Cuenca cultural contrasts: Flying espuma, the no-liability show, and other things you will never see in the USA

Jul 11, 2016 | 12 comments

By Scott Fugit
All photos by Dee Fugit

I always get nervous when I suddenly see flashing police lights, right on our bumper, at two in the morning. It’s natural. After all, I AM an American.

Scott FugitAdding to the excitement, I’m with my anxious wife Dee, wedged into a taxi with all our luggage and valuables, tooling around a strange, dark suburb in Quito, Ecuador with a tired looking driver who speaks a different language. It’s our first trip here. The entry stamps are barely dry in our brand new passports. Even the airport was new. Now, flashlights shining on us through the car’s windows are adding to the tense vibe. Negative thoughts are creeping in. We’re feeling like fish in a barrel.

There’s a lively conversation between the officers and our driver. We listen uneasily in the bright lights amid the dark night. I nervously tell Dee to stay calm. Then, with a grizzled grin our cabby turns to me and says “Mapa, por favor?” He’s pointing to the map in my hand. The street we’re looking for is misspelled. Suddenly, we are the grand marshals in a two-car parade, being led by an official flashing escort. The police guide us to our waiting host several blocks away. Handshakes and “mucho gracias” all around.

You don’t see that back in America.

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Call them contrasting social snippets, dissimilar customs, diverse traditions or just a different way of doing things. Once you start noticing them, it’s hard to stop looking. It becomes almost a sport.

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Hand painting runway lines.

There’s a first. I’ve never seen that before.” Dee comments as we watch a workman with a brush and paint can, recoating an endless line on the Cuenca airport runway by hand. We hadn’t picked up our luggage yet and we’re already noticing more of them. Unique glimpses for mental comparison. Once you start…

Travelers to Ecuador will quickly learn it’s infinite – the little things you will never see back home. In Cuenca, the architecture, friendly people and climate are famous – and obvious. But to sharp-eyed expats, there are abundant charming details to equate, offered up by a complex culture – actually two of them, theirs and ours. These differences occur on many levels. Some are economically based. In a modern city like Cuenca, structural distinctions also stand out – like the bird’s nest of wires atop any power pole. There’s always a reason. Figuring it out is part of the fun.

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Ecuador has a different way of doing things.

Totally unique differences often show up when you least expect it.

As Dee browses another Cuenca craft store, I take a seat near a window to further hone one of my best skills – waiting as she shops. I pick up a local advertising flyer to practice reading some Español. A coupon falls out and lands on the floor near my feet. At first glance my heart almost stopped. Never in my life have I seen this. Shocked, speechless, I could barely believe it – yet there it was. I still carry it as proof for disbelieving Americans. On my mother’s grave I swear it exists, I’ve seen it, held it – an honest-to-God discount coupon for medical services at a major hospital.

Don’t bother looking for this in America.

Don’t bother looking for this in America.

Be advised. Rookie travelers from the first world should avoid a haughty attitude. Comparing cultures is not about picking winners, it’s about understanding the world. For us Americans, this forced objectivity takes practice. Ours is a dense legalistic society, heavily propagandized, where cultural impartiality is not part of the curriculum. This programmed mindset is tough to shake – but possible. Just stroll the streets of Cuenca and a big, fascinating world of contrast awaits. Can we teach ourselves to see it?

With a little practice, these cultural comparisons will tell you as much about the U.S. as they do about Ecuador.

For me, Cuenca’s Carnival parade is a perfect example.

Or maybe it should be called:

The festival of espuma

I’ve heard if you don’t have any foam, they’ll leave you alone.” We’re walking with our visiting friend Sharon near Cuenca’s Iglesia de San Blas, and slowly moving towards the El Centro area. Several blocks ahead, the parade crowd is dense and loud. “Good luck with that strategy, rookie,” I tell her as I buy two containers of pressurized foam from a busy street vendor, toss the caps into a garbage can, and cram them into my pants pockets like a matched set of cowboy pistols. I tuck in my shirt to make quick draws easier. Sharon laughs, “Even if I’m not shooting back? They wouldn’t dare! Would they?”

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It’s all about fun and foam.

Fifteen minutes later, she’s buying her third can of foam, it’s all over her clothes and in her hair – and she’s suddenly a teenager again. You will never see this in America. Kids and adults, total strangers, chasing each other in the streets? And they are pointing and shooting something at each other? Where’s the crowd control and SWAT response? Happily, a world away.

Carnival sale at Corals – the little devil’s combo.

Carnival sale at Corals – the little devil’s combo.

Welcome to Cuenca’s noisy, colorful and joyous Carnival parade – and the espuma is flying.

It doesn’t even taste bad. I discovered that early, when a laughing six-year-old sitting on a window sill above the crowd, nails me in the chin with a solid spurt. I draw my purple weapon and fire, leaving a gob on his tummy that looks like the top of a cupcake. He’s giggling so hard, he almost misses the perfectly dressed abuella walking behind me. No, grandma is not off limits – at least for some. Is anything sacred? In the parade, a dancing indigenous woman is carrying two roasted cuys on a large forked stick – they’re all glazed in foam.

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Away from the parade, the ammo changes.

Away from the parade, your risks as a target don’t end. The little devils, (diablillos), expand their ammo to include water using both balloons and buckets. Within the mercados, flour seems to be the preferred Carnival weapon, often dumped on targets from above. In the past, rotten eggs and manure were part of the game. Luckily that’s now history. At the jam packed parade, canned foam offers a perfect de-escalation.

I quickly decide on some personal espuma fight rules – no face shots, no little old ladies, and I target kids only in self-defense. I also recommend wearing eye protection at all times.

Be forewarned. This free-for-all will likely strain your stoic expat patience. In the bars and restaurants near the parade route are plenty of frosted gringo tourists – foamed and fuming. We’re not used to such unrestrained whoopee – or taking espuma in the face. Think of it as a cultural test in your expat class. I say go to escuela, with a can of foam in each hand.

The huge party goes on for hours, all along Calle Simon Bolivar in a densely packed crowd of thousands that seems oblivious to anything except having fun. It’s the kind of raw, culturally based, unrestrained joyous celebration that most Americans never see – unless their sports team wins some big championship. Even then, no one is armed with foam – except on their beer.

Gringos enjoying the cultural exchange of espuma.

Gringos enjoying the cultural exchange of espuma.

For me, the topper in cultural contrast comes every few blocks when we see the bemused members of Cuenca’s local police constabulary, watching it all in their crisply pressed uniforms. Of course, they are covered in foam. Do NOT try this in the US of A.

Oh no you don’t – no way.” My wife stops me from buying it. I’m holding the biggest can of foam I’ve ever seen while the smiling vendor looks on. Its bright yellow with purple flowers, solid metal, and the same shape and weight as a fire extinguisher – for only $40. “This thing will shoot 30 feet. We could set up in a secure perimeter and then foam for effect. I’m an American, I’m never outgunned.” Even at Cuenca’s Carnival, it’s hard to forget my heritage.

It all stops at midnight.

It all stops at midnight.

Maybe it’s the best thing about the wild Carnival week. At midnight on the designated day, it all suddenly ends. In the U.S., we’re not too good at agreeing on cease fires. Here, the water and flour fights, the drive by foamings, the kids throwing each other into the river, everything stops on cue. There’s a quick cleanup, then it’s back to work, and the party is over – at least until the next one.

Somewhere in Cuenca, there’s a huge colorful mountain of empty foam cans.

We decide it’s time for a relaxing afternoon in one of Cuenca’s busiest parks. Our improving eye for diverse social details can take a rest. People having fun on the public greens, that’s the same everywhere, right?

Cuenca’s no-liability show

The first thing we noticed was a crowd gathering around a very fit looking dude wearing baggy pants, a vest and tie, plus a red clown nose. Behind him, a long green sash hung from the tallest tree in Cuenca’s Parque de la Madre. I thought it was modern art. On a Saturday afternoon, the park was full of families enjoying the weather, each other, and something you don’t see much in America – a precarious public performance that had to be un-licensed, un-authorized, un-regulated and un-insured.

It was also un-believable.

An impressive display of no liability.

An impressive display of no liability.

There was so much wrong with this act, there is no way it would fly in your average city park USA. We found a seat where we could pick up a few words of the seasoned performer’s intro as he worked his grass stage like a pro, calling in passersby, telling jokes, and warming up the crowd. First problem? He started off with a strip tease. Actually, it was more like a clown doing a few losing-his-pants gags. Here, the kids loved it. Back home, no doubt, someone would be offended.

After building just the right amount of crowd anticipation, our tattooed showman got vertical. In a few seconds, he had climbed 30 feet up his split cloth tether, and began an impressive display of strength and training. Without spotters or safety pads underneath, moving up and down the sash, for 15 minutes he assumed various power poses, then held motionless while bantering with the crowd. I’ve seen enough college gymnastics to speculate he could make the team. Before he touched the ground, the large audience was showing their appreciation as his partner passed the hat. I added my grateful gringo bonus of five dollars. He earned it.

Near the top of his cloth lifeline, two frayed holes were clearly visible from far below. We didn’t stay around to watch him climb out onto the limb and untie the sash.

He could possibly bring this act to America, if he had some good lawyers on his advance team.

Cuenca: two police, one motorcycle. USA: zero chance.

Cuenca: two police, one motorcycle. USA: zero chance.

As we left the park and casually strolled down Cuenca’s Calle Larga, we talk about our growing roster of unique cultural sights, things we would never see back home. Some are obvious, most are very subtle. We make another discovery – it’s tough to turn this off and stop looking. I promise to try.

Just then, Dee looks up the street and moves closer to the curb, camera in hand.

“I’ve got to get a picture. Look what’s coming – ever seen that back home? I sure haven’t.”

Coming down the street is another one for our list.

Two policemen riding ONE motorcycle?

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Scott Fugit retired in 2015 to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment in hand crafted articles that are relevant to expat life. He, and his photographer wife Dee, are Cuenca wannabes. To read Scott’s other articles, click here.

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