Being an expatriate is challenging. There have been moments, especially when I’m tired and grumpy, when I’ve yearned for English-speaking companionship, familiar stores, New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and drive-through fast food. I’ve missed my grown children, my dog, and knowing every street, road, and shortcut in town. One night, I just buried my head in Steve’s shoulder and wailed, “I want to go HOOOOOOOOOOOOME!” Overall, though, the kindness of Ecuadorians and the charm and lightheartedness of their culture has been more than enough to overcome this. My mind feels like it is sparkling with all the new ways I am learning, my espanol is improving, my fitness is increasing with all the walking, and I just feel more alive. When everything is new, the passage of time slows, and life acquires more zest.
The political situation in Ecuador is one of the things I am learning about gradually. As the week marking the feast of Corpus Christi ended, yellow-vested Policia started to group in front of the Province of Azuay’s main government building facing the Parque Calderon. They had helmets (some of them actually wore them) and riot shields (mostly they leaned on them). In the afternoons, echoing the Corpus Christi parades of the night before, lines of protestors marched through the streets. The first afternoon, there were not many protestors. They gathered and chanted “Fuera, Correa, Fuera” (Out, Correa, Out!). Some of them were indigenous people, holding signs which protested being cut off from their traditional water supply by a new natural eco-reserve project. But most of them were well-dressed Ecuadorians who looked like they were coming straight from work in an office, upscale store, or hotel. I asked someone what they were protesting and got an earful of rapid-fire Spanish, in which the word “impuestos” (taxes) featured prominently.
The protestors finished making speeches in front of the courthouse, and marched on to their next location. The ones at the back of the line, looking less impassioned, were munching on Corpus Christi sweets sold from the booths alongside the park.
My twice-weekly intermediate Spanish conversation class was the next day, and I asked my teacher about it. She explained (speaking slowly and clearly) that the government had raised import taxes over the previous year or two, and that they claimed when they did it that the taxes would make foreign goods more expensive and therefore make locally grown and manufactured goods cheaper. She explained that people are not stupid, and they saw that the prices of both the imported goods and the local goods which substituted for them were increasing due to the impuestos. The poor were being squeezed by it. But just that
week, the popular and outspoken President Correa had introduced a bill increasing several consumer taxes slightly and increasing inheritance taxes drastically. Since about 60% of Ecuador’s economic activity occurs in small businesses, this meant that millions of people would be unable to pass their businesses on to the next generation. This brought the middle class, grown so much in the past decades’ expansion, into the picture.
As I walked home, I saw that the Policia had doubled in number. The protestors had yet to arrive, but the Policia looked a little more alert than the day before. They were all wearing their helmets and, though they still leaned on their riot shields, they had them lined up like a phalanx, ready to come up if necessary to guard against the glass bottles which, I’d heard, were occasionally thrown during protests. I, like many citizens, calmly funneled along the sidewalk, between the police and the few early bird protestors, feeling not in the least endangered. Still, I made a mental note to avoid walking across the park at that time of day for a while.
After a few more days of protests, President Correa announced that he was withdrawing the new tax proposal. This both astonished and heartened me. I recalled the Tea Party rallies protesting rising taxation and unfair tax law enforcement. I recalled the Occupy camp-outs protesting corporate control and bank bail-outs. I recalled that neither the right-wing protests nor the left-wing protests in the US had had any appreciable impact on the actions of government at all. How different it is in a country where the government, less entrenched, can be thrown out on short notice! That same week, Correa caused a stir in the press when he made a speech to a group of Ecuadorian expatriates in Italy, in which he claimed that there were groups preparing to attempt a “coup” against him. At this time, the Ecuadorian Constitution does not allow Correa to run for a third term; he would have to step down in 2017. However, a court ruling last year allows the Constitution to be amended by majority vote of the legislature to allow unlimited terms. Correa, who won by a landslide in 2013, plainly hopes to be President for life.
It is sobering to know that the development and optimism which make Ecuador attractive to so many could be easily diverted. Correa has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois, with his thesis focusing on game theory, and while he calls himself a socialist, his economic policy moves are as likely to be pro-individual as pro-collective. His charisma and brilliant mind (he speaks five languages, including Quechua, the Andean indigenous language) have enabled him to play the economy like a game of chess, skirting the potential calamity of dropping oil prices in a country dependent on oil, allowing grass-roots economic growth by defying corporate influence, reserving and recognizing the value held in an unpolluted environment, and creating a social “safety net” without (yet) a bloated bureacracy that fosters dependence. The Chinese are zeroing in on Ecuador’s natural resources, and it would be fascinating to see if Correa can outfox them. Yet, as many brilliant mavericks, Correa has an ego which could cause him to lose touch with the game he is playing. If so, things could degenerate for him and for Ecuador fairly rapidly. Too much socialism, and it could become another Venezuela. Too much paranoia, and it could become a corrupt and stagnant dictatorship. The protestors continue to increase in number as of this writing, but the protest remain peaceful and the police remain calm and non-violent.
In the meantime, Steve’s daughter P, 15 years old, came to visit for two weeks. She is a smart girl and studying Spanish in school, and she enjoys seeing new things and different ways of life and new people. Her visit here coincided with the “depth” of South American winter. Here in the mountains, three degrees off the equator, that means the temperature drops to 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night and the constant cloud cover and drizzly rain make the highs in the low 60s feel quite a bit colder. Most homes are not heated or air conditioned. This made a must-do activity out of one of the area’s local attractions, Piedra de Agua, a spa based over a natural hot springs nearby. We booked an appointment, and hopped in a taxi for the 15-minute ride one grey and chilly morning.
We arrived at the spa and signed in, filling out some very basic paperwork, and were shown to the co-ed locker room (private changing booths to the side), where we donned our bathing suits and locked up our valuables. A tiny Ecuadorian woman in a sweatsuit was our appointed guide, and she showed us into the steam room, where we couldn’t see one another due to the thickness of the vapors. We inhaled the fumes of fresh-cut eucalyptus branches and felt the welcome sensation of our skin softening and starting to slough in the warmth and moisture, and our tension starting to slough along with it. Then, it was on to the mud baths: two warm pools, one tinted red with red mud, and one blue with blue mud. We were given bowls of the mud and plastered it all over ourselves and each other, let it dry, and then scrubbed it off in the pools. Our guide, perhaps 4’10” and 90 lbs., cautioned me about the mud-slick rocks on the walkway to the next treatment. She offered me, more than twice her weight, her arm to brace on, and I just laughed. “Usted es demasiado pequena. No puede sopartar me.” (You are too small. You cannot support me.) I clung to the rocky walls cut into the mountainside instead. Next, on to the contrast cave: A hot pool next to a very cold pool, and we were directed to go back and forth at least two times. I went back and forth until my whole body was tingling and rosy and my breathing was deep and easy; the other two (especially Steve) were less enthusiastic about the cold pool, but the girl came and commanded them to get in at least once before moving us along. The next step was the massage. Now, as a chiropractor and teacher at a massage school in the US, I could tell that these crisply-uniformed ladies were not trained in anatomy, but they were strong and receptive to feedback, and the massage felt great! The last process was the steam cabinets. This was something I’d never done before, and the sensation of leaning my neck back on a rolled towel and breathing fresh, cool air while the steam inside the cabinet emulsified and thinned the massage oil on my freshly-exfoliated skin was heavenly. We were then shown to the general section of the spa, where a tepid swimming pool, a small VERY hot pool (“Japanese bath”) and a small very cold pool allowed us to swim and float and do a few more cycles of contrast therapy. Finally, it was time to dress and go. At the end, we felt like limp dishrags, serene and glowing. The cost of this full afternoon of pampering for the three of us? $180.
We had the receptionist call a cab to take us back to the apartment. We came inside, and as we were hanging up our wet bathing suits, P suddenly said, “I left my phone in the cab!” She had a brand-new top-of-the line Android phone which her mother had sternly cautioned her to take care of. It was locked to a US carrier, and thus unusable in Ecuador, but she still carried it around to use wherever we could get wi-fi; I am still unclear why she would have had it out in the taxicab. Our relaxation was jarred into action: run into the street to see if it had fallen out when she climbed out of the taxi, call the spa to ask if they’d found it and to get the taxi company phone number, call the taxi company, who radioed the cab driver, who denied finding it. Early the next morning, Steve and P went back to the spa to search for the phone without success. P was heartbroken, fearful of her mother’s (justifiable) wrath, and so the next few days until her return to Florida were under a cloud of adolescent sulkiness.
Imperfections notwithstanding, we are in Ecuador to stay, at least for a few years. Countries are like people: one has to have patience with their faults and shortcomings while celebrating and enjoying their good points.
Next Post: The Expat Tribe and the Visa Experience.