Ecuador is a funny old place. In our two week stay there my girlfriend and I struggled to pin down its unique selling point.
Ecuador is perhaps most famous for being home to the Galapagos Islands. It is also where in 1736 an expedition of French and Spanish scientists worked out the latitude of the imaginary line that divides the Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres, after which the country is named.
Apart from that, every inch of Ecuador reeks of generic South America.
The malaria free corridor running along the Andean spine from the north to the south of Ecuador is home to the overwhelming bulk of its population. To the east there are thousands of square kilometres of lush Amazonian rainforest. To the west there is a mixture of magnificently pristine coastline and depressingly polluted coastline.
Ecuador’s capital, Quito, has a paint-by-numbers colonial Spanish centre with no two churches further than 500 metres apart. Further out there are shiny tower blocks. Grinding poverty stretches up on to the mountainsides.
There is the ever present sense that civil unrest could explode on to the streets at any moment. Packs of stray dogs lurk behind every corner. Fly tipping is a popular past time, as is a total disregard for road safety. Queue jumping is considered normal behaviour.
Having spent the preceding five months backpacking through South America, the time my girlfriend and I spent in Ecuador revealed very little that we hadn’t seen elsewhere. Apart from a weird prevalence of shops selling both fridges and motorcycles, we were clueless as to what sets Ecuador apart from its neighbours.
Luckily help was at hand in the form of Steven Davies.
Steve and I were college buddies from 1999 to 2001. We also spent three years playing in a band that never finished writing a single song or performed a live show.
Steve moved to Quito and became an English teacher in 2011. Aside from the occasional jocular swipe on Facebook, we hadn’t spoken in six years.
We met for a picnic in Quito’s Parque El Eljido. I asked him to explain Ecuador’s allure in a nutshell. This is what he had to say…
“I once got robbed at gunpoint. I was with my girlfriend and we were enjoying a quiet romantic moment. I felt someone pushing me. My first reaction was ‘Get away man, what are you doing?’ Then I saw the gun pointing at my face so I sat there whilst they emptied my pockets.
“I blame myself because I dropped my guard,” mulled Steve.
It was a curious start to our discussion about the life of a UK expat in Ecuador. As Steve went on, I began to understand why he was so aloof about having once been at the bad end of a barrel of a gun.
”You only have to walk through a typical neighbourhood to see broken glass, security dogs and guards, electrified fences – that’s in a normal neighbourhood.
“Also, there’s a big problem with taxis. You might hear the central locking click and before you know it you’re in what they call a ‘Secuestro Express’ – you get whisked away to an isolated area where you are mugged and your bank details demanded.
“Another easy way to get mugged here is when drawing out money from a bank. Maybe it’s the bank staff, maybe it’s a friend or just another customer inside the branch – someone will tip off the muggers that you’re carrying cash in return for a cut of whatever it is they steal from you. Banks here don’t seem to have mastered the concept of online transfers yet.
“I do miss being able to relax. Not having to worry about security or wonder whether it’s safe to go outside.”
Steve’s explanation went some way to describing why private security guards with pump-action shotguns seemed to be more commonplace than actual policemen in Quito.
“It’s just a part of life now. It’s not something I ever had to give much consideration to back in England. But just because Ecuador’s problems are complex doesn’t mean life here is difficult – it’s just another thing to think about when I get out of bed every morning.”
“Much harder to get my head around when I first arrived is the way family life functions out here. That was the biggest culture shock.
“I was living with my now ex-girlfriend’s family. Families here are much closer, more tightly knit than back home. We were expected to be in the family’s presence all the time, pretty much.
“One Easter my girlfriend and I wanted to go on holiday together. The family just couldn’t understand why we didn’t want to stay with them instead. It got quite hostile.
“My first Christmas here was pretty awkward too. You exchange presents at midnight on Christmas Eve. Everybody buys one person one present, a bit like Secret Santa. When it’s your turn to hand over your present, you have to stand in the middle of a circle and act like the person you’ve bought for. Everyone in the surrounding circle then has to guess which person you are trying to mimic.
“I bought for my girlfriend’s auntie so my impression was of her mollycoddling a baby and making cooing noises. Everyone found quite it amusing but there was a heart stopping moment where I couldn’t quite tell whether or not my impression was going to cause great insult.
“But generally here in Ecuador people are pretty laid back. They don’t get offended as easily as we do back in England. Getting angry in public is sort of frowned upon.
“Like, if you go to a party and someone offers you a drink and you turn it down, they might look you dead in the eye and ask ‘Are you angry?’ It’s bizarre. Privately people might harbour some kind of inner turmoil, but on the outside it’s expected that they will embrace the good mood of the group.
“That’s not to say Ecuador is a chilled out hippy place. There are serious domestic problems with alcoholism and domestic violence.
“And racism seems to be pretty ingrained too. Ecuadorians often find it hard to understand why, for example, a country like the USA would elect a black president like Barack Obama.
“The USA is seen as culturally superior to Ecuador by a lot of Ecuadorians – why would the Northern American people elect someone from a minority? That attitude has been a real shock to me.
“There is a huge paranoia here over skin colour. I’ve had people show me pictures of themselves and if they think their skin looks dark they’ll say ‘I look black in this photo. It’s ugly.’ Quite often you see them using ridiculously powerful camera flashes or standing in front of dazzling lights when they have their photo taken to make their skin look whiter. It’s crazy!
“Also, there is a chain of fast food restaurants over here called ‘Menestras del Negro’ which roughly translates to ‘Black Man’s Beans’. It has a cartoon black guy as its logo which looks like something out of an old Tintin comic.
“I read a blog about Menestras del Negro in which the author complained that the name and the logo was racist. The owners wrote back and said that black people make the best beans, therefore it should be regarded as a compliment.
“It’s the same kind of casual racism that I quite often encounter in my classes, particularly when in textbooks there are pictures of black people. Students write negative comments on them and draw stereotypes.
“There is a similar sort of perception about the indigenous community in Ecuador too. The indigenous population of Ecuador make up less than 1% but the vast majority of people, two-thirds, are what is referred to as ‘Mestizo’ – mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood.
“Ecuador was occupied by the Spanish for hundreds of years, so a lot people here have Spanish surnames. The vast majority of my students have Spanish surnames. Because the Spanish were the ruling class, there is still the perception that the Spanish blood or whatever is superior to that of indigenous blood.
“There is a certain amount of shame, I think, attached to having an indigenous surname in Ecuador.
“When I have a new student, I can’t ask them their surname in front of the class because if it turns out to be an indigenous surname then there’s always the risk that someone might giggle or make a joke. I can chastise them for that of course, but by that point the damage is done. Obviously I need to know the surname for my register, so I’ll get the new student to write it down instead.
“If you ever ask someone out on a date then the first thing they’ll want to know is your surname,” Steve sighed.
Our conversation had reached a level of earnestness traditionally reserved until after the consumption of a bottle and a half of spirits. We were stone cold sober, mainly because it was a Sunday and the sale of alcohol is banned on Sundays in Ecuador.
Skilfully sidestepping the fact that two white, middle class Englishmen pretending to understand the nuances of racial discrimination in Ecuador is a social tragedy in itself, Steve turned the discussion in a more light-hearted direction.
“As far as first names go, there appears to be a strange reverence for political leaders, especially German and Russian political leaders,” said Steve.
“It is not uncommon to come across a person whose first name is Lenin or Stalin. I’ve also met people called Rommel and Bismark. Vladamir is also popular. This is not a Russian speaking country….
Ever met any Mandelas or Martin Luther Kings? – I couldn’t help but ask.
“Not met them yet! I haven’t met any Adolfs either, so I suppose that’s a positive. I did have one student called Wellington though. Darwin is also popular.
“On the coast, they have more of a reputation for ridiculous names. I once met a person called Camionetta. Camionetta is a pick up truck. Owning a pick up truck is a great status symbol in Ecuador so I imagine his parents had grand designs for their child when figuring out what to name him.
Steve and I continued to laugh and sigh at Ecuador’s idiosyncrasies for the rest of the afternoon. It got me no closer to understanding Ecuador’s appeal, but I did begin to appreciate its uniqueness. With each new foible explained, I began to see Steve’s bigger picture.
“I have a lot of hope for the future. Since they discovered oil in the Amazon, prosperity has been growing. The current President Rafael Correa is pretty radical – using the money from the oil to improve the infrastructure, education and the health system. Free services are popping up all over the place.
“He’s an interesting guy actually – very young for a President – he’s viewed as a house wives’ bit of crumpet in a George Clooney sort of way.
“Ecuador has never had financial stability until now. It’s been the sort of quintessential South American banana republic. There’s been something like 20 different constitutions since it was liberated from the Spanish in 1830, but only now has it been given the resources to create a fairer society.
“The changes up to now are mainly economic though. Social changes will take much longer.
“As a teacher, I get to challenge people’s views and engage them in debate. It’s my responsibility to encourage them to think about their values and ethics.
”It is exciting to be in Ecuador at the moment, and that’s why I love living here.”