Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mall Rat

Not since my tween years when malls = boy heaven have I taken such an interest in hanging out at malls. Malls in North Quito, the part of town where I live and hang out (which I will explain in another post), are places for the elite. It is an unspoken rule, or "public secret" that only certain people, who look a certain way can enter these upscale palace-like structures. Perhaps the heavily armed guards at the entrances help deter people who "don't belong" (the lower classes, who also happen to have darker skin, more indigenous features, etc. etc..). Unlike the upscale malls in other parts of Latin America, like in Mexico City, the big brand stores (Prada, Dior, Diesel) have not yet arrived in Quito. However, they have stores that carry a complete mish-mash of brand-name stuff flung on racks in no particular order. It is a curious thing. You might find some Diesel jeans and a J. Crew sweater in one store for example. These malls also carry the fancy local brands from Ecuador and Latin America. Because much of the stuff is imported, the stores are absurdly expensive--things will cost double or triple the amount they would cost back home (come to think of it--I don't think I have ever purchased an article of clothing in a mall here...) A pair of converse sneakers could easily cost over $100... The few people who actually buy clothes at these stores are the same people who make frequent trips to Miami for weekend shopping in order to "save money".

One thing's for sure--the food courts are booming. They are always booming, despite the high prices. A typical three course lunch (lunch is taken very seriously here--I'll save that for another post) outside the mall will cost roughly $2.00. Inside the mall, it will cost at least $4 but more frequently much more depending on where you go. There are very expensive restaurants--a sushi place, a steak house, TGIFridays (ha ha), as well as all the fast food joints imported from Gringolandia. On Sundays entire families come to the mall to do shopping, or at least window-shopping, eat at the food-court and then go to the cinema. This is a typical Sunday ritual among the upper classes (I sound like Malinowski). The streets are empty and the malls are stuffed--so crowded that you have to wade your way through, pushing past multiple sets of extended families.

As in the United States, malls also serve as a haven (and heaven perhaps) for Quiteno teenagers. Ecuador is heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and so young couples do not have quality cuddle time--they most definitely do not cuddle at each others' homes. Instead they head to the mall and parks. As such, you see lots of cuddling couples at the mall. It is fun to superficially "categorize" the couples--for example, just like in the States you will see "goth," "preppy" "sporty" "hippie" types (that is all done tongue-in-cheek--I'm an anthropologist! we don't do that sort of thing)..uh um...You even see kids here who are their own sort of "hipsters". I have faith that they could slip into the East Village or Billysburgh scenes.

My personal love affair with Quito's malls, aside from enjoying gawking at the rich kids, began during my first stay here 10 years ago when I went to hang out at the mall to alleviate homesickness. Where else could I sit in a food court, do some window shopping, buy some Skippy peanut butter and corn flakes at the imported food store, watch a trashy Hollywood blockbuster (most often dubbed) and generally, "feel at home." Malls are fairly generic places, which is probably why I find them so boring at home...but when I am far from home, they become familiar and comforting. I also got into the "mall scene" because I feel completely safe in them. I decided long ago that taking money out from cash machines in the mall was the safest place--obviously I prefer not to use cash machines on the street, nor from inside banks because you're target when you leave the bank.

My interest in malls also stems from my anthropological research interests in public versus private spaces. Lots of academic literature has focused on malls in the "developing world" as "private" public spaces--this is most definitely true in Quito, and my own project about sex workers in the historic center touches upon similar themes of how public vs. private space become divided...

so....in conclusion....I can add hanging out a malls to the list of things I do in Ecuador that I don’t do at home (along with eating copious amounts of meat, watching TV, not bothering to buckle my seatbelt—I know, I know....I’m living on the edge…)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bang- Bang Bienvenidas a Quito

I am settling into my first week of living in Quito, the capital of Ecuador nestled high in the Andes mountains. Towering mountains, which change from different shades of greens and grays throughout day, frame the western side of the city. I will be here for a year conducting research for my dissertation in cultural anthropology from New York University. I study sex work in the historic district, a rapidly gentrifying area which is desperately seeking to shed its reputation as the center of the sex industry and drug trade of the city. We'll see how that drama unfolds....

Now one of my own:
I have always felt very much at home in Quito. I first arrived in this city 10 years ago to teach English at a local highschool after college. I lived with a family for a year and as it turns out, that year changed the course of my life as Ecuador and my experiences here continued to inform the decisions about what I would do next...and then....and after...until presently....here I am. I'm back.

I've changed significantly since my first visit to Ecuador. Ecuador has too. Last night I got a taste of just how much it has changed. As I settled down on the sofa with a cup of steaming tea, about to crack open my book, I heard loud gunshots from the street. Next a man's voice yelling: "Auxilio" "Auxilio" (help, help). I heard more yelling, then lots of commotion as people from nearby apartment buildings leaned out their windows and started shouting too. No sirens to be heard (police tend not to make it to crime scenes here). Even my warm tea could not "quita" my chills. I have settled into a "fancy" neighborhood on the eastern slopes of the city. Muy tranquilo (or so I thought).

The assault happened at 7:30pm last night. Way too early I thought, although the sun sets here by 6:30 so anytime after that becomes fair game for this type of prowling. I have no idea the details of the crime, whether the gunshots I heard were from one of the security officers who sit in guard houses in front of each apartment building, or from the "ladrones" (thieves) or perhaps even from the "victim." What I do know is that this event reinforced what many of my Ecuadorian friends have told me since my arrival: Be very careful. Quito is much more dangerous now.

I believe it. When my friend picked me up from the airport last weekend she launched into the story of a French woman who had been shot and killed during a mugging last week. The woman was walking home, down the hill in Guapalo, a bohemian neighborhood I have spent lots of time in. In fact, I have walked her identical path by myself, up and down the hill--just like her. But, unlike her, I walked this path--up and down, up and down, up and down, a few years ago. I am sure it was still dangerous when I was doing it-- it was a risky form of transportation, even then, but from all my friends' accounts, it is a life-threatening one now.

No more Guapalo. Well, no more walking by myself in Guapalo, day or night. No more walking anywhere at night. I used to feel safe walking after dark in the "fancy" neighborhoods, like my own. Once the sun sets I will be in a taxi or already at home. Have I just given myself at 7pm curfew? Dusk is the bewitching hour in Quito, yesterday, even before witnessing the assault outside my building, I looked to my watch and quickened my pace to make it home well before the lights of the city start to turn on one-by-one. Unfortunately, as I recounted the story of the assault last night to a friend, he reminded me that well, you should not feel safe anywhere during the day either. (!)

Bang-bang bienvenidas!
thanks Quito, for your not-so-warm welcome. I love this city and refuse to walk around like a shell-shocked doe. However, I also recognize that I need to step up the security and never let myself get too comfortable--on those days when I only have 4 or 5 blocks to walk home and the sun has just set I need to hail a cab. I need to look forward and backward whenever walking during the day. I cannot carry a purse or have credit cards or a wallet on me. I will carry just the meager amount of money I will need for that moment, not a dollar more.

It is hard to adjust to living in constant high alert. I am used to navigating the streets of Brooklyn (which now seem innocent-- all kitten and puppy-like).
The security issues are the worst part about living here. My limited mobility is deeply unsettling. It makes me feel weak and vulnerable, which are the worst enemies of women. Even more so here...

Stay tuned to my next blog which will be filled with fun, giggles, innocent adventures, kittens and toddlers