THE FIXERIn search of a decent electrical outlet; one expat’s journey of adaptation in a strange land

Feb 17, 2009

By Dr. Don Smith

One of the problems most gringos have when they enter another country –aside from learning the basics of a new language– is deciding whether to adapt to the new culture or, to try to change it. Trying to change it to something we are more comfortable with is usually not very effective. If we attempt it we are likely to either get very frustrated or make ourselves anathema to the locals.

The better choice is to accept the culture to one extent or another. Indeed, working with the idiosyncrasies of the local culture can be fun as well as challenging, especially if we enlist the help of our new friends. The degree of our adaptation depends on our needs and flexibility. The fewer our needs and expectations and the more flexible we are, the easier our transition from foreigner to new neighbor will be.

Being a curious person and a problem solver by nature, I usually look for solutions in whatever context I find myself. Let me give you an example.

One of my first Cuenca challenges was replacing a malfunctioning electrical outlet for a friend. Most people familiar with Ecuadorian outlets already know what I discovered: that they are generally fragile and short-lived. I decided that there ought to be something better than the usual solution of frequent replacements. So I started looking in the local hardware and electric supply stores. At first, I found only the usual inferior all-plastic things and decided to look farther afield. I had heard of two large hardware stores near the terminal terrestre and the aeropuerto and decided to make an exploratory trip.

Kywi, located on Av. Elia Liut, just off the round-about in front of the airport on Av. Espana, turned out to be well organized and full of many useful things I might need in the future. I was pleasantly surprised at the cost of most tools. I had expected them, especially good quality ones, to be much more expensive than what I would find back in the States.  A good "find" but not what I was after. The electric outlets were the same old second-rate equipment I had seen elsewhere.

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The next stop, MegaHierro, was just around the corner near the entrance of one of Cuenca’s universities. Hiello, as it turns out is allied with the TrueValue hardware store chain in the U.S. At first glance, the store’s electrical department produced only more brittle plastic wares that I was all too familiar with. Down another aisle, however, I discovered an entire shelf of North American-style outlets. Why they are separate from the local offerings is beyond me. I was simply thankful to find them.

Understand that most of the wiring here is two conductor, with no ground wire to be connected to the "ground leg" of the three pin outlet. None of the three-pin outlets can be correctly connected without a lot of extra work. But, far better quality outlets are available if you are willing to do some legwork. I have installed a few of the ones I bought at Hiello with great success.

The moral of the story is: no, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore, but yes, you can often get what you want.

This small success story brings up another subject. If you are buying a new home or apartment in Cuenca, at the pre-construction stage, you should think seriously about asking that your electric wiring and equipment –such as outlets– be installed to a higher standard. Consider making sure you have correctly grounded outlets, especially in kitchens, bathrooms and other areas where you will use electronic equipment. But that is a discussion for another time…

This is the first in a seies of infrequent contributions to CuencaHighLife, wherein I will offer some suggestions for fellow ex-pats with the intention of making their lives a little easier. If you have specific problems that need addressing, please run them by me. Email me at CuencaHighLife@gmail.com. Please address your message “attention Don.”

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