Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The people of Ecuador

By Gail Burkhardt
In Ecuador

IIJ Foreign Correspondence Intern

E. W. Scripps School of Journalism

If you ask tourists who have visited Ecuador what some of their favorite things are about the country, it is likely that among the volcanoes, Galapagos, culture and history, they will also list the citizens. Despite the fact that many people here do not agree with the United States’ politics, evidenced by anti-Hillary Clinton graffiti that remains after activists protested her June visit to President Rafael Correa, I have not met any Ecuadorians who have treated me badly because of my country of origin. Sure some people in open markets raise their prices when they see my blond hair and some men have the wrong idea about the promiscuity of foreign women, but almost everyone I have met has been extremely kind to me and even some complete strangers, have gone out of their way to improve my experience here. As my time here is sadly coming to a close in less than a month, I would like to use this post to thank all of those people who have showed me kindness as well as give an idea of how great the people are here.

Everyone here greets one another with “good morning,” “hello,” etc. This is one I slip up on. For example, when asking for directions I am usually in a hurry and blurt out my question interrupting the friendly person who almost always greets me and asks how I am. Also when shopping in a market, I sometimes forget to be polite and greet the vendor before asking for the price. People often tell me they think people in the United States are always in a hurry and work too hard. It is nice to slow down the pace here and be able to ask someone how they are and be willing to wait for an answer.

Journalists and Sources
My coworkers, despite being incredibly busy are incredibly patient. My editor and fellow reporter in the community section of the paper have taught me so much and are always willing to answer my sometimes incessant questions. When I go out on a story with a photographer, he or she always helps me out if I get confused. What has really suprised me is how well journalists from rival institutions get along. Whenever there is a press conference everyone is kissing everyone else on the cheek and chatting. When you don’t quite catch something you can ask another journalist and he or she will help you out. This is not to say that we aren’t competitive, we don’t give away scoop if we have it, but I know that I can always clarify something I didn’t quite understand with another journalist. That also goes for sources, who, even though they have a busy schedule, are willing to explain things for me with a smile and answer my sometimes awkwardly worded questions.

Your mother's advice “Don’t talk to strangers” doesn’t apply when you are traveling in a foreign country. You have to talk to strangers to ask for directions, get recommendations of where to visit, meet people etc. Although I don’t go out of my way to give away my personal information to people who strike up a conversation with me, sometimes lying about my real name or other details, talking to strangers has helped me get around Quito and meet some of the most interesting people. One man in the main plaza start talking with me to practice his English. He asked me what the word “jade” meant, even spelling it for me, which was puzzling as it is spelled the same in Spanish. I told him it was a green stone and he told me that he was talking about the Aerosmith song. I almost cracked up when I realized he had been trying to figure out for years what “Jaded” meant. Other strangers have helped me out, like the countless bus drivers and workers who have told me where to get off the bus and where to go from there to get to my destination.

Last weekend while traveling, three men were incredibly nice to me and made my trip so much better. I went to Mindo, a beautiful place with hiking trails, a waterfall, rivers, butterflies and more, about two hours from Quito, for the day. About 10 minutes before we arrived, a man about my age thought we were there, and turned to me and said “Don’t you need to get off the bus, this is Mindo.” Granted, he was wrong, but he was genuinely concerned about my getting to my destination. After we arrived in Mindo, I went to “The Canopy Adventure,” which consists of 13 zip lines that go from hillside to hillside. It was an amazing experience, but unfortunately I left my favorite T-shirt at the top of the mountain and didn’t realize this until I was riding the bus down to see the butterfly exhibit. When I got off the bus, I asked the driver when he was returning to the top, so I could retrieve my shirt. He told me not to worry that he would pick it up for me and then call me so I could get it from him. Sure enough two hours later, I got a call from him and he had my shirt. I tried to give him some money for his trouble, especially because it can be expensive to make cell phone calls here, but he wouldn’t accept it. Also on the trip I stopped in a restaurant inside a campground. As I was eating, I lamented the fact that I had not had time to see the beautiful waterfalls Mindo has because you have to walk pretty far to get to them and I would not have made it to the bus in time. One of the campground workers offered to take me to some waterfalls on their property that they show to guests. Not only did he walk with me, he helped me climb up some of the treacherous rocks and gave me an explanation of a lot of the plants and wildlife of the area, all for the cost of the piece of pie I ate in the restaurant.

So when I leave in a month, I will definitely miss the natural beauty and the wonderful culture of this place, but I think most of all I will miss the people. I hope I can make time to keep up some of their habits of politeness even while moving a mile-a-minute, and be able to pay forward all of the kindness I have received here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Los Muertos de Pomuch

By Craig Reck
In Mexico

IIJ Foreign Correspondence Intern
E. W. Scripps School of Journalism

Thanks to popular culture and the Internet, most people know about the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. More than just a south-of-the-border Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is a time to remember dead family members and honor them with small offerings of food, drink and candles. But in some parts of the country, there is more to this holiday than a small household offering.

The cemetery in the small town of Pomuch, Campeche is closed for most of the year, but it's open from mid-October to early in November. In that time, the Pomucheños, residents of Pomuch, maintain a tradition that outsiders might expect to see in a horror film. They remove the bones of their loved ones from their resting place, clean them and change their cloths.

Some of the grave markers are simple, concrete squares with chipped paint. Others are elaborarely adorned with statues and bright colors. Some of the dates on the grave markers go as far back as 1939 and others are as recent as 2005.

Maria Guadalupe Pech Euan died on Christmas Eve in 2005. The one-year-old was sitting in the roofless part of her family's house the night before, when an unseasonal rain storm pummeled the girl with cold water, soaking her sweater. She died the next day of pneumonia.

"She's dead, but she's still a part of our life," says Maria Guadalupe's aunt, Luisa Adriana Euan Pool.

Euan Pool and her husband Aurelio Cohuo Ca'amal still take care of their niece in the cemetery. On November 1, Dia de los Niños, they reverently cleaned her bones, wrapped them in a new cloth and surrouned her resting place with flowers and candles.

Those at rest in the cemetery without family to care for them are not ignored. Cemetery workers make sure that most of the bones are cleaned, but about 10 percent of them are never cleaned. Those are the ones whose families chose to lay their beloved to rest and keep them there.

If a family chooses to clean their deceased, they have to wait three years. According to cemetery worker Don Bernacio Tus Chi, that time is needed for the bones to dry out.

Tus Chi has worked in the cemetery for 15 years, and he says that he's learned which unattended bones he looks after. Tus Chi has seen travelers from every part of the globe in this little cemetery.

"Yesterday there were some Chinese here. They spoke great Spanish," says Tus Chi. "I've seen Germans, French, Africans, last year some guys from Spain came to shoot a movie here."

Even Mexicans that celebrate Dia de los Muertos themselves are amazed at the extraordinary connection the Pomucheños have with their dead.

Whatever the reason might be for the visit, this Dia de los Muertos tradition will likely have an affect on anyone that walks through the cemetery in Pomuch. But now that it's November 3, the gate is locked, and you'll have to wait until next year.