Living in a Fish Bowl; Swimming with the Guppies
When I landed in Loja, Ecuador at the end of June 2018 I knew there were adventures waiting to be had. And two months later I can report that I haven’t been disappointed.
Meeting the neighbours
Because my open-window apartment is on the first floor, everyone – literally – passes by. The pulled-back-during-the-day curtains are sheer and the windows on two sides face into the courtyard. When night falls, people can still see me sitting at my laptop.
Consequently, I have more personal interactions than a Walmart greeter.
There are three types of neighbours:
- The quick-walkers who stride by at a determined pace with eyes straight ahead. It reminds me of squatting to pee behind a tree the size of a broom-handle in Nigeria – no public toilets there – where people didn’t “look.”
- Then there are the smilers and wavers.
- The most interesting ones are the first-namers who stop-and-chat. The usual conversations involve questions are about where I come from, why I don’t have a husband or children, and why – horror of all horrors – I’m not Catholic. We also talk about the weather.
Fortunately, I don’t take any of it personally. I figure part of the responsibility of being a foreigner who lives in a fishbowl is to provide entertainment for the locals.
Moving like a guppie
After two years in Medellin – the fashion capital of South America – the collective we here in Loja are rather frumpy. Shorter, rounder and wrapped up in winter jackets, hats, and scarves – hey, it is cold – makes it so difficult to be “sexy” on the street.
Sort of like the difference between Montreal and Simpson, Saskatchewan. Or Sydney and Broken Hill.
But then, I think fashion is for those who don’t have a sense of style so I’m still wearing the clothes I had made in Phnom Penh.
Introducing my new best friend
Then there is Agosto who rattles the security bars and uses them as a jungle-gym to get my attention. He is only the second person I know with Down syndrome, so it sent me off on an Internet search to learn more about the 23rd chromosome.
Agosto is the 12-year old son of the shoemaker who has his shop next to my apartment. He wanders around the courtyard or listens at the door on the second floor for Jesus David to come out to play. Frankly, he doesn’t have a lot to do.
Consistent with my usual get-involved-whether-anyone-wants-it-or-not personality, I bought him a colouring book and some markers.
Since he loves to dance, sometimes I let him use my
cell phone. He also likes to exercise.
We all know that I don’t “do” kids, but this one truly is special. And we are the best of amigos. In the process, I am learning so much about patience from him.
Feeding the foreigner
Tap, tap, tap. Is that someone at the door? Strange as I wasn’t expecting anyone at 19:00 on a Friday. But I kicked off my second boot, stuffed my socked feet into shoes and went to check.
When I opened the door, a beaming Senora Maria was standing there with a bowl of sancocho – a traditional stew.
First, she gave me some humitas when I was hanging out the laundry on the third floor roof, then it was deep-fried shrimp, next came the sancocho. And I’m not exactly sure what the grits she brought yesterday are.
Then Senora Cecilia passed two bananas through the bars on her way up the stairs.
Do I look like I am starving? An incompetent cook? Perhaps I am too poor to afford food? No, it is just Latin hospitality. Remember my 90-year old neighbour in Medellin also kept me supplied with traditional food – including mondongo, the traditional soup made with intestines.
I gave Senora Maria and her partner each a Canadian flag with some pins stuck in it. Tomorrow I’m going to get them a cake. The contradiction is that the more I give the more I am going to get – and that could become complicated.
My go-to-bilingual-friend Darwin says that it is very strange as people in Ecuador generally don’t help each other. He declared that I was just “lucky.” What to do? Sigh.
Acting like a tourist
Besides finding a good hair-stylist and a good manicurist, it is imperative to explore the region around home-base. Yes, being a tourist isn’t high on my list, but I do suck it up from time-to-time and just indulge.
Lunching in Vilcabamba
The taxi driver honked his horn and wildly waved his hand out the window. He knew I wanted to go to Vilcabamba and the bus was just in front of us. I was able to hop on without a wait at the station.
This foreigner-infested haven of hippy-dippy types and various others is 40 km – an hour and a half bus ride from Loja – over winding mountain roads.
The wander from the bus stop to the centre of the town must have taken at least seven minutes. Once there I joined the crowd on main street watching high stepping horses compete for I’m not sure what.
After a traditional lunch of soup, rice, potatoes, a bit of meat and some wilted salad I meandered around town. Then I got back on the bus to Loja.
The most interesting thing about the outing was seeing some of the countryside. How did people manage to build villages up in the mountains in the middle-of-nowhere? But then tourists likely think the same about Saskatchewan from hence I come.
I stopped in to visit the three-generation family that runs the El Cardinal hotel where I stayed on arrival. Remigio immediately said that I “had” to meet the people from the United States who were staying there. And that is how Paul and Anne parachuted onto my radar screen.
They generously invited me to stay with them in Cuenca – a city four hours down the road — and that was too good an offer to pass up. So, a couple of weeks later I hopped into a collective van to make the trip.
Anne and Paul are the most gracious of hosts. Their house is big, airy, and beautifully furnished as they sent a container of furnishing from the US.
Snuggling up on the white cotton sheets under a white duvet was total luxury. While I am far removed from my former 400-thread Egyptian sheets, it was a delicious deja-vous.
They took me on a tour of the city centre and then we had lunch at a great little place. Their friends Linda and Miles were also staying with them and they cooked a great dinner.
Again, it was insightful to see the landscapes and to get a peek at the settlements as we whizzed by. It is all an inspiration to get off and explore some of the smaller places in the area.
Touring around Loja
It is easy to act like a tourist without leaving town. As the “cultural capital” of Ecuador, Loja has more concerts, theatre, and art exhibits than one could possibly attend. There is currently an arts festival that runs from 23 August to 16 September.
Because it is all over the place, I don’t have to go far to find art and music.
Beating the bugs
When I rolled up my pant leg to show Don Hector – the guy who owns the building – the bites on my leg, he assured me that there weren’t any bedbugs here. Really? Then why was I able to produce proof of the insects taped to a paper towel?
If there is anything you want to know about Cimicidae – the Latin name for bedbugs –ask me. I spent three days researching the topic and became an “expert.”
Now we have been doing everything possible to get rid of them. Including the landlord showing up with an industrial strength vacuum and giving the apartment a good going over. He will return the next two Saturdays to do the same.
And – Insha’Allah – I haven’t had any fresh bites in a couple of days. In past times I have had lice, fleas, scabies and other fun parasites, but it seems to me that this new global pest is the most difficult to deal with.
Going deaf in Spanish
Blaring radios, loud televisions and kids screaming was enough to make me reach for the ear-plugs. A couple of weeks ago a piece of silicone ended up in my right ear.
Adopting my usual “she’ll be right mate” I went to the pharmacy for some cleaning foam. It seemed to clear it up. It came and went so I went to see a near-by doctor who said he couldn’t do anything. Next stop was a clinic, but the guard said the doctors only saw patients in the morning.
It didn’t bother me when I was in the apartment as the background noise of radios and television had stopped. It would be silent and then t would be “hearable” again. I have begun to understand how people can “quietly” go deaf.
Then one morning enough was enough. I took a deep breath, wrote a note in Spanish, and headed off to a recommended clinic
This is Ecuador and I was able to see Dr. Ramon, an otolaryngologist, that afternoon. I rocked up with silicone earplugs, the medicine I had been using and the antibiotic cream applied with a q-tip. After my careful explanation he syringed my ears. Then he spoke on the phone with bilingual Darwin and told him I had nerve damage in my inner-ear.
The next morning, I had an appointment with Dr. Bertha for an audiometry test to determine my loss of hearing and the strength needed for a hearing aid. I explained my silicone theory to her – remember this is all going on in Spanish. She looked into my ear and immediately saw the buildup.
Dr. Bertha managed to get a bit of it out, but explained that she didn’t have the right equipment. She and her assistant walked me over to the office of Dr. Alex in the next building and explained the problem to the receptionist. I had an appointment for an hour and a half later.
Dr. Alex peered into my ear and picked up his little vacuum to extract the silicone. It took quite a while; he worked carefully. Then he plucked out the chunks with long tweezers.
Next it was back to Dr. Bertha for the hearing test. With my right ear now clear I passed on the higher end of normal.
With the results and the silicone in hand I went back for a follow-up appointment with Dr. Ramon later that afternoon. He was surprised that the results were “normal.” Then I explained that I’d asked Dr. Bertha to check my ears and she had seen the silicone. She had sent me on to Dr. Alex who had extracted it.
Dr. Ramon rang Dr. Alex who told him that he had managed to clear my ear.
Then the serious conversation began. I told Dr. Ramon in no uncertain terms that the problem was that he hadn’t listened to me – always a mistake with Dr. Bitch.
I could have ended up with a hearing aid and auditory problems because of his misdiagnosis. As I talked he became increasingly flustered.
A minute later he spluttered “follow me.” He marched to the front desk and he instructed the receptionist to give me $30 – which is what I had paid for the appointment.
Problem solved and Dr. Bertha and Dr. Alex are my heroes of the month. I went to the Cuna de Artistes to celebrate.
Summing up and looking forward
Moving to Loja has been an adventure. In my two months of residency I’ve met wonderfully generous people, felt a sense of “belonging,” and had some unexpected experiences.
The small-town pace of life suits and being in the “cultural capital” of Ecuador is something I really enjoy.
Because of the laws in Ecuador, however, I can only get one 90-day extension on my tourist visa. So about mid-December I will be moving four hours down the Pan American Highway – the longest in the world – to Piura, Peru.
And who knows what will happen then? The only thing I can anticipate is that the unveiling of a life as a migrant who wants to be an immigrant will continue.
Happy snaps of people and places around town