What? What did you think we were expecting?
Research we may and research we might but despite a studious approach, it’s near impossible for a person to know a place until, well, you know the place. I do not presume to “know” Ecuador but along the last 6 weeks or so, I’ve picked up a thing or two. This is by no means an exhaustive list but instead, a sneak peek into the perks and pastimes, odds and ends and oddities of a place we called home for a moment in time.
ONE: The people
A smile is universal. You may know this from traveling in places where you don’t necessarily communicate well in the language but just in case you were wondering about Ecuador, it’s true there too. The people there are far more willing to smile than our co-patriots in North America (is there a daily smile allotment I haven’t been told about so that people don’t want to waste their smiles?) and if you ask for help (or even if you don’t but obviously look like you need it) they are quick to jump in. Shoot, even when you don’t know that you need help they jump in.
The Chief and I had a rough moment and a Cinda reminder (there are huskies everywhere in Ecuador) in the way of a sweet stray that brought tears to both of our eyes when a stranger approached us and offered The Chief his beer. “I just want you to be happy, amigo (friend)” he said. He didn’t need to reach out, it wasn’t his duty. He was amongst friends on a Friday night, seemingly on vacation himself but reach out he did. A smile is universal. English however, is not. Practica, pratica. We must practice our languages.
TWO: The animals
As you might have surmised, we are dog people and in general, in the U.S. I think we are in good company (the sheer volume of cute kitty/puppy videos should be proof alone that we are pro pet), yet not everyone or everywhere in the world feels the same. In the time I’ve spent in Mexico and Central America, stray dogs weren’t often seen as comrades but rather as nuisances and their often skittish nature protected them from potential affronts. I’d always adopt a dog while in my travels and wish I could bring him or her back with me because the life they lead was rough and it was hard to see. So, I prepared myself to be in a place where dogs might not be regarded as family members.
Wrong, oh so wrong.
Without placing too great an Alapaca blanket statement over the country, this place loves dogs (yet another reason to call is Alascuador). The dogs in Canoa were well taken care of. People would take turns bringing them to the vet and ridding them of fleas and they, in turn, acted as local security officers, escorting non-locals home on the potentially dangerous late night beach walks, asking for little more than an ear scratch in return, if that. Baños was no different. I’ve actually never seen so many dog grooming and veterinary establishments per square mile anywhere and the local businesses would have consistently full (despite being frequently visited) watering and feeding stations for the local perros. They lived independent, seemingly pretty wonderful lives and were well-regarded members of society. Even trying to adopt a dog here would seem funny because 1. The dog would have to adopt you and 2. They don’t really need you. It would have to be a special match.
THREE: The market
Bargaining, to me, had always seemed rude, a sort of “this isn’t worth what you’re asking” insult, but this trip gave me a whole different insight. Bargaining in Ecuador (and I’m sure most places where bargaining is a part of the culture) is like a dance, a push and pull where both parties have to play their role lest one person be dragged about or ignored. Bargaining is participating. If someone gives you a price and you just take it, you’ve told them you’re not interested in the dance and so, you take the item and they take the inflated dollar amount (yes, another Ecuadorian quirk I hadn’t known until we planned the trip: they are on the American dollar).
By the end of the trip, after tips from locals on bargaining strategies, we were bargaining fiends (OK maybe not quite fiends, but we were participating). Hear a price, cut it in half and together, find the middle from there. It wasn’t so much the change of the price but rather the smiles and laughs throughout the process that made me adopt it. It was true, it was a dance and although clumsy at times, we broke out a few rusty moves (The Lawnmower, The Shopping Cart, you name it. 90’s move).
FOUR: The bathroom
When traveling, the basic necessities come to the forefront. Food, water, bodily functions, shelter, all coming demanding attention at different times depending on the immediacy with which they need to be satisfied. Thankfully, the bathroom is one necessity that is well thought out in Ecuador. From the moment you realize that you have to pee to the moment that you find a bathroom usually lasts no longer than 3 minutes, at which point you pay the fee (normally about $0.25 cents for TP and the bathroom or $0.10 without. Lucky boys) and tada! Needs satisfied.
In public restrooms, you may even be able to go in for free, however, don’t forget to get your toilet paper ahead of time. The dispenser sits at the entrance to the stalls. There is no TP in the individual stalls. I repeat: there is no toilet paper (almost never at least) in the individual stalls. This can make for a rough surprise so in case I forgot, I often kept a bit of TP in my pocket (another Alaska similarity). Overall, the necessity of a bathroom was met full-force and reminded me of how easy it can be. I can’t even recall all the times I’ve been in San Francisco or any other large city in the states and nearly peed myself trying to find a public restroom, only to give up 30 minutes in, paying $5.00 for a coffee I don’t want in a bathroom certainly not worth a $5.00 visit.
*Ecuadorian quirk: In every place we stayed or paid to use, the bathrooms were perfumed by the use of perfumed toilet paper. The Chief and I even sought out unscented toilet paper at the grocery store and were only able to find it in Quito. Perhaps it’s because of the second quirk which you may already be familiar with: toilet paper does not go into the toilet but rather into a trash basket nearby. Again, none of this matters if you don’t buy/bring the toilet paper to begin with so, either stock your pockets or don’t be a ding-dong and grab paper first. And now that we are back? I am constantly trying to remember the protocol. TP in trash? Toilet? Outhouse? Oh wait, that’s Alaksa but it’s again, another similarity to Ecuador. I basically spend my time these days trying to remember where the TP goes. Glamorous.
FIFTH: The bus
This one is last because it’s my favorite. So, first thing’s first: travel in Ecuador is far different from I thought it would be. Surprised? No, me neither. Travel between locations was not something I studiously approached but with a map showing a relatively small country, a plentitude of roadways and buses as the main transport I figured we’d be bussing about quite a bit. Right and wrong. The Right: The buses here are plentiful and you can get seemingly everywhere. The Wrong: Even Ejecutivos (First Class direct buses) make quite a few stops, elongating the trip. A 4-hour journey by car is an 8-10 hour bus ride. So, although you can get everywhere, make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to get there. Ok, boring semantics out-of-the-way and…onto the best part: Bus Atmosphere (with a focus on food. Surprised?).
That’s right, friends, buses here are basically a party on wheels with food as the ever-changing guest of honor. Buses here blast one of two types of entertainment (and sometimes both, simultaneously): movies and music. On one 10-hour bus ride, they were showing a horror movie (a true one too, the scariest kind. Gee, thanks) at full volume. Thankfully, The Chief and I were seated right under the speaker (catch the sarcasm). However, truly thankfully, I think the fright and might of the movie scared the bus sickness out of me. If it’s not a movie, it’s tunes, normally full-blast. On the way back from the grocery store one day, “Despacito” was playing. The bus was comprised mainly of schoolkids and basically turned into a music video with the kiddos singing at the top of their lungs whilst dancing in the aisles and seats. So, needless to say, entertainment is included. Next up: snacks.
Bus food is the syrup to my pancakes. Our first ride from Quito to Canoa was a 12-hour day and after a lackadaisical bag search by a very nonchalant security guard, I was forced to throw away the food we had brought for the ride. Never fear, Ecuadorian hospitality to our rescue. You see, at every stop, the buses are swarmed by vendors offering all sorts of goodies. I had read not to eat fruit or street food for fear of the tummy revenge but I had already caved on day two and had a salad without negative effects so I was up for a risk but still a little shy. What was all this stuff?
Thankfully, Ecuadorian hospitality to the rescue, the woman next to us kept buying extra of every vendor who came on the bus and giving us a taste. Whole mangoes, fruit in a cup, ice cream, bread, honey roasted soybeans, plantain chips (I think The Chief OD’d on these), empanadas, pork in a fanny pack (avoid that one, unless you want to end up like our friends from Boston) and our ultimate favorite: Pan de Yucca ((bread, usually with cheese, made from yucca (picture a sort of potato and a sweet potato baby) flour)). On a queasy but hungry tummy, those rolls (gluten-free even) warm from a cloth napkin-covered basket are like a hug for your stomach.
Finally, in the food parade, the longest buses often break up the trip with a stop at a restaurant where the food is great, the facilities are clean and the much-needed stretching of the limbs is available. Muchisimas gracias. So, even though it may take a day to get somewhere, at least you’re well fed along the way.
Now that you’ve read the big 5 you’re ready for Ecuador but just in case you needed a few extra intricacies to put in your back pocket, look no further.
10 Quick Odds and Ends and Ecuadorian Quirks:
1.) Alpaca is a staple and if you spend any time in cold climates I highly recommend getting some. I had to forcibly stop The Chief from spending our future life savings on everything alpaca (don’t worry, he still made out with head to toe llama).
2.) Try the streetside mango with salt, lime and chili powder. You can thank me later.
3.) Crocs are insanely popular. I’m open to it but I’ll never say I get it. Oh, and taffy. Taffy is everywhere.
4.) The lunch special anywhere is by far the most economical and filling meal of the day (think soup and popcorn/plantain chip appetizers, a large meal and a drink and potentially a dessert). Plus, here you’ll find the locals and where the locals eat is where you want to be.
5.) The bamboo structures here are impressive, to say the least.
6.) Stop and smell the roses. Really. Ecuador produces a huge amount of the roses you see in the U.S. Apparently, Andean conditions are the thorny beauties favorites and so, roses abound.
7.) Fear of heights? Enjoy. From bus rides to hikes to waterfalls to treehouses, Ecuador has seemingly endless options to flex your fear of heights. Flex on.
8.) Ecuador + ice cream = every afternoon. I haven’t seen the cold stuff adored like this since Italy. Feels like home.
9.) Small bills and coins are king. If you show up with $100 bills you are either a.) leaving with them or b.) leaving with inaccurate change. $20 is the biggest bill you should bring and always aim to pay in exact coinage (especially on buses, etc.) or if you have a large bill, pay for your co-riders and they can buy you a beer later. Make it easy.
10.) The street art is amazing. The sheer use of color alone had my art heart swooning. Eat it up.
Well, that’s all, folks and by “that’s all” I mean that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is the Ecuador that I’ve known thus far. I hope to return soon and report back more findings. In the meantime, have you gone to Ecuador or South America? What are your favorite quirks of living abroad? Do tell.
And now…to Alaska.