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.