Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Country Down Under

If you think we've got political problems here (and we have), you should visit South America, where things are immeasurably worse.

Take, for example, Columbia, where there's both rampant corruption and a curious kind of political disconnect -- like the sick irony of Columbian President Juan Manuel Santo being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the very time 83% of his constituents rejected his cozy settlement with the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, a vicious gang of thugs that's terrorized the country for years.

The situation in Ecuador is only slightly better. My wife and I just visited there and got to experience both the good and bad of that beautiful country.

The good is the Ecuadorian Andes, a string of massive volcanos, some still active, that runs down the center of the country, presenting photographic vistas of remarkable proportion. On our fourth day, near Riobamba, the rain stopped, the clouds lifted and mighty Chimborazo, covered with snow, made an appearance against a blue sky. Because of the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo, at 20,700 feet, is the highest mountain in the world when measured from the center of the earth. I'll never forget the sight.

Less spectacular but no less photogenic were the native Ecuadorians, euphemistically called indigenas, with their brilliantly colored ponchos and brimmed hats worn by both men and women. Made locally by hand, the hats designate their regional home. The highlight was a visit to Guamote on market day, a kaleidoscopic treat of colorful dress, hats galore and native wares. This was the real thing; we were the only tourists in sight.

In the high country, we saw llamas, alpacas and even vicunas running free, and shaded farmland that  produces roses and carnations for overnight shipment to the United States.

Then there was the remarkable indoor market in Sigsig, where Ecuadorian women multi-tasked by selling fruit and vegetables, while at the same time weaving Panama hats by hand!

Finally there were the Galapagos Islands (most visitors to Ecuador fly directly there), and everything you've heard about them is true. Exotic wildlife everywhere. In Puerto Ayora, a sea lion came out of the bay and took a nap on our chaise lounge! And the namesake Galapagos tortoises, land and marine iguanas, flamingos in the wild, masked and blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds, lava herons, zayapa crabs, swallow-tailed gulls, huge rays, sharks and more pelicans than in Pelican Bay.

That's the good. But Ecuador is struggling. Heavily dependent on oil, it saw its economy tank when the price of petroleum fell. Light industry couldn't make up the difference. Neither could its lush Pacific lowlands that grow bananas (Ecuador was the first "banana republic"), sugar cane, broccoli, cabbage, mangos, papayas and huge tracts of cacao.

But worse than a shaky economy, Ecuador's political freedom is all but gone. In Quito, the capital, we saw the festive changing of the guard and a balcony appearance by El Presidente, Rafael Correa. He was cheered lustily, perhaps by plants, but we were told he's immensely unpopular. And there's little people can do about it.

As the case with other Central and South American heads of state, he has co-opted the military, muzzled the press and neutralized the courts. He and his cohorts run the show, we were told, with little political opposition. Chances for fair elections were said to be little or none.

His constituents, at least most of those we saw, are poor, with the middle class apparently disappearing. Ecuador's GNP was said to be in the lower third of South American countries. The cities, with the exception of Cuenca and parts of Quito and Guayaquil, are shabby, as are most of the rural villages.

Our mainland guide complained about widespread corruption. He and his wife, he said, are owed $35,000 in tax refunds and have virtually no chance of collecting. And they're facing higher taxes next year. With no recourse, they and others we spoke to were understandably frustrated. Their options are limited. Family ties and traditions are strong, and moving elsewhere is a last resort.

Meanwhile, tourists will continue to come, hoping for a glimpse of Cotopaxi or Chimborazo, and ensured of a wildlife bonanza in the Galapagos. That's a certainty. Less certain is the fate of the creative and generous Ecuadorian people. We can only hope for the best.

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