About a week ago there was a robbery near my house, which has had me on edge since. Our university stresses the importance of safety precautions and often uses examples of what has happened to students in the past to ensure that current students will not be in danger. The problem I found is that it creates two extremes--those who feel constantly paranoid and fear to ever go beyond Samborondon, and those who find exaggerations in what we've been told and become convinced that nothing bad can actually happen. Since our program started most of the other students have asked me questions about whether or not I had ever actually felt unsafe, in danger or whatever else during my stay here last year. While I answer truthfully, that no there was no point where I felt particularly uncomfortable in that sense, I've found that I need to use caution when explaining this because my response can sway students into thinking that NOTHING could happen--which is far from the truth because international students are quite frequently robbed.
Also, while I never felt in danger last year, I had only been here for a month and upon my return I've found much more caution among Ecuadorians. Since last August I have found that our ciudadela has heightened security noticeably. Without a residence card that opens the two main gates, cars are not permitted to enter, a side entrance allows non residents to enter, based on certain rules that I don't fully know. While pedestrians were able to pass relatively freely in the past without a physical barrier (there were still guards making sure no one suspicious entered), a guard now stands at the gate monitoring everyone who enters and exits. Following the robbery incident, maids and other domestic workers' bags were being searched upon entering and exiting.
At the university, security also seems more paranoid. Just as last year, we have ID cards that we have to scan before scanning our fingerprint in order to enter the campus. However, last year I brought mine maybe 40% of the time; I usually just asked security to let me in and they did willingly. Yesterday though, I forgot my card for the first time and I asked security to let me in, they gave me a hard time and told me I can't come in without my card, so I just reverted to playing dumb exchange student ("que? que? no entiendo") until he let me in.
Among my Ecuadorian friends in addition to the international students I find the extremes regarding their perceptions of safety. While there are some who rarely venture outside of Samborondon, others try to convince me that really nothing will happen if I take a yellow taxi (yellow taxis are not safe in Guayaquil due to the trend of express kidnappings, private radio taxis are recommended). Although I don't want to just keep myself within the Samborondon bubble (the municipality is more like a suburb outside of the city, filled with palm trees, beautiful houses, malls and half the restaurant names in English), I can see that some of those who choose to are justified--I've never been kidnapped or robbed at gun/knife point but I'd imagine that if I were to, I'd end up keeping myself within the safest bubble possible.
So, I'm learning to take into account the frustrations of heightened security and paranoia with the million benefits that come along with living here. Stopping at Pandorado for pan de yuca or whatever else I'm craving (maybe a birthday cake for a friend this past Thursday) is far more satisfying than getting some quick snack at a Starbucks. Basically anywhere you go, the food will be amazing. Although I like to occasionally go for dinner at Cocolon (Typical Ecuadorian food with a classy spin on it) or Positano (amazing Italian restaurant owned by a man from Napoli), I can also enjoy the most delicious food at my host family's house or out at a small restaurant where a 3 course meal costs $1.50-$2.00.
Also, while Ecuador is a fairly small country, the diversity allows you to travel relatively small distances to reach a diverse amount of places. While last weekend I took a 3hr bus trip to a beach town (Montanita--party town with a mix of tourists and Ecuadorians and the most amazing cheese empanadas sold at a main corner every weekend till after 5am), this weekend I headed into the sierra (where the Andes mountains are found) to take the "Nariz del Diablo" train. The Galapagos is of course another popular destination for travelers while in Ecuador (and some people's sole purpose for coming) but I'd prefer to save my money for now on less expensive destinations. In a few weeks I plan to head back into the Amazon during a short school week.
More to come about La Nariz del Diablo and other things going on in my next post..