For a country as large as Colorado, Ecuador is a remarkably bountiful land, with a size that concentrates its rich heritage into a dense and beautiful package. Down the middle of the country run two chains of mountains known as the Avenue of Volcanoes that divide the territory neatly into three parts: the Coastal region, the Sierras, and the Orient (rainforest). These mountains complicate travel, making short distances deceivingly convoluted, but also isolate the three regions from each other and give them their diversity. Despite the geographic and cultural differences the people share, there is a common thread of Catholic-values, family-orientation, and warmth that emanates from nearly every Ecuadorian and gives rise to their national identity.
Ecuador uses the $. If you are from America, this is wonderful, especially because you are accustomed to American prices and the $ is fucking jacked down here. The average monthly salary is somewhere between $350-400, and prices are scaled accordingly (a haircut is $2-3, a plate of food at a market between $1.50-4, depending on how stuffed you want to be). A large majority of the population earns its wages by reselling things. You might find a father and son buying 50 bags of milk at a discount grocery store and these same wares lining the shelves of their stores down the street. Certain corners seemed reserved for the same food/ grocery carts, where the same vendors will sit patiently day after day with the same wares across from other carts selling exactly the same things. Unless this is an extended family business, it’s hard not to wonder who had the bright idea of business model.
The family unit is the hub of life, with dreams, plans, and ambitions radiating outwards. Because the families tend to be large and the country’s population small, (~16 million), especially in the towns and villages, there is a feeling like everyone knows each other. It is customary to greet with an embrace and a half-kiss on the cheek, which extends to people you’ve just met (greetings between men, obviously, don’t follow this fashion). This culture of greeting reflects the openness of the people, and helps outsiders feel quickly welcome. Families can be large (often with 5+ kids) and start young. Sexual activity begins in early/mid-adolescence, and it isn’t uncommon for a mother to have a few kids by the time she’s 20. Sometimes parents or grandparents take guardianship of newborns while the new mothers and fathers finish school; sometimes fostering a rich family culture takes priority over education.
The nation’s capital, Quito, is the world’s ugliest beautiful city. Nestled in a valley in the heart of the Andes mountains, the city begins with a smartly designed (now historic) center, and from there sprawls outwards at development’s convenience. The end result is a cluttered mix of commercial, religious, and residential architecture that crawls up the sides of the mountains and stretches ~25 miles down the Avenue. There are two highways that run along either mountain, as well as trolley lines that run North and South, but to use these you have to know where you’re going, and if you aren’t intimately familiar with the layout (a local), the design can feel disorienting. Many areas look the same and the streets- which each pursue their own direction with minds of their own- are given historic, Spanish names that can be hard to keep track of. Given the city’s size (enormous), this has its inconveniences.
Walking past Parque El Ejido on a weekend afternoon, local painters surround the green selling their wares. Whether or not the style is to your taste, the artistic community is remarkably talented, and may leave visitors with a some jealousy that the standard isn’t quite as high where they hail from. If you have any affinity towards art, a visit to La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man) is an absolute must. This permanent exhibit on the outskirts of the city contains the work of Ecuador’s most famous artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, and it is as raw and original as it is powerful. Perhaps best known for his paintings distorting the hands of his countrymen, Guayasamin captures a spirit that can likewise be found in the graffiti sprayed across the country. Most of this public canvas has been covered and recovered, with each successive layer better encapsulating the energy of the generations. Simply put, graffiti is better here.
There is something else striking about the city, but it isn’t immediately obvious. The piles of garbage and trails of smog waked by public buses remind that caring about the environment is a luxury and this country is still developing. Infrastructure is less of a priority in some places than others, and broken roads and sidewalks wind around newly erected buildings standing next to aging or vacated ones. These are the first things you notice, yet Quito has a certain beauty about it. That is, when viewed from the right angle, it’s marvelous. There are many smartly designed, scenic parks that break up the monotony of the urban maze, which open up to views of the mountain ranges and the city spread without end in either direction. As Quito is mostly flat, when seen from above at dark, the sea of lights is majestic. So don’t let your first impressions fool you: the city is a bit rough around the edges, perhaps, but has a beauty that rivals that of the people.
As with many other continental cities, driving is a reckless business that takes some getting used to. There is a strong mentality of “I come first” here, and drivers will run lights, stop signs, or make daring pass attempts to shave a few seconds off their arrival time, mostly at the expense of the pedestrians, who scurry between sidewalks and must remain ever vigilant at guessing what might happen next. Looking over your shoulder (twice) before stepping into the street isn’t always enough, as motorcycles regularly utilize the sidewalks. Around Quito, painted blue hearts on a street denote where someone was hit and killed: pedestrians should NOT expect cars to stop for them. Seatbelts are peculiarly unpopular here, and often in taxis or vans they are even inaccessible under seat covers. It’s hard not to see these tendencies as reflective of something cultural, and one is left wondering if the belief in human life as sacred is also a luxury, or if it’s only “my” life that matters.
As an interesting compliment to the aforementioned recklessness, there is a strong culture of dancing and partying. Even the locals who can’t salsa can still salsa, and if you are from a large family, you may have spent weekend nights learning to move in the company of relatives. As an outsider, family gatherings are particularly fun to attend because everyone dances and everyone looks good doing it. The drinking age is 18, though family culture permits imbibing earlier. When the people drink, they drink, and fiestas (and bars) often continue until 2, 3, or 4 in the morning with grandma and grandpa still going strong. Popular music is a blend of salsa, reggaeton, and merengue, with a healthy sprinkling of American pop. There is also plenty of electronic music if that’s your thing and you know where to look.
In light of this party culture, the role of the police is worth a mention. They are frequently witnessed standing inertly in large clusters, certainly not exerting any form of influence over the traffic situation, and in certain parts of town, walking directly through the middle of clusters of partygoers doing key bumps (cocaine) on the street while completely unconcerned. While this behavior doesn’t come recommended, some trouble with the cops isn’t anything a $20 can’t fix; if you’re lucky, you might even be able to keep the drugs you were selling and go right back to the same street corner. There was a civil uprising against current Present Rafael Correa in 2011 where the police decided not to intervene on behalf of Señor Presidente, and after the uprising failed, the power (and salary) of the police crumbled. Since this uprising, the police appear to be more of figureheads than authority figures. One would not be alone to wonder what the role of these public servants is.
The current president is an intensely divisive figure. Highly and widely educated, he has managed to win a third 4-year term and some believe he will be successful in passing laws that will allow him to continue to run indefinitely. This claim is usually backed by the assertion that Correa has only managed to stay in power because of the way that he rubs hands with a few key friends. Free speech is somewhat of an ideal in Ecuador, and critics of the government must be wary, particularly if they have an audience. Every weeknight at 8pm, the government holds a state of the state program, focused on all the great things the government is doing. Yet he has many fiercely loyal supporters as well, who insist that as Ecuador’s economy and culture continue to strengthen and modernize that Correa is an instrumental figure in making this happen: he has managed to greatly reduce levels of poverty and unemployment, take control of the national debt, and affirm the nation’s independence by distancing itself from the United States in trade and policy and from the United Kingdom by giving asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Still, it isn’t hard to find traces of foreign influence here. Spanish-dubbed movies are enormously popular at bootleg DVD stores, where the bootlegs work great, and everything is $1.50. Walking near a University, you might see any number of 80’s rock or metal band T-shirts and Pixar and Angry Birds define many a childhood wardrobe. Most of the mannequins are white. English is mandatory in schools, and although most of the younger generation understands a decent amount, most are unpracticed and hesitant to speak the language. Any visitors should expect to be speaking Spanish if they want to meet experience the country through the lives and eyes of the people. Of course, there are enough tourist-friendly faces that you will be able to get by without it, but then the experience really wouldn’t be the same, now would it?
While pop culture borrows heavily from other countries, a strong sense of national pride and identity burns even brighter, glowing in the graffiti and public arts so proudly displayed. One only has to explore the land a little to see all the country has to offer: whether its Baños, the heart of wilderness adventure at the absolute best of the Sierra region, Quilotoa, an extinct and cratered volcano filled with a tranquil and spiritual lake, or the small Coastal town of Montañita, which you really have to experience for yourself to understand. Ecuador is a diverse and rich country with a heritage that matches its natural beauty and is evident amongst its residents. There is such depth to this culture and these lands, but like the streets of the capital, one must first know how to look before realizing its beauty.
Note: This writer did not enjoy the opportunity of visiting the Galapagos or the rainforest, two of Ecuador’s most precious gems, and so this summary should be considered no more than an appetizer.