10 September 2006


Fear Mongering, Bananas, and Life in Ecuador

When I first signed up with the organization I'm with, I assumed it would be a pretty open-minded organization and avoid the fear mongering techniques so well associated with the U.S. government. To my utter disappointment, the first few days of info sessions, running for 12+ hours daily, were all about the dangers of malaria, dengue, typhoid, a series of other illnesses that we "have" to be medicated for or vaccinated against, gun-toting anti-americans, and muggers that line the streets day and night just waiting for a gringo to do something stupid. In my traveling experiences both in and out of Latin America, I've realized that if you don't do stupid things, nothing stupid is going to happen to you. I just hate hate hate that we have to hear this crap about how some peace corps volunteer contracted the worst type of malaria and now needs dialisis for the rest of his life. Oh, they forgot the mention that this happened somewhere on the Ivory Coast! To give more concrete examples that are pertinent to my experience here, one of the directors (stupidly, I think) told one of the volunteers going to Machala (where I'll be) that she should expect to hear gun shots on a regular basis, that muggings are common, malaria and dengue are rampant, and that Machala is the absolute hardest site for volunteers and she put us there because she believes we can "handle it." She got most of her information from the U.S. Embassy website, apparently, and hasn't actually been to Machala herself. At first, I was a bit worried about the gunshots and diseases, but then I reasoned that if it were seriously a life-threatening place, nobody would really live there and they definitely would not send a volunteer into that kind of environment. They are, however, sending volunteers into an area where an active volcano has been erupting and spewing ash all over the city; I don't know how THAT'S not dangerous!!

The family I'm living with in Quito consists of Alexandra, a single mother of two adorable kids, Felipe (11) and Samantha (9). Alexandra's cousin and mother live with her too, as well as a student, Jorge, from Guayaquil (the coast) who attends university in Quito. Alexandra and Jorge had both been to Machala numerous times over the years and were very shocked with my quesitons about the danger there. According to them, the diseases and such exist only on the outskirts of the town, which is lined with banana plantations (I'll get back to that later!!) and houses where impoverished banana workers live. Guns? You'll only come across them if you try to mug somebody on his/her way to the bank to deposit a large sum of money. And muggings? Only if you're in dark, dangerous places at night, alone, and are being very conspicuous. Isn't that the same in the U.S.? I mean, people get mugged and robbed all the time there, so why would it be any different here? I'm really starting to think that people fear foreign places only because they think that they're better than the people in a different country. We forget that there is corruption in the U.S. (Enron??), even in the government (Jack Abramoff??), racism, murder, horrendous attacks on children, etc. We forget because we don't want to admit that we, as citizens of an industrialized country, could be so barbaric. And yet we're so quick to judge others and blame their problems on the fact that they don't have the same living standards as we do. Now I'm not saying that everywhere is safe for everybody, but that we have to use the same caution when going out at home, so why would that change when we're overseas?

I just got back from 3 days in Machala, which started with a 10 hour night-bus ride over the Andes and down onto the coast. Everything seemed normal, until we stopped and this guy with a Transit Cop vest got on with a video camera and said he needed to record our faces for security reasons. He finished quickly, but somewhere in the police archives here you can probably find a video of three gringo volunteers looking into the camera with a "what the hell?" look. They showed Forrest Gump in Spanish that night. Machala is wonderful!! Yea, it's a little dirty, but to me I feel that the people are really living and having a good time. The family I live with includes Eliza (35), her husband Mauricio (31), and the cutest kid in the world, Jefferson Mauricio (3). Unfortunately, Eliza has had a hard time dealing with an extreme weight gain since giving birth and doesn't like to walk around alone for fear that people are staring or making fun of her. She tends to be over-cautious about things like driving at night (or rather, having Mauricio drive), not because he can't see well at night or because she's afraid he'll get jumped, but because she just feels that nighttime is time to be at home and she's just not comfortable anywhere else. She has the larget heart in the world, tho, and is wonderful to talk and spend time with. During my short 3-day stay, I didn't get mugged, come across a gun, or get malaria or dengue!! I really feel that Machala is similar to Heredia (where I lived in Costa Rica for a year) in that yes, there are dangerous places, but you stay away from them, especially at night, use your head, and everything is fine. In fact, Machala is like so many other cities in the world!! And it's not like Quito is much safer; apparently there's a mugging "ring" here where people come to learn rob people and do a pretty good job about it! We also have to remember that this kind of crap happens all over countries in Europe as well. Anyways, I think I've made my point.

Friday morning, I met with the director of the language institute at which I'll be teaching English. I have 3 classes: beginner (level 1), advanced intermediate (level 5) and advanced 1(level 7) out of 8 levels. I'm not prepared at all to teach a beginner class, but the other volunteer working there, John, will aslo be teaching a level 1 class so hopefully we can prepare together and figure out a fun class. The institute...well, it's not inspiring! There's a dirt "courtyard" with concrete rooms lining it to make a square. The rooms are just concrete blocks, with windows if you're lucky. The classes have 25-30 students each (university students and adults from the community), and in 40+ degree (over 104 degrees F) heat with 95% humidity, the challenge is going to be getting excited to go to class! But I'm really excited!! At first, I must admit, I didn't want to be in some disease-ridden, violent, hot and humid city. But then I realized, hey! I'm volunteering here because the language institute needs a native English speaking teacher. I've always wanted to help others, and that's exactly what I'm going to be doing. This isn't about me any more, but about what I can share to perhaps better someone's life. And besides, I've lived in comfort all my life; what's a year in a new and adventurous place? And who knows what doors will open from this, whether they be future job opps or just meeting amazing new people.

So a quick note about the banana plantation thing: Machala is the self-proclaimed banana capital of the world. But rather than having big companies like Dole and Chiquita Banana own the land, these bananas are produced for local consumption and some degree of exportation. The land is all local-owned, which doesn't mean that working conditions are great or anything, but the use of pesticides is definitely kept low (because they don't have to cut down the plant before it's ripe) and the owners know their workers as people. But how ironic that I ended up in banana territory after all my ranting a raving!!

Anyways, the bus ride back into Quito was pretty bad. First, I was sitting next to this little old man who decided that it was ok for him to take up half of my seat too. Even though his legs were incredibly short, he somehow managed to take up my leg room too, so I just shoved his legs away; obviously he didn't like that but come on now! We were subjected to one of the worst movies ever made, "American Ninja" again dubbed over in Spanish, before being stopped by the regional police and going through questioning for not having our passports with us (the directors need them to figure out more visa stuff). Luckily, I've learned that the combination of whining in Spanish and being woman really help. Poor John: he was subjected to a pretty complete pat-down before being allowed back on the bus! For some reasons, our bus ride back into Quito was horrible. The bus driver kept stopping and finally at 4am, we stopped for a pretty long time with absolutely no explanation given. We'd heard stories about bus drivers being in cahoots with local gangs and how they'd open the door to let these gangs take all of the passengers' stuff; my friend went through this personally while traveling through El Salvador 2 years ago. Of course, nothing happened and we made it back fine.

I'm in Quito for the rest of the month of September, going through 12+ hour sessions on how to teach English. It'll be really tiring, I'm sure, but it'll be great preparation and I'll be able to relax once I get to Machala in October. If you have any desire to call, my number is: 593-8-459-5742. Quito time is the same as Chicago time, and best time is probably after 9pm for me. Of course, email works great too!

yo mel! im sitting here in my room in front of my computer at 3.05 am reading your blog and eating honey nut cheerios at the same time... i must say i enjoyed ur writting a lot!! i've never been to the latin-american before so it's quite interesting to know about all those u wrote down in here..

see... i totally understand when u said about malaria and mugging and all that junk... cuz i used to read the exact same thing... about my country.. hahaha... it's true that if u dont do stupid thing then nothing stupid gonna happen...

and lucky you! i wish i were born native english speaker too! such big advantage since u can travel the world and teach english in different places! i would love to do the same too cuz i love travelling, studying different languages, cultures, ppl, food, etc... if only thai was as important... GRR!!!!

anyway.. you take care, ok/!?!?! i have a blog also.. in case u are interested... kokimaan.spaces.live.com

keep in touch, dude!!!!!

love ya!

hi mel,
took me a while to read your blog, it was down last time i tried - but boy, it was worth the wait! love your stuff , very frank and from the heart . . . keep it up! very cool.

hey, seems like mornings are kinda busy here but we will call you soon.
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