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 façade, 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

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