Do you love to eat and love to shop? I know I do! The experience of eating and shopping in Cuenca, Ecuador, is new, exciting, delightful, and sometimes difficult. It has been enormously enjoyable!
Everyone in the world has a need to fill their stomachs with nutritious food, and to enjoy the pleasures of flavors and textures. We also all need certain things, from shelter to toothpaste, and want certain things, such as jewelry and electronics. In our privileged North American, 21st-century experience, wanting and receiving flow almost spontaneously, with amazon, overstock, bestbuy, and all the other dotcoms waiting to fulfill our every whim with just a mouse click. All Americans have to do is load up a shopping cart and cruise through the register to get food, or pull through the drive-through to be handed a bag of delicious greasiness. It is in these areas that I’ve been most aware that I have moved to a developing country.
Part of the reason I moved to Ecuador was because I wanted to experience a less-hurried pace of life than that of the U.S. Of course, being new to the country and the way things are done, one can expect everything to take a little longer as one figures out, for example, what kind of store sells various individual items. But I also learned that part of the unhurried pace comes from the smaller scale of Ecuadorian business: I have read in several places that 60-80% of Ecuadorian breadwinners are self-employed small business owners, and that means that the convenience of loading up your cart at a Target or Wal-Mart with clothing, toiletries, electronics, food, gardening supplies, and tools is not such a common experience. There are a few big-box stores in Ecuador, such as Coral, Kywi, Sukasa, and Supermaxi , but they tend to be much higher-priced than the local businesses, and since cars are still more of a luxury here, it’s just not all that appealing to buy more than you can carry in one trip! Most businesses here in Cuenca, in the mountains, also close up between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m., when children come home from school, the family has almuerzo together, and the streets get a little quieter. Then they reopen, often until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., to take advantage of the evening traffic and people going home from jobs.
|United States Experience||Ecuadorian Experience|
|Fresh Produce||Produce grown all over the world, shipped to US, processed into packages and priced; we push our shopping cart through the store, pick up the packages, put it in the cart, and pay at the register. Sometimes we fill a bag to be weighed at the register according to the posted price per pound. Take the plastic grocery bags and load them in your car.||Produce grown mostly in Ecuador, but some in Peru and Colombia, shipped very short distances in bins in trucks, unloaded and stacked in market. Bring your own bag for better service and prices. Look over each booth for the best-looking items. Bargain with seller for what you want. Move to next seller’s booth for the next item(s) and bargain again.|
|Meat, Fish, Poultry||Animals are raised on huge factory farms, fattened on grain, slaughtered en masse, and processed into packaged meats which you can buy either chilled or frozen, pay at the register, and take home with your other groceries.||Meat vendors in the mercados buy the larger animals from farmers and have them slaughtered in local hygienic slaughterhouses, then butcher them on site and offer the different cuts for sale. Chickens and fish are also offered for sale whole. The fish may be packed on ice, but refrigeration is the exception rather than the rule, and so the meat is sold very quickly, before it can spoil (there are no flies, and we have rarely encountered an off odor). The meats have more flavor and less fat than US meats.|
|Flour, sugar, toilet paper, etc.||Select what you want from the shelf and drop it your cart. If you shop at a natural foods grocery, maybe you will fill a bag with a bulk item and mark it so it can be weighed at the register. Pay at the register and carry the plastic grocery bags to your car.||The little tiendas have all the items you need, but they are mostly on shelves behind the counter. You’ve seen movies of the types of groceries that died out in the US in the 1950s, where you asked for what you want and the grocer got it for you? That business model is alive and well in Ecuador!|
|Shampoo, toothpaste, toiletries||Grab it off the shelf in the supermarket, or pop in at the chain drugstore next door, pay at the register, and carry it in plastic grocery bags to your car.||Go to the Farmacia or Botica and select your item(s), pay and take with you. Much like in the US.|
|Drugs||If non-prescription, just like buying shampoo, toothpaste, toiletries. If prescription, take Rx to pharmacy (or have Dr. call it in), wait hours for them to fill it, come back, get drug(s) with a label showing your name and the doctor’s name, sign for the drugs.||Go to the pharmacy and discuss your symptoms with the pharmacist (or ask for the drug you need, if you know it). If you have a prescription from a doctor, show it to the pharmacist, who will hand it back and then sell you the drugs. Exceptions: opiates, benzodiazepines, and a few other high-abuse-potential drugs, which are handled similarly to the US.|
|Furniture, bedding, accessories||In store: go to store, select furniture, pay, and have deliveredOnline: compare prices online, order furniture and pay online, have furniture delivered or drop-shipped with e-mail notifications enroute.||In store: go to store, select furniture, bargain a little, pay, and have delivered
Online: Hahaha! Just kidding. No online shopping in Ecuador!
Ecuadorian food relies more heavily on the fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, and meats which are plentifully available in the local mercados. Also readily accessible in Cuenca are restaurants. Both in the country and in the city, it seems that every corner has a little mom-and-pop lunch counter, offering what they call comida tipica, or typical Ecuadorian food: a little chicken, meat or fish served with moté (soft hominy corn), potatoes, and a fresh fruit juice. Avocadoes are a popular garnish, as are plantains. One of my favorite dishes is chaulafán, a fried-rice dish with pork, beef, and shrimp, served garnished with a slice of plaintain and avocado.
Wandering through the mercados, we were introduced to a lot of new fruits. My favorite is the granadilla, a fruit with a hard outer shell and a mass of jelly-like seeds inside. The pulp of the seeds tastes amazingly like juicyfruit gum, sweet and delicious, and what is really fun is that they have little black centers which are crunchy! This is a food which engages all
your senses. Guanabana, naranjilla, and uvilla are some other new treats. The bananas sold in the market are smaller and sweeter than the kind we get in the US, and they have a slightly different flavor. However, they bake up into banana bread just as nicely! Baking here is gratifying because the high altitude makes everything puff up so light and fluffy. The fruit and vegetable vendors are very competitive with their prices, and they all have pretty much the same things available, so the best way to get a good deal is to offer a quarter or a dollar and see how much they will give you. This is not true for the vendors who have more unique items, like honey or some vegetables, in which case you may need to haggle a little. It is hard to make oneself haggle, though, when the prices are so low. A cabbage the size of a basketball (no exaggeration!) might go for a dollar. Three vine-ripened, perfect tomatoes might be 50 cents.
Local cheeses are mostly soft, white cheeses. They all taste a little “off” to me. Even the cheeses which are made to imitate gouda, gruyere, cheddar, and other familiar cheeses seem to disagree with my system if I eat more than a bite or two. I have seen baskets containing sheets of dried cow stomach for sale in the markets, so I suspect that part of the reason may be that Ecuadorian dairies use the whole cow stomach for cheesemaking, while in the US they use
rennet which has been purified; the local cheese bacterial cultures used may also be different. No matter; cutting back on my cheese consumption may be part of the reason, along with altitude and increased walking, that clothes are starting to hang on my body after two months.
One thing I just can’t find here is the kind of vanilla extract we use back home: alcohol which has had vanilla beans soaked in it until it’s saturated with the flavor. You can find vanilla extract, but it is extracted using propylene glycol! The stores also sell an alcohol-based vanilla, but it is just vanillin, a chemical which tastes vanilla-like, dissolved in alcohol. This is one thing I’ll have to get my next US visitor to “mule” in for me!
A Note on Medications:
I will do a future blog post all about the health care system and our experiences. But I do want to mention a little about buying drugs here. Almost every drug is non-prescription. Exceptions are opiates, benzodiazepines, and a few other psychoactive, commonly abused drugs. However, they are all, even aspirin, sold by licensed pharmacists from behind the counter. This means that, when you want a drug for any given symptom, the pharmacist will ask you some questions about your symptoms and what you are already taking. I will write a whole post about this later on, but in my opinion it is a very good system. Pharmacists are, in general, better trained in the uses of drugs and their actions and interactions than doctors are, and I’ve always thought pharmacists in the US were wasted in their usual role as little more than pill-counters. And at least one study shows that this approach actually reduces the incidence of drug overdose.
A Visit to Abuela’s
We enrolled in conversational Spanish classes, Steve in the beginner class on Tuesday and Thursday, and I in the intermediate class on Monday and Wednesday. The class format was really created for new immigrants to the area, as each lesson focused on a different aspect of Ecuadorian or Andean culture: music, food, literature, and so forth. Each class, our teacher, Elena, would illustrate different aspects of the Andean milieu with stories about her abuela (grandmother) who lives in el campo. One of my classmates suggested we take a field trip to visit abuela, and to my surprise, Elena thought that was a great idea. She checked with abuela, and it was a go! Abuela even insisted on fixing us the local delicacy, cuy (roasted guinea pig). One Sunday morning,
Elena and five gringo Spanish students piled into a passenger van and headed up the hillside to grandma’s.
Grandma’s house was a cold-water cabin on a hillside. Elena lamented that the cabin used to be in the countryside among unspoiled woods and streams, but now it was surrounded by subdivisions on all sides as Cuenca grew and became more prosperous. We were welcomed by grandmother and grandfather, along with Elena’s parents, several siblings, and some nieces. The family’s golden Labrador put his head in my lap for scratching while cats wove between our feet and chickens scratched in the dooryard. We sat and sipped canelazo, the warm, mildly alcoholic cinnamon beverage used to keep warm on cold mountain days.
Most of the group left for a hike, but I stayed behind because of my knee, which was acting up where I’d had an old skydiving injury, and also to look after Steve, who was still recovering from the prior week’s kidney stone surgery. I was glad I got to stay behind, because I actually got a chance to participate in cooking. While abuela has a gas stove, she still insists on cooking over an open wood fire in her kitchen, which is a big room with a hole in the roof to vent the smoke. The cleaned cuyes were spitted and the coals were fanned to red-hot, and then the women took turns crouching by the fire and slowly turning them by hand, rubbing them with manteca until they were golden brown.
It was very labor- and time-intensive, but by the time everyone else got back from their walk, we had a
delicious meal to share along with companionship, more canelazo and a little wine, and a toast to “Nuestra profesora Elena y su familia maravillosa” (Our teacher Elena and her marvelous family)! We piled into the van and visited a waterfall, bringing the canelazo pitcher along for fortification.
Finding Things for the New Apartment:
We really had intended to wait until our visas were approved before taking the risk of putting down a deposit on an apartment. We hadn’t met anyone whose residency had been declined, and I had researched the requirements pretty thoroughly and we’d gotten all the documents reviewed by Visa Angels. HOWEVER…bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and one never knows when a bureaucrat is going to throw one a curveball!
But in looking through various ads for apartments, I came across a Craigslist ad that just took my breath away. We went to look at it and fell in love with this penthouse. Less than a mile from el Centro, a block from a Mercado, a short cab ride to a Supermaxi, in a secure and beautiful building, well-constructed, with a huge terrace, it was all we’d wanted at a price we could afford. The landlord was eager to rent it and readily agreed to a few changes. We couldn’t pass it up. The apartment came furnished, but of course there were small things needed: throw pillows, soap dishes, mop and broom, et cetera. Time to go shopping!
I knew the neighborhood around the Supermaxi was full of stores which catered to upscale Cuencanos as well as gringos, so we set out to walk in that direction.
We turned one corner and my heart skipped a beat! I had no idea they had a Macy’s here! Finding all the linens and décor I needed would be easy!
Then we got a little closer to the sign, and I realized it was an illusion due to another sign blocking the view. Oh, well! Time for an adventure…
Exploring the little stores around the historic district, I found many things we needed right away: pot holders, dish cloths, brooms and mops, even artificial flowers and throw pillows. Finding a small electric fan proved surprisingly difficult, and also forced me to improve my accent a little; ventilador is one of those words that’s similar enough to the English word that it’s easy to mispronounce, earning me a lot of blank looks and furrowed brows. One thing I did NOT find was an item I had been sorely missing since we moved here: a down pillow, or at least a feather pillow. I visited ten or twelve home goods stores and asked for feather (pluma) pillows, and they all offered me fiber pillows, which they called, “plumóna”, which is similar to the Spanish word for down, plumón. Frustrated, I finally decided to try to find someplace online which sold what I was looking for, even though I KNEW online shopping did not exist here.
Online Shopping Does Not Exist Here
I was an online shopping ADDICT in the US. The UPS guy knew every bump in my driveway like the back of his hand. It was so easy to order anything from Amazon, Tiger Direct, OneStopPlus, or any other online retailer and have it appear a few days later! Most US online retailers don’t offer overseas shipping, and even if they do, it runs $50 or more and takes several weeks. Not to mention, anything shipped to Ecuador has to go through Customs first, and a duty of 12-35% of the item’s value must be paid to retrieve the item. If they remember to notify you that the item is waiting, that is. From reading expat bulletin boards, I understand that sometimes things never come and no one knows what happened to them. I made it a point to cut back on my online shopping before we left the U.S. so I wouldn’t have to go cold turkey once we got here.
So, imagine my surprise while Googling “almohadas de pluma (feather pillows) Ecuador” when a site called Mercado Libre came up, billing itself as Ecuador’s first online shopping website! And, one of their vendors had an item listed as ostrich down pillows! I had never heard of ostrich down used as pillows before, but how different could it be from goose down? I excitedly set about ordering one. Evidently, the advent of online shopping in Ecuador is still incomplete. Here’s how the process works here:
- Visit the website and select your item. Click on the item, a pillow of ostrich down.
- You are asked what city you are in so you can be matched with a local vendor.
- You are taken the site of the retailer of the pillow, with a more detailed description and a price. Click on the button to place the item in your cart.
- Click on the shopping cart to see your item(s) and the total.
- Actually, just kidding, you don’t see the total. You see a form in which you enter your name, phone number, and e-mail address. Click “submit”.
- You are taken to another form where you are asked to specify the best time for the vendor to get in touch with you to arrange pick-up or delivery, and also given the vendor’s e-mail address in case he or she does not get in touch with you.
- A day or two later, the vendor e-mails you to ask when you would like to look at the pillow, and gives you her address and phone number. You say you’d like to come by the next day at 10 a.m.
- You go to the specified address at 10:00. It is a private home. You ring the doorbell and there is no answer. You call the phone number and leave a message for the vendor.
- The vendor e-mails you that night to say she is terribly sorry, the pillow is not available, but she will have it the next day at 4:00 for sure. You have a nice conversation about what it is like living in Ecuador as a foreigner, since it turns out she is from Mexico. She compliments your Spanish.
- The next day at 4:15, you arrive at the house and she greets you warmly with a kiss on the cheek, but says she is sorry and won’t have the item until the next day.
- A few days later you are in the neighborhood again and stop by. The vendor’s husband lets you in and brings out two pillows in plastic bags. The bags have cardboard labels inside stating clearly that they are ostrich-down (plumón de avestruz) pillows, with a photo of an ostrich. However, when you squeeze them, they feel like fiberfill. You view the sewn-on content label, and sure enough, they are filled with “100% poliester”. You tell the husband they are not what you were looking for and leave.
I did eventually find a down pillow, at a price comparable to what I’d pay for it at a mid-range US store, at the local Sukasa, an Ecuadorian bed, bath, and kitchen store. I brought it home by taxi.
Unique Ecuadorian Things:
One thing we definitely needed on abandoning hotel living for an apartment, were blankets. The climate in Cuenca is distinctive in that it is at the equator, so the sun is very hot. On bright, sunny days, the temperature can feel uncomfortably warm when you are out and about without shade; tile, brick, and stone hold the solar heat and radiate it at night. However, the city is at 8,300 feet, so the air itself is thin. In the shade and at night, it is cool. On cloudy, rainy days, without the tropical sun to heat up stone and pavement, it can get to 50 degrees, and feel quite chilly indeed. But since it never freezes here and rarely reaches 80 degrees, even luxury housing does not normally have heat or air conditioning.
However, one thing the Andes are famous for is: alpacas! If you have never had a pair of alpaca socks, allow
me to suggest them. The wool of the alpaca is the softest on the planet, and also one of the warmest. We invested in several nice, soft alpaca blankets so we could sleep cozy. The baby alpaca ones were especially soft, although they shed a bit; the heavier ones were a mix of alpaca and acrylic.
Another thing the region is known for is filigree silver jewelry. Steve saw me
eyeballing the chandelier-style earrings which the local people call gandongles, and surprised me with a pair for my birthday.
I have a big head; most women’s hats don’t fit me. Fortunately, Ecuador is famous for its woven straw hats. The hats were popularized when Teddy Roosevelt put one on while visiting the Panama canal; the press
incorrectly dubbed them “Panama hats” and the moniker stuck. There is a hat factory on Calle Larga in the tourist district of the old town, where you can pick your hat style and they will make it to fit with the ornament(s) of your choice.
And then there were the amazing crochet squares I found in one of the local mercados. I bought these, thinking I’d use them as potholders, but they were far too beautiful to risk scorching or staining, so they are decorative trivets now instead.
One thing we’ve found since moving here, with the contents of 10 suitcases, is that we are able to do just fine with a lot less. However, I still miss a few things, like my Persian-style rug, my paintings, my Kitchen Aid mixer, my Dyson vacuum, and my super-comfortable computer chair, which can’t be found here, or are crazy expensive here due to import taxes. We are still vacillating on whether to ship a partial container down so we can have such things; while the taxes are waived for the first six months after attaining residency, it’s expensive to ship. It could be even more expensive to ship them back if we decide down the line to repatriate. But there’s always mañana to decide.
One step at a time, we are finding our way.