Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Ecuador is a "third world country," a phrase which comes from a French term and means "place where everyone drives crazy in loud, smelly cars." So just as we celebrate the value and importance of our labor by taking the day off on Labor Day, so the Ecuadorians celebrate crazy, loud, smelly transportation by not using any.

However, they do this only once every ten years, unfortunately. Today was that day. From 7am to 5pm, the country was silent. No buses, taxis (which are legion here), cars...even airplanes! And because modern transportation represents a continual moving apart from each other, they celebrate this time by staying home, or at their hotel or guesthouse. Businesses (except critical ones, like hospitals) are closed. No church (and this is Sunday in a devoutly Catholic country). No movies. No walking across the street to the park. On your property. All day.

Matter of fact it's the law. But oh that it were true that they were so cognizant of the loud, smelly vehicles, even if only every ten years. Sadly no, though everything I've mentioned happening is true, the reason is not to recognize the loudness, craziness, and smelliness of their transportation. Today is national census day. And while in the U.S. we hold the census for almost a year and ask really, really nicely for everyone to pahhhlleeeezzzz participate in the census, we get something like 70% participation.

Not here. No messin' around, and I happen to think it's a great idea, not just to get the thing done a lot more cheaply, effectively, and accurately. No, it's because for one day--just one tiny day, and only 7am to 5pm, at that--people have the chance to experience the world outside their doors (at least as far as they can see from their door) as peaceful and safe and inviting.

It is Ecuadorian law that, unless given special dispensation (ambulances, etc.), no one, but NO ONE, is to leave their home or hotel or whatever their place of habitation during those hours. And during that time an army of high school and college students swarm the country like ants foraging for food stopping at every home, apartment, hotel, or cardboard box under a bridge, and asking their census questions (including "how many energy efficient light bulbs in your house").

And so today, under figurative lock and key, we in our little "aparthotel," as it is called here, all got together in the courtyard for a celebratory feast. Many of us helped prepare food, including homemade tortillas for tacos and homemade liqueur (the owner is a talented retired chemist). We got to have extended conversations with guests from Belgium, France, Germany, and Japan.

And it was quiet. It was so quiet, and peaceful. I went outside to the street in the morning to experience the calm, and I heard a small rustling noise above my head. It was a bird, but not singing--it was merely hopping along a branch! Ten feet over my head, I could hear a bird walking. Not a car horn. Not a two stroke motorcycle brapping like a revved up chainsaw. Not a diesel bus careering around a corner at 50 miles an hour. Just a wee bird, probably wondering why his little birdie feet had all of a sudden started to make such a great and loud noise.

And besides that, the kids and I went out into the street to play stickball! This same street on any given day is like any other in Cuenca. We cross using a rehearsed drill: hold hands...readyyyyyyy...GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! Do not hesitate. Do not EVER hesitate. Do not look back until on the other side to see if everyone made it: you can't help them and you'd only endanger yourself. So today we danced on that street's grave with our little game of stickball.

Though it was a shallow grave for the only "mostly dead." We had presumed that at 5pm, when the restriction was lifted, we would see little additional activity. Sunday is a relatively slow and quiet day anyway, and since the day was more or less over anyway, what would make anyone go out this late in the game?

Because it is what we have left. Our instincts are old and powerful. And we need to go out and hunt or explore our world, or go gathering the bounty of nature. But we have no more bounty on the savannah or in the jungle, for they are gone or are barren. We must go out and struggle against life. But we have nothing left to struggle against any longer but ourselves. We compete now for space in the roundabout. And we are great and powerful hunters who achieve position in the left lane. And we are warriors who defeat our foes and capture the parking space by the entrance. And so we go out and declare to the world "I am here! I am legend!" with our squeaky little car horns..."And I want you all to not be stopped and to move forward and therefore allow me to move forward as well." Honk honk!

And so it was at 5:01pm today.

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