Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Kindly Walking In Cuenca

One of the things I vividly remember after spending my first six months in Ecuador and returning to the United States was a brief episode in a Safeway parking lot.

I was coming out of the store and heard angry male voices. I turned my head. I looked. To my left were two men, deadlocked.

One was in a monster truck, one of those jacked-up pickups with the huge tires, so high off the ground that you need a stepladder to get into it.

The other was in a wheelchair. He was trying to cross what they call the "fire lane" from the parking lot proper to the store. Apparently, this disabled guy in his tiny, hand-powered sit-up bed was an offensive inconvenience to the other guy in his thousand-horsepower muscle truck, and they were having it out.

I felt threatened. I cringed. My soul hurt. I left.

A few days before, a man angry about the placement of a fence fired up a bulldozer and began ramming into things. Depending on which account you read, he destroyed two, three, or four houses plus a truck and a boat. He did "knock down a utility pole, cutting power to thousands". I know this last part to be true. I experienced it.

The cause? "A long-standing property line dispute between two neighbors." Resulting in violence.

Life as we know it. Life as I used to know it.

Things seem to be different in Ecuador.

Last week, for example, I was waiting to cross a busy street. On the other side were two men. One was on foot, the other on a bicycle. They were both going the same direction and came to their own private, two-person bottleneck. One had to yield.

They stopped. The man on the bicycle stretched out his arm, holding his hand palm-up, signaling that the other man should go ahead. He did, and the bicyclist followed. Problem solved.

No fights broke out. There were no threats. End of story.

Last year I came out of Good Affinity, a Taiwanese/Ecuadorian restaurant where I frequently have lunch. There was construction in the area. The city is building a light-rail system and many streets have been torn up for over a year. Wires were hanging loose from the surrounding utility poles. That happens here. Things are different. You have to deal with it.

Back to the story.

I saw several people in a car. They were trying to get past the hanging wires. A man was in the street. He held some of the wires, lifting them up high enough so that car could inch forward and get past them. Done. Problem solved. But.

Now the man who held up the wires had to get his own car past the wires. He got into his car and began to inch it along. Hmmm.

I'm not quick on my feet as they say. I'm better at analyzing things after they happen than while they're happening, but I got it right this time. I walked over to the car, bent down, and picked up the wires. I raised them above the roof of the car so the driver could get past them without getting any part of his car tangled in the wires. He crept forward until he was clear, and then I dropped the wires and went on my way. Done. The end.

Things are like that here. No one stood in the street swearing or throwing things or making threats to the sky. We just got past it.

Another story from this week and then I'll get to the point.

I was taking a late-afternoon walk. If I don't schedule some exercise, it's easy not to get much. I walk to lunch, and, well, I walk everywhere, but I usually don't get out before noon, and I don't go out after dark, ever, so late afternoon is my last chance to do some moving around.

Anyway, I was walking near the Tomebamba River, a small stream flowing through town, and came to a place where some construction work was going on. The construction was separated from the sidewalk by corrugated metal. There was a gate, a doorway, of painted plywood. The gate was open. A man was backing his pickup truck out, across the sidewalk, and into the street. I stopped, waited.

Then I noticed that the right side of the truck was barely clearing the door on my side. Then I realized that the truck's right-side mirror might be close to hanging up on the plywood door. Yep. I reached out and pulled the door toward me — away from the truck — as far as I could. This helped.

The truck cleared the door and then the sidewalk and I was able to resume my walk. Another problem solved through cooperation.

The man had to get his truck into the street, and I had to get the truck out of my way. We worked together. Then it was all over. I don't know who he was and never will. Ditto for him. We just worked together to get past it. That's how it is here.

Now, last summer I saw something else.

Again, this was related to the endless light-rail construction, which should have finished last June, but shows no signs yet of coming to a conclusion. So anyway.

The street was torn up. You could walk on the right side or the left side, but down the middle was a muddy trench. This was fenced off to keep people out of it. At one or two spots down each block there was an opening in the two fences, and a plank-and-plywood "bridge" spanning the trench. That's how you got across the street.

These cobbled-up "bridges" were points of pedestrian congestion. You can imagine.

Right then, when I wanted to cross, it was busy. I held back a bit, unlike everyone else. People here don't stop and wait. They push ahead, rub elbows, bump into one another, jostle, work their way through somehow. I'll do some of that if I have to, but mostly I stop and wait. That works too, and I'm not so good at politely shoving others aside. I have yet to learn that art.

Right then, when I wanted to cross, things were busy. Especially so since an elderly woman was working her way up to the "bridge", supported by a walker. You've seen them. She and her walker took up two-thirds of the bridge's width. It was slow going too. One slight mis-step and she'd have been down, walker or no walker. But she had help.

Behind her and a bit to her left was a woman, guiding her along, steadying her, holding one hand against the small of the old woman's back. In front was a man, also guiding her and lifting the front of her walker over rough spots in the jury-rigged bridgeway. Eventually the woman was across. "Nice," I thought. "It's nice to see how people here care for their elderly relatives." You see a lot of that here. And a lot of extremely small children out walking with their parents too, all holding hands as they walk the streets.

So the way was clear and I began crossing the street too. And then I nearly lost it.

Once the old woman was safely across the street the man turned and walked away. So did the younger woman, in the opposite direction. They were not a family. They did not even know each other. They were three strangers. Two who were young and healthy, and one who was not, but who needed just a touch of help. So they helped, and that was it.

I had trouble crossing the street. You have to watch where your feet go but I couldn't. Because my eyes were full of tears. Just as they are now, yet again, remembering.

Things are like that here.