and why I now love cornflakes
Ups and downs
I’m over three months into living in Quito, and the time has absolutely flown by. I’m increasingly glad that I’m staying here through next January (as opposed to leaving in November, which is what I had initially planned) since there are certain things about the lifestyle here in Quito that I adore, and I still feel I have so much to learn…particularly with regard to my Spanish skills.
Overall, everything continues to go great. There was a stretch between mid-May and mid-June that was very stressful with regard to work, but it eased up about three weeks ago, and everything – work and play - has been much more enjoyable ever since. (I’ll explain more below.) Hence, things have been a bit up and down, but all seems to be looking up again, and I’m very glad…
ASELER: Missing and almost missing
The beginning of the tough stretch was an unprecedented week of work at ASELER. On a Tuesday near the end of the May, one of our clients was almost kidnapped. Our client, BC, and his family had been staying at a homeless shelter and were on their way to our office for their afternoon appointment when the incident occurred. They were walking along a busy street about a mile from our office when a 4x4 pulled up along side of them. Three FARC members jumped out and tried to take BC. Fortunately, BC and his family had been walking with another one of our clients, RS, and his family (they met the fellow refugee family and had become friends at the homeless shelter) and RS managed to fight off the FARC members and prevent the kidnapping. As I so often think when reflecting on these stories, I just can’t imagine what it must have felt like. With the two families combined, there were six children there, witnessing the event, and the two mothers pulled them into nearby restaurant amidst their screaming.
They came to our office immediately thereafter, and our office went into ‘lockdown.’ We managed to contact the right people so the two families were both relocated to secret hostels in Quito for the night, and they then were relocated to unidentified cities over 6 hours from Quito – where they would stay until a decision was made about if they were refugees. In addition, we convinced the refugee office to expedite the refugee status determination process, and thankfully, there is a possibility that the UNHCR will consider BC and his family for resettlement in another country. Which, as I’ve written before, is very rare. The process is a mysterious one. Essentially, the client must show that they are receiving threats in the host country (in this case, Ecuador) and that they exhausted all avenues for state protection – meaning, they’ve denounced the persecution attempts in Ecuador to the police but continue to receive threats. It not only is difficult to show, but the process if further complicated by the fact that a person cannot apply for resettlement. The UNHCR, who has access to the database at the refugee office, selects refugees and offers them a resettlement interview in one of the least transparent processes fathomable. Fortunately, we have a relatively strong relationship with the UNHCR here, but, as with much of the laws and procedures here, the lack of accountability in the procedures make much of the decisions based on ‘who you know.’
Coming back to the families, the two families were both wonderful, and had created an unlikely friendship. The BC family was well-educated and middle-class. BC was a politician in Colombia – which was a rarity for us – and he had an anti-FARC stance: a bold and dangerous platform to hold in Colombia. Thus, it is not surprising that the FARC would come to Quito to find him. The RS family, however, lived and worked on a farm. They had very little money, and neither RS nor his wife had been educated beyond 4th grade. I worked primarily with RS and his wife, and preparing people for an interview who had minimal reading skills presented new challenges for me, but it also was even more rewarding to seem them make progress in their preparation. The RS family had their first instance interview about two weeks ago, and we are still waiting to hear the result.
That Tuesday was an intense and high-pressure day, but at the end of the day, I at least felt assured that we had done all that we could for the two families and that they would be safe, at least for the time being. The following day, however, I did not go home with that same feeling. On Wednesday afternoon, one of our clients came into the office in tears. In the same day, her father had been put in jail, her brother-in-law had nearly been detained by the immigration police, and her brother had been missing since the previous day, which meant he was likely kidnapped because he had been kidnapped before. This family is the same family I wrote about in my previous entry: the father and son who had been reunited after the son had been kidnapped by the ELN for 14 months. Though I never could have thought it was possible, the son was kidnapped again, here in Quito. He went to work in the morning and never returned, which is precisely how the last kidnapping happened. The father was put in jail because his Ecuadorian landlord accused him of stealing. Someone had broken into her house and stole her TV and DVD player, and since – as with so many Ecuadorians, I regret to write about this stereotype – are very discriminatory towards Colombians, she automatically assumed it was the father and son. To give you a sense of how ridiculously unjust and prevalent the discrimination is towards Colombians, when the police came to the landlord’s home to take the father to jail, the police took all the official documents and papers from the father and gave them to the landlord, telling her she could keep them until her stolen goods had been returned. Despite the problems with the police system in the United States, I can’t imagine anything of the sort EVER happening there. We were able to get the father out of jail and get his papers back; and the brother-in-law, was lucky that when the immigration officers came to the restaurant he was working at and demanded his papers, they decided to ‘let him slide,’ but he could no longer work there.
We, again, exhausted our resources in advocating for this family – including going to the anti-kidnapping unit of the police that evening, where were told that since the family did not have any money, and since they were Colombian, they could not do anything for us. Plus, they weren’t convinced he actually was missing; despite the fact that he had already been kidnapped before. The mix of emotions that come up in these sorts of scenarios is not something anyone can really prepare for. Frustration, sadness, and fear are only the beginning, and seemed to be compounded by my exhaustion. I’ve never known anyone who’s disappeared before, but the inconclusiveness is wearing to say the least. After some rest and many tears, I began to feel better; but, for a while, I would walk through Quito and do double-takes at people’s faces, thinking I was seeing the son. We are putting pressure on UNHCR to resettle this family, though they have not been very responsive, and we are also trying to get connected with immigration lawyers in the states that might have ideas on how to get this family our of Ecuador. It is so clear, they simply are not safe here. Of course this time forced me to consider my own safety here in Quito. I know I am cautious, and I take more precautions than most (I recently started carrying pepper-spray with me) but I know I constantly have to remind myself to never feel too comfortable here, as there are things that happen here that I simply don’t see.
So this extraordinary week, and its aftereffects, was primarily what made the stretch or work so tough. But we also had a brand new set of volunteers – who wanted to be helpful but did not know how – and we were in the process of hiring a new Director, which became a seemingly never-ending process. Fortunately, the majority of these things have subsided. The new volunteers now have found their respective grooves, and they do just fine. I seem to be taking on more and more administrative and management roles, which I enjoy because it is interesting, but struggle with because it takes me away from working with clients, which is what is really what makes the work rewarding. And we hired a Director, though the transition coming up over the next few months is going to be tough! (More to come on this below)
And, following up from the last posting, the deaf-woman and her husband got refugee status! They came by the office last week to let us know, and I was so excited I sort of screamed when I found out. I think I was more excited than they were! They also came to give me a gift, a little box of chocolate cornflakes. We are not supposed to accept gifts, but when I tried to refuse, he looked deeply offended, so I had to accept it. They often don’t have money to take the bus to get to our office…I never thought I could be so touched by a box of cereal.
Otavalo, Peguche Falls, Mompiche
During those few weeks when things were tough at work, I hung around Quito during the weekends because I was just too exhausted to do much else. However, when I finally did make it out to a day trip to Otavalo, I felt rejuvenated, refreshed, and thrilled to be out of the city. A friend and I went to Otavalo, which is one of the most famous markets in all of South America and is about two hours from Quito. My friend, a 52-year-old Kiwi who just went back to New Zealand after teaching English in Ecuador for over a year, and I immersed ourselves in the seemingly endless rows of wool blankets, woven hammocks, alpaca sweaters, wood carvings, jewelry and any and everything else that makes this community one of the wealthiest indigenous groups in Ecuador. While I liked Otavalo, we tired of shopping fairly quickly and made our way to a waterfall nearby called Peguche falls. It was fabulous! There was a well-kept trail that lead us to a bridge right in front of the falls, where we were rinsed with the mist from the falls. A natural shower, nothing could be more refreshing.
And then, over the third weekend in June, I went with a random mix of people to a beach called Mompiche. (I’m trying my best to keep my promise to myself to go to the beach once a month…it is so accessable!) Mompiche is a small fishing village with hardly any tourists. We took an overnight bus and arrived in the morning, and it was strange how you could immediately get the sense that life moved at a slower pace there. I, again, played in the waves, got a bit sunburned, read a book, got to know the people I was traveling with, and went for a few long walks and runs on the coastline. I loved Mompiche. Even though it was quite different from the last beach I went to, Canoa – where there were many Ecuadorians on holiday, and a lively nightlife. Mompiche exudes tranquility (if that is even possible) and rarely is there anything to fuss about – except when the restaurants run out of plantains, fruit, or seafood; which did happened one evening. The best part about Mompiche, however, was a nearby beach called Playa Negra (literally, black beach). Fittingly, the sand is black, the turquoise waves are huge, there are hundreds of crabs scurrying around, and I had the BEST time swimming and jumping in the waves. People used to ask me if I preferred the mountains over the beach, and I never really knew, but I am sure now that it is the sea!
Otavalo - Terrorista?
And the rest
But it hasn’t been all work and weekend trips. I still feel I’m carving our a routine for myself here, and I seem to have no troubles finding things to do and people to hang with to occupy my time. I continue to take Spanish lessons, and my Spanish teacher has become a wonderful friend of mine. We usually meet at a coffee shop, go over my homework and just chat about nothing in particular, and pending the location of the coffee shop, he’ll give me a ride on his motorcycle – which is so fun! (Though I’m quite opposed to them and think they are very dangerous, I trust him and I’m never on it for more than 5 minutes.) Last weekend there was a birthday fiesta for him, and it was a blast. I was so grateful to be a part of an Ecuadorian party…it was MUCH more lively than any sort of birthday party I’ve been to in the states. Not to mention, I was literally sore the next day from dancing so much! And, in an attempt to bring in a little money, I was teaching English to a hilarious and animated 13-year-old boy for a few weeks in May. It was really fun, but I found it was just too much with work and everything else. So, I’m back to just my own Spanish and salsa classes now (and I’m sure to be very broke when I return to the states.) And while I’m not sure if I’m really improving all that much in my salsa lessons, it certainly is fun and a great workout, so I’ve decided to stick with it.
Liga Game 1
Liga Game 2
Near the end of May, I ran in a 15k race through the middle of Quito, and it was wild! I was in the middle of a sea of about 14,000 people, tromping from the beautiful old town of Quito up to the northern part of the city near my apartment. I was going pathetically slow, but I finished and quite enjoyed it as the demographics of the people who ran were fascinating to me. Of the 10,000 that were officially registered, 8,200 were men. And, I think the majority of the women I saw were foreigners. Women do play some sports here, but it is primarily aerobics or jogging. To my dismay, women generally do not play soccer. Apparently there are some teams on the coast, but not in Quito. The few times I’ve gone out with some of my guys friends to find a pick-up game to play, the guys often stare at me in disbelief that I might actually enjoy the sport also. Along these same lines, nearly a month ago I went to watch Quito’s soccer team, Liga, beat a Mexican team, Americas, in the quarterfinals of la Copa Libertadores. It was loud, rowdy, and everything you’d imagine a Latin American soccer game to be. My friend went early, so we had fabulous seats, right up front at half field. However, being so close turned out to not be the best place for my two 6 feet+ tall friends and myself to be standing, as when the fans behind us threw paper rolls and more onto the field, they were more likely to hit the back of our heads than make it to the field! Blasted height! Nonetheless, it gave us a good laugh. And, we had so much fun learning all the cheers from the Ecuadorians around us. And then, just last week, Liga won the entire tournament! It was the first time Ecuador has won an international cup, and I’m convinced no one in the city slept more than 3 hours that night.
(from the last beach trip to Canoa)
Canoa - Asi es la vida
A few weeks ago we had a huge party at our place – it was fabulously eclectic mix of foreign and Ecuadorian friends between my three roommates and I. And while I had fun, particularly when my roommates’ co-workers brought out their guitars and pan flutes to play some traditional Ecuadorian folk music – I also have remembered why I don’t have or go to huge parties all that often. There were two or three guys drinking and smoking in our living room for the next day and a half. Definitely not for me. I had recently been thinking that I’d like to be in my own place, and that sort of helped me make the decision. Shortly thereafter, I, conveniently, found out that my friend who lives in a flat on the top floor of our building, was leaving in a few weeks. Fingers crossed, I’ll be moving upstairs into my place where I’ll have a terrace and the option of spending time with my roommates downstairs, but without the hassle of sharing a place with three people. I think it will be perfect!
As for work, it is sort of the calm before the storm. The Director we had initially hired backed out at the last minute – for personal and professional reasons – and so we’ve hired someone else, but she does not have a background in Ecuadorian law, (her background is in public policy, which will be ASELER’s next steps), she will only work part-time, and she will not be able to start until August, three days before my boss leaves. In addition, all of our current volunteers – except for two who will be there part-time – will also leave at the beginning of August, and the next volunteers aren’t able to come until late August/early September. Hence, a storm is brewing! I’ll be getting a crash course in Ecuadorian refugee law over the next month before my boss leaves, and then I will be training the new director and new volunteers. I’m not sure when I’ll be sleeping in August, but I’m also looking forward to the challenge and recognize there is only so much one person can do, so I’m not too worried about it. I’ll do my best, and they can’t ask me for much more.
I’m off for a run in the park on a beautifully sunny day, and then I’m going to help with a seminar that we are giving on refugee rights in a barrio where many refugees live in the northeast of Quito. Oh, and as for everything with Ingrid Bentacourt, while it is amazing that they escaped; despite what many people may be speculating, I highly doubt that the FARC will be dismantled anytime soon…at least not before I leave in January, so there will be plenty of work to do! Thanks again for reading my post, and pretty please send along updates on your life and any thoughts you have from the post!
ps: if you want to donate to Asylum Access/ASELER, you can do so directly from their website. I'd be super grateful! Hopefully the stories from the blog give a sense of what you're money will be going towards...thanks!! http://www.asylumaccess.org/