By Carlos Calderón
A couple of years ago, a recently arrived expat who I had only met a few days earlier asked me if I could arrange a meeting for him with then-President Rafael Correa. He knew that I had been a consultant to the government on an archaeological project and that I had joint Ecuadorian – U.S. citizenship and was bilingual.
Besides setting up the meeting, he wanted me to be the translator because he didn’t know Spanish.
It told him that I was sorry, but I couldn’t help. My project had only lasted six months and I didn’t know Correa.
Curious, I asked why it was he wanted to talk to the president.
Well, he said, he wanted to talk to him about the Cuenca bus system. It was being run all wrong. The buses were not properly maintained and needed to use propane gas or battery power instead of diesel fuel, the drivers were not well trained in either driving skills or customer service, and the routes and schedules were not logically planned.
“I need to talk to him about how we ran the system back in Massachusetts,” he said.
Actually, I agreed with him on most of his points. Because I’ve spent most of my life in New York and New Jersey, I have seen what I believe are fairly well managed mass transit systems. On the other hand, I pointed out that Cuenca’s system seemed to work pretty well for the locals and that bus fares were 10% of what I paid in Brooklyn, which provides limited resources for a major overhaul. I also pointed out that when I arrived in New York in the 1970s, bus pollution was worse than it is today in Cuenca.
When I asked him what Correa could do about the problems, it turned out he thought the federal government ran Cuenca’s buses. I told him that the local government ran the system and that the feds in Quito had nothing to do with it. Talking to him more, I discovered that he had no idea how local governments in Ecuador were organized and didn’t know the difference between a parish, a canton and a province.
What the experience illustrated was a cross-cultural phenomenon I’ve observed frequently in Cuenca’s large expat community. I’m amazed at how quickly newcomers size up things in Cuenca and determine, in no uncertain terms, all the things that need to be “fixed.”
It’s a major topic at gringo gatherings, large and small. Something needs to be done about the . . . graffiti, potholes, late-night concerts and fireworks, barking dogs, car alarms, traffic, gringo prices, construction practices, punctuality — you name it! No matter the irritant, there’s an expat with the answer even though he can’t explain it in Spanish.
On the rare occasion when I have time to waste and tune in to the gringo Internet forums, I find them overflowing with the righteous indignation of those who know how things should work in Ecuador but, for some reason, don’t.
I notice that the expat “fixers” are overwhelmingly men from the U.S., most of them arrogant, angry and egotistical. They are the in-your-face loud-mouths that I make a point to ignore, both in Cuenca and back in the States.
It seems ironic that people whose dream retirement has finally arrived are unable to put aside the impulse to run other peoples’ lives, and to simply relax. At the point that they finally find themselves living in the promised land, they can’t wait to remake it according to their own expectations.
I found a comment on this website from a Cuencano who, I think, hit the nail on the head. He said, “Foreigners think they know everything and have all the answers to our problems. I wonder why they didn’t fix things in the country they came from.”
Carlos Calderón was born in Cuenca but spent most of his life in the U.S. He recently retired as an anthropology professor and returned to Ecuador to live.
This article is reposted from 2015.