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Ecuador: An Up-Close Look At A Distant Neighbor (Jan '05)

By President Janet Dudley-Eshbach

Educators often assert that one of the goals of study abroad is to train future global leaders to be more effective, respectful of other cultures and political and economic systems, and willing to take a stand for the world’s welfare, not just what benefits a specific country. ... [Institute of International Education] findings indicate that study abroad is succeeding in its mission.
      Allan Goodman, President, Institute of International Education

For a week in January, I had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador with Salisbury University students as part of an exchange program with the CEDEI (Center for International Studies) in Cuenca, in the Andean mountains. This was the 10th anniversary of SU’s exchange program and the 25th anniversary of my first time leading a study trip to that part of the world as a young faculty member at Goucher College. Much has changed in a quarter of a century, yet, at the same time, much seems the same.

At the celebratory farewell dinner our last night in Cuenca, I presented the CEDEI with a commemorative plaque, a Salisbury University banner and, thanks to the head of the Eastern Shore delegation, Page Elmore, an official flag of the State of Maryland. We now have a very visible, year-round presence in Ecuador!
During their month there, SU students took a variety of courses including Spanish language (all levels), advanced courses taught in Spanish, such as Dr. Brian Stiegler’s film studies class, and other courses in English, such as Latin American history, in which my son, an SU junior, was enrolled. The Cuenca program caters to the interests and needs of non-Spanish speakers as well as those who are fluent in the language.

The classes, taught by CEDEI staff and SU faculty, are excellent, and what happens outside the classroom is equally valuable. Each student is placed with a Cuencan family, one student per family. The Cuencans are a warm, hospitable people, and in the short time they have as a “son” or “daughter” one of our SU students, everyone gets quite close. There were many tears at the farewell dinner and at the airport upon our departure. One of the key experiences for our students is learning to “defenderse” (roughly, get along) in Spanish—even those with only rudimentary Spanish skills are speaking “survival Spanish” by the end of the home stay.
One evening, my son’s Ecuadorian family graciously invited me to a supper of traditional Cuenca cuisine. Olga, our host, fixed traditional treats such as “canelazo,” a drink made with cinnamon, “mote,” a dish something like chickpeas, except that it is made from kernels of corn, and other wonderful dishes. Ecuador is known for its seafood, and one can eat “ceviche,” raw seafood, throughout the country. A complete plate of garlic shrimp and rice costs just over $1 U.S.

Olga’s husband, Wilson (strangely, a rather popular man’s name in Ecuador), owns a flower plantation. Most of his product is for export, and he was quite busy at the time of my visit, growing extra flowers to meet the demand in the United States for Valentine’s Day. I found it extremely interesting that most of what we call baby’s breath is grown in Ecuador. And another lesson in our global economy: I had brought a gift of chocolate imported from England to give to Olga and her family. It turns out that the cacao from which the chocolates were made had come from Ecuador; then it was exported to England where the finished product was sold as gourmet chocolate, thus making a round trip! Without a doubt ours is a small and shrinking world. Imagine my surprise when at a T-shirt shop in Guayaquil I saw an iron-on decal that read “Fenwick Island, DE, Vacation Paradise!”

Ecuador is a beautiful country about the size of Nevada. Though a small nation, it contains numerous ecosystems, from the tropical coastal areas to the high Andean páramo. As is the case with most countries that straddle the equator, climate is determined more by altitude than latitude. Back when I first came to Ecuador, my students and I had taken a train from the coastal city of Guayaquil up through the mountains to Quito, an impressive ride which included numerous switchbacks, necessary so that the train might make it up perilously steep inclines. The highlight of the trip was passing numerous volcanoes and snow-capped Andean peaks like Cotopaxi, represented in so many native paintings. Alas, the train no longer makes the trip today, but by plane one can equally appreciate the nation’s beauty.

Traveling by car or bus, visitors see that flowers of all types are abundant. As I am a member of a garden club, I especially enjoyed seeing flowers and plants such as impatiens, petunias, begonias, ferns and philodendron that were the size of large bushes and shrubs! I also saw many species I could not identify. On the bus from Cuenca to the ancient Incan city of Ingapirca, the sweet aroma of flowering plants wafted into the bus on the breeze … delightful! The palm trees of the tropical coastal region give way to pines and scrub as one goes from sea level to 13,000 feet.
The equator runs right through Ecuador (thus, its name). Students went crazy taking pictures at Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the Earth), where they stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere. A taxi driver reported to me that at the equator one can balance an egg on the head of a nail, as the gravitational pull exerts equal pull in both directions, north and south. I did not try this experiment, thinking it might look odd for SU’s president to be trying to balance an egg on a nail!
In describing Latin American nations, the term “land of contrasts” is often used. This is equally true of Ecuador. Internet cafés can be found on practically every street in the cities, and shops hawk pirated DVD movies and CDs. Yet amidst the signs of modernity, the culture is still very traditional, particularly once one leaves the major cities. When the Spaniards arrived to the Andean region in the 1530s, they found many more indigenous women than men, because of civil wars between rival indigenous groups that had decimated the male population. And, of course, most of the early Spanish arrivals were men. Today, Ecuador’s population is approximately 60 percent mestizo, 35 percent indigenous and 5 percent black.

The largest city in Ecuador is Guayaquil, and there is friction between that city’s governmental leaders and the national government, located in Quito. The third largest Ecuadorian city is ... New York City! It is estimated that approximately a million Ecuadorian nationals live in NYC, while the third largest city in Ecuador itself, Cuenca, only numbers about 400,000. Guayaquil is a vibrant seaport, Quito a statelier, colonial city, while Cuenca, with its cobblestone streets and French-influenced architecture, is the intellectual center of the country.

Ecuador is a country rich in resources: oil, banana, minerals, cacao, etc., yet few share in the nation’s wealth. The unequal distribution of wealth and governmental corruption are the primary issues of concern on the political front. The current president, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, won election two years ago, promising reforms. There is much disagreement as to whether or not he has been able to deliver on his promises. Many middle class Ecuadorians show their dismay that a military figure, a colonel no less, could be elected president—I remind them that in the United States we have elected an actor as president and another film star as governor of California!

The people of Ecuador love to discuss politics. Their foremost concern at present revolves around the government of President Gutiérrez, who recently “reorganized” the nation’s Supreme Court. In theory, Ecuador’s federal government functions much as our own, yet recent events have led citizens to question the independence of the three branches of government. One person with whom I spoke expressed her opinion that President George W. Bush is, in a very real sense, the “President of the World,” as what decisions he makes impact Ecuador and nearly every nation around the world. She said: “We can’t vote for the President of the United States, but the person who wins ends up being our President, too.”

The influence of U.S. culture is evident everywhere, from the television stations, to the Sponge Bob products sold (“Bob Esponja”), to the currency used. In 1999, “la dolarización” took place. Today, the dollar is used everywhere, having officially replaced the sucre. This move has stabilized the nation’s economy on a macroeconomic scale, but for many has made daily existence more costly and difficult. Ecuador is remarkably inexpensive—a four-course “almuerzo,” menu of the day, runs about $1.50. Anyone traveling to the country should be sure to carry many small bills, as it is often difficult to get vendors to accept bills larger than $10. A typical Internet café charges $1 per hour. (I couldn’t help but compare this to the $1 per minute that I paid recently on a trip to Charleston, SC!)

Immigration to the U.S. also has had an immense impact on the Ecuadorian economy. Throughout the country one sees recently constructed houses in a style that looks more like something one would see in a U.S. suburb; these are two- and three-story houses built with dollars wired home by immigrants working in the U.S. Western Union outlets dot the countryside. Some of the middle and upper-middle class Ecuadorians are resentful, as many of these new, larger homes belong to the indigenous class of workers. I was told that on the first floor of these homes the indigenous owners keep livestock and “cuy,” guinea pigs that are raised for consumption as a delicacy. With livestock on the first floor, the families live up on the second floor of these homes.

Educated Ecuadorians also are concerned about such issues as global warming. Fewer of the nation’s peaks are snow capped as compared to just a decade or two ago, and reportedly 75 percent of the ice pack on the highest peaks has melted. The melting of snow cover in the Andes is particularly alarming in Peru and Ecuador, according to a newspaper special report I read while in Quito.

Salisbury University’s program was begun by Professor Gerald St. Martin, and the success of the program is largely due to his vision and hard work in its first years. Professor Brian Stiegler directed this 2005 intersession program, and his energy and enthusiasm are catching. That this year’s intersession was such an enormous success is largely due to his sense of responsibility, passion and organizational ability. To a person, the 24 students from SU raved about their experiences in Cuenca. I commend these faculty for their commitment to the exchange program with the CEDEI and heartily recommend it to students wanting a foreign study experience.

While in Ecuador, my January 15 calendar page read as follows: “Many of the world’s problems and conflicts arise because we have lost sight of the basic humanity that binds us all together as a human family.” How true! It is through international education and the exploration of other cultures that we will work toward human understanding and, yes, world peace.

Editor’s note: Also during January, SU students were studying at the Roatan Marine Institute on an island in Honduras and at the Technical University of Berlin, Germany. Throughout the year other SU students will be studying in New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Guatemala, France, Australia and Peru. Planning is also underway for summer programs in England, India, China and Argentina.

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