the US is possible (and by revolution I mean change – widespread social and political change). On the other hand, in the US, money-hungry national leaders like Bush get re-elected.

    I’m no Che. I’m not actually willing to dedicate my life to political revolution. But I can certainly do more than I am doing.

    07 Dec


    Eileen and I hosted another little social gathering this past Sunday night. At some point, the conversation turned toward adolescence. Bill, who is from Colorado, relayed stories about how abusive his high school environment was. There were major hazings on the athletic teams; in one incident, the students suran-wrapped some kid and hung him upside down from a goal post and then kicked soccer balls at him. They actually broke his nose. Columbine was even worse, he explained. And his theory is that the environment of abuse, power, and status was what lead to the shootings.

    Here in Ecuador, I’ve observed a very different social dynamic among teenagers. In the US, when you’re in high school, your friends are your life. You forego family outings for socializing with friends. Here, teenagers don’t socialize tons with their peers on the weekends. Mireya, the 16 year-old daughter, who is, admittedly a little socially awkward, doesn’t do things with friends much at all. And I have a few teenagers in my night class who will hang out with the 20 and 30-somethings after class, even on a Friday night. Preeti, who grew up in Nepal, added that her adolescent experience was similar. In school, everyone got along. They were all good friends, but they didn’t see much of each other outside of school. She’d occasionally have some friends over to her house, but the social life was nothing like the die-hard socializing of American adolescents. Carla, who is teaching at a pretty upper class high school here outside of Quito, relayed a story about a really nerdy, awkward kid in her class who gave a presentation on Homer’s Odyssey. He looked up at the ceiling most of the time and didn’t say much other than “Homer, I don’t know, I just like him.” He got a few chuckles, but after class, they were still walking arm in arm with him. He was included, not ostracized.

    Someone in our group pointed out that Ecuador is a community-based society. The US is an individualist society. And this difference might account for the difference in adolescent culture. Why? Because in America, you struggle to find yourself as a unique person. You see this with young kids. First and second-graders are great. But in third grade, kids start to gain a sense of themselves as individuals. They become self-conscious. A class of third graders (and of course it’s even worse in fourth and fifth grade) will be somewhat afraid to talk in class. They’ll be worried that what they say will be judged as stupid by the cool kids.

    Really, when you think about it, the whole concept of cool is one that is based on being an individual. And it’s also very closely tied up with status. Think about middle school (the “low point of all humanity” as I too often say): it’s all about popularity. To a certain extent, the American educational system uses this idea of status to it advantage. Carla’s students here in Ecuador are pretty apathetic, low achieving students. There are probably a variety of reasons, but one of my theories is that they aren’t motivated by status. In the US, when you get a test back, you don’t want other people to see it. Or after they take a test, students will say, “I did horrible; I probably failed,” even though they probably got a B. Here, when I hand back a test, students look at each other’s but they don’t really make fun of those who do worse. Or if they do, it’s fleeting and forgotten-about by the next day. They love competition here, yes, but often times, after the competition is over, there is no lasting status label. Someone won; someone lost. But no one is a winner or loser.
    In the US, we use grades as motivation, and those grades often define a person to a certain extent: “he’s a C student.” Students get labeled by grade point averages and test scores.

    Westra, who attended a very small, private high school, voiced her wonder over whether in a larger high school, such a system is necessary. Back in Wisconsin, at West, where we have 2300 students, I think it is necessary to a certain extent. But you can also combat the numbered anonymity by offering a wide variety of electives and extracurriculars. Bill said that he thought part of the solution was to have some good arts programs, not just athletic teams. His girlfriend’s high school had far fewer problems, and their arts programs were great.

    Carla, who is a school counselor back in the states, pointed out that the biggest problems are in white, upper-middle class schools. We tried to figure out why. The high school suicide cliché is this: the kid was captain of the fill-in-the-blank team, got good grades, was popular, had everything. My theory is that for those kids, their status is their identity. They define themselves by grades, by captainships, by popularity. The non-popular kids, in contrast, define themselves by interests. If you’re a nerd, you kinda accept that and you get together with other nerds and, like Bill did in high school, you decode the runes from Lord of the Rings.

    It’s interesting. When I see an unknown Gringo here, I feel ambivalence. I want to eavesdrop on their English and know their story, but I also want to yell at their too-loud talking or tell them how stupid it is to have their money belt showing. I start judging them right away – unfairly judging them. Is my reaction to my countrymen is a product of our culture?

    06 Dec


    On Saturday Tim and I took a bus to Otavalo (a town outside of Quito famous for its artesan mercados). We had some serious Christmas shopping we wanted to work on. We got up pretty early but didn’t quite make it on the road when we had planned. Anyway we were on the bus by 8:30. Tim snagged some seats that appeared to have more leg room than the average seats and we were off.

    Another passenger boarded the bus and tried to act like he was part of the bus personnel, he put a bag in the overhead rack and offered to put one of our bags above as well. Tim considered it and knowing that all the bag had was a pair of my old sweatpants (in case we stayed the night in Otavalo) he agreed. After he put the bag up he sat down in the aisle across from us. A few minutes later the guy asked Tim what time it was and he replied “8:30.” Tim asked him how long the bus ride to Otovalo was and he asked again for the time. Tim told him again and the dude said the bus should get there in about 2-2 ½ hours. The guy then went up to the front of the bus and when he came back to his seat faked a little trip and dropped about 30 cents in our laps. Real convincing. He tried to pick them up, and Tim just pushed him back and said “espera, espera” (hold on buddy, wait a sec). We collected his change and discretely checked our pockets to make sure everything was in place. Yep. He didn’t get anything off of us. What a sketchball he was though.

    Once the bus got out of Quito they put a movie on. We were pretty exicted to see that it was “Home Alone:” very appropriate for getting in the Christmas shopping mood.

    We got into Otavalo and spent about 2 hours scooping the wares and making our purchases. There are little stands EVERYWHERE on Saturday in the town. We have some pictures in coppermine of some of the stands. Everything was very colorful. Two hours is about all the shopping we can stand in a stretch (even if it is fun shopping). So we stopped at a little Italian restaurant for lunch and recharged. It didn’t quite fill Tim up, so he bought some bananas from a fruit stand to supplement. We bought a few more gifts and hopped on a bus home (we decided against staying the night). We left feeling pretty good about the number of people we could cross off our Christmas shopping list.