Friday, August 31, 2007

Night View

The school did a night-time tour of the old town last night. With a large group, I decided it was safe enough to take the camera along, so I´ve got a flickr set of pretty pictures of Quito at night. Also made a set for the pictures I took when I climbed the closest mountain.

Not in America

You´d never see a logo like this in the United States these days, but racist media representations are alive and well in Ecuador. (Have I mentioned that everyone on TV is white, even though more than three-fourths of the population is non-white?) Menestras del Negro is a big fast food chain down here. Reminds me of the chocolate covered peanuts they sell in Spain called Conguitos, meaning something like "little people from the Congo."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

About Now

As I walk around Quito, from time to time, I say 'buenos dias,' or 'buenas tardes,' or 'buenas noches' to people. If greeting strangers is your measure of friendliness in a country, Ecuador isn't as friendly as the other Latin-American countries I've been to. But it is customary to greet people like shop-workers or bus station attendants.
(When you ride on one of the limited-stop bus lines, a machine collects your 25-cent fare, but, it doesn't give change. So there's a girl in a booth whose job is to make change. Give her a 50-cent piece and you get 2 quarters. In the evening there's also a guard, who sometimes will swing the gate on the pay-station open for you. It's interesting how machines don't eliminate jobs here.)

Anyway, I say 'good day' to these people, but I'm still working out when the afternoon ends and the night begins. Here on the equator, night-fall only varies about half an hour during the year (and dawn moves in synch, so days and nights don't vary in length.) So you'd think dusk would be a natural switch-over time, but I've been told 'buenas tardes' after dark. It's a little awkward when you disagree with a stranger about what part of the day you're in. In the States, I have a habit of saying 'good morning' well into the afternoon, and my students are quick to tell me, "It's not morning anymore!" Lots of times people just say 'buenas' by itself, avoiding the problem all together, so it's a little hard to figure out what part of the day people think it is.

The distinctions also apply to describing times of day. Even though they write times as though they use a 24-hour clock here--9 p.m. is 21h00--they don't talk about times higher than 12. So do you tell someone to meet for dinner at 7 de la tarde or 7 de la noche? I haven't actually needed to make such a distinction yet, but it got me thinking about how we do it in English.

Even though we think of 1 or 2 a.m. as night, as far as the English language goes, the day starts at midnight, so it's 12:01 in the morning. Lots of times it's morning from before you go to bed until the sun is straight overhead the next day: 12 whole hours. For me afternoon runs up till 6 p.m. 5:30 in the afternoon is is fine, but it seems a little weird to say 6 in the afternoon. English is a little more complicated than Spanish because we've got evening in between afternoon and night, and it only lasts a couple of hours: between 6 and 7 in the evening. It wouldn't seem completely out of place to say 7 at night, but on the other hand, 9 in the evening sounds rather cosmopolitan, like you might not be able to make it to a show that starts that early because you probably haven't gotten around to eating dinner by 9, in which case your night has barely begun by the time it's really already morning.

Maybe it's not just the language. Maybe the terms varies from place to place. Does afternoon stretch till 7 or 8 in Manhattan, while it's already night by then in rural Utah? Up north where there are seasons, do the words adjust their meanings as the days grow longer and shorter?

English gets even more confusing when you return to the greetings. At 10 or 11 at night, you don't say 'good night' to greet someone. You still say 'good evening.' 'Good night' is a farewell. To me, 'good afternoon' can work either way, but I'd never say 'good morning' on my way out the door on my way to work, but I could say 'good day.'

It's 10:30 at night, and I'm sitting on the roof, looking out over Quito's street lights as they crawl up the side of the mountain. It sounds like everyone else has already gone to bed--a half-filled hostel of weary travelers makes for a quiet night. It's probably time for me to head to bed as well, so I'll wish you good night!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

We Are Transit

You really don´t see many bikes at all, except when they close the streets to traffic in the old town, but this (rather sloppy) stencil graffiti on the parque lineal bike path suggests that there´s the beginning of a bike movement here. Compared to all the other political graffiti, though, it must be pretty small. I´ve seen things like "lesbians of the world unite!" spraypainted across several walls, just about all of which have some political message written on them.

The Metric System

Every so often, a link pops up on reddit to a map of the world showing the three countries that don't use the metric system. I'm all for switching to metric. It's about a century overdue, but it's worth pointing out that these maps are misleading. While the rest of the world has officially switched to this easy-to-use, 10-based system, the customary measurements haven't really disappeared from every country but the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar. I've been hanging out with a lot of Brits, and they tell me that in England, while small measurements are done in meters, distances on the highways are still marked in miles, and speed limits are still in miles per hour. And they swear they will never stop drinking pints of beer.

Here in Ecuador, you do travel kilometers and drink milliliters, but you buy gas by the gallon ($1.48 for regular). When I get my laundry "lavado, secado, and doblado," I pay $.40/pound. If I buy produce outside of a fancy supermarket, it's also usually sold by the pound, not the kilogram. I suspect there are a couple of psychological factors contributing to the persistence of the pound. (And I´d bet the gasoline thing is political.)

First, people don't love using fractions, and the kilogram is a big unit, so you can't just use whole kilos. People are going to want to buy half a kilo of raspberries, or a kilo and a half of tomatoes. Pounds are just small enough that are lots of times, in the scaleless commerce of the Ecuadorian streets, at least, when a pound or two pounds or three are useful choices.

Second, since pounds are smaller, prices seem lower. A laundry would rather advertise $.40/lb than $.88/kg, even though it's really the same. If American gas stations can't give up ending gasoline prices in 9/10 of a cent to make it seem a penny cheaper, stores in a country familiar with hyper-inflation aren't likely to switch to metric when it would make it appear that their prices have suddenly more than doubled.

So even if multiplying by 10 is way easier than multiplying by 2 or 3 or 8 or 12, I doubt the world will ever be as free of inches and miles, pints and pounds, as those infographics make it seem.

(Searching for the map, I stumbled on this entertaining essay on how the metric system is and isn´t used in Belgium. The writer concludes that it´s really useful to be able to divide your measurement units by 3 and 4, and thus you get things like the standard size of wood being 120cm long and 2.4cm thick. Pretty interesting.)

Friday, August 24, 2007


The other night, my Spanish school took a group of a couple dozen students to the Ecuador vs. Bolivia soccer game. It was fun, but I'm afraid every professional sporting event I ever go to will be judged against the Flamengo vs. Vasco game Kerri, Eileen, Kristin, and I went to at the world's largest stadium in Rio, where the fans stood on their seats from the beginning of the game to the end, police continually battled with fans in the standing-room-only front section, and a bonfire was set in the seats of the upper deck. This was not that crazy.

Quito's "Estadio Olimpico" is pretty small for a city of more than a million people. It seemed to be a little bigger that OU's football stadium, and it was only about two-thirds full. The crowd stayed seated, except to do the wave. They don't boo here, but instead whistle, although they whistle a lot more than Americans boo, at every mistake their team makes as well as the opponents' good fortune.

The half-time entertainment consisted of a giant 40-foot Pilsener bottle being inflated and erected in the middle of the field. It stood for about 10 minutes, then they deflated it so the game could continue. I'm not exactly sure why they advertise Pilsener, since it's the only beer available most places. Pilsener is cerveza.

When they sold it in the stands, they'd pour it from the over-sized bottles into big plastic cups. The technique was interesting: they turned the bottle upside down and stuck it all the way down in the bottom of the cup, raising it so it stayed in the foam just above the top of the beer. There's no pouring a beer here without it getting really foamy--a symptom of the elevation maybe--so the foam was sucked up into the bottle as it drained of beer glug by glug.

I was sort of disappointed in the first half that nobody was shooting off fireworks, as we'd seen in Rio, but as the second half got underway, somebody lit a bright-as-a-welder sparkler, and soon roman candles started shooting from the crowd. As it turned out, there were people walking through the stands selling the roman candles, so there was a non-stop rain of fireballs throughout the rest of the game.

There were at least 50 police in grey camouflage and bullet-proof vests around the field, with four in full riot gear positioned at each corner of the field. The stands are separated from the field by a deep moat and a high barbed wire fence, so I wasn't really sure what their purpose was. There were another several dozen cops in the stands. In the last minutes of the game, however, they did get some action. What appeared to be a minor fight broke out between players, and soon everyone on the benches was running over to join in or break it up, I couldn't tell. The nearby cops took their time getting involved, but the ones from the other end of the stadium sprinted over to get in on the action. Soon there was a mob of more than a hundred people, half of them police. By the time it broke up, time had run out and the game was over.

When we left the stadium, we were actually able to catch a bus after waiting in line only a couple of minutes--unbelievable efficiency compared to the mess you find after a sporting event in the US.

Oh, and in the end, Ecuador won 1-0. They got a direct penalty kick in the first half, and Bolivia never managed score, despite having much better control of the ball, and making several more shots. So Quito went to bed happy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Under the Weather

I came down with a bit of a cold this weekend. I thought it was really mild, just a touch of sore throat and congestion until last night when I got achy and my sinuses started throbbing. I don't think the bus exhaust is helping. Right after getting out of bed, I walked down to the pharmacy to get some medicine. Just like the English drug store in Sicko, it's only a place to buy medical supplies. No candy, no magazines, no makeup. And you can't buy medicine at the grocery store or gas station. You have to go to a proper drug store. In fact, I'm told, if you're in the hospital, you still have to find someone to go get your drugs from the pharmacy, since hospitals don´t dispense drugs.

If you've ever seen an old-fashioned, historical store, like the general store in the ghost town I visited on my way back across the US, you're aware that they used to keep the merchandise behind the counter. It's still like that in most shops here. You have to ask for what you want and they get it for you. I don't love this, because of my limited vocabulary, but I suppose in general it's faster. You don't have to wander around looking for what you want; someone who knows where everything is does it for you. I'm not sure what the advantage is for the stores. It takes more labor, but that's cheap, and I suppose it cuts down on shoplifting (as does the guy with the big gun at the door.) I'd bet the big reason that American stores let you wander is to increase impulse buying. With the products controlled by the clerk behind the counter, there's no "hmm, maybe I'll buy some chips and a bottle of Coke, while I'm getting my medicine, oh and how about a a candy bar and a copy of Us Weekly."

I made it up to the counter, after several people tried to squeeze in front of me in "line" and asked for something for congestion and sinuses. I was expecting a look of "oh, I know the perfect thing, but instead she stared blankly and typed something into the computer, said they cost $.48 a piece, and asked how many I wanted. I was hoping for something that wouldn't make me drowsy, and preferably with something other than pseudephedrine, which makes me feel funny, but I really wasn't up for sorting that out in Spanish, especially when the girl seemed to need to look up in the computer what congestion was, so I just decided to trust whatever the computer had said. Of course you have to trust it, because they take the appropriate number of pills--I'd chosen 6--from the box and give them to you without any sort of documentation, except what it says on the back of the blister pack.

The capsules are transparent and filled with little white and pink mini-pills. I was always fascinated with commercials for these kinds of drugs when I was a kid. They seem so fun, like a gumball machine, and I don't think I'd ever actually taken one--at least not one that was clear so I could see the contents. They do contain pseudephedrine (which you have to show ID to get in the US these days), but it hasn't made me feel as out of sorts as it usually does, and the cetrizene dihydrochloride, whatever it is, doesn't seem to make me sleepy.

I hope I feel better tomorrow, because the Spanish school is taking people to the Ecuador vs. Bolivia fútbol game tomorrow, and a Latin-American soccer game is something you really don't want to miss.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Church Climbing

Went back to the neogothic basilica his afternoon with a guy from England.
Already described the adventure here, but now I've got some pictures.
This is the catwalk above the vaulting that takes you out to the center spire:
Climbing the ladder up the flying buttress is pretty crazy, but not as dizzying now that I´m used to living at 9000 feet.
From there we got a view of the main towers, the left of which we climbed, all the way up into the roof just under the cross:
Here's the spiral stairs through the clock. No giant gears like in Back to the Future or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Paul, the English bloke, standing up in the top of the tower.
These kids climbed up to the absolute highest point possible:
At this level, you could crawl out to the outside of the tower to get a really great view. Here's the church with the central spire we climbed and the city to the north:

Pictures Help

This is what a date looks like when there's a language barrier. Been hanging out with this Ecuadorian guy, Braulio, and last night I was telling him about rafting down the Hocking River and trying to walk to my parents' house from Athens. The place-mat was indispensable.

Comparing Lemons to Limes

When I first went to Mexico, I was surprised to find that they didn't have lemons, only limes. However, they used both the word limón and lima, to refer to big limes and little key limes respectively. I thought it was kind of weird.

When I went to Brazil, I was curious to find out what they called these fruits. It turns out they only have one word: limão, which mostly just refers to limes, though they knew what a lemon was--a limão forte (strong), a yellow fruit too sour to eat.

In Spain, it was limes that didn't seem to exist, just yellow limónes. I've always thought the whole thing weird, so of course I had to ask when I got to Ecuador.

Here, they only really eat limes, and call them limónes. But the yellow fruit that's really sour? It's a LIMA, completely backwards of English! Why is this so complicated? Nobody seems to confuse naranjas (oranges) and toranjas (grapefruit.) It's baffling!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Kick the Bottle

Just uploaded some pictures of kids playing in the lot next to the hostal. Remember parents, all your kids need to have fun is a little bit of trash.

Bad Reputation

A bit ago, I was talking with an Australian guy and I asked him why you don't run into many Australians visiting the US. Outside of the US, there are tons of Australians traveling, along with the usual Europeans (especially Germans.) I've found that lots of Australian kids take a year to travel after high school. So why isn't the US a top destination, as it is for many other world travelers?

He said people weren't very eager to deal with the TSA.

I told him that, yeah, the airport security is a pain, but it's not like it's the gestapo, disappearing people.

"Well, you hear stories," was his reply. He couldn't remember any specifics, and we moved on to other topics, but this is how America is now viewed! This is not OK. It is not productive to protect ourselves by making people (a college kid who's thinking of becoming a missionary, no less) believe that traveling through an American airport could lead to... what? detention? imprisonment? torture?

Our reputation has been destroyed. The majority of the world's population thinks the US is the greatest threat on the planet, but it's as if the people running the country never learned that your reputation concretely affects how others treat you. We're making it harder for people to come visit, to study in the US, to see what it's really like, and we're scaring away the people who could come.

It doesn't matter whether tyranny is actually happening, once everyone believes the US is a police state, there's nothing to prevent it from becoming one. Whether their ultimate intention is an autocratic state or not, for six years, the Republicans in power have been laying the groundwork for the complete suspension of civil liberties, and military and economic world domination, all in the name of freedom, of course. The Democrats, elected to stand up to this out-of-control administration, have rolled over. The world thinks we're already lost. Is there anything to prevent it from really happening?

If the US doesn't want to head toward autocracy, if we want the rest of the world to know that this is not, in fact, what America stands for, then we need to show the rest of the world through action. We have a reputation to restore, something that can't be done through spin, only by behaving the way you want people to think you are.

Monday, August 13, 2007


An account of my after-school shopping at SUPERMAXI (which is not a feminine hygiene product, but rather a large, clean, well-lit, American-style supermercado), told by the receipt

Brocoli (small head) .350kg @ .40/kg
Reyogurt Guanaba 1.1liter
Manzana (an apple) .175kg @1.53/kg
Pan Ingerto (4 sandwich rolls) .295kg @ 2.15/kg
Supermaxi Queso Fresco 500g
Banana (3) .79kg @ .60/kg
Kennet Hongos (small carton of mushrooms)
Indaves Huevo (1 dozen med eggs)
Crunch Tableta (Nestle Crunch bar)

Total USD 8.46

My only commentary: it's amazing how cheap broccoli is, and I'm surprised bananas cost as much as in the US.

My world... delivered

After a bit of runaround, I now have an Ecuadorian phone number, though I'm not sure if it can be called from the US. Pretty sure it can make calls to the US, though this is a lot more expensive than going to a corner phone cabina shop. I ought to be able to send and receive texts. I'll try it out and send the number along in an email if it works. I don't expect to use it much for calls since they cost about $.25 a minute. The best is that the phone company is called "Movistar."

It would have been a lot easier if it hadn't been for AT&T nee Cingular nee AT&T. When I first got here, the phone showed the Movistar network, so I knew the phone was capable of working. After my American service ended, it just said, "Inactive SIM." Last Friday, at the beginning of the holiday weekend, I went into a Movistar store at the mall to reactivate it with a new SIM. They tried one out first, and it said, "Incorrect SIM."

It wasn't enough that they locked me into a 2-year contract (without which I still wouldn't have bothered to switch companies) to get the phone for only $160. They also locked the phone so it couldn't work with another carrier. I think I was under the impression that it wasn't locked, because I remember being pleased that it was GSM and worked on bands that are used around the world. Maybe it's ok to prevent your customers from switching to the competition, but I wanted to use it where AT&T doesn't exist. It's my phone. I gave them my business for three years while I was in the US and will probably keep giving them money for iPhone service when I get back. I should be able to keep using it rather than sending it to the landfill and buying a new one I don't need.

The guy at the shop said it could probably be unlocked, but I'd need to go to the main Movistar building, which, fortunately, was just down the street from the mall. Unfortunately, it was closed when I got there. I went back today, only to be told that this wasn't the right place, I should go to the Movistar store right across the street. I went over there and the girl, who was pained by my Spanish and insisted on switching to English, said, no, they couldn't unlock it there, but a block away was a telephone service shop that probably could. I was beginning to suspect I was trapped in a third-world buck-passing loop, but I found the shop, and yes, they could unlock the phone. It took 10 minutes, cost $10 plus $5 for a new "chip," as SIM cards are called here, that came with $3 credit. Cheap! Easy! What more could I ask? So lawless Latin America, where many laws that enable corporations to exploit their customers are just ignored (I've seen scores of video stores, but I've yet to see a non-bootleg DVD), prevails.

Friday, August 10, 2007

My Kingdom for a...

When you pack to travel overseas, it's always a guessing game figuring out what you need and what will be easier to just buy when you get there. I've already become frustrated by a few things that just don't seem to exist in Ecuador.

To start with, there are no tightie whiteys. I left most of my underwear supply in the washing machine and it has turned out to be irreplaceable. I hate boxers and bikini briefs don't have a fly. I've tried a couple of pairs of boxer briefs, but they roll up my leg. I've been to a dozen stores. I even went to a fancy underwear store in the upscale mall, where underwear was at least $15 a pair. The closest thing looked more like a jock strap. And figuring out the appropriate size is impossible. Everything's full of lycra, so it looks tiny, even if it isn't. Sizes aren't in inches, and the one time I saw waist measurements, medium was 32 inches and large was 34, but I have a hard time believing this is standard. (Does an extra-large Ecuadorian really have a 36 inch waist?) The guide books suggest you only need two pairs of underwear: one to wear and one to wash. I guess I'll be living by that advice for the next few months.

I've also had a hard time getting school supplies. There are many papelerías, where everything is behind the counter, so you can't just look around; you have to ask for what you want. I went into a pretty big store to get your basic folder with pockets. No such thing. The girls brought me binders, report covers, notebooks, and I didn't see anything resembling a simple folder behind the counter. I settled on something like a giant plastic envelope.

After that unexpected confusion, I forgot to get the note cards I wanted for making vocab flashcards. After class, I stopped in another papelería and asked for "cartas de nota." The girl asked if I wanted lined or blank. I went for blank. She came back with a packet of blank notebook paper. I refined my description and got several possible sizes of envelopes. Then a little notebook. I tried a second store and they were equally baffled by my request. They got out a dictionary, and "note card" wasn't in it. It was clear that the problem wasn't that they didn't have note cards, but that they had never seen such a thing. What kind of schools never have their students use note cards? The terrible thing is, last year, note cards were ridiculously cheap at Big Lots, and I bought all they had. I have thousands of them back home, enough for every word in the dictionary. Now, I don't have a single one to take in and show as an example.


I've finished my first week of Spanish lessons, and it's gone pretty well. It's been entirely in Spanish, and my ability to just hear Spanish and comprehend without translating is already greatly improved. One thing that's been good is that the content, aside from the grammar instruction (which is great for me, though I question its usefulness for the average person who doesn't have a background as a language teacher,) has been lots of information about Ecuadorian history and culture.

We watched a video about the widespread practice of traditional medicine here. I was imagining them prescribing herbal remedies, which I can imagine having some effectiveness. Instead, I saw healers rubbing guinea pigs over the sick person's body, to absorb the illness, all the while shaking it violently until it died. They then cut it open to diagnose the person's problem. Remedies involved lots of rubbing of eggs and stones over the body, shaking of herbs, and spitting of liquids. All the while, the healer intently smokes a cigarette to prevent the bad energy from invading his or her body.

My tutor and I talked about this, and she admitted that it might strain credibility, but most people can't afford western medicine. Although educated people might not believe that disease is caused by "bad energy", she said most people, including many doctors, do believe in one illness not recognized by modern medicine: "espanto."

Ecuadorians believe that when a child--or sometimes a woman--is particularly startled, it can scare their spirit right out of them. (It doesn't happen to men because they have stronger personalities.) Children lose their energy, don't eat, and cry, even though there's nothing physically wrong with them. A healer has to call their spirit back into them or they will die. It sounds a bit to me like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, making me wonder what horrible things are really happening in the lives of kids here. And like the Spanish belief that your heart will stop if you take a shower after eating, I wonder why no one bothers to question how it doesn't happen to anybody in other parts of the world.

Even if something about whipping around the earth so fast here on the equator spins the souls right out of people, at least I can rest easy, since I'm a man, and don't have to worry about being affected!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Weather Wimps

Midwesterners who move to the coast of California quickly notice how the slightest weather change elicits a big reaction from the natives, and soon, we too develop an intolerance for big variations in the weather. In San Francisco, 80 degrees in really hot and 50 is really cold. The weather in Quito is even milder. It's about the same as in San Francisco, temperature-wise, but without summer or winter and without the chilly wind. Yesterday was partly sunny and 68. My Spanish tutor came in saying it was quite hot. Today, it was partly cloudy and 68. She came in complaining that it was awfully cold. Oh what a perfect climate will do to you!

Catching the Bus

I got my first experience catching one of the regular "especial" buses last night. I went to the Mariscal to meet up with my one Ecuadorean friend for a bit and tried to leave in time to catch the Ecovía, which stops running at 10. It was five till, but the last south-bound bus had left. This is one of the three bus rapid transit lines, with platforms and doors like a subway station, that I'd managed to ride exclusively so far.

It's not supposed to be safe walking back to my part of town at night, but it's amazing how fast your perception of the value of money adjusts. I really didn't like the idea of paying a cab two or three dollars to get home when the bus only costs a quarter. I walked up to another busy street that I knew would have plenty of taxis, (there are thousands) thinking I'd perhaps walk a little ways, then hail a cab a little closer to the shady Parque El Ejido. I put my wallet in my underwear for a minute, but realized that regular buses were still running on 12 de Octubre.

Buses will stop anywhere. Actually, "slow" is a better word. If you needed them to stop completely, they would, but I stuck out my arm, and a bus pulled over, its door open, so I could jump on without it ever stopping. It appeared to be a longer distance bus, since it had soft seats, but once you hit the city, your long distance bus becomes local, pulling in as many $.25 rides as it can. I asked if it was going by my neighborhood and it was. As can be expected, there was some fringe in the decoration around the ceiling, though not on the windows. The best were the crocheted borders of the visors, with a little hammock hanging between them to hold papers.

We got to Parque Alameda, and I told them I wanted to get off at the light. They slowed and I jumped and landed with a bounce and a spin, which probably looked completely idiotic, but I'd kept my balance and completed my first in-motion boarding and exit, travel in true South American style.

Cultural Volume

It became really obvious the other night that few of the people in the hostal have been Americans when a group of Americans showed up at one in the morning. Part of the group might have been European, because I could barely make out enough of what they were saying to discern an accent, but several of them excitedly, innocently blabbed, filling their room and the adjoining rooms with their clear midwestern voices. I had to put my earplugs in. By morning, I'd taken them out, and was awoken by the same voices excitedly chattering about how cool the hostel was, oblivious that other people were trying to sleep.

They left their room, and I fell back asleep, but a few minutes later, I awoke to a terrible crash, like someone dropping a television down the stairs. The loudest of the American guys had been up on the terrace, and had stepped over the wall onto the roof where he tried to stand on the corrugated plastic of a skylight. It cracked under his weight, sending the brick weights flying. Fortunately, I guess, he didn't fall all the way through. I found out what happened without leaving my warm bed because he came downstairs loudly embarrassed, recounting his stupidity in the half-ashamed, half-proud all-loud way that only Americans do.

Monday, August 6, 2007

More on Threatened Embassies

Just after posting about embassy security, CNN posted an article titled "Al Qaeda member: U.S. embassies prime targets." So I can't get away from the topic. (If you aren't in need of a political rant right now, feel free to skip this post, or maybe just read the second paragraph, which is mostly about architecture, not war.) The article gets right at why American interests are at such high risk. American Al Qaeda member, Adam Yahiye Gadahn says, "We shall continue to target you at home and abroad just as you target us at home and abroad," labeling American actions as the cause of attacks against America. Of course, responsibility for atrocities fall on the people who commit them, but can you imagine a world where America isn't threatened with attack but still has a domineering economic and military presence all over the world?

He calls our embassies "spy dens and military command and control centers -- from which you plotted your aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq and which still provide vital moral, military, material and logistical support to the crusade." Looking at the American and Egytian embassies back in my original embassy post, you can see how the architecture might support that idea. When the government hires architects to design such buildings, do they think about what the style says, the message it conveys? Certainly there's talk of "the rhetoric of architecture" or something similar in architecture school. It seems that the US government builds for function alone (that function being defense), oblivious that buildings say anything at all. Or maybe we do intend to look like we have "command and control centers" in every corner of the globe, in which case, why would we expect to be treated as anything but an occupying imperial power?

Gadahn makes a list of "legitimate" demands that are, of course, not going to happen. They remind me of Bush's speech to the Taliban before our invasion of Afghanistan. Gadahn says, that failure to take any one of the steps would be "considered sufficient justification" for continuing the fighting and killing, just as Bush said that the Taliban had to meet every one of our demands immediately, with no negotiation, or face war. The goal of these kinds of statements isn't to get the demands met. The goal is to continue or start attacking the other side, but to create an excuse: "see, we gave them a chance, but they gave us no choice."

Our reaction to these threats isn't to step back and meet terrorist demands. The US takes them as an indication of the need to keep fighting. Their threats aren't an effective deterrent, so why does Representive Tom Tancredo think that threatening to bomb Mecca and Medina will deter rather than provoke Muslim extremists? The answer, of course, is the inability to, if not empathize, at least understand that, despite cultural differences, if you take the labels off the sides, you can reverse the situation and see that the other side responds in the same ways we do, not as crazed evil lunatics. They are wrong, but in exactly the same way that we are wrong. Guns and bombs don't create peace or stability, and they don't get other people to do what you want in any but the most short term of ways.

The Economics of Security

I walked back past the embassies and judicial building and did snap a few pictures to add to the entry I posted yesterday. In the meanwhile, I've been thinking more about security. Clearly in Ecuador, the fears are different than in America. They obviously aren't terribly concerned about government buildings being attacked. It's a breeze getting on an airplane compared to the US. But on the other hand, as I said, many more businesses have armed guards here. I've started to wonder what portion of the population is employed as police, security guards, and on-the-street military, certainly many times as many as back home. Seemingly, there's a lot more fear of crime, something that, despite gated communities and avoiding "bad neighborhoods," isn't foremost in people's minds in the US.

The question I have, is what effect does "security," either against terrorists or robbers, have on a country's economy. On one hand, it employs a lot of people here. Does the money they spend stimulate the economy? Even if it doesn't generate any wealth, it at least spreads it out among more people. But the problem is that sitting around holding a gun doesn't produce anything. It's a service, but unlike most services you pay for, you don't have anything to show for it. It might prevent a loss, but there are a LOT of people sitting around protecting stuff that doesn't seem to need to be protected in wealthier countries that have more stuff to protect. Is there some other way to protect these interests more efficiently?

You always hear about "productivity" and the necesity of increasing it to strengthen the economy. Security by its very nature is not productive. Would an economy like Ecuador's benefit from somehow reducing crime without paying tens of thousands of young men to sit around creating nothing? Is the American economy threatened by increasing numbers of people being employed to guard obscure places that terrorists have probably never heard of?

I don't have any background in economics, so if you do, please share your insights. I'm curious to read your comments.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Fortified Streets

By chance, I walked past the US Embassy Friday. Like all American Embassies, it was very institutional, a walled fortress.
Most other countries have very inviting embassies, usually more like mansions, like the Egyptian embassy, across the park from the American:
One thing was particularly weird. It is located at a major intersection that has evolved into a multi-level roundabout. The main road goes underneath. If you need to turn from the bigger road onto the smaller, you take an exit and go around the roundabout. The embassy is located right on this exit, which is now closed to traffic with a guard house and gate, so no one can make this turn anymore. At some point, (after 9/11?) the US government must have told Ecuador that they had close the road for "security." Of course you comply with the Americans, even if it's a permanent inconvenience. I kind of doubt the US would allow Ecuador to close the DC streets around its embassy.

Two blocks later I walked past the "Tribunal Constitucional," a big office tower and noted its level of security.
You could drive right by it. No wall, no barricades. There were half a dozen guards standing around in front of the building, but in a country where every apartment building and fancy clothing store has its own armed guard, that isn't so much. While hospitals are behind fences, and the nicer houses are walled with broken glass protruding from the top, the government buildings I've seen are pretty "exposed."

What do we, America, have to do not to have our interests in danger of being bombed in every country on earth? Maybe we should look to the many countries that don't worry about security the way we do. What are they doing differently?

Thursday, August 2, 2007


Down in the park below the hostel is an old observatory. You can probably make it out easily in Google Earth with its five round turrets. I went and visited it the other night and looked through the telescope, which was, when it was installed 130 years ago, one of the best in the world. We've come a long way! A couple dozen people looked at Jupiter and the M4 star cluster, but the coolest was looking at Alpha Centauri. I've always been a little bummed that, living in the northern hemisphere, I couldn't see the closest star to earth. I was really excited when the astronomer first took us out on the balcony and pointed his laser at it. He also pointed out the Southern Cross and Scorpio, which has a curling tail that is below the horizon in the US. Granted there weren't many stars to see in the middle of the city, you kept getting blinded by street lights shining through the doors, and the optics seemed a little out of whack, but pretty neat all the same.

Mountain Climbing

Yesterday, I climbed Rucu Pichincha, the peak of the volcano just east of the city. This peak is on the close side of the extinct, crumbling crater. Just on the other side is the slightly higher Guagua Pichincha which last erupted in 1999. I forgot to take my GPS, but the peak is 15,338 feet above sea level, 833 feet higher than Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental US. What made it possible was the cable car that flies you up 4000 feet in 8 minutes from the city which is already at 9000 feet. But it was still close to four hours hiking and climbing the last 2000 in really thin air.

I took a taxi to the base of the Teleferiqo. The driver didn't know the way and the signage only told you you were on the right path after you took the correct turn--no way of knowing if you went the wrong way. He kept asking for directions. The bottom is pretty far up, and I got some of the best views of the three surrounding snow-capped volcanos from there, before the clouds started forming around them.

This is Cotopaxi, the second highest mountain in Ecuador, and climbable by an in-shape novice with equipment and a guide.

That's my neighborhood from the top of the ride. If you click through to bigger version on flickr, you can see the basilica I climbed to the right. The hostel is almost in the center, a little above the right tip of the park. It's a tallish building whose brick wall on this side has no windows. There are a bunch of red buses parked to the left of it.

This is the way up to the peak. It would have been no more than a pleasant stroll, except that slowly walking up each hill felt like running at a full sprint. Once I made it over the hills, I had to climb around the right side and up the more treacherous rocky part. It was hand-and-foot climbing, but nothing that required ropes at all. By the time I was to the last 100 feet or so, the air was so thin that I'd get faint with each move. I just had to pause and breathe and it was fine. The refuge where you start the Cotopaxi climb is higher than this peak. If I want to do that, I have some more acclimatizing to do!

The view from the top was, obviously, spectacular. Everything in the lowlands to the west was covered in clouds, which were beginning to spill over the western cordillera into the depression that Quito is in.

The city lay far below. I looked down on all the planes flying into and out of the airport. Even planes flying over weren't that far away. You can see just how high up the Teleferiqo takes you. Despite a couple layers of sunblock on my face, I came back with a bit of a pink nose and cheeks. Nice oneday adventure.