Thank you, Matt Mleczko.
Thank you, Matt Mleczko.
That’s me. Matias. Or, at least that’s what I’m called at Aurora, la casa por ninos pobrecitos. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, since Luchito introduced me to all 50 or so of the kids as such. There really was no changing it after that, although I don’t think I want to. I like the sound of it.
The kids at Aurora are absolutely the greatest little people in the world. I love being around them so much, and despite the (diminishing) language barrier, they’re still absolutely hilarious. It doesn’t really seem like their sense of humor is the kind used as a defense mechanism, although they definitely go through enough to support that theory. But no, I think they’re really just that ignorantly blissful. They’re so strong, but not even deliberately so. Just strong in the way kids are, in a way that you couldn’t even call being strong. It’s just called life to them. They majority of them only have one parent–generally a mother–and a few don’t have any at all. Instead, they live with their older brothers, sisters, or some other relative. They’re of varying degrees of poor, and the fact that families here are incredibly large (having 5 to 8 siblings is a casual thing here) doesn’t do much to help it. I asked one of my newfound Ecuadorian friends (they shall be introduced later) why parents keep having kids when they clearly can hardly afford to live themselves, and he responded with one word: Catholicism. A lot of people don’t believe in contraception, and with that on top of the developing country population growth theory–definitely not the technical term for it–families are huge. The theory is based on the fact that people in undeveloped countries have a lot of kids to both work to sustain the family, and with the presumption that some kids will inevitably die from disease, famine, or some sort of conflict. Those in developed countries don’t have so many kids because they don’t need to, and moreover don’t have the time to. But in a developing country, healthcare is tremendously improved (relatively speaking), among other things, and kids are more likely to live because of the improved conditions. Despite this, people are still used to having so many kids, and it takes a while to phase that out of the culture, and therefore there is large population growth. So right now, Ecuador is developing. It’s a third world country, and while Cuenca is one of the richest cities in the country, there are still a ton of poor people here. Poor people with a ton of kids, and therefore few resources to help them out. And the rich people are mega wealthy here, but in the States they’d be pretty middle-income. It’s all relative.
Despite all of this, these kids are the seemingly happiest children I’ve ever met. But I’m hesitating to take the seemingly out of that sentence. I ask kids where they were the day before since they were absent, and they tell me they were selling goods in the market. I ask Josselina how she got such a horribly infected burn on her entire left foot, and she gets really shy and stops climbing all over me to instead sit in a chair quietly (she has since seen a doctor, gotten medicine, and looks so much better even days after. Whew.) Others–boys and girls alike, from ages 4 to 12 years old–will never let go of my hand once they get a hold of it or let me put them down when I pick them up because they crave loving attention that much. Or at least this is how the resident psychologist describes it, Marcello, one of the greatest men I’ve met in Ecuador thus far. So I say they’re happy and hilarious and so much fun to be around, but between all the lines you can see their pain. For many, the meal they eat at Aurora is the only meal they get to eat each day, which makes me worry about them on the weekends when Aurora is closed. They fill me with energy and life when I walk through the doors each day and their stories simultaneously break my heart. I was walking through the market with a few of the kids yesterday since we all got there a bit early–my favorites, if I were to play favorites– and we passed a man selling ice cream and I bought the five of them ice cream cones. It cost me $1.25, but they were all so excited they started hopping up and down and wouldn’t stop talking about it and thanking me all evening. I walk these five brothers, sisters, and cousins home most evenings, and the walk is one of my favorite parts. They’re clearly incredibly comfortable walking the streets at night alone, but I like being there nonetheless. It comforts me to know they’re getting home safe, and they always seem so excited to show off their city and where they live. Luchito, the director of Aurora, cautioned me against walking them home. He said they would get too comfortable with me, and when I left they wouldn’t know how to handle themselves. Yes, he said, the streets are dangerous, especially at night. Yes, four year old boys and girls shouldn’t be walking the streets without an adult, even if their ten year old brother who is more mature than most twenty year olds I know is right there with them. But they have no choice, because that’s life and that’s what they have to deal with. I argued with him as politely and coherently as I could that it wasn’t their only choice, at least not now. If he thought it was dangerous for them to walk home alone, and Aurora couldn’t afford to shuttle them, I would walk as many as I could. They’d be walking alone some other time, sure, but at least for that mile or so they would be safer. This was how I figured. It wasn’t too hard to be polite, either. I only know polite, neutral, and ultra-vulgar words and phrases in Spanish. It’s easy to avoid saying “vete a la verga” or “concha de tu madre” to a fifty some year old man who is clearly in love with each and every one of these kids (look those up yourself). Plus, I’m a white American with basically zero perspective, and I don’t want to impose myself in the way that leaves many foreigners hating Americans. My friend made some great points, though, when I mentioned this debacle to her:
“I know your first world ‘what the hell are these kids doing out by themselves at this hour in this kind of neighborhood’ thing is kicking in. And ya know, you’re right, it’s probably not extremely safe for them to walk home alone. However, they are very poor kids that are familiar with the neighborhood and the neighborhood is very familiar with them. They are not as much of a target as you would think. Plus, 5 year olds there are normally way beyond the maturity level of people our age here. Basically, be careful, you are way more of a target and make sure you don’t endanger the kids by doing that. You are so out of place there that you need to be able to work well with everyone before you start to swim against the current”
So that’s an excellent point. Luchito said the same thing out to me, but eventually figured that the benefits outweighed the costs in certain circumstances. Cuenca is a fairly safe city, especially compared to the rest of Ecuador, and even moreso the rest of South America. In all likelihood, the kids would be coming back the next day just fine. But, nonetheless, we agreed that if we got out late, and it was dark out, I would walk them home. It if was light, I wouldn’t. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m conflicted, because I have such different ways of looking at things, or at least I feel I do, and I’m told I do. I’m trying my best to help these kids as much as possible, but I don’t want to end up hurting them with my good intentions, ignorance, and naivety. I’m learning, though, and I’m trying my best to do as much as I can. Ricardo was right–humility really is the key to everything here. I just read this over, and it sounds so disgustingly cliche-first world idealist kid visits third-world country, and I would have scoffed at myself a month ago. Maybe not scoffed, but at least rolled my eyes and what comes off as a bit melodramatic. Maybe it is a bit melodramatic, but nonetheless, it’s much different when you see everything first hand. You don’t understand that there are hungry kids out there until you’re handing them their only meal of the day.
The kids are my favorite part of my day, hands down. I wish Aurora were open earlier, so I could spend more time there. But it’s not, so I’m looking for more opportunities to occupy the abundance of free time I have. It’s really great to have so much autonomy, and the time to just sit and relax and read some Hemingway is something I’ve been looking forward to since I opened my first book this last semester. But now that I’m finally here, I’ve found that I’ve been a bit lonely. I wasn’t expecting that. I really hate admitting it too, since I’m in Ecuador and I’m so excited to be here and this is an opportunity I’ve been dreaming about since early freshman year. I debated with my friends at four am in the Witte 3B den whether Thailand, Buenos Aires, or Morocco would be a better choice for this summer, and spoke on the phone with countless organizations about alternative breaks and volunteering/living abroad. I clearly decided on none, and chose to go solo to Cuenca, Ecuador. But it was pretty easy packing everything up, and the days walking up to my flight on May 28th were all pretty easy, and actually really exciting. That is, until I had to say goodbye to my roommates, my best friends, and of course my family. The goodbyes were a lot harder than I thought they would be. I mean, I’m coming back in September. Chill. But during my time here when I’m not hanging out with Tere, Mark, or the other volunteers, I find myself twiddling my thumbs, feeling just a bit hollow without everybody I love and have grown so accustomed to having around. Don’t get me wrong. I love Cuenca, and I haven’t regretted my decision to come here for a second. Walking for 9 hours and however many miles around the city, to Turi (see background picture of this blog), and anywhere else I felt I should explore, though, would have been a bit nicer with somebody else. I’ve decided this is just the transition phase of moving anywhere alone, and the homesickness has really only been under the surface, barely noticeable beneath the excitement of being here. Though notable nonetheless. It probably would be a lot more difficult if I moved somewhere else in the States, since this is so exotic to me and if there’s nothing else to do I can walk into a bar and strike up a conversation with whomever happens to be sitting next to me in order to practice my Spanish and make friends (I have two now. Score.). Bars and coffee shops are perfect, because once I sit down next to somebody, I find that we immediately have something in common. You like beer? What? Me too! You like coffee? Let me tell you about my addiction. It’s like we’re already 80% Matt friends by the time I walk in the door. The fact that the language is different here has been wonderfully occupying, too, since I can spend a few hours watching Buscando Nemo, or drinking a Pilsner (the national beer) as I read through the regional and city newspapers in whatever place seems interesting as I pass by it. This is all, of course, besides the time I spend at Aurora. I’m going to be starting at an orphanage soon, too, in the mornings. That’s going to be interesting, because the munjas (nuns) who run it are apparently super unpleasant, and don’t really treat the kids well. I’m intrigued, and am looking forward to starting. I may hate it, but I don’t see myself leaving. In fact, the worse it is, the more likely I feel I am going to stay. Unless the nuns kick me out, which could very well happen if I yell at them for being mean to the kids. I hear they hit them. Munjas don’t have the greatest reputation here. I’m going to give them a chance, for reasons my mother very astutely pointed out, but my expectations are low.
But yeah, that’s how I’ve occupied myself lately. Attempting to go on a run to Turi–failing miserably, almost dying as I gasped for what little oxygen lingers in the mountains (I was just told it takes three months to fully acclimate. How convenient.), and deciding to walk there the next day–exploring, and befriending and subsequently going out for drinks with the young security guard at my building and the owner of the restaurant across from the street from Aurora, Rene and David (pronounced Dahveed). They’re both two of the nicest people I’ve met in my life, and have really interesting and different stories. Both are 27. Rene clearly comes from a lower-income family, is one of 8, and makes about 400 dollars a month working between 45 and 60 hours a week. Minimum wage in Ecuador, full-time, is something like 350 a month, or according to David 80 cents an hour if paid hourly. Rene’s trying really hard to learn English as to get a better job when he finishes his studies to become a computer engineer, and surprisingly expressed interest in joining the US military to get school paid for in the US. I don’t know where he heard of that idea, but I suppose it’s an option for him. As he says, though, he needs to learn English first. We’ve been swapping English and Spanish lessons, and are planning a trip to the Amazon in a few weeks. More on that to come.
David comes from a very wealthy family, but is probably one of the most down to earth, happiest guys I’ve ever met. He actually used to be one of Tere’s English students, but quit those studies to go to school to become a chef, and soon after open La Casa del Centro, his international food restaurant. He’s a phenomenal cook, has two little girls–Julliana turned 1 today, and Isabella turns five at the end of August–and his wife, Ela, has traveled all over Europe and lived in Boston for a few months when she was younger. I met the rest of his family today at his daughter’s birthday party at his restaurant, and they’re all wonderful. I haven’t found one Ecuadorian I haven’t liked. There’s bound to be one sooner or later, but I’m really feeling this so far. Ela’s great with languages. I was told David sucks–just abysmal–but Ela says that’s preferable because it gives her something to be better at, given his culinary prowess. I’m ok with it. I prefer speaking Spanish, anyways. While I’m nowhere close to being a competent Spanish speaker, I can hold a full conversation about really anything. I find myself smiling like an idiot in the middle of conversations when I find myself understanding everything as if it were English, without translating it in my head. These moments are pretty infrequent still, but that makes them that much more exciting when they occur. Unless, of course, it happens when were talking about something serious, like poverty or something. It’s a little awkward then, and I have to explain why I start laughing after I’m told about the homeless children in Guayaquil or all of the Colombian refugees. That’s a little uncomfortable.
I have no idea what I’m going to be doing this next weekend, although I’ll probably go out with my volunteer friends again and their host families and see the crazy side of Cuenca that these English, Scottish, and Canadian kids on the gap year have been living since September. We went to a few clubs last Thursday, and if each weekend is half as eventful as the last one, I don’t know if I’m going to last. More on all of this to come. Until then, enjoy a few of the nearly hundred wonderful pictures taken (mostly) by the little girls who stole my camera.
After a year and a half of dreaming and planning and the inevitable chaos of getting to Cuenca, I finally made it. I’m set up in my own apartment just outside of the old, colonial city center. The difference between my neighborhood and the center is like that of San Juan Viejo and San Juan, if that means anything to anybody. So therefore, the city center is where I would rather be, and will be an unspecified amount of time. I’m in a condo in what the locals call gringolandia (Gringo Land), and the set up is unexpectedly luxurious. I mean, granite counter tops, wood floors, a multi-feature shower and a plasma screen TV are nice and all, but really all I need is a tin/glass roof and sufficient enough plumbing. And that last part is debatable. In an unspecified period, though, I’ll be moving to an apartment in the middle of the city, only a couple of blocks from the city center and grand cathedral. The center reminds me so much of Florence, at least of Il Duomo. Jess has told me that I’m going to get the South American fever, and my euro-trekking days are over. I’m starting to believe that’s true, although I have yet to actually do any substantial European travel. I think Morocco will be a very nice compromise, and I’m planning on that one next. I graduate in December, so you can all expect Part II–Rabat, Morocco to come in February, give or take a few months. Or France, or Andalucia, Spain. There are just so many places. I think my bank account may decide where I end up going, but money can always be made. I feel as long as I have the drive to go, I’ll find a way to get there. I have no doubts.
My trip began in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport just before 7:00 AM on May, 28th 2013. Dad did me the great favor of waking up at 4:45 AM to drive me down there, and it was really great to spend the two hours or so in the car with him as I we drove down there. I miss him, my mother, and all of my family. Not to mention my friends. It’s a strange feeling, though. I picture myself as a dot on the map and I’m constantly surprised to realize that I’m on the other side of the world, a couple hundred kilometers south of the equator. I miss everybody, but even though the language is different and the city is so far removed from life in Madison, I feel like I haven’t traveled very far. It’s like I’m spending the summer in some super ethnic part of South Milwaukee. A part with sporadic water access, police who don’t really seem care too much about what happens, ever, and kids who stare at you because you’re a weird. And by weird, I mean a blond haired, blue eyed, and pale as hell American. I’m working on my tan, though. No te preocupes. I’ll be looking like a local in no time at all.
In Chicago I met a Costa Rican pastor named Juan. He was making his way through security and doesn’t speak a lick of English, and I of course jumped at the unsolicited opportunity to translate as much as I could between the bumbling TSA officer and Juan. Juan is also the mayor of his town in northern Costa Rica. We struck up further conversation on the plane, and once he found out I was a political science and international studies student he started speaking incredibly fast about the political situation in South and Latin America, specifically about Venezuela and what’s happening post-Chavez. I was sitting there with what I assume was an incredibly blank stare and just nodded when I felt it was appropriate. I responded with something to do with Iran, and freedom, oil, and neoliberalism in what, in hindsight, must have been some of the most generic poorly spoken Spanish bullshit he’s ever heard. But then we talked about our families and lives and Middle Eastern conflicts and the EU, all things I’m very comfortable talking about. It was fascinating conversation, and I’m so happy I worked up the nerve after two hours on the plane to start talking to him. We exchanged contact info and I met his family at the gate in Panama City (which is apparently always humid and rainy and sticky…I would have hated to have built the Canal) and promised to see each other in our respective homes when we get the chance. I don’t know if he was just being polite, but I’m going to go knocking on his door for a warm meal and a cup of coffee the next chance I get whether he was serious or not. Juan, if you can read this, you’re welcome at my home as well. I’ll get the French Press started.
When I was flying to Florence last year I had the pleasure of sitting next to one of the greatest Chicagoans I’ve ever met. His name was Renoir. We talked for probably six hours en route to our layover in Zürich, and talked about everything from the Packer-Bears rivalry to income and race inequality in Chicago and what it was like to grow up as a rich black man of a single mother with friends in the Robert Taylor Housing Projects, which have since been razed, all the while taking advantage of Swiss Air’s free alcohol policy as much as our bodies–and more importantly, flight attendants–would allow (for more information on the RTHP, check out the book Gang Leader for Day. I hated the class I had to read it for, but it was such an incredible read. Check it out. Really. I have it in my giant bag of books at home if anybody wants to borrow it.). Renoir directed me through the Zurich airport to my flight and made sure I was on track to get where I was going, after which he departed for his flight to Rome. On the second plane I met another incredible French woman named Audrey, to whom I am incredibly grateful for going through flight and city changes and bus rides from Pisa to Florence with me. We both spoke the same amount of Italian (next to nothing), but with my Spanish, her French, and our Italian/English we were able to make it to our destinations safely. This was, however, only after my first Italian glass of wine and shot of espresso. And with a French woman nonetheless. I love travelling. She should also be expecting a knock on her door some day soon. France may be next on my list. Some local guidance could be of great service.
The above was an incredibly long-winded, Matt Mleczko style way of introducing my new friends Danny and Pablo, two businessmen from Chicago (is this a theme starting?) and Guayaquil of 52 and 29, respectively. Pablo is a two meter Ecuadorian bachelor (if anybody isn’t familiar with Ecuadorian people, this is about as common as Yao Ming in China) Like Renoir and Audrey, these guys were lifesavers. I am so happy and lucky I connected with Danny on the plane to Panama and again in the duty-free liquor store as we both salivated over whiskey and scotch. With the help of these two guys and another man named Enrique, a young lawyer from Honduras in Guayaquil to work on a case involving a dispute in the city’s port, I was able to make it to the bus station a few miles from the airport. Pablo and Danny took me to the pre-paid phone store to buy a phone to contact Tere for my final leg to the apartment I sit in as I write this, and after drove me to the bus station and helped me get a ticket for the bus to Cuenca. Pablo’s local knowledge and their use of Spanish showed me I have so much to learn, and without people like these I’d probably be holed up in some hotel in Guayaquil wondering what to do next as I bled my limited funds. On top of all of this help, these guys checked up on me constantly as I drove the deathly fast and winding route throughout the mountains and were able to contact my parents for me when I was unable to place a call to them with my calling cards. If travelling has taught me anything, it’s that there are always people out there who have your back. The opposite is unbelievably true as well, but few people really like to see a dead white kid laying in the gutter with a knife in his abdomen. That being said, I’m going to continue to operate with the guarded optimistic view that there will always be a friend around when you need one. You just have to know where to look. Cheesy, (or as Brynna would say, cheesy cornballs) yet true nonetheless.
To further reinforce this point, I’m going to tell another (somewhat tangential) story about when I got lost in what I was told was the worst neighborhood of Florence at 1:30 in the morning some 9 kilometers from where I was camping (yes, I was camping in a tent alone on a mountain in Italy that night. It was awesome. And cold. I recommend it.). Apparently the buses in Florence have a different route for their last stop, which I really wish I had known before I left Mariana and her English businessman friend at the bar in Italy with the UW-Madison Witte Hall shirt on the ceiling, among other college shirts. Mary, you’ll have to help me out with the name of this place. Jordan bought like 3o t-shirts worth of drinks here, if that helps. Anyways, I left them, took the bus, got lost in conversation with some Tunisian men (who I think were illegal, but that made their story that much more interesting), and before I knew it I was far outside of Florence and lost with Gypsies all around me looking at me funny and yelling at me in Italian. When I told the bus driver where I needed to go he looked at me with the most discouragingly worried eyes I probably would have panicked if I hadn’t already thought I was facing my death in Brussels, Belgium, days before, where I also met a fantastic Pakistani and Afghani who were able to walk me from Mollenbeek to my hostel. Just another example of the dead horse I’m currently beating. In Florence I was able to find a cab number and get picked up by a guy who, at the end of my trip, got out of the car and kissed me on both cheeks and asked me to return to Florence as soon as I could. He gave me his card, and only accepted half of the designated fare. Like I said, people help you out when you’re in trouble. Just another excuse to leave my safe Madison apartment and the idea of settling behind in pursuit of hand-picked mangoes and views of the big dipper atop Ecuadorian mountains.
After four and a half hours of a bumpy, fast, and winding bus ride I finally arrived in Cuenca, and met up with my new best friends and host parents, Tere and Mark. Tere is the sweetest, tiniest Ecuadorian woman who made me feel right at home with an enormous hug too strong to come from a woman of her size and the endearing goodnight words of “Ahh, finalmente, tengo un otro hijo amar” (Ahh, finally, i have another son to love). After the chaos of the day and body aches which I’m not sure are from the altitude or the flu which I may have contracted from a week’s and probably 200 packs of cigarette’s worth of hookah with Rakan and others, I practically crumpled right then and there. And I’m not even a little bit ashamed of this blatant showing of emotion.
Tere and Mark set me up in Mark’s ritzy apartment with granite countertops, surround sound, flat screen TV, wood floors, and the most spectacular view of I’ve ever woken up to. I’m spoiled, or as I learned from Tere today, mimado (just one of the many Spanish words I have been and will be cramming in my head…the picture’s attached at the bottom). Mark is as eccentric as he is fantastic, and the long talks I have with him and his hilariously American accented, muddled Spanish has been one of my favorite parts of Ecuador thus far. He’s an archaeologist from the American west, and retired down here to fulfill his life-long goal of becoming fluent in a second language. He ended up falling in love with his Spanish teacher, married her, and figured that was more than enough to self-actualize. He’s a fascinating guy. I’ll be grabbing a beer with him this weekend at the strip along the river where younger Ecuadorians hang out. There are a bunch of bars and discotecas there, and the river is not deep or big enough to fall in and drown as sporadically happens in La Crosse (puedes dormir bien, mama).
Today, Tere took me all throughout Cuenca and showed me everything there was to see, although I’m going to need to wander aimlessly for many hours more before I get a good feel for the streets here. The weather is generally in the 70s or 80s in the early afternoon, and the heat washes away with daily rainfall between 2:00 and 5:00 PM, after which it is about 50 to 70 degrees, depending on the time. The weather makes for perfect daytime walking and gallivanting and even better sleeping conditions. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect climate, or a better situation altogether. Tere and Mark have been godsends, and everybody I’ve met thus far have been more welcoming than I could have dreamed. I have the opportunity tomorrow to talk to a Spanish woman from Sevilla, too, who has spent a fair amount of time in Morocco. Could these first couple of days get any better? I hope the rest of the summer continues in the same fashion.
I’ll be spending my first day at the orphanage tomorrow, and I’ll get to know hopefully some of the seventy kids that unfortunately call it their home. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing there, but I can’t wait to find out that and these kids’ stories. It’s certainly going to be a humbling experience, although I feel I may learn more from them than they will from me. But I suppose that was a given. My International Studies adviser told me the key to having success down here was humility and a willingness to help in any way possible. Taking his advice to heart, we’ll see how everything goes tomorrow.
Until then, buenas noches, amigos. Se hecho de menos mucho.