Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Friday, January 19, 2007

A season of many firsts

I have a lot of random, disjointed anecdotes to share with you, so bare with me.

I’ll start with some really stirring images I saw on the television concerning robbers in an indigenous town. The robbers had apparently stolen some tools and chickens, and their misfortune was that they were caught. Worse yet, they weren’t apprehended by the police, but rather by the indigenous locals. Stealing in indigenous villages is a serious sin. The three core mandates of many indigenous groups are the following: 1) do not steal, 2) do not lie, and 3) do not be lazy. I think I commented earlier about how indigenous members of a town called Pelileo attempted to burn a criminal alive at the stake. It’s a sad reality that many of the indigenous are forced to take justice into their own hands because they know the “police” will not intervene. I think that many actually prefer that the police don’t intervene because they want to practice their age-old system of justice. Whatever the real reason is for the lack of real police presence, I don’t know, but what I saw made an impression on me that will be hard to shake. The whole town congregated (including young, old, infirm, disabled, the WHOLE town), and they even brought lawn chairs, drinks and visors. This was a spectacle, sport, an interesting Saturday afternoon’s activity that would teach their children a good lesson. The two robbers were stripped to their underwear. They were first lashed with really hard straw whips. Then came the most terrifying part for me. They were completely smothered with stinging nettles. I had a small taste of stinging nettles in the jungle, and the blisters the plant caused hurt like mad. I can only imagine how it must feel all over your body. Then, to finish off the lovely castigation, the two men were both doused with ice cold water (I saw the ice cubes) just in case the bleeding wounds and prickling blisters all over their bodies weren’t hurting enough.

I didn’t really know what to think. On the one hand, I had to blink and remind myself that I am living in the 21st century, but on the other hand, their system of reprobation is serious, and I doubt that those two men will be repeat offenders. I can also guarantee you that none of those children who were present will even think twice about stealing. There is definite merit in this. Sometimes people need to be singled out to make a lasting impression for the whole.

Moving right along…I had the chance to go with my professor to the numismatic museum here, and I thought it was really intense to see her reaction the exhibit. Ever since dollarization, the people here have talked about how much better it was to have the Real and Sucre. The Sucre, when it was strong, enabled a middle class, and 100 sucres could buy groceries for a family of six for a week. In 2000, when the cunning economists had waited long enough during the inflationary process, 25,000 Sucres was equivalent to one dollar. Insane. College tuition cost about 500 Sucres in the past, then in 2000 the tuition was thousands upon thousands of Sucres. I saw my professor’s face and demeanor completely change as we walked into the room with a collection of old Sucres. I listened to her recall a happier, more prosperous time. She looked at all the bills and told me what she could buy with them in the past. They were also gorgeous colors of the rainbow, and she said that people never even looked at the number value; they knew the value by the color. This has caused many problems here because people weren’t used to looking at the number ($1, $5, $10, etc.), so they were kind of confused at first (and many were conned). I tried to imagine what the experience must of felt like for her. Here she was, standing in a room full of currency that used to be completely valid. Now the money is a tourist attraction. How would I feel if all of a sudden I were looking at millions of American dollars that meant absolutely nothing because the U.S. had been more or less forced to adopt the currency of the world’s superpower? I sometimes gather that the people feel like they lost part of their Ecuadorian identity when dollarization place. What had been theirs for a very long time was suddenly taken away and made null and void. I guess the situation wouldn’t be so bad if they liked the dollar, but the majority don’t.

Another issue that I think is kind of interesting is that the highest level of education that is offered here is the Masters degree. Sure, there are law degrees and medical degrees, but for students to receive a Ph.D. in any other field, they have to leave the country. Basically this means that if a student isn’t fortunate enough to receive a scholarship, the highest level of education they can obtain is predetermined, and only the wealthy can enjoy the luxury of pursuing higher degrees.

Ah! Big news in the world of Rotary. I finally gave my first presentation. I kept asking for months, and there was never a good time for them, so I finally insisted and presented this past Wednesday. I practiced on all the students at my school (there are actually a lot now). In spite of having practiced, I was surprisingly nervous! It went really well though. I was glad that I finally got to explain what my purpose is here, because I hadn’t really had positive Rotary experiences here so far. I go to the meetings every Wednesday night at the Swissotel, but nobody really tries to include me and involve me in conversation or in the club for that matter. This is in part because the club is ALL men. Well, there is one woman, but she rarely comes. I am always very uncomfortable with the club, but after the presentation I felt much better. I found it very funny as well how everyone paid so much attention to me from the minute I walked in the room because I was wearing a suit. My my my how a suit changes everything. (I usually wear less formal clothing, and coincidentally, no one makes an effort to speak to me). This night though, the whole club wanted to know my name and they “introduced” me to the club. I laughed because many of them didn’t even realize I was the same girl that had been attending their meetings for the past three months. Anyway, I talked all about my host Rotary club in Downtown Gainesville (6970), and I spoke about Gainesville, Florida, the U.S., and all about my experiences in Ecuador and the cultural differences I have experienced. They were really laughing during some parts that I hadn’t even anticipated. I’m really glad that the presentation finally broke the ice, because a Colorado Springs Rotary club is coming to Quito early February for a wheel chair project, and I really want to travel around Ecuador helping them with the distribution of chairs.

This past Thursday I went to my volunteer site, a refuge for adolescent mothers. I am just starting with the organization, so it was my second visit. I first felt very uneasy because I was thinking about how the girls would view me. Unfortunately, my predictions were right. I entered and saw about four mothers and their babies staring me straight in the face. What exactly should I say? Do I just smile and try to find something to talk about? Should I be nervous that I don’t speak Spanish perfectly? Should I just keep my distance and let them approach me if they want? I don’t know the next thing about being pregnant or the hardships that these girls have had to go through. The very reason they’re there is because they have nowhere else to go. Their families have kicked them out because their pregnancies are shamed. So how exactly do I go about relating to these girls who are the same age as me (or younger even)? They just looked at me with somewhat questioning, yet primarily disinterested eyes. Maybe it was just because of my own uneasiness there, but I felt like they were thinking “Who is this north American girl who knows nothing about us? How could she possibly help us? She knows nothing about our lives. I bet she’s just here to fulfill some volunteer requirement or to feel good about herself.” That’s the definite impression I got, so this is going to be a hard one, folks. The most striking part of the visit, however, was completely unexpected. Before going I was thinking that I would primarily help the mothers by teaching English classes, listening to their stories, helping in workshops, etc. I quickly found that there is more need that what I had anticipated. I walked into a common room and noticed one girl helping three young mothers. I didn’t focus on what they were doing because I just wanted to sit down to see if the group would be nicer that the last one. I finally asked what they were doing (naively), and the girl who was teaching responded point blankly, “learning how to read and write”. I took an audible gulp. I hadn’t even considered the illiteracy factor of some of the mothers. Here I was thinking about the babies of these women, but the women themselves have elementary levels of education as well. I immediately felt a strong wave of disbelief come over me. These three ladies were in their 20s, and they have children. And they don’t know the difference between blue and yellow. I then looked at their adorable children and felt my heart sink. How can I hope for these children when their mothers can’t help them? Then I thought, no, Lauren, you have no right to judge these women, just as you don’t want them judging you. But this is a hard situation. Illiterate adults with the cognitive development of young children are having more children.

Another interesting event in Ecuador is that the new president, Rafael Correa took office on January 15th (Monday). It was a grand day of meetings and much pomp and circumstance. I wanted to experience all of the hullaballo, so I went, well, attempted, to go to the congressional building in the morning. I heard that practically all of the South American presidents would be there. Indeed, Chavez, Uribe, Bachelet, Lula, Garcia, and Morales were there. The president of Iran also came. Yes, you read that right. It seems as though in Correa’s infinite political wisdom, he decided to invite all the world leaders to his inauguration, and that includes the president of Iran. I can’t believe I was within meters of both Chavez and the president of Iran. I know it’s silly, but I was actually a little on edge because of my U.S. identity. You never really know what can happen. I saw loads of posters with Correa and Chavez shaking hands and embracing, and this also made me take a few deep breaths. Anyway, the police were blocking passage on the road that leads to the congressional building, but I decided to be my persistent self and get us in. The funniest thing is that the only I.D. I had on me was my ISIC card! Ha! I flashed it to the police and told me that I was a representative of U.S. students and that I was writing an important report on the election. He believed me and let me through. That ISIC card really saved the day. I had perfect timing because as soon as we entered we saw Correa’s brigade- the whole bit. It was great. I’m interested to see if/what things will change in the coming months under his presidency. I’m optimistically hoping that he will be unlike most of his predecessors.

I hope 2007 is treating you all well. E-mail me or send me snail-mail. I like hearing from you!


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