Falling in Cuenca: The city’s buses and sidewalks are fraught with danger for some expats

Sep 20, 2023 | 0 comments

By Jeremiah Reardon

How the mighty have fallen!

My wife Belinda and I are not exactly mighty. But to give us our due, we made multiple changes to our lives and settled here in the Andean mountains of South America ten years ago. Back home in sunny Monterey, California, we held decent jobs affording us the comfort of getting around town in our Ford Escape.

In Cuenca we’ve joined the ranks of car-less economic immigrants, otherwise known as “expats without wheels.” I want to relate instances of how Belinda and I have fallen while dealing with the challenges of getting around town on errands and appointments while on foot.

Our Sierran city doesn’t have the greatest infrastructure. Perhaps it’s the fault of negligent property owners or the city’s limited budget for public walkway improvements. As a result, unfinished sidewalk slabs, unexpected basket-sized holes and unprofessionally executed pavement transitions result in stumbles, falls and, the worst, broken bones. Everyday use of public transportation and taxis present their own challenges.

Belinda had an unnerving fall while on a city bus a few months ago. It was raining upon leaving her doctor’s office and with little chance of getting a taxi in the rain, we boarded a crowded bus. As we rose to leave, I’m tall and had no problem grabbing onto seat handholds and overhead bars to remain standing, just like hardened Ecuadorians who are accustomed to the unpredictability of bus drivers.

Up to that point, our driver hadn’t done anything out of the usual. His action to avoid a collision, probably, caused him to brake suddenly, catching Belinda off guard. However, Belinda’s front position on the bus did not provide an immediate grab bar.

I was at the exit door when I heard her cry out in distress. Turning in her direction, I saw my wife upon her back in the bus’s front door well, landing there like a ragdoll. Immediately, a man and a woman jumped from their seats to help her, each taking hold of Belinda by her arms. Alarmed, the driver abruptly pulled over to the curb and stopped. He declared, “You are supposed to stay seated until I come to a stop!” Concerned, he turned to Belinda and made sure that she was O.K.

Taking my wife by the hand, I led her down the steps with a huge drop to the street. Then we both checked to see how she felt. “Oh, my back, Jeremiah. I landed on the step really hard,” she explained while grimacing. “I think I’ll be OK. I can walk,” she said to my relief.

After recovering from the shock of her fall, Belinda felt well enough for us to find a restaurant and have lunch. We grabbed a cab to take us to our friend Steve’s restaurant, Sisa Resturante, across from scenic Tomebamba River.

Only Steve and a buddy were there to greet us. Of course, they showed great sympathy for Belinda’s distress but, overall, were impressed that she hadn’t been disabled by the fall in the bus.

Later, when we described to Ecuadorian friends how Belinda fell, they commiserated. “We never, never use Cuenca buses!” Eddie told us to our surprise. His wife, Isabel, shared with Belinda, “On the bus you must stay on your feet. And you must hold on! To anything or person!” From that day forward I made a point on my bus rides to observe how people boarded the bus, what stance they’d use in the aisle while the bus was in motion, and their position on the bus once they have risen from their seats.

In Belinda’s situation, her position at the front of the bus where she got up from her seat did not provide her with a handhold to grab and support herself. And our bus was crowded, making it harder to find one. Our particular bus driver that day was a good driver, not one of the crazies. I realized my separated position on the bus prevented me from giving any needed support if she needed it. I felt wretched.

It has been a few months since her fall, and she’s been to several doctors whenever she experiences pain in that lower area of her back which took the hardest blow. As a precaution, about a month later we went to the hospital. She had requested an X-ray, but her doctor told her that it wasn’t necessary based on the results of his examination.

She’s been treated by her acupuncturist. Slowly, the treatment turned the tide, her pain subsided, and she rapidly began to heal.  Thank God she is fine and lived for me to tell the tale!

My fall occurred in 2020, also, in the month of June. Ecuador was in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Belinda just had her Covid shot. Afterwards, enjoying the sunny day, we walked from the clinic a mile back into El Centro.

Drivers of cars want to avoid potholes in the road. We pedestrians, too, need to watch out for holes. My accident occurred as I ran to catch up to Belinda and the cab she had flagged. I suddenly realized that my foot had fallen into a hole in Calle Presidente Cordova, and, to my horror, it wouldn’t let go no matter how hard I pulled.  Feeling constrained, I violently twisted my leg. The pain seared like a lightning bolt, nearly knocking me out.

Finally, released from its grip, I made a quick retreat to the sidewalk. I had only the wherewithal to make it that far, settling onto a bus stop bench. I sat back and propped my outstretched arm onto a barrier protecting a young tree, trying to catch my breath. I took the water bottle from my daypack and sipped. Shooting pain overwhelmed my senses.

In the meantime, the crowds around the intersection noticed our situation.  Belinda, who’d entered the taxi, wondered where I was. Immediately, several passers-by stopped to inform her about my mishap; quickly, she got out of the cab to join me on the bench. She gently put her arm around my shoulder and searched my eyes. “Jeremiah,” she said, “how do you feel?” I couldn’t reply as I needed all my energies focused on not passing out.

For several minutes I remained on the bench, recovering with candies Belinda brought to supply me with more energy. “We must go to Emergency, Jeremiah,” she advised.

“Yes. I really hurt myself and must find out if I broke anything.” We got up to hail a taxi which dropped us at Hospital Seguro, a couple of miles east of El Centro.

Belinda asked the security guard for a wheelchair. “I need your cedula, please,” asking for her national identification card as a guarantee on its safe return.

With me in the wheelchair people got up to hold the door for Belinda. The pandemic had impacted the city in ways of which we were not aware. Only half a dozen people sat in emergency room chairs waiting their turn. On earlier visits, the room had been jam-packed with patients accompanied by family members with standing room only. Obviously, the fear of catching Covid kept people at bay, only showing up for more serious emergencies.

Belinda brought a nurse to my side who took my vitals and handed me a slip of paper. “I rated your case #3-Emergency. A doctor will see you soon,” she said, handing it to me.

Soon after my vitals were taken, a woman doctor beckoned us in English. Doctor Tatiana Martinez said, “Please, come to my office.” Belinda eased the wheelchair through the narrow doorway. Standing over me, the doctor lifted my foot and squeezed it. I yelped. “I’m prescribing a painkiller shot and an X-ray,” she told me.

Belinda pushed me from Emergency into a dimly lit hallway, following signs for the pharmacy. With no line to deal with at the counter, I soon had the painkiller. We went to the adjacent injection unit where a middle-aged woman in a hospital gown and mask asked Belinda to wait outside while giving me the shot behind a closed curtain.

Next, we headed for the X-ray unit window where only a few patients stood in line. Once the clerk processed my information and handed over a form, Belinda pushed me through a swinging door into a long hall with benches bunched between doorways.

On earlier visits, I had to stand or sit a couple of hours waiting my turn, always alert to hear my name called from the X-ray doorway. This afternoon, only a few others stood with forms in hand at its wide door.

Within an hour we returned to see Dr. Tatiana in the emergency room. I opened the X-ray envelope to examine two images of my foot. My toes appeared as long elegant extensions from the leg bones. No distortion gave me hope that it wasn’t serious. I put it back in its envelope. Soon, Dr. Tatiana greeted me. She said, “I’ll take that,” grabbing the envelope from me as she walked past with another patient.

With us seated back at her desk, she studied the X-ray and declared, “Nothing is broken. Keep your foot elevated when you get home and apply ice. I’ll prescribe medicine for the next several days.”

“That’s wonderful news. Thank you for everything, Doctor!” I replied with the broadest smile.

Once we’d picked up medicine for inflammation and pain in the lobby of the main entrance, we weaved again through the halls to the emergency room and out its entrance door. At three o’clock, we approached the security guard on the sidewalk who led us inside the adjacent critical care unit to return the wheelchair and reclaim Belinda’s cedula. I gingerly got up from the chair. “Oh, Jeremiah,” Belinda apologized, “I should have left you to wait at the taxi-stand.”

“I don’t mind, dear, I’ll keep close to the wall for support,” I replied, hopping alongside her. We got home this time with no problem; but no buses, we took a taxi.

Living in Ecuador, there are constant challenges for all individuals, local and expats, young and old, when they are “out-and-about.” And while it’s impossible to be vigilant every minute, we hope always to be spared serious injuries, whatever may appear in our paths. I know being focused on not repeating our unfortunate accidents keeps us on our toes. Literally.

Photos by Jeremiah Reardon


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