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Zaruma Letter # 6

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                 24-27 de julio, 2001

John here.  Greetings from the backside of fiesta week in Zaruma.  People here have spent the last two days taking down banners, sweeping up broken glass, dissipating the odor of urine from the streetcorners, and, yes, burying the dead.   Two separate traffic accidents last weekend — one involving two  Portovelenos and the other involving a Zarumeno — resulted in large funerals in both towns in the past two days.  The Zarumeno who died, a well-liked fellow with the nickname of “Chesterfield,” was minding his own business on the road to Loja when a landslide hit his car.  The Portovelenos were two kids who were hauling wooden beams for a local mining company, driving one of the open-air buses we have written about.  The driver, 22, and the passenger, 19, were apparently drunk.   Today Portovelo was heavy with the anguish of sons pointlessly dead, and yesterday over two hundred Zarumenos came out to carry Chesterfield down the church steps.   To add to the atmosphere, yesterday there were some fifty buzzards forming a tight funnel cloud down to a point in the trees about halfway up the valley between the two towns.  Of course, the buzzards are always present here, gracefully riding thermals past our balcony with feathers splayed like the fingers of surfers riding the curl.  But yesterday’s concentration was not exactly picturesque.

And aside from the deaths, people are just tired.  There were dances every night last week, culminating Sunday in another fireworks display and an open-air baile down below our house.   We turned in before the thing got properly started (we blame lack of childcare when asked, but the truth is we old gringos ain’t got no stamina for REAL partying), but I awoke at around four a.m. to realize that the disco beat had ceased, giving way to hundreds of people singing in the night.  The tune had the heavy, fraternal feeling of auld lang syne, wafting up as the cocks began to crow.   After the last belted chorus there were just a few sleepy voices and footsteps on the cobblestones, as people headed home for a couple of hours sleep before facing the mother of all Mondays.

Another fiesta highlight was the parade, in which the fifth grade class of every school performed dance numbers in costumes that parents spent a week of nights and probably a week of wages preparing, led by floats carrying the beauty queens of every grade school, high school, trade group and neighborhood in town.  The mayor invited us to sit up in the reviewing stand (two blonde kids and a video camera will get you all kinds of perks) and Paige’s fascination with beauty queen culture only deepened.   This week she sewed a beauty queen sash for herself, and our neighbor who actually was Reina de Algo a few years back let Paige borrow her tiara.  I don’t know if the lessons she’s drawing from all this will pass feminist muster, but she’s having fun with it.  Even Marcus is in on the act, proclaiming himself “King of Zaruma” in lordly tones.

It was Marcus who suffered our only fiesta mishap for the week.  He’s fine, but it could have been much worse.   Those frigging rides!  We parents had hoped that our one evening of living dangerously at the carnival would pacify the kids, but the rides were set up in a soccer field in full view of our back balcony, and every night the munchkins wanted to go again.   Finally, last Thursday they prevailed on me for a repeat visit.   It had been raining, and the bald tires, electrical cords, and other devices that power the rides were somewhat damp.  Plus, it appears that a week of use since these clanky things were assembled had loosened a few screws.  Anyway, Paige and Marcus rode the mini-ferris wheel and the kiddie train without mishap and were agitating to ride the Giant Wheel.   I convinced them to do the merry-go-round instead.  Halfway through the ride, one of the four springs anchoring Marcus’s horse sprang loose and his horse lurched over sideways.  He managed not to fall off, and I got him off the ride after only one revolution.  He was badly scared,  but of course the next day he wanted to go back and do it again.  By then, though, we had heared that a ferris wheel in Guayaquil fell over recently, killing some fifty people, which took riding the Rueda Gigante off the negotiating table.

All of which got me thinking about my glib discussion of risk in our last letter.  The “uncolorful” truth is that people accept more risk here because they are too poor to afford safety.   Boulders fall on motorists because there are inadequate funds to retain the slopes.  Brakes fail on buses because the company’s margins are too thin for adequate maintenance.  Some of the other parents at the carnival were just as dubious about the rides as we were (especially after Marcus’s horse broke).  But I can mollify Paige and Marcus with the promise that we will go to Six Flags when we get home, whereas for the Ecuadorean kids there is no other game in town.  So they live dangerously, not because they are wild and crazy latins, but because they have no meaningful choice.

This lack of choices encompasses more than safety.  In our film interviews we have progressed to the third generation, the grandchildren of miners who are now trying to raise their own kids and find opportunities today.  And there basically aren’t any.  Raw materials prices on the world market are so low that agricultural producers here can’t make a go of it.  The ones who emigrate to Spain and Italy work in the fields of the European Community, where subsidies protect local agriculture and market share is negotiated by trade ministers.  But Ecuador lies prostrate before the “liberalization” requirements of the international monetary system.  So Ecuador’s fields, some of the richest in the world, produce little more than subsistence for its people.   When I’m in the States, international economic news is like a dim buzz in the background, a sort of droning undercurrent to REALLY important things like the latest quarterly earnings forecast for Cisco Systems.   From this vantage point, though, it’s hard not to view it all as a casino that the Americans and Europeans rigged years ago, where the rest of the world bellies up to the roulette table only to be cleaned out over and over, or just looks in the windows at all the tuxedoes and caviar.

Not that Ecuadoreans aren’t their own worst enemies in other ways.  Even the simplest official activity can involve suffocating bureaucracy.  Zaruma is small and remote enough that we have not had to deal with the State very much this summer, other than to read of the bank failures and financial scandals in the Quito papers; but yesterday’s trip to customs in the provincial capital of Machala to pick up the wonderful care package sent by our friend Pattea was a reminder that Kafka is just a busride away.  I won’t bore you with the details of this experience (Latin American bureaucracy tales are the quintessential shaggy dog stories), except to note that it involved a trip to a nearby copy store to make multiple copies of all relevant documents, large numbers of people crushing anxiously against windows in ill-lit offices, an elaborate but false pretense of order, and in the end the payment of a very small duty.   I’m not complaining; the customs people actually served me in half the time other people were forced to wait (I had a brief spasm of conscience about receiving this servicio gringo, but got over it in time to take my package and run) and the package was well worth the field trip.

One can ponder whether bureaucratic malfeasance is a cause or simply a symptom of underdevelopment.  But whichever is the chicken or the egg, poverty and corruption make a grim breakfast for the kids chanting their way through their morning lessons in the school across the street.

I keep looking for a moment to brighten up this week’s assessment.  I guess part of getting to love a place is that one feels its troubles more.    But people around here aren’t daunted.  In fact, if they weren’t so hung over, tired, and broke from fiesta week, they’d probably say, “Let’s light some more firecrackers and DANCE!”  Which is probably an excellent response to the situation.


Hello.  Beret here.  If I wasn’t feeling sad before, I am now, after reading the above.   Everyone we have gotten to know even a little bit well is struggling.  Our retired upstairs neighbor has a government pension of $30 a month and we share our newspaper with him because he can’t afford one.  Our laundress has a beautiful 15-year-old daughter with kidney disease.  She sold her one piece of land to pay for surgery several years ago, and doesn’t know what she’ll do if her daughter’s remaining kidney fails.   Her summer earnings from us are going to pay for ultrasound and lab tests.  And Paige’s Spanish teacher, who is also the mother of Paige’s best friend here, is supporting a family of five because her miner husband is out of work.  Ana makes $45 a month teaching English full-time at a local public school.  She sells beauty products on the side.  By paying her $2 an hour for her lessons with Paige, we have nearly doubled the household income.   Of course, we’re also leaving Zaruma in less than three weeks.

I am quite in love with Zaruma — the steep streets, beautiful houses, bird calls, chants of children, even the sound of trucks lumbering by.   This town provoked poems to spill from my visiting uncle Dick at dawn two days running.   Parents, wouldn’t you like to live in a place where the first thing out of people’s mouths (before even “Buenos dias” and “Como va?”) is “And the children?”  We greet one another in the street whether or not we’ve met before, and the kids and I have a lot of fun shopping for buttons, fabric, and fresh-baked bread.  This morning as I tumbled down the hill to my favorite grocery store, I noticed a man sewing in the dark shadows of an unmarked shop, his feet pumping the treadle of an ancient sewing machine.  Just below him was the barber cutting hair in the open air, and below him was the office of the Registro Civil, where John found the birth records of his father and aunt in ancient tomes that have somehow never been consumed by fire.

I have been meaning to write about shopping for groceries and household supplies, so I will….  The main market is not far from our house.  It’s a three-story building with stalls spilling out into the street.  You can buy everything from shoes and clothes to produce, meat, and certain groceries.  Sometimes we hand pick our peppers and carrots out of the heaps of vegetables and sometimes we just ask for a pound of whatever we want.  $5 buys a lot of produce.   Corn, rice, and and bulk grain are sold from large burlap sacks.  Eggs are counted and placed in plastic baggies, tied at the top.  Calculations are done by hand on small pieces of paper and sometimes recorded in a ledger.

The chicken lady has most of her wares laying out on a bloody tile counter (best to buy before the day heats up too much!).  For the last chicken we bought, we requested no head, feet, back, or organs, and please cut the breast in two.  Hack, hack, hack went the cleaver in her right hand.  With her left, she held the chicken, tucking her thumb under her fingers so that it was out of danger.   For one horrible moment I thought she had lost it in an accident of her trade.  When she finished cutting and bagging our chicken, she had a splash of blood in the middle of her forehead, right where an Indian woman sometimes puts her marriage mark.

There are a lot of small grocery stores on the main street down below.  On a single block, you can shop in five or six stores that carry the same items at the same prices.  If you want something out of the ordinary — such as canned mushrooms or tomato sauce or corn flakes — the hunt begins … and often ends with the item unfound.  My favorite store, run by Xavier, a self-described extreme leftist who loves a good laugh, is so narrow you can just about touch both walls, but it goes straight up a good ten feet.  So I spend a lot of time scanning from bottom to top, to see if I’ve missed something that reminds me of home.  I asked Xavier how he knew about certain odd items he stocks (nutrasweet, zip-lock baggies, etc.).  He grinned broadly and said, “In-ter-net!”   When I come in, he greets me with “Senora Estrong,” and then pulls out something he hopes will dazzle me.

We had a fabulous time this week visiting an exquisitely beautiful hacienda out in the countryside.   We and my intrepid soils-analysis-specializing uncle Dick (aka Tio Ricardo) and the kids had a wonderful experience exploring ranch life Ecuadorean-style — in the hen house, at the river, watching the cheese clot in the bucket.  Paige and Marcus frolicked among Holstein calves (the Holstein is Paige’s school symbol, so we tried to photograph her with calves but they were so young they would get scared and run away).  We also visited the pig stalls.  The 9-month-old male, already a father, looked like he could crush a small car, of which there are some to be found, as Russia is selling Ladas here.

Later we watched two chickens being killed — creatures we and our hosts ate less than two hours later.  It was hard to watch a living, struggling, frightened animal have its throat cut on our behalf.  The blood poured out into a plastic bowl, the reddest of reds.  Half a minute later, the chicken was dead.  The women then dunked the chickens in boiling water so that their feathers would pull out more easily.   It was a reminder of just how fragile we all are — one minute alive and the next, irrevocably dead.  I feel the hypocrisy of my meat-eating ever more deeply.

As John wrote, death hovered nearby this week.   Paige and Marcus and I were on the main street, walking hand in hand, when people began to pour down the cathedral steps.  I asked someone whether it was a wedding or a mass, as people were dressed up.   “Sepelio,” he said, which means “burial.”  And then I noticed the women in widow’s black, which Catholic women wear for many months.  The coffin bearers were laboring under the weight of their burden, and when they got down to the street where a pickup truck decorated with elaborate sprays of flowers was waiting, they motioned it on, and two hundred people, including children in their school uniforms, walked down main street behind the coffin, while the sidewalks were lined with passersby who stopped to watch.

This week we helped two children who couldn’t afford to go to school for lack of supplies begin the school year a couple of months late.   Their mother lives with an abusive alcoholic, so the children live with their father in a two-bedroom flat with five adults and eight other children.  My fantasies were running to pencils and books, but the reality is that we also ended up buying shoes, underwear, cloth for school uniforms, backpacks, and so on.  We are having some of the clothes sewn by a local seamstress.  The children were a sad sight; I spent a morning with them and with our laundress-nurse friend, Charo, as we went from store to store.  The 7-year-old boy is already a street urchin of sorts, darting into stores and coming out with pieces of candy (how he gets them, I never saw) and generally acting like a child who lives by his wits.  The 6-year-old girl looks and acts like a 4-year-old (development stunted by malnutrition?), though her big teeth are coming in.  Her feet were stuffed into ruined tennis shoes two sizes too small and when we took them off to try on school shoes, we discovered she also had on wet socks that were three sizes too big.  When the children were finally taken home by Charo and their father saw that they now have a year’s worth of supplies, he wept.

Though we were somewhat fiesta-weary, a wonderful friend of John’s invited us to the fiesta of his parents’ village of orgin, el pueblito de Roma, which consists of 50 families, a church and a multi-purpose dirt cancha for futbol, volley y basket.  We watched the end of a cattle auction (young cattle sold for $200-300 apiece) and part of an impressive 3-on-3 regional volleyball game as the brass band played on the church balcony.  The church floor was covered with wax that had dripped from candles held during the morning mass.  Behind the church, a young girl folded lengths of purple toilet paper for those willing to pay cinco centavos.  (When we visited the mayor’s office in Portovelo and I asked where the bathrooms were, a middle-aged male city employee asked solicitously, “Can I get you some toilet paper?”)  We visited the village graveyard, which included concrete burial buildings where caskets could be slid into slots (kind of condo-like, actually), a handpainted cross with a tin roof, and a cross made out of rebar and adorned with plastic flowers.   We rode home in the back of a pickup truck (pickups are the dirt road taxis here), all fourteen of us (not counting the people in the cab), including two babies, a huge stalk of bananas, and other mysterious sacks.   John’s comment on the driver’s way of handling his load was “medio bruto,” which means “half brutish.”

It’s now the twilight hour when the light over the mountains is tinged with violet and rose.   Gas stoves are being lighted for hundreds of pots of rice and soup.  I have been rereading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “El amor en los tiempos de colera,” which has such a beautiful and rarefied vocabulary that when I muster up the energy to look something up in my 600-page dictionary, half the time it’s just not there.  Wishing you all good things.  We’ll be back in Boulder in less than a month and you’ll receive only one or two more of these tomes from us before we head for a final week communing with el Oceano Pacifico and then for home.

Con carino, Beret y John

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