Last thoughts on Ecuador

Some final observations from my last four months in this country as I prepare to leave Ecuador for Peru:

  • I highly recommend Ecuador to you North Americans looking for a quick (2-3 week) vacation. It’s a small country, so it’s quick and easy to get around, yet offers a ton of variety. Beautiful tropical beaches, interesting indigenous people, great mountain hiking and biking, volcanoes and Amazonian jungle – which I didn’t even see (I’m saving that for Bolivia). There is a well-developed tourist infrastructure (good food, U.S. dollars, internet, lots of affordable hotels and transportation), quite safe for the most part, and the people are friendly. Ecuador reminds me of Guatemala (probably my favorite Central American country) in many of these ways.
  • Ecuador sees far more tourists than Colombia or many other Latin American countries and probably for this reason, fewer of them speak Spanish.
  • Every town has an independence day celebration commemorating the day that town was liberated.  There must also be several other specific festivals throughout the year, because it seems like I encountered parades and fireworks in half the towns I visited.
  • The country is taking H1N1 quite seriously – you see signs up all over towns instructing the residents to wash their hands and how to avoid infection.
  • Eloisa says that Colombia is more developed than Ecuador, but I think it depends on how you measure it. The markets in Ecuador are much cleaner and more modern than in Colombia. And the country is far more wired – every tiny town has many internet shops with LCD screens and reasonably fast connections; many parks, restaurants, bars, and hotels have WiFi.
  • The current president, Rafael Correa, has imposed very high duties on imported products, while locally produced goods remain quite cheap. Which accounts for some strange prices – a small bottle of olive oil, for example, is 10x the price of a large bottle of beer.
  • Ecuadorians have different notions of interpersonal communication than I’m used to. For example, on three separate occasions I’ve had people text or call me with: “What’s the address of your hotel? I’ll be there in 5 minutes”. Or, “I’m downstairs.” Without having made plans beforehand! To me, that’s rude. But I guess to them, last-minute dropping by is normal.
  • Another cultural difference: Where you were born is where you’re from – even if you grew up and lived your entire life somewhere else. I met a girl whom others call Colombian, even though she only lived there the first month of her life!
  • A trait shared with Colombia: people don’t leave messages on machines. I’m one who doesn’t answer the phone unless I know who it is, so it’s really annoying to get dozens of calls, none of whom leave a message.
  • Kids born out of wedlock and unmarried pregnant women don’t carry the same stigma here as they do elsewhere in the world. There are a LOT of single mothers around.
  • Kids seem both happier and more well-behaved here than in North America. I love watching them spend hours playing by themselves with nothing, making up games in the park or on the street corners.
  • Life is shorter, and therefore lived earlier, than in North America or Western Europe. [At least in the countryside; these examples apply less to upper-class well-educated people in the cities.] For example, girls start looking for husbands around age 14 and might have three kids by the age of 17. An unmarried 21-year old girl is hopeless. Kids take on responsibilities much earlier than where I come from, which is nice to see. People age faster, too – the other day I met a woman who I thought was in her late 40’s only to find out she’s 35. This is not unusual.
  • New species are constantly being discovered in Ecuador. In the last month alone 13 new creatures were discovered, including a remarkably ugly bug-eyed salamander and a tiny but beautiful poison arrow frog.
  • Rottweilers and pitbulls are both banned in Ecuador.
  • Ecuador is the world’s foremost exporter of bananas, accounting for 50% of the world market and 1/3 of Ecuador’s trade market. Shrimp is the next biggest product for export, led by the company with the wonderful name Exporklore. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
  • Shops never have change. Sometimes they even have trouble changing a $5 note, for Pete’s sake. It’s not difficult – part of running a business is going to the bank each day to get change for your cash drawer. The gringo shopkeeper does it, but nobody else. So I have little sympathy when I pay with a $20 and they act so put out.
  • Speaking of change, it’s hard to change people’s ways down here, even when shown a better way. For example, I got some locals to taste pasta al dente instead of al mushy, and they agreed it’s better. But they keep on cooking it the way they always have.
  • I have found the bus attendants (the employee who collects money and deals with luggage on buses) to be honest and earnest without fail. Somehow, out of a bus of 50 people all getting on and off at different places and times, they seem to always remember who is owed change and exactly how much.

  • I recently read an article about the effect of missionaries in the indigenous jungle communities. It makes my blood boil. Interestingly, the Catholic church, for all of their reprehensible actions over the centuries, has actually adapted in the last 40 years and now fits in more gracefully. For example, one can attend Catholic mass given in Shuar (the indigenous language of these Amazonian people). The Church has even incorporated elements of indigenous mythology into the services – which facilitates conversion, since it allows the indigenous to remain grounded in their traditional beliefs while still serving the larger purpose of the Church (which is, I am told, to save souls).
    Contrast this measured (yet still shameful) approach with the Evangelical Christians, who will not be happy until every last indigenous person speaks Spanish, goes to church on Sunday, abolishes shamanism, and dresses in Western clothes. The indigenous never heard that they should be self-conscious of their bodies and cover up until these weasels came along. Can you imagine the opposite – shamans descending on Paris or Rome or Peoria with loads of cash and trinkets, swarming the elementary schools, pushing their way of life? How long would we tolerate this? The Evangelicals are also busy buying up huge tracts of the jungle. As one Shuar shaman put it, “Why are they here? To speak about Jesus, or to become the biggest landowner?”
    Another crucial problem is that evangelized indigenous people are no longer interested in the traditional use of medicinal plants. This leaves the population defenseless in the face of a wide variety of illnesses, most brought on by the colonizers and evangelicals themselves. The Amazon basin is one of the world’s greatest natural pharmacies; Western pills are a poor and incomplete substitute for what has already proven it’s value and efficacy for thousands of years. Furthermore, the relentless preaching of love and forgiveness has led to a confused response by peoples who are now both morally and physically disarmed in the face of widespread devastation of their ancestral homelands by the oil companies, loggers, gold prospectors and others. The churches have brought guilt to the Amazon. They have paved the way for exploitation in a way that few armies ever could have.
    Much of the above paraphrased from the excellent article in the Ecuador Reporter.

A bit about the political situation in the region: despite graduating from the days of Banana Republics, we still have instability and fighting and a hell of a lot of hypocrisy down here. I grew up thinking of the world in black and white – partly as a result of the cold war, but also raised in a liberal, progressive community, one tends to believe that any leftist is for peace, equality and justice. So years ago when I first heard of Hugo Chávez, I was of course all in favor of his socialist policies to help the poor. However I’ve since become severely disillusioned. First of all, he acts like a 5 year old when he doesn’t get his cake (which seems to be every day), not at all the diplomatic way that heads of states should behave. And despite how much he decries the American Imperialists, if anyone is a war-monger around here, it’s Chávez – he is constantly provoking and taunting other nations and leaders.

It’s not only Chávez – while I resoundly condemn the coup d’état in Honduras, Manuel Zelaya (the ousted president) shares many of Chávez’s traits – as do some of the other leaders in this region. Namely, they prefer direct subsidies – which generate quick political returns and look good in photo ops – to creating jobs, expanding education, and improving health care. They mock the very ideals they came to power supporting. The lack of transparency and extreme restrictions on the press are especially galling. They are presidents who were fairly elected yet who are now proceeding to gut democracy from within and govern autocratically instead. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not an apologist for the U.S. The policies of the IMF and the World Bank in strong-arming developing countries into insupportable debt (to benefit multi-nationals based in the U.S.) makes me sick. But I’ve experienced an evolution in my beliefs since seeing first-hand how hollow the rhetoric of  some of these supposedly “people’s presidents” are.

Despite Chávez’s dream of a united South America, none of these countries seem to be able to get along. Venezuela withdrew their ambassador from Colombia and threatened to halt Colombian imports after Colombia signed agreements allowing the U.S. use of seven air bases in the country. Nevermind the fact that it will only expand the U.S. military presence in Colombia from 300 to 800 soldiers.. hardly a figure to worry about, yet Chávez (and other South American presidents) fear this is a threat by the U.S. to invade their countries. Please. I decry U.S. foreign policy, but that’s just out-and-out paranoia. It’s all a lot of blustering by Chávez to cover up the fact that his financial, logistical, and military support of the FARC in Colombia is coming to light. Swedish-made anti-tank missles, sold to Venezuela under a contract stipulating they not leave the country, were found in the hands of the FARC a couple of months ago. Further, last year a computer was found at a FARC encampment with encrypted information detailing transactions and communications with Venezuela.

Back here in Ecuador, the FARC frequently take refuge on this side of the border to hide out from Colombia’s military. Ecuador seems to explicitly support this – it was recently revealed that the FARC contributed funds to president Rafael Correa‘s re-election campaign in 2006. Ecuador withdrew it’s ambassador from Colombia in March of last year after the Colombian military entered Ecuadorian territory in pursuit of the FARC. That raid ended up killing 24 people, including the FARC’s second-in-command Raul Reyes.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s war with the FARC is causing tens of thousands of displaced Colombians to flee across the border into Ecuador. It’s estimated that 50,000 Colombians seek refuge in Ecuador each year due to the war.

The reason Washington sought new base agreements with Colombia is partly due to them being kicked out of Ecuador, which refused to renew a decade-old lease thereby evicting U.S. troops from the country. [The official U.S. explanation for having military in the region is that it’s strictly to fight drug trafficking, but many are suspicious of ulterior motives.]

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  • judith Johnson says:

    VERY interesting! I’d love one of these after each country! thanks. JJ

  • Debra says:

    appreciate your comments
    very interesting

  • Jimmy Page says:

    “An unmarried 21-year old girl is hopeless”. Well JJ, I’m glad I’m not where you are, otherwise my unmarried self would have been pushed into an active volcano by now, or something…I’m sad not to have been in communication much lately. The edumacation thing is giving me the challenge of a life time. I am being cerebrally humbled and stretched to the limits everyday. I’m not sure where it’s all leading, but I suppose that’s the point. Love!

  • wontansoup says:

    More or less the majority of expats in Ecuador seem to be wacko regardless of their origin. Wonder why it attracts those kinds. My father used to say you do that when you got nothing to with fll stomach. Do they see how those poor Ecuadorian struggle to fill their empty stomach. I have to reconsider to retire in Ecuador.

  • Josh says:

    Regarding the recent and controversial military accord between the U.S. and Colombia which authorizes the U.S. more use of Colombia’s military bases: it looks like I was wrong, and the paranoiacs were right.

    Budget documents from the U.S. Congress have recently come to light revealing just what the long-range intention of this military build-up is: “documents suggest the bases could be used for continental combat operations and to neutralize regional governments considered ‘anti-U.S.,’ presumably Venezuela but also likely including Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua.” Yikes.

    Things are heating up down here. On November 5th, following the signing of this pact between the U.S. and Colombia, Venezuela severed diplomatic ties with Colombia and froze trade between the two nations.

    The U.S. Air Force document, which designates funding to “increase our capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR),” gives substantial weight to Chávez’s fears of destabilization by the U.S. and Colombia, particularly in the wake of the Venezuelan government’s recent accusation of espionage by the Colombian intelligence agency – part of a CIA-linked operation.

    Here is the full report.

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