the major cultural differences between North and South America became obvious the moment we landed in Quito the last of February. and when david, katherine and i arrived in Cuenca on March 1, our eyes opened wide to this new world of ours.
truly a right-in-your-face kind of experience.
we left affluent atlanta, georgia with its heat and humidity, fast-paced, multi-laned expressways, bmws and blonde hair, and very familiar, southern-drawled english.
we settled into a slower-paced cuenca, a not-so-rich, old-old-old city with its mix of dirt, cobblestone and paved roads, towering cathedrals, brilliant sun and cool temperatures, black hair and fast-spoken, lilting spanish. (i’ve read that Ecuadorians sing when they talk and it’s true. listening to Susana, our landlady is like listening to a soothing song.)
we’re creating a home at 2-104 Calle Ricardo Darquea Granda.
the first couple of months consisted of adjusting to the altitude and the many steps in the city. the ubiquitous buses and yellow taxis. we visited restaurants and settled on our favorites. david began his quest to walk down every street in the city. (he uses a yellow highlighter to mark off the conquered calles on a huge city map.) i’ve enrolled in spanish classes. and katherine continues to struggle to find her place in this new world. oh how she misses “home.”
the newness has begun to wear off although i still find myself looking up into the sky and whispering “what a beautiful day!” as if it is a rarity rather than commonplace. probably in time i’ll start taking it for granted.
i have, however, developed a strong dislike for the buses despite the amazingly low fares. 25 cents takes you anywhere in the city but that value doesn’t prevent me from feeling tense and on-guard at the bustops. residual from my encounter with a robber, i know. i find the bus interiors are often too crowded. too hot. getting on and off the bus feels dangerous to me and i move maybe too carefully to avoid falling of the higher than usual landing. aggressive bus drivers wait for no man or woman to get to their seats or off the bus. native cuencanos take it in stride. me, not so much. i’m becoming a taxi girl.
open holes in the sidewalks, broken up cobblestones, washed out sections and poorly maintained streets pose a threat to walking safety. i’ve fallen several times, twisted my ankles, bruised my bum, wounded my pride. but no bones are broken so i am thankful. other expats have not been so lucky. i walk in awe as i see many local women (young and old alike) stroll with such ease in their 3″ heels, up the steps and down steep hills. i gawk in amazement.
now, with a few months under my belt, i start to see the subtle differences. there will be many more to discover, i’m sure. but for right now here’s what i’ve observed:
1.in the states, i was guilty of tossing and replacing. here it is a make do, reuse, re-purpose mentality. repair shops are visible everywhere. construction and home repair often seems to me to be patchwork. adequate but not craftsmanship. function rather than form.
our landlady is having a flurry of activity around the house, getting ready for her daughter’s visit in two weeks. mucho renovation. to cover a large, non-functioning window in our kitchen she has plywood inserted into the area and covers it with old, partly faded curtains she found in her closet. they don’t match the other curtains hung to disguise a door that separates her kitchen from ours, nor do they fully hide the patchwork plywood, but it is sufficient. i let my compulsive need for things to match, fit and look just so, go. it does the job.
2.napkins in restaurants. in the US we had unlimited access to paper napkins and i would use them liberally. here, one or,at the most, two very small, not-so-absorbent napkins arrive in a basket with silverware for your meal. one dab and you’re done napkins. i am determined to bring my own handwipes.
3.the smallest serving dishes for salsa and chips i’ve ever seen. one sunday a group of us dined at the new el jalopeno for lunch. a wee, small bowl was placed in the center of the table holding at most six chips. not even enough for one per person at the table. the salsa bowl held, at most, a quarter of a cup.
4. i was at my hair salon the other day and visited the women’s room. a finely-retouched poster hung above the sink showcasing a strikingly beautiful woman with a stylish do. this “yes-you-can-look-like-this-with-the-right-cut” poster was attached to the wall with painters tape. i smiled. again, function beats form. use what you’ve got to make things work.
i see very little lot of pretense here. i’m sure there are in certain areas, but those are not the neighborhoods we have frequented nor probably will. i find it very easy to relax here.
5. fast food. yes we have it here. a mcdonald’s, burger king, KFC, pizza hut, dominos and papa john’s. the thing is, it’s not fast. not fast at all. while we have chosen not to frequent these US-based franchises much, we do occasionally for katherine’s sake. preparation is extremely slow. one must ask for ice (this is not freely given nor, in some establishments, is it easily found). and the largest drink offered is the size of a kid’s meal in the USA. no giant gulps to be found in Ecuador.
6. and salt? i’ve been to a few establishments that have had the server scrounging in the kitchen to find a container for just a wee bit of salt for this sodium-loving expat. flavor is not the most important thing in ecuador–but you’ll find many who disagree with that statement, i’m sure.
7. we took katherine to a hair salon in el centro a few months ago. i did a double take to see the stylist dipping water out of bucket to wash katherine’s hair. the only plumbing in the salon was in the bathroom. so they make do. another customer, a young male tourist from Germany, looked at me and smiled when he saw the set up. when in Ecuador, do….
everyday i see little things that set this place apart from the place we left. and for the most part, these differences feel so very comfortable. they are almost imperceptible yet they say to me looks aren’t everything here. things are valued, used and serve a purpose. there’s not a lot of waste. beauty is appreciated but it needn’t be flawless. comfort, common sense, practicality and frugality help make this a great place be. i feel freer in Ecuador.
maybe that should be the new motto to promote tourism here: Feel freer in Ecuador.