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Monday, April 29, 2019

The dystopia we should fear

I drafted this piece last year, but didn't publish it. I hoped it would become out of date before the next election cycle. Because it isn't, I am publishing it now.

Timothy Egan wrote a provocative piece called “What if Steve Bannon Is Right?” In it, he quoted the parting words of the much-reviled presidential adviser: “I want [the Democrats] to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Now no Democrat, or person who wants the Democrats to win, wants to think that Steve Bannon is right about anything. He’s certainly not right about race! But no matter how far I go in the world, it’s impossible to get away from the U.S.A. and what happened in the 2016 election. And I do think it was about “the economy, stupid.”

Like many people characterized as liberals and progressives, I have been guilty of sound bites implying that the election, and its aftermath, was about one thing. Racism, misogyny, evangelicals. And I don’t want to make that mistake again. Nor do I want to ignore other countries; it’s just that Canada, for example, is more liberal (in the classical sense) than most other countries right now, though not if the provincial government of Ontario has anything to say about it.

But I do think that if those who resist Tweeter and his agenda want to defeat it at the polls, they (we) need to be political about it, and that means thinking about what really works. It has become common to assume that everything he says is wrong, and that is a dangerous assumption. During the campaign Tweeter occasionally said something true that no rival candidate had said, and it worked wonders for him. 

Unless you watched the Republican primary debates you probably don’t remember this, but there was a moment when Tweeter ridiculed Jeb Bush—who was once thought most likely to become the Republican candidate—for the George W. Bush “war on terror.” This was politically unthinkable. Never speak ill of another Republican, was the Reagan rule. (Of course Tweeter wasn’t a “real” Republican, like Bernie Sanders wasn’t a “real” Democrat. So what? In 2016 that didn't matter.)

But Tweeter saying the unspeakable resonated with people, because in this case, it was true. George W. Bush started the pointless war in Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan, and most pertinently, was president on September 11, 2001. Even Tweeter wouldn’t try blaming Obama for September 11.  

The moment Tweeter ridiculed Jeb Bush’s claim that “my brother kept us safe” was the moment we should have known that Bush, another neoliberal, would not after all be running against Clinton for the presidency. And the moment the G.O.P. failed to nominate a neoliberal was the moment the election was theirs. 

It’s confusing because of the way Americans use the term liberal, but neoliberalism is the economic ideology dominant since the Carter administration. It would not have been possible for Hillary Clinton to distance herself from neoliberalism, given that Bill Clinton and every other president, Democratic or Republican, espoused it. Benjamin Studebaker wrote in January 2016: “[I]f this is the year when the voting public decides that it’s done with neoliberalism, the party that nominates a neoliberal candidate will likely lose.”

I have heard some Democrats still attacking Senator Sanders almost as if he were as bad as Tweeter. Blaming him and his “progressives” for everything. On the contrary, Sanders was, or should have been, Democrats’ canary in the coal mine.

If pointing out how outrageously Tweeter treats veterans and military families worked, the Khan family story would have sunk him. If pointing out misogyny worked, the p*ssy grabber scandal would have.

Nothing did. He won the election not by getting more votes but by winning the upper Midwest. States like Michigan, where Bernie Sanders “shocked” everybody by winning the Democratic primary.

The voting public in the states that counted did decide in 2016 that they were done with economic stagnation. They voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary and when that didn’t work, they voted Tweeter into the Oval Office.

Now lest I be misunderstood, I am not repeating the “white working class” theory. As has been widely reported, a larger proportion of well-off white Americans voted for Tweeter than white working people. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes provocatively that white identity is what propelled Tweeter to victory. I don’t dispute that this is true; I am questioning whether it is helpful.

The fact is that calling Tweeter racist didn’t work. And calling his supporters racist certainly isn’t working now. It should be impossible for a racist to win the presidency, but clearly it isn’t; race-baiting has worked many times before (Willie Horton, anyone?) I am as discouraged at anyone else if Coates is right, but the voters he is talking about do not hear the same things that we hear as racist dog whistling.

When they hear “Make America Great Again,” they do not think of the 1950s as a dystopia. Make no mistake—for many Americans, black and gay for instance, it was. But that is not the dystopia that Tweeter supporters imagine. They are thinking of the dystopia whereby San Francisco software developers live on hills so that “homeless” do not crawl in front of their self-driving cars.

I heard from such people on my travels as well. It was shocking. The have-have not gap is getting wider in many parts of the world, and that is what drives economic fear and insecurity.

I do not mean to suggest that racism is not a problem, or that we shouldn’t protest it, or talk about it. But to quote my friend Scott King, if we fight the next election on “gay sex, ‘lazy’ Puerto Ricans, and kneeling football players,” we are on Tweeter’s ground. He and Bannon and the rest of the white supremacists want us to lose. 

Hillary Clinton has often been characterized as more careful than honest, but when she made her “deplorables” comment the opposite was the case. It was politically unwise for her to make that statement; that doesn’t make it untrue. But Clinton didn’t lose in states like Tennessee, where Republicans would have won no matter who or what they nominated. She lost in states like Michigan. 

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show how deepening economic inequality drives all kinds of problems in societies. Even the appalling level of gun violence in the U.S. is linked to its high levels of inequality, although we tend to speak of the gun issue as though it were about philosophical differences around the Second Amendment. The fact is, when economically insecure voters in Michigan voted for the non-neoliberal (i.e., against Hillary Clinton), they were fearing the dystopia of greater and greater economic inequality. That was the only common area between the egalitarian Sanders and the nationalist Tweeter. Sanders, and I would have thought most Democrats, want healthcare for all Americans; Tweeter wants to take away what Affordable Care they have. 

And the dystopia they fear is more likely to come true than the one we fear.

We should all fear it. None of us should desire a world in which fewer and fewer people have meaningful work. Even those who design “apps” for a living have to live with the rest of us. It is entirely possible that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people and more and more wealth concentrated at the top of the economic food chain. 

Tweeter won because he said the right things about domestic air conditioning plants and September 11 and China. The fact that he hasn’t done anything about factory jobs, and the fact that no president probably could, does not change the fact that that’s why he won the electoral votes he needed.

About the only thing I agree with his supporters about is that China is a rival to the U.S. This should be bleedingly obvious, but president after president before him had told us China was a strategic partner. Traveling across Africa makes it abundantly clear that China, not the U.S., is invested in the continent. The U.S. stopped being interested in investing in Africa when no longer engaged in a proxy Cold War. Now, I don’t think there’s a country in Africa where the Chinese aren’t building roads and railroad lines. They may not be doing it to the standards we’d wish, but they are there! As far as Africans are concerned, China is not the superpower of the future; it is the world’s superpower. 

And does anyone seriously believe that North Korea’s nutcase, Kim, could point nuclear missiles at the U.S.A if China didn’t want him to? Again, that doesn’t mean Tweeter is doing anything about China, and it certainly doesn’t excuse his lack of diplomacy, which risks the lives of millions if not billions of people. He and Kim are both sociopaths who couldn’t care less about any human being besides themselves. But that doesn’t make everything he says about China false. 

Egan's piece reiterates that "racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican." It's real, and Tweeter said and continues to say demonstrably racist things--and that wasn't enough to defeat him. “As long as Democrats fail to understand this," Bannon said, "they will continue to lose."

It sucks. Racism should be enough to sink a candidate in America, and it still isn't. But unless the Democrats, and opposition parties in countries with similar problems, make a serious effort to avert the threat of economic dystopia, they will continue to lose. And deserve to.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre Dame de Paris

After the fire was extinguished at Notre Dame cathedral, I was grateful to read that no one had died. And that, despite the destruction of the roof and spire, so much of this symbolic building and its irreplaceable art had been saved. People were praying in the streets, showing how much this church means to Paris and to the world.

Ever since donations started pouring in, though, I have been hearing variations on this comment in person, on the news, and across social media:

It’s definitely food for thought. Nobody seems to be saying Notre Dame shouldn’t be saved, but everybody has an idea of where billionaires’ donations could be better used: the Flint water crisis, the Grenfell Tower fire, indeed any disaster where people have died. The point is that donations in these numbers weren’t and aren’t being made to these other causes.

I have another perspective on this. I think we are all acting exactly as our forebears did, in the centuries when Notre Dame was originally built.

Cathedrals were constructed to the glory of God at a time when that was a real conviction. Modern people have lost the vision to build something like Notre Dame over hundreds of years, as Heinrich Heine wrote in 1837: "People in those old times had convictions; we moderns only have opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral."

In the Middle Ages, as in modern times, the poor suffered; and most people were poor. Unimaginable wealth poured into the construction of great cathedrals, while generations of laborers lived in serf-like conditions. In that sense, humanity’s greatest buildings are also monuments to inequality, from a time when equality was not even imagined.

And it’s not at all clear that Our Lord would even approve. On the BBC, Today host John Humphrys, who normally thinks the less Jesus on the radio the better, asked his guest, the Archbishop of York, whether Jesus was really interested in grand buildings. The answer should be clear from the Bible. Not only Jesus, but God in the Old Testament, repeatedly states that human hearts and behaviour are more important than constructing a temple to his name.

And yet—and yet—

As has been said often over recent days, a cathedral like Notre Dame means so much to so many people. It is, and was built as, a house of worship, and the people of Paris gathered and sang “Ave Maria” while it burned. Yet it has also accrued other meanings over the centuries. It stood through the French Revolution and the Nazi occupation of Paris. It stands for something French as well as something Catholic. And for many people all over the world, Notre Dame was and is a priceless heritage of humanity, the like of which can never be replaced.

When we look at the suffering that could be addressed, but isn’t, we wonder why all this money couldn’t be found for those disasters. Do rich people not care about anything unless it’s an opportunity to get their name out there? Is it the fault of a tax system that takes too little money from the rich, and so doesn’t leave enough revenue to help the poor? 

I think that’s a good question. But the fact remains: Without massive resources being devoted to building a cathedral, rather than helping poor people, Notre Dame would never have been built at all.

Few of humanity’s treasures come from a time of equality. Works of art are the products of patronage. Books are written, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, when a writer has leisure time: “a room of one’s own.” As a species, we have always had a large proportion of poor people and a few who were very rich; but we would also be poorer as a species were it not for many of these creations.

Those of us who have visited Notre Dame have had the privilege of appreciating a priceless work of art. We can appreciate that people in the past had the capacity to build something that would outlast them, and that would inspire many generations after them. The symbolic meaning of Notre Dame has attracted these record-breaking donations, but I understand why people are uncomfortable with them. These amounts simply haven’t been offered for other disasters, including those in which thousands have died. 

When pressed about this, the archbishop, John Sentamu, said, “There is enough food in the world to feed everybody, but not enough for our individual greed.” He is correct. If as humanity we got better at sharing the wealth, there is no reason that we could not both restore Notre Dame, to the glory of God, and help our neighbour.

Humankind is always struggling for this balance: the useful and the beautiful. The extravagant waste of expensive ointment offered to Jesus, who responded, “The poor you always have with you.” Notre Dame is an opportunity to bring people together around something beautiful, and not just rich people. Or, it’s an opportunity to question their motivations, because we think they should be doing something else.

Disasters bring out the best in humanity. If we squash this impulse to beauty, because we can think of more useful ways for money to be spent, will we get usefulness instead of beauty? I fear we will get neither.

Monday, April 8, 2019

When I look at the world: 29 pictures and 1 thing I know

“I want to know, not just believe, that the world is round.” —Anne of Green Gables

Tanzania
There's no doubt that we've changed in the course of our travels. T. didn’t have hearing aids when we left England, nor did I have reading glasses. We’re older, possibly wiser, not to say sadder! I set out with, I hope, an open mind about the world, but I have come back with an absolute conviction.
Sunrise, Australia
When we got back, I tuned the radio to the BBC news. It was as if we’d never left. In terms of “Brexit” or what the U.S. administration is up to, it might as well be 2017. I say that not to make a political point but to bring you this message: The world is way more beautiful than it sounds.
Laos
Before you think I’m criticizing “the media,” first of all writing is a medium. But also, a free press plays a vital role in the defense of democracy. And journalists sometimes pay with their lives. I’m thinking of those reporters who were killed covering the U.S war in Vietnam, or these in Peru, during that country’s internal conflict.
Jorge Sedano, Amador García, Luis Mendívil, Félix Gavilán, Pedro Sánchez, Willy Retto, and Edmundo de la Piniella
No, what I mean is that the world is not filled with people trying to hurt or take advantage of one another. The world is filled with friendly people who will help you if they can. We’ve been to 29 countries* and in 22 months, I don’t remember anything being stolen. We have taken some thirty flights, on all six continents, without experiencing so much as a serious delay. Things usually work out. We’ve had some problems, notably T’s health crisis, but even then people came out of the woodwork to help us.

Either we have been extraordinarily lucky, or what I suspected about the world is true: “Man bites dog” is news, and bad things make the news because they are still the exceptions, rather than the rule.
Thailand
I am not a naïve person. Our travels have taken us to Auschwitz and the Cambodian killing fields. But when you hear about the latest atrocity, look at all the people around who are trying to help. One man caused so much death and destruction in Christchurch, but did you see the people across New Zealand who found their local mosques, visited with flowers, stood in solidarity with their neighbors? People all around the world are like this.
New Zealand
I am here to tell you that, and to highlight some of my favourite moments.

Western Australia
FAVORITE COUNTRIES: It's hard to pick favorites, but Slovenia wowed us with its beauty, its understatedness, and how easy it was to travel there.
Slovenia
Tanzania, of course, was and is a favorite of mine.
Tanzania
And Laos was the real discovery in southeast Asia. I thought it was the most beautiful country and again, very accessible to travel in.
Laos
FAVORITE CITIES: We felt at home in Prague the moment we got there. I would definitely go back.
Czech Republic
Toronto--not for its beauty but because it's the closest I have to a hometown (I grew up in the country!) And Portland, Oregon is a city I'd love to spend more time in. I was also pleasantly surprised by Saskatoon, though I wouldn't want to stay there in winter.

FAVORITE WILDLIFE EXPERIENCES: Too many to list. Our day with the elephants was one of the best ever.
Thailand
The bears in Alaska were amazingly close.
U.S.A.
The polar bears near Churchill, Manitoba lived up to all "trip of a lifetime" expectations.
Canada. Photo courtesy of T.
And I don't have an underwater camera, but I don't think anything will top snorkeling with sea lions in Galápagos National Park.

Ecuador

Speaking of NATIONAL PARKS: Grand Teton, Wyoming
U.S.A.
Mostly because we got to visit with my family.


Glacier, Montana:
U.S.A.
Cape Range in Western Australia, specifically snorkeling Ningaloo Reef.
Australia
And the "living up to expectations" prize goes to Jasper, Alberta.
Canada

EXPERIENCES I WOULD TRY AGAIN: Kilimanjaro. I'm not saying I will do it again, but yes, I would.
Tanzania
Mauritius. Is any ocean prettier than the Indian? Mind you, now that Audrey's husband has retired I don't expect either of them ever to come back from Mauritius--but please do, Audrey! And while the Indian Ocean sunsets are incredible, no country on earth can be more beautiful than New Zealand. I'd love to make it to the South Island next time.
New Zealand
I wouldn't mind going back to the Galápagos either, if T. was her healthy, active self. (And if we saved up for a cruise of the islands!)
Ecuador
OTHER ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME MOMENTS: Buffy Sainte-Marie live in Vancouver.
Canada
The Hubbard Glacier "calving" an iceberg in Alaska.
U.S.A.
Continuing the glacial theme--climbing to Humantay Lake on the Salkantay Trek.
Peru
In some ways, the world seems bigger to me now. Everywhere we’ve gone, even when we’ve spent months in a country, we’ve only scratched the surface of just those corners where we were. At the same time, the world seems smaller and fragile. Given modern modes of transport, no place on earth is much more than twenty-four hours’ journey away. And yet we all have to live here. As the young Army officer said to his fellow Americans: “Can’t you guys be nice to each other?” It is tragic what happens to places when people can’t get along.
Another sunrise in Australia
We all have to share this one planet and that is very real to me now, not just an environmental slogan. And people are not that different. Each individual is unique (and precious in the eyes of God), but people in general are not that different around the world. We want our families to be safe, we want to have a good life.
Laos
I look at these maps of all the places we've traveled in the world and I realize, I really love the world. Not just in the "save the planet, reuse your shopping bag" sense (although that's a very good idea). But because it is our home. We have to find better ways to live, together, for everyone's child's sake.
This cheetah is the best picture of the trip. From T's safari, Tanzania
*The 29 countries:

1. EUROPE
Wales (U.K.)
Ireland
France
Spain
Italy
Slovenia
Austria
Hungary
Czech Republic
Germany
Netherlands

2. AFRICA
Tanzania
South Africa
Mauritius

3. ASIA
Thailand
Myanmar
Laos
Vietnam
Hong Kong (China)
Cambodia
Malaysia
Singapore

4. OCEANIA
Australia
New Zealand

5. NORTH AMERICA
United States of America
Canada

6. LATIN AMERICA & THE CARIBBEAN
Cuba
Peru
Ecuador

Monday, April 1, 2019

Quito starts with Quit

I’d read that Quito is a city where backpackers often hang out for longer than they'd planned. One reason is that it’s supposed to be a great place to learn Spanish. Both these things turned out to be true for me, but for an unwanted reason: T’s trip to the emergency room and subsequent 2-week stay in Ecuadorian hospitals. I’ve had almost constant opportunities to practice Spanish, and have learned vocabulary I never thought I’d need. And I can hardly wait to learn the past tense, so I can place all these experiences behind us, where they belong!
On our aborted trip to the equator, I remember passing the Cruz Rojo—Red Cross of Ecuador. Who knew that hours later, T. would be requiring its services? I will forever be grateful to those Ecuadorians who donated blood to someone they would never meet. That’s my abiding memory of Quito: how many people helped us, even when all we wanted to do was get out of there.
For the next 8 days, T’s home became Hospital Eugenio Espejo.
Eugenio Espejo was a satirist, public health scientist, and mestizo politician in the 18th century. There’s a statue of him in Quito, and a painting in the Museo Nacional. Even after T. was transferred to Hospital Metropolitano, the police station opposite is named after Eugenio Espejo. We could not get away from this guy.
Our home had been the Hostel Revolution, but when the private room became unavailable (I couldn’t face any more dorm beds) I moved to another hostel in Old Town. I want to plug the Hostel Revolution, because it was a nice place to stay—I even won a beer in the pub quiz, before all the sh*t started. Afterwards, while T. was in the hospital, I continued to visit the hostel, because Sandra, the Canadian who runs it, let me use her phone and WiFi, and catch up on how T. was doing. 

We were at Eugenio Espejo, three blocks from our hostel, because that’s where the taxi driver took us when T. really started to feel shocked. We found out later that it’s one of the best public hospitals. And, because it was public, there were no forms to fill out or bills to pay. Ecuador’s constitution guarantees that health care is free at the point of service for everyone—even foreign visitors. What an exceptional country.
Bed #3
So I got to concentrate on Spanish and making our story understood in that language. It started in a chaotic lobby where a security guard, realizing that I needed help in English, found Irvin, who spoke a few words. I will always remember Irvin, who was taller than everyone else in the hospital, and possibly in Ecuador. Irvin ran to get a wheelchair, then raced T. to emergency. They started working on her right in the waiting room. Although Eugenio Espejo wasn’t the hospital where she ended up being operated on, they saved her life there.

It isn’t an experience either of us would have chosen, but one certainly learns things about a country from the inside of its health care system(s) that most travelers will never discover. I remember not feeling the stress of the situation until later, because I was concentrating on communication and making sure the necessary things got done. What I mostly remember is the friendliness. In Quito, people always seem to greet each other, even if we’re just strangers getting on or off an elevator. Of course it was in Spanish, but I found it extraordinary for a big city. My friend from Guayaquil reminded me that we come from a European culture, “but you’re in Latin America now.”

I don’t know Inés from Guayaquil. I met her in my Chicago days, that is more than 20 years ago, through our mutual good friend. Now that she lives in Quito, I’d let her know we were coming to Ecuador, because anyone I’m even slightly in touch with knows if we’re coming to their country! But when Inés heard that T. had had an emergency, she phoned me immediately. She showed up at my hostel, she came to the hospital with me and translated. She visited T. on Ash Wednesday when I was feeling too ill to stay at the hospital. In an effort to keep me going, she also showed me the revitalized Old Town street, La Ronda, and canelazo, a hot spiced sugar cane drink that was good for my throat. And later, when our insurance had finally kicked in and we were settled in a nice hotel, she took me to the nearby (free!) Museo Nacional.
Inca quipu, used for communication and last seen on Salkantay Trail in Peru
It was an incredibly difficult time, but it would have been impossible without so many other people. The first medic to whom I could explain things in English was a doctor named Alejandra. She was on duty the morning T. arrived, assured me that night that she would take care of T. while I went to get some sleep, and was in the emergency room when I returned the next morning. When do these young doctors sleep? In a neat twist, when T. was eventually admitted to the other hospital and needed emergency surgery there, the ER doctor asked us if we remembered the “pretty doctor” in emergency at Eugenio Espejo. Of course we remembered Alejandra, who turned out to be his girlfriend, and said to tell us hi!

The nurses rarely spoke any English, but they wore old-fashioned little hats, and one even came around to clip finger- and toenails. (T., whose own stress reactions were somewhat delayed, joked that she was getting a mani-pedi.) “Good night!” one tried greeting us; another asked if we were “brothers.” I knew what she meant; the funny thing is how everyone assumed we must be blood relatives although we look nothing alike. With the doctors, I was explicit about our relationship (or as close as I could get it in Spanish), because I didn’t want any next-of-kin issues. Ecuador is still pretty conservative, but at least homosexuality isn’t illegal anymore.

What really blew people’s minds, though, was T. not having kids. And me not having kids either. In Latin America, having children is the greatest thing in life. Even taxi drivers kept chatting to me long past the limits of my Spanish, expressing their concern about this amiga of mine and how neither of us had kids. Sometimes I invented a husband in London, just to settle them down. (There are female taxi drivers in Quito, but I never had one.)

I remember the security guards who started saying “Hello. Fourth floor” to me in English, or just waving me through. One day the guard at the gate stuck out his hand; I thought he wanted my pass, but he just wanted to shake hands with me. Another guard asked if I had any explosives in my bag, and laughed! It wouldn’t work for the T.S.A., I suppose, but it was his way of being welcoming. 

I remember the nurse on the eve of T’s surgery who spoke only Spanish, but somehow conveyed to T. that she should have “peace in your heart.” I remember the nurses at the other hospital who remarked on her tan lines. Not too long ago, we’d clearly been at la playa, the beach. It was a reminder of better days.
Better times in Cuba!
I remember the woman waiting with her son in emergency, in the cubicle next to T. He looked to be in worse shape than my patient, but his mother kept checking on me, making sure I had a chair to sit in, talking long past my capacity to understand Spanish. I remember the little boys in the supermarket line who spotted a gringa (me) and shyly attempted “Hello,” to see if it would work. “¿Cómo estás?” I asked them, and they said “Bien”! Amazing: it does work, when you’re willing (or desperate enough) to give it a try.

Of course there were challenges. In Spanish, people typically have two last names, an apellido paterno and an apellido materno. I kept telling the staff, but they really struggled with T. having one last name. Sometimes, her middle name came out as her paternal last name.

I benefited from knowing some medical vocabulary in English. I have no idea how the drug ceftriaxone, for example, is pronounced, but I can spell it; and because Spanish is phonetic I knew which drugs medics meant when they said them out loud. I also know what CT stands for and that helped when they wanted to send T. for tomografía

They did this at a private clinic whose CT scanner was available, which means we got to ride in an ambulance (not for the last time). 

Edwin from Madrid rode with us, because he knew a few words of English. Mostly “I’m sorry.” The private clinic differed from the hospital in having TV (a Dwayne Johnson movie was playing in the waiting room) and a Coke machine that charged 50 cents! They also had a delay, so T. had to lie in the ambulance, parked at an angle on the sidewalk, for well over half an hour after we got there.

By contrast, the public hospital seemed incredibly well staffed. For one thing, there always seemed to be someone mopping. Some people would probably describe it as socialism, to which I say Bring it on!
They brought whatever gown was clean, not necessarily the correct department.
As I mentioned, I didn’t have to worry about insurance at first, because public health care is free. I understood from someone at the hospital that our insurance had been called and, basically, weren’t paying for anything, happy for T’s care to continue being paid for by Ecuadorian taxes. Since neither of our phones had been working in Ecuador either (first of 29 countries!), I had to chase the insurance by e-mail, and it took several tries to convince them I was T’s next of kin, then to speak to her sister, who was able to reach them by phone in the UK. Eventually, the insurance got T. into a hospital more accustomed to foreigners, where they ended up doing surgery and clearing her to travel on a long-haul flight; but my sister-in-law or I had to check on them constantly, or they would muck up every single step.

I suppose, when so many complicated things are happening, the most important thing is that the surgeon and other medics get it right. And at Hospital Metropolitano, where T. had her operation, they were great. I can’t think of a time when we lacked confidence in the care at either hospital.
Have a Good Day from today's nurses!
The insurance, on the other hand, consisted of a large number of different people, ranging from the completely incompetent (our first liaison in South America couldn’t even reach an Ecuadorian phone number, and complained to us about it) to the usually helpful. Unhappily, we never knew which one might answer when we typed or dialed.

During the two weeks that T. spent in hospitals, I made myself a kind of work schedule, needing the routine to stay healthy and more or less sane. Every morning I walked through the Old Town, with its plethora of churches, to get to Hospital Eugenio Espejo. It’s a beautiful walk (provided it’s daylight and the streets aren’t deserted. Inés said the neighbourhood near El Panecillo used to be off limits, even to quiteños, but the combination of a new mayor and fed-up residents had cleaned it up.)
Winged Virgin, El Panecillo
From Eugenio Espejo I could also look out and see the figure of winged Mary on the hilltop. Lent was coming, but the weekend after T’s admission was a long holiday weekend, as Tuesday was Carnival. It was interesting to see people squirting each other with silly string in the streets, but to me, Carnival represented chiefly a delay.
I’d repeatedly phoned the British Embassy, at the suggestion of Jorge at the hospital (one of the English-speaking doctors). But it was closed, and the London officer to whom I was patched through didn’t seem to know anything. Not when the embassy would reopen, nor what the embassy could do for us (she actually asked me). On Ash Wednesday, when everything finally was open, a pro-consul from the embassy showed up at T’s bedside and was really irritated that her colleagues in London hadn’t called her earlier. She explained that, with a British citizen having been critically ill in Ecuador, the situation should have been escalated, even out of hours. 

It was good to know how helpful the embassy could be once Cat finally was informed. She was in constant contact, came to Eugenio Espejo in person and put doctors from both hospitals in touch, to make sure the transfer happened. This is more than the embassy should typically have to do, but with all the delays and dumbness on the part of the insurance, we were glad to have a professional in Quito on our side.

After all of this, after T. was at the other hospital and had been operated on, the insurance finally started putting me up in hotels. I stayed across the street from the hospital, where there was a terrace with a nice view.
Cat urged me to walk in the park and not just stay in the hospital all through lunchtime. There turned out to be a lovely little park just down the street, which was great when I managed to avoid Quito’s (daily, afternoon) rains.

One day in “Women’s Park” I discovered this monument, which memorializes the Nazi massacre in Lidice, Czechoslovakia.

It’s an interesting story, how this came to be there. In 1943, the year after the destruction of the Czech village, a square in the Mariscal district of Quito was named Plaza Lidice. Over time, though, La Mariscal was developed into what is now the edgy, trendy area of the city (our last hotel was there) and the hub is now called Plaza Foch. Lest Lidice be forgotten, this sculpture was unveiled in north Quito in 2016.

We may not have been nightclubbing with oblivious partiers around Plaza Foch, but at least we were finally comfortable. Having been in room 13 before her surgery (not to mention walking under a ladder, the black cat and a broken mirror—I’m not kidding), T. finished in room 11, which is my favourite number. An English-speaking guy, seeing the famous daypack, asked if the flags represented all the countries we’d been to. I had to say that Ecuador looked like it would be the last. On the other hand, I finally found a decent empanada.

At the end of our stay, when they’d finally booked both me and T. into a hotel with, among other things, an elevator, they got us flights back to England (the long way) on Avianca. I checked the booking online and sure enough, someone (travel agent?) had misspelled T’s first name. Everyone in Ecuador could spell it, but not here, and the airline did what airlines always say they will do and refused to honour a mismatch with the name on the I.D. (passport). Luckily, I am a proofreader, and looked at this the day before, not at the airport on the day! 

After much more back and forth, including someone else at the insurance telling me we needed a form that had been submitted to them, T. was so stressed she was once again convinced she would never get out of Quito. None of this was necessary. The “Fit to Fly” form, signed at the hospital purely for insurance purposes, was never asked for by the airline, just as I suspected it wouldn’t be. The flights we were rebooked on were actually better: KLM straight to Amsterdam, with a stop off in, of all places, Guayaquil! We got back to T’s sister’s place a few hours earlier than we would have, and in business class, which meant we could stretch out flat and T. slept the whole way.

I’d never flown business class before and probably never will again. Apparently, it costs a kidney. T. said it was two for the price of one.

It was interesting to experience a completely different style of travel from backpacking, at the end of our 22 months. Not just the Hotel Reina Isabel (recommended if you can't get into the Hostel Revolution for some reason :-) and business class lounges, but wheelchair assistance for T. She wasn’t up yet for the long walks required through airports, so we had a lot of waiting for various wheelchair assistants to come and help us. For my part, I was glad yet again that we’d packed so light on our travels, because in a pinch, I was just able to heft all the bags!
With Ecuadorian flag added
Even on board the plane, we discovered that our seats were not together. Because insurance had rebooked us only the day before, business class was full, and two window seats were the only ones available. Enter a flying Dutchman who readily agreed with the flight attendant that I should sit next to T., and switched seats for us. And the doctor in front of me who asked about what had happened and if there was anything he could do. And the flight crew, who were so solicitous and brought T. this present before we reached Amsterdam.
I think the larger elephant represents T's African safari, while the smaller Asian elephant is like those we spent time with in rural Thailand.
Our house near London is still rented out until the end of May. It took a lot to make us finish our travels before two years was up, but a life-threatening emergency, followed by surgery in a foreign country, finally convinced us it was time to quit. The middle of the world, Mitad del Mundo, seemed like a good turning point, and by the time we left Ecuador it was also the equinox. Couldn’t have timed our departure better, in the end.

"Speedy recovery"
T. and I said we wanted to go backpacking while we were both healthy and active enough to do it, and we did. We wanted to go to six continents, and we made it. We still love traveling and I know we’ll go on other trips in the future. Just not for 22 months at a time.

As Inés said, "life is not just about fun moments but all moments in which we can care for each other!"
It wasn't all bad!