Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Sometimes the similarities are more striking than the differences.

Sitting alone at breakfast one morning, I found myself in a conversation with a waiter and his friend, the only other person eating there at the moment. They began to bring me into their conversation and I attempted to keep up in my broken Spanish. The friend moved from his table to mine, and after setting our meals in front of us, the waiter pulled a chair out at the adjacent table and sat down.

They asked all the standard stuff, like where I´m from in the US, what I do, how I´m liking Ecuador... and I tried to explain how the small amount of Spanish I speak is product of five years of language classes, that I love the country but wish I could communicate better. They assured me that their English education had been equally shitty, and we talked about music, and New York where the young waiter´s wife had spent some months with family. Then at some point, he got up and left me alone at a table with his friend, and the conversation turned to the subject of women.

Somehow our previously pained conversation, full of blank stares and repeated sentences, hand motions, er´s and uh´s and head shaking and laughing in inability, became, all of a sudden, a completely seamless and mutually understandable back and forth. Of course there is nothing more universal in all humanity than pursuit of love and sex and all that comes with it, but it was amazing how quickly things got coherent. This was in a small tourist town, though, and I eventually learned that his most pressing issue was truly one of language. He lamented to me that he lacked sufficient skills with English to pick up on "Gringa" tourists that come into the place where he bartends. I encouraged him to work on his English just a little for confidence, but assured him that the girls he is meeting in his bar are certainly as easy as he thinks.

A few days before, back in Quito, the basics of New Years Eve were similar too, it was only the cultural ornamentation on the night that brought about surprises. There was a vast river of people on foot flooding through a closed of section of main streets, there was a gathering in a friends apartment, a countdown, drinking, clinking, laughing... There was the search for the right bar and club to go to after midnight, the indecisiveness of a handful of people, the head shaking, the debating, the settling on the cheapest and least intimidating place, and then the stumbling through the streets with the sun coming up, the final discussion as to whether to pass out or not.

The differences, though, were what made it a memorable night. As we drove through the city throughout the afternoon of the 31st, we were constantly stopped by young men dressed in drag asking for change in order to pass by, and at seemingly every street corner venders were selling "Años Viejos" - dummies that are handmade, filled with newspaper or sawdust, generally depicting hated politicians or ubiquitous characters, which are burned in the streets after midnight. - The suffocating flow of people down the closed and dark and guarded main street were passing by one lit up stage after another, each with deafening dance, electronica, or traditional music blasting from a PA. On the stages were the winners of a contest for the best "Años Viejos." Each depicted a scene, often political, and was set up like a comic book, with word bubbles and text describing the action.

First I saw one that was in favor of socialism, then one that was against socialism, and then the vast majority of the rest were unfavorably directed towards the current government in the United States. One showed progressive South American leaders made up like the Fantastic Four, fighting off George Bush made to look like Dr. Doom. Another showed him being torn to shreds by some of the same leaders.

There in the current of the crowd I felt an emotional weight come over me. Of course I agreed with the images I was seeing. I´ve spent my fair share of nights laying awake in anger at the state of our government in the last eight years, had a nervous breakdown the night of the 2004 election, lashed out at my own close friends who didnt bother to vote, but it was disturbing to see these sentiments in person, to realize full on that the rest of the world is watching and cares deeply what is happening in The United States.

The pained feeling did not come from others possibly assuming that being American I stand for what George Bush stands for, in fact the assumption is usually the opposite. The pain came from my lack of control. I love my country, and I want to be proud of it, to not be checking for contempt in other´s eyes when I tell them where I´m from. It has given me so much that I take for granted, that allows me and everyone I know to live a relatively easy life, whether we know it or not, and its getting ravaged and ruined and thrown away right before my eyes.

As we walked to the bus stop and shoved our way into an overflowing city bus, as we rode all the way back to our friend´s apartment, I was silent. I kept thinking of the baggage that I as an American am carrying around, and I kept dwelling on how powerless I am to change that. What has been done has been done, and in the name of my country. I kept asking myself what I could do to change things, just to help make them right again.

Minutes before the sound of fireworks and firecrackers like machine gun fire rattled in 2008, I was handed a bowl of twelve grapes, told to eat each one before midnight, and to make a wish. I´m pretty sure it jeopardizes the wishes if I share them, but I´m certain you can guess where I laid my hopes.

...and then after our dinner at midnight, finally walking outside to find a bar, we found the smoldering remains of the "Años Viejos" sending columns of smoke upwards along the quiet streets, into that familiar night sky that somehow spreads over this strange city.