In the end, it took a head-spinning 29 days to get my Ecuadorian driver’s license.
That’s counting from the morning of 1 October – that halcyon moment when Chantal and I visited Cruz Roja Ecuatoriana and expected the process to take no more than 72 strategically choreographed hours – through to the afternoon of 29 October when buddy at ANT Manta handed over my newly-printed license and I think I may have cried.
Even if you factor out the two weeks of civil unrest, there’s still another two-weeks-plus of my life I’ll never get back.
North Americans reading this will no doubt give their heads a shake and wonder why we expats tolerate such inefficiency.
To which we expats would reply: What other choice do we have? It’s not like we run the show down here. One thing most of us learn is that American chest thumping gets you precisely nowhere in this country. In fact, it gets your fat ass frog-marched very quickly to the back of the line.
Humility is key. Patience is key. A sense of humour is key. Three virtues that do not come easily to people who are used to being fluffed by their governments and fellated by shop owners. I remember flying into fits of pique when I waited for almost an hour to get my Canadian passport renewed. Today, that seems to me to illustrate the height of my sorry privilege.
Everyone in Ecuador has a job. It may be the illiterate bloke, certainly the happiest I have known, who waves you into and out of parking lots for two bits a turn at Mega Kywi. It may be the moderately educated fellow who carries your ANT exam request to a second woman who types it into a computer for the third chap who administers the exam so the fourth guy can print and present your license.
These are jobs without a lot of meaning or satisfaction. They are a case study in inefficiency. They are also, for most Ecuadorians, what keeps food on their family tables, clothes on their kids’ backs, and a tin roof over their heads.
What we have forgotten in the north is that efficiency is the enemy of employment. Every time we replace someone’s job with a computer or a robot, we gain a few minutes more to suffer under the unbearable weight of our own responsibilities – and we create one more family in need.
We come to regard that time savings as our birthright. When in fact it’s a devil’s bargain, isn’t it? I don’t have to spend a full day in line for a passport. In exchange, buddy over there gets to stand a full day in line for bread. And then I whinge about the amount of bread he receives.
Ecuador reminds me of the price of this arrangement. I should not need fulfillment from hewing wood and drawing water. That should come from my family and my friends and neighbours; and, if I were religious, which I am not, from my church. This is the social covenant that used to animate our lives. Does anyone even remember what it means?
They do in Ecuador.
These people labour by day. They labour at jobs no North American would accept with dignity. Because work here is not about sense of self. That comes at night, after a modest meal, when they assemble in their public spaces to watch a local football match, or to chat over balconies, or to visit with family. Their families live next door, not across the country. Or on another continent.
In Ecuador, towns come alive by dark. Back home, it’s almost apocalyptic: manicured lawns empty of children, sidewalks empty of pedestrians, malls empty of shoppers, even this close to the holidays (because Amazon); and windows everywhere dimly lit with the blue light of video games and Netflix binge-worthy series.
Efficiency. Productivity. Career. I was taught from the very beginning that these are the only goals that matter. Lately, I’ve been thinking they’re a fraud.
So, yeah, 29 days for a license seems extreme. Until you consider the alternatives.