“Just because they are poor, that doesn’t make them thieves!”
Diane’s words struck a chord within me. She said that some months ago as we were driving through San Vicente. Our discussion was about some petty crime against an expat that had been recently posted on one of the expat forums. As is always the case, the posting of such a crime was generating much concern and discussion among those here and those on the way. I say a “petty crime” because those are the types of crimes most often perpetrated against gringos here.
You are suddenly accosted by a young man who demands your <fill in the blank> purse, cell phone, money, wallet, wrist watch, jewelry or camera. You were just walking along and suddenly you are the victim of a crime. Maybe he brandished a weapon or made a threatening gesture to ensure your cooperation. It was over in seconds and then he was gone, along with your stuff, leaving you feeling violated, vulnerable and fearful.
Perhaps you were riding the bus and the thief stealthy removed some valuable contents from your backpack without your knowledge.
Unfortunately, sometimes the crimes are not so petty. The entire contents of homes are sometimes stolen as well as cars. I personally know of one home invasion and one rape perpetrated against expats during my time in Ecuador and we’ve heard a few stories of kidnappings.
Through personal conversations and the various Internet forums, the reports of these sorts of things spread quickly throughout Gringo World generating necessary awareness along with, I suspect, much unnecessary fear. Ecuadorians are also the victims of crime, by the way.
Last night as the Pocket Babe and I were discussing our future plans, the conversation turned to security. She reminded me of the time, some years ago, when a car load of gang members attempted to murder my ex-wife and me (chosen at random) along a dark road near Lake Okeechobee, Florida. That is a story for another time but the point was made. There is virtually no place where one’s safety and security is 100% assured. The driver of the gang vehicle, by the way, served 3 years for attempted homicide. For the record, as we are now into our second year here, we have not been the victim of any crime.
The truth of the matter is that most of us who have come to Ecuador from the U.S. and Canada had a pretty cushy lifestyle compared to many of those I now live among. Along with some successful Ecuadorian business types, Diane and I have come to know many of the local residents…families whose very modest homes and frugal lifestyles would be harshly judged and possibly feared by many of those back home. Some would call these people, our friends, poor and would assign various stereotypes to them. Poverty or rather the proximity to poverty is feared by many.
I believe most of us can’t bring ourselves to get too close to poverty; can’t touch it…don’t really want to see it or associate with it. We run from it, avoiding the feelings of fear and discomfort it presents. Unfortunately, some see only the poverty. They see the circumstance rather than the amazing person who works from before the sun rises until after the sun sets trying to provide for themselves and their families in the best ways they can. Other times, health issues or other problems prevent a person from working.
I suspect that coming to Ecuador may very well be the first close encounter with true poverty that many expats have had and they simply cannot deal with the discomfort. They isolate themselves as much as possible. In fact, those expats living in some cities or sections of some towns may not see much poverty at all. Quito, for example has many successful professionals and large law and accounting firms as well as shopping malls, shiny new cars and universities, beautiful homes and expensive restaurants and shops. There is affluence in Quito and it is clearly visible. Like all large cities, there are sections of what one could call poverty.
Except for the large city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s coast offers little in the way of an affluent lifestyle. Certainly the large farmers and shrimp operations do well but they are in the minority. Just across the bay from Bahia de Caraquez, the community in which we live will not permit such isolation from the humble, hardworking lifestyle of its residents. While Diane and I live in a very nice, small enclave just outside town, we are fully integrated into our small community of San Vicente and San Vicente would be considered a “poor” community by almost any standard.
Nestled against the hills and cliffs rising from the Pacific shore, San Vicente’s residents are primarily hard-working laborers and merchants with farming and fishing supporting many of the local families. Small businesses line the streets as families sell to each other from small tiendas, doorways or small tables. There is one bank, one gas station and two ATM machines.
In the evenings, small charcoal fires are lit along the back streets of neighborhoods and fried plantains and viches are prepared by families and sold to those wandering by. Rice is very cheap and is a staple food source at every meal. Fish and shrimp can be harvested for free and is also a frequent staple as are fresh vegetables.
So…as Diane said, just because they are poor, that doesn’t make them thieves. A few months ago as I was exiting my car, my wallet slipped from my pocket onto the busy street. I did not notice and was hurrying away. Two different people called this to my attention by honking their horns and pointing and a third left the sidewalk, running into the street to retrieve my wallet and present it to me.
We recently moved from one condo unit to another in the same building. Our housekeeper, Fatima, greatly assisted this process by helping to pack and prepare our things. Diane had collected her jewelry pieces, a couple having some significant monetary and emotional value; at least she thought she had collected them. One very nice ring had apparently fallen from its case and taken up residence in the far corner of a dark, empty drawer. Fatima found it and dutifully presented the ring to Diane. Had Fatima decided to take the ring, we would have never known. Fatima is not a thief, although she and her family count every penny.
Many other times, local vegetable vendors, their hands encrusted with the black earth from which their products came, have assisted by returning an overpayment for a product when I did not understand the price and handed over too much money. Other times, when I did not have payment in a small enough denomination and no change was available, I was simply waved off with goods in hand and a smile and told I could pay another day.
The interactions above all occurred with hard-working, blue collar locals who need every nickel they can earn. They were all “poor” people who could most certainly use any financial advantage and yet, their poverty did not induce them to steal from us when it would have been quite easy.
Diane was right! Ethics, honesty and integrity are woven into the lives and culture of those who struggle each day to make ends meet. Excepting a few opportunistic hooligans, being poor most certainly will not induce the majority to commit a crime and I am very pleased that we now count among our friends, a number of Ecuadorians from a broad social and economic spectrum.