In the almost two weeks that have passed since the 7.8 magnitude struck Ecuador, so much has happened and changed that I can hardly begin to process it all—more or less try to convert it into coherent words. But I want to try anyway, partially for my own healing but also to share with you what is going on here and what will continue to happen even though other news has taken precedence in the international outlets and the world moves on.
The first week following the quake on Saturday were extremely hard. Full disclosure: I broke down crying at least once every single day, and I walked around in tremendous fear of everything moving around me again. Those fears were only confounded by the repeated aftershocks that kept shuddering through the earth—some even so strong that they were classifieds as separate earthquakes. There was nothing as strong or as frightening as the first one, but that didn’t do much to calm my fears and feeling of an overwhelming lack of control and uncertainty. Despite being surrounded by people, I still felt alone and in need of serious feelings validation. (Getting away and visiting my Ecuadorian family in another city for the weekend was luckily the exact remedy I needed.)
On top of all that, I saw photos and videos of destruction on the TV screens of every restaurant, store, or home I passed through. Even those small glimpses were devastating and made my heart jolt thinking of those trapped below the rubble, living on the streets, and with lives that are forever changed. There is a feeling of somberness throughout the country. Everything feels just a tiny bit quieter. Conversations with people follow the same general pattern of: where were you during the earthquake?, did you feel it?, it’s so sad isn’t it? But at least we are okay.
According to all the news I see on TV or that I read on the internet, the death toll has surpassed 650 people with 12,500 injured and 58 still reported missing. There is no possible way to count all the others that have been impacted—whether directly or indirectly—by the tragedy. I had several empty chairs in my classroom, vacated by students who were from the affected areas on the coast (mostly the province of Manabí) who had gone “home” (or what might be left of their homes) to help clean up and bury family members.
The tragedy has revealed itself in different people in different ways. For example, one of my male students was gone for over a week as he helped out back at home. This kid has a big personality. Now that he is back, he likes to shout out at least 5 times each class that he is from Manabí. I recently had to call him out for being extremely disruptive and showing other members of the class photos on his phone while we were doing another activity. Once he showed me that the photos were of the destruction and told me to “look how bad it is,” I was met with a struggle of needing to be sympathetic while also maintaining order in my already hectic class of first-semester students.
Then there is a female student of mine in another class. She is quiet and studious. She didn’t miss a day of class despite the fact that she is also from Manabí. My fellow ETA recently asked her if everything was okay, and she stated: “Yes, both my grandparents survived. And one of my uncles.” But then: “But 7 other members of my family died.” Seven. SEVEN members of her family died in the tragedy and I haven’t heard a peep about it.
I mentioned this in my last post, but the thing about Ecuadorians is that they are tough. So. Darn. Tough. They take tragedy and hardship and challenge head on and plow onward. They are proud of their country and their culture and they know they can overcome anything. They know that life is hard but they also know to love and appreciate all that they have. And their level of solidarity is unsurpassed.
I had an interesting conversation with someone about how it’s sad that people only seem to come together after a tragedy. I had to disagree, though, as in my experience here I have found that Ecuador is already a country that practices an incredible amount of solidarity. They are a small country but mighty nonetheless. All over the news I hear and see Ecuadorians talking about how they are standing together and using their combined strength to overcome, and highlighting the fact that Ecuadorians have all these traits already.
The mobilization and collaboration of the country has been amazing. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I saw EVERYONE is in on the effort. Whether they are donating money, donating diapers, or even driving to a farm to pick bananas to give, it has all been truly inspiring. The university was hopping with activity the Monday following Saturday’s quake, as the student political group had set up a table to accept goods and organize trips to said farms to pick said bananas. It was incredible, but at the same time the blasting music made it hard to focus on class. As did the groups of students coming into each class encouraging participation. While some students were generally involved and passionate, I saw others taking advantage of the situation by skipping class to “help” but rather just stand around outside the university. I struggled trying to carry on classes as normal while everyone was still clearly rattled, people missed classes to attend funerals of loved ones, and so much more.
Social media has, of course, exploded. While I am not on Facebook or Twitter, I have managed to see some of the posts made by others as they stand strong for their country. I follow an account on Instagram called “paisajeecuador593” (Ecuador Landscape—593 being the country calling code), and until just recently they posted photos including information on how and where to donate and drawings people have made that show Ecuador with a band-aid on it or the hands of other countries reaching out to help. Ecuador’s slogan for tourism is “All you need is Ecuador,” but that has been altered on many pages to now read “All Ecuador needs is you.” Other popular ones are #FuerzaEcuador (Ecuador strength) or “Todos somos Ecuador” (We are all Ecuador). The messages are powerful and unifying, and have the ability to reach a lot of people in not a lot of time.
But then there are the issues. I saw more than one post on social media from people asking, “will anyone in Paris pray for us?” This is a direct response to the terrorist attacks in Paris several months ago. As I am sure you know, the worldwide internet blew up with people changing their profile pictures to show the French flag or posting “Pray for Paris.” Ecuadorians were no exception, as they also stood behind Paris during that incredibly difficult time. But when it came time for Ecuador to be hurt, did anyone #PrayforEcuador? Did the international community change their profile pictures to the yellow, blue, and red colors of the Ecuadorian flag? Please correct me if I am wrong, but I tend to think not.
So how and why do we prioritize some tragedies over others on social media and in our lives? Is it because Paris is a well-known and sought after place in the world and Ecuador is well…not? Is it because the attacks in Paris were man-made and the earthquake here in Ecuador was not? Is it simply because no one seems to care quite that much about Latin America as they do other places? What about the earthquake in Nepal last year? Did anyone #PrayforNepal? What about the terrorist attacks in Belgium? The school shootings all over the US? The landslides in Washington state? The list goes on and on, but the question remains: why do some tragedies get more widespread attention than others?
The response from the international community has been strong. Countries (including the US) have donated money, aid, resources, and personnel to help with the rescue, recovery, and rebuilding. But this doesn’t come without costs or unintended consequences either. Any money given in the form of a loan is a huge blow to this already economically-struggling country. Ecuador has been highly dependent on oil for decades, and now that those prices are tanking the economy is, of course, going with it. People are struggling. It was recently announced that taxes would be increased to help pay for the billions of dollars needed to recover. People are already struggling to make it by in this economy, so throw higher taxes on top of that? That’s hard– even if Ecuadorian taxes are relatively low to begin with.
Then there’s the question of how aid is organized and distributed and utilized. People have donated a ton of rice, for example. That’s awesome and definitely a staple of the Ecuadorian diet but…. How are people who no longer have homes supposed to cook it? With donations pouring in from all directions, who is supposed to organize all that and figure out what to do with it? Volunteers and good Samaritans are streaming in from everywhere as well. That’s awesome…if you know what you are doing. If not, you are potentially just getting in the way and taking away valuable resources (ie. food and water) from those who really need it.
The other side of that coin comes with intentionality. Calls for donations and subsequent donations spring up rapidly after disasters. If you contribute, what are you really doing? Do you know where your $5 are going? Do you know to what you are donating and why? Or are you just getting a pat on the back for making the world a better place? Look up international aid fraud and corruption and you will be shocked at how it often does more bad than good.
So does that mean you shouldn’t do anything? Well shoot. Now we have really gotten ourselves in a fix here. I personally say yes, you should give, but only if it is with intentionality. Don’t throw money around for the sake of saying you did a good thing. Do it because you care. Think critically about what you are doing and why, and follow up. Make sure that money you donated is going to use. And donate money rather than goods. You might think that old winter coat of yours will really make some poor homeless Ecuadorian happy, but I can assure you that the sweltering heat of the Ecuadorian coast does not call for parkas.
That’s the highly abbreviated version of my thoughts on aid anyway. I owe them to Professor Gordon at Bowdoin though, for challenging me (and others) to think critically about international aid. And while I am at it, I also want to give a big shout out to the students at Bowdoin (some of whom are Ecuadorian or part-Ecuadorian themselves) for fundraising for the Ecuadorian Red Cross last week. I hope all that donated did it with intentionality.
And you know what really sucks about all this? This earthquake is just one thing on the long list of hardships that have been thrown at Ecuador recently. There’s the economic crisis I mentioned and there are the aftershocks. But there is also the weather phenomenon El Niño which has been pounding the coast with rain for months. (The coast was hit the hardest by the quake. Despite what the news outlets might say Quito is FINE. Stop caring so much just because it is the only city you know the name of in Ecuador. Sorry I’m ranting again.) But wait! There’s more! Rain means floods! And also Zika—the mosquito-borne illness that made headlines not too long ago. On top of all the other bug-contracted diseases already present in the area. It is harder to prevent those now that people are living in tents or even just outside.
Things are fundamentally different here. People’s lives have changed forever and the country still has years and years of recovery ahead. Some things are temporary, like the roads and buildings that need reconstructed. Or the events and activities that are being cancelled por el terremoto (because of the earthquake—no other explanation needed when people say those three words). Others are more long-term, such as the economic blow, the disruption of lives, and the full devastation of some areas. Like I mentioned, the international news media outlets have already moved on to other news, and aid will eventually cease as well. But Ecuador will keep struggling. And persevering. And overcoming.
P.S. A big thank you goes out to all those you have reached out over these past few weeks. Your concern and words mean more to me than I can say!