Ecuador

The Thinker by Rodin

Mark Twain once wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. This may explain our problem in the United States where sometimes even traveling to another state is considered exotic. 64% of Americans have never left the United States, and 10% of us have never left our state. It seems to me that those who most need to travel outside the country are the ones least able to afford to do so, which exacerbates our narrow mindedness. Happily, that is not our problem. If Americans do go to a foreign country, it is probably Canada, which I discovered in 2017 is largely the same but with roads that are well maintained. Europe is probably the main destination for Americans traveling internationally for pleasure. It’s much less likely that Americans will travel to more exotic destinations like Africa, South America or Asia.

A year ago this month my wife and I took a 16-day cruise, largely our chance to experience Central America from a comfy cruise ship and cruise-line sponsored tours. It helped expand our horizons, but this trip to Ecuador is a better experience. We’re in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, which also happens to be about 10,000 feet above sea level and about twenty miles from the equator.

In the United States, you tend to think of the Americas as the U.S. and maybe Canada. This first real trip to South America though proves it is something else entirely: the Americas are mostly Hispanic. There is far more Spanish spoken in the Americas than English. The only other major language spoken in the Americas is Portuguese in Brazil. It has 200 million people, so there are more English speakers than Portuguese speakers in the Americas, but probably not for too much longer.

Happily English remains something of a universal language, but that doesn’t mean that most people speak it. It does mean that if someone has learned a second language, it is likely to be English. On this tour of Ecuador, we have a nice personal tour guide/translator provided by the touring company. My Spanish is more than forty years old and I haven’t had much need to practice it. I can stumble through the basics but I can’t hold a meaningful conversation in Spanish. In the past this was a big barrier to travel, but today it is less so. You can carry the Google Translate app around on your cell phone and if necessary you can use it to broker a conversation with someone in a foreign tongue. You can even point it at signs and it will translate them, at least a lot of the time.

Having spent a couple of days in Ecuador though I am feeling my mind broadening and my prejudices narrowing. If you think of South and Central American the way Donald Trump does, presumably as with mostly shithole countries, you would be largely wrong. We have seen some pretty impoverished countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, but no one would characterize Ecuador that way, at least not once you have actually been here. A closer match is Costa Rica and I suspect Argentina and Chile that I have yet to explore.

You could perhap call Ecuador second-world, but it feels more first-world than second-world. Quito, its capital, is thoroughly modern while its old city (a UNESCO heritage site) is charming. You see mostly new cars on the road, and actually fewer junkers than you see in the United States. You also see car models and brands not in the United States, lots of nice looking but probably cheap cars from places like China and the Czech Republic. None of the worst stretches I’ve seen here quite compare to the poverty you will find in many places in Appalachia. While there appear to be fewer rich people here, there also appear to be a lot fewer poor people, at least as a percent of the population. Wealth inequality feels less of an issue here than in the United States.

Things do take some getting used to, of course. For one, Ecuador is on the equator. Days are always twelve hours long, within fifteen minutes or so anyhow and the sun is usually overhead, casting little in the way of shadows but plenty in the way of ultraviolet radiation. There are a lot more diesel cars on the roads, in part because the state subsidizes diesel fuel. It’s ridiculously cheap, like about $1/gallon. These subsidies may be coming to an end. It may explain the protestors we heard chanting next to the Presidential Palace, just a few blocks from our hotel.

The Americas look a lot like Donald Trump’s worst fear: brown people, with some black people thrown in, who are mostly descendents of people we largely exterminated in North America: the natives. Many people here can trace some ancestry from Europe, but the general population evolved from the Aztec, Inca, Mayan and other races that predated colonization. How many of us in the United States aside from Elizabeth Warren can claim any Native American blood?

But really these are terrific people: religious, hard working, courteous and respectful for the most part. That’s not to say they are better or worse than the rest of us; they are just the same with a darker skin hue than some of us are comfortable with. They succeed when they form governments that lift them up and fail when they don’t. Ecuador, like many South American countries, is getting an influx of refugees from Venezuela, which is collapsing. Ecuador though has always had some things working in its favor. Its wealth is largely a product of its oil revenues and previously its plentiful plantations and gold. Its government is not without corruption, but it’s a lot less corrupt than most and its leader generally work for the people, while sometimes lining their own pockets. It’s a mosaic of different geographical regions, from the Amazon, to Pacific beaches, to a cloud forest, to the Andes Mountains. This is my first experience with the Andes and they impress: tall, incredibly steep and full of volcanoes, some active. San Francisco’s hills have got nothing on Quito’s. I’ve never seen steeper roads or mountains with more severe slopes.

In short, Ecuador is pretty neat, at least what we’ve seen of it so far. We went into the cloud forest yesterday (which means you drop down to a lower elevation where clouds are usually at) to a town called Mindo, did some walking, took a chocolate tour, enjoyed a good lunch at a nice restaurant and noted the many potholes when you get off the main roads. Mindo is just 22 miles from our hotel, but it took two hours to get there along the impossibly twisting roads you have to take.

I suspect if I had to live somewhere in South America, Ecuador would be a logical place. It’s pretty modern, pretty to look at, more affordable than most places in the U.S. and the people seem to be doing pretty well overall. Yes, there is poverty in places. You see lots of entrepreneurs walking amidst the often stalled traffic selling bags of fruit, bottles of water and windshield cleanings. You see sporadic homeless dogs and poor people in the plazas, a site that looks familiar to every place I’ve lived in America too. You also see some delicacies that would turn off most Americans, like deep fried guinea pigs on a stick. (I haven’t found the courage to try them, but I doubt they taste bad, given their popularity.) In fact, there are expat communities of U.S. citizens here, mostly along the coast, and there are gated communities aplenty in Quito’s suburbs you can probably buy into at a great cost savings compared to U.S. real estate prices. You would have to learn Spanish, but it’s not that hard to pick up. You can often figure out the signage. Ecuador also has some conveniences that Americans would like. Gas is sold in gallons, their currency is the U.S. dollar and there are plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit from the many stands close at hand. Also, you won’t need to change appliances. Current is 120 volts and the plugs are the same as in the USA. You just have to like mostly brown and predominantly Catholic people.

So there are plenty of good reasons to visit Ecuador although few Americans do. It’s not that far away. Our flight from Miami took about three and a half hours. You might find yourself charmed and decide that maybe the good old USA isn’t nearly as great as you and Donald Trump have been led to believe.

Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

The Thinker by Rodin

Before Che Guevara became a communist and revolutionary he apparently was an earnest medical student in Buenos Aires with a specialty in the study of leprosy. He had a promising medical career ahead of him, a girlfriend from a fine family and was seemingly on his way toward a good life. No one knew him as Che: he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna.

The Motorcycle Diaries (in Spanish with English subtitles) details Che’s transformation from a young man from an Argentine middle class family into the beginnings of a revolutionary. It details his journey across South America with his good friend Alberto Granado. It starts out in Buenos Aires on the back of a chronically overloaded motorcycle with major exhaust problems. Che is 23; his friend Alberto is approaching his 30th birthday. Neither had ventured far from their native Buenos Aires and wanted to experience the breadth of Latin America before their mundane careers consumed them.

If it is adventure they were looking for they got plenty. Their overloaded motorcycle takes many a tumble into ditches and eventually falls apart. They are soon are flat broke. Alberto’s natural salesmanship finds them many places to stay for the night and the occasional company of the women they seek. But Che’s transparency and honesty sometimes works against them. Like two guys barely out of adolescence they spend much of the movie swearing at each other in a good-natured way; it seems almost to be a form of affection.

Eventually their quest to discover the real Latin America is realized and it is not often a pretty place. In bartering for shelter and food Che uses his skills as a nearly certified doctor to treat people. He eventually becomes appalled by what he sees. Very slowly as they wend their way through Chile, Peru, Venezuela and finally Brazil, Che experiences a political awakening. He comes face to face with migrants forced off their lands despite having lived there for generations. He meets people eking a living on the margins of many a brutal and capitalist economy. Eventually he ends up at a leper colony in Brazil. He develops a real empathy for the lepers, who live on an island on the south side of the river while their caretakers live in relative splendor on the north side of the river.

Che, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is portrayed as a high spirited, often horny but an earnest and passionate young man. He seems to have an ability he does not really want to have: to be able to glom onto the suffering of those around him. What emerges is one man’s spiritual transformation.

The acting is uniformly good. But it is more travelogue than movie. It becomes a series of vignettes, almost like postcards on the places they visited on their long journey. The movie was clearly filmed on a shoestring. The cinematography is often choppy. It has a gritty and real feeling to it rarely found in movies of the Hollywood variety. Instead of glamorous and preened actors we get lots of real people in dirty clothes and bad teeth. All this dirt and filth seems obscene at times against the natural glory of South America. Perhaps that is the point.

This is a movie that makes no pretenses for greatness. It simply tries to capture the spirit of the young Che Guevara and documents the beginning of his enlightenment. His many revolutionary activities are not shown. But it does hurt to learn at the end of the movie that this earnest man of the people was hunted down and assassinated in 1967 with the help of our own CIA.

With the benefit of hindsight we should realize that the issues Che and other communists spoke to were very real. No one should be surprised that the oppression and poverty that ordinary people endured at the hands of oppressive governments and large corporations spawned men like Che Guevara. As I watch the rise of an oppressive corporate-ocracy right here in my own country and I see the middle class slowly disappearing this movie makes me wonder if we are breeding today new generations of Che Guevaras right here in our own country. Perhaps we will be smart enough to make our government one of the people again, instead of one that bends over backwards to meet the needs of the business world.