Thursday, November 19, 2009

Moving out

Joannah and I have finally moved into our own apartment. We painted, bought appliances, and just about finished unpacking. What a difference it makes to have some personal space. Our host family was really great, but Jo and I were sharing a room where, laying down on the bed, I could easily touch all four walls. Plus, on any given day, our adoptive parents would lock up the house at 7:30 and go to bed, leaving us trapped in our walk-in closet. It’s great not to have to whisper to each other all night long.

The other huge bonus of having our own place is having our own kitchen. I’ve mentioned earlier that our host mom is great cook, but we were both getting a little sick of having rice and potatoes on every plate. Also, pretty much every dish is preceded by a bowl of scalding hot soup. Don’t get me wrong, soup’s great, but I’m used to eating the occasional bowl usually sometime during the winter. The 80-degree temperature just makes the soup seem somehow unappealing.

Back in the US, Jo and I were used to eating light breakfasts, a bigger lunch, and a decent sized dinner. Here, breakfast is huge. Not like a five-egg omelet huge, but like a mountain of rice with a whole fish huge. I would be struggling to digest my food when I’d look at my watch and realize that it’s lunchtime already. If breakfast here is huge, lunch is huge squared. After the giant soup, you’d get another few pounds of rice, maybe three or four whole potatoes or some other starch, possibly some chicken, meat, or another whole fish, and beans. Really good stuff here, but with little variation, the almuerzos (lunch) sometimes felt like a chore.

The reason that lunches are so big here, I think, is because it’s basically supposed to hold you over until breakfast the next day. Dinner here isn’t really a meal at all. Usually we’d have some coffee and bread, and maybe a little rice. I’m sorry, but by 6 or 7pm I’m out-of-my-mind hungry. A piece of bread and some instant coffee are just not going to cut it. Jo and I would feel really bad sneaking out of our host family’s house afterwards to forage for food, but it was between that and listening to empty stomach while sitting in our tiny room for the rest of the night. I swear, some nights I would look at Joannah and I thought I was seeing a nice roasted chicken asking me why my mouth was watering.

Things weren’t that bad, I mean, we always had the soft-serve guy to hopefully look around for, but right now we are just so much happier. We’ve cooked meals that we hadn’t had in so long: tacos, hamburgers, salads. I think this is probably the first we’ve eaten vegetables since we came to Ecuador.

Which is kind of surprising seeing as how fresh produce is so readily available. Every Thursday in our community, all of the communities from the whole county set up shop to sell their fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. Not only do they have everything, but they have everything for really cheap. Mangos are around eight to ten for a dollar, avocados the same. We’ll spend at the most, five bucks, and we’ll have more than enough for an entire week’s worth of meals. It’s so much more than just an open market; people come from very far away to sell anything you can imagine. There are really great snacks that aren’t available for the rest of the week. Someone usually roasts a whole pig. There’s this guy who sells hard-boiled quail eggs (which Joannah hates, but I think are great.)

Trucks pull up and unload totally random crap, from baby shampoo to sneakers. These guys will stand on top of their cars with megaphones, trying to convince you to buy their stuff with the same intensity of someone leading a mass protest. They are relentless; I rarely hear them stopping for a breath. Moving from one item to the next, they have such an intimate knowledge of every product. “Buy this baby shampoo! It’s extra soft and extra delicate for your baby’s soft skin!” He’ll open it up, pour some on his hand, smell it. “Ahh! How lovely! Such a wonderful aroma! And everything is 100% natural, absolutely no chemicals!” It’s like watching the late Billy Mays trying to empty out a CVS after a cocaine binge, in Spanish.

What we gained in personal freedom we lost somewhat in privacy. People from all over our community feel inclined to constantly check up on us … making sure we are still eating now that we’re on our own, listening, but not believing us when we tell them that a sandwich (no soup) is enough for lunch, telling us that we missed a spot after sweeping the floor. Plus, a lot of people assume that, because we are health volunteers, we must be doctors. We had this old guy at our door showing us a bunch of medical records and x-rays asking us for a second opinion. Despite the constant visits, we are glad to be getting to know more people from the community.

Everything is great now that we’re on our own. I’d love to stay and chat some more, but there’s someone at the door with a nail protruding from his foot. Joannah, scalpel.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Going postal

The postal service in Ecuador is a lot different than what we’ve been used to in the US. Pretty much any Ecuadorian that I’ve asked has never even received mail, or even known where the nearest post office is. Joannah and I have had stuff sent to us. Our experiences might be indicative as to why the people here don’t even bother.

When we were still trainees back in Cayambe (about one hour outside of Quito, the capital), some packages came for us. The Peace Corps staff gave us a slip of paper instructing us to pick up our mail at some post office in Quito. Easy enough, right?

All throughout training, we were given numerous lectures about how dangerous Quito can be. Don’t walk around with tons of cash, only travel in taxis at night … basic stuff. And they explicitly warned us not to travel to certain areas. If we got robbed in these certain areas, Peace Corps would not reimburse us for any stolen money because, well, they told us not to be there in the first place. It turned out that our post office was right in the middle of one of these restricted areas. (Nothing bad wound up happening in said restricted area; I just thought it added a nice touch of suspense.)

Normally during training, the staff would have most of our mail forwarded to the post office in Cayambe, making hazardous trips like this unnecessary. Who knows why ours didn’t get sent. Maybe our package seemed suspicious. Anyway, we got to Quito and hopped in a cab.

The instructions on our slip of paper were very explicit. The post office is only open to receive packages on weekdays between 12 and 2pm. You must bring your passport as well as two additional copies. Two samples of blood will be collected upon entering the post office. Ok, ok a lot of rules, we get it.

We got there a few minutes early, and didn’t have to wait long in line. The guy behind the counter took our forms, made us pay some money for them holding on to the package, and gave us a receipt. So we took our receipt, and waited for the guy to go and fetch us our package, but he wasn’t even getting up out of his swivel chair. What the hell? The people in the rapidly growing line behind us were getting antsy.

Handing in your papers and paying for your package wound up being only step one in a multi-stepped mail retrieval processing system. After the line we sat in this room with a bunch of hard wooden benches while we waited for our names to be called. Our name was called and some guy took us to a room with tons of packages. He found our package, ripped it open, (it was candy!) took some notes, and taped it back up. I grabbed the package, thanked the guy, and started walking out.

But he stopped us. That was only step two. A two-step process would have been way too easy. I mean, maybe in some other city’s post office that would fly, but this is Quito, the capital, a major city with a major post office with a major pain-in-the-ass multi-stepped process. You can’t just take your package and go after step two. Back to the benches we were sent.

We were called in to some customs office. Some customs guy told us that because our package contained goods that were foreign in nature, we would have to pay a tax. We looked at each other and cringed. After coming all this way, after waiting for so long, would we have to abandon our precious candy at some customs office in Quito? The customs guy calculated our tax: 37 cents.

Whew! That’s it? Great! Here you go, I’ll just reach into my pocket here … oh look, I’ve got tons of change! All right, 37 cents it is. Now if you’ll just open your hand and take the 37 cents that I’m trying to give to you, we can just take our package and be on our way. So just take the money. Why are you looking at me like that? Wait, what are you telling me? You’re not the one who takes the money? Step four, there’s a step four? Shit!

Step three wound up being having that customs guy add up the bill. The paying would take place during step four. Customs guy printed us out about twelve pieces of paper. All we had to do was take these papers to the bank down the block and pay the 37 cents. The lines at the bank were very, very long. You would think that the ridiculously-small-customs-tax would correspond with an equally ridiculously-small-customs-tax-paying-line, but that wasn’t the case. Pretty much everybody that came in the bank after us tried to cut us in line. I told them they could back-cut, but frontsies were out of the question.

I handed the bank lady our 37 cents. But there was a bank fee. It was seventy-something cents. We were later told that the whole point of step four being off-site at a bank was to prevent customs people at the post office from overcharging and pocketing a profit. So now, instead of having random corrupt postal employees ripping people off and making a few extra dollars, they centralized the corruption, and now a huge bank is raking in significantly more money in the form of many collectivized micropayments. I had steam fuming from my ears as I handed her two bucks.

She smiled, handed me my change, and printed me off another dozen or so pages to bring back to the post office. We waited some more on the benches, handed a giant stack of papers to another postal employee, waited while this employee typed a bunch of stuff in a computer, signed our names, and finally … finally we were given our package. Just short of 2pm, where you know they would’ve locked up for the day had we not gotten back from the bank in time.

On the positive side, the candy was delicious.

When we got our site assignment, Peace Corps told us that there was a post office in a small town about an hour away from us. This is where we would be sent our malaria medicine and whatever else. About a month after we moved, my mom told us that we had two more packages on the way.

Nobody at our site had even heard of a post office nearby. When we got into town, we started asking random people if they knew where it was. Some people told me in Quito, about eight hours away. Finally someone had the information we needed, and directed us to a side street not that far away.

We eventually found the post office; only, it wasn’t really an office as much as it was a table set up in front of an apartment. The lady who ran the table turns out to pretty much be the post office for our site. She’s really nice. She gave us her home phone number and told us to call her whenever we need mail and she’s not outside. She even took our phone numbers too.

And one day she called and told us that we had a big package waiting. I could have sworn that my mom told me that there were two coming, but maybe I couldn’t understand her Spanish. We took the bus into town, gave her a call, and she handed us a package (more candy!) along with another slip of paper informing us that our other package was .1 kg overweight and was therefore detained at a larger postal facility in nearby Latacunga. We were to bring this notice as well as two copies of our passports to blah blah blah godammit!

Due to a nationwide strike, the busses were out of commission for a while, and it was another month before we had an opportunity to catch the six-hour bus to Latacunga. Needless to say, it was a pretty good excuse to get away for the weekend.

This post office also had very explicit hours of operation, and I arrived 9am on a Monday morning by myself (Joannah was off on another errand) ready for anything. Luckily, Latacunga happens to be a much more user-friendly city in terms of mail. Two steps, tops. I paid my fee and was told I just had to have my package examined and I’d be on my way.

Out comes a member of the Ecuadorian military to personally inspect the package. He put down his giant semi-automatic gun and ripped open the top. Why couldn’t this one have just been candy? Out pours the contents of the girliest package anyone has ever been sent. Pumice stones … nail files … makeup … lotions. Staring at all the stuff, he turned and gave me a look of what had to have been a mix of bewilderment and disgust, and then back at the stuff. He picked up a five-pack of Tide To-Go pens and asked me what they were. I tried to tell him as casually as I could – in my very best Spanish – that they were special markers used to rub stains out of your clothes if you made a mess while you were out of the house. I managed to get out of the post office without the nice soldier having to reach for his machine gun.

Seeing as how the mail here can be problematic, I’ve come up with a new system if anyone wants to send us anything else while we’re down here. Just label the package with our names in bold, clear letters. Then, wait for a really strong southern wind. Now, build some sort of hot-air balloon, small enough to reassure anybody that, no, there aren’t any runaway kids aboard, but big enough to keep our package afloat. Thanks in advance, and I’m sure we’ll get it in no time.

Also, the post office in Quito didn’t actually make us give blood samples. I was just kidding.