Madrugada (Sunrise)

SUNRISE in the Andes.  There is nothing more mystifying for a Midwesterner.

A sweeping vista of emerald mountains clothed with translucent silver clouds greeted me on my first morning in Ecuador.  I woke up too early, as I am prone to do when I arrive somewhere new, and pushed aside the window curtain to see the image above.  The clouds curl and sway and shimmer, as though the mountains peacefully inhale and exhale moist purple, blue, and gold breaths.  It hardly requires imagination to see angels descending, demons encroaching, and virgins ascending among the sculpted clouds and gilded mountaintops.

As several of my companions have said, cameras just don’t do it justice.

This is my third extended trip to Latin America in the past two years.  In the summer of 2010, I traveled to Belize on an archaeological field school to try my hand at what I had dreamed of doing my entire life: excavating Maya ruins.  After six weeks of digging in the Belizean jungle during the rainy season and writing a chapter of the field season’s report, I decided my humanities-oriented mind was better suited to the writer-friendly subjectivity of cultural anthropology than the technicality and precision of archaeology.  So, the next summer (2011), I conducted an ethnographic research project in El Salvador on organization and political consciousness among young descendents of guerilla fighters from the nation’s violent civil war.  Although both my trips to Belize and El Salvador were considerably successful in terms of advancing my academic career, they were overwhelmingly draining on emotional and intellectual levels.  For complex personal and ethical reasons, I experienced severe disillusionment with anthropology and my career goal of becoming an anthropology professor.  Several times I came very close to cancelling my plans for Ecuador for fear of a third round of internal crises.  And, ohdeargod, I am so glad I decided to come here after all.

The first two weeks here have been a swirl, an upwelling, a sigh of relief.  To my gringa eyes, I recognize with some comfort pieces of Ecuador that look like pieces El Salvador and Belize, pieces that I do love and miss.

You know what I miss about Latin America?  Roosters.*  Roosters, crowing at the most unnecessary moments.  Like 2 AM.  They loiter around front doors, in backyards, beneath windowsills.  Latin Americans don’t look twice at them.  Once I was having a conversation with my host-mom when a rooster, oggling stupidly at me from the front door, let loose a blood-curdling shriek about once every five minutes that sent me jumping out of my chair.  My host mom, however, continues speaking without the slightest acknowledgement of the long drawn-out cry that made her speech incomprehensible to me.  Roosters.  I like them.  I like being reminded that something very close by is just as alive, angry, and full of spirit and hot air as I am.

You know what else I miss about Latin America?  Public transportation.  Its complete and utter insanity, its intimacy, its madness, and its method. I take the bus from my semi-rural community of Lumbisí into the suburb of Cumbayá, where the university is, every day for class.  Where to find the bus in the morning is always a fun quest.  Sometimes it sits next to the park for twenty minutes waiting to fill; sometimes, especiall if it’s raining, it zooms through the twisted cobbled streets of Lumbisí on a somewhat unpredictable path without stopping.  Sometimes it takes odd detours on streets I didn’t know existed.  Sometimes it leaves every ten minutes, sometimes every forty.  Once on the bus, I sit awkwardly in an aisle seat.  You’re not supposed to sit next to a window, because the person who slides in next to you could pull a knife on you and you’d have no where to go.  If there aren’t seats, I cling to the bars on the ceiling while attempting to protect my purse from potential pickpockets and avoiding falling on somebody else.  There’s a joke about Quito buses: “How many people can you fit on a bus?”  The answer: “Fifteen more.”  The bus careens down very narrow roads through ravines and along cliffsides, lurching to a halt every thirty seconds to pick up more people.  Buses have a 2-person staff: the driver and the cobrador, or the guy who does everything else.  At every stop, the cobrador leaps out of the doors while the bus is still moving shouting the bus’ destination in an impressively clear monotone: “¡Suba, suba, Quito, Río Coca, Quito, Río Coca, suba, suba!”  Suba means “get on.”   Men in business suits, women with babies tied to their backs, high school students, gringo volunteers, people of every ethnic-racial composition mash and press against each other in the lurching ebb and flow of the bus.  At some point, the cobrador will make his way down the aisle, demanding “Paisajes, ¡por favor!” bracing himself against seats and other people as he collects the 25 cents from each passenger.  Occasionally someone will give him a twenty dollar bill, and he glares at them and attempts to make change as the bus hurtles around corners and dodged potholes.  Finally, when I’m a block away from the hectic six-street roundabout that comprises my bus stop, I stumble up to the driver and tell him “¡Gracias!” firmly.  Stops are not announced (how would that be possible?) and if you want the driver to let you get off you sometimes you have to yell gracias several times.  I’m getting good and jumping off while the bus is still moving.  To get home, I stand at the same roundabout peering at the dozens of bright green buses, looking for the one that comes every half hour with a little sign that says Lumbisí in the front window. Don’t ask me why, but I love the buses.

I miss lots of things.  I miss telenovelas.  I miss men with fauxhawks.  I miss Mass in Spanish.  I miss the sleek clean tiled floors–wood would rot in a second with the dampness here.  I miss the merry lilted folk music juxtaposed with heavy reggaeton on the radio blasting out of homes.  I miss the elegant texture of Spanish trilling off the tongues of native speakers.  And this time around, I understand them much better.

Although the similarities between Central America and Ecuador are comforting, the differences are perhaps more comforting.  Overall, what I have seen and experienced of Ecuador in the past 2 weeks indicates that Ecuadorans are considerably less jodidos (f*****d) than Central Americans.  The first thing I noticed was that machismo seems to be less of an issue in Ecuador than in Central America.   Although domestic abuse and alcoholism are far from uncommon, they appear to be more frowned upon and less taken for granted, especially in this unique indigenous community where I live.  Division of labor is certainly less strictly gendered.  I was shocked when a young female cobradora collected my bus fare–in El Salvador, a female transportation worker would be unheard of.  My host-brother, a 20-year-old engineering student, regularly cooks dinner, cleans dishes, washes his own clothes, irons them, and shows considerable affection towards his mother and sister.  Never in my life did I ever expect to see even the most metrosexual European man to exhibit such habits with such consistency.  I thought that my brother might be an exception, but his father turned out to be the same way.  Even the structure of the lavadora (cement construction for washing clothes) reflects duality of labor.  Ecuadorian lavadoras have two cement slabs at each end of the water tub, so two people–husband and wife, mother and son, etc.–can work side by side washing clothes.  I’ve seen men and women working together on laundry several times, in multiple households.  Salvadoran lavadoras, on the other hand, only had one space for one person to clean clothing, and men never ever  did women’s work, least of all side-by-side.

Most importantly, social mobility here seems much more widespread.  My host mother, for example: she was orphaned at age three and then raised by an aunt who already had eight children.  Needless to say, she had to quit school and start working at age nine, milking cows and performing other agricultural labor.  When she was fifteen, she moved here to Lumbisí with her sister to work in a textile factory.  For 24 years she worked in the textile factory until it closed about ten years ago, and then she worked in a women’s association in Cumbayá for the next eight years until arthritis took over.  She then spent two years healing herself with indigenous herbal remedies, and now she says she is completely healed.  At the same time, she raised three children, the youngest of whom is disabled.  Her husband, while quite supportive, usually stays at his far-off workplace during the week and is only home on weekends. She says she would like to go back to work but her family suggest that she rest for once in her life.  Now, she busies herself with a half dozen community projects–she is the treasurer of the women’s organic garden, she has been very active in the community’s independent government (Lumbisí has a special independent status as an indigenous community) and she works her own mountain fields of corn and potatoes.  I sit and talk with her for hours at a time, and sometimes she gives me another profound story about her life which impresses me deeply, but she seems to shrug off.  She is the sweetest, most nurturing woman I have ever met, but somehow at the same time unfazed by the most tragic life events, and quite unsurprised at whatever odd gringa idiosyncrasies I bring to the table.

I wrote on the first night here about how the beautiful little apartment where I’m living already felt like home.  It’s part of a six-apartment complex built into the sharply-sloping mountainside.  My host-parents built the entire place themselves–my host-father is a construction worker, and apparently an amateur architect as well.  My host-mom is the owner, and rents the other apartments to her married daughter, her niece, and a few migrant families from remote regions of Ecuador.  It baffles me that my host-mom went from impoverished orphan to a well-respected landlady.  The apartment is full of mirrors (an expensive luxury in Latin America), with tasteful tile floors, and matching furniture.  Small daily-praxis indicators of higher abundance of capital stick out to me–my family feeds their two dogs soup, more or less the same soup they eat, with regular purchased dog food; not a single Salvadoran family I met would even think of wasting food fit for humans on dogs, let alone buying special dog food.  My family has a washing machine, also rarely seen in El Salvador; they run a mini-store out of their house, in which they buy basic food commodities wholesale from a market and then sell in small portions to neighbors.  They partake in national tourism, setting aside small chunks of time and money to visit tourist towns like Baños on the weekends. Heck, they own an apartment building! The fact that they casually and regularly have access to the kind of capital all of these simultaneous endeavors requires, on a construction worker’s wage nonetheless, both surprises and relieves me.  Although I have no idea how representative they are of Ecuadorians in general, it gives me hope.  The high number of hand-to-mouth type household economies I observed in El Salvador did not provide me with an optimistic first impression of what I imagined the average Latin American to be.

A wise advisor told me, “Don’t go to Latin America to study Latin America, go to Latin America to live in Latin America.”  This slightly different mentality, I think, is the key to making this third round of Latin America work out a little better.  While I’m constantly reminded of and comparing Ecuador to El Salvador and Belize, I’m not here solely to analyze it, to anthropologize-all-over-it.

What is it about Latin America that entices me so?  Why do I keep coming back, again and again?

Spend any amount of time with anything anywhere, and it becomes precious to you.  It becomes a part of you.  You have a relationship with it, for better or for worse–or for both–for a claroscuro.  For better or for worse or both, I have a relationship with Latin America.  A relationship itself is a claroscuro, full of brilliant splotches of light amid deep dark shadows, the grit and chaos of everyday reality creeping up upon and sometimes obscuring the brief fleeting moments of romance and beauty.  I’m back, to continue this odd relationship, wherever it brings me in the end.



~ by Tara on February 2, 2012.

One Response to “Madrugada (Sunrise)”

  1. *Of course I know roosters proliferate in the U.S. as well as the rest of the “Western World”–the fact that I perceive roosters as exotic is more evidence of my suburban upbringing than of a distinctively Latin American setting. I happen to live in rural settings in Latin America and in urban/suburban settings in the U.S.

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