THE GREAT CÉDULA MARITAL STATUS CHANGE CAPER December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, The Great Cédula Marital Status Chage Caper.
Tags: bribary, bureaucracy, carmen vascones, cedula, civil marriage, civil registry, Ecuador, ecuador diary, identification document, marital status, marriage, marriage licence, paperwork, red tape, roger hollander
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(A true story that easily could have been written by Franz Kafka or Lewis Carroll. It gives new meaning to the phrase: “you can’t get there from here.” It is another of my experiences in my beloved adopted homeland that involve drama, tension, corruption, frustration and the need for a healthy sense of humor in order to survive. When this story is turned into a major movie picture, as surely it must, I just hope Maggie Smith is still around to play the inimitable Señora Rina Rodriguez Jordán. She’ll have to ditch the English accent, but is otherwise perfect for the part. Either Paul Newman or Robert Redford will do for playing me. Never submitted anywhere for publication, the story was written on September 30, 2005, appropriately on the occasion of my first wedding anniversary.)
On the one hand, the very notion of a national identity card is deeply offensive to me. It is something that is inextricably associated with authoritarian government. It is the very antithesis of the right to privacy. It is a classic Big Brother instrument, rife with potential for abuse. The origin of the Ecuadorian national card, the cédula, is unknown to me. What is the rationale? Was it initiated during the dictatorship of the 1970s? Why would an allegedly democratic nation feel the need to keep track of its citizens? I understand that the U.S. government, in this era of Homeland Insecurity, is considering the use of a national identity card. A scary proposition.
On the other hand, when I first took possession of my Ecuadorian cédula in 1997 it was with a sense of pride, not to mention bureaucratic accomplishment. I no longer had to confirm my identity by flipping open to the home page of my Canadian passport, a symbol of my foreign-ness, my status as an alien. My cédula looks the same as that of any Ecuadorian. It does not identify me as a foreigner. As a legal resident, albeit alien, I am “entitled” to carry it. When I turn 65 next January it will serve to confirm my age so as to secure my right to the half price senior discount for public transportation and airline tickets, and my right to stand in the special line at the bank for seniors and pregnant women.
So, as you can see, I am somewhat conflicted with respect to the Ecuadorian cédula. It is a contradiction I live with.
The word cédula in Spanish literally means “document.” It is sometimes used with reference to a note that recognizes a debt, an I.O.U. It is only in some Latin American countries that it is used to signify “identification document.”
My cédula contains my full name, Latin American style. This means that I am no longer simply Roger Hollander, but rather Roger Hollander Korabiak. I like that. My entire maternal heritage pops into existence with that single additional word. Korabiak.
My cédula’s number is 092012312-2. It was a fairly easy ten digit number to memorize. 09 in Ecuador is the prefix for most cell phone numbers. Following the nicely rounded off number 20 comes two easily remembered series of numbers: 123 and 122. It only took me a few minutes to save it permanently on the hard disk of my brain. No mean trick given that the old chip is starting to leak memory.
My cédula also contains my place and date of birth (which gets me into the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil through the U.S. Citizen door) and my gender.
On the back side of my cédula you will find my nationality (space only for one; so, since I came to Ecuador on my Canadian passport, it says Canadiense”); my level of education (Superior), my occupation (here I am defined as a “pensioner,” as it was with my Canadian pension that I was able to obtain residency status in Ecuador in the first place); and both my parents’ full names (Charles Hollander Barr and Anne Korabiak Zalepsky), which brings back into my official identity two strands of my ancestry, through my paternal and maternal grandmothers’ family names, both of which were long erased by North American standards of usage.
Alas, one final category on the reverse side of my cédula remains: the dreaded “Estado Civil” (Marital Status).
When I obtained my first cédula way back in the previous century I was divorced at the time (albeit living in sin), so on my original cédula in the space for Estado Civil lurks the single word: Divorciado.
On September 30, 2004 at approximately eleven o’clock in the morning, Eastern Standard Time, my “Marital Status” took a sudden turn for the better. I got married.
Horror of horrors, my cédula is instantly out of date. Inaccurate, fraudulent, kaputsky. Do I take this seriously? Of course not. It is, after all, only a piece of paper, cardboard actually, immortalized in plastic. However, its mortality becomes painfully apparent to me when Carmen, the single person (no pun intended) most responsible for the change in my marital status, recently informs me that:
(A) upon the change in her marital status, which by the strangest of coincidences occurred at the precise moment as my own, she had gone forthwith to obtain a new updated cédula, onto which, in the space for Estado Civil, she had had replaced the word Soltera (Single) with the following: “Casado con Roger Hollander Korabiak,” (“Married to one cool dude of a Gringo,” loosely translated),
(B) my failure to do same after nearly a year of marriage could be interpreted by some (including herself, including especially herself) as a lamentable and inexcusable lack of enthusiasm with my new estado civil, and,
(C) innumerable, insoluble, ineluctable and interminable bureaucratic problems could, would and should arise from my continuing to traverse the highways and by-ways of Ecuador with an effete, obsolete and incomplete cédula in my wallet.
So off I go one fine day (this is redundant since just about all days are fine here on the Pacific coast of Ecuador) to the Registro Civil (Civil Registry) Complex in Guayaquil, marriage license in tow. This, I say to myself (foolishly, it turned out), should do the trick. I was thinking of what I had to go through to legalize my marriage to Carmen and thereby acquire said license. This had involved getting a statement from the Canadian Consular office in Guayaquil indicating my previous marital status (which cost thirty dollars and turned out to be useless), then having my divorce decree sent to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Toronto, having it translated there into Spanish, certified by the Consulate, and returned to that same Registro Civil in Guayaquil where one gets both cédulated and married.
With that iron-clad proof documentation of my new marital status clutched firmly and confidently in one hand, and Carmen’s brother, David, holding the other, I stride confidently into the Registro Civil complex, praying to god that the window I was going to have approach would have a line that contained fewer than 50 fellow cédula sinners seeking repentance. Sure enough there are the usual humongous line-ups behind most of the windows. However, I nearly faint when I approach the “change of data” window to which we had been directed, and there is no line-up whatsoever! Such a thing had never happened in the history of humankind. Zero line-up. Can you believe it? It takes a few seconds for the dizziness to subside.
We approach the window to test out this miracle. Sure enough it is being attended by a gentleman sitting in front of a computer. I state my need to have my marital status changed on my cédula. “No problem,” he says and asks to see the marriage license. It makes me nervous that he insists on retaining the original, but David explains to me that I should not worry since it is possible to obtain certified copies. Literally in a matter of seconds, my new marital status is entered into the computer. I can not believe my luck.
“What next?” I ask David, who is now in conversation too fast for me to understand with my savior behind the window, “where do I go to pick up my new cédula?” He answers that I am being sent next to the section on cédulation for foreigners, which turns out to be the very first office as you enter the east pavilion of the Registro Civil complex.
I want to step back and describe the Registro Civil complex for you. You approach it from Avenida 25 de Julio, the main artery that connects downtown Guayaquil with its southern suburbs. Just past the Social Security Hospital on the right hand side of the boulevard you come to a major intersection where the Registro Civil takes up an entire city block. You make a right turn at the light, and on your immediate right you encounter the outside hustle and bustle that is common to most government buildings in Guayaquil. There are the male humans who serve as surrogate parking meters, indicating with their red rags an open space to which they guide you and commit to keep an eye on your vehicle. You always leave you car in neutral as every inch of street space is used by pushing the cars bumper to bumper, and you will tip said guardia de carros on your way out, usually twenty five to fifty cents, depending on how long you are parked (with the cars bumper to bumper, you ask, how do you get your car out? Good question. Sometimes as many as five or six cars have to be pushed towards a free open space somewhere down the line to make enough room to maneuver your way out).
You step out of your car into a circus-like atmosphere that includes purveyors of all sorts of drinks and snacks, up to and including full meals; photocopy machines and document plasticization; lottery vendors; and the ubiquitous tramitadores. The latter are like the scalpers that you run into outside of stadiums and arenas in North America. Instead of hawking scarce tickets at an inflated price, however, they are offering the opportunity to bypass the innumerable bureaucratic hurdles and waiting lines you are sure to find inside. They are able to do this because they have “contacts” there with whom they work to facilitate your transaction (trámite). Tramitadores are the most visible expression of the corruption that is endemic, not only to the Registro Civil but to virtually every government service and public utility in Ecuador. For whatever business you are transacting through a tramitador, you will pay the regular fee along with a hefty bribe that will end up being shared by the tramitador, his inside contact, and the supervisory chain up to and including the very head of the institution his self (which, of course, is why there is no one to complain to; the corruption runs from the top down).
(Most Ecuadorians cannot afford to pay the high bribes and therefore have no choice but to suffer the long lines and endless red tape. I always try to avoid them where I can. However, sometimes the only way one can access a service is through the bribe system. We had no choice, for example, but to bribe our way into acquiring telephone service and connection to the municipal water supply in Playas. We made several unsuccessful attempts to acquire a telephone through regular channels. Impossible. You can’t get there from here. To finally get a telephone line, in addition to the regular fee, we had to pay a bribe to the local tramitador – a sleazy neighbor who had three lines “available” at the time – and to the central office. Then, when we presented the order to the local office of the phone company, we had to bribe them to install and connect us. When no phone bills arrived for the first six months we realized that we were still not legal customers and liable to lose the service at any moment, and we had to pay a fourth bribe in order to have them bill us! The acquisition of municipal water involved, among other bribes, getting a document signed by each of the city counselors, for which each counselor collected the tidy sum of five dollars. Are you listening, my former colleagues in Toronto?).
Back to the Registro Civil. Once through the outside gate you enter an atmosphere that is vibrant and chaotic in a zoo-like way. It is a huge open-air complex with two single story elongated main pavilions running parallel with a large parking lot (reserved for special people, whatever that means; but we had talked our way in on the day we got married) and open courtyard in between. In addition to the service windows and offices of the pavilions there are a number of “out buildings” that contain snack bars and photography studios; numerous photocopiers and smaller snack and drink carts; and at the far end of the courtyard is a run down shack of a lavatory, where you are greeted by a hostess to whom you pay five cents for the privilege of peeing into a trough located in the shack behind a cloth curtain and washing your hands in a bucket of water. Don’t ask me what it is like for the ladies or for number two (I wouldn’t chance it unless it were a true emergency).
When David and I arrived at the office of the Chief of Foreign Cédulation, a shabby and relatively small room of about 300 square feet facing onto the open-air hallway to the east pavilion, I again (naïve fool that I am) thought that my luck was holding. You could look into the office from the outside through iron grates that begin half way up the wall, and we saw only a handful of people waiting to be served. Boldly, we entered.
Humbly we approach a short, squat, squinty-eyed, golden haired, fiftyish woman seated behind her desk, facing outwards toward the iron grated wall. To her right front is a work table that contains a Polaroid camera for taking identification photos and what I would guess is a 1960s model manual typewriter, along with assorted instruments of her trade such as scissors, glue, inkpads and a plasticization machine. To her immediate right is a huge metal case with several shelves, upon which sit a number of long open file drawers. To her left is a standard three drawer filing cabinet and four chairs for waiting clients. There are two more chairs in front of the grated wall. The entrance to this office is a floor-to-ceiling iron-grated door adjacent to the grated wall. The office’s three plaster walls are in poor condition and starting to chip away where they met the drop ceiling. The walls are relatively bare with the exception of the ubiquitous religious icons and the flags of Ecuador and the Province of Guayas. I was to become intimately acquainted, more so than any sane person would want to, with this office and its commanding officer.
Meet, Jefe de Extranjeria Cédulación, Ministerio de Gobierno (Chief of Foreign Cedulation, Ministry of Government), a woman with the charm of Oprah Winfrey and the iron will of Margaret Thatcher.
And a one-woman show to boot.
(Years ago, when I was a university student, I had occasion to travel regularly between the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was studying, and my home in the Los Angeles Area. For a short time, a new airline came into existence to compete with Pacific Southwest Airlines’ [PSA] already cut-rate one-way fare of $13.50. Air California flew out of the old LAX, east of Sepulveda Boulevard, which today is exclusively used for air freight. Its one-way ticket between L.A. and the Bay Area went for an amazingly low $11.50. It seemed to have only one employee. He checked you in at the counter, ticketed and took control of your baggage, called the flight to board over the loud speaker, and then ran over to the gate to check you into the flight. We used to joke that he probably then boarded and piloted the airplane.)
Señora Rodriguez could have done all that, plus stow your carry-on, serve you drinks and a snack once aboard, collect the garbage, then parachute down to guide the plane into the gate. In her office, any anxiety that you would not be treated fairly with respect to the other applicants was alleviated through careful observation of how she operated. She would juggle five or six at a time; keeping in mind who came in what order, she would go back and forth from one to another at varying stages of each applicant’s transaction. She would call you to her desk when she was ready for the next step in your application process, deal with you, and then back you go to a vacant chair to wait your next moment on stage and continue to observe in awe the almost surrealistic goings on in this strange office.
She had no assistant. She did everything by herself. She totally oversaw a complex bureaucratic procedure. She checked files, took fingerprints and inspected your fingers (with a magnifying glass), typed in data, operated the camera, cut and pasted photos, and dealt with the occasional tramitador or lawyer who came in representing an outside applicant. She apparently kept tract of everything in her head, nursing each application, with meticulous attention to detail, through the myriad stages of the labyrinth that lead through varies corridors of red tape until it reached the Promised Land of a legal cédula swathed in clear plastic. At times three or four people were questioning her at one time, and it was amazing that she never lost her cool. She could not manage the heavy file trays, so whenever she needed one put on her desk or returned to the shelves, she would signal the nearest male applicant for assistance. She also needed a volunteer to hold the cloth backdrop when she took a photo. As by far the tallest applicant, that task often fell to yours truly.
With such efficiency, you would think that I would have been able to complete the simple transaction of having my marital status changed from divorced to married in a reasonable amount of time.
The good Señora initially did get my hopes up by taking photocopies of my old cédula, my passport and visa, but then she dropped the boom. She explained that I would need to bring her three other documents. One was a certified copy of my marriage license, another was a Certificate of Foreign Registration, and a third was a Certificate of Permanent Residency. The fact that the marriage license had been carefully vetted made no difference. We were going to have to re-invent the wheel.
Off we go. I begin the process on Wednesday (August 31), and on Friday morning I return to Señora Rodriguez’ office in the Registro Civil with all documents in hand. Here is what it took:
Certified copy of marriage license: This was the easiest. Such copies were available in another office down the hall in the Registro Civil at the bargain basement price of three dollars a crack. I bought three, just in case. This was a wise decision, as it turned out to be a popular item. But even more fortuitous was the fact that the woman issuing these certificates, when we told her of the difficulties we were having with the office where I had gone to obtain the Certificate of Foreign Registration (the Foreign Office of the Government Ministry), told us the sub-director was a friend of hers and how we could get direct access. This ended up saving me a least a day.
Certificate of Foreign Registry: This was not too difficult either. I had to go to the office of the Immigration Police, the same place I go when I need an exit visa or where I register annually as Ecuador’s version of a legal alien. There I only needed to provide copies of my passport, visa and censo (immigration police identification card), a certified copy of the marriage license, and pay a four dollar fee.
Certificate of Foreign Registration: This was the biggie. It involved going to the Foreign Office of the Government Ministry located in the downtown government office building (a complex not unlike that of the Registro Civil, but even larger, with several story and more modern buildings), submitting all the aforementioned copies, a certified copy of the marriage license, a letter addressed to the sub-director requesting the required document, and paying a fee. Parking is always a problem downtown. About the only option was an underground parking lot under the new Malecón 2000 riverside park. On our first trip I was in a line-up of about a half-dozen cars waiting to enter. For some reason, the line wasn’t moving. Cars were coming out, so I knew that spaces were available inside. Then the cars in front of me began to leave the line. Seeing that the entrance to the lot was blocked I asked the attendant what was wrong. He replied that no cars could enter because the ticketing machine had broken down. Murphy’s Law (La Ley de Murphy). We drove around for about fifteen minutes looking for an outside parking space. No luck. Finally passing again by the Malecón 2000 entrance, the machine was fixed and we were able to enter. It wouldn’t have kept with the spirit of things for the ticketing machine to have been working or finding a street parking space right off, would it?
Our direct access to the sub-director’s office meant that we could go in the back door and deal directly with staff without having to go to the service window in the front office, which was only open half days. We got there a second time on Wednesday afternoon, were told what we needed, and I delivered it on Thursday, at which time I was told to come back the next morning to collect the document. This I did on Friday morning after I picked up my old friend, Mike Spellman, who was arriving for a visit, from the airport at 5:00 AM, and we had breakfast and did a little sight-seeing in downtown Guayaquil. At the office I reviewed the document for accuracy and found a typo. This took a half hour to correct. Then I was sent to the International Bank to deposit to the Ministry’s account the required fees ($7 for the change in marital status and $20 for the certificate) and return with the receipt. At about 11:00, I had the certificate in hand, and Mike and I were on our way back to the Registro Civil, where I expected to turn in all the required documents and have my new cédula issued.
Guess what. This turned out to be another unrealistic expectation. When we get there, we find Señora Rodriguez ruling over her domain in her usual efficient and autocratic fashion. She tells us to take a seat, and when I turn over the documents to her, she says that she now had to find my original file. From the huge metal case with the shelves, I haul down the long and heavy file drawer that she indicates to me, and she tells me to go back to my seat and wait. In between servicing other applicants, she casually leafs through the file, always coming up empty handed. I begin to worry.
When I approach her, she says she is unable to find my file and has me pull down a couple more of the file trays. This goes on for over an hour. I ask her if I could look through the files myself, and she looks at me as if I had asked her to take off all her clothes in church. This is not permitted. A policeman could pass by at any minute and observe this serious violation of the law. Outright bribing is O.K., but a civilian’s hands on government files? Never.
She then hints to me that a “contribution” might speed things up. “Contribution” is the code word for “bribe.” I slip her a fiver. She keeps searching, always coming up empty handed and with a look of serious disappointment on her face. Finally, it is approaching one o’clock, closing time, and she tells me that I will have to come back Monday morning. Others in the office are signaling me to give her more money. All Ecuadorians know how things work. So I say to her, as I hold out a ten dollar bill, “why not issue me my cédula now and find the file later?” With a serious look on her face, she says to me that it is not a question of money, that she can not legally issue a new cédula without first finding my file in order to confirm the legal existence of the original cédula. She hands me her business card and says to come back on Monday.
Mike and I drove back to Playas that afternoon for the beginning of his 18 day stay with us. The following week I ask Carmen to phone Señora Rodriguez to see if she had found my file. On Tuesday, she said to phone back the next day for a definitive answer. On Wednesday, she confirmed that the file was nowhere to be found (I will point out here that she has no computer in her office, that her paper files are in no way connected or integrated with the Registry’s mainframe computer, where I was already designated as married to Carmen; it was the first thing I accomplished at the first window I had gone to, remember? Anyone want to donate a computer to the Office of the Chief of Foreign Cedulation of the Registro Civil in Guayaquil? It would save a lot of people a lot of time. When she told Carmen over the phone that the issue would have to be taken up in Quito, and it would cost an additional $15, I went into denial and did nothing for the next several days.
Comandante Pita had a heart attack and died on his flight from Guayaquil to Quito in the company of his enamorada (mistress). He was Carmen’s brother’s father-in-law. We had seen Mike off from Guayaquil on the weekend, and the Comandante’s funeral was on the following Tuesday the 20th of September, for which we were again back in Guayaquil. The next day, the 21st, we headed to the Registro Civil to see what was what with my cédula. Señora Rodriguez reiterated that we would need to fork over fifteen dollars and send the matter to Quito, quite likely another Black Hole. Carmen insisted that there must be a way to avoid that. She said no. Carmen insisted some more. She said no some more. The gauntlet was cast down. Who was going to win this battle of the Titans?
Carmen finally wore her down. Who else but Carmen could have taken on Margaret Thatcher and come out on top? Señora Rodriguez said that, well, maybe, there was a way, but she would have to clear it with her supervisor, the head of the provincial Civil Registry. A “contribution” would be necessary.
She asked for $35 and Carmen said no more than $25. A deal was struck. The supervisor approved. We went back to Señora Rodriguez’ office for what I was sure would be the final step. I could smell the wet ink on my new cédula.
“Your passport, please,” she said to me. “What?” I replied. “Your passport,” she repeated.
“But you already saw it; I left you a photo copy.”
“No,” she said, rifling through the papers she had in her folder, “there is no copy of your passport. In any case, I need to see the original before I can issue the new cédula.”
When we had left Guayaquil for the funeral, I had not been thinking of the question of the cédula. I was still carrying the old cédula as I always did, but I did not think to bring my passport with me. “You will have to bring it to me. It would be best done today.” The thought of making the 200 km. round trip Guayaquil/Playas almost brought tears to my eyes. I conferred with Carmen. She said that when these deals are made, it is best to get it over with. Delays can result in more things “getting lost,” more “contributions” to find them.
We knew we would be back in Guayaquil on the 27th, six short days from now for a book presentation at the Casa de la Cultura. Couldn’t we just bring the passport in then? Señora Rodriguez reminded me that the document issued by the Government Ministry’s Foreign Office was dated September 2, and it was good for only thirty days. She suggested I not delay. We compromised. I would come back in two days, on Friday, with my passport, which I did, accompanied by Carmen.
On that day, Carmen insisted that, in addition to my new cédula being issued, we request and carry out with us a certified copy of the new original file. “No, no,” I begged, I cannot go through any more. But Carmen said that this would avoid any future problems. First, however, the cédula. For some reason, the photos taken by Señora Rodriguez on the day that all this began (it seemed like eons ago), were good only for the cédula itself, and a different set of photos was required for the file document. I was sent to a professional photographer who had a “studio” nearby in one of the complex’s out buildings. Another three bucks.
The good Señora now takes us to the “change of data” window to inform them of my change in marital status. She seems surprised to learn that it is already in the computer. I wince. Back to her office. Señora Rodriguez at her trusty typewriter. Since there is no computer in her office and thereby no link with the Registro Civil’s main computer data bank, she had to manually fill out the form for the file and also the cédula itself by hand on the typewriter. She is a skilled touch typist, but no one is perfect. When she made a rare mistake, having no correction fluid, she had to “erase” it with a razor blade. Carefully referring back to the information on all the collected documents and my passport and visa, she entered in all the required data, cut up the photos, and pasted them onto the relevant pieces of paper. She put my new cédula through the plasticization machine, and at precisely 11:02 AM on Friday, September 23, 2005, exactly 23 days since I had begun the process on the last day of August of that same year (and exactly one week shy of our first wedding anniversary), I cuddled my new cédula, with relief and affection, in my sweaty palms.
“Please, Carmen, let’s go.”
“No,” she says, “we need to get a certified copy of the file original. “No problem,” says Señora Rodriguez, “go to such and such a window and bring me two such and such forms. It will cost a dollar fifty.” Off goes Carmen and returns with the forms. One for me to write an official letter requesting the certified copy, dictated to me by Señora Rodriguez, the other upon which the file original will be photocopied and certified by herself and her supervisor. With the letter written and the copying done, she goes off to get her supervisor’s signature, and we don’t see her for the next half hour. We wander off inside the complex to get a drink of coconut milk and run into her, looking surprised to see us. “Oh, yes, the certified original, just one more contribution and you will have it.”
I didn’t understand every word Carmen said to her, but I understood the gist: ¡Basta! (Enough!). Not another red cent. This must have convinced Señora Rodriguez that enough was enough, and forthwith she produced the certified copy.
Now I don’t want you to think that such incredible red tape as I have just described is exclusive to Ecuador, or that I write this in a spirit of belittling or making fun of my adopted homeland.
When I had gone last year to the Canadian Consular office in Guayaquil, for example, to renew my Canadian passport, in addition to having to fill out a form as if I were applying for a passport for the first time (including getting a doctor, lawyer or Indian Chief to certify that I am who I say I am), I was also required, since I am a “naturalized” Canadian, to produce my Canadian Citizenship Card. No problem. Since it was issued to me upon my swearing loyalty to the Queen in 1984, I have guarded it with my very own precious life. Not good enough. Even though it was protected by plastic, the years had taken away from its original beauty and luster, and the Consular official told me that, even though all the information was still clearly visible, the card was in a “deteriorated state” and I would therefore need to apply for a new one (this put me in a deteriorated state, but does anyone care?). In the meantime my passport was issued for only one year, the fact of which is noted on the home page with the phrase: “unless extended this passport is valid for one year only.” Upon receipt of the new Citizenship Card, the passport would be extended a further four years.
I had to pay $30 to apply for the new Citizenship Card in addition to the usual passport fee and an additional “consular” fee, and I was told it could take up to six months for the card to come to the Consular office in Ecuador from Ottawa. I did a lot of traveling during the year, and the matter of the Citizenship Card more or less slipped my mind. Then about ten months later I realized my passport would be running out soon, and I went back to the Canadian Consular office in Guayaquil to inquire about my Citizenship Card. It hadn’t arrived. They checked with Quito, and Quito said they would check with Ottawa. Weeks passed. I phoned periodically. No card.
When my passport was a couple of weeks away from expiration, I began to really worry. Was my Canadian citizenship in question? I checked back with the Consulate in Guayaquil, who checked again with Quito, who would check with Ottawa, and still no go. Was there a phone number one could call in Ottawa? No, just an e-mail address. I asked my friend and lawyer in Toronto, Allan Morrison, to try to communicate with Ottawa. He was in the process of doing this when I got a phone call from Guayaquil saying they had my Citizenship Card in hand. Three days before my passport was to expire.
Is this the end of the story? No way. On my passport’s main page where it says that the passport is only good for one year, underneath are rubber stamped and barely legible the words: “See page/Voir page 11.” Turning to page 11 of my passport, the diligent reader will find a sticker affixed and stamped with an official seal, stating the following: “The validity of this passport has been extended to 2009-06-11. Added at Guayaquil 2005-06-08.” All well and good. But every time I have had to use this passport in the Great Cédula Marital Status Change Caper, and presumably in every future use in this country, I have puzzled Ecuadorian officials, not necessarily that well versed in English, much less French, taking up to a half hour trying to figure out whether or not this passport is still valid.
All said and done, Kafka would have been envious.
In both Canadian official languages and Spanish.
Mariana: the Coconut Lady December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, Mariana the Coconut Lady.
Tags: carmen vascones, coconut lady, Ecuador, ecuador diary, ecuador life, mourning, roger hollander
(Mariana touched our hearts deeply. She is one of the unsung millions of heroic women of the world about whom we hardly ever read. I don’t think anyone has ever seen the piece below. I just felt an obligation to put what little I know of her story to paper. As you will see, she had a tremendous impact on her extended family, and it is my intention here to extend it just a bit further.
On the day of Mariana’s funeral, which would have been New Year’s Eve, we traveled in my Trooper to the church in the little village where she had lived, about ten kilometers down the highway from us. At the site of the burial, the car broke down, and getting it fixed and towed home, which involved my spending hours in the punishing equatorial sun, was a story in itself worth telling. That was the story I initially wrote; then I tore it up and penned the following. )
Mariana passed away on December 30 of 2005. She was known as “the coconut lady of Playas.” The grief felt by her family was profound, the mourning was intense; but she was from a typically poor Ecuadorian family where there would be no thought of publishing an obituary. Since she was such a dear person, I wanted to write something and share it with my friends and family.
We met on the beach about ten years ago. She was of indeterminate age; at the time I would have guessed between sixty and a hundred (I learned from her family that she was ninety-one when she died at year’s end). She would not have reached five feet on tiptoe or weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. Yet she had no problem carrying her sack laden with ten juicy “green” coconuts, which she lugged virtually every day since god knows when, from her home ten kilometers down the highway, to our Playas beaches. It probably weighed nearly as much as she did.
The tropical sun had transformed her face into a labyrinth of leathered wrinkles; and, if as some believe, every wrinkle is a wrinkle earned, then Mariana was hands down a furrowed millionaire. Her single-toothed grin was childlike and infectious, and her laugh was more of a cackle than anything else. The drill of purchasing a coconut on the beach goes something like this: she wields her machete with karate–like precision, slicing off just enough of the green outer rind to be able to cut a triangle into the next layer, thereby creating a hole through which a straw is inserted. The coconut juice is not the concentrated milk-like liquid found in a ripe supermarket coconut, where you are lucky to get a cupful; rather it is sweet and watery, and a tender juicy green coconut might hold as much as a pint or more of this quenching nectar. Once you have finished your drink, you return the coconut to Mariana, who, with a single swipe, slices it in two with her machete; and from the green outer rind she fashions a “spoon” with which you scrape the sweet gelatinous “meat” that lines the inner shell of the coconut. Careful not to litter the beach, Mariana then collects the empty shell and puts it back into her sack with the whole coconuts.
I was basking in the sun, alone on the beach one day shortly after I had moved to Ecuador, and Mariana came by with her wares. I was deathly thirsty, but had no money on me, so I asked her if she would extend me a coconut’s worth of credit and come by our house, whose whereabouts I described to her, at the end of her day to collect. As Bogie said to Claude Raines in the final scene of Casablanca, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Mariana adopted Carmen, some forty odd years her junior, as a surrogate mother. A visit to our home from Mariana would be heralded by her softly chanted “Mama Caaaaaaaaaaaaarmen,” at the outer gate. She often would bring along an offering of fried fish and rice, which she would have bought from one of the seafood stands on the beach, and, of course, there was always a juicy coconut or two. In turn, we would send her home with everything from sacks of rice and beans to boxes of Quaker Oats and bottles of multi-vitamins.
When there was an illness in Mariana’s family, Carmen (who is a clinical psychologist) would make a long-distance diagnosis, and we would send along whatever medicines were required (you can get just about anything over the counter in Ecuador). This may sound irresponsible, but that is the way things are done in a third world country where people cannot afford doctor visits. One day Mariana arrived at our doorstep in panic and desperation. A great grandson had been caught stealing from an employer, who, with the support of the local police, retaliated by confiscating the family’s canoa (fishing boat) and outboard motor. The source of their livelihood as fisher people. Carmen contacted her friend and fellow poet, Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, who also happens also to be a juvenile court judge in Guayaquil, and he was able to rectify the situation. From that day on, Mama Carmen was upgraded to Santa Carmen, and for a while we became the frequent beneficiaries of fresh shrimp and sea bass.
When we hadn’t heard from Mariana in a couple of weeks recently, we began to wonder. Then on the last Friday of the year, Mariana’s son came by to tell us the Mariana had died that morning from cancer of the uterus. She had worked plying her coconuts on the beach up until last few weeks before she became bedridden. When I returned from school late that morning, I found a candle burning on our dining room table and Carmen bathed in her own tears.
An Ecuadorian velorio is the rough equivalent of sitting Jewish shiva. There are no funeral parlors in Playas, so an open casket is placed in the family’s home. It usually lasts only a day or two before burial. People come and go, sit silently or converse quietly. I won’t try to describe Mariana’s family home in detail because I am not good as physical description. Bare walls, scant furniture, bare footed children scurrying about, competing for space with pigs, chickens and underfed dogs. By any standard it would be considered a poor home, but it was constructed of cinder block, which is a huge step up from the bamboo homes of the poorest of the poor. The lack of any landscaping or garden and the plethora of discarded items strewn about the grounds were for me not necessarily a sign of lack of pride but rather of ambient hopelessness.
A mass was said for Mariana in the morning of New Year’s Eve, and not only was the priest an hour late, but his preachy sermon said nothing at all about Mariana, her stamina and courage, her difficult but rewarding and loving life. Unfortunately, this is what is expected here, and I may have been the only one to have noticed its gross and indecent inadequacy.
At 91 years of age and the matriarch of the clan, you can imagine the size of her extended family. I knew Mariana only on the beach and from her visits to our home, so coming in contact with so many other people for whom she was such an important person came as something of a surprise to me. It shouldn’t have, but it did. She was so much more then “the coconut lady of Playas,” than I had ever imagined; but I guess is not that unusual to know a single dimension of someone’s life.
Spending a few hours with Mariana’s family after she had already departed from this world went a long way towards filling in a portrait that already was rich with color. Not only was she the sweet and industrious person I have known for the past ten years, but her strength of character and dignity were clearly a beacon that illuminated the life of a typically large extended Ecuadorian family surviving on the bitter edges of poverty. Her surviving siblings and children, themselves of advanced age, were struck with grief. I got the sense of the magnitude of the loss that her death meant to them, from which I interpolate further the kind of person she was and the kind of life she led.
Mariana was one of those extraordinary ordinary persons. I don’t believe in life after death or in Heaven or Hell. The ineffable pleasure of having your life touched by the likes of Mariana is enough for me. I wish you could have known her.
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
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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.)
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.