Friday, 15 February 2013

San Mateo's Children

Children from the Palo Santo Barrio are never very far from the house. If we happen to leave the front door open to cool off the house, within a few minutes a child will wander in. Often in twos and threes they come in, asking for Mary or Mauro. Can we play a game? Do you have change? Can I have some cheese? The most common request is, “May we have dinner with you tonight?”

           On Saturday afternoons the hordes invade the living room, pull out games, sometimes books. Vanessa and Genesis begged me to join them in a game of memory. My pigeon Spanish was no barrier. Of course with their young memories they beat me badly. I was struck by how well the kids play without any supervision, a minimum of quarrelling, delighting in even a set of building blocks. Watch them now! At home, they have no computers, internet or video games. The only electronic gizmo is a flickering TV. They know how to play in simple ways. At 5pm, Mauro walks in and tells them to beat it. They put the games away in the chest and leave.

Our evening, live entertainment. We don't need a TV. Often a line of kids demonstrate their acrobatics.

What sort of homes do they go back to? Some have good homes with parents who take good care for them. But many find that the kids are in the way, and would as soon dispose of them. And they sometimes do. You can recognize those kids by the way they cling to you, want to hang around you in the evening  while you’re sitting on the porch. A while back, the mother of several children asked Mary if she’d like to just keep her children for good. That way the mother could make more money, as a prostitute. “Certainly not. They’re your responsibility,” Mary replied.

 Usually you can spot those kids  wandering around the barrio, when they should be at school. Mauro impresses on them about the importance of going to school, but they don’t see the point. Their dad tells them that he never learned to read or write, and that didn’t stop him from catching fish. What good are books anyway? In San Mateo there are no news-stands, books or magazines for sale. No one wears eye glasses either. If you want to stand out in a crowd, put on your glasses. You'll be the only one.

Is dinner ready yet?

Mary meets regularly with the women of the barrio. They talk about child raising, how to speak to a child, that you never beat a child, or harm one. What to feed them so that they grow up healthy. Those matters should be obvious to any parent but generations of undesirable behaviour patterns need to be overcome. One mother didn’t find it abnormal to punish her daughter by burning her hand.

One evening while I was watching the southern stars, stars not visible from Scotland, Ursula (8) and Vanessa (12) joined us. They stared, dumbfounded while I showed them Jupiter, Sirius, Canopus. And then, through the binoculars, the Orion nebula. They had more questions for me than my poor Spanish could handle. As with all children who haven’t been spoiled by modern civilization, they had a boundless curiosity about everything. And yet, at school they learned nothing. After eight years there they were still illiterate. Apparently the teachers are not too motivated to do their jobs either.

Mauro is certainly the grandfather they never knew. He reads to them, tells them stories, plays with them. For older children he screens thought provoking films, and holds discussions about them. Like a pied piper, wherever he goes several children trail behind.

Young guys about to distribute cakes to the neighborhood.

 They all want to have dinner with us. Every evening three or four join us for a simple fare of soup, fish, or pasta --- whatever Mary prepares, along with  two jugs of fruit juice, freshly squeezed. Used to unexpected guests, she knows how to make the pot a bit bigger at a moment’s notice. Like Trappists, we eat in silence. The children shovel the food away as if someone is chasing them. I never heard a word of complaint, or any child begging for anything that was not on the table. And no matter how bland the soup, or uninteresting the rice might be, every teaspoon is licked up. Of course, we know what this means. Their thin, small bodies tell their story.

Any stray children are put to work. Folding the laundry.

After dinner they beg Mauro for a fable. He knows hundreds and no matter how many times he’s told the fable they want it repeated. Both the story and its moral.

 If there’s any hope that San Mateo will pull itself out of disease and poverty, that hope lies in those children and in their children. Whether they will continue along the road of their forbears, a road to nowhere, or they will find a different one. As I watch them play, talk with them, watch them raise money by making candles or baking cakes, I have every reason to believe that their future will be different. Brighter.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Women of the Savannah

The day I arrived in San Mateo it rained --- the first time in a year. Within a week plants sprouted from the earth, shoots sprang from bare branches and flowers opened. Anyone who sowed watermelons would be rewarded. But in the town, everyone cursed the rain, as it meant mud, water coming in through leaky roofs, cars getting stuck. They saw no advantage to rain.

San Mateo used to have more rain. Outside the city people grew maize, watermelons and vegetables to support themselves. Then for the past twelve years the rains no longer came regularly. Call it climate change. The name doesn’t change the reality. For many people a way of life changed. I saw it the afternoon I followed Mary to visit the women of the savannah. Our close friends Ermica and her daughter, of Ecuador’s mountain people, also came along .

  A faint path took us through a landscape growing greener by the day, past steep gulleys, and down a winding path to a green valley below.

We passed several feral goats that had given birth only a few weeks earlier, and were taking advantage of the green shoots.

Rosita’s house rises on stilts, above a dusty patch where the goats roam. She doesn’t seem to mind the clutter inside the house. She saves her energy for the goats. Each goat is like a small bank account. Mary handed her a couple of bags of lentils. Rosita thanked her, shaking the bags. There was no need for a diabetes or blood pressure test, as Rosita was the image of health.


Rosita and Ermica

“But I’m not beautiful,” she said when I asked to take her picture. To me she was beautiful, full of strength and a zest for life. At 80, she lived alone in the bamboo house, raised her goats. She has a daughter in the barrio who she occasionally visits, but the savannah is where she belongs.

The couple that lived in the next house had only each other for company. They kept their house clean, beautifully decorated. They worked hard for their way of life and enjoyed it. Yet nothing was easy. The pig they kept supported them, as did the chickens but I had no idea where the rest of their income came from. I sensed that they took advantage of whatever opportunity came their way. They also looked in regularly on Rosita.


A beautiful house, but not necessarily durable.
Bamboo houses have a lifetime of less than ten years.

Next door, two women lived in a house that Mauro built for them.  Mary brought a book with nature pictures for Elena.

 With her calloused fingers, Elena turned the pages, delighting in every picture.  After her accident she could no longer walk or stand. Until now, her livelihood was mining gypsum. With her bare fingers. She would climb a steep shale slope to a gypsum vein, loosen it with a few strokes of the pick axe, and then sift the shale with her hands to find a few gypsum pieces. A sack of gypsum would fetch her $3. Now, only her friend could work the hill side.

Traditional cooking over fire: rice lentils and a stew. 

That day several family members were visiting. A large meal cooked over the fire stove. For Elena and her friend this was a big day, as the family didn’t come that often. Also she had received her picture book.

We continued down a path that eventually took us to the beach. On the way we passed several empty houses, each with a patch of fallow land. Before the seasonal rains stopped, maize, squashes and melons grew there. Women worked the fields and didn’t have survive only on gypsum.

The pocket knife points to the gypsum veins that fill fracture zones. A large amount of rock needs to be sifted to extract the gypsum.

Climate change? This year we’re feeling the effects in the UK, in the extreme weather patterns. Luckily our insurance and government funds pay for flood damage. In Ecuador, which straddles the equator, the effects of climate change have been felt for over a decade. Especially in fragile communities like San Mateo.  For people living so close to the land, the lack of rain forced many families to move to the town, but not necessarily to a better life.


A wayside chapel in the savannah valley. Also abandoned.

Next: San Mateo’s Children

Thursday, 7 February 2013

San Mateo's Back Alleys

San Mateo, Ecuador. The view from the street is of a freshly-painted grocery store front , the manicured church on the hill, simple houses. The hurried tourist would note that house windows aren't covered by burglar bars, unlike in other Ecuadoran cities. Children, mostly clean and well dressed, play in the streets with no one to watch over them.

But to see the story behind the outward fa├žade, you have to enter the back alleys, and that’s where Mary led me one morning.

I met her after her early morning duties at the diabetic clinic. She packed a diabetes tester, insulin jars and her blood pressure tester. From a tin she grabbed some $10 bills and stuck them in her pocket.

As we walked down the main street she greeted everyone with a “Buenas Dias”. They all knew her. A woman stopped her and told the story of her children, growing fast. Did Mary have any spare clothes? My sister promised to see what she could do.

 We turned into a narrow alley. Grey water seeped into it from plastic pipes. The bright green algae on the pavement made the surface slippery. The alleyway opened into a courtyard with several houses. The one  facing us had cracked walls, a hole for a window and a metal door. Mary shouted, “Permitte! Ave!” From within a faint voice replied. We entered a dim room.

A woman was sitting in a chair. Mary introduced me as “mi hermano” , as if I was royalty. Her husband lay on his bed watching television. Two children ran in circles. Mary asked the woman about her health; about her life. She pricked the woman’s finger. A tester strip soaked up a drop of blood. It contained 300 units of sugar, twice what was normal. The woman swore that she’d taken her insulin. Mary doubted it. She asked to see the insulin. While she held the bottle, she asked the woman what they ate in the house. Fried banana, fried fish and rice; what most people could afford. What about vegetables? The woman said that she tried some vegetables but didn't like them.

Down another alley we came to a family who had just moved in. Mercedes, a young mother with two small children, greeted us. A man of around twenty lay in his bed in front of a flickering television. The small finger on one hand was split open. Badly swollen. When Mary asked how he was doing, Mercedes said that he’d be fine and would soon return to fishing. The children looked on while Mary examined the hand.

She told Mercedes that her son must go immediately to Manta to see a doctor and get antibiotics, or he could lose a finger. Mercedes protested that the doctor wasn't necessary. The boy would be fine. After a lengthy standoff, of words that flew so fast that my rudimentary Spanish didn’t parse them, Mercedes agreed to take the boy to Manta. Mary thrust a $10 note in her hand to seal the deal.

Up another narrow alley we found a house with cracked walls whose cement and plaster were falling off. Fifty years earlier, the builders had opted for a cheap solution of mixing cement using sea sand. Now the residents had to deal with the consequences.

 Inside the house water dripped from long fissures in the ceiling. A man sat on the balcony. In her buoyant voice, Mary asked how he was that day. The man nodded, but otherwise could not move. His wife answered that he was as before. Mary took his blood pressure, fortunately normal that day. She talked to his wife about the leaking roof, prices of vegetables and food. Before we left, Mary slipped the woman $20; said to her, “Se pase bien.” (the local expression for , 'take care'.)

“She’s a good woman,” Mary said. “Her husband used to be a trader, quite well off. He chased other women all his life, but then his wealth evaporated. He had a stroke, and the woman he never paid attention to, took care of him. She has no income. She has absolutely nothing.”

Alfredo has diabetes. The bed where we found him looked like one that Mauro made. Not content with building houses, he also builds beds and gives them to people who otherwise would be sleeping on the floor. While Mary measured Alfredo's  blood sugar, I watched his wife weave a Panama hat. Her fingers moved in and out of the natural twine, like a blur. Hundreds of women up and down the coast wove those hats, taking a week to finish one. A good hat might sell for $100, of which the weaver would receive a fraction.

Weaving a Panama hat

After a longer walk down muddy pathways we reached a house on stilts, at the edge of a steep gully  Rubbish filled an empty garden space. Inside we found a young woman who could barely move because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Her husband was out on the boat. She told Mary that he drank a lot. This was the second marriage for both of them. She used to cook over a fire --- several burning branches in a bucket, until the Barrio kids raised the money to buy her a stove top and propane cylinder. While we talked to her, her teenage son lay on his bed (made by Mauro). He played a game while watching TV. “Tomorrow afternoon, you must send him to the clinic to fetch you pain medicine,” Mary told her.

A stove and propane bottle bought by the local teens.

“He doesn’t like to run errands,” said the woman.

“He must do it,” Mary told her.

This family lives in a bamboo house. They keep doves for the eggs.

We visited many others, all people who lived on the edge of life. So many that the faces began to blend.

As we turned toward home, Mary stopped at a small grocery shop, asked the man working there if she could go up and see Don Ricardo. The man nodded. Opening a metal door we climbed the concrete stairs. A stench of urine hit us as we entered the upper room. Don Ricardo, emaciated, and deathly pale sat on his crumpled sheets. At least three bowls of unfinished lentils and rice lay on the bed, scraps of moldy bread and litter everywhere. I wasn't sure if the stench or sorrow were the stronger. Mary sat beside him. For several minutes she held his hand. There was nothing to say. Apparently the man in the store below was his son. But he had his life to look after, didn't he?

Two days later Mary rounded up a couple of women and came over to clean out the Augean stable. For a few more days Don Ricardo would live with a modicum of dignity. But he was only one of many in the town, forgotten by his closest family.

Our final stop that day took us into a house with a stillborn baby. It lay on a cushion, surrounded by burning candles. The entire family had come together that morning, except the mother who was still in hospital. All told about fifteen people. Mary talked at length with the grandmother. Others sat in chairs not saying much. Despite the sorrow, an overwhelming peace permeated the room. I learned that the mother had a short liaison with a fisherman. When he learned that she was pregnant, he left her. Her family stepped in and supported her throughout the pregnancy. No one knew what went wrong at the birth. In the midst of the tragedy, the family solidarity gave one more hope  than in any of the other houses.

That day I met poverty on a scale you don’t see in the UK. unless it hits the evening news. We were only able to help a few people. There were many others living down back alleys. At the root of the poverty wasn’t a lack of money. To clean up a littered garden and plant a few trees takes little money. Somehow the people could not see new possibilities, the way out of their poverty. Probably because it required changes in diet, work, family commitments and lifestyle.

 The fishermen could not see that the new harbour waited for their boats along with splendid facilities for their catch. Instead, they still landed their boats on the same old beach because they’d always done it that way.

Next: The Women of the Savannah

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Land of the Albatross

For the next four blog entries, we leave the shivering winter-scapes of Scotland for a much warmer and sunnier place, San Mateo on Ecuador's west coast.

San Mateo is not much of a tourist destination, even though the beach would make you believe you’re on California’s Zuma beach, only without all the people or traffic. Albatrosses wheel overhead. Pelicans skim above the surf, sometimes six foot high. High sandstone cliffs frame the endless beaches. Where are the surfers?


Walking to the fishing village you pass through a desert savannah of sandalwood and dry shrubs. As in California a few inches of rain fall once a year in February to March. Green shoots sprout from the ground, from trees you thought were dead. Within two weeks the hills turn green. You’ll find more kinds of birds than you can count: green and red breasted parrots, seabirds, vultures. An ornithologist’s Mecca.


Maria-Theresa, Juan, and Mary

Upon reaching San Mateo village any comparison to California becomes fantastical. Fishing boats are parked by dilapidated houses. Some have a wall or roof missing. Many have a dirt floor. The people live on the edge, own next to nothing, but always a television. They barely eke out a living from the fish the catch. The better off have their own boat from which they cast lines with hooks. Many others hitch a ride on a boat and work for a share of the proceeds. Often boats return from sea with no catch. Some houses have a small piece of land but it’s rarely cultivated. San Mateo has a one track existence, and it’s fish.

The beach where the fishermen bring their boats. Last year San Mateo built a new harbour, but the men still use the old beach. It's more familiar.

Well-to-do and not so well-to-do side by side.

Water is scarce. It’s trucked in from Manta, Ecuador’s fourth largest city about six miles away and dumped into each house’s reservoir. Sewer systems? Gray water seeps into alleyways and streets. The pipes connecting houses with Manta are usually empty.  Once a month a cry is passed from house to house, “The water’s coming!!” Dry pipes are filled for a few hours with muddy water. People hop out of bed to water trees and anything else planted, while the water lasts.

A few years ago my sister Mary and her husband Mauro moved to San Mateo, not particularly for the scenic beauty, but to get close to the people. The poverty. With money from volunteers in Italy and from friends, Mauro built an entire neighbourhood, about seventy concrete block houses. Each cost about $8,000, electricity hooked up and plumbing. For a recipient whose house typically lacked a wall or roof, it’s a palace. He also built a community hall, and a crisis house, mainly for women who need a place to land.

Houses can be built with bricks and cement, but you can only build so many. They don’t change the causes of poverty. Chief among those, Mauro suggested, is “Ignorantia”. He didn't know the English equivalent, but it characterizes a mindset that results from generations of social fragmentation. Men come back from sea and often drink away the proceeds. Marriages are little more than temporary liaisons, with typically eight children. Some are given away to whoever wants them. Women, often battered, move away to a man who might beat them less. Older people are left alone in rooms with no one to talk to. There’s also diabetes, spread out like a permanent epidemic, both genetic and acquired from a diet of fried banana and fried fish.

 There's a church but most villagers don't attend it. The priest sticks to his job of saying mass, preaching sermons and administering sacraments.

In the Palo Santo Barrio. Mario supervised the building of over 50 houses.

To make any meaningful change you have to heal the people and help them rebuild their community. At 5AM every Monday Mary opens the diabetic clinic. About fifty patients are already waiting, some camped out in front of the door for over two hours. She tests their sugar, measures blood pressure and administers insulin.  On Tuesday afternoons a doctor comes to work with the patients.

 Drawing mainly from women Mary met at church, she organized them into groups. Some get together and discuss their family issues. Others study the Bible. Some women organize fundraisers to buy medicines. Each Wednesday, neighborhood kids bake cakes and sell them in the barrio for 50 cents a piece. Or they make candles for sale.

 Twice a month Mary’s women bring the disabled to the church hall for cakes, drinks and games. The week I was there, it had rained and the mucky streets prevented the wheelchairs from moving. So we brought the cakes to the disabled. 

The girls making cakes for sale

  Most were delighted to get their cake and juice. Those who weren't, because they were PO'd that the trip to the hall was off.  Dolores sat on her wooden floor and related, once again, her life history. How she had hurt her foot so she cannot stand. She talked about her son, lost in a far away land. She heard his footstep on her porch the night he died. Her daughter, Corina has Down Syndrome or something related. She was  unconditionally happy. Laughing. Before I left she threw her arms around me and gave me a big smile.

We hadn’t solved San Mateo’s “Ignorantia” but we brought smiles to a few people.

Coming next: In San Mateo's  Back Alleys