7am. Yawning, I make my way onto a busy bus to go to my Spanish class. It’s my first week in Quito, it’s early and I’m not sure yet that I’m quite awake and/or over the jet lag. Next thing, a young man, who can’t be much older than me hops onto the bus. Karaoke machine in hand, he places it down in the middle of the aisle, turns it on and starts singing his heart out to what sounds like a classic Latin American pop hit. I’m taken aback (not something we see on Bus Éireann too often) and utterly confused. I look around. I’m the only person reacting. When the final chorus ends, the man walks through the aisle looking for change before hopping off the bus and disappearing into the day. Did that really just happen?
I soon came to find that performances of this nature are not uncommon on public transport in Quito. With every bus journey comes something different; singers, poets, preachers, health talks, jugglers and of course vendors of everything under the sun.
After a number of interesting trips, I became curious as to who these people are and why there are so many of them. I decided to ask around and learned that most of these people are Venezuelan refugees. A few locals informed me that in recent years Ecuador has become a favourite destination for Venezuelans escaping the social and political crisis in their home country. At present, a debt-ridden Venezuela is suffering food shortages, medicine shortages, blackouts, high crime rates, water shortages, high infant mortality rates and the highest inflation rate in the world (over 700% in 2016). This seems impossible due to Venezuela’s rich oil reserves, but unsustainable spending by Venezuela’s socialist government and a drop in oil prices (which make up 95% of Venezuela’s exports) has led to the country’s worst crisis in history.
Since 2012 over 450,000 Venezuelans have fled to Ecuador. But they can’t all be performers and street vendors, can they? They’re not, or at least weren’t. Many Venezuelans with advanced education have had to abandon their professions and turn to selling and performing on buses or in the streets. So many sellers and performers were once doctors, lawyers, and teachers. It may seem a considerable demotion that these professionals have to resort to singing on a bus at 7am, and in many respects, it is, but any work in Ecuador is an improvement on the situation at home.
With the situation in Venezuela unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, it seems there will be many more people coming to Ecuador in the coming months and years to try to forge a brighter and safer future for their families. Hopefully in the future they will be able to obtain more secure jobs and integrate fully into their new communities.
It’s crazy how much the morning commute can teach you, huh?