Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bastion City

Ecuador: so much to say, no one really to say it to. It's a good place. It's my home place. People here know that, by now, even though I don't look like someone who'd have a home place here. Over there, in the north, it's easy to look like you belong but it never feels like it.

First photos from my trip home.

The name of this place is "Bastion Popular," literally a safe haven for the people. From Doug Saunders' book Arrival City, a look at slums worldwide and their role in urbanizing rural populations and serving as a vehicle out of poverty:
"The arrival city is often barely urban, in form or culture, but it should not be mistaken for a rural place. Urbanites tend to see the arrival city as a simple reproduction, within the city, of the structures and folkways of the village. “Look, on one side villages, on the other side buildings,” the Indian-American writer Suketu Mehta hears his young son observe on first seeing the arrival-city enclaves nestled against apartment towers in Bandra, in northern Mumbai. The father reacts approvingly: “He has identified the slums for what they are: villages in the city.” But this view misinterprets the urban ambitions of the arrival city, its fast-changing nature and its role in redefining the nature of urban life. 
"The culture of the arrival city is neither rural nor urban, though it incorporates elements of both—often in grotesquely distorted form—in its anxious effort to find a common source of security among its ambitious and highly insecure residents. It is a fallacy that people move in a straight line from backward, conservative rural customs to sophisticated, secular urban customs. The period in between, with its insecurities, its need for tight bonds and supportive institutions, its threats to the coherence of the family and the person, is often the time when new, hybrid, protective cultures are developed."
I'm reading that book during my evenings, after days spent walking the streets that used to be dirt and mud but have all been paved since my last trip here. The house that used to have a welding shop in it's front yard now has a big fence with barbed wire pointing out, protecting the middle-class car parked in the drive and the surely middle-class TV and sound system inside. The family that owns that house used to take me to their country home once a year when I was a kid. I'd eat rooster and sleep on wood slats and pick mandarin oranges off the trees and walk through mud that was thigh deep for an eight year old.

I've always thought of Bastion Popular as one of the back-ends of global capitalism, a forgotten people working slave jobs in the factories that spit out clothes and plastics for the people on the sunny side of life. The North. The Saunders book is a bit more hopeful, and gives me a new way to look at my home, at least until I actually get past the first few chapters and find problems with his argument.

At least in Bastion, I know too many people who aren't in transition from poverty to middle class stability.They are forced to be stuck: by ties to family members with addictions or health problems or bad business sense. But change is certainly in the air, with the radical left-wing president pushing through reforms at every level, shaking up everything society had taken for granted: mandatory military service, expensive higher education, out of reach health services. When I talk to kids I used to teach when they were in school, I hear that since they've joined the workforce, their  work day has improved, from 12 hours down to 8. Though some bosses still break the new laws because they still can.

But the government is gaining strength: "revolutionary inspectors" go out and ask employees at all sorts of companies whether their boss has signed them up for the government social security program (that costs the employee, and the employer, but gives the worker access to health and social services). If the employee says "No," the boss faces jail time. It's a criminal offense, punishable by five years in jail. Even housewives hiring maids, frequently rural girls looking for an in to the city at any cost, have to sign them up for social security. And their wages have gone up: you can't get a girl for $100 a month anymore.

The bosses do not like the president. It's hard to gauge whether the people genuinely love him, or have just been affected by the constant TV commercials and  billboards and print products acclaiming his measures. It's all really interesting. I just got here. I'm learning as fast as I can about everything I've missed. (you can't really trust the newspapers: their readers and owners also consist of bosses).

But I'm glad to be home.

1 comment:

Superdude said...

Now I want to go there.