Monday, 30 September 2013

The Beginning - You Are What You Eat

<<¿Would it be possible to use the phone to call the airport
 and check if our baggage has arrived yet?>>

The hostal receptionist looked at me, his eyes earnest and serious.  His look was one of great concern.  Clearly he understood the stress of having to spend days without a change of clothes, the potential costs should the bags not be located, not to mention the emotional trauma of losing so many personal items, each one with its own story to tell.  Yes, I could see he understood my anguish.

And then he knelt down and tied my shoelaces.

<<You must keep these tied sir, or you will fall over.>>

...he said in reproach.  It seems that he was not expressing concern for my predicament, but deploring my lack of basic health and safety.

Perhaps I have got ahead of myself here, leaping bull-in-a-china-shop-esquely into the middle of the story; horns hammering away willy-nilly at the fine porcelain of backstory, until not a shred of context remains.  No doubt you have many questions...¿where am I?...¿who am I?....¿what am I?  The quick witted amongst you will have noted the peculiar upside down question marks that I persist on slotting in front of my questions and will have come to the conclusion that I am ensconced somewhere in the Spanish speaking world.  Those even more quick-witted will have read the title of the blog and concluded that I'm in Ecuador.  Well done to you; you clever, clever things.

But it's possible you don't feel that awareness of this one itsy-bitsy seven letter word leaves you fully briefed on my current situation.  Maybe you, like myself, have at best a patchy understanding of what in the unholy hell an Ecuador is.  If that is so, then come join me in the slow, piecemeal unwrapping of my ignorance.  Let's see if we can't dust the cobwebs off our brains, roll up our sleaves and get knee-deep in a bit of Ecuador.

Ecuador, that tiny South American nation bounded by big bruisers like Peru and Colombia; three strips of land running west to east - Pacific coast, Andean mountains, Amazon jungle - eponymously st
raddling that imaginary line, equidistant from the North and South poles, that girdles the Earth.   Ecuador, asylum-granter to floppy-haired Aussie gossip spillers.  Ecuador, producer of Pacari chocolate, which put those cuckoo-clock-making, army-knife-wielding types in their place, being crowned the world's best chocolate.  Ecuador, birthplace (somewhat confusingly) of the Panama Hat (of which more in a later blog entry).  Ecuador, my new home.

This video, as it was filmed in Tenerife to accompany a song written by a bunch of Germans, will teach you no useful new information about Ecaudor.

So, what have I learned so far about Ecuador.  It is to foodstuffs and eateries that I turn to illuminate my story.  As far as I'm aware there's no good or logical reason for me to do this, but if anyone can suggest one, I will happily supply them with a bar of gold award winning Pacari 70% Raw - Organic and Biodynamic chocolate.

The first thing I have learned is that Ecuadorians are very proud indeed of being Ecuadorian.  I learned this from the back of a packet of crisps (North Americans and Aussies - n.b. crisps = potato chips). Not any old packet of crisps mind you. These were Lays Artesenas, pride of Ecuador (company originated in USA, product of PepsiCo since 1965).  And how proud they are of being Ecuadorian.  So proud in fact, that they explain, in the following exhaustive detail, the nature of their pride on the back of every single packet.  

¡No hay bien más preciado que la libertad...           There is no good more precious than liberty...
ni orgullo más grande que ser ecuatoriano!             nor pride greater than being Ecuadorian!

Nuestra historia está llena de gestas heroicas        Our history is full of heroic gestures and brave  
y hombres valientes que han defendido el               men who have defended the inalienable right
derecho inalienable de todo hombre y de                of every man and of every people...
todo pueblo... el derecho a ser libres.                    the right to be free.

Nombres como Atahualpa, Rumiñahui,                   Names like Atahualpa, Rumiñahui
Espejo, Montúfar, Sáenz, Olmedo, Calderón,         Espejo, Montúfar, Sáenz, Olmedo, Calderón,
Alfaro y otros, engrandecen neustra historia           and Alfaro, amongst others, elevate our history
y sirven de ejemplo a las nuevas generaciones.      and serve as an example to new generations.

Fuimos ejemplo de América, no en vano, un 10      We were an example of America, and not in 
de agosto de 1809 un grupo de idealistas y            vain, one fateful 10th of August, 1809, when  
patriotas se renuió para rebelarse contra las          a group of patriots and idealists gathered 
injusticias de su tiempo, guiando por los caminos    together to rebel against the injustices of their  
de la libertad a los pueblos de América.                 time, guiding the peoples of America along                                                                                the road to liberty.

Hoy, al recordar un nuevo aniversario de aquella    Today, in remembrance of a new anniversary 
gesta, debemos sentirnos más orgullosos de ser    of that gesture, we ought to feel more proud 
ecuatorianos y saber que las cosas que hacemos,  than ever to be Ecuadorian and know that 
las hacemos bien.                                                 the things we do, we do well.

And, having fought their way to the end of the long hard road to liberty, the people are now free to get down to their god-given task of baking the finest of salted potato snacks.  Free at last of the scourge of potato-hoarding, imperialist oppressors.

The second thing that I have learned about Ecuador is that it is a nation attempting to embrace a new kind of socialism.

The powerhouse pushing this change forward is a US and Belgium-educated economist by the name of Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado.  Since 2007, Señor Correa has been performing the singularly impressive trick of staying President of Ecuador.  Now, any old fool can be President of Ecuador (and it seems that several of them have), but staying President of Ecuador appears to be a far more daunting prospect. 

In the ten years prior to Correa's election in 2006,
Ecuador had a blink-and-you'll-miss-'em of Presidents, none of whom managed to complete a term.  One of them, Lucio Gutiérrez, was so unpopular that he had to flee the Presidential Palace by helicopter to seek asylum with the Brazilian ambassador after his attempt to flee the country by plane from Quito airport was cut short by hundreds of angry protestors smashing through airport security and blocking the airstrip. Another,
Abdalá Bucaram was nicknamed 'el loco' and removed from office when he was declared mentally unfit to rule.  His successor, Rosalía Arteaga, lasted a grand total of two days as Ecuador's first female president before being ousted, with the army's support, by her political rival Fabián Alarcón who in turn lasted a mere 6 months in office.

Common themes which have run through all of these short-lived and wildly unpopular presidencies are a strict adherence to neoliberal economic policies, a reliance on international institutions such as the IMF and WTO and attempts to maintain a close relationship with the USA   Correa's approach has been somewhat different.

He has stated that one of the formative influences which shaped his political approach was the post-graduation year he spent volunteering in a kindergarten in a small town in the Cotopaxi province of Ecuador called Zumbahua.  At this kindergarten, run by Salesian monks, he met a Veronese monk called Padre Pio Baschirotto with whom he struck up a friendship.  As a result of his conversations with the padre and  his experiences of the crippling poverty suffered by the local people, he developed a feeling of the importance of helping the poorest in the country, learned to speak the indigenous language Quichua, worked to increase the literacy of the indigenous population, as well as providing support for micro-enterprise development  and developed a wish to create a new form of socialism for the 21st century.

Once he got into power, he wasted no time putting this wish into action.  In his time in office he has defaulted on Ecuador's national debt, declaring it odious debt contracted by previous corrupt regimes, declared he would fight Ecuador's creditors in the international courts and succeeded in  reducing the price of outstanding bonds by more than 60%; challenged foreign investors to provide US$3.6bn in contributions to maintain a moratorium on drilling in the remote Yasuni national park (to a deafening silence which has resulted in the moratorium being dropped); used high oil revenues as a result of soaring oil prices to pay for the building of roads, schools and hospitals and to invest heavily in social programmes, including providing free education and healthcare; slashed poverty rates from 37% in 2007 to 27% in 2012; brought Ecuador into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, joining forces with like-minded regional leaders such as the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia; reformed the constitution to recognise the rights of nature and the indigenous concept of Pachamama; had Quichua and Shuar declared national languages; refused to allow the IMF to monitor Ecuador's economic plans and trodden on a hell of a lot of toes. 

He has been accused of stifling the free press, has distanced Ecuador considerably from the USA (when Hugo Chavez likened former US President George W. Bush to Satan, Correa commented that this was somewhat unfair on the devil) and built up over $4 billion of debt to China.

Although he has annoyed a number of multinational companies, particularly oil giants such as Chevron, Correa's socialism of the 21st Century is not directly opposed to commerce and rejects traditional socialist concepts such as centralized planning.

To illustrate this, I would like to draw your attention to the following complimentary packet of Ecuadorian sugar.

I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have seen that in the old USS of R.

The third thing I have learned about Ecuador is that it is a nation which has grown out of ethnic diversity.

When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Ecuador in the 16th Century ready to civilize and Christianize with the help of a goodly dose of guns, germs and steel, they found a patchwork of languages and ethnicities which had only partly been absorbed into the great Inca Empire.  

In the 17th Century, a slave-trading galleon was shipwrecked off the coast of the northern province of Esmereldas, and the few black African survivors swam ashore and set up home there, soon to be joined by more cimarrones, escaped slaves from the north. 

Many hundreds of years of inter-marriage and plain old rape resulted in the highly complex casta system of ethnic classification, with its cast of blancos (whites both 'peninsulares' born in Europe and 'criollos' born in the Americas), negros (black Africans), indios (non-differentiated indigenous peoples), mestizos (mixed white and indigenous), mulattos (mixed white and black). zambos (mixed indigenous and black), pardos (mixed white, black and indigenous), cholos (mostly indigenous with a little white mixed in there for good measure) and so on ad infinitum e nauseam.

If you'd like further clarification of this ethnological hairsplitting, you can consult this highly illuminating 18th century 'pintura de castas':

File:Casta painting all.jpg
A fairly small amount of immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries has added only a little to the mix, with a tiny Jewish, Lebanese and Palestinian presence (approximately 0.4% of the population) and an even smaller influx of Asians (small enough I think to be classified as a trace element). 

This limited addition of new blood has resulted in a rather hazy understanding of foreign cultures, which I think is ably demonstrated by the Taj Mahal restaurant in Cuenca, which serves such traditional Indian fayre as kebabs and pita bread.

This occasional tendency to view foreigners as a hodgepodge of other is tempered by the extraordinary kindness, politeness and generosity of the Ecuadorian people.

Which brings us back to our friend the hostal receptionist.  Having given me the important footwear health and safety announcement, he was more than happy to let me use the phone to contact the airline about our missing luggage.  Not that this helped me in the slightest with the retrieval of the aforementioned wayward luggage items. 

You see, as I was to discover later when a veritable sea of blue, yellow and red-clad bodies could no longer be ignored, Ecuador were playing an important world cup qualifying match against Bolivia that afternoon and, entirely coincidentally, Quito's American Airlines team happened to be not answering their phone number throughout the same afternoon.  It seems the crisp packet was right, Ecuadorian pride does indeed trump all, office hours included.

The luggage eventually had to be flown across to Cuenca from Quito some fourteen days after our arrival in Ecuador. 

My final victual-based discovery about Ecuador is an assertion about the males of Ecuador which I have as yet been unable to verify.

And so we come rambling on to the end of my first set of musings.  In the next entry, I shall share with you my initial impressions of my new town of residence, Cuenca.


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