It was a typical Monday afternoon in Cuenca. Sunny, breezy and calm. Old Ecuadorians sat on the benches of Parque Calderon, young children played amongst the pigeons, and a general sense of lazy comfort reigned supreme.
For the locals, at least. Sadly, this chilled out mindset hadn’t yet travelled to a group of the city’s newest inhabitants who, less than a month out of their English comfort zones, were feeling slightly stressed.
About my birthday, no less.
“We spent ages looking for a card with cats on because thought you liked cats!” said a slightly hysterical Sherri, fresh from baking an as-yet-secret birthday cake in her host family’s kitchen. She handed over a birthday card, addressed, oddly enough, to someone named ‘Fione’, spelled out in carefully printed letters at the very bottom of the envelope. Noticing my apparent confusion, Sherri carefully mentioned that six year old Isabella, her host sister, had decided it was her job to address my birthday card.
As we walked down the street we bumped into Nicki, who dragged me forward by the arm and started to apologise profusely about not being able to rediscover the elusive shop that sold the Dora the Explorer pinatas.
“We tried, honestly!” she said. “I’ve been wandering around Cuenca all afternoon!”
Such was the stress of my friends, who were fighting tooth and nail against the very real possibility that birthdays in Ecuador don’t run quite as smoothly as they do back home. Not by a long shot.
An Ecuadorian newcomer
The morning of my 25th birthday was nothing like my 24th. Last year I had stomach cramps and ants crawling in my toothpaste; this time around I had a fifth floor apartment view, a comfortable bed and a few hours spent indulging in social media. Not to say that I prefer Ecuador to India at this moment, but it’s got to be said that this country has its benefits.
And then I had the crazy surprise of discovering, via the joys of said social media, that I’d won an award from Skyscanner, who’d bestowed the accolade of Best International Newcomer Blog upon me. To say I was shocked is an understatement – I was, to put it lightly, over the moon. It’s one thing to feel like people appreciate what you do, but to receive that amount of recognition is insanely flattering.
Not to mention the accompanying prize of free Skyscanner flights made an extremely good birthday present.
My ability to spend so long in bed on a Monday morning, instead of teazching English, was unprecedented though, and the reason for it is something I’m slowly learning about life in Ecuador. One of the first things I was told about this country was to treat it with patience. And after a month of living here, I can safely say I understand where that comment stems from.
It seems as if nothing ever goes to plan. If you’re alright with that, then great; but for some people, and some plans, it’s a big learning curve to accept.
A week of birthday drama
It started the week before my birthday. On Friday night, a plan was hatched to sample Cuenca’s nightlife – “everyone come to mine to chill out beforehand,” I said. Of course I didn’t know I’d manage to get my new key stuck in the front door, mere moments after my host family gifted me with said key and went out to dinner.
An hour later, I’d befriended my host family’s mother-in-law’s maid, the apartment block’s guard and her husband, as well as the seven month old baby she carried on her hip and who loved it when I scrunched up my face.
“La gringa quiere hablar,” she said, giving me only the slightest bit of consideration by deigning to turn away as she spoke into the phone. Although I still felt like a stupid gringa, so it didn’t really matter.
After four Ecuadorians had unscrewed the entire lock from its rightful place within the door and wrestled with the still very-firmly-stuck key to no avail, I pleaded innocence with my host mum on the phone and went out with my friends.
But clearly that plan wasn’t destined to go well either. After wandering through the streets, we eventually found ourselves in the most dull and depressing karaoke bar known to man; clammy and sweaty with bored looking patrons, metallic tasting shisha and a surprise serenade from a group of buskers. At least they let me try on their comically large sombrero.
Time to kill in Guayaquil
Next came the whole visa issue. Discovering that my name was misspelled at Quito airport was a complete surprise, as was the knowledge that I’d have to journey to Guayaquil to fix it. But when I realised the potential of doing this on my actual birthday, I took matters into my own hands and said no. So three of us left bright and early on Tuesday morning, slightly confused that we’d purchased bus tickets but were sitting in the back seat of a man’s car.
This confusion grew somewhat when he stopped at the petrol station and asked us to pay ten dollars for his refill, and grew even further when he told us that, due to being in a car instead of a bus, we now owed him $15 each for our tickets to Guayaquil instead of $12. When we saw a police checkpoint on the road ahead and our dodgy driver asked us to pretend to be asleep for him, our confusions were justified – but it didn’t stop him from dropping us off at the wrong place in Guayaquil and refusing to take us any further.
“You get a taxi from here. Three dollars only.”
Such is the way with locals and gringos.
Of course, after three minutes in Guayaquil’s immigration office, our various visa issues were completely sorted, and we spent the next three hours wandering around a shopping centre and eating vast quantities of MacDonalds in an attempt to comfort ourselves. I, in particular, was having a hard time adjusting to the indecency of it all. Why on earth couldn’t we have sorted this out in Quito, or in Cuenca? And why did people keep making life difficult?!
Learning to take your time
But Ecuador is a country where you have to sit back, relax, and just let things go the way they want to. Much like India in this respect, it’s about accepting that you have no control over what’s happening, so you might as well enjoy what’s on offer.
And strangely enough, once we stopped thinking about how annoying these situations were, things started to actually work out alright.
Alright, so our attempted night out for my birthday was a complete fail. But a week later, my host brother gave us free passes for the nightclub he partially owns, two bottles of expensive rum – complete with complimentary firework! – and a table for the night.
Our first official clubbing experience in Ecuador was declared a complete success, as we danced with the advantageous Cuencan youth, invaded the stage and took a great deal too many photos.
And I took on the monicker of ‘Flora Backer’, which filled me with amusement, along with the lashings of free rum.
And as for my actual birthday day? The initial stresses that everyone seemed to have about making my birthday go the way it was supposed to go were all forgotten, once we were sat squeezed into a table on the second floor of a wooden floor boarded restaurant. And being sung to by a group of people I’d only known for a month, while hand drawn cards littered the table and a Oreo-covered homemade cake sat in front of me was a pretty good way to celebrate turning 25.
Particularly when it involved a multitude of hand drawn Dora the Explorers.
A new year, a new journey
Ultimately, the trickiest of situations always end up working themselves out. And I’ve been in enough countries where the chaos of an arrival only serves to precede an incredible and unforgettable journey. Broken keys and problematic visas aside, I know that I’m incredibly lucky to be where I am at the start of my twenty fifth year. Living with a welcoming host family, volunteering at placements I want to give my every effort to, and spending my free time with a group of people I didn’t know a month ago, and already can’t imagine not having around me in Ecuador.
Let’s just hope that this year can hold its own against the last. It’s got a lot to live up to.