My Trip to Ecuador (Fall 2005)

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In fall 2005 I spent a month in Ecuador visiting Whitman profs Jason Pribilsky and Suzanne Morrissey (shown at their house), their 5-year-old son Jacob (shown with a pig), and their german shephard puppy Guthrie, who I'm hoping will remember how kind I was to him when we meet again in Walla Walla.

Ecuadorian fun facts: official food, cuy (guinea pig); official soft drink: warm Coca-Cola; official bird, Andean condor (Ecuador encompasses Andean highlands as well as low-lying coastal regions, low-lying Amazonian jungle regions, and the Galapagos Islands); official currency, U.S. dollar (since 2000, but good luck getting change for a $20); official dedication of the country to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (later rescinded), late 1800s. Lasting memories: bumpy bus rides over mountainous terrain with death-defying drivers and no legroom; having to put toilet paper in little trash cans because the sewage system can't handle it; realizing that the only thing you can get for free anywhere in Ecuador is una funda (a plastic bag, for throwing up in on the buses, for groceries, or just because they're black and shiny).

Jason, Suzanne, and Jacob were in the middle of 6 months in Cañar, which is a medium-sized city off the tourist track but near Ingapirca, the biggest Inca ruin in Ecuador. (See two pictures on right.)

Inca fun facts: they didn't have wheels or writing, but they managed to control an empire of 10 million people by sending runners all over with knotted cords; they didn't have metal tools, but they managed to build incredibly-well-fitted stone creations like Ingapirca; their civilization started in Peru and lasted for just 120 years before the Spanish showed up; the soccer stadium in Quito is named after Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, who defeated his half-brother in a civil war that ended just before the Spanish showed up and executed him.

Economics puzzle #1: On the left is a more-or-less typical Ecuadorian house...and an example of traditional Ecuadorial political advertising. In the center is a house built by money sent home by migrants: Ecuadorians spend upwards of $10,000 (and risk their lives) to travel to the U.S., often ending up in Queens, where they somehow manage to save enough money to send some of it home. (Wouldn't it be a Pareto improvement for the U.S. government to just charge $10,000 for a guest worker permit?)

Economics puzzle #2: The third picture below is a soccer-ball factory in Salinas. This family makes about 30 soccer balls a day and sells them for $5 each. I wish I knew someone with a PhD in economics who could help me figure out the moral implications of buying one of their soccer balls...

Economics puzzle #3: How can people care so much about soccer when the games always seem to end in 0-0 ties? (That was the final score of both of the Ecuadorian World Cup qualifying games I saw, the first of which---against Uruguay---somehow ended up securing Ecuador a spot in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, its 2nd-ever World Cup appearance.)

The different indigenous groups can often be identified by their clothing; here's Rosario (?) wearing a lovely Cañari outfit. (Confession: This picture, and most of the other really good pictures here, were taken by Jason, Suzanne, or Jacob.) The second picture here is of a feast; everybody just kind of reaches in with their fingers. The third picture is me attempting to carry Jacob in the way that Cañari women carry their babies: they put them on their back and wrap a shawl tightly around the baby's bottom. Unfortunately, my shawl wasn't quite long enough, so I had to cheat and support Jacob with my hands. The fourth picture is cuy, guinea pig, which I somehow never got around to trying during my month in Ecuador.

I spent a day in Cañar visiting the English classes of students I'd met during the paseo, Fri/Sat night walks around the town square. We translated Tracy Chapman's "Behind the Wall", asked and answered questions (many of them want to go on to study at the University of Cuenca, no I'm not married, and for some reason they really wanted me to dance), and told jokes.

In addition to a joke based on my conversation with Luz Maria (she asked me why I wasn't married, and I tried to say "maybe women don't like me" but what I ended up saying was "maybe I don't like women") we did the parachute joke about George Bush ("Don't worry, sir, George Bush jumped out of the plane with my backpack!") and an Ecuadorian version of the construction-worker joke: An Ecuadorian, a Colombian, and a Peruvian---the butt of Polish jokes in Ecuador---are working on a skyscraper in New York City, and every day they have lunch on the I-beam 72 stories above the ground. One day at lunch the Ecuadorian opens his lunchbox to find cuy (guinea pig), and says, "Cuy! If I get cuy one more time, I'm jumping." The Colombian and the Peruvian say similar things upon finding arepas (thick corn tortilla-like thingies) and potatoes in their respective lunchboxes. The next day, all three find the same lunch items, so all three jump to their deaths. At the funeral, the Ecuadorian's wife and the Colombian's wife break down in tears, but the Peruvian's wife says, "Hey, don't look at me---that dummy packed his own lunch!"

After Cañar I traveled around the coast for a week before heading home. Other than taking two surfing lessons in Montañita, what I remember most about this part of the trip is that the guy staying at the other hostel got sex on the beach, and all I got was pink eye. (I should have known better than to stay at a hostel called La Tierra Prometida: Jews have been falling for that line about the "Promised Land" for thousands of years...) Oh yes, and I saw blue-footed boobies on Isla de la Plata, the "poor man's Galapagos", where Sir Francis Drake supposedly buried a bunch of silver because he couldn't carry it all home. Let me tell you: Once you've seen blue-footed boobies, all other boobies just pale in comparison. (OK, enough raunchy jokes; can you tell I've been hanging out in comedy clubs too much?)

Lengthy story #1 (Edited from my diary entry for Thursday 9/22/05)

Went to a potato harvest today. Woken up at 6:15am by Jason; we were supposed to be picked up at 7. Had PBJs for breakfast, finally got picked up at 8:15 (this is a common phenomenon, known as "Ecua-time") and caught a bus with some Cañaris (one man, Ranti, and two women with babies) to Zhud, about a half hour away. After waiting for a while near a house, a whole strung-up pig, and a ditch full of chicken turds, we got into the back of a truck and drove off. Soon we turned off the main road (the Panamerican highway, which runs through Cañar on its way from Mexico to the tip of South America) and onto a dirt road that went pretty much straight up---lots of bumps, hairpin turns, occasional cows and sheep and Cañaris. Finally stopped near a 2-hut compound, one a kitchen/dining room, the other a bathroom (which was locked, with the key missing). Down the steep hill was a potato field, and we proceeded to dig for papas, mostly red, some yellow or purple. (Potatoes are native to South America, as is corn and chocolate). Ranti would use a shovel to loosen up each plant, and we (Jason, Suzanne, Juan Pablo, and the two women, both with babies strapped to their backs with shawls) dug up the plant as best we could with our hands and felt around in the soft earth for potatoes. (Jacob helped on occasion, but mostly played with the dogs: Sisa and a giant German Shephard named Sinchi, "brave" in Quichua.) There hadn't been much rain, so the yield was poor. Nonetheless, by the end of the day we had filled about 3 huge sacks, each almost too heavy for one person to carry.

After a couple of hours of dirty work we went up the hill to the shack, where the women were cooking over firewood; the shack was full of smoke, but it was also warm. Eventually we sat down on very low benches for lunch: fava beans, mote (see next story for a picture), a red onion and tomato salad, cheese (tasted like cows' milk feta), fried plantains, and a chicken freshly killed and cooked in pig's fat from the pig in Zhud. The chicken looked terrible---all black in the dark smoky room, with the neck and feet along with everything else in a bowl---and it was the best chicken I have ever had! Crisp and charcoal-y and pig-fatty delicious. Too bad I could only have a small drumstick: there was only one chicken for the 8 or so of us. The food was set on the table before us, and we ate everything with our hands, reaching over to take some of whatever from the various bowls, feeding the chicken bones to the dogs.

At the end of lunch I told two jokes---the Zen monk joke and the George Bush parachute joke---in Spanish and Jason told one about the Ecuadorian ambassador peeing in the Rose Garden. Fun! I wish I had more jokes: I should have told the joke from my talk with Luz Maria about not liking women. After lunch we picked potatoes a bit more, and then carried these long black plastic irrigation tubes into a pile, and then loaded the potato sacks and ourselves into the truck and drove back to Zhud. By this time it was very foggy (paramo,it's called here) and cold. I bundled up as best I could and froze on the hard bumpy drive back to Cañar. Once home we turned on the oven (to head the house) and I had two mugs of hot cocoa. Home fries and eggs for dinner, and then to bed. Tomorrow I'm going to take a shower: it will be my first in Ecuador!!!

Lengthy story #2 (Edited from my diary entry for Monday 9/26/05)

Holy Toledo, where to start? How about at the end: Suzanne is going to set me up with a friend in Seattle... Okay, back to the beginning: Jason and I were going to the campo so he could do a focus group. Just outside of Cañar we hit our first paro (roadblock) on the Panamerican Highway: rocks in the road, burning tires, etc. We get out of the bus, cross the roadblock (passing some police, one of whom is wearing a black wool cap with a marijuana-leaf logo), and get on a bus on the other side that's turning around because of the paro. That was roadblock #1. Then, on our way home at 7pm or so, we hitch a ride with these crazy guys (teachers in Azògues, driving a tiny two-door---Jason and I squeeze in the back, and they keep their seats back all the way) and hit roadblock #2 outside of Zhud: some rocks in the road, but the police clear it just after we arrive. So we proceed on... to roadblock #3, a pile of burning tires and rocks and tree limbs being organized by a group of extortionist kids---maybe 10-15 years old. A few vehicles get through (one truck just drives over it all), and we almost do too but are stopped at the last minute when one of the kids rolls a big rock in front of our car. Our driver is cursing in a terrible English accent ("F*** you, man!"), calls the police on his cell phone, and tries to use Jason the anthropologist to get by. Finally Jason pays them $1, the driver pays $.50, and they let us through, but not before trying to get another $20 from us. We continue on until, outside of Cañar, we hit roadblock #1 from the opposite direction. Huge line of trucks. Our driver hears of a circuitous alternative route and we turn around and take off, driving up towards Ingapirca, the cause of the roadblocks, only to hit #4, an elegantly constructed log and rock wall. A new rumor: the main roadblock outside of Cañar will be lifted from 8:30-10pm before closing down again. It's already 8:30, so we head back down to the roadblock outside of Cañar, our driver speeding like crazy around hairpin turns, through potholes and over speedbumps, cursing in poor English. At the main roadblock, surprise: nothing is happening, except for a mysterious 3-minute window in which gun-toting police force us to back up in a hurry. So Jason and I get out and start walking. At worst, home is 9km away. But after we cross the paro (burning tires, rocks, 200-person crowd), we hitch a ride in an incredibly beat-up car for $2.

So much for transportation; now for the trip. After we crossed roadblock #1 and caught a bus on the other side going towards Guayaquil, we got off on the western side of the Andes, with the fog-covered lowlands beow us in the distance. We walked for an hour to the small town of Chontamarca (where we saw some men laying cobblestones by hand), met a local named Ambrosio, took a truck (owned by Ambrosio's brother, with a local hitching a ride) for half an hour or so up to the end of the road, and then walked for two hours up this insanely steep path that footsteps, horses, and rainfall had turned into a canyon about 15 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Ambrosio, a pudgy man in his 40s, did the hike without any problem; I panted. We passed horses and goats and cows and electric lines and houses (with music playing, loud bass pounding) and eventually made it to the school/community center of Surupongo. Way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, on a hilltop, with a church, two classrooms, a playground (with a wooden slide and a swing set that I impressed everybody---including myself---by grabbing onto with my toes still on the ground), a couple of buildings, and a lean-to outside for cooking. The priest was visiting that day from Chontamarca, dressed in a long black frock (from which he handed out candy), a colorful shawl, and a cowboy hat. One of the locals was a young punk who could have been from Anytown, USA.

Everyone was outside eating in a big circle, but Jason and I, as guests of honor, were seated in one of the classrooms, on two very small chairs, and were fed lunch: chicha, a fermented corn drink that elsewhere is fermented with spit (it looked terrible but tasted like apple juice); puro, a warm distilled cane alcohol that packs a serious punch; beef soup with potatoes (the beef was in large pieces that had been boiled extensively in the outdoor kitchen); beef with rice; and mote, a corn dish that accompanies all Ecuadorian meals. Not great, but far from inedible, and no cuy (guinea pig), which I still haven't tried. I took some artsy pictures from inside the classroom, but never got a really good picture of this adorable little girl with an orange skirt.

Then we were seated (along with the priest and a few others) at the head of the courtyard---this little boy kept staring into my camera---and Jason was invited to judge a dance/costume contest for reina (queen). It was Flag Day (Dìa de la Bandera Sangrada) and that was the reason for all the festivities; the focus group that Jason had scheduled never materialized. Then there was a soccer game between Surupongo and a nearby village---maybe 10-year-old boys, but they played well and knew the rules much better than me and Jason, who served as referees---and a community dance. The people were generally indifferent to us but very polite, except for the kids (who weren't indifferent) and one girl, Ana C, who was neither indifferent nor polite, preferring instead to taunt me as "gringo". More chicha and puro throughout the afternoon, and the fog rolled in around 3pm. We left around 4:30, after about 4 hours, and made it down in an hour. Ambrosio's brother was there, waiting to drive us back, but (perhaps feeling bad about the lack of a focus group in Surupongo) Ambrosio organized an impromptu gathering at the village at the bottom of the trail: a dozen adults, a teenage girl I exchanged smiles with---no, I didn't start it, and I also didn't solicit the marriage proposal I got from Andrea C, a young woman I met at a bachelorette party in Cuenca who stopped responding to my emails after I responded to her request for advice for the bride---and an adorable 4- or 5-year old with pigtails. (Everyone else, of both sexes, wears a big ponytail down the back, the women wrapping them in colorful strips of weaving.) They talked for an hour or so about Jason's TB project---in both Spanish and quichua---and then we left as it began to get dark. I rode in the back of the truck---there was a gorgeous red sun above the fog below, and I was fortunate enough to have packed all my warm clothes despite Jason's advice to the contrary---and put up with the bumping and the cold. We drove all the way back to the Panamerican and up to the town of Suscal, where we intended to catch a bus. But there weren't any, so eventually we hitched a ride with the two crazy teachers.

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