The Great Migration: Where I've been

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Notes from Underequator

My first day with my host family, I was served burnt rice. I was surprised, because I had heard that they eat rice all the time here. How could they not know how to make something that they eat everyday? Three months later, I no longer call this burnt rice--I call it cocolon, the best part of the pot, and a gift of the cook.

I tend to spend quite a lot of time each day thinking about stuff like this. These little observations about my little world. Here, I've gathered some bits and pieces of Guayaquil, of Ecuador, of culture and language, of myself--the things that are so easy to loose amid the thousands of pictures and crazy stories and hilarious anecdotes that I will bring home with me in about nine months.

I was playing a matching game with a girl named Linda at my internship the other day. It was time to go, so we cleaned up the game into two little boxes. Suddenly, she put the boxes on her head and started chanting in an all-too-familiar voice, "Un dollar, un dollar." The voice of street sellers. When I look at the children at Fundacion Crecer, I usually just see adorable faces amid overwhelming chaos and a project that's far too big for me. But once in a while I look at them and I see drug dealers, single mothers of 12, beggers. I see the 38.8% of Ecuadorians who live below the poverty line. I'm absolutely incapable of stopping it.

I love when I am on a long bus ride, and the bus stops in a town, and entire grocery store of street food options walks on the already over-crowded bus. With arms full of coconut juice, mango, corviche (a fried fish, banana, and peanut butter mixture), yuca bread, empanadas, unidentifiable fruit, fried potato things, or various other candies, chips, breads, ice cream, and fried amazingness, Ecuadorians step over each other through the crowded aisles attempting to sell their wares to hungry travelers.

I've learned to ignore every bit of travel advice I've ever been given. I brush my teeth with tap water. I eat fruits with the skin on straight from the market. I live on street food when I'm on the road--hamburgers with eggs, cheese empanadas with sugar on top, choclo (corn on the cob Ecuadorian style--huge kernals and lots of fattening toppings like cheese, mayo, and picante), chicken on a stick. If you ever run into stomach problems all you need is a bottle of pepto bismo, a good attitude, and some more street food. Screw perscriptions--I haven't needed anything else since I've been here.

What are you supposed to do when the police are corrupt? A friend of mine was robbed by the police a few weeks ago, right on my street. They took his money (a lot, since he was on his way to wire some home), his phone, his bank cards, and made him do pushups on the street at gunpoint. His host family got his things back for him, through some weird connection that even my friend doesn't understand, but they continued to hassle him and rob him every day as he came home from school. He left for his home in Alabama last Saturday. The Vice President of our university refuses to even acknowledge racial profiling of my black friend, besides the fact that my cute white face hasn't even noticed a police presence in our neighborhood. Racial profiling? That's flatout racism. His identical twin, who experienced the same thing in the same area, is now living in Sanborondon--the Beverly Hills of Guayaquil. The VP wants all future international students to live in Sanborondon. My question for our oh-so-on-top-of-things VP is, am I studying in Ecuador so I can see what home feels like in a more humid climate, or am I studying here to experience something different? Getting robbed by the police sucks, but converting study abroad into Club Med is NOT the answer.

There are no such thing as lines here, just slightly pushy groups that gather in front of entrances and cash registers and such. Ecuadorians laugh in the face of order.

As anywhere, laws and reality don´t always coincide here. They recently passed a no jay-walking law. This is a joke in a city that does construction on its sidewalks in such a way that I have to walk between giant operating bulldozers and in the middle of the street to get to my destination. Crosswalks? Please. Buses have posted notices that say they are only able to stop at specified bus stops. Yet bus drivers are more likely to stop for the first person to flag them down and then drive forward 20 feet for the next customer than even KNOW where the stops are.

Shoe shiners clog the streets, and make me laugh when they offer to buff up my cloth teva sandals.

Some magic power of Ecuadorian capitalism allows for success amid against the wall competition. On just my street, maybe a quarter mile, half mile long, there are seven haircutters. This area has a lot of people, but it´s not like the equator makes your hair grow faster. How are they all able to survive when they all offer the same service of cheap, crappy haircuts? (Exhibit A: I am now sporting a boy cut that reminds me suspiciously of my dad, when he still had hair (sorry dad). I wanted an inch OFF, not an inch LEFT.)

You can buy anything in the bahia, or black market. Blender tops, quail eggs, Nike runners, your backpack that some guys stole from you last week. Bargain hard, because the slightest hint of imperfect Spanish or white skin means gringo price.

Just some notes from the spectacular land that is Ecuador.


Gabe said...


I read your writing and I chuckle for two reasons. a. its really well written and funny. b. its so very our experience in ecuador. the shoe shiners! Oh those fucking shoe shiners! I loved the shoe shiners. i unfortunately had these very shinable very scuffed up black hiking boots. Everyone wanted to shine them. No I would say. Vamos a la selva, vamos a la montana, vamos a la granja, no quiero limpiar mis zapatos. But would they listen to me? ha

Oh the mystery meat on a stick.
Oh the fat. The ecuadorian hamburger. The bus venders. the corviche. Ah memories.

Ryan said...

amen to what gabe said. he really did have quite a time with those shoe shiners.

i really admire what you said about food. i thought the same, until ecuador dominated me. but i have forgiven it. though not enough to eat my lettuce and tomatoe side dish if i ever go back there....ill settle with some of four star´s very cooked and very fried corviche, thank you very much.

thanks for the blog, you seasoned traveler you!