As we completed introductions and I turned to go to our room, the ornate crystal chandelier caught me just above the left eyebrow. Both my hat and luggage hit the floor as I struggled to steady the shaking light fixture. Our host looked on with a smiling, shocked expression. For the first time I heard the words “Muy alto.”
I was feeling my “very tallness.” We had just endured the long flight from Houston, where my knees were in constant contact with the seat back in front of me. Luckily, our late night taxi driver had found our lodgings and stood by patiently as I got unfolded, climbing in and out of the back seat. Our limited Spanish was enough to meet our gracious host and then apologize for my head banger. She led us to our lower level lodgings down a flight of stairs. I had to duck. The room was snug but comfortable. The hot shower felt good — where it hit me just above my navel. My wife, Dee, was soon snoozing peacefully in the beautiful brass antique, but short, bed. As I thought about my first ‘big’ experiences in Ecuador, I finally relaxed and stretched out, where I could fit — on the floor.
It’s not like I’m some sort of pituitary freak of nature. I was 6’6” at my high school graduation, third tallest in my class of 274. No big deal. I’ve maintained that height ever since. And yes, I’ve put on a few pounds since then. Who hasn’t? In America, where we’re famous for girth, big is normal. Not so in Ecuador. The size of the average, native Cuencano would be considered small in the land of big and tall stores. Variations in human traits include more than language, skin, eye and hair color. For gringo expats, it can be easy to ignore the fact that physical size represents another cultural difference to be aware of. But if you’re mucho grande, awkward situations are as common as low doorways, and after the first time, you remember where they are.
For those expats in the XL/Tall, or larger, category, the list of stories is not short.
“The place was crowded and I was trying to squeeze into a corner table and knocked over someone’s drinks with my rear end. It was a huge mess,” a large Texan told me as we chatted over lunch.
Another good-sized couple from Ohio confided, “My wife and I were waiting at the Cuenca airport, sitting on one of those black leather and chrome double chairs. The welded leg just suddenly came apart and one end dropped like a teeter totter. We slid off onto the floor still holding our magazines. Everyone had a good laugh.”
A tall, hefty dude from California told me: “Our driver pulled into a tight parking spot, got out and started walking into the store. I could get my door open, but I couldn’t get out. I was just too big. I had to wait for him to come back and move the car to a different spot.”
Large problems can get personal too. In a small tucked away restaurant off Cuenca’s Calle Larga, my wife and I were enjoying good food and friendly folks. The conversation was thick and the beer was flowing. Large mistake. I waited too long before seeking the men’s baño. I was near a red alert overflow situation, when I pushed open the door and found what had to be Ecuador’s smallest bathroom. I held my breath and could just pull the door closed. There, chest high on me, and blocking my stand up access to the toilet, was a large permanent storage cabinet attached to the ceiling. My task was impossible from a hunched over position, and this bowl game was for short players only. My mental trajectory estimate left only one conclusion: I was out of range. Amazingly, even in this tiny micro-baño where I could hardly move, it was impossible to get close enough to the target. In a frantic decision made under pressure, I decided to give it my best shot. Luckily, the place was just big enough for me to change my mind. Exiting fast and waving to my dinner partners, I did the quick step across the street to a familiar watering hole with bigger facilities. It was a photo finish. Large lesson learned.
It’s a sizeable fact that in Ecuador, some expats are hard NOT to notice. Surveys, and YouTube videos reflect the first impression gringos often leave with locals: in general, we’re all huge. Of course, size differences are best left unmentioned, at least by the big person. As oversized guests in a tight foreign environment, protocols do exist. First up, no small jokes. That’s restricted ground where only the “un-large” may choose to find humor. The internet gag site “How to Piss Off an Ecuadorian” warns newcomers not to act surprised when seeing people over five feet tall. It’s juvenile, stereotypical and also good advice.
Just because we’re big doesn’t mean we have to be culturally insensitive. Our oversized experience squeezes together some basic rules. This list started short but seems to be enlarging:
- You’re big in Ecuador: be prepared to stand out — you can’t help it.
- Avoid hugging people: their nose is usually in your armpit, or worse.
- Choose restaurant tables that are easy to access.
- Keep your boot boats out of the way so people won’t trip.
- Never stand up suddenly indoors.
- Be cautious around all umbrellas.
- Tell the photographer to back up, because you want your head in the pictures.
- Taxis have only one seat: the front. Be generous. Their already modest profit per pound is even lower with large gringos.
- Tip the sweet lady at the lavanderia. She’s working harder to wash and fold your huge clothes. No names necessary when I hand her mine. She writes “grande gringo” on the bag.
- Footboards on any condo or hotel bed are a deal breaker.
- Size up furniture for sturdiness before landing large. Spindly wicker or an old rickety antique may not even slow your descent.
- Learn to shower your top half too.
- Keep your nose clean; most people in Ecuador have a view.
- Set your potty alarm to medium. You may need extra time to find suitable facilities.
- Be ready to give up your bus seat at any time. You look big and rude sitting there while the little indigenous lady has to stand.
- Drink responsibly. Because no one wants a big, noisy gringo staggering around.
- Always give ground on the sidewalk, particularly if it’s narrow and crowded. Stop, get out of the way, back up to the wall with a smile on your face. Relax and let everyone pass.
- Big Gringo Rule Numero Uno: Be especially friendly, kind, and polite. It makes you seem less imposing, almost smaller.
Living large in Cuenca? At least you know what you will be wearing. It’s whatever you brought with you. Are you a man with a waist size over 34 or inseam longer than 32? You’re best hope may be the gringo websites. Someone once your size might be selling clothes after moving to Cuenca and walking off 40 pounds. Locally, you can find shirts, ponchos and other garments called XL in various shops. Some might work, but my standard conversation is: “Usted tiene mas grande?” “No senor.” They rarely have a larger one. The reality is this: if you think of yourself as big, you probably cannot buy clothes off the rack in Ecuador. But the fun is in the hunt; you just have to identify the right quarry.
“Mi dedo is el grande.” I uncorked one of my best lines of Español on the young senoritas behind the counter. They immediately started laughing so hard that I turned to my wife “Check the dictionary — dedo means finger, right?” Now snickering too, she confirmed I was referring to the correct body part. We were in the center square of Chordeleg, working our way around the endless chain of joyeria’s for which the town is famous. The girls went to the back and returned with boxes of rings, in addition to the thousand or so on display. I held up my ring finger with the other hand. “Mi tamaño es trece, al igual que mis pias.” I had rehearsed it carefully. “My size is 13, same as my feet.” More giggles, and then the hunt was on. After trying on hundreds of rings, at least up to my first knuckle, but nothing would fit. I insisted my wife buy something to reward them for the trouble of looking. We repeated this pattern at other stores until Dee’s jewelry box was filled up.
I also had to give up on custom shoes; no Cuenca wooden shoe mold exists in my size. One zapatero gave me a long descending whistle when I took off and showed him one of my Keens, euro size 47. “Lo siento, no señor.”
I needed a different, top-end strategy. Cuenca must have a big enough hat.
“Mi cabeza es grande”. It was my opening line in Cuenca’s hat shops, another variation on a standard theme. We had wandered into the La Paja Toquilla craft shop on Juan Jaramillo, and were looking at a room stacked full of hand-woven hats from SigSig. Surprisingly, the smiling señora said in perfect English, “double extra large,” and pointed to an area in the corner. It didn’t take long. Finally, I had scored: an entire pile of beautiful wide brimmed straw hats so big they dropped to my ears. I bought two.
But I had even bigger plans, as the old joke goes, for topping off my “weak end”. I wanted a custom hat, with leather and lights. As we strolled down Cuenca’s Gran Colombia near Luis Cordero, we were greeted by the friendly proprietors of La Piel Pelleteria. My luck was finally running large. Family owned, this impressive shop is filled with skillfully sown and reasonably priced leather goods of all kinds. Most importantly, the English-speaking son is a good-sized amigo with a cabeza to match my own. He understands grande.
After a long, daunting search I had found my custom classic Cuenca crown. If it was easy; everyone would have one. Currently, only one exists in the entire world. Handmade in two toned black and red supple leather, it sports the Club Deportivo Cuenca logo over an extra length firm bill and high sides for ample brain room. Here’s the cool part. I had La Piel take a bill light out of another hat I had brought, and put it in my unique topper. Two bright LEDs help in finding keys or to see door locks in the land of 6:30 nightfall. It’s on my big melon, where it fits perfectly.
Are there advantages of being tall in Ecuador? I’m trying to think of some. My wife says I’m easy to spot in the mercado. Occasionally, kids even want to have their picture taken with me. But first on the list, I’ll admit, is the show-off factor. In a shop, I always reach high to get anything for anyone, before they can use the hook on a stick. It brings grins like nothing else.
They say coming to Ecuador is like returning to the 1960s. The comparison works well for those of us who are vertically enhanced. It was in that era I last got the old standby question: “How’s the weather up there?” No longer. Now, America is totally supersized. Retailers have responded by enlarging everything from baby cribs to caskets. Not so in Cuenca. If you have large needs, part of the expat challenge is thinking big — and learning how to fill them.
Fitting in is always a challenge for expats, no matter what their size. Happily, it’s made easier by the variety and charm of this city, plus its friendly, patient people.
So step off that plane (watch your head) and let the freak flag fly. No matter how large you live, Cuenca’s welcome will be even bigger.
All photos by Dee Fugit
Reposted from June 2015.