Means and Medians

A few months ago, when it occurred to me that I was going to a country about which I knew almost nothing, I turned to the world traveler’s trustiest friend.  No, not Lonely Planet.  I mean the CIA World Factbook.

I’ve been infatuated with the Factbook ever since my sophomore year of high school, when I spent the summer in a sardine-tin of an office using it to make power point presentations about the geopolitical power of the former Soviet Union (ask me about this later).  I know that numbers and statistics can tell us little about how people live, but I’m fascinated by them nonetheless.  For, in just a few minutes, I learned that Ecuador is 123rd in the world for per capita income, at around $7,400.  Moreover, the factbook, in its infinite wisdom, told me that Ecuador is 101st for infant mortality and 52nd in cell phone ownership.  In short, aside from a few gruesomely pessimistic indicators—178th in educational spending, behind the Central African Republic—Ecuador is a decidedly “middle” income country.  Think mash up between Thailand and Namibia.

The things is, though, the Ecuador I see in Quito does not look very much like the Ecuador I learned about from the world factbook (shocking though it may be that the CIA might be wrong about something).  For the capital of a country that has “generally rudimentary” infrastructure and a “sharply contracted” economy, Quito looks and feels like a developed-world city.  The roads are paved, the electricity is reliable, and the public transportation system is better than Phoenix or L.A.  My most recent meetings – with well-paid NGO employees and government subsecretaries – have taken place in chic coffee shops, brand new high rises, and even a massive shopping mall – none of which would feel out of place in New York City.

Of course, practically any capital city in the world is going to have places where you can buy designer clothes and luxury cars–Kampala certainly did, and Uganda falls a lot lower on those same CIA rankings.  But unlike Kampala, the wealthy here aren’t closeted away in walled off, heavily guarded compounds with private electricity generators and back-up water tanks.  Here, you get the sense that the middle and upper class really own the place, and that, at least in the city center, poverty has been largely scrubbed away.  Indeed, I think that—if you were to stay away from the barrios on the outskirts and ignored the occasional funnily-clothed indigenous street peddler—it would be easy to convince yourself that you did not in fact live in a poor country.

It’s not surprising that the numbers in the CIA factbook aren’t a perfect representation of the reality I see in Quito.  But, at the same time, these numbers don’t entirely lie either.  If there are a lot of people in Quito living far above the average income and living standard I read about, it can only mean one thing—that there are also a lot of people living way, way below them.  It’s a scary consequence of the law of averages that makes me wonder what kind of grinding poverty I am going to encounter when I finally leave the city behind and head east into the selva.

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