Monday, July 18, 2005

Back on the map

It's been a long time since I've updated this blog – maybe I'm only able to write on this while traveling. In the meantime, life's been busy, with a conference on Memorial Day (See, other AID stuff now I'm part of the 'establishment' (more on that later) and volunteering at an organic farm (See But now that I´m traveling again, this time to the PHA-2 in Ecuador, it's high time I revived this blog... I think.
The second People's Health Assembly is being held in Cuenca, Ecuador. Details are at: will be part of the part of the US delegation along with a group of extremely accomplished, highly motivated people. Help!

July 16th:

I stayed in Miami overnight in a hostel – not the best choice of accomodation (one of the girls in my dorm got up at 2 am to have a snack of extremely noisy chips) but cheap. The shuttle came at 4 am to pick me up for my 7:45 am flight. Thought of making a few calls from the airport but sleep, sweet sleep claimed me till it was time to take off.

The airline I flew was LAN, a Latin American carrier. Comfy seats and personal TV's made up for the fact that 'vegetarian' for this airline meant a fruit salad. Enroute, someone a few rows ahead began having problems and the call went out for a medical practitioner. A lady got up to help – I found myself wondering if she was heading to the PHA-2.

We touched down in Quito just before 11 am (it's on Central Daylight Time, like Minnesota). Quito is the second highest capital in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia) and landing at the airport there is memorable. The passengers clapped as we touched ground – surprising, the landing didn't seem all that dangerous. Maybe it's a part of Latin culture. Or Ecuadorians were just happy to be home.

I headed to the counter of Grupo Global, the agency organizing our tickets to Cuenca. They didn't have my ticket – I wasn't even on their list! The doctor who had helped out on the flight did turn out to be a PHA-2 delegate – Claudia Morrissey. (So I can be spared the stereotyping label!) Claudia was set to fly out in an hour to Cuenca and the Grupo Global team was determined to put me on that flight as well. Lots of broken communication and gesticulation later, the woman at the counter took me into the domestic terminal. I paid $63 for the ticket to Cuenca – Ecuador is a dollarized economy. In the gate area I found Claudia, along with Hedwig and Pedro, two delegates from Paraguay. And of course, the flight was delayed!
Claudia is a doctor with Public Health training and teaches International Health at the University of Illinois, Chicago and also at Northwestern University. She has worked in clinics in Bangladesh, Mexico and Guatemala (possibly other places – we didn't get that far). She has been working on reproductive rights issues for over 30 years. Another issue close to her heart is gender equity in University faculties, especially in reference to tenure. As she put it, “The system has many problems, but it's still better than what's offered for non-tenured faculty.”
We landed in Cuenca after a 35 minute flight (during which the attendants still managed to feed us, a la Indian carriers). Cuenca is a city of 350,000 people at an altitude of ~2500 m. It's set in a colonial style – when the Inca ruler of Cuenca heard of the conquistadors' imminent arrival, he ordered the city destroyed. It's also considered an easier city to navigate compared to other Latin American cities.
We had information that the US delegation was to be housed at Hotel El Presidente, so Claudia and I headed there along with Nadia, a member of the PHA steering committee who met us at the airport. We headed to El Presidente, only to find that they were full! Duh, weren't we already booked for this place? A note at the reception said to check with Tawnia Queen, the coordinator of the US delegation, for registration and meal tickets. I suggested we go meet her but already our luggage was being taken to another hotel! As I turned to follow the luggage, Tawnia herself appeared by my side. By now, I had had a sense of a few coordination problems – normal for a gathering of this size. From what Tawnia conveyed, it was a much bigger problem. Well, anyway it looked like we were getting a room in another hotel – the Cuenca and the room was pretty nice. Nadia, Claudia and I were put in one room. Since Nadia was part of the steering committee, it would make more sense for her to stay with the rest of that group in the Presidente and we headed there to work it out. She did get a room there – a dingy, tiny room with none of the charm of the Cuenca. Being on the steering committee would be all work and no fun, it looked like.
After picking up our registration material (and T-shirts), the 3 of us headed out to see the city and more importantly, fill our stomachs. We entered a church briefly - its chapel was gleaming draped in shiny cloths. The others admired it but I found myself thinking of Indian festival or wedding decorations of the more gaudy type! The few people wearing ethnic dresses – long pleated skirts and ponchos and leathery faces were a lot more interesting, in my opinion. It took a while, but we found a restaurant that looked promising. Nadia suggested we order Pote Millo, the local delicacy of Cuenca, which turned out to be a lovely mix of eggs and corn that had been soaked in lime.
Nadia is a coordinator with the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights and is from Amsterdam. If bloodlines and pedigree played a role in the NGO community (and well, doesn't it sometimes?), Nadia would be on the A-list. Her father worked at the UN and now is in the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands. Her mother taught around the world and is now in the Ministry of External Affairs. Nadia herself has been involved in global campaigns for reproductive rights, some of them frustrating and achieving little. But, as she put it, these things have to be tackled. One issue that she has worked, and interestingly, so did her mother thirty years ago – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa. Her mother had attended a session she organized and was disheartened to see that the talking points – the taboos, the silence and the need to break 'cultural' mores – hadn't changed. We discussed how progress on certain issues, such as FGM, had been reversed and the rise of conservatism across the world. Even in the Netherlands, the supposed bastion of 'liberalism', it had taken a lot of work to approve over-the-counter availability of emergency contraception (also called 'the morning after' pill).
After the heavy meal of corn, eggs and potatoes, my systems were ready to shut down and we headed back to the hotel for long-overdue sleep.

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