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Adventure in the Andes December 29, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
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(An e-mail letter sent to family and friends in June of 2000 that describes our first visit to the lovely city of Cuenca, often referred to as the cultural capital of the country.  Cuenca, a city of some 400,000 is Ecuador’s third largest, is located in the Andes cordillera southeast of Guayaquil.

 

The city’s cobblestone streets, towering cathedrals, and marble and whitewashed buildings give it a colonial air. The city’s history is well preserved, earning Cuenca the honor of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site.

 

According to studies and archeological discoveries, the origins of the first inhabitants go back to the year 8060 BC in the Cave of Chopsi. They were hunters, hunting everything the Paramo (neotropical ecosystem) offered them, and also nomads moving from one place to other. Tools like arrows and spears, found throughout the Andean alley are signs of the beginning of this culture. Their presence dates back to approximately 5585 BC.  The modern city was founded in 1557 by the Spanish explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos.

 

The occasion of our visit was the presentation of Carmen’s book of poetry, “Aguaje,” which I had illustrated. Along with the typical Ecuadorian book launching where the work is analyzed by eminent literary figures, there was a slide show of my illustrations.  The illustrations appear in black and white in the book, but for the purpose of the various launchings (Guayaquil and Quito in addition to Cuenca), I had worked for several months to create paintings and different forms of print art – silk screen, wood cut, linoleum, and colography – based upon the drawings.  Only in Guayaquil were the originals of these works displayed.)

 

We were to return to Cuenca the following year for another exhibition of my art work in the main gallery of the city’s Casa de la Cultura.) 

 

Here is more than you ever wanted to know about our week in the Sierra.

 

We left Playas for Guayaquil on Saturday, planning to run some errands there and leave for Cuenca on Monday.  When we arrived at the bus terminal in Guayaquil and inquired about transportation to Cuenca, we were reminded that a two day strike was planned for Monday and Tuesday, and, that if we wanted to get to Cuenca before Wednesday, we had better travel the next day, i.e., Sunday (the strike was organized by the organization of Indigenous evangelicals in protest of the government’s dollarization policy and a recent 80% increase in the price of gasoline — when Indigenous groups go on strike here they effectively block highways, if you can call them that, between major cities.  A major nationwide general strike is scheduled for June15/16 organized by a wide coalition of labor and community organizations).

 

So, on Saturday, we cut short or plans in Guayaquil and visited our car (84 Chevy Trooper) to check on its progress.  It is having its rotted out body largely replaced and painted.  This will take about six weeks.  Our body shop man doesn’t actually have a shop, he works on the street in front of his house — keeps the overhead down.  He welds sheet metal pieces to the car where the metal is rusted out, will be replacing maybe 50 or 60 percent of the entire body.  It will be nice, when the job is finished, to be able to travel without the road visiting us from below.  It will also be nice to be able to close and lock the doors.

 

We took a noon bus to Cuenca on Monday.  Cuenca, I am guessing, lies about 150 miles southeast of Guayaquil – check your maps – and is about a four hour trek from GQ (3 1/2 on the return as there is more descending than climbing).  The bus line we chose takes the most direct route which involves a rather steep ascent in to the Sierra.  We travel from the coastal plain into the tropical highlands and finally into the heart of the Andes cordillera.  The two lane highway is in good condition for the most part, but there are a few sections that were totally washed out by El Niño and others that were destroyed by landslides.  Even though this was nearly two years ago, repairs are still not complete, government officials too busy carrying suitcases full of money to Miami to bother with such trifles.

 

The only nervous moment occurred when we were climbing a steep grade where there was only a single unpaved lane in one of the damaged areas.  Before we could regain the two lane highway we met oncoming traffic and had to back down to where we entered into one lane.  I had a sudden religious conversion and successfully prayed for the bus’ brakes to be in good condition.  With only about a meter of earth between the highway and the abyss, this is no time to be picky about one’s atheism.

 

The climb must have taken us to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level before we descended into the valley wherein lies the ancient city of Cuenca at about 8,000 feet.  It is Ecuador’s third largest city, considered to be the “cultural capital” of the country, with a population, I am guessing again, of about a half million.  It is certainly the most beautiful city I have seen by far, sort of like Quito but without the urban sprawl.  The architecture is mostly Spanish Colonial, lots of churches, tile roof houses, narrow cobblestone streets in the old part of town.  From where we stayed it was about a ten minute walk to the center of the old city, we crossed the Tomebamba River, about fifteen meters wide, and climbed about thirty meters of steps up the steep escarpment to reach the level of the old city.  Along that escarpment, overlooking the river, are some incredibly beautiful homes.

 

Where we stayed (the long version): Carmen was raised in Machala a tropical city near the border with Peru.  Her father was a much respected banker there and was close friends with a wealthy rancher who had nine children, some of whom were Carmen’s age.  This family has a vacation home in Cuenca, and this is where we stayed.  Imagine a two story home that would not be out of place in Rosedale or Brentwood on about a half acre of tropical landscape, large enough to house a family of eleven, ideally located a stone’s throw from the heart of the city.

 

The house is tended to by Maria, an employee of the family who was brought from Machala fifteen years ago for that purpose.  She lives there with her two children (no father in the picture, surprise, surprise), Carlos, who is in his final year of university, studying business administration, and Patricia, who is in her final year of high school and also wants to go into BizAd.  A very pleasant family.  Maria is warm and intelligent, and has a flourishing business as a seamstress on the side (the owner family, however, is thinking of selling the house, and she worries about what will happen to her).  I think that Maria and family appreciated that we treated them as people, not servants (which is what they are accustomed to), took meals with them and shared in the kitchen chores (I taught all three of them to make pancakes, oatmeal cookies and homentashen — Patricia now plans to bake cookies and sell them at school).

 

The Climate: similar to that of Quito, a sort of perpetual spring.  The temperature can rise as high as 23C (mid to high 70sF) and go well below 10C (50F) at night.  Days are characterized by instability.  When the sun is out and the sky is clear; it is like the most beautiful spring day imaginable.  But the clouds come and go, sometimes bringing rain this time of the year, and in a matter of minutes it can go from short sleeves to jacket weather.  I am told that it never snows in the valley but there are sometimes sleet storms.

 

Most homes, including the one we stayed in, have no heating systems.  It never quite warms up from the cold nights, and one always needs to be wearing a sweater indoors.  At night it can really feel cold as the indoor temperature must go down below 15C (60F), and we slept comfortably only under four heavy wool blankets.

 

Cuenca is served by ice cold mountain water that you can actually drink from the tap.  The downside for us was that the hot water system in the house was not working which made normal showering unpleasant to contemplate.  Instead we heated water on the stove and bathed ourselves in the wash basin in the laundry room.  Our first night we discovered a leaking pipe in the bathroom. When I got up for a the middle of the night to visit to the bathroom I was greeted by a puddle of ice cold water.  That was a bad as it got.

 

The event, our presentation of our book, “Aguaje,” in the Casa de la Cultura, took place on Thursday.  We arrived several days in advance in order to arrange interviews and media coverage and to ensure that all logistics were in place.  Both Cuenca dailies gave us good coverage and we were interviewed on both the local radio and TV station.  Cuenca is laid out in the traditional Spanish colonial model: large square plaza (park) in the center of town with the main church on one side, government and culture (museums, etc.) on the other sides.  The Casa de la Cultura is right on the square, ideally located.

 

The event was not as well attended as we had hoped.  In addition to the rain that evening, there was a demonstration by the teachers’ union (damn selfish teachers think they should earn more than forty dollars a month, and what’s more they expect to get paid on time – imagine!) blocked a main entrance to the old city.  But the program itself was most successful.  Two of Ecuador’s finest novelists eulogized Carmen’s poetry, and the director of a major international art biennial gave a warm and positive review of my illustrations.  We did a slide show of my art, and that was also well received.  After the event, about fifteen fellow poets and artists joined us at a lovely quaint bar/cafe, the Rueda (Wheel), where we enjoyed drinks, snacks and music until after two in the am.

 

The drink of the night was the traditional Cuenca canelaso, a drink served warm in a ceramic pot a la Japanese sake.  It is made up of canela (unrefined cane sugar), aguardiente (an alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane), juice from the naranjilla (a tropical fruit native to Ecuador) and lime.  The two pitchers of canelaso on our table somehow never seemed to empty the entire evening.  It is one of those drinks where you don’t notice the effect it has on you until you try to stand up.  I wondered how this feast was going to be financed and whispered the question to Carmen.  She replied that we would all contribute.  But as the night wore on, one by one members of the party drifted away, and I noticed no cash was left on the table with which to help with the inevitable final reckoning.  I got really worried when the number of us at the table dwindled down to a handful.  We were bailed out in the end by Pepe Serrano, an old friend of Carmen’s who is a judge and the uncle of Ecuador’s ex vice president, Rosalía Arteaga, who picked up the check.

 

Hernán Illescas is a Cuenca artist I met in Toronto last summer where we both were exhibiting.  We became friends then, and during our visit in Cuenca we spent some time with him and his wife Mariela.  That night at the Rueda, he had brought along his cousin, Miguel, who is a sculptor and musician.  When the house musicians took a break, he went up to their stage, borrowed a guitar, and began singing at the microphone.  Before long the rest of the band joined in, and they played together the rest of the evening.

 

During our free time we mainly walked around the old town, passing through the narrow streets, occasionally stopping to browse a shop or enter into a street market.  We also spent a good deal of time sipping cappuccino with Carmen’s poet friends.  We visited museums, art galleries, and a few churches (I am of the “you-seen-one-you-seen-them-all” school of ecclesiastical architecture).  The day following the book presentation we met with the president of the Casa de la Cultura who invited me to present my portfolio the their committee in order to arrange for an exhibition there next year.

 

We made the trip back to Playas in one six hour stint, changing at the terminal in GQ for the home stretch to Playas.

 

It is good to be home.  I will miss the beauty of the Andes, but not the weather.

My Aching Back December 28, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, My Aching Back.
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(This letter to family and friends was written on September 29, 2000.  Getting around in Ecuador can be an adventure at times and is certainly almost always an educating if not an edifying experience.  The same can be said of executing most any transaction.  What I describe in this “a day in the life” letter is not atypical of the strains of accomplishing every day tasks.  Living in the beach/fishing village of Playas, which is about 50 miles from Guayaquil complicates life no end (not that the benefits don’t greatly outweigh the difficulties); but there is no avoiding making the trip more often than I would like to, not only because that is where most of Carmen’s family live – keep in mind that Carmen has seven half sisters from her father’s first marriage and eight siblings from her father’s marriage with her mother – but also because there are so many things that are not available in Playas.  This is changing as Playas grows.  Just this, for example, week canola oil came to one of Playas’ two large markets (not genuine super markets, something like large mini-marts). Taxi service came to Playas about three years ago.  Before then (and today still) you flagged down a pick-up truck.  When we moved from Carmen’s tiny apartment rented from the Ampueros to our new home about ten blocks away, we carried all our belongings out onto the street and waved down a pick-up, which took about five trips to complete the move.

 

There are large deposits of oil in the ocean that Playas abuts, and if the government ever allows it to be exploited, Playas will probably become a boom town, with all the sin and corruption that comes with it.  A recent political development has and will have profound implications for Playas.  The federal government allowed the other major beach towns on the same peninsula as Playas to separate from the Province of Guayas and form a new province.  This leaves Playas as the only beach town near to the metropolis of Guayaquil, and it means that over night Playas goes from being the Province of Guayas’ step child to its spoiled child.  Amongst other construction, a new eight story condominium is going up along the beach.  This does not bode well for our peace of mind.  Already the weekend and holiday tourism has increased greatly, bringing with it more noise, garbage and congestion.  I imagine that our “property value” – our home is ideally located two blocks from the beach and three blocks from downtown – will go up.  Some consolation). 

 

Wednesday, IWD.  Didn’t start off too well.  At about 8:30 am Carmen and I are on a bus from Playas to Guayaquil (car needs repairs) when I remember that I had forgotten to turn off the pump that pumps water from the cistern to the tank on the roof.  Panic.  Once the cistern is empty and the pump keeps working, it will burn itself out.  We are already 20 minutes outside of Playas.  I stop the bus and get off, leaving Carmen to continue on her way.  I hitch a ride back to Playas, turn off the pump and get on another bus to head to Guayaquil.

 

We are scheduled to meet with Clara Medina, the culture editor of El Telégrafo (“the dean of Guayaquil’s dailies”) to deliver articles we have written for her full page IWD coverage (for Thursday’s edition).  Carmen, of course, gets there about an hour before I do.  No problem.  Once we take care of that business, I go off by myself to run some errands.  Carmen will go with Clara to the town of Vinces, a two hour schlep from Guayaquil, to participate as a poet in a forum for IWD, which is being organized by Clara’s brother, who apparently has political aspirations.  Carmen is invited because everyone knows that she is the only writer who would take the trouble to go to an out of the way event for no pay. Saint Carmen.

 

My first errand is to use my VISA card to get a cash advance.  I used to be able to do this in Playas, but the banks will now only provide this service at their head office in Guayaquil.  At the Bank of Guayaquil, after standing in line for the requisite half hour, the computer denies my request.  The teller can give me no explanation.  The woman in client services tells me the problem is not necessarily with my Royal Bank of Canada credit; it could be that the line between the bank and the VISA approval centre is out of service.  Naturally, there is no way to confirm this.  I don’t have my emergency VISA telephone numbers with me, so she gives me a Canadian number to phone (but not on the bank’s phones, thank you) but suggests I first try the other Guayaquil bank that has an agreement with VISA to see if their line will confirm for me.  This is inconvenient for a couple of reasons.  First, their will inevitably be another long line to wait in.  Second, I will then have to carry back a large amount of cash (we’re talking ten million sucres -about US$400) back to the Bank of Guayaquil to deposit in my account there (and another lineup).

 

But I have no choice.  At Filanbanco, where I have never tried such a transaction before, I am told to go to window four where I wait fifteen minutes to be told that I need to go to window six.  This is a slightly longer line, but their computer mercifully approves my withdrawal.  I stuff ten pounds of Ecuadorian currency in my back pack and head back to the Bank of Guayaquil, where the line has grown to hour-long-wait-proportions.  I hate to have leave to look for a branch with a hopefully smaller lineup because it means going around town with a large amount of cash, but I decide to take a taxi to a branch where there is usually a much smaller line.  I arrive there, it is now early afternoon, and the line is longer than usual but not bad.  I am number eleven and there are two windows operating.  Naturally, at one of the window a transaction is going on that lasts for the entire 45 minutes it takes the other window to service the ten people in front of me.  When I finally get to the window and complete my deposit, I head to the customer service desk, as much to get off my feet (there is a chair there) as to complain about the service.  I get patronizing smiles and head nodding but the silent balloon above her head is saying “aren’t these Gringos cute, they expect to not to have to wait in lines.”

 

In leaving the bank for my next errand I realize how bad a shape my back is in, and realize I have to make some priority decisions or else I will end up with a serious sciatic episode.  Which errands to complete?  I decide against going to Central Bank museum.  Carmita Lopez, the librarian there, is the partner of Jimmy Saltos, who is organizing a collective exhibition in May, and I was to drop off slides of two of my works that he has solicited.  This will have to wait, along with a visit to my pals in the museum’s print workshop and a stop to greet my “cousin,” Madelaine Hollaender at her nearby gallery. I decide I can only make it to a part of town where some photos have been waiting since early January to be picked up, where I can also pick up some paper for my printer and some Flor de Manabí coffee, the best available in Ecuador and Carmen’s favourite (I am not that much of a coffee drinker).

 

 This involves three bus rides, including a transfer at the main bus terminal where I will be returning later to catch a bus back to Playas (Carmen will return to Guayaquil from Vinces with Clara and will spend the night there).  While waiting for my bus that will take me to my errand part of town, a woman asks me for five thousand sucres.  My policy is usually to give out a thousand at a time, as there are so many requests.  I say to myself, “Hell, it’s IWD,” and give her the five thousand.  Then she tells me that with

another five thousand she will have all she needs to get home, and would I please.  I do, and am rewarded by the quick arrival of the Number “2″ bus that will take me to where I need to go. 

 

The three errands take a bit of walking, and I decide not to stop in to visit Cecilia, which I would normally do while in that neighbourhood.  My back is in pretty bad shape, and I realize that I had better head back to the main terminal to catch my bus back to Playas.  Before I had left downtown, I had stopped at a pharmacy and picked up some Celebrex (the new miracle anti-inflammatory) and some Vitamin B complex, which I had taken with a quick lunch, but the combination of walking on top of all the standing in line, has taken its toll.

 

My luck is both good and bad at the terminal.  The good news is that, being late afternoon on a Wednesday, there is not that much travel to Playas and the bus is only half full, which gives me a pretty good seat choice and little likelihood during the trip to pick up enough more passengers so that I have people, knapsacks and chickens falling all over me.  The bad news is that the bus is probably older than I am.  Its seating is designed for midgets and its springs and shocks must have given out sometime during the Carter administration (late Trudeau, for you Canadians).  The run of the mill pot holes are bad enough, but the speed bumps, where the bus slows down just enough to avoid a full take off, are murder.

 

Just what my back needs.  Finally, about half way to Playas, going over a speed bump (there is one at the entrance and exit of every small town) sends me up into the air and down so hard that I destroy the back of my seat and have to change to another.  The bus ticket-taker gives me a dirty look, tries in vain to repair the seat, but says nothing.  In my new seat, I wait, bracing myself for the next bump.

 

Then, I remember a movie I saw ages ago.  I remember the line, word for word, but I could be all wrong about the movie.  I think it was The Maltese Falcon, and I think that Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet (he of the 300 pounds plus) were riding in the back of an old jalopy on a bumpy dirt road somewhere in North Africa, when one complained to the other of the extreme discomfort, and the other said: “try posting.”  Having been a horse owner thirty some odd years ago in Knowlton, Quebec, and the father of children taking riding lessons, I happen to know what “posting” is. 

 

So I tried it over the next speed bump.

 

And you know what?  It works.

 

The Birth of a Godson December 28, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, The Birth of a Godson.
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(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.)

 

 

Hello, everyone,

 

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.

 

Le chaim,

Roger

 

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.

Adventure in the Andes 2 December 28, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes 2, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
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(Now Carmen and I, having returned to our home in Playas, set off to launch “Aguaje” in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, an amazing city that runs lengthwise along a broad valley high in the Andes Cordillera.  I first visited Quito in the summer of 1961, when I was on a three month “deputation,” sponsored by my Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, to spend time with missionaries from the Wycliffe Bible Translators (Summer Institute of Linguistics) in the Ecuadorian Amazonian rainforest.  I was traveling with a classmate, Bev Carson, and we spent some days in Quito both on our way in and out of the jungle.

 

Our landing at the Quito airport early that summer was unforgettable.  By coincidence right next to us on the tarmac was a United States Air Force plane from which descended no one less that Adlai Stevenson, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  He would have been on a good will tour to promote JFK’s Peace Corps.  In those days, one did not taxi up and deplane into a terminal, but rather descended from the aircraft’s stairs directly on to the tarmac and then walked into the modest terminal building.  So we literally almost touched elbows with Stevenson, who, a two time loser of the U.S. presidency to Dwight Eisenhower, had been a political idol of mine.  Those were the days, unlike today, when there were liberals at high levels in the Democratic Party of which one could be proud.

 

In 1961 Quito was little more than the historic old city surrounded by a few modern buildings.  We stayed with a missionary family well on the outskirts of town, and for a “sucre” (a U.S. nickel) one could take a collectivo into the center to walk around the historic old town that had been founded in 1534.  The missionaries lived in a bungalow down the road from a soccer stadium.  It was about a 20 minute bus ride to get downtown.  I have to mention that these missionaries told us with a wry smile about good folks back in their home churches who send them C.A.R.E. packages that included used (!) tea bags.  That part of town today is completely integrated into the urban sprawl that is today’s Quito, and which fills the entire valley.  There was absolutely no way in 2000 that I could identify where I had been in 1961.

 

Today (2008) Quito boasts a population of just over 2.1 million.  It could not have been one tenth that size in 1961.  The city’s history pre-dates the Conquest by several centuries.  Its origins date back to the first millennium when the Quitu tribe occupied the area and eventually formed a commercial center. The Quitu were conquered by the Caras tribe, who founded the Kingdom of Quito about 980. In 1462 the Incas conquered the Kingdom of Quito. In1533, Rumiñahui, an Inca war general, burned the city to prevent the Spanish from taking it, thereby destroying any traces of the ancient prehispanic city.

 

Quito is a city from which almost anywhere within it there is a dramatic vista of mountains.  In 1961 it was amazing to see how farmers had terraced and cultivated right up the mountains at steep inclinations.  I saw little of that on my current visit.  This letter was e-mailed to family and friends in July of 2000.)

 

 

One doesn’t realize how lacking is Guayaquil until one arrives in Quito.  It lies in a long north/south valley surrounded by snow capped mountains and active (!) volcanoes.  The city is about 9,300 feet above sea level.  People who live on the coast complain about how public resources are unevenly distributed in favor of the capital, and this appears to be justifiable just from the obvious differences in the infrastructure (in Quito the streets are cleaner, well paved, and mostly free of pot holes, and there are many parks and well landscaped public places, all of which Guayaquil lacks).

 

Although Guayaquil is considered to be the economic generator of the country, one finds in Quito more signs of prosperity and wealth (narcodollars?) and fewer (but enough) signs of abject poverty.

 

The Casa de la Cultura in Quito (government financed cultural center) was much larger, architecturally superior (as in Cuenca) and better staffed than is the one in Guayaquil.  We had a greater audience for the presentation of “Aguaje” on July 6, and as in Cuenca and Guayaquil the reception of both the poetry and artwork was marvelous.

 

In Quito we stayed with Alicia Ortega, a friend of Carmen who is a native of Guayaquil and who is Professor of Letters at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar.  Alicia specializes in the city in literature, and she published a book from her masters thesis on the subject of urban graffiti (a subject, as you Torontonians know, that is close to my heart).  Alicia is a single parent with a super precocious nine year old daughter, Alejandra (nine going on thirty, as they say), who glommed onto me as do so many children here who lack a father figure in their lives (Alejandra’s father is a musician who studied in Russia and now lives in Spain with a new family – he  is expected to visit Ecuador next month and see his daughter for the first time since she was an infant, a fact which has produced a high degree of expectancy and anxiety in Alejandra).

 

We had only planned a week in Quito, but Alicia and Alejandra more or less kidnapped us (we were not that unwilling) to spend a second week there.  Quito is more spread out and hillier than Guayaquil, and a combination of the nine hour bus ride from Guayaquil and the first days of moving about was a strain on my back, so having a second week to rest up, spend time with folks and get around a bit more was most welcome.

 

Highlights of our time in the capital:

 

1) getting to know Alicia and Alejandra

 

2) getting together to party with friends of Alicia, including the

Managing Editor of Quito’s major daily newspaper, a very charismatic actress, and an Argentinean theater director who lives in Spain and was invited to Ecuador to direct a play in Quito.

 

3) spending time with Gerard Coffey, an environmental activist with whom I had worked in Toronto.  His Toronto group was helping to fund an Ecuadorian group (Acción Ecológia) which brought him here to visit several years ago, and he ended up marrying one of the leaders of the group, Cecilia Cherrez.  We had dinner with them at their home one evening, and on another occasion Gerard, who is British by birth, took me to an English Pub (!) in Quito where I downed two pints of genuine European style dark ale (this alone perhaps made the entire trip worthwhile).  Gerard and Cecilia are intimately involved with the political movements here, and they were amongst the Indigenous people, campesinos and rebel army officers who took control of the Congress on January 21.  They are in the process of trying to establish an alternative weekly newspaper, which is badly needed here (Gerard asked me to communicate that modest monetary contributions would be most welcome).  Gerard is also an artist, who, inspired by my example, has taken up the work again.  He recently exhibited in Quito drawings he had done at Central Tech in Toronto, and is developing a technique of making prints from raw potatoes!

 

4) a visit with Alicia Yanez, Ecuador’s finest woman novelist and a long time friend of Carmen.  She is a delightful, iconoclastic and liberated woman in her early 70′s, and we had lunch at her home with her son, who is an actor.  She loaned me a hardback copy of her one novel translated in English (Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City, Northwestern University Press), which, thanks to the second week, I had time to read.

 

5) visits with the two writers who had participated in the book presentation, Ivan Oñate and Simon Zavala.  Both are recognized literary figures in Ecuador, the latter is also a lawyer, and it was he who wrote and delivered an essay on my artwork.

 

6) Ulises Estrella is a poet who is also the director of cinegraphic arts at the Casa de la Cutura.  He took us on a tour of old Quito, and he also invited us to participate in a poetry workshop he coordinates, where Carmen was treated like a superstar.

 

7) a visit to the Municipal Museum to view an exhibit of the art of Ramón Piaguaje, the Secoya Indian from Ecuador who won the overall first prize in the Winsor and Newton international art competition.  He was supposed to be there, but was unable to make it.  The woman who coordinated the Ecuador aspect of the competition told of how it took nearly two months to find Ramón in the jungle to inform him of his success and to arrange for his trip to London to receive his prize from Diana’s ex-husband.  I had hoped to meet Ramón because I had spent a couple of weeks with his people in the jungle in 1961, a few years before he was born.  But I met a nephew of his who gave me the Secoya e-mail address!

 

8) visits with cousins of Carmen, Lupe and Patricia.  Lupe’s current companion is an advisor to the Izquierda Democrática (Democratic Left) political party, which is more centrist than left.  An ex-general, Paco Moncayo, who was an ID congressman and who supported the Indigenous uprising on January 21, was elected in May as Mayor of Quito with a huge majority.  Patricia’s husband is a doctor who specializes in natural healing techniques.  All very nice people.

 

9) a visit with Monica, a high school buddy of Carmen whom she hadn’t seen in over twenty years.  We had dinner (seafood paella, yummmm) with her and her husband and three daughters.  Jorge is an executive with Tesalia, which is a company that owns naturals springs and bottle and sell Tesalia (non-carbonated) and Guitig (carbonated) spring water.  Sort of the Perrier of Ecuador.

 

10) I have been informally invited to exhibit now at the Casa de la Cultura in Quito as well as Cuenca.  If I choose to follow up either or both invitations, I expect they will be confirmed and I will be kept busy at my easel for some time.

 

11) last but not least, the food, of course.  I had one of the best chicken tamales ever and empanadas made of morocho, a local variety of maize (corn) that is large grained and white.

 

We returned to Guayaquil on Saturday accompanied by Alicia and Alejandra, and spent the night with them at Alicia’s parents’ house there.  On Sunday we all took the bus to Playas, but unfortunately they could spend only one day with us as Alicia’s father took ill, and she needed to get back to Guayaquil.

 

I head back to Guayaquil tomorrow in hopes of picking up my t(rusty) 84 Chevy  Trooper, which for nearly three months now has been getting a body overhaul and paint job (the body shop man, and that is a euphemism since there is no shop, he works on the street in front of his house, replaces the rusted out parts of the body, piece by piece, soldering on new metal – the cost is next to nothing by N. American standards (two hundred bucks), but I should end up having a like new body — on the car, that is).

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