a day of fateful protests

Eva Kretsinger-Walters - Ecuador


October 6, 2019

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It seemed as if the sun awoke from a slumber today, and alarmed by its neglect these past few days, determined to overcompensate. Which is to say, today was brutally, stiflingly hot, a heat unique to the sierras, the result of literally being closer to the sun. And this heat coincided with a series of demonstrations across Ecuador, protests over the newly un-subsidized petrol. Videos arose on social media, across the globe, of riots, fires and blockades. Ecuadorians were not happy today, no. And an error in translation, incorrectly communicating Ecuador’s ‘State of Exception’ as ‘State of Emergency’, meant also that across the globe, concerned family members scrambled to the phone, ringing their fellows to remind them to stay indoors and hydrated.

 

Generally, there are two forms of protests: active rioting and passive boycotting. My little town of Chordeleg, overwhelmed by heat and underwhelmed by a small population, chose the latter. All movement screeched to a halt, locals delighted to retreat into the cool repose of the indoors. Businesses barred their windows accordingly, and thus, the little town of Chordeleg retired. I had wandered the silent streets to alleviate boredom, to no avail, and finally accepted that, without buses nor locals nor means of meeting nearby friends, I, too, would have to retreat into the house.

 

For a few hours, I was happy to entertain myself with embroidery patterns and facetime gossip. But finally neither french knots nor frat party chronicles could trap me indoors longer, and I once again wandered to the still outside. The sun had begun its golden descent and the mountains were the bluest I’d yet seen. I felt restless, endowed with a limitless ability to walk. And thus, when I reached the intersection in which Capichapamba meets the highway, I did not, as usual, meander left in the direction of Chordeleg, but rather right, facing Nothing for miles and miles. And I was grateful: the isolated country road meant that I did not bear the weight of hundreds of gazes, all fascinated by la gringita. And similarly, an absence of humans meant an absence of angry feral dogs. Entranced in a newfound peace,  I wandered, I jogged, I balanced on the curb. It occurred to me that I should only stop at the distant city of Sígsig, or when I finished listening to my album completely, whichever came first.

 

Spoiler alert: I never managed either. I suppose I could blame small-town dynamics. Or thank them, really. Because although I walked a sparsely-inhabited road, there were still scattered houses tucked into the hills, and it seemed that in every house I passed, someone recognized me. ‘Evita!’ they would call out, ‘¿A dónde vas?’. I had no response to such a question, as I was not going anywhere. And I recognized none of my friendly interlocutors. We would chat like familiar acquaintances, and I would drop hints, subtle baiting questions, silently, begging the conversant to reveal our connection. It occured to me that I would never know the extent of my social circle here in Chordeleg, or perhaps that I should mentally reframe to understand the entire town as my social circle. After all, most had seen, and were curious about, the blonde gringita who lives in Capillapamba.

And thus, as I rounded a corner at the eighteen-minute mark, I was surprised neither by the familiar greeting of a roadside labourer nor that he was unknown to me.  ‘Eva!’ he exclaimed, ‘my daughter was talking about you the other day! Come in for coffee, no?’. And, with the same enthusiasm with which he’d greeted me, he also dropped his present task and ushered me into his house, ordering his mom to begin coffee preparations. ‘This coffee’, he’d explained to me, ‘is special. It comes from Colombia. We drink it on special occasions.’

And it seemed to me that once invited into his house, guests were absorbed into family. I loaded firewood, played with his grandson and gossiped over coffee like any aunt, cousin or grandchild would. The daughter, it resulted, was a distinct face from my first day of work, a day of manual labour; happily we swapped memories from the tiring day. And without clarification, it was understood that my invitation into the house also included la merienda. I was expected to inform my host parents that I would not be home for supper.

 

Over Colombian instant coffee, I chatted with the labourer ( I discovered he was called Carlos, and that he was cousin to my host dad). I remember his curiosity about Geneva, about the diplomatic organizations headquartered there. ‘A small city,’ he had commented, ‘but very very powerful.’ I’m not sure I can describe the feeling that overwhelmed me then, and even if I could, I don’t know that I really want to. I  considered the UN diplomats, nattily dressed with impressive vocabularies and flashy advanced degrees, influencing global norms and resolutions. I was struck that these diplomats knew nothing about Carlos, an optimistic labourer who had spotted an ambulatory gringa and thought to invite her for dinner and serve her his best Colombian instant coffee; they did not know that his hands were perpetually dirty, regardless of frequency of washing, or that his cornfield took two days to harvest, or that his kitchen still used wood fire, or that his grandson refused to put on shoes despite continuous scolding. I guess it just seemed ludicrous that the life of Carlos, so removed from the polished diplomats, was subject to their whims. I almost felt apologetic.

Night descended, and carloads of relatives arrived. I quickly abandoned attempts to understand the inter-familial relationships, and rather chose simply to enjoy their company. Family members jokingly recalled the pitiful attempt of an aunt to go vegetarian. I explained the difference in American and Ecuadorian family structures. A newly-arrived, wind-blown cousin described her dramatic journey that morning from Cuenca to Chordeleg in the midst of the unrest. No one had planned the extra mouth to feed, yet seamlessly, happily, incorporated me into their dinner plans. It occured to me that such a night was rare back in the US, and certainly unheard of in formal Switzerland. These were a people lacking in material wealth but overwhelmed by good spirits, who  never met a stranger. And thus, as I sat under a sky extravagant with stars and gossiped about Chordeleg drama, I was somehow grateful for the distant protests that had pushed me, blindly, into the arms of yet another Ecuadorian family.

Eva Kretsinger-Walters