El Paro

In ContactZone

By Emma Busch

Supermaxi was bustling; every person had their cart filled to the brim as if preparing to be stuck inside for weeks. I searched for the shortest line, carrying only cookie dough and a pack of chifles, feeling unprepared in comparison to the other shoppers. Is this worse than everyone has been telling me? By now, I’ve learned all the answers to the cashier’s questions and completed the transaction comfortably, even the question about consumidor final that had tripped me up so many times before. As I left, I realized the front entrance to the store was completely locked up, leaving only the mall entrance open—another sign that this paro, this strike, was getting worse. 

During the 15 minute walk back to my home, I thought about how all this started, only a few days ago. 

* * *

The first I’d heard of it was at a bar with three other exchange students: Will, Elizabeth, and Amelia. As classes were beginning to wind down for fall break, we decided to meet at a bar near my house and catch up. We ordered some beer, got some food, and made fun of Will’s inability to distinguish between sweet and savory foods. The bar we chose closed earlier than we expected, but we blamed it on being a weekday and walked around Cumbaya, the suburb of Quito where my host family lived, in search of a new place to continue our evening. 

“Does it seem like more places than usual closed early ?” I asked my friends, thinking of how many places were usually blasting music and full of people, at least on weekend nights. 

“Yeah, but it’s a Wednesday,” Amelia responded, “Most people wait until at least Thursday to be out late.” 

“But it’s only 9:30?” Will questioned, “Doesn’t that seem early, even for a weekday?”

Unsure but still confident in our plans, we finally found an Irish bar, open but surprisingly quiet. As soon as we walked in, a sign caught my eye.“Oh, there’s cake! We must have that!” 

My friends chuckled about my sweet tooth, deciding just to order a drink for themselves. As I dug into the rich chocolate cheesecake, Elizabeth looked up from her phone and exclaimed,

 “Oh no…” 

We all looked up, wondering what could be wrong, just as the rest of our phones lit up with a message. 

“What’s it say?” I asked, putting the fork down and cursing my phone battery that could never last through the day. Will leaned over so I could see his phone screen. There was a message from our program coordinators and another from the abroad leader at the university we were at, both stating that a protest was going to happen tomorrow, reminding us that it was against the law for us to join in, and urging us to stay in our houses starting tonight as they did not know how long this would go on. 

“Good thing we have 45 minutes on a bus before we get back to our houses,” Will said in a joking tone, but clearly worried. 

“I can stay and wait for the check since I live near here, while you guys head back!” I offered. “If you leave now, you’ll be back by 10:30, still pretty early.” They took me up on the offer and I spent the whole taxi ride home frantically looking up news articles about what was predicted to come the next day. 

The first day of protests gave a dose of reality of the severity of the situation. The morning began with confusion over whether to go to classes or not. The protests seemed to be centered in the center of Quito, 30 minutes away from USFQ, our host university. There were mixed messages from varying advisors and professors about whether we should go or not, leaving me baffled over what to do. As my first class of the day was running, which I was taking for fun, I decided to sleep in and see if there would be more coherent guidance over what to do later in the day. When I woke up a second time, my phone was lighting up with panicked message from Marzi: 

“Are you at USFQ?” 

“Did you see the protestors?” 

“Students protesters were attacked right outside of campus” 

“I was about to head to class” 

“The videos are so scary” 

Marzi’s messages caused a sequence of more and more panic, with a video of student protestors being attacked outside the entrance to our campus–right where I would have been if I had chosen to go to my running class. 

Meanwhile, my program coordinators were sending message after message of updates and asking us to reply with our whereabouts, plans for the day, and emotional state. 

I headed downstairs to ask Sol, my host mom, more about the situation. She was sitting on the couch watching the TV with Chucho, the family dog, curled up beside her. The news was full of videos just as frightening and stressful as the one Marzi had sent, my eyes welled up with tears and I rushed over towards Chucho, petting him as a way to try and calm my nerves. 

* * *

Now, heading back from Supermaxi, I finally got back to my neighborhood with the cookie dough in hand and smiled as I saw Chucho waiting by the gate to the house, his small tail wagging wildly. Sol greeted me and pointed out my lunch, ready to warm up in the microwave. I grinned when I realized it was locro de papa, a thick soup made with potato and cheese and one of my favorite Ecuadorian meals. Even two months in, I never knew when Sol did her cooking; delicious food just seemed to appear whenever it was time for a meal. Her cooking ranked right beneath Sol herself and Marzi as the top reasons Ecuador felt like home. Coming to a new country and living with a host family, I was nervous about how my vegetarian diet would fit in. It definitely wasn’t the Ecuadorian norm—many of my friends I made at the college laughed at the prospect of eating vegetarian in Ecuador—but Sol had been more than accommodating from the beginning. Whether it was trying to make Ecuadorian classics vegetarian or trying out new recipes she found online, Sol outshone my concern that I would be eating salads for the next few months. In one of my favorite moments together, Sol remarked that she was glad I was a vegetarian because she felt as though she had started eating healthier by making my meals. She even recognized my need for the occasional comfort food with a stash of Kraft mac and cheese boxes in the cupboard for whenever I was missing home. 

 As I savored the locro de papa that Sol made for me, I couldn’t peel my eyes off the TV. 

“¿Piensas que todavía podemos salir mañana?” I ask Sol, worrying about the fate of the trip to Peru that Marzi and I had been planning meticulously for weeks. 

Sol nods, “tienen que salir muy temprano pero la calle debe estar bién.” 

Videos of the historic center of Quito flashed on the screen. The hilly streets, usually bustling with tourists and vendors, were filled with protestors. Three days ago, the government had cut the fuel subsidies that had been in place for 40 years, without any cushion to offset the change, and each day it seemed as though the protests were getting worse. The cut in subsidies had increased diesel and fuel prices dramatically and the transportation unions responded with the paro, which I quickly learned to mean a ‘strike.’ The first day of the protests, no taxis were on the streets, there were far fewer buses, and roads around the city were blocked by brush and burning tires. The next day, the government declared a state of emergency as the unions joined with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and students from local universities to protest in the streets of Quito. So far, they were contained to the historic district, but we knew they would expand if the government did not go back on their plan. Every day, there was a new email from the US embassy of Ecuador and a message from our program coordinators asking each of us to check in and updating us on the situation from their perspective. Just like the discrepancies between news articles on controversial issues in the United States, the national news station showed a vastly different attitude towards the protestors than the news articles reposted on Facebook by my friends from the university who were either directly involved in the protests or supporting their cause.

While we watched more of the news, Sol and I started to make cookies. Instead of frozen dough, in the grocery store I had only been able to find powdered dough that just called for milk to be added. I took the pitcher of bagged milk out of the fridge, another food format I had yet to get used to, and talked to Sol about how she usually makes cookies. When the dough was ready for the oven, I realized it had suddenly become late in the afternoon. Our joint cookie venture became Sol finishing off the rest of the cookies, calling me down to try one after all the batches were finished, and me last minute packing for our trip the next day, blindly hoping that it was still going to happen.  

Even though our flight was in the afternoon, we left in the morning to ensure we got to the airport without difficulties with the roads being blocked. My perspective constantly shifted between worrying about our trip, reminding myself about why the protests are happening, and worrying about our trip again. It was a difficult exercise in recognizing privilege but knowing that with the current situation, there was no way for us to help beyond spreading the news of the protests and current events to the people we know back home. 

We breathed a sigh of relief: the roads were clear, though there were burn marks on the pavement and remnants of tires off to the side. The drive became even more eerie as we passed a line of cars belonging to the army, wondering if leaving the house had been a good idea after all. In an effort to distract ourselves, Marzi and I went over our meticulously planned itinerary once again, trying to transform our nerves into excitement for the coming days.

The rest of the day was a blur of airports and customs. Despite arriving in Lima in the middle of the night, we found the customs line surprisingly busy. Once we finally reached one of the desks, the customs agent saw that we were coming from Quito and asked about the paro. Even though we had only been in the country for two months, we were suddenly put in the position of ambassadors, or witnesses, for the outside world. 

“You left just in time, didn’t you,” the agent observed. Marzi and I nodded, faking a laugh, not wanting to mention that we were supposed to return in a mere 5 days. Despite the incredible trip we had planned, we couldn’t stop thinking of the state of the country that was starting to become our second home. What would we be coming back to at the end of this trip?

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