Travelling with Ellen — Report from Ecuador

by Ellen Bergstrom

Ellen Bergstrom is a member of Bethlehem Covenant Church and a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She is spending a semester in Ecuador and has agreed to supply us reports of her adventures and impressions along the way. —Ed.

I got the funniest reactions from people when I told them about my New Year’s plans. They all thought I had gone completely insane. While other people were stocking up on bottled water, canned food, and flashlight batteries for the big Y2K disaster, I was planning a flight to a third world country. One friend told me, in all sincerity, "You’ll probably be fine. But if not, you know, we all gotta go sometime." With that vote of confidence, I set out on my trip; a semester abroad studying Spanish in Ecuador.

Flying from Minneapolis to Chicago and Chicago to Houston, everything went smoothly, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to get a little nervous during our layover in the unnaturally quiet New Year’s Eve Houston airport. The flight attendants started laughing uncontrollably as they called seat numbers to board the flight; on our 100-passenger plane, there were only 18 of us.

In the end, however, it was really a nice flight. Plenty of room to stretch out and relax and very quiet. At 7:00 p.m., the crew decided to celebrate the New Year on Greenwich Mean Time. All the passengers got little glasses of champagne, the pilot did a countdown and gave a toast (in both Spanish and English), and the 18 of us cheered in the new millennium. In the end, after all the Y2K disaster hype, everything went smoothly.

Still, I was grateful that the plane landed at 10:45 p.m. and that we were not, after all, in the air at midnight. That way, too, we got to see a little of the Ecuadorian New Year’s celebration in Quito. The people make life-size dummies representing all of the bad politicians, corrupt officials, and criminals, as well as of more abstract ideas of sadness, sickness, or poverty. Around midnight they burn them in the streets, purging the bad of the old year and hoping for a better year to come. People also ask for money in the streets. Poor people use the money to buy things they need or little luxuries they want.

It was a memorable New Year. Now one month into my stay here in Ecuador and one month into the year 2000, I feel, in many ways, that I did not step into a new millennium, but rather stepped off that plane into a sort of time warp that consists of all of the last millennium at once.

Here in Cuenca, where I am living, the city is surrounded by ancient, timeless mountains. The Incas believed (and many of the indigenous people here still believe) that the mountains are alive. They all have gender, names, and personalities. The mountains do have a sort of mystical quality. They have dramatic shapes, are deep green, and are often covered in mist.

The ancient indigenous cultures which were here long before Columbus are still, in many ways, alive and well in Ecuador. The Inca language of Quichua is still the primary language of many Ecuadorians. Many indigenous people wear traditional dress, dating back to colonial times. Here in Cuenca, indigenous women wear bolero hats, braids, shawls (in which they often carry small children or baskets full of fruits or vegetables to sell), and brightly colored, full skirts. Elsewhere in the country, different indigenous groups wear other types of traditional dress.

Ancient Inca ruins are scattered around Cuenca and in many other areas of the country. They are almost forgotten among modern buildings.

In the countryside, many of the Campesino people live on small pre-industrialized farms. They work together in their community, farming corn and potatoes with horses, grazing cattle, raising chickens, and living in little thatched or wooden houses.

Much of the architecture in Cuenca (and in many Ecuadorian cities) is from the colonial period. White-walled buildings with red-tiled roofs are packed tightly together on the cobblestone streets. There are old convents and mansions with courtyards and balconies and ornate cathedrals with carved stone arches and bell towers topped with domes. (There are lots of cathedrals in Cuenca; it is said that a person could go to mass every Sunday for a year without going to the same place twice, and Cuenca is a fairly small city.)

Along with the pre-Columbian cultures and the Colonial look in Cuenca, there is an interesting mix of the influence of this past century, too. Mixed in with the colonial buildings are a few modern sky-scrapers, shiny glass-covered bank buildings, and tons of Internet cafes, CD stores, and clothing stores with the latest American and European brand name fashions. Walking among the traditionally dressed indigenous women in the downtown streets are stylishly dressed teenagers and businessmen in three-piece suits with leather briefcases. You may hear the Andean pan-flute music and the most recent pop music hit on the same block. American movies and music from the 70s and 80s are also very popular here. The way of life in the city sometimes reminds me of the 1920s with kids selling newspapers, old men shining shoes, and chaos in the streets.

The ideals and values concerning the family often remind me of the American family of the 1950s—in both good and bad ways. The family is very important in Ecuador and families generally spend a lot of time together. All generations live together, eat together, watch TV together, and party together. Businesses and schools usually shut down for a few hours around noon so families can go home to have lunch together. Children and teenagers are expected to show a lot of respect for their parents and their elders and, in turn, are generally well-respected and included in all aspects of family life. The elderly are also included in everything. The divorce rate is fairly low. However, there are some negative aspects to family life in Ecuador. Machismo is very much alive, especially in lower-class or rural families. Men are the head of the family and many women have limited rights. The low divorce rate doesn’t mean that there are no unhappy marriages in Ecuador. It is fairly common for married men to have a mistress or two while people generally look the other way (however, it is unheard of for a woman to cheat on her husband). Even in the middle class, educated families, there still exists quite a bit of sexism; women are expected to cook and serve the food, do the washing and cleaning, and take care of the children while men are expected to work, protect the women, and do physical, manual chores around the house.

Another reason Ecuador feels like a time warp to me is that time actually seems to go at a different speed here. In the U.S., there is the attitude that "time is money"—you can’t waste a second for there’s always something more important you could be doing. In Ecuador, I had to let go of that idea quickly, or I would have gone insane. Here, very little errand I need to get done takes me at least three times as long. I wanted to send a letter to a friend in the U.S. and I think I spent at least about two hours wandering around trying to find someone who will send it rather than the post office, which will take at least a month. I still haven’t sent it. To send a simple e-mail takes me at least an hour. To eat a meal, at least an hour-and-a-half. To buy a notebook took me 45 minutes. To buy anything, I can expect to have to ask around and to search in half-a-dozen stores, at least, before I find what I want.

But despite the occasional frustration, I really like the pace of life here. The people are much more concerned with relationships than with getting things done. It forces me to slow down. Rather than thinking of what I need to get accomplished or worrying about wasting my time, I am forced to relax a little more, laugh at myself a little, and pay more attention to the really important things in life.

I think it is really important for me to spend some time living immersed in another culture. Living in the U.S., it is easy to start believing that we are the center of the Universe and that our way of living is the standard by which all other cultures or life-styles should be judged. In the relatively short time that I have been here, I have already begun to change that thinking. There are good and bad points to each culture and, really, one is not any better than the other; they are just different. In the American way of thinking, the future always brings progress and better ways of doing things, and time is money to be spent accomplishing tasks. While the U.S. is moving on to a shiny new, modern millennium, for the moment I am happy here exploring histories, cultures, and human relationships in the Ecuadorian time warp.