The Scholar Behind The Wheel

By Michelle Trauring and Brandon Quinn

Gabriel Placencio is a man who punctuates life with his hands.

He can be seen gabbing in Spanish, fingers animated, as he watches natives and foreigners alike navigate a sea of curbside yellow taxis. He silently hopes they hop in his prized 2014 Hyundai Accent parked outside the arrivals gate of the José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

While driving, he points out local attractions, flora and fauna, and chats with ease about an array of topics, in both his native tongue and self-taught, nearly fluent English.

At 50 years old, he is both a statesman and historian, discussing national and world politics, past and present.

He is an economist, a family man and a football fanatic of the Barcelona Sporting Club. Don’t confuse it for FC Barcelona, or dare expose yourself as a tourist, he warns with a wag of his index finger. Occasionally, he takes both palms off the wheel for emphasis, trusting his vehicle to stay the course as it speeds forward on the roads he knows so well.

It is the balance owed on his taxi that binds him to Guayaquil, despite a childhood fantasy of packing his bags and leaving the equator in his rearview for the concrete jungle and seasonality of New York City.

“But dreams die as life happens,” he explains with a nonchalant wave of his right hand, “and they are replaced by new ones.”

A Well-Rounded, Half-Full Glass of Humanity

It is impossible to quantify the number of taxi rides Gabriel has given between his first in 1997—followed by a two-year stint working in Spain when the Ecuadorian economy dried up—and this four-hour trek, hauling a pair of curious reporters and their two doped-up cats to the coastal community of Rio Chico.

His taxicabs have undoubtedly seen many creeds, cultures and walks of life, especially in his last nine years working at the airport taxi cooperative.

“It’s all the same,” a smiling Gabriel says of humanity, with a unifying optimism. And while the forthcoming reality of Ecuador doesn’t quite match the hopeful sentiment, his statement rings true, all the same.

He notes he is aware of the current political climate in America, specifically Donald Trump’s cultural divisiveness. “We don’t have a problem [like] that,” he says.

He hesitates though, adding, “Maybe in Quito. They’re afraid of people from other countries. They don’t trust on them. Here, in the coast, all the coast, no problem. We don’t think if you are a good or a bad guy, no.

“For example, I am from the coast. If I go into Quito, any city, they see you like if you’re a thief,” he continues. “They don’t trust on you, they’re watching you, you know? You feel pretty bad. Even us. They think we are bad people. Most of them think like that.”

The outer edges of the country and the indigenous, mountainous regions, still largely unblemished by technology, differ vastly from the inner-city hustle that is Guayaquil and Quito—comparable to Manhattan and Washington, D.C., respectively. The economic and political hubs are co-dependent, and people from the coastal towns—not to mention foreign countries—are typically unwelcome until they assimilate permanently.

The fast-paced, more extravagant life of the city changes people, he explains.

“Here, in this country, in the middle of the mountains, they send their sons to the big city,” Gabriel explains. “But most of them stay in the city for the rest of their lives. They don’t want to go back.

“In Quito, there lives a lot of Colombian people, Cuban people. They came last year, a lot of people to Quito,” he continues. “‘Nah, we are crowded of Colombian, Cuban people. It’s not good, they take our jobs, they are bad people.’ They actually talk like that!”

He shakes his head as he drives, momentarily distracted by a police checkpoint that has rounded up a few cars and a half-dozen motorcyclists.

“They’re checking out for the crime,” he says, explaining that police have unilateral authority to pull over vehicles for no reason at all and inspect. “They’re checking out the cars and they’re looking for weapons. Here is prohibited to have weapons—any weapon, like a gun. If they got you with a gun, you gotta go three years to prison.

“Nobody can use gun, any weapon here. Only the criminals,” he continues. “In a car if you have a knife, they say, ‘Okay, no problem.’ But if you are walking with a knife, it’s a weapon.”

Crimes against civilians are rare, he says, especially outside the major cities. If incidents happen, they rarely turn violent, he assures.

“[The criminals] kill … themselves,” he says matter-of-factly, while motioning to a motorcycle trailing off on the left. “The motorcycle guys with guns, they just want your cell phone. You give it, they leave you.”

Seemingly a tangent out of context, Gabriel begins to explain, “No one can sell beers or alcohol on Sundays.” He laughs at the immediate assertion that, like parts of America, it is for religious sanctimony.

The heavy drinking of the populace, according to Gabriel, exacerbates the crime on weekends and late at night.

In addition to the tragic, avoidable carnage he has seen firsthand on the roads— including one recent crash involving a bus that killed a child on the stretch of highway he just sped past—alcohol has historically emboldened the criminal element in Ecuador.

In fact, the impetus for the Sunday ban was the murder of a politician’s wife at a restaurant in May 2010. Police estimate 10 percent of murders in Ecuador are alcohol fueled and more than 50 percent of violent deaths occur on weekends.

“Guayaquil in the night is a little dangerous,” he finally concedes. “But during the day time, if the sun is out, you have no problems.”

As he draws a shade to cover his eyes from the sun with his left hand, he uses the right to fidget with a red hand towel concealing his Samsung tablet.

Universal Family Values

Gabriel excuses himself briefly to answer his phone. It is an upbeat call from his nephew, ended with a laugh and “Ciao, ciao, ciao.”

Gabriel Placencio is, above all else, a family man.
Gabriel Placencio is, above all else, a family man.

When he hangs up, the mood turns somber.

Tonight, his four sisters­—Lupe, Silvia, Ginger and Marlene—and their families are hosting a barbecue dinner at the house they grew up in. Their mother, Adelaida, died last December, a devastating loss for the tight-knit group, which is now coping with an aftermath not exclusive to Ecuador.

“My father, my father,” Gabriel says. “He lived with my mother. But he has Alzheimer’s. He never realized my mother died so far. And every day we take care of our father.

“I take care every Wednesday. I take him to my house and every 15 days, I have to take him for all day long. All the day. That is what we are doing because we don’t have our mother. My mother was [there to] take care of him, but now she’s not.”

Gabriel, who shares his father’s namesake, shrugs his shoulders and raises both arms off the wheel, the universal symbol for “What are you gonna to do?”

“We have to take care of him now,” he repeats, as if to harden his resolve. He speaks of a progressively tougher challenge, and a disease that has begun to eat away at basic life skills, let alone a lifetime of memories.

During one of their days together, the elder Gabriel was in the front passenger seat when he started frantically pulling on the door handle. Luckily, it was locked.

“No, no, no!” Gabriel yells, cracking a smile, to his currently absent father. “Don’t do it!”

The smile fades faster than he can drive.

“The people who have Alzheimer’s, they do things that you never understand,” he says. “He’s like a boy. A kid. Sometimes I have to wash him, to shower him. Almost he forgot to brush his teeth. It’s very difficult.

“That’s why I don’t drink anymore,” he adds. “I used to drink. But one year ago, I said, ‘No more drink. No more. Because I don’t want to have the same problem.’ I think [it’s related], I don’t know. But I don’t want to lose my brain cells.”

The Road Behind Meets The Road Ahead

Escapism for Gabriel lies in the country’s most popular sport—soccer—and its most beloved team, Barcelona Sporting Club, or B.S.C.

A miniature version of the team’s iconic yellow jersey hangs from his rearview mirror, and he wears a yellow shirt for support. “Today was the first game of the championship,” he explains.

“Almost everybody is a Barcelona fanatic,” he says, before launching into the history of the team, which he can recite from memory.

“In the year 1925, there were people from Barcelona, Spain, they were living here in Guayaquil. They made this football—soccer—team in the neighborhood. They never thought this would become the most popular soccer team ever. They name it Barcelona because they were from Barcelona.”

To distinguish between the two teams—both Ecuador and Spain have a Barcelona team, with the Spanish club an international powerhouse, currently home to the world’s most talented player, Lionel Messi—he notes the difference in the logo: In Spain, the logo reads, “F.C.B,” short for “Football Club Barcelona,” as opposed to “Barcelona Sporting Club,” or “B.S.C.”

Gabriel's futbol loyalties hang front and center.
Gabriel’s futbol loyalties hang front and center.

“The ‘s’ changed for ‘f,’” Gabriel says, as the big, friendly smile returns to his face with the thought of today’s match. “Same name, but different, you know.”

He continues to drive, pointing left out his window to a hillside community that he can only describe as a favela—traditionally used to describe slums in Brazil—he passes a massive Coca-Cola plant on the right. He notes a palpable shift across a country that is caught between old world traditions and values, and the perks of modernity that are too often saddled with restrictions.

Gabriel attributes the modern shift to the currency change from the sucre to the dollar almost 20 years ago.

“When we had the sucre, 25,000 sucre [was] $1. It was a lot of money, man,” he says. “On September of the year 2000, the sucre died. And then everything was dollars. But the economy got better. Really, really got better. I don’t know how they change the currency, but they decided.

“The only thing I know is life get better with the dollar,” he continues. “Now everybody has a cell phone. It is easier to get everything, even to travel out of the country. Easier now. Before, oh my God, if you want to travel to another country, oooo! Impossible. It was a dream. And one car? Also was a dream. A house? You cannot imagine.”

Gabriel laughs as he recalls the one downside to the change. He was in Spain, driving a taxi and sending Euros home to his wife while the local economy was sputtering with the sucre.

He told his wife to sell his semi-new car to help support the family. His friend bought it in sucres—for a fair price, he admits.

“How’s the car running?” Gabriel asked the friend when he came home less than a year later. The man had sold the car months later for the newly adopted dollar, and tripled the money he spent on Gabriel’s car.

He bought a new car, and a new house, chuckled Gabriel, his head shaking as his hands ask again, “What are you gonna do?”

Despite his bad luck, seeing the positive impact of the American dollar on elements of Ecuadorian life has softened Gabriel to the idea of what Americans would call progress—though he approaches with trepidation.

“This government now wants to take more the taxes. We all want good roads, all the goods, but nobody wants to pay the taxes. We want change, we want better things, but we don’t want to pay the taxes.”

He frames his own political posturing, much like the country, as caught in between. The democratic socialist ruling party, PAIS Alliance, has very little accountability or transparency, he says.

“The problem is, you pay your taxes, but you don’t trust in the government because sometimes the government don’t do anything. ‘I pay my taxes, where is the work?’ We don’t trust.”

While the people see their current president, Rafael Correa, as generally interested in the good of the people, Gabriel posits that most fear he will follow in the footsteps of fellow contemporary South American presidents and serve for as long as he likes, at his own discretion.

“Correa says he wants to retire with his family in Europe,” Gabriel explains, “but he wants to choose the next president from his own party. Ecuadorians are not dumb. We know there is no difference. Some change is healthy.”

He whizzes by a truck on the right, six passengers sitting casually in the pickup’s bed.

“You see the people in the backside of the car? That is dangerous because if he turns and flips over, they die,” he says. “But that is what they want to do.”

He says it is against the law, but people still do it because they’d rarely be stopped for the minor infraction. If they were, the exchange of a few ubiquitous gold-leaf Sacajawea coins would fix everything.

“We want a change, but sometimes we don’t want to respect other ways. Let me explain, how can I tell you?” he says. “We want to change some stuffs, but to our convenience. If it’s not to our convenience, we don’t want it. That’s the problem here.”

Gabriel has seen the regulations at work in the United States, where he has visited, collectively, for two years.

After briefly swimming in the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida, his cousin told him they needed to leave once the sun began to set. Gabriel protested, to no avail.

“That’s what we’re talking about … We don’t want restrictions,” he says. Now driving along the coast after more than two hours in the car, he gestures to the Pacific Ocean. “Here in the beach, you can get swimming all night long, all the day, nobody say anything.”

It is a “totally different life” on the coast than it is in Guayaquil and central Ecuador, he says. “You only have your shorts and your t-shirt and you don’t even have to think. Coastal people, they live with no problems. I would like to live like that—like them—someday.”

The people Gabriel is currently admiring are laying in hammocks, in front of their half-built, gray cement houses. Their windows are square holes in a wall. Doors seem to be a luxury.

He is two years into paying off the loan for his taxi. If he bought it with cash, it would have cost him $23,000, he says. In the United States, he would have paid around $14,000. But with a four-year line of credit, he will end up spending nearly $38,000 before his financial obligations are behind him.

Gabriel envisions taking a rest at the end of that fourth year, when the car is finally his. Or, he might reignite the childhood dream that once fueled his fire to learn English.

“Maybe I fly to New York,” he says, smiling at the four weary travelers, arms outstretched, mimicking an airplane, like a B.S.C. forward celebrating a goal.

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