The Meanderthals

Ecuadorian observations

Observations of interesting facets of life in this beautiful, fascinating little country.

The street art in Cuenca is second to none, and I mean that. Gorgeous, elaborate paintings and drawings are everywhere, often amusing and with historical references. Jaw-dropping quality that brings fun and surprises to every walk along just about every street.
Where else in the world do jugglers jump into traffic stopped at a red light, bow and proceed to entertain before jogging between vehicles and asking for donations? We’ve seen acrobatics, ball and club jugglers and clown acts working the busier intersections of Cuenca.


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This has to be one of the most outgoing cultures we’ve encountered. Everyone offers respectful greetings – buenas dias, buenas tardes, etc. – to perfect strangers. Good manners seems deeply woven into the culture, which is why it’s all the more embarrassing to witness, as I did, a crabby American belly up to the coffee bar and make demands on the staff that were rude, insensitive and stupid. Get a clue, travelers and relocated expats!

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Love seeing the traditional garb of Ecuadorian women all over the streets and markets. Frilled skirts with brocade trimmings, woolen sweaters and shawls  tossed over their shoulders, braided hair and felt fedoras for everyone! Nice to see a place with a strong cultural identity that hasn’t completely caved to the power of Levi’s marketing.


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Ecuadorians commitment to security knows no limits. One day we saw an armed security guard outside a KFC franchise attached to the mall. Guess there’ll be no heist attempts on 20-piece buckets, at least at that location.

Ecuadorian drivers are as bad as I’ve seen. Certainly as bad as Cambodians – sorry Sarath Chay and Heang Thy – but Ecuadorians up the ante on danger by driving a helluva lot faster. I wouldn’t consider riding a bike on a major road in Cuenca, but I did all the time in Phnom Penh. There, you can usually see trouble brewing before it’s upon you. Here? Not so much. I’ll walk, and stick to the sidewalks. Seems to me the criteria for bus drivers are pretty straightforward: must feel comfortable rocketing through city streets at breakneck speed, pausing only for red lights. As for car drivers? Must have a heatbeat.

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We got a good idea of the fluctuations of weather here by watching the Tomebamba River change its personality overnight a couple days ago. Rains in the nearby Cajas mountains turned the normally placid trickle of water running through the city’s center into a raging torrent of rapids, chasing away the scores of indigenous families that occupy the waters’ edge to do their washing every day until the waters subside. We had only scattered showers in Cuenca; obviously very different in the mountains only a few miles away.

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It’s weird when you’re in an unfamiliar place long enough to look for familiar stuff in strange places. For example, it made me smile when, while strolling through the Fiere Libre local market on the outskirts of Cuenca, I came upon the guy selling “sangre de Tortuga” (blood of the turtle) from an enormous hollowed out tortoise shell. The deep yellow coagulated mass of goo didn’t appeal to anyone, or so it seemed, so I felt entirely justified by passing on a sample. Besides, sangre de Tortuga? Yick. Still not sure what it is, but I’m fairly certain it’s some concoction that’s not actually blood, but draws on age-old attitudes about the value of animal bloods for their medicinal powers.

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Cuenca’s streets were abuzz with political demonstrations a few nights ago, and the Plaza Calderon was jammed with police and protesters. Turns out that the opposition party had planned a demonstration against the policies and programs of President Raphael Correa. The march was to start at the plaza and continue along one of the main streets in a show of force and unity. Carrea’s gang got wind of it, plunked a stage in the middle of the street where the demonstration was planned to proceed, hired a band and launched a counter-attack in the form of a big street party. Gotta love banana republic politics. Checkmate.

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In the middle of a day trip wandering along the streets of several villages an hour outside of Cuenca,  I stopped off in a central market in Sigsig to ask a woman tending to an enormous hunk of  barbecued meat what was for lunch. “Es lomo?” I inquired (pork loin). The woman proceeded to speak rapidly in Spanish, quickly losing me and my slowly emerging grasp of the language. She realized I was hopelessly lost in the conversation and proceeded to slap her generous derriere to demonstrate that the meat was, in fact, pork butt. Everyone within 50 yards enjoyed a wonderful belly laugh”.

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Our weekend in Machala in pursuit of the annual World Banana Festival (along with the crowning of the Banana Queen) failed to yield positive results, but we made the best of our bitter disappointment by spending an incredible overnight on Jambeli Island, just a 30 minute boat ride from Puerto Bolivar. We checked into Las Iguanas hostel and beat a quick path to a beachside restaurant, where a zany Colombian guy named Luis took us under his wing at his open air restaurant for a night of mostly great food, wonderful stories and a ton of laughs. He spoke better English than our collective Spanish but it still made for horrible miscommunication and laughter. “You like (pick one: squid? Chicken? Calamari?) OK.” And proceeded to bring each dish out of the kitchen, paying no attention to the fact that we hadn’t actually ordered anything. It was all great until the “conchas,” which wasn’t conch at all, but gnarly, fishy, awful-tasting mollusks that we left uneaten. Luis was somewhat upset that we didn’t like the specialty of the house (which, conveniently, was also the most expensive) but didn’t hesitate to include it on the bill nonetheless. An amazing, memorable night to cap off a fun day exploring southern Ecuador.

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One of the things I’m going to miss and could really get used to as part of my daily regimen: chocolate scented shampoo.




One comment

  • Randy Davis

    I’m glad you had a good time in Ecuador. I live in Guayaquil and enjoyed your tales of Cuenca. My cousin Diona put me onto your site and I can also appreciate your Cambodian references having visited there a few times when I lived in Taiwan. Happy Travels!

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