Monday, April 12, 2010


Accidents are always traumatizing, but when it happens in a foreign country, the trauma feels even greater. Late last Wednesday night three friends and I got into a car crash. It was after 1am and we were driving home from a party. While taking a left turn at an intersection a drunk driver, ignoring his red light, slammed into our side. We skidded across the intersection and flipped over. At first complete silence. Slowly I heard people from the street calling to check if we were okay. I heard my friend M. the driver, ask me, “Anita, Anita, are you okay?” I couldn’t answer yet. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure. After we crawled out through the driver’s window and reoriented ourselves, we realized that everyone had escaped more or less unharmed. We were all walking about, dazed, no signs of blood or broken limbs, although my head pounded. At least I knew I had survived, despite the bruises and bumps that had begun to emerge on the surface of my skin.

I write about this event, not just to share the trauma I felt by feeling close to death, but to describe the sequence of events that happened in my post-accident shock because it has been one of the most poignant cultural experiences I have had. The way the authorities and my friends handled the accident was entirely foreign to me and provided me with a profound insight into Ecuadorian law and society. For example, now more than ever, I have learned that in this country one is (unofficially) guilty until proven innocent. My friend M., who was driving our car and the driver of the other car were immediately taken into police custody and could not leave until their innocence could be proven. The police were rough with M., even though he had done nothing wrong. We knew he had only drunken one beer at the party because he knew he would be driving home fairly early. Sure enough, we later found out that the man who slammed into us was completely wasted and unlike M., failed his breathalyzer test at the station. For me, the police’s aggression with M. seemed out of place, almost insensitive. It struck me as bizarre that they brought them into the police station first before a visit to the emergency room. Neither men showed signs of external injuries, but still, how could anyone know for sure if they were okay?

Through this incident, I learned why Ecuador has such an exponentially high rate of hit-and-run accidents. There are famous stories about drivers passing people bleeding to death in the streets after an accident. Everyone passes by without a glance because if one stops, the authorities view him/her as partly responsible for the accident. Given the policy of “guilty until proven innocent,” and the tremendous police corruption here, no one is willing to take that chance. Without meaning to, the government encourages citizens to mind their own business rather than participate in civil society as good Samaritans. Due to M.’s sudden detainment, once the ambulance arrived, his mother (a lawyer) called to highly discourage us from going to the hospital. She pleaded with us to wait until the police released him from the station because otherwise, it could make things “more complicated for him.” In my state of post-accident shock, I followed her instructions. Understandably, M.’s mother wanted to protect her son as much as possible, but my own mother (again, understandably…) didn’t appreciate her advice. The battle between our mothers could have gotten nasty…

Regardless of M.’s mother “advice,” I couldn’t have gone to the emergency room anyway because in this country they will only treat patients if they can pay immediately for services rendered. You must have sufficient cash or a credit card with you to receive treatment. (From now on, as much as I dislike the idea, I will have to carry a credit card with me at all times). Last fall a French woman tragically bled to death in the emergency room because no one could scramble up the cash or a credit card to pay for her treatment. Unfortunately for Ecuador, her father is a doctor and she is from a family with economic and cultural capital. They have had the resources to follow up on every detail of the case and in the process have exposed Ecuador’s ugly, unethical health system. Her avoidable death has caused the Ecuadorian government much embarrassment because once again it highlights their “third world” status as “incompetent” caretakers of their inhabitants. (Ecuador’s inferiority complex, especially compared with France’s incredibly competent healthcare system, emerged in the articles, editorials, etc. in the media coverage after the incident).

At close to 4am, my friend M. called to inform me that he was leaving the police station and had been cleared of all wrongdoing in the incident. It was a no-brainer that the other driver was at fault because he was completely drunk. As far as I know, he spent the next few days in jail. He is lucky that all of us survived and suffered only minor bumps and bruises. When I finally arrived at the hospital and had my CAT scan and X-rays, I was relieved to discover that all was well internally. However, it did not prevent two black eyes from emerging days after the accident. These black eyes have become external symbols of the trauma I’ve experienced. Although it was an extremely unpleasant incident, at least I’ve learned some key points about how accidents play out here (not for next time…knock on wood). I’m lucky to be safe and sound, writing this curled up in my bed. My eyes are now an impressive scarlet color...perhaps they will give me some street cred when I head to the Centro tomorrow....

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