Or “Milk in Bags?! What’s that all about?”
Consider if you will, two cities – both in continents with the word “America” in their names but separated by an imaginary line called the equator. In one, water flushed in a toilet goes clockwise. In the other, it drains counter-clockwise. Speaking of toilets, well. . .you’ll just have to read on. No, you’ve not entered the Twilight Zone. Moving from Anchorage, Alaska to Cuenca, Ecuador does have some reality checks to encounter, but the similarities are astounding, too. Here are few observations that we’ve made.
Money: Many of you might be surprised to learn that Ecuador has used the US Dollar as its currency since 1999. This is very convenient for us as we don’t have to worry about exchange rates or mentally converting prices. $2.00 is two dollars. There are specific Ecuadorian coins but they are interchangeable with US coins in Ecuador only. The most commonly used is the American dollar coin. Paper money is used also, of course, but most businesses are very wary of taking any denomination higher than a $20 for fear of receiving counterfeit bills. Most small businesses don’t have an abundance of change especially if you are a customer early in the day. Because many things that we pay for on a daily basis (cab rides, bread, produce) are usually $2-5, we try to keep a lot of coins available.
Toilets: They are the same! However . . . what you do with the toilet paper is not necessarily the same. Because in much of the city the plumbing is quite old, toilet paper is USUALLY not flushed down the toilet but is put in the trash receptacle which is conveniently placed next to the toilet. But don’t worry, if you come to visit us you can flush your waste paper products because our apartment building is quite new!
Groceries: When we lived in Anchorage, we tried to shop only once a week and we tried to shop in only one place (e.g. Safeway, Fred Meyer, etc.) And we would go to Costco for the major hauls. Probably many of our Anchorage friends do the same. Here in Cuenca, we shop several times a week and at several different places depending on what we need even though there are some “One-Stop Shopping” places available (Supermaxi and Coral). There are several reasons for this. First of all, we don’t have a car therefore we travel by bus, taxi or, most often, by foot. So we only buy what we can carry. Secondly, some items are best purchased from specific vendors. For instance, almost all our produce comes from the 27 de Febrero Mercado (our closest market) on Thursdays.
We buy most of our bread at our local panaderia (bakery) as we need it.
We have a “mini-mercado” on the first floor of our apartment building. This convenience store is a good place to buy our bulky/heavy items such as toilet paper and yogurt.
The nearest butcher is about 3 blocks away. On Saturdays, we take a 25 minute walk to the Italian “Cheese Man” to get a variety of cheese sold for about $12 per kilo. Most Ecuadorian cheese is fresh and soft which is good but sometimes you just want a good cheddar, swiss, or parmesan, right?
Many brands and products that we bought in the US are here in the supermarkets of Cuenca, too. But the import tax causes the prices of these items to usually be more than in the States. Locally produced products are, of course, cheaper. We’re not going to pay $3 for a small jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce when we can make fresh sauce from the 2 lbs of tomatoes we bought at the Mercado for $1. By the way, most items are sold by the kilogram or liter except in the Mercado where produce and meat is sold by the pound. Go figure? Eggs can be bought individually or as many dozen as one would want and are rarely refrigerated.
Other Shopping: In Anchorage, and probably in most places in the US, when you buy something at a store and you discover that you need to return it due to a defect, wrong size, or just because you decide you don’t want it, usually there is no problem to return it, right? Not so in Ecuador! You better be sure what you are getting is what you want because if you buy it, it is yours. Even if it doesn’t work. That’s why when we bought a coffee maker and slow cooker at Coral, we had to take an extra few minutes at the customer service desk for a clerk to take both products out of their boxes so that we could inspect all the parts, plug them in and make sure they both heated up.
Greetings and Etiquette: Here’s where it really gets fun! Ecuadorians are extremely polite people except for when they get behind the wheel of a car (keep reading, more on that soon). Although you don’t have to greet strangers as you pass them on the street, you can with a simple “Buenos” or “Buenas” which is short for Buenos Dias or Buenas Tardes/Noches. But when you enter a shop, home, pass by someone you have an acquaintance with, or have a question for, it is REQUIRED along with “Como esta?” (How are you?). And this is true no matter how many times you might see that person in a day! In our case, some days we go in and out of our apartment building numerous times. Each time we come or go, we greet our security guard and he greets us. It kind of reminds me of when I was teaching and while walking down the hall, I would encounter a student several times in a short span of time. Every time, s/he would say “Hi, Mrs. Gano!” like we hadn’t just seen each other minutes ago! By the way, “Como esta?” in Ecuador, just like its English counterpart “How are you?” in the US, is a greeting not an inquiry as to your overall wellbeing.
In addition, when you meet a neighbor, friend or even an acquaintance, most greetings also include an “air kiss” to the right cheek from a woman to a woman or from a woman to a man. Men just shake hands with each other. This routine occurs again when you part company. We consider it a great fortune that we have not yet contracted a cold from all of these encounters. We have not seen much “coughing/sneezing into ones elbow” like we teach kids in the US, so we wash our hands frequently.
Homes and Neighborhoods: As you know from previous posts, our apartment is quite modern. We have all the major appliances we did in Anchorage with the exception of a garbage disposal. We just assumed because of plumbing issues, garbage disposals were not installed or used in Cuenca. But we learned that our friend Brenda has one (and uses it too, lucky girl!). We have little strainers on both of our kitchen sinks to keep the food from dish washing from going down the drain.
Our dishes are generally hand washed even though we have a state of the art dishwasher. We would run out of dishes before it would be full enough to run!
Our neighborhood is a mixture of mid-rise apartments, small and large homes, schools, parks and various businesses to support the neighborhood. All buildings have fences, walls, gates and doors separating and securing them from the sidewalks and streets.
About a half mile away on one side of the street there are urban homes and on the other side cows, chickens, pigs and small fields of various crops. We have been told that there are some zoning laws in the city of Cuenca but we’ll be darned if we can figure them out! One thing we have noticed is that similar businesses often congregate in a single neighborhood so you might find several car mechanics in a two block area and a number of furniture stores on the next stretch, etc.
Transportation: We did touch on this topic in one of our first posts but we will expand upon it and compare the various modes of transportation we encounter to our experiences in the “Old Country”. First of all, Pedestrians Have the Right of Way – NOT! If you visit us in Ecuador, you will have to get this firmly impressed upon your psyche or you will perish. Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, trike carts: they are all above the lowly pedestrian in the food chain on the streets of Cuenca. So as pedestrians, we are constantly searching for the best way to cross a street. Our walking routes are planned taking into consideration how many traffic circles we have to manage.
In El Centro, we find it easiest and safest to cross the one way streets in the middle of the block. However, outside of El Centro it’s a whole different deal because the streets are not really in a grid so there are lots of “redondels” or traffic circles with several streets entering and exiting. And since most car owners seem to have opted for the useless but extremely sensitive car alarm feature over turn signals, one never really knows what a vehicle might do.
We each have our own way of crossing the streets of Cuenca without a fatality. Glenn goes with “safety in numbers” and tries to tag onto other groups crossing the street, embracing the idea that if he is downwind of at least one other person as he crosses, the car will hit the other person first. Nice, huh? Mara’s method is harder to describe because it is more spiritual, sensory and situational in essence, not to mention alliterate. She just has to “feel it” before crossing a street. So far, we both have all our limbs.
The second most frequent mode of transportation we use is the bus. Most buses are blue and all except for a few newer vehicles, they are powered by very loud and stinky diesel engines. There are probably 30-40 different routes throughout the city of Cuenca and most of the buses run every 10 to 15 minutes. And the best part is the fare is only 25 cents. We have bus fare cards that we periodically put more money on but it takes quite a while to use up $10 on a card!
However, bus transportation in Cuenca is not for the infirm or faint of heart! Our experiences have brought us to the conclusion that most of the bus drivers are frustrated NASCAR driver wannabees. Even though the buses invariably need to stop for passengers every couple of blocks, the drivers will accelerate as quickly and for as long as they can between stops. Keep in mind these buses have well used and abused manual transmissions so this acceleration is not a smooth process. Standing passengers need good balance and leg muscles. In addition, if the last passenger getting on the bus at a stop has at least one foot inside the door, the driver is taking off! We have both experienced tamer amusement park rides.
One last anecdote about the bus. A week ago, we were taking our regular two bus route ride to chorale rehearsal. Almost the moment we started our short walk to the bus stop, it started to rain and not just a drizzle – a full on thunder storm deluge. We quickly got out rain jackets and umbrellas (see, we have learned SOMETHING!) But it was kind of like putting a band aid on an amputation. Our first bus fortunately came rather quickly. The second bus took a little longer to arrive and we got wetter especially since we had to cross a street covered with two inches of water. Eventually, we did get on our bus but not too long into the ride, the driver completely changed the route! There was some sort of traffic snarl and unbeknownst to any of the passengers, off he goes for clearer streets. We stayed on the bus for a while longer and then got off at a shopping mall and took a taxi to our rehearsal. No harm, no foul, we guess. We saw a different part of Cuenca, we were sheltered from the rain, and we got to our rehearsal with a few minutes to spare. We know that in Anchorage, any sort of route change by the People Mover system would require several days or weeks of posted notices. The drivers in Cuenca just make those decisions on the fly, we guess!
When time, distance or quantity of cargo call for it, we use the plentiful and inexpensive taxis. Just recently, regulations have been imposed that require all Cuenca taxis to have a meter. It used to be that passengers negotiated the fare dependent upon distance, time of day and whether you were a Gringo or Cuencano. We like the meters! Generally, we can get anywhere we might need to go from $1.50 to $3.00. Last time we took a cab in Anchorage from the airport to our house, it cost over $30.00.
Wow! This was a long post. Thanks for reading. Please let us know your thoughts, questions, or topics you would like to see in our blog. You can do that by commenting below.
Here’s what we’ve learned: At all costs, avoid catching a bus at a stop near a school from 12:30 to 1:00 pm. This is when the students are dismissed for the day and the buses are jammed!
Here’s what we need to learn: More areas of the city. So when a bus goes “rogue” we have an idea where we are!