By Christopher Lux
I drove down the dirt roads of the coastal city of Playas looking for a lug nut key for my car tires. I checked all the hardware stores downtown, and then searched outside of town for tire places.
Feeling hopeless, I spotted two guys next to a very small cinder block place with some tires stacked around. One had a mustache and long hair tucked into a cap. He was short and strong. Wearing flip flops, a shirt with the sleeves cut off, and shorts, he was hammering a large tire into a rim. The other guy was tall, wearing an orange jump suit unzipped to his stomach. He wore an army hat and combat boots.
As I pulled over to the side of the road, both men walked up to me and asked what I needed. I told them, and the guy in the orange jump suit said of course he had one. He pulled out a little metal piece that fit into the nut on my tire. Then he connected my tire iron to his adapter and took a nut off. I felt relieved and asked if I could buy it. He laughed and said no. It was a gift from someone and he said it’s probably the only one around. But, the two guys talked and decided they could make something that would work for me by buying a size 12 allen wrench, cutting it, and connecting it to my tire iron.
The guy in the orange suit pointed to my car and climbed in the passenger seat. He told me where to take him in town to find what he needed.
We went to several little hardware stores but couldn’t find a size 12 allen wrench. So, I asked if we can just use his tool to take all my lug nuts off and put new ones on that are “normal.” So, we went around town looking for someone who had 20 “normal” lug nuts I could buy.
As we walked around in the mid-day heat, the man in the orange jump suit stopped every half a block or so to talk to friends and acquaintences who knew him as “Don Roberto!” I realized he’s well known in these parts.
Finally, in a small shop with a limited amount of merchandise, a guy pulled out a box of mixed lug nuts and found what we needed. We went back to the shop and Roberto used the tire iron and his adapter to change each lug nut. When I settled up for all the service he had provided, he told me $5 was plenty. We shook hands and said good bye.
As I pulled away from Don Roberto’s shop, I thought about the long trip I had made to find myself in this situation in Playas. No, not the journey to the coast from Cuenca, but the journey to buy a car and get an Ecuadorian driver’s license.
I moved to Cuenca in September of last year. For the first few months I did not question my transportation: taxis, buses, and a school buseta for my son. I didn’t need to drive, and I didn’t plan to drive. After about half a year, it started getting tiresome. Taxis became too expensive as I started to rely on an Ecuadorian income but bus service to my house was limited, and almost non-exisitent on weekends. My wife and I also started feeling an urge to travel outside of Cuenca to places like El Cajas and the beach.
Still, I didn’t need to drive. But if I was going to be living here for more than a year, I realized it would be good to have the luxury.
Without an Ecuadorian license, you can’t drive legally after being here as long as I had. I heard about people going to jail for days because they drove without a license—that wasn’t going to be me.
The first and biggest part of the process was getting a cedula. Without a cedula, you can’t get a license. After living in Ecuador for one year, spending a lot of money, and passing many hours waiting in offices, I completed the residency process and received my cedula. I was told that the cedula must show an education level of high school or greater to get a license. Fortunately, my visa depends on my degree, so my cedula reads, “Superior” and “Master.” That means I could get the license.
The day I received my cedula I took a bus to a driving school and signed up for the mandatory week-long driving course. If you have a U.S. license, you can show driving records from your home state and be exempt from the course. Mine expired shortly after coming to Ecuador, though, so I was stuck taking the course.
Like many other things in Ecuador, signing up for the course took longer than I expected. I needed profile pictures, and I needed my blood type card. The blood type card was a relatively quick process that involved a visit an office above the ambulance garage at Red Cross headquarters in Cuenca. I paid $5, sat in a waiting room until my name was called. Without warning, a Red Cross employee grabbed my hand through the window and pricked my finger tip. She took some of my blood, handed me a cotton ball, determined the blood type, and typed up my “tipo de sangre” card.
For a week, Monday through Sunday I went to class for four hours. I tried to understand the Spanish and learn Ecuadorian traffic laws. Most of it’s the same as in the U.S., except you’re also required to know the fines and penalties for things like drinking and driving, not wearing a seat belt, etc. It turns out, Ecuador is a lot more strict than the U.S. regarding drinking and driving and, if you’re out late at night in Cuenca, you’ve seen the lines of drivers stopped at check points for mandatory breath tests. I also had to learn basic mechanics. I know this stuff in English, but how do you say “spark plug” in Spanish?
After two hours in the classroom, I had two more hours of driving practice. This I needed! I’ve been driving for years in the States, but Ecuador driving is a completely different experience. The first day of driving, my instructor had me drive through Pacca and Monay, which offered spectacular views of Cuenca.
After miraculously passing the course, I had to wait “about 15 days” to get the papers necessary to take the government exam for my license.
As I waited, Linda Gonzalez told me what documents I needed to have in order. Linda is a bilingual facilitator who helped me through the process. I had no idea what to do after the driving course. I followed her instructions and, the day after the paperwork came from the driving school, Linda drove me to Girón.
In Girón I took my “my medical exam” which was nothing more than a visual test. Linda waited with me for hours until my number was called. It was then that I was told that the driving school I attended was not “in the system.” It took a couple more hours to get it in the system, and then I found out that my cedula was so new it was not “in the system” either.
After more waiting, I was finally allowed upstairs to take my exam. Twenty minutes later, I had a license.
Although we bought one of the cheapest cars we could find, it was ridiculously expensive by U.S. standards. We paid cash. My wife and I had a few “luxury” items taken care of on the car–things like adding seat belts and making sure the brakes were functioning. Two months after paying for the car, it was finally registered and I was fully legal to drive.
The first trip we took was to the El Cajas National Park where we spent the day hiking. We then made short drives to small towns around Cuenca before taking the big trip to the coast. We went quickly down from the cold mountains and were welcomed by the warm tropical air at the bottom. On the trip, we listened to our music and made several stops along the way.
We will continue making new journeys across Ecuador. Our adventure of legal driving and car ownership is just beginning.