Time sure flies when you are having fun.
We have been in Ecuador a total of 4.5 years now. My personal journey has directed me into neighborhoods and homes that are well off the beaten path, and I would not have it any other way.
Sharing a meal in a bamboo home, talking to families about their hopes, dreams and fears have opened my eyes to things I once thought I understood.
One important thing I have learned about myself is that my perception of poverty was not entirely realistic. It was based on my North American understanding of poverty. Being raised in a country that has an enormous amount of safety nets, being poor often meant understanding where and how to access the various organization(s), both private and public that may be available to help.
Five years ago if you asked me what a poor family would look like, I would have mentioned recipients of Social Assistance, users of the local food and clothing banks, regular attendees of the local soup kitchens, persons found on a list to collect food hampers and Christmas Turkeys from the Salvation Army. I would have mentioned the varying quality of dilapidated vehicles with bare tires, and most likely they would live in a little apartment in a geared-to-income housing unit.
And yes, I do realize that some of our very own in Canada are homeless and living in shelters and go hungry; eating only Ichiban Noodles and Kraft Dinner on many days. But it has also been my experience that the people that may fall through the cracks in our system typically have mental health issues, drug, and/or alcohol dependency issues and are not able to jump through our processes to access or maintain assistance.
What Ecuador has taught me is that poverty: the true, deep and powerful poverty, runs far deeper than my initial understanding.
Where a family of 4 shares one towel, one bed, one blanket and no pillows. When they do not have work, they have zero income. The complete lack of income is a far different reality than being between welfare checks.
There is a monthly stipend that families can apply for that is $50, but with a family of 6 children. it is simply not enough. Most recently, with the Ecuadorian economy suffering, they are often not receiving their Bono as the government simply doesn’t have the money to pay.
I meet children of all ages that have never opened a wrapped gift. Where each family member has a spoon to eat with, but nothing else. Where family members may try to give a dollar here and there to help another family buy food. Where they live in a house made of bamboo panels with no windows, no floors, no bathroom, no water and even no electricity at times. It becomes dark here by 6:30 pm every day of the year; imagine sitting together in the dark, silent, invisible.
The homes I have entered sometimes have absolutely nothing to sit on, not a bench, not a chair…. nothing. A simple mat or old castaway mattress may be found on the floor where the entire family will huddle under the mosquito netting.
That to me is poverty at the very heart of the word.
What makes this difficult to understand is that outwardly, they dress well and upon meeting them, you would not guess that they lived in a home like I just described. If they were all walking around with the bare protruding bellies and gaunt, skeletal faces covered in flies as the TV commercials show then I think we could process it all differently.
These children that you see in their Sunday best, walking hand in hand with their families along the Malecon with smiles, laughing and enjoying an evening stroll do not fit our idea of poverty.
What is not obvious is that the Sunday dress is likely their only dress and what they ate for breakfast may have been two 0.10 cent bread rolls shared between 4 people.
That taxi driver that asked you for an extra 0.50 cent fare, that baker that overcharged you 0.50 cents for your buns. You can call it ‘gringo pricing’ and become indignant, or you can choose to understand, that they may just need a few extra bits to buy candles so they don’t have to sit in the dark.
In spite of all of what I have seen. It is not uncommon to see them smile, joke and laugh regularly. They are the first to help when needed, the first to give a morsel of food when they have it. The first to give a hug, share a laugh and poke fun at situations.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am not romanticizing the situation. I don’t think they are happy because they are poor and live a simpler life; of course, they would prefer to have more money. Certainly, they would like to have a regular income so they can ensure food on the table consistently. But their wants are far simpler than our north ‘American Dreams’.
What I see is a tremendous human spirit. In spite of the poverty, in spite of the hunger that creeps in, they still do their best to celebrate each occasion with fervor. A birthday, a wedding, a graduation is a reason to celebrate life and each other. Their lives revolve around relationships, not things.
Ecuador is so much more than cheap almuerzos and great climate.
Its people are the heart and soul of this diverse country, not the cheap cost of living. Look beyond the Malecons, look between the buildings and you will see the real people of Ecuador living their lives; invisible.
With eyes wide open, along with your heart; Ecuador will most certainly seep into your soul and you will never be the same.
Are you interested in learning more about how you can get involved on the coast? Email Dodie to learn about her initiatives to help families in her area. Are you in Cuenca and wanting to get more involved in community support? Join the local expat foundation, Hearts of Gold and their efforts here.