The Birth of a Godson December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, The Birth of a Godson.
Tags: carmen vascones, childbirth, ecuador diary, ecuador travel, roger hollander
(Carmen moved from Guayaquil to Playas in 1991. When we met four years later she was living where she had originally settled, in a small apartment that was part of a complex owned by a colleague, the Psychologist Gabriel Ampuero. Gabriel is married to a Belgium woman, Marie, and they have five male children. The youngest, Paulo, was about five years old when I arrived on the scene. He spent a good part of every day with Carmen, whom he adored and was like a second mother to him. When I moved into Carmen’s life, I wish you could have seen Paulo’s face. He could have been the poster boy for the phrase: “if looks could kill.”
Gabriel and Marie had a servant and I use the word advisedly. Antonia Yagual Burbano (Latin Americans use both parents’ surnames, the paternal followed by the maternal. Yagual is by far the most common surname in Playas. I am not exaggerating when I say that probably one in ten have Yagual as either the paternal or maternal surname).
Antonia served as housekeeper, cook and nanny for the Ampueros. She worked full time Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday. She would also help Carmen with various tasks from time to time, and they developed and mutual respect and affection. It is not hyperbolic to state that she worked like a slave for Gabriel, Marie and the five boys, and I was later to find that, to keep things in balance I suppose, she was paid slave wages.
It is impossible to continue with the story without sounding like a prosperous liberal boasting about how generous he is to the “help.” So be it. When the Ampuero family packed their bags for a two year stint in the Galápagos, Antonia was left holding the bag, and an empty one at that. She was unemployed.
At that time Carmen and I had been living in our own home in Playas for about a year. We did our own housekeeping (a thankless job because we have only screened windows and the dust never lets up), but we sent our clothes out to be washed by hand (I know of one washer/dryer in all of Playas, that of the Ampueros). Ecuadorian women, for the most part, spend the major part of their waking lives washing clothes. No matter how poor, Ecuadorians have pride in their dress, and with the exception of street beggars, are always dressed in clean clothing). Carmen is allergic to detergent, and when I tried my hand a hand washing, my back said: no way José.
Hearing about Antonia’s plight, I asked Carmen how much the Ampuero’s were paying Antonia. I found it hard to believe. Although we were living entirely on my pension with only occasional income from the sale of books or paintings, the amount was feasible for us (in Ecuador it is most common for middle class folks to be able to employ domestic help). For five and a half days of hard labor, Antonia was earning the equivalent of about ten U.S. dollars.
Although this was not out of line with what domestic workers are paid in Ecuador, I could not in good conscience offer to employ Antonia for that sum. Carmen and I discussed it, and we came to the conclusion that we could employ Antonia at the same rate, but only to do light housekeeping and laundry, and for five half-days a week. We also gave her a sewing machine so that she could use it to earn money on her free half days.
Antonia would have been in her mid twenties at the time. She is intelligent, industrial, honest and fiercely loyal (sounds like a Girl Scout). She lived then in a dilapidated home (thrown together largely with scrap materials) with her mother, sisters, and various nephews and nieces. She was parenting one of her sister’s daughters, Lady, who was about three years old at the time. This sounds weird, but it is not unusual in Ecuador for older sisters or mothers to raise nieces and grandchildren.
There is no other way to say it, Antonia was more or less a concubine for Emilio, a poor fisherman, who was her boyhood sweetheart and whom she refused to marry. Emilio subsequently married and has children, but he has kept Antonia on the string. I think Antonia would like to end this relationship, but is afraid of Emilio’s violent reaction. She once had shown some interest in another young man, and there was hell to pay.
On a lot adjacent to Antonia’s home lived her elderly and ailing grandmother. Both homes were in effect “squatted,” that is, the land belongs to the City, and they occupy it by right of possession. When it was clear that grandma was on her last legs, we conspired with Antonia to acquire the property she occupied. This involved Carmen and Antonia taking an inkpad to the grandmother’s bed and getting her thumbprint on a key document. Thus began a two year process that involved unbelievable red tape, lost files, and a few bribes. It ended successfully with Antonia holding title to the land, which was purchased from the City through our financing. In addition to giving Antonia her own home, it saved the property from an unscrupulous aunt who lived in another part of town and wanted it for herself. As I write, Antonia is in the process of receiving government funding to build a new home on the property. We will pay for the construction of a foundation, and the federal government will pay for the construction of the house.
The following was an e-mail, dated December 4, 1999 sent to family and friends telling them about the birth of Giancarlo, who today is nine years old and our godson.)
This was going to be just a short note informing the chosen that, after a grueling but thankfully uneventful four flights, I am back safely and happily in Ecuador. But I have a story to tell.
I arrived Monday night, only an hour late and was met by Carmen with her brother Carlos at the airport. After doing a whole bunch of things including a visit to an eye doctor to do something about my bloodshot eyes (apparently a reaction to a virus and manageable), we headed back to Playas on Thursday morning.
On our way into town we passed by Antonia’s house to see if she had given birth yet. Antonia lives with her mother and god knows how many cousins, nephews and nieces in a ramshackle hut made of bamboo thrown together with other miscellaneous materials. They are what we would call “dirt poor,” and are so even by Ecuador standards. Antonia, who is in her early thirties, used to work for the family where Carmen had rented a small apartment so she has known her for about ten years and they are very close in a sort of big sister (Carmen) little sister way. About two years ago when her employers moved away leaving her without income, we employed her to do laundry and some house keeping on a half time basis (at the same rate as what she was earning before for full-time work) and Carmen gave her a sewing machine so she could learn a skill with which to work toward independence. Early this year she got pregnant by her childhood sweetheart, Emilio, whom she had refused to marry and who subsequently married another women and has had children with her.
Our arrival chez Antonia was fortuitous in that she was in the middle of contractions and had no way other than taking a bus to get to the hospital. We arranged to drop our stuff off at home and return to take her to Playas General, the hospital for poor people (and the only hospital in Playas), at six PM. Shortly after we arrived she was at 7 centimeters and a quick delivery was expected. At Playas General there is no labour room so she was told to keep pacing in the hallway until the moment arrives. There is also no ultra sound available at Playas General, and just prior to the birth Antonia had decided she couldn’t afford another one, which can be obtained at a private clinic (if we had been here we would have insisted and probably paid for it); so, even though she had been examined at Playas General two days previous, there was no ultra sound on record.
When she started to give birth it was discovered that the baby was in breech position and could not be born. Everyone, including the attending physician, began to panic, since there was not surgeon present at the hospital at the time and one could not be located. If we had not been there, according to everyone we have subsequently talked to, mother and baby almost certainly would not have survived. They were prepared to send Antonia to Guayaquil, and, Carmen tells me, possibly on the bus, as hard as that may be to believe, since there is no ambulance in Playas. What happened was that we got Antonia immediately to a private maternity clinic in Playas where they were able to get hold of their surgeon to come and perform an emergency Caesarian (coincidentally, another woman who had been in labor for five days (!) at Playas General shortly came over to the same clinic and had the second Caesarian) of the night.
Although there was extreme concern about Antonia because, in addition to the breech positioning, embryonic fluids were secreting a colour that indicated the possibility of serious infection, a healthy baby boy was born at 9:45 PM; and Antonia seems to be perfectly all right. It was an emotional moment for all of us when the attending pediatrician walked out of the operating room holding this wide-eyed alert little creature.
In Ecuadorian hospitals, both public and private, there is a degree of informality that would shock most Gringos. Illnesses and births are “family affairs,” and there is a constant interplay between medical personnel and families. For one thing, hospitals provide nothing, and I mean nothing. A doctor or nurse will emerge to approach a family member of so and so and hand them a prescription for a syringe, medication, intravenous, or whatever else may be needed. The family member then runs to the pharmacy to have it filled and returned to the proper person. The family provides everything, including such basics as drinking water and toilet paper.
At Playas General you wouldn’t believe how primitive the setting is (unless you’ve been to the third world). At the private clinic, things were substantially more modern and equipped but still quite lacking by North American standards (e.g., no monitoring devises or even outdated primitive looking ones). After the birth Antonia and baby left the operating room and were put in a recovery room, the next Caesarian was performed and we were left on our own (Carmen, me and Antonia’s mother). No one knew what to do, so my Bradley training and three birth experiences came in handy. The main thing was to get the baby to the mother’s breast, the need of which nobody seemed to be aware. This stopped his crying, and once he got the hang of it he wouldn’t let go.
Carmen has had to do some heavy duty negotiating with the clinic administration to get a discount on the Caesarian, but we have had to guarantee payment. Fortunately the cost of living is such here (and more so in Playas than Guayaquil) that we’re only talking about the equivalent cost of having a couple of teeth filled in Toronto.
An adventure, with a happy ending, and a nice way to come home.
Ps. Antonia requested a tubal ligation but was refused because there was no “husband” present to sign his consent.
Pps. We discussed this event subsequently with the physician we go to at a small clinic in Playas. What he told us was most disturbing. He said that surely there were surgeons, including himself, who were available that evening to perform a Cesarean at Playas General. Apparently, the nurse on duty there has an arrangement with the private maternity clinic (Gregorio Clinic where Antonia gave birth) to rule out all alternatives to sending patients in such emergencies to Gregorio. She gets a kickback.
Apparently the notion of sending Antonia to Guayaquil by bus was a ruse to motivate her to choose the Gregorio Clinic, where Gregorio Andrade himself did the delivery. Now here’s the kicker, the same self Gregorio Andrade, a prominent member of the Conservative Party, subsequently ran for and was elected Mayor of Playas, where he served one undistinguished term in office, undistinguished in the sense that, albeit a self professed reform candidate, he was no less corrupt than his predecessor. We got a first hand taste of the Doctor’s character when we learned that Antonia and baby would not be released from the Clinic until the full bill had been paid … in cash.
The baby, named Giancarlo, today is a bright and strapping lad, and he asked that Carmen and I be his Godparents at his first communion.