Sunday, November 28, 2010

More Census

I had to write yet another entry about the census because I’ve never experienced anything like this. Yesterday when I wrote my entry, I felt fairly blasé about the whole thing—I certainly didn’t take seriously the “orders” to stay at home. That is, until I tried to leave my building this morning to go for a walk. Always with my best interests in mind, my doorman said, “Where do you think you are going Anita—they’ll take you to jail!” “Ha ha,” I replied. He said, ‘I’m serious, do you see anyone on the street?” It’s true, I peeked my head out the door, looked both ways and was startled by the silence. Not a car on the street and not a human to be seen. It was dead quiet. I still didn’t want to buy it—I told him, “But I’m a foreigner, why do they want my info?” Carlos shook his head at my “silly” question and replied patiently, “Anita, even tourists will be part of the census—they can’t leave their hotels.” Wow. That really surprised me. If even the tourist industry had shut down for the day that meant the country had truly come to a halt. It felt like the calm before a storm—as if we were preparing for another presidential coup. We were definitely in a police state, as the only cars about were the police making their rounds.

I enjoyed my day at home waiting for the censors, it was the perfect day to catch up on laundry, cleaning, cooking, work, etc. I was surprised when I finally heard the knock on my door and stepped aside to allow two teenage girls from the local high school enter. I had imagined two men wearing a government uniform with baseball caps saying, “Census 2010” written in cursive across the top. Although they broke into giggles every five minutes, making me wonder what freaky thing I had said, it was a benign, fairly short process. What surprised me the most was that the vast majority of their questions centered on the condition of my home. Obviously, by asking about whether I had a private bathroom, knowing the materials used to construct my walls and floors, the number of bedrooms I have and what electronics I use in my house are all indicators of my economic status. Indeed there were endless questions the conditions of my apartment, some of them unexpected—like for example if I drink water directly from the tap, drink boiled water or buy it filtered (I boil my water). Another, how many light bulbs do I have in my house and how many are the environmentally friendly type (to my relief, six out of eight were environmental bulbs). Other questions were definitely not directly towards people like me who live in fancy high-rise apartment buildings. For example, how do I get rid of my trash? I just throw it down the trash chute.

Other questions were very predictable and centered on me as an individual: how do I self-identify racially, level of education, occupation, marital status, number of children, with whom do I live, do I receive remittances from family members abroad, age, nationality if not Ecuadorian, how many hours do I work weekly, how long is my work commute, and where do my family members live. Apparently, the entire survey was voluntary, something they informed me after we had finished. I think they started to get annoyed because I started asking them more questions about the survey than they had asked me. I was fascinated that about 80% of the questions focused on housing conditions as an indicator of economic status. I asked why they didn’t just come out and ask about my annual or monthly income. The giggling girls didn’t have an answer, but I assume it’s because such a direct question about income would be considered unbelievably inappropriate here, survey or no survey. It is impolite anywhere, but here in Ecuador where the vast majority of the population makes so little, perhaps they decided the housing questions were just as good an indicator and probably something people are less likely to lie about. The girls told me that above all, the government wants to know the population of each city and in what conditions people live.

At 5:00pm the census was over and people were allowed to leave their homes. I went for a walk, along with many other people in my neighborhood. I’m now listening to the familiar sounds of cars pass by my building once again. Perhaps people were going stir-crazy sitting at home all day, but I enjoyed the peace, in which I could imagine for a moment that I lived far away from the city. Although the girls did not know for sure if the results would be published, I will be very curious to find out what information was collected. The next census will be in 10 years, and just like this one compared to 10 years ago, the demographics of the country will shift radically—mostly due to the recent in pouring of immigrants from almost everywhere.

Oh yeah, and I'm sure people are thrilled they can drink booze again, although I believe stores will still be closed for the night.

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