Monday, July 29, 2013

Nariz del Diablo, Cuenca, and Ingapirca

This past weekend, three of my friends from work and I used some of our vacation days to travel to Cuenca, Ecuador.  Cuenca is about a 10 to 12 hour bus ride south of Quito and is a really beautiful city.  Everyone I knew who had been to Ecuador before recommended it, and I am glad that we had the chance to go.
We left Thursday night (July 25th, 2013) from Quito to Riobamba to spend the night in a hostel.  We were surprised to find that Riobamba is much colder than Quito at night.  Luckily, the hostel had warm, fuzzy panda blankets on all the beds (but no light in the bathroom - not helpful when arriving at 10:00pm - although it did have a skylight so I guess we shouldn't complain).  The hostel was actually pretty nice.  We woke up early in the morning and left the hostel by 7:00am to walk to the bus station to catch a bus to Alausí.  We managed to hop right onto a bus just as it was pulling out of the station, and about an hour later, we found ourselves in a cute little touristy town of Alausi.  
Alausi is home to the Nariz del Diablo train ride, a pretty cool engineering feat from 1902 with the train still taking tourists through the double switchback path.  Apparently the ride was cooler two years ago when you could sit on the roof (scary) and see Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest peak (cool).  We couldn't see Chimborazo, but learning about railway's construction and getting the chance to see that part of the country was pretty neat.  Construction began in the 1880s, in an attempt to connect Guayaquil to Quito by rail.  By the end of construction of the Nariz del Diablo portion of the track, nearly half of the workers had died from disease, labor, or the climate.  This section was built under Eloy Alfaro's presidency in Ecuador and he brought in two American brothers, John and Archer Hammon, to help.  John Hammon was a major in the US Army and a West Point educated engineer.  Here are some other facts about the history of the Nariz del Diablo route construction (completed in 1902), taken from the museum:
[The railway] brought workers from the English colonies in the Caribbean, believed to be resistant to tropical climate and diseases.  There were 4,000 Jamaicans, 240 Puerto Ricans, and 204 from Barbados.  In addition, there were 500 prisoners from these colonies who were promised freedom if they survived the construction.  Indigenous people were also used, but the desertion rate was high, during the planting and harvesting seasons, and the precarious working conditions, which included the use of explosives, didn't help.  In addition, the hacienda owners did not allow them to work on the railway, so forced recruitment was used.
In the Andes, the Oroya in Peru used the switchback before it was used on the Devil's Nose.  John Hammon [American] chose this method n Ecuador to create three levels.  "The railroad will rise with a grade of 3.5% along a narrow cornice cut by blasting the wall of the perpendicular rock of the Nose and will extend beyond the bifrucation of the railway.  When the train goes beyond the bifrucation, a switchman will jump from the locomotive and raise the lever to change the track; then , the train will continue on its way up to the next narrow cornice, in reverse, until the next switchback.  Then, the switchman will change the tracks again, and the train will continue on its way through the cornice, until crossing the Devil's Nose."
According to the men who worked on the train, the Devil's Nose was damned by Satan because he didn't want a railway to be built there.  Acts that go against the Devil's wishes are paid for in human lives: first, there was the massive death toll among Jamaican workers and later several railway employees died. 
After the train ride in Alausi, we hopped a bus headed to Cuenca (we caught it on the side of the Panamerican Highway).  We stood for about 40 minutes in the aisle until four seats opened up and we were able to ride the rest of the way.  Typically, people hop on and off the bus selling anything from potato chips to ice cream to CDs, and this bus ride was no exception.  However, one guy hopped on the bus to sell potato chips, but when one man in the back shouted that he wanted to buy some, the seller hopped off the bus.  He wasn't really trying that hard and the hungry guy in the back of the bus was left dumbfounded.  It was pretty comical.
We arrived in Cuenca on Friday evening, with enough time to check into the hostel, drop our things off in our room, and then walk around the city for a little bit.  The city is definitely smaller than Quito (although apparently the third largest in Ecuador) but it was so much safer.  In Quito, you definitely would not be wanting to walk around anywhere at night, especially not in the historical center.  However in Cuenca, there were lots of people out and about after dark with many restaurants and cafes open throughout the historical center.  We had fun just exploring one of the main streets, Calle Larga, before going back to the hostel for the night.
On Saturday morning, we woke up early to catch a quick breakfast and then head to the center of the city for a city bus tour.  We ended up going to the only restaurant that was open at 8:00am, a cafe run by American ex-pats called Windhorse Cafe.  A Cuenca fun-fact: there are over 5,000 American retirees living in the city.  The atmosphere was nice although the service was a bit to be desired.  After a quick breakfast, we walked up Calle Larga and found a morning market with fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and a random assortment of other goods.  We walked around the market for a bit just to get a taste of what it was like before heading out to the main square, Parque Calderon, to catch a red double decker bus for the city bus tour.  Only $5.00 got us a fantastic guided bus tour of the whole city and it was really cool to see the different French, Spanish, and Arab influences in the old colonial architecture as well as see the four rivers that run through the city. We also managed to get some great pictures.
After the bus tour, we sat for a while in the park before checking out the inside of the main cathedral on the square.  It was absolutely beautiful, and I loved the three blue copulas set against the henna-colored brick and bright blue sky.  We wandered around the city some more, walking around the park by the river behind Calle Larga.  It was so nice to see people and families out enjoying themselves in a safe, clean public park that actually had a decent playground for the children (and even grass!).  Quito doesn't really have anything like that, so it was very relaxing to just sit in the sun in the park by the water for a bit.  
The bus tour and our lunch finished a little while after most of the museums had closed for the weekend, so instead we went to the Museo de Sombreros, the Panama Hat museum. The hat museum was actually really cool.  We learned all about the history of the hat and the traditional, indigenous techniques used to weave the hats.  It was pretty cool too to see how hat making techniques have evolved over time.  One of our friends even got to try out one of the modern molding machines to form a hat's style and shape.

The hats start out coming from the boiled leaves and fibers of a particular plant grown in the Costa region of Ecuador.  Then, these fibers are separated and shipped to Cuenca (and surrounding villages) where indigenous women select the bushels that they want.  They then begin weaving the hats, starting from the center on the crown and weaving by hand outward.  The finer the fibers, the higher quality the hat and the longer it takes to weave it.  There are still no machines that can match the quality of weaving by hand or copy the designs.

 Molds were used to help style and size the hats.  Originally these were made out of stone, then later wood.  There are many traditional styles and modern ones as well.  There were also different techniques for measuring the size of a person's head in order to see which size hat the client would need.  These hats are worn by both men and women.  In order to soften the fibers, they were bathed in a sulfer & water mix in order to preserve the white color and then hammered with a wooden mallet to make the hat soft and maleable.  Later, modern hammering machines were developed (it looks sort of like a piston) to process more hats more quickly.
After the hats have been washed, dried, and hammered, the hat needs to be shaped.  The molds were used for this as well, but now modern machines have been developed with interchangeable molds that allow you to process many hats in a short amount of time.  You take the hat and set it in the machine, then you place the style mold inside, then place a leather band to protect the brim of the hat from burning.  Then, you close the machine and turn on the water.  The steaming hot water steams the hat for a minute or two, then you take the hat out of the machine.  You wait a couple minutes then repeat this process four or five times with the same hat.  While the one hat is cooling, you can change the mold and do another as long as you don't lose track.  The finer the hat, the more you can bend and roll it and it will not lose its shape.  The superfine hats however can run up to $1,000.00 so typically these hats are not placed in the molds until a serious client comes in to purchase one where he or she can select the shape and style.
At the end of the tour, we got to try on a lot of the hats in the showroom and had fun goofing around and taking pictures with some pretty cool hats.  Prices can vary widely though - anywhere from $15 to $800 or more, depending on the quality of the hat.
Unfinished super-fino hat.  Starting price of $850.
After the hat museum, we still had some time to kill before our dinner reservation at a highly recommended restaurant called Tiesto's, so we passed the time chilling in Wunderbar Cafe.  It was a cute little place with a pretty decent playlist on in the background.  Dinner at Tiesto's was a lot of fun, too.  The food was fantastic and the atmosphere was just as good.  Since one of our coworkers back in Quito had raved about it all summer, we made a pact to tell him upon our return that the place was overrated (although it was as good as he said), just to see the look on his face.
On Sunday, July 28, 2013, we paid for the same city bus tour company to take us to Ingapirca, Gualeceo, and Chedorleg.  We left around 9:00am but had some bus trouble along the highway.  We were stuck on the side of the road for a while right by a field of cows until two vans came to take us to Ingapirca.  Ingapirca is COLD and WINDY.  None of us were expecting that.  It was pretty cool though to see the Inca and Cañari ruins and learn a bit more about the cultures there as well as to see the architectural mastery of the time.  There are even remnants of the Inca road connecting Cuzco to Quito that run through the site today.  Some of the remaining Inca structures were built in such a way that no cement or mortar was used to join the blocks of stone.  Instead, the stone was fit so tightly together that it is still standing.  I bet someone got their fingers squished along the way building these kinds of structures.  There were also remnants of what was probably a ceremonial area, holes filled with water to measure the phases of the moon, Cañari tombs, the Incan road that connected Cuzco to Quito, houses, and food storage areas.   Unfortunately, the llamas were all penned up so we did not get to see the llamas wandering the ruins.
After Ingapirca, we hopped onto a [much warmer] bus to take us to lunch then Gualeceo and Chedorleg, craft towns known for their jewelry and silverwork.  Because of the earlier bus delays, we did not have a ton of time to look, but were still able to see a bit before heading back to Cuenca.
On Monday, we unfortunately had to take the bus back to Quito to be ready for work on Tuesday.  It was quite a long bus ride (about 10.5 hours) and we were very happy to make it back to our apartments for clean showers and a good night's rest.  All in all, it was a great trip and very fun to see a beautiful city in another part of the country we have all been living in for the past several months.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pichincha on a Cloudy Day

On Sunday, July 21, 2013, two friends from work and I, tired from the early trip yesterday to Otavalo and Peguche Waterfall, decided to spend the day in Quito checking some things off of our bucket list.  We met up on the Ecovia in the morning and headed first to the Casa de Cultura to see the Museo Nacional Banco Central which is supposed to have the best archeological exhibits of the museums in Quito.  Aside from the Guayasamin Museum, the Museo Banco Central was pretty good.  There was a lot of ancient pottery as well as an exhibit of Incan gold.
After the museum, we walked to a restaurant in La Mariscal called Baalbek, located on 6 de diciembre y Wilson.  It was probably the nicest restaurant that I have been to in Quito so far and we had quite a full menu for about $22 a person, including appetizers, main plates, desert, juices, and tea.  It was amazing food, and the best customer service I've had here in Ecuador and compared to Spain as well.  The owner is also quite a personality and will personally attend to each of the tables in the restaurant to speak with the clients as well as suggest dishes and menus for the patrons.  We are definitely planning on going back to Baalbek.

Helado de Baklava --> going back for THIS

Delicious Tabouli, Falafel, Kibbe, Rice, Hommous, etc. It's all amazing.
After Baalbek, we took the Trole to Plaza Grande to visit La Compañia church.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but it is absolutely beautiful.  Inside, the church is covered in gold leaf almost everywhere with intricate plaster and masonry work everywhere.  I didn't even try to sneak a picture, but just to have an idea of how intricate the church is, here are a couple pictures.
The Outside

The Inside
We didn't spend too much time in La Compañia and left to take a taxi from Centro Historico to the TeleferiQo.  Quito has an elevation of about 2,800 meters above sea level and the top of TeleferiQo has an elevation of about 4,200 meters above sea level.  So even though we have all done fine at Quito's elevation about 9,000 feet above sea level, we all had to walk a little bit slower at the top of the TeleferiQo.  It was also significantly colder up top (we were not really prepared for that) so we hiked around for about a half hour and then went back inside a cafe at the top.  While it was cloudy and we couldn't see the top of Mount Pichincha, but it was still pretty cool to be up there and to see the different patterns of sun and shadow that covered Quito and the mountain range from above.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Otavalo Market and Peguche Waterfalls

On Saturday, July 20, 2013, I met up with 4 co-workers and a few of their friends bright and early at the Carcelen Bus Station in the northern part of Quito (at 7:00am!).  We were easily able to buy tickets and board our bus to our destination - the famous Saturday morning markets at Otavalo.  We arrived around 9:00am, had a quick breakfast, and then hit the market stalls.  
The day before, a friend from work and I went to the Mariscal market in Quito to price-check all the goods there to have an idea of which goods would be cheaper in Quito and which would be cheaper in Otavalo.  Without even bargaining, we got some pretty good asking prices that served us well as a great frame of reference for the Otavalo shopping adventure.  The Otavalo Saturday market is a pretty big tourist attraction and because of this, I think a lot of the similar goods that you could find in Quito were a bit overpriced, although there is a larger selection for jewelry in Otavalo (and the prices were not bad with a bit of bargaining).  We were able to do some pretty good bargaining and walked away with a backpack full of pretty cool stuff.
There were a lot of cool things in the market and we had fun just wandering around and bargaining with the shop owners.  Some of the extranjeros in our group thought that bargaining too much was a bad thing and insulting, but the bargaining is part of the fun and the experience.  The starting price is always too high and especially if you are willing to buy more than one item, the final price will likely be significantly lower.  Also, if you stick to your offered price, are determined, and willing to walk away if it isn't lowered, venders may accept your original offered price (which is a win for you).  The pictures here are only a few kinds of goods at the market (lots more things than this, obviously, but the pathways between the stalls are tight and I didn't want to have my camera out everywhere).
After our market shopping experience and a quick lunch, our big group split up.  My friend and I had already been to Cotacachi and Cuicocha, so we stayed in the Otavalo area and headed to the Peguche Waterfalls, about a 5 minute taxi ride south of the town.  There is a tiny town (called Peguche) which is pretty poor - just a dusty little place with cinderblock houses and tin roofs.  You enter the park through a gate that was built in 1613 by enslaved indigenous men, women, and children.  After the gate, you walk a bit through the park on a cobblestone pathway.  The park is free to enter and it was cool to see all of the Ecuadorian families out in the park playing soccer, having picnics, and just enjoying themselves.
The waterfall itself is a tourist attraction so the area right by the falls has a pretty mixed crowd.  But the waterfall also has spiritual significance related to the Inti Raymi festival.  Festival participants bathe in the ice cold water to cleanse themselves before the festival.  It was pretty cool to be able to see the waterfall knowing this having seen one day of the festival earlier in one of our weekend trips. There are some trails leading around the falls so we were able to hike up to the top of the falls as well as hike a bit in the forest to see the falls from a distance.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Inca Ruins at the Equator

On Saturday, July 13, 2013, my friend from work, a new volunteer, and I headed out for a day trip to the Mitad del Mundo complex about an hour away by bus from Quito.  It was probably the most toursity thing I have done so far on the trip this summer, but it was on my list of things to do and we just needed  quick, easy day trip (three of my co-workers were running the 21 kilometer Quito half-marathon the following day).  We got to the complex relatively early in the morning.  There is not a ton of stuff to see there - just the monument and the line of the fake equator (the monument was built and then when GPS was later used to calculate its exact location, it was discovered to be 240 meters south of the real equator).  

Despite it being a really touristy location, there were Ecuadorian families who brought their children there too.  At least on the weekends, there are also groups that dance.  When we happened to be there on a Saturday morning, there was a fairly large group of children who did some nice dances from indigenous groups in the region.
After wandering around a bit, we headed out of the complex and down a street to grab some lunch.  From lunch, we walked back up past the Mitad del Mundo complex to visit the Inti Ñan museum.  This museum was much better, focused on indigenous groups of the region plus a few interesting, simple science experiments on the equator, like balancing a raw egg on a nail (the real equator this time, as measured with GPS).  
After the Inti Ñan museum, we went to visit Rumicucho, Incan ruins from around 1480 or 1500.  The view of the surrounding area from the top of the ruins is magnificent.  It is so cool to be standing in what was an Incan fortress and ceremonial worship cite.  
There is not too much left of the fortress, other than the foundations of a few walls, the foundation and stairs of a main building, and the terraces cut into the hillside.  The short video I took standing on the site of the surrounding view simply does not do it justice.  

There is another site, called Ingapirca, which is between Quito and Cuenca, that supposedly has the best preserved Incan ruins in Ecuador.  I really hope that I get a chance to see that too while I am here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Refugee Law in Ecuador

Now that I have been working with the NGO for a few weeks here in Quito and developing a client base, now might be a good time to do a post about the refugee system here and a few of my observations so far.  The first thing to note is that it is pretty crazy.  Ecuador has really lax visa laws to get into the country, but once you are here (and especially if you are a refugee), it is really hard to stay legally.  Because Ecuador borders Colombia, the vast majority of those applying for refugee status are Colombian, but due to the lax entry requirements, I have clients from literally all over the world, fleeing a whole host of really serious, scary situations.

Refugees only have 15 days from the time they enter Ecuador to apply for refugee status (this is generous considering that Ecuador only allows 3 days for appeals).  According to Ecuadorian refugee and administrative law, it is supposed to be 15 business days from the day they arrive and you start counting on the next day, but in practice, the Direccion de Refugio counts 15 calendar days.  Which means that the time frame to apply, assuming the person fleeing for their life a) knows about their right to apply for asylum and b) knows they only have a certain timeframe in which to do so, is even shorter than it is legally supposed to be.  The timeframe is also a huge challenge, both for original petitions and for appeals, because many people do not live in Quito or in an area where they are physically or financially able to travel to a DR branch to apply for status or submit their appeal.

This leads to a lot of cases where applicants for refugee status are denied right away because they passed the 15 day timeframe.  The next step is to appeal (they can appeal twice - once through an apelacion and once through a recurso de reposicion; there is also a third recurso extrodinaro, but the only cases that have a chance of succeeding with this are the really, really extreme cases).  I am not really sure how successful the appeals are at actually getting people refugee status - sometimes they just get denied again so then the person has to find another means of staying in Ecuador legally (usually a work visa or a visa through a blood relative that has Ecuadorian citizenship), and sometimes the applicant actually gets the solicitante status, meaning that his or her case will be considered for refugee status.

The decisions regarding refugee status are supposed to be made within 4 months (5 at the most).  This usually does not happen.  Usually, people will go back to the DR to check on their case and they just get the solicitante status for longer.  A lot of people end up waiting years to hear about a decision in their case. This is problematic because they start building a life here in Ecuador while waiting, but if their case gets denied, then they only have 15 days to get their affairs in order and leave the country.

If they are really a refugee, then they can't go back to their old country, so many end up staying illegally, which makes it even harder to find work and they live in constant fear of imprisonment and deportation.  According to international legal norms and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a country cannot send a person to a country where he or she will be persecuted, but if the Ecuadorian government does not recognize the person as a refugee, there is a change that the individual could be deported back to his or her country of origin from which they fled and could be in real danger.

Being a solicitante is also hard because there is also a lot of discrimination based on national origin.  Solicitantes and Recognized Refugees are supposed to have the same rights as Ecuadorian citizens but are often the victims of discrimination, especially when it comes to their children in school and obtaining legal employment.  Clients have been told that employers don't want to hire them because they are refugees or refugees from a certain country.  Children also face problems, including violence and bullying, in school at the hands of other students and faculty and staff.  In Ecuador, you need a lot of different documents notarized to apply for a whole range of things, which gets really expensive for people.  Notaries know this and take advantage of people in migratory situations, especially refugees, applicants, and those with irregular (illegal) immigration status.

According to article 177 of ERJAFE (Ecuador's major administrative law), if an applicant does not hear back from the administrative agency in two months, it is considered a default judgment in the applicant's favor.  In this case, if the person applying for refugee status does not receive an answer in their case from the DR within two months after the 5 month timeframe (so seven months of waiting total), then the administrative silence should be interpreted as granting refugee status to the applicant.  However, this legal right is non-existent in practice.  If it were actually followed, there would be a ton of people getting refugee status, but instead people are kept waiting in limbo for years.

Even if a person is successful in getting refugee status, it is granted as a visa valid for only 2 years.  Every two years, the visa is reviewed again and the Ministry and DR reconsider whether they think the person should be a refugee.  Recently, many Colombian males between 18 and 26 years of age have found out that their refugee status was revoked when they went to renew their visas.  Even people who are recognized refugees often opt to change their type of visa to something that will be more secure if they are fortunate enough to be able to do so.  For example, those with Ecuadorian children, silblings, or partners are able to apply for a visa de amparo based on their relative's Ecuadorian nationality.  This visa lasts for the duration of the applicant's passport - so if you were to apply when your passport is brand new, your visa de amparo would last for about 10 years instead of having to renew their visa and ID card every two years.

In addition to these problems, article 76(7)(L) of Ecuador's most recent constitution (number 19, from 2008, with over 400 articles) requires that decisions granting or denying status be explained.  Often, clients will get rejections of status for minor things from interviews, like "applicant failed to name group persecuting him so not credible story" or "applicant is denied because failed to file within 15 day timeframe," and the decisions do not adequately explain why the person was rejected for a legitimate reason.  Decision-makers also do some pretty crazy things in interviews, like fail to provide translators in the applicant's native language or conduct 3 or 4 hour interviews on the day the person arrives and then deny the individual status because he or she missed one date or name or place during the entire interview.

Another really important point about the Ecuadorian refugee system is that up until May 30th, 2012, Ecuador used a much broader definition of what constitutes a refugee.  Instead of using the 1951 definition, Ecuador and other Latin American states used the Cartagena definition.  See how the two compare:

First, the 1951 definition from the Convention on the Status of Refugees:
...Owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
...In view of the experience gained from the massive flows of refugees in the Central American area, it is necessary to consider enlarging the concept of a refugee, bearing in mind, as far as appropriate and in the light of the situation prevailing in the region, the precedent of the OAU Convention (article 1, paragraph 2) and the doctrine employed in the reports of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Hence the definition or concept of a refugee to be recommended for use in the region is one which, in addition to containing the elements of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, includes among refugees persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.
On May 30th, 2012, that changed with the publication of Decreto 1182.  D.1182 re-established solely the 1951 definition and eliminated the Cartagena Definition from Ecuador's refugee process.  Because of this, it has become much more difficult for people fleeing some pretty serious situations that would be recognized under the Cartagena Definition to get the same rights and recognition as a refugee under the narrower 1951 definition.  This means that a lot of people try to fall into "particular social group," but this is  often not recognized.  This affects a lot of Colombian applicants in particular.

These are just some initial observations after the first few weeks working with clients.  It is difficult because so many have such difficult, dangerous situations, but there are so many points in the process for them to get denied status that could give them much-needed protection.  Sometimes, hearing their stories about how they were persecuted relentlessly in their home country and how they came here but now cannot get help from either the Ecuadorian government or UNHCR, can be very emotionally draining. And with the complicated process designed and implemented to be tough for people applying for protected refugee status, it is really difficult to have a client sitting in front of you asking you for help and having to tell them that this is all you can do and that they have to find other ways to avoid being sent back to a place where their lives and those of their family could be in very real danger.  And it's not like Quito is a safe place to live or raise a family, so the fact that they fled here should be telling.  I guess I hope that whatever I write for people or however I can make the process a little easier to understand and navigate will result in people being able to improve their situations - the gratitude that the clients have for the little that we are able to do is truly humbling.


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