No ‘Ugly Americans’ here!: Cuenca expats come together to help beloved taxi driver repair his car
By Stephen Vargha
For decades, people from the United States have had the reputation of “Ugly American.” Travel guru Rick Steves, said, “Those who are treated like Ugly Americans are treated that way because they are Ugly Americans.”
Steves went on to say the Ugly American criticize strange customs, cultural differences, and “invades a country while making no effort to communicate with the natives.”
The ugly term has depicted an American overseas as too loud, too ostentatious, or too arrogant. Even too cheap. Sometimes it is all of them.
The colloquialism has morphed from the 1958 political novel, “The Ugly American,” by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. And it is often applied today to Americans.
Seven years ago, an American in Canada wrote for Salon, “We are loud. We are fat. We eat standing up. We drive aggressively. We don’t make eye contact. We don’t open doors for people. We rush. We are rude… We are spoiling for a fight. We put our nose into others’ business. We are sanctimonious… We think we are the center of the universe, and that money entitles us to everything.”
But that term seems to not apply in Cuenca.
“Of course, we would love to help, said Lin Dailey. “We are absolutely thrilled that we could participate in supporting German. We believe in supporting good people like German for good causes.”
Dailey and her husband, Rick, moved from Lake Tapps, Washington to Cuenca in 2018.
“I want to be there for German because he has been there for me during one of the most difficult times in my life, always with a smile, a laugh, and friendship,” said Jo Ellen Kuney.
Kuney moved from Washington, DC to Cuenca in 2013.
“I organized the fundraising event for German as I know that coming up with thousands of dollars for a local guy was not going to be easy,” said Madelaine Barry.
Barry moved from Thailand almost seven years ago but lived in New York state prior to that.
Every American expat is talking about German Zhina. The Ecuadorian has been a taxi driver in Cuenca for a decade.
That is until February 13 at 1 p.m.
“I was in the middle of the Cajas, coming back from Guayaquil with my three passengers,” said Zhina. “There are always surprises on the Cajas highway, including high water on the road.”
It was more than high water that was a surprise for Zhina. “In a large curve, I hit some mud on the road,” said Zhina. “The car started sliding sideways, and then the car went back and forth.”
Zhina was describing the harrowing situation that faced him. Losing grip of the road in mud is a lot like being in wet snow. Worse by being high up in the Cajas mountains.
“I knew I had three people in my car,” said Zhina. “They were my concern.”
What lasted only seconds felt like an eternity. And in that short period of time, Zhina had to make a split-second decision.
“I hit two powers poles,” said Zhina. “It was either going off the cliff or hitting them with the front end of my car.”
The air bag deployed, and the taxi car started filling up with smoke. Everyone got out safely. Right after vacating the heavily damaged taxi, an Ecuadorian driver pulled up and asked if he could help.
Looking out for his passengers, Zhina asked if he could take them to a hospital. They were more important than his car and wellbeing. “My back hurt badly,” said Zhina. “When I got out of the tow truck in Cuenca, I was really shaking so I asked my 21-year-old son to bring some pain pills from home.”
The $300 towing bill did not help nor did the cost of repairing his 2019 Suzuki SX4 S-Cross. “My car has expensive parts. Every part was $400, $600, $800…,” said Zhina. “The mechanic told me the total was $7,000. But that did not include the $4,000 airbag.”
Zhina did not have any auto insurance as the annual premiums are $1,200. To put that into perspective, Bankrate’s 2023 car insurance rates analysis for full coverage car insurance in the U.S. costs an average of $2,014 per year.
A person working in Ecuador typically earns around $1,260 per month compared to an American who makes around $4,467 per month.
After being told the staggering cost of the repairs, an American expat came calling. “Madelaine called me to see how I was doing,” said Zhina. “She said, ‘We’ll see what can be done. There is an excellent expat community in Cuenca that likes to help out.’”
“That taxi is his livelihood as well as his pride and joy,” said Barry.
Barry quickly organized a fundraising lunch at Black Angus Bistro. The turnout by the expat community for Zhina filled the restaurant.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of love and donations from the Cuenca community,” said Barry. “The event gave them a huge lunch boost so a win-win for us all.”
Dailey and her husband were two who quickly signed up for the fundraiser. “We were surprised by the great turnout,” said Dailey. “We were also very surprised at donations that were collected.”
There was a strong showing by the expat community as a total of 37 expats had lunch with another 30 just donating money. An hour after lunch had begun, a man showed up and told Barry that he had some money from some Canadians. An anonymous American expat donated $1,000 to the cause.
There is a lot of love from expats for what Zhina has done.
“German is one of the best people I know who makes his living meeting the needs of expats,” said Kuney. “As we age, our needs increase and he can always be relied upon to be there for us, and his clients know this.”
“German is well-known for his careful driving, patience with often demanding expats, his handyman and visa facilitation skills, and most important to me, his honesty,” said Barry. “He could have ripped me off soooooooo many times. What a treasure he is!”
His childhood and early years as an adult have a lot to do with who Zhina is today. The oldest of seven children, he grew up in La Troncal, in Cañar province. At 12 years of age, his stepfather kicked Zhina out of the house.
He moved to Santo Domingo and became a welder. Four years later, he rushed home because his mother was in the hospital with cancer.
At 17 years old, Zhina went to high school, where he met his future wife. “She got pregnant, so I had to drop out,” said German.
To earn enough money to help support his widow mother, who had recovered from the cancer, Zhina went to Spain for nearly three years.
From 2005 to 2011, Zhina spent most of his time in Queens, New York as a construction worker. “I never stopped sending money to my mother as I got a good union job,” said Zhina.
Zhina found his future in 2013 when he got his professional driver’s license. “I went to driving school for six months,” said Zhina. “They taught me a lot on how to drive. We had courses in customer service, English, mechanics, driving, and law.”
After that, Zhina got his license for driving big rigs. But he was not through with his education.
“I finished high school a month later. It was a lot tougher than driving school,” said Zhina. “I ended up #2 in my class, so I got to carry the city flag at graduation.”
L&S Artisan Meats of Cotacachi became a big client of his. “I started at the beginning of the pandemic. The first time was a long day as I did not know the route, plus the even-odd days for driving in Quito,” said Zhina. “I started with seven or eight coolers. Now I am up to 15 coolers.”
Despite the crash, Zhina still delivers the meat around Cuenca, using a four decades-old Chevrolet Luv pickup.
Now all Zhina needs is a little bit of expat help. GoFundMe does not operate in Ecuador, so the Americans in Cuenca are using the best alternatives available.
If you would like to make a much-needed contribution to help Zhina get back on his feet and driving his taxi, you can contribute through PayPal to email@example.com.
Or if you would like to make a bank deposit or drop off some cash, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We love German, and we will ensure the money goes where the need is greatest,” said Kuney. “Thanks to everyone who can help, even a little.”
“There are a lot of good expats with nice, kind hearts in Cuenca,” said Zhina. “Thank you.”
German Zhina, Taxi Driver and Facilitator, 098-392-9573, email@example.com
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information.