One Departure Left
In 1945, after the end of the war, many of the members of the Jewish community left Ecuador. Some went back to Europe, a few to Israel, the majority to the States. They were driven by a desire for better study or work opportunities, plus, they wished to live in communities they could identify with better. I remained longer, partly because my parents were in no hurry to leave. By the late 1940’s, they felt relatively at home in Quito. Just in case, though, my parents had listed their name at the American Consulate for an immigration visa sometime around 1946. One never knew when one’s “quota number” would come up and be given a visa. Quota numbers referred then (as now) to the practice of assigning a specified number of visas to each nationality.
The departure of many friends left me depressed and footloose. My way of life, which depended greatly on my friends, was much changed. I started going to bed at eight pm almost every night. Things got better when a young woman, Mary Dean, came from the States in 1948 to work for a year at LaLIFE. She was a chemist on her way to graduate school, but she and her mother wanted to spend some time in Quito because the mother was Ecuadorian by birth. Mary was a breath of fresh air and personified the spontaneity and cheerfulness that I associated with Americans (from movies, mainly). Important as her presence was, it led to an even more decisive event, my encounter with John Howieson. Mary left for the University of Kansas in Lawrence, which is where she ran into John. She told him about Ecuador, La LIFE, and all that, and he applied to work there in the summer. We became fast and lifelong friends and promised each other that we would see each other again in the States as soon as possible.
When John left to go back to school in August of 1949, my delayed leaving became a matter of near despair. At that time, I was enrolled in the third year of medical school although, as I said above, I had no interest in becoming a physician. I contemplated various ways of coming to the U.S., including on a student visa. That would have seriously limited my ability to work and earn money and would have decreased my chances to stay there, so this would have been a poor choice. As luck would have it, my father got a postcard from the American Consulate sometime around November of 1949 telling him that our quota number had arrived and that he could come and get our immigration visa. For some reason, the Polish quota was less in demand than that of other countries, which explains why our number had come so soon. My parents had no desire to go to the States then as my father was in his 50’s and felt that his ability to make a living in a new country was limited. Neither he nor my mother were fluent in English and, at the time, they had little money. So, they decided to stay but it was OK with them for me to use the visa and leave. My relationship with my father had not been a warm one for several years and there was little communication between us. We used to sit at the table eating our midday meal without saying very much to each other. I think that the coldness between us contributed to their agreeing to my leaving.
Thanks to my friends’ interventions, I was accepted, provisionally as a graduate student by the University of Kansas. On January 6, 1950, I flew to Miami. The night before I left, I went to see the movie The Wizard of Oz, which, with its Kansas setting, was more of an emotional experience than I had expected. But leave I did, ready for the new adventure. On my way to Kansas I first took a train from Miami to New York to spend a few days with Tante Dina. When I arrived in Kansas City, John and his family warmly took me in. I was ready for whatever would happen.
I got to Lawrence with little more than one hundred dollars, so I had to start earning money in a hurry. I really wasn’t sure where I fit in an American university. On the one hand, I had not gone to college. On the other, I had a rather rigorous high school education, some four years of very pertinent microbiology experience at La LIFE, and two and a half years of medical school. At most universities, this may have resulted in a few extra credits towards an undergraduate degree, which would have meant starting college from the beginning. I wasn’t keen to do this because I was aware that graduate students could aspire to a stipend, no matter how modest, whereas I would find it considerably harder to make a living as an undergraduate. Fortunately, the choice was made for me. Even before I arrived, my friends had done some lobbying with the Microbiology Department (or Bacteriology, as it was then called). Perhaps it impressed the people there that I was willing to give up a medical career to become a microbiologist, because the department chairman placed a strategic phone call to the Graduate School. As a result, I did get an interview with the dean of that school, a gentleman who was an English lit. scholar. Lucky me, he didn’t understand much about the niceties of my unusual background. Neither was he an expert on the equivalency between foreign and domestic courses of study. He shuffled through my papers, trying to make sense of the heavily bestamped Spanish documents that I placed in front of him. Muttering under his breath for a while, he finally found in my high school diploma something he could recognize. It said, in Spanish of course, that I was a “bachiller” from a “colegio.” He did ask, honest, “Is this like a bachelor’s degree from a college?” I nodded.
Some 35 years after I left Ecuador, I returned "home." I put the word within quotation marks because Quito, the city where I had spent my teens, has for me a suite of contradictory and equivocal meanings. I arrived there a child, puzzled by the newness of the experience, and left a young man, desperate for new horizons. The landscape of Quito contributed to this progression. Everywhere you look, the land is on the rise and the only distant views are of snow-capped volcanoes. Beautiful it is, even to a distractible youngster, but broadening it was not.
Quito today. Source.
My return began with a romantic moment. I was watching a TV program from the BBC on the Andes and, although it was on the southern part of the range, the background music was distinctly that of the northern Andes of my youth. Pan pipes, flutes, and guitar combined to produce the haunting melancholic music so typical of those Andes. In my youth, this was not the music of dreams. Instead, my friends and I associated it with those "invisible men" (the words of Bellamy when referring to the American blacks), the Indians who were the unrecognized majority of the population. I won’t discuss this painful aspect now, just record my reaction to the music coming from the TV. Something happened and I found myself becoming highly emotional, abruptly and without warning. I decided on the spot that I had to return for a visit. I told Barbara that I had to go and that, unlike our other travels, I wanted to go alone. I’m not sure how well she decoded my reasons, but she readily agreed. I had severed almost all ties with Quito, except for those with my friend Galo, with whom I had communicated all too infrequently. I wrote to him that I was coming and that I didn’t just want to be a tourist. Could I do something useful? Sure enough, he organized an "International Course on Molecular Biology," the "international" part being me. That turned out to be a happy experience because many students and professors came, some 200 in fact, and my contribution was well received. I encountered some old acquaintances and made new friends.
Colegio Mejía today. Source.
Perhaps my most touching experience was a visit to my high school, the Colegio Nacional Mejia. On my trip to Quito, I visited El Mejia and found that the school principal was Lucho, the name by which I knew him when he was one of my classmates. I was taken aback by the fact that the brick facade had been stuccoed over, which seemed like a desecration. Still, the place was fully recognizable, with relatively few other changes, such as the paving of the courtyard and the erection of a handful of new buildings. The school now had two museums, one on plants and stuffed animals, the other on the tribes of the people of Ecuador. A couple of live giant Galapagos turtles in a pen added a national touch. These museums were open to other schools, and I saw troops of boys and girls in uniform coming to visit them. The school published a number of journals on social issues, science, etc., containing articles written by students.
Lucho asked me to come back and give a lecture to one of the classes, which I did a few days later. I found myself in one of the same classrooms where I had sat all those years before, talking to senior Biology majors. I chose as my topic to consider how one becomes a scientist. We had a lively discussion that included rather sophisticated questions. The curiosity the students manifested was highly gratifying and their insight surprising, given their relative isolation. The gap between us soon vanished and I found that I was talking with them, instead of at them. In addition to rather technical questions, I remember being asked what one does in science when one gets scooped and others publish the same results first, how much credit to give to one's collaborators, and so forth. I was duly impressed and pleased that these youngsters were the worthy successors to my generation. I believe that I said as much, rounding out what seemed a perfect hour. After I ended the session, two of the students came up and said: "Y, doctor, ahora que? Así nomás se va?" ("Now what? Just like that, you are leaving?) I could not give them an answer. I felt touched and helpless. I could only retreat, in vain fighting back my tears.
To be continued...maybe...