Monday, December 28, 2009


20 diciembre 2009
I have almost nothing in the way of possesions here, yet my wealth appears to be staggering. On my “desk” – a laptop computer, a digital camera, a flash drive. 2 small speakers and a lamp. A pile of change, a bottle of cheap rum, binoculars. On the wall hangs a guitar bought second hand in Ibarra. In my kitchen, 2 pans, 2 pots, a collection of cups bowls and plates. A tank of propane gas and a 3 burner cooktop. In the corner, a machete, a rake, 2 hoes and a shovel.

A few days ago I had a visitor, a local farmer, and when he stepped into my house his eyes lit up like firecrackers. “What things you have!” “How I would like to have these things”. “You gringitos, you are so rich!” I was annoyed, and embarrassed. As I looked at the tableau through his eyes, it did seem ostentatious. I protested mildly – “I don`t have a TV, you might notice”, and “I do not have a karaoke sound system that is powerful enough to wake the dead”. “Yes I see that” he replied, “but those are ordinary things, everyone has them. These things you have, they are more than ordinary!” I sputtered on about choices, about working hard and saving a little money, but my friend was not listening. He was too busy dreaming.

Yet he was right. Kind of. Here in Ecuador, I do feel rich, though I am not. I can live, if not like a king then certainly like a minor prince for about 300 dollars a month, much less if I am thrifty. I eat well, I travel. Of course I am just one person, and I have no other mouths to feed or bodies to clothe. My friend earns about 180 dollars a month which provides not only for him but for his wife and 3 children as well. He is not as plump as I am and the farthest he has traveled is the 50 minute trip to Ibarra. He is poor, no doubt about it, but he and his family are not in a state of penury. However, many individuals and families here are in extreme poverty, especially in the high Andes and the more rural coastal areas. I have no idea how these people survive, or how they come to have a few dollars to ride a bus into town to buy a few week old vegetables or a bag of bread. In Salinas de Guaranda, where I will soon be living, a town that is famous for its progressive cheese and chocolate cooperatives, it is common to see at 6 AM an indigenous woman and her small children hauling buckets of laundry to the river to do the washing. The air is cold, the river even colder. They do not comment, or complain. Asi es la vida. Closer to my home in Ambuqui, the women and girls of Chalguayacu, an AfroEcuadorean community, spend all day in the irrigation canal alongside the road to Pimampiro washing clothes and dishes. There are frequently 20 to 30 women at any given time, the latecomers at the far end of the ditch cleaning their socks and dinner plates in the waste- water of everyone elses` washing. At least here, as opposed to Salinas, it is hot, always hot; and the negritas are always talking and laughing, joking with the truck drivers as they pass by. The Indian women on the other hand work silently, eyes cast down, pensive and broody.

Here`s the thing: there is a staggering amount of wealth in Ecuador. OK, this is true worldwide, right? The haves and the have nots, the frightening gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, the injustice of it all, etc. etc. etc. Yet here the plight of the have nots, the gaps and the injustice seem amplified, so damned blatant and obvious. I was in Quito, a city I have grown to love, for a few days this past week to take care of passport and visa issues. As always, I was astounded by the signs of wealth. The new shopping malls, construction of luxurious new condominiums, Mercedes Benz and BMW automobiles stuck in the never ending traffic jams. Where does this wealth come from, and why does none of it seem to trickle down to the poor?

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up loathing and mocking the economic middle class lifestyle of my parents; yet now, older, slightly more conservative and perhaps a little wiser it seems obvious that a strong middle class is such a key component of a healthier and fairer economy. The poor, the truly poor, can never make the leap to the upper class. But maybe they could make the step to the middle, or lower middle, and certainly they could dream about it. But does it exist as an option? Forty years ago Moritz Thomsen, in “Living Poor” (the best Peace Corps book ever) wrote “In South America, the poor man is an ignorant man, unaware of the forces that shape his destiny. The shattering truth – that he is kept poor and ignorant as the principal and unspoken component of national policy – escapes him.” All these years later, despite revolution, democracy, liberal governments, promises of reform and millions and millions of dollars in aid and assistance, Thomsen`s observation can be repeated verbatim, at least here in Ecuador. And all one has to do to prove it is to point to the education system which is in shambles, and which serves mainly to foster conformity and obedience. Actual learning and the development of independent thinking and problem solving skills is rarely found.
According to some sources almost 7 of 10 Ecuadoreans live below the poverty line – more than in the 1970`s which is shocking and an indictment of Ecuador`s political and economic systems which are rife with corruption, nepotism and graft. IMF, World Bank and US policies play their roles as well but cannot be held entirely responsible for Ecuador`s ills. The national poverty of Ecuador is found everywhere; and increasingly so is the national wealth. In Ambuqui, rich folk from Quito and Tulcan, along with a smattering of Colombianos, are buying property left and right. Attracted by the warm climate and close access to the Panamericana hiway, they are building luxurious vacation homes, with built in swimming pools, satellite TV and concrete walls built all around the perimeter to keep the riffraff out. Immediately next door to some of these mini haciendas are 100 year old mud huts with collapsing roofs and without water or electricity where 3 generations are living together in one or two rooms. Up in Cahuasqui, a formerly isolated and insular town where I have both PC and Ecuadorean friends, there is a new element moving in. The artsy crowd from Quito have “discovered” this sleepy little place and are slowly making inroads, buying 2 or 3 acre mountainside parcels with million dollar views for 4 or 5 thousand dollars, then exquisitely remodeling the existing house for another 20 or 30 thou. The old dirt road has been recently paved, and the formerly grueling trip from Quito can now be made in private car in 4 hours. I visited one of these homes last week, and it was truly spectacular. More envious than anything else, I wonder how these new folks will impact life there in the community we all affectionately call “the island in the sky.” (and, admittedly, I think about getting in on the low prices before the demand sends them skyward.)

So my relative wealth has been dogging me all this week as I pack up my life here in Ambuqui. I don`t have much, but nonetheless it seems like too much. I have taken boxes full of clothes and kitchen things to my neighbors and friends, who always say “may god repay you”. Boxes of seeds, hand tools, fertilizers and other goodies have been dropped off in Piqiuicho and Cahuasqui. May god repay you. Books have been returned belatedly to the Peace Corps office or distributed among gringo friends in Ibarra; most of them anyway. As always I have a few that I cannot bear to part with. Tomorrow, Monday, I will make the trip to Salinas de Guaranda with my first load of stuff – all my tools, including hoes, rake, shovel and machete, ag related books, rubber boots and miscellaneous supplies. I have so much stuff that I need to make 2 trips (by bus) to move it all - not counting all I have given away. Seems kind of excessive and gluttonous and I feel very much like a rich gringo as I throw my backpacks and cardboard boxes into the camionetta or on top of the bus . . .


I went “downtown” tonight to grab a beer and some grilled chicken and llapingachos, an Ambuqui staple every Sunday night. I sat on a large stoop along with 10 or 12 townies, shooing the stray dogs away. One of them asked me how much longer I was going to live here, and I told them I was leaving for good next week to go live in Salinas de Guaranda.

- Oh, so you are returning to the United States?
- No, it is here, in Ecuador.
- Blank stares.
- Near Riobamba.
- Blank stares.
- Near Ambato.
- Blank stares.
- Ma o meno por la mitad de su pais (more or less in the middle of your country)
- Ah!! Por la mitad!! Como Quito!! (ah, in the middle, like Quito!)
- Casi, pero cinco horas mas de sur. (sort of, but 5 hours further south)

More blank stares. Not one of them knew. Not even the 2 university students sitting with us.

Not to suggest that everyone in Ambuqui is deficient in their geography; nevertheless it was sobering.

On a similar note the vendedora expressed shock and disbelief when she learned that dollars are used as money also in the United States (#). She simply could not accept this new piece of information, and seemed on the verge of collapse when I explained that the pictures on the bills were those of former US presidents. In retaliation she produced a Sacajawea dollar coin, which are quite common here, and said, “well, this is money from Ecuador, surely they don`t use this in your country, because there are no women who look like this and no one carries babies on their back!” I did my best to explain the story of Sacajawea, but I don`t think she was buying it. (#) Ecuador dollarized in the year 2000.

It was a good day in Ambuqui, and as I walked home it was with a tinge of sadness, to be leaving.

Friday, December 18, 2009

More about busses

I`ve commented often (too often?) about the trials and tribulations of bus travel in Ecuador and elsewhere in South America. Therefore it`s only fair to mention that despite the frequent challenges, delays and discomforts, the bus system is truly a marvel. If you consider the kilometers logged daily, the number of people moved, the goods (fruits, vegetables, furniture, animals, etc.) transported and couple this with the fact that only a very few busses plunge off the sides of mountains each year, it is more than a marvel, it is a miracle. Entonces, a toast to bus drivers, ayudantes, smoking brakes, burned out clutches and mangled guard rails – salud!

Twice I have had outstanding bus trips on the 50 minute run between Ibarra and our drop off spot for Ambuqui. The first was over a year ago, the second just last night, though it did not start off well. I got to the terminal at about 6PM, and on weekends this often presents a problem because the last bus home is at 7 – and like myself, half the residents of the Valle de Chota spend all day in Ibarra and wait for the last 2 or 3 busses for the trip home. Waiting your turn in line is still a relatively unknown concept here in Ecuador, so when the bus pulls in there is a frenzied free for all to board and grab a seat. The most skillful practitioners of this maneuver are the negritas, young and old, who live in Chota, Carpuela or Juncal. Somehow they are always first on the bus, and when they get there they promptly cover the 3 or 4 seats closest to them with an item of clothing, or a bag of food, and then claim it as “ocupado” – or saved. I once made the big mistake of arguing with a woman over a seat once, and only once - “This seat is not occupied! There is no one sitting in it!” The woman replied with a blistering string of clipped Spanish that I did not understand a word of but without a doubt clearly meant “get out of my face before I cut your balls off, gringo!” I looked helplessly at the ayudante who could only shrug his shoulders, and then I sheepishly turned away.

So, last night a bus pulls into the slot and the melee begins – but within a few seconds another Chota bound bus sneaks in around the corner – and those of us who have noticed take off like a bunch of bargain shoppers chasing down a blue light special. I arrive at the door behind 2 small children and for a moment I consider trampling over them to assure myself of a seat – who knows, the little bandidos might save every seat on the bus – but I wisely hold back and once aboard I easily find a seat. Heaven, I`m in heaven. I even have a window that opens. For the next few minutes I watch the madness as passengers stream aboard; near the end of the line is a woman loudly chastising her 2 children (that I considered trampling) for not saving a block of seats for her and the rest of the family. Finally we are under way.

The good part of this journey begins about 10 minutes later when we pick up a passenger who appears to be a vendedor – someone who will try to sell us some candies, or who will open up a notebook full of graphic photos of diseased gums, rectums, stomachs or what have you and then hawk the one dollar miracle cure. Ho-hum. But no – this guy is not a salesman. He is a stand-up comedian! And he is really good, and really funny. Within minutes the whole bus is in stitches, all the earlier tension dissipating in laughter. Ecuadorean laughter, especially in young men, is a thing to behold. It is manufactured on the inhale – as if the laugher is trying to capture the joke and bring it in to the deepest parts of his belly. It is a joy to see, and hear, and the bus was full of it, along with the more subtle chuckles of women and the older folks.

The comic gave us a good half hour – and as he went down the aisle collecting dimes and quarters from his appreciative audience he made the familiar salutation “que le vaya con dios” and then added, under his breath” me voy con la plata!” and the bus erupted in laughter once again. (May you go with god – I`m going with the money!)

He got off at the police control point, and in the darkness we rolled on, with an occasional chuckle or burst of laughter as someone recalled a joke or two . . .

The other outstanding trip, though considerably less so, occurred a year or more ago. I was waiting for my bus at a stop on the edge of Ibarra, near one of the main produce markets where I had been visiting some farmers I knew. It was mid afternoon, a blistering hot day, and as I crouched against a wall in a sliver of shade I hoped that the bus was not full and that I would have a seat.
Before long, a bus comes by. This one is a long hauler, bound for Tulcan at the Colombian border, but it will pass by Ambuqui on the way, and through the windows I see no one is standing, which is a good sign. As I step into the bus, I am overcome by a strange feeling, and it seems I am hearing angelic music coming from somewhere above, and rays of bright golden sunshine seem to fill the bus. For a brief moment I consider jumping off, for surely this bus is doomed to plunge 500 feet into the Rio Chota at the hairpin turn just before we get to Salinas – but I am too late for we are already underway.

I step into the passenger compartment and immediately I know where the angelic music and sunbeams came from. Twenty or so seats are occupied by some of the handsomest young women I have ever seen collected in one place, along with a smattering of 4 or 5 young men quite pretty in their own right, thin as rails with hair combed down over one eye or swept back in a ponytail. The women, or girls, all appear to be in their early 20`s and most are sporting sunglasses. All are dressed casually, t-shirts, tanktops, jeans. As I wander down the aisle to my seat I find myself wishing I were 30 years younger, but then remember that even if I were I would never have the nerve to approach any one of these girls. As I settle into my seat I chuckle a little, marveling at the things you see on any given day on a bus in Ecuador.

When the ayudante comes down the aisle (taking his time to smile and chat with the girls a little) to collect my fare I ask him what`s the story. Who are these kids? He tells me they are all from Colombia, and they are all models, returning to Colombia after a weekend fashion show in Otavalo (about 45 minutes south of Ibarra). He says “que suerte, no?” and I reply, “para ti, tal vez, si”. “Ojala”, he says, handing me my change and turning up the aisle to try his luck.

Yes I know I write frequently about busses! But they are such a part of life´s fabric here, there is really no avoiding it. Transportation, commentary, entertainment, jean claude van damme movies, good company and so much more. Coincidentally on my way into Ibarra today the same comic mentioned above got on our bus. The heat was stifling, his crowd subdued and ornery, and he collected only a few quarters.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ciao, Ambuqui

My planned 3 week “trial run” in Salinas de Guaranda turned into a stay of just over a month. It went well, and I am looking forward to returning in January, or sooner if possible. For now I am back in Ambuqui, and as always this little house feels a lot like home, yet this “homecoming” I do believe will be my last.

I have been nursing a cuba libre for half an hour (I would kill for an ice cube), staring at the keyboard and hoping my fingers will start moving. No dice. But I would like to post something – it`s been over a month.

- Noted today that bus drivers are most reckless and therefore most dangerous when a pretty girl is sitting in the jumpseat up front next to his. Most of the time he is checking out her cleavage and making small talk, only occasionally bothering to glance at the road. When he does take a moment to have a look at the road it is only to perform a nearly impossible pass on a blind curve or some other life threatening maneuver meant to gain her respect and admiration. The drivers helper, el ayudante, obligingly serves as wing man , keeping the conversation moving along briskly and occupying her momentarily while the driver catches a closer look at the goodies. Amazing what you can learn by keeping your eyes on the big mirror in the front of the bus. After a while I dozed off and when I woke up 15 minutes later the pretty girl was gone, and the driver stared blankly out at the road ahead.

- My favorite breakfast place when in Ibarra is the Pushkin Café. I have no idea where the name comes from, (I will ask someday) but I love the Soviet/Eastern European literary allusions that it evokes. I ate there this morning (dos huevos con tocino y hamon, queso, jugo de mora, café y pan –$2.30) and was happy when the proprietress noted that I had not been in for awhile. I told her I had been away, but would come back soon. I`ll ask about the name.

- On my way from Ibarra to Salinas last month I took a bus that routinely bypasses Quito but makes a stop in an outlying community called Pifo. There we are allowed a few moments to stretch our legs, use the bathroom, grab a bite to eat – very civilized, actually. I leaned up against a wall which had been warmed by the sun for a minute while the bus was unloading passengers and goods not traveling on. As I watched, a little girl of about 10 or 11 years motioned for me to come help her. At her feet was a large canvas bag loaded with godknowswhat. She asked me to lift it and put it on her back. I did, just barely – the bag surely weighed 100 pounds, if not more. I held it there while she wrapped a blanket around her huge load and her little body. She said “gracias” and trundled off, nearly bent in half. I shook my head in disbelief and hoped she did not have far to go.

- Today (Dec.8) is my fathers` birthday. If still living he would be 89 years old. He died at 84, which isn`t too bad. I`m not sure I want to live that long – another 30 years. Can`t imagine it. 20 years more seems sufficient. Happy Birthday, Dad, I miss you.

11 diciembre

Back in the dark ages, when black vinyl and a turntable were your only real option for listening to recorded music, a British blues-rock band called Ten Years After put out a great album which I have forgotten the name of. One of the songs on this LP was called “leavin`again” and I have been singing it to myself all day. Have made the decision that it is time, after 2 years and 2 months, to wave goodbye to Ambuqui. It has been a good, good home to me, but as I have mentioned before – if I have a future in Ecuador it is not here. So the day has been spent, like so many other days in my life, packing boxes, dividing stuff into piles, filling wastebaskets, re-reading parts of favorite books, repacking, and wondering where did all this shit come from???

I thought about counting up all the houses, apartments, rooms, tents, motels, camper vans, etc. that I have lived in thus far – then decided against it, figuring it would either be too depressing or too exhilarating. Better to stay on an even keel, keep working, keep packing. At times in my life I have left a home with great sadness and with very little hope, but that is not the case now. As I look out my window at the scrubby mountainside, I know I will miss the dry and hot beauty of Ambuqui, and at times I will miss the languorous indifference of my friends here; their wistfulness, and their seemingly complete dedication to never change. Nevertheless for me, no sadness, plenty of hope, and eyes on the future. Imagine that.

Some of my stuff, tools, a few books, and warmer clothing will go back with me to Salinas. The rest I will leave with some friends in Ibarra, or give away here in Ambuqui. Next week I will go to Quito armed with a slew of papers from the foundation in Salinas, all and more of which are required to renew my visa. It could be easy, just a few hours, or it could be hell – days, even weeks, return trips to Quito, etc. – possibly without success. I`m rooting for easy.


“There`s a lot of beauty and a lot of good folk in this old world, child. Don`t you ever forget that.”