By John Williams
Along with much of the rest of the world, recent upticks in crime in parts of Ecuador have caused many residents, including many expats and those considering joining us here in Ecuador as a destination, to ask questions about personal safety. My answers to these questions will reflect on the basic character, integrity and honesty of the general citizenry. My adult daughter and I have been residing in the Santa Marianita beach area near Manta since 2017. During that time I experienced petty theft crimes twice. Both of those events occurred in the City of Quito, Ecuador. With a population of 1.6 million, it is second only to Guayaquil, which is home to about 2.0 million people. The “next biggest” city drops down to a population of about 276,000.
A couple of years ago when a friend was visiting from the USA and left his backpack sitting on a bench in a busy public square in Quito, we turned around to retrieve it, and it was gone. The second instance was when my girlfriend, Amy, and I were in Quito sightseeing earlier this year. In the early morning, she went alone in search of coffee and was walking with her face-buried in her very nice cell-phone following a google map to a coffee shop. She went under a bridge into a darkish area and a young man grabbed her phone. “Amy the Great” yelled a bunch of profanities and chased the perpetrator on foot. Being chased by the crazy blonde lady, he eventually threw down her phone case that contained a couple of credit cards and her personal identification, but he got away with the phone.
Both of these incidents were caused by carelessness and a lack of personal awareness. So yes…..petty theft is here, and the aftermath of the pandemic has made more people more desperate. And you can’t stop desperate people from doing desperate things….anywhere! That is true the world over, and there are many years of increasing desperation facing the inhabitants of this “rock in space” that we all inhabit, as the effects of global climate change increase droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes/typhoons. As an expat from the USA, I always laughed at the folly of trying to build a wall to keep out desperate people. When someone is desperate to feed themselves and their family and willing to endanger their life to try to do so, no amount of threats, walls, oceans, police brutality, rivers, or moats will stop them. When one is facing starvation, death, or enslavement for themselves and/or their family, they are coming. That is a discussion for another time. But the phrase “desperate times call for desperate measures” rings very true. I say this not to excuse such behavior. It is simply a factor that is increasing theft and increasing personal insecurity in most places around the globe.
But this article is about Ecuador. Those two incidents detailed above are just what they are, but what about the “other” things? Other things like kindness, compassion, caring, mutual respect… Those qualities are much more abundant in Ecuador.
There is a little cafe that has some of the best ceviches I have ever had. The fresh shrimp just pop in your mouth and the flavors are always perfectly blended. The same family has been making ceviches there since 1945! But it is on a high-traffic sidestreet in downtown Manta and there is no parking. So like many places here, there are parking “helpers” who will direct you to a place on the street where you can park. They also watch your car while you are away. They don’t require any payment, but a tip of $0.25 or $0.50 is customary if you want to thank them for their help. One day I parked there, got out of my car, and inadvertently dropped a $10.00 bill when putting my keys into my pocket. Who knew? Not me! As I proceeded to walk toward the cafe the “parking guy” came running down the street waving my $10.00 bill and hollering for me to stop so he could give it back to me! Now I estimate that this young man likely makes about $2.00 - $2.50 per hour in tips. That $10.00 would have meant a lot more to him than it does to me, but it just wasn’t in his nature to even think about keeping it, so he just did the right thing.
I frequently shop in a little produce shop in the town of Montecristi where I occasionally play golf. A little old man operates the shop and his extended family lives in the back of the store. It is very common for more than one generation of family members to live together in Ecuador, as it is in much of Latin America. Fruits and vegetables are very plentiful and inexpensive in Ecuador. I usually get a big stalk of about 60-70 bananas there for about $2.50. On this particular day I bought a stalk of bananas, a few apples, five lemons, 20 limes, a couple of cucumbers, and some onions. When I asked “how much?” he said $4.00. As usual, I am pleasantly surprised, hand him a $5.00 bill, gather my goods, and walk out to take my treasures to the car. As I climbed into the driver's seat he was tapping at the window with my $1.00 of change. I had intended that dollar to be a little extra for him for his great services, but he had chased me to my car to try to give me that dollar! It just wasn’t in his nature to keep money that he didn’t think was his.
One more. There are numerous “local” Ecuadorians who will help expats, or anyone else who needs it, with whatever services they may need… or may need to find. Angel is my guy! If I need to know where to find a refrigerator repair person who will come to my house at the beach to fix a refrigerator or an air conditioner, all I have to do is tell Angel what I need and he will “make it happen.” Same with car repairs, painting, supplies, translation of documents etc. And I pay him about $10-$15 per hour depending on how much extra and special service effort it takes. And he makes sure that the job is done correctly and the price is fair. A bargain at twice the price. But recently one of his clients, a 90+-year-old single widow lady living here alone since her husband passed years ago, was diagnosed with a life-ending malady with only a few months to live. She was alone, scared as we all would be, and she didn’t want to be in a cold hospital to die alone. Angel spent the next 3-months of his life taking care of her needs and wishes. He arranged a hospital bed in her condo, 24/7 caretakers, nurses, and medical care. And “company.” His family and I hardly saw Angel during this period because he was always there helping, making sure she was comfortable and her wishes were met. She was not a wealthy lady and I am sure that Angel didn’t get adequately compensated for the time and effort he contributed, but he treated her like she was his family. And she passed with comfort, dignity, and someone who cared for her by her side. What is that worth?
The media is full of stories about increased petty crime, and some “not so petty” crime also, but this expats experience is that the fundamental character, integrity, and honesty of the Ecuadorian people more than offset the much-publicized uptick in crime. Stories like this one don’t get news coverage, but they abound in real life in my Ecuador.