Archive for January, 2011

The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Queen of the Highway

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Although not a big country, Ecuador features sizable sections of the three main ecosystems found in South America: the dry coastal plain, the towering Andes mountains, and the vast Amazon jungle.  The roads connecting these environments are among the most spectacular and challenging in the world. Often amazing feats of engineering featuring stunning views and landscapes, they are also poorly maintained and policed.

Last month, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, December 24, bus #57 belonging to the cooperative Reina del Camino (Queen of the Highway), on a regular route down from the highlands capital of Quito (9,200 feet above sea level) to San Isidro near the coast, went over a precipice near La Crespa in Manabi Province.  It plummeted 150 meters (480 feet) rolled over several times and came to rest at the bottom of a deep ravine. 40 passengers were killed, most instantly, although several lingered in local hospitals for a few days. 11 of the dead were children.

In the days following the accident various damning details came to light. The brakes of the bus were found to be defective, and the vehicle itself had not been inspected in over a year.  The driver of record was at home in his apartment in Quito, and the driver in fact was carrying two separate sets of identity papers, neither of which belonged to him. The driver, also killed in the crash, had had his own license suspended twice, and a subsequent investigation revealed that the transportation cooperative “Reina del Camino” was not only aware of the fact, but had facilitated his obtaining the false ID and license.

Furthermore, the deadly toll of 40 dead and 43 injured stood in stark violation of the listed legal capacity for the vehicle, which was 44 passengers.  This is a widespread practice in Ecuador, where busses are the main mode of transportation for poor and middle class families without private cars or money to pay airfares, even when flights exist. The busses, older models often purchased cheap from Greyhound and other foreign companies when they are retired from service in the first world, leave the terminals full of seated passengers who have paid full price for a paper ticket in the bus line’s office at the bus station.  The money for these tickets stays in the office, and goes into the company coffers.

But the underpaid drivers and loaders also feel entitled to a piece of the pie, and so as soon as the bus clears the area around the terminal they start picking up additional roadside passengers who pay a reduced rate to stand in the aisles or crouch on the roofs hidden under tarps. The one time we were actually kidnapped, riding north on the Panamerican Highway in coastal Peru, by the Movimento Revolucionario Tuopac Amaru, we were driven off the road and into the desert where armed thugs started strip searching all of the passengers. Lying face down in the sand with our hand behind our heads, we were surprised to hear stifled cries coming from the baggage compartments under the bus we had been riding on for 14 hours.  The gunmen had discovered an entire family of 7 riding behind the suitcases and trunks.

The money from these “informal” passengers goes directly into the pockets of the driver and his assistant.  The practice is tolerated because it supposedly holds down ticket prices (one can pay approximately 50% extra for “Executive Service” busses which don’t stop between stations to pick up extra passengers), but it results in uncomfortable and dangerous crowding of regular units like bus #57.

Finally, for frosting on the cake, the drivers themselves are seriously abused, overworked and quite often inebriated.  It is not unusual for a driver, who sometimes but not always is also the owner of the vehicle, to finish an 8 to 10 hour run from the coast up to the mountains by polishing off 3 or 4 big beers while they empty and reload his bus, and then climbing aboard to drive it back to its point of origin, where one of his families anxiously awaits. Bus drivers in Ecuador are almost exclusively male and famous for separately maintaining 2 or 3 women and their respective progeny.

The drinking used to bother me the most.  Back in my wild youth as an anthropologist and adventurer of the region, riding these rickety rockets up and down the spine of the Andes, we would make an effort to personally interview the drivers of these long-haul, overnight death traps before boarding.  We were primarily performing field sobriety tests, and on more than one occasion, deterred by the stink of cheap liquor or an unfocused gaze, we would opt for a later departure.  We tended to favor busses with priests or nuns aboard, on the theory that the drivers would at least be reminded of eternal consequences of losing their grip.

As tragic as the accident itself was, the resulting scandal was a paragon of the inimitable combination of high drama and farce so typical of Latin American politics. The President of the Republic, never one to pass up a chance to garner good press, made an immediate visit to the hospital where the majority of the injured were interred, promising remuneration and retribution.  The remuneration took the form of an immediate payout by the insurance company that carried the Reina’s policy, for the kingly sum of $4,850 for each fatality, and lesser sums for the injured.  The retribution became apparent the following week when the Minister of Transportation, citing the unlicensed driver, false documentation, gross overloading and lack of vehicle inspection, closed down the Reina, cancelling their license to operate and ordering all 130 of their busses off the road.

This was a major blow, not just to the 2,000 employees of the company (drivers, loaders, mechanics, station workers, officials) and their families, but also to the citizenry of Manabi, one of Ecuador’s largest provinces.  For many smaller towns and roadside knots of humanity, the Reina was the only game in town, the only way to get students to school, patients to hospitals, goods to market or lovers to assignations.

The company had been formed almost 50 years ago by a small group of mechanics in the agricultural center of Chone, my wife’s hometown.  Her uncle came up with the name.  They started with a half–dozen “chivas”, which are a sort of home made bus, basically wooden benches with a roof built on the platform of old flatbed trucks.  They plied the dusty, muddy, rocky unpaved roads of Manabi, uniting cow towns and haciendas, fruit farms and regional markets, forgotten, isolated hamlets and growing regional centers.

The first declaration of the Minister of Transportation after the accident was the temporary cancellation of the Reina’s license, until all of the 130 vehicles were inspected, the drivers took a special course in bus driving technology and passed vision, health and psychological tests, and the owner of each vehicle posted a special $1,000 bond as surety against future mishaps.  Of course, the universal opinion in Manabi was that this was a $130,000 bonus for the Minister of Transportation whose term in office, like that of all government ministers in Ecuador, was limited by graft, scandal and political expediency.

A week later, however, the Minister was trumped by the President, who announced with redolent indignation that the closure would be permanent, and that he would shortly begin the process of “redistributing” the routes formerly served by the Reina to other cooperatives. Clearly, a process itself assured to generate another hefty and continuing stream of off-the-books revenue. The candidates for the routes started lining up immediately.

But the officials and investors behind the Reina were not about to take this lying down.  They had resources of their own, and 50 years of entrenchment in the establishment of the province.  Think of a league of small-town Latin-style teamsters from Texas.  They immediately availed themselves of a time-honored tradition of Ecuadorian justice – judge shopping.  When a power bloc like this needs relief from executive persecution, they start going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking to find or motivate a sympathetic judge to issue an injunction.

The fact that the one they found was an unknown woman recently appointed to the Children’s and Family Court surprised and shocked no one except possibly me.  Her only possible apparent connection to the case seemed to be that 11 of the fatalities were children, but in these parts a court order is a court order, and her order was to let the Reina loose again.

A classic confrontation of constitution powers, Ecuadorian style!  The executive branch orders the busses off the roads, and the judicial overrules.  Money was moving between private bank accounts and campaign funds like a high-stakes three card Monte at an agricultural state fair.  The federal police threatened to stop the busses and arrest the drivers.  The provincial patrols vowed to enforce the judge’s order, and escort the busses if necessary.

Of course, like 99% of the confrontations in this South American theme park of a country, it was all show.  No shots were fired, but the posturing was world-class and the rhetoric stirring.  The current compromise has 80 of the 130 busses back in circulation while the back-room bartering and bribing continues.  Stay tuned for updates, and choose “executive service” if it’s an option.

Manta Diary post 2

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This morning it was still dark outside when I awoke to the sound of a downpour on a tin roof next door, and the smell of a fresh rain rinsing off the dry dust that habitually covers this sunny resort on the Pacific coast of South America. My surprise was mingled with disappointment – no tennis today!

It almost never rains in Manta. Honestly; in what must now be a cumulative year in this bustling port city, this is only the second time I can remember it really raining. Some fortuitous combination of coastline and wind patterns insures that, even in the rainy season, even when farmers in nearby towns like Portoviejo, Jipijapa (pronounced “Hippy-hoppa” to my continuing delight) or Chone are dancing with delight under a tropical deluge, Manta normally remains dry and sunny.

Actually, it was rather nice to see a real rain for a change, in part to contrast it with the repeated blunt blows from a vengeful Mother Nature currently flaying New England. Rain is romantic, and as I could clearly see on an early morning drive to get the papers, the trees and plants were happy. But I had a date to play doubles at the tennis club with the usual suspects plus a US Navy SeaBee stationed on a cruiser, the USNRV “Swift”, anchored in Manta Bay while its engineering battalion assists in the construction of an elementary school in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town.

So stuck at home for a while (local experts predict a cessation of the showers by 10 am) let me describe a couple of moral and karmic dilemmas we had to face yesterday, as an example of the magical thinking which makes the Southern half of America different from the North, and may help explain why we feel so at home here.

Yesterday, Thursday, I was on my own, as Norma was off to Portoviejo to visit Mariana, the eldest of her 8 brothers and sisters, leaving shortly after I returned from the tennis club around 9. Although she said she might be back by lunchtime I knew it would be closer to dinnertime; when these siblings get together it’s a non-stop gabfest for days at a time.  Unfortunately, Norma is the only one of her sibs who is currently on speaking terms with absolutely everyone else in the family, and since our arrival last week the apartment has been the site of a series of family summits as the sisters, cousins, aunts and more distant connections stop by singly or in groups, for Latin-style family schmoozing.  At least for one day, the coffee klatch would be held in Portoviejo rather than in our living room.

So, unencumbered by social or familial responsibilities, I decided to take a walk, maybe check out this new Chinese restaurant people were talking about, since Norma didn’t like Chifa, which is what South Americans call Chinese food. First stop – our “wall safe”, which consists of a slim linen document bag hanging from a nail in the wall underneath a mounted poster of Albert Einstein and containing our passports and cash stash.  Hopefully, the local “pillos” (thieves) don’t read my blog

But, surprise, surprise, the cupboard was bare.  The stash of fresh US ATM twenties was exhausted after about two weeks in country, more or less as expected, and so the next stop had to be the local Banco Pacifico ATM, conveniently located on the way to the Chifa.

Keys, wallet, cellphone, battered Elmore Lenard paperback (I love my new Nook so much I have determined to read it only in the comfort and safety of the apartment, never risking it out on the Latin street), check, check, check. Out the door and left at the corner, heading uphill towards the local “Strip” of bars, restaurants, clubs and trendy shops, rather than downhill to the beach.

I had walked less than two blocks when I heard and saw a singular thing. As a well-dressed young man walking in the opposite direction, down the hill, passed me by I heard  a distinct ‘thok’ sound of something falling to the ground.  I turned, and there in the street, perched on the rim of a pothole, maybe ten feet from where I stood, was a dull bronzed dollar coin.

Ecuador, as you may or may not realize, after repeated devaluations and hyperinflation, caused by a chronic inability to lay off the inorganic generation of boatloads of banknotes, had abandoned its national currency, the Sucre, and adopted good ole American greenbacks as their only money.  The big bronze dollar coins which people in the States seem so reluctant to adopt, have become ubiquitous in Ecuador, leading me to suspect that as one of the reasons they are so hard to find up North.

Anyway, it was obvious that the teenager had dropped the dollar, and I started doing the mental gymnastics necessary to determine my best course of action.  How much did he need the money? He looked well dressed, but maybe he was on his way to a low-paying job.  I had zero cash myself, but I was on my way to extract dinero from the international financial web. Did finders, keepers apply in a situation like this?

My mental acuity must be slowing down, because before I could run down the ramifications the kid was around a corner and out of sight. So I picked up the dollar and continued my ruminations as I walked. Upon reflection, I decided that a dollar found was not a dollar earned, and that the potential negative karmic effect of appropriating the funds far outweighed the brief feeling of “lucky me” one experiences on finding loose money on the street.

So, I decided, on my way back to the apartment, after my Chinese luncheon, I would carefully place the dollar back where I found it. Although the chances it would return to the teenager who dropped it were miniscule, someone else who hadn’t had the chance to identify it rightful owner would find it and potentially benefit from the “found money” juju.

By this time (I think slowly these days) I was nearly at the bank.  The equatorial sun was beating down like a photonic bludgeon as I slipped into the tiny, air-conditioned ATM vestibule. Fed my card into the machine. The screen announced “Su tarjeta no puede ser leido” (Can’t read this card).  Three times, same result. No money, no chance, no recourse.  Except, of course, to walk across the plaza to the Banco de Producto ATM inside the Super-Maxi supermarket.

This time the machine managed to read my card, and accepted my PIN, but when I asked it for $200 it reported “No se puede efectuar este transacion” (Can’t complete the transaction). Tried it again, same result.

By now, I was freaking out. What if the card has gotten demagnetized somehow, how will I get a replacement, and what will I live on in the meantime? What if somebody at one of the other places down here I’ve used the card, had stolen the password and cleaned out my account? We began rifling through the nefarious possibilities.

Almost instantly, I figured out what was going on, and what I needed to do about it.  It was the bad mojo negative karma o  the illicit dollar, burning a hole in my pocket! I touched it nervously with my figures, moved it from my right front pocket (positive energy) to my left (negative) and made a beeline for the street where I had collected it.

On the way I held the offending coin tightly in my left hand and tried to focus all of the negative energy in my body into it.  Arriving back on the corner in question I located the pothole and, after glancing around to insure I was not in anyone’s sights, lay the dollar back where I had picked it up, near as I could figure.

Straightening up, I didn’t feet anything special, but headed to the last remaining ATM in the neighborhood, between the Velboni market on the corner of the Strip and “Velvet Gourmet”, a cake and sweets shop next door.  Normally we eschew this machine, as it is outdoors and frequently out of order, but at that point I was desperate and broke.  Any port in a storm.

Of course, our karmic conscience cleansed, it worked like a charm, first time, read the card and spit out the cash, just like an ATM is supposed to do. Heaving a sigh of relief we reset our sights for the restaurant, which proved to be decent but unspectacular.  South American Chinese seemingly haven’t gotten the hang of Hot’n Sour Soup yet. The Won Tons were decent, though.

On the way home we were confronted with another confusing set of circumstances. At the supermarket where we stopped for flowers, cheese and fresh-squeezed orange juice, we made two discoveries. We still aren’t sure which was the good news, good luck, and which was the bad.

The first was the discovery that Supermaxi now stocked Hagen Das ice cream, specifically “Dulce de Leche” flavor, to which we had become seriously addicted back in Watertown where it was available cheap at the local Target within walking distance of our place. Actually, we had been rather glad that distance had reduced that craving to a fond memory, but now here it was, staring us in the face, and at an inflated price almost twice what it cost back home.  Good news or bad? We’ll figure that out later, we thought as we tossed one in the shopping chart.

The second discovery, upon returning home, eating a third of the pint and sticking the rest in the tiny freezer area of our glorified dorm-room refrigerator, was that the poor machine didn’t generate enough coldness to keep ice cream in a solid state.  I discovered this through a sticky coating of sweet liquid caramel which had flowed down from the erstwhile “feezer” to cover everything in the front half of the refrigerator and the floor below.  Good luck or bad? We’re still trying to figure that one out.

Such are the trials and travails of life on the beach in Manta, Ecuador. Moral conundrums, karmic puzzles, idle speculation. Stay tuned.

Dowbrigade South Online Again

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After a week on the road, we are setting up shop in a lovely little apartment, three blocks from the beach in the midsized city (pop. 200,000) of Manta, Ecuador. We should be reachable here for the next 5 months, before returning to Boston for the summer and fall semesters, back at work. Meanwhile, we have been disconnected from the internet, both by choice and necessity, as we wound our way down here.

Ah, the electric liberation of being off the grid. No phone, no internet, no TV – just life, raw and real and unmitigated by digital diffusion, LCD screens or cybernetic connections. The eyes open wider, the symphony of sounds unblocked by earbuds or surround-sound, the hours stretch and multiply without the distraction of hundreds of channels of cable nothingness or the endlessly fascinating time sink offered by the Internet. Time to savor the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of raw reality.

After a week of this au natural existence we found ourselves bored to tears, and venturing forth from our new nest above the Bat Beach (Playa Muracielgo) yesterday we unlocked and reregistered our trusty Blackberry, installed a telephone landline into the apartment, bought a big flatscreen TV, leeched a Cable TV signal from some out-of-town neighbors, and borrowed a USB dongle putting the MacBook back onto the information superhighway. We’re baaack! New digits to follow.

There are drawbacks to our current situation, but I can’t think of what they are. I’m sure with the passage of time they will rear their ugly little heads; Manta is not Paradise. But, as I always say, yeah, I wouldn’t mind going to Paradise, but I’m not dying to get in.

Today I got up at 6, as usual. It’s been a long time since I could sleep past 7; generally when the sun comes up, so do I. Most mornings in Manta I get picked up about 10 minutes later to go play tennis at the Umiña Tennis Club, 5 minutes from our apartment.

The gang I usually play with, including Miguel Camino, architect and ex-husband of one of Norma’s cousin, our host and landlord and good buddy, Jorge Zambrano, the Mayor, actually ex-mayor after 12 years now retired to fun the family agricultural supply business and develop scads of prime real estate he somehow acquired during his time in office, Medrano Mora the Rector of the big local university and other early risers. They like to get to the club at dawn both because it’s the coolest time of day, which at 1 degree south latitude is important, and because they want to shower and get to their offices by nine. The level of tennis is off the charts – there are so many great players at this club that sometimes I despair of being able to hang on the courts. They usually give me to the strongest player as a partner, as a sort of handicap. But playing above one’s level is the best way to improve at anything. I know it sounds exhausting, but actually two hours of tennis in the morning imparts energy that lasts all day long. Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I usually head for home after tennis for a nap.

Actually, this trip I’ve discovered another gang who show up a bit later – Byron the lawyer, Don Nelson, who works in the Port Authority, Pedro “The Tower” (6’1” is considered tall down here) and several others, a little older, about my age, and either retired or otherwise freed from the necessity of showing up at an office at any specific time. Today I played an exhausting singles match with Byron, who ended up winning 9-7, then I swan laps in the new pool for half an hour, and finished with a relaxing set of doubles with the whole gang.

The fact that this gang doesn’t show up until 7:30 or 8 (they still like to get their tennis in before the sun gets too high in the sky) means that on a day like today I got to read the New York Times and the Boston Globe early over a liquid breakfast of my favorite coffee (Flor de Manabi, from Loja), orange juice and a local liquid multivitamin.

After tennis, on the way back to the apartment, I stopped at the SuperMaxi supermarket for a copy of “El Universo”, the dean of Ecuadorian journalism, a pretty decent rag out of Guayaquil, the motor of the national economy about three hours south of here, and a liter of fresh-squeezed orange juice. They have a humongous squeezing machine in back of the deli counter – they feed in baskets of local oranges cut in half and fill the bottles by hand. I am drinking at least a liter a day; Norma claims my urine is going to start crystallizing from ascorbic acid, but I probably won’t catch cold.

Back home by a little after ten, I tried to make a few calls to the states on the free setup I have working on my laptop – combining Google voice (my number is 617-800-9948) with Cisco’s Virtual Private Network software to fool the internet into thinking I am on the Boston University campus. However, the call quality, which last night was quite acceptable (I spoke to my Mom and Gabe and a few others) was considerably worse in the morning, so I gave up on that and started writing this message. I will have to experiment with calling at different times of day to see when the quality is best. Also, I hope to have a faster, DSL connection to the internet up and running next week, so I can get away from this damn dongle. Hopefully this will be a bit faster as well.

In a couple of hours, Norma and I are planning to wander down to the Bat Beach, and walk down the Malecon to the Manta Yacht Club, where there is supposed to be some sort of a Gastronomic Championship, sponsored by the Ecuadorian-American Chamber of Commerce, featuring representatives of the ten best restaurants in Manta as well as the Gastronomy department at the local university in some kind of Criolla Cookoff. We don’t hang much at the Yacht Club, most of its members are ex-Navy or scions of upper-upper-crust Latifundista families. Not my kind of people, generally, but the cookoff offers an opportunity to avoid the big question of most days in Manta, which is in which of the dozens of excellent nearby restaurants to have lunch, traditionally the biggest meal in the Latinamerican day. Seafood or barbeque? Salad and fruit juice or fried shrimp and beer? Decisions, decisions.

Then tonight I am looking forward to seeing the Jets and Colts on my new TV. It’s on ESPN down here, a little grainy but definitely watchable. Not sure who to root for, I guess the Colts cause if they win we get the worst team in the playoffs next week, although it would be enjoyable to see the Pats destroy the Jets again.

No, Manta is not paradise. There are problems and inconveniences and ornery people and incompetent officials, just like everywhere else. Sometimes the electricity goes out. All of the restaurants on Bat Beach signed some sort of blood oath, in return for free Pepsi refrigerated servers, not so sell Coca-cola. Norma has diarrhea from eating a cebiche in Tarqui, the “bad” part of town (the Lonely Planet guide book notes that Tarqui features the cheapest hotels in town, but if you stay in one better take a taxi home after dark) – in fact, street snatch and grabs are common enough that we remove all rings, watches and other jewelry before going out, carry a minimum of cash and never flash laptops or iPods on the street. But given these precautions I feel pretty safe and in fact have yet to be a victim of this kind of crime in Ecuador, unlike in the USA.

Stay tuned for more updates