A 24 hour Upheaval in Ecuador

Link to a recent CNN article: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/10/01/ecuador.unrest/index.html

On the morning of Thursday, September 30, I woke up a little earlier than normal and was busy trying to plan out the rest of my day, having little clue of how those plans were going to change in the next few hours.

I was trying to prepare myself to teach my third period class an entire hour earlier than normal.  This week was Spiritual Emphasis Week for our secondary students (seventh through twelfth grades) and the morning schedule had been rearranged to allow for a longer chapel session directly before lunch that ran from 11am to 12:10.  My third period class for Thursday and Friday was scheduled for 8:45am, when I ordinarily teach it at 9:40.

I was not looking forward to it.  I had not been getting enough sleep all week.  By the time my class ended at 9:25, I knew that I was going to be sick if I did not lie down and rest for a bit.  I thought about the fact that faculty and staff members were “highly encouraged” to attend the chapel events, but I didn’t think I would make it through my afternoon classes if I didn’t get some rest that morning.  So, I went home and took a little nap, waking up shortly before noon.

I groggily came out of my bedroom to help the nanny get Jared and Luke and little Isabella ready for lunch and their afternoon naps.  I also had a lunch meeting with some students that I needed to prepare for. 

My thoughts were interrupted by a series of 10 bells ringing out from the speakers placed all aroundcampus. Sonia continued with her duties while I listened to the voice of the director of the school announce that he was beginning the emergency evacuation drill and that all students needed to go pick up their things and be ready to leave campus.

My first thought was, “Why are we having a drill right before lunch time?  We didn’t even get an e-mail to prepare us for this.” 

Then I began trying to explain the process of preparing for an evacuation drill to Sonia, because this was her first experience with it.  I told her that this was only a practice drill and that she needed to take the three children to the back corner of the room until we received further notice of where we should go. 

Just as I was  finishing explaining the evacuation procedures, I heard the director announce again that all secondary students whose parents did not work for the U.S. embassy needed to go to their 6th period classes and that their teachers should meet them there. 

I felt confused as my heart pulled me in two different directions.  I didn’t want to leave Sonia and the kids to figure out what to do by themselves, but I did have a group of 10 students who would be waiting for me to show up in the computer lab.  I also felt annoyed by what I still thought was just a procedural practice drill to prepare us for real situations in the future.

I asked Sonia if she had her cell phone with her, and she said that she didn’t bring it to work with her that day because she had lent it to someone.  After a few minutes, I promised Sonia to call her on the house phone and let her know what she should do next.

Then I scurried off to my sixth period class. 

As I walked down the hallway, through the secondary locker area and toward the building where my class was, I saw different scenes that seemed strange and unusual.  Students were gathering items from their lockers as if they were getting ready to leave.  Some students were with their parents.  There was a general sense of confusion in the air. 

I arrived in my classroom to find my students and another teacher who was trying to cover for me until I arrived.  The first thing I heard was her voice as she argued with the students not to listen to rumors but to wait and find out what was really going on.  Some of the students were asking if they were going to die, if there was a bomb in the school, or if some other natural disaster was about to occur. 

I was told by the teacher that I was supposed to stay in the classroom until each of the students were picked up and taken home by their parents.

That was the first moment that I really began to realize that this was not just an ordinary drill.  Something was happening.  The first thing I did was call Sonia and told her to start feeding the kids, because they wouldn’t be going anywhere.  The connection was bad, so I didn’t bother explaining the situation.

I followed this with a call to Stephen to find out what was going on and what I was supposed to be doing with the students in my charge.  He came up and explained that parents were currently being notified and that they were supposed to come and pick up their kids and take them home as soon as possible.

“A student cannot leave unless his name is called over the loud speaker or if a parent arrives with a notice from the office saying that the child is free to go with them,” Stephen told me.  

I looked at my watch.  It was nearly 12:40pm.  I looked at my students.  One student was out sick and one other student has been picked up by his mom.  That left me with nine students to supervise.

My head started to swim as I realized that I was getting hungry and I had no idea how long I would be up here with these students.  Some of them were worried that their parents would not be able to pick them up because they lived outside of the city. 

Then a new thought jolted my brain.

“Is this thing affecting the Alliance Academy only, or all schools in Quito?” I asked Stephen.

After he told me that all schools in the city were being shut down, I suddenly thought of the nanny.  Sonia Yanchapaxi has two teenage daughters attending schools in Quito.  One is an eighth grader and the other is twelfth grade.  She had no idea what was going on, because she didn’t have her cell phone. 

I told Stephen that I had to get home as soon as possible and let her know that she had to take care of her own kids.  After he found someone to take over my class, I rushed home in time to find Sonia calmly trying to put my boys down for their nap, oblivious to the sounds of various students names being blasted over the loud speaker intermittently telling them to go to the office or meet their parents at one of the entrances to the school.

“This was a bad day to forget your cell phone,” I told her. 

Her eyes got big as I explained the evacuation situation happening across the city and that it had to do with some kind of rioting going on in the city. I gave her my cell phone so that she could start calling her family members and took over the job of getting the boys settled down for their nap. 

Meanwhile, Isabella’s mom came to take her home.  By the time the boys were asleep it was 1pm.  Sonia told me that the police force was on strike at that there were bands of thieves taking advantage of the situation to rob banks and other local businesses.  A couple of malls had also been attacked that very morning. 

“My husband closed his shop, because the police aren’t doing anything to stop these thieves,” she told me. 

Businesses all across Quito had already closed at some point that morning and schools were officially told to close at noon by the ministry of Education. 

After I let Sonia leave to meet up with her husband and daughters, I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the local television news to figure out what was going on.  That was when I realized what had started at approximately 8am that morning.  Watching images of people rioting on the television, made the situation seem as it was thousands of miles away. As I watched, I heard the director make more announcements over the loudspeakers.  By 2:30 all the students had been picked up by their parents.  Then there was an announcement that school would be closed on Friday.  In the end, there was silence across campus.  The only action happening was on the television screen.

In the end, the news could come out that the president had been kidnapped and sequestered in a hospital building for the whole day.  I have actually been in that building in the past, because it is adjacent to the hospital building were Luke was born and I used their civil registration office to get Luke’s paperwork done.

Throughout the day, a group of rioters came out to protest what the police were doing and a group of rioters (who agreed with the police) came out to protest the president’s new law.  Those who were involved in these riots were the ones at risk of injury or death.  For the rest of the population, who went home and stayed out of the way, they stayed safe.  For those who were in the center of Quito, trying to leave the city, they faced a few challenges and obstructions in the way of rioters burning tires. The rescue of the president, late that Thursday evening, signaled the end of the riot at the cost of the lives of two police officers. 

By Friday morning, there was no trace left of the event.  I took a taxi through the center of the city to do my grocery shopping and nothing on the street could give me any indicators of what had happened the day before.  The only big difference was the amount of people shopping with my on a Friday morning.  Typically, it is very quiet at that time.  That day, however, the store was packed to capacity.  The lines behind the check out counters curved around the back of the front isle to accommodate the 6 to 10 different people standing at each counter. I think it took me 45 minutes standing at the front of the store, before I reached the check out counter myself. 

Now, it is the weekend and it looks like the situation that had been created such tension and distress for a few hours, has settled into a dust of recovery.  I am guessing that school will be back in session on Monday, as the police force is doing their best to gain back the  trust of the people and hope that they will not be among the group of officers who are “purged” from their jobs for the actions that took place on the last day of September.

As for me, I am grateful to be living in a place where we remained virtually untouched by the turmoil around us.