“So you know when you said today was supposed to be sunny?…”
We looked out at the torrent of water that cascaded furiously down in front of us. Only moments before, the sky had been bright blue; now the fat droplets were hitting the flagstones with such force that they almost bounced right back up again.
I cast a dejected eye around our suddenly melancholy group. Among the nine of us, only two had suddenly pulled waterproofs from the hidden depths of their cavernous bags. And they’d been living in Ecuador six months longer than the rest.
There was nothing else for it. We took a collectively deep breath, threw caution to the winds, and raced out into the downpour. And within about a minute, when we realised speed was futile, we endured a long, slow trudge back to the bus stop, complete with dripping hair, soggy shoes and defeated egos.
I could barely see who was walking in front of me – but I still heard a pathetic voice arise from somewhere in our midst.
“And to think people at home said it wouldn’t rain in Ecuador!”
What exactly is this weather?
Mention that you’re moving to South America, and most people will exclaim in delight. Whether it’s because of the food, the history, the people or the wonderful tan you’re inevitably going to get, it’s a continent that pretty much anyone gets jealous about.
So when I was facing the daunting task of packing my backpack for a year in the continent, I read through various packing tips online in vague astonishment. Anoraks? Umbrellas? Waterproof shoes? Seriously??
But it’s an integral part of Ecuadorian Living 101 to absorb the fact that it rains here. And not just sometimes: there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll see rain at some point every single day.
That’s not to say Ecuador is a ‘rainy’ country, though; in fact, it often appears to be completely the opposite. On my first full day in Cuenca I got royally sunburnt, thanks to Ecuador’s UV index being off the charts, and it’s just as important a fact to learn that applying suncream needs to be part of your daily routine.
Cuenca’s weather is probably the most confusing I’ve ever had to handle. Just when you think you’re getting too warm, the clouds roll across and the rain hangs heavy. But, in the same breath, you’ll dress in layers for those worrying clouds sitting low on the horizon, and within ten minutes of leaving the house you’ll be dripping sweat.
The difficulties with choosing what to wear grows tenfold when you’re changing outfits three times a day, too. At school, I want to be averagely smart yet still comfortable, in clothes with a certain level of breezability because I still get really overheated when loudly over emphasising my every word at the front of a classroom.
The babies I look after in the afternoon love to wipe their noses on my shoulder, cough in my face and laugh hysterically when I change their dirty nappies; so the most casual of hippy trousers and a baggy tee shirt will suffice. This, however, still proves a problem when I have to ascertain which pair of hippy trousers are my stock “these are going to be filthy all week and thus can’t be worn anywhere else” trousers. And I didn’t exactly pack that many changes of clothes.
By the time I get home, I want to relax in the comfiest clothes I own; which is when my tracksuit bottoms, normally reserved for slumming it in England, actually become my most prized possession. Which I definitely didn’t plan for when I bought them in TK Maxx.
Combining all these factors makes watching out for bad weather a bit of a daunting task. Even if the only thing necessary is to dress sensibly, and plan for every eventuality, it still takes everyone a while to get into the rhythm of this persistent weather awareness.
Rain, rain, go away
At first, you look at the clear sky and think, “I’ll be fine, surely!” – particularly because you’re all too aware that putting on socks and waterproof shoes is going to make you boiling.
But slowly, the fact of definite rain begins to make an impact on you. Like on our impromptu trip to Guayaquil, when I casually put on a plaid shirt as my sole top layer, followed by canvas shoes, in Cuenca’s sunny early morning light – and when I stepped out of the bus into the rainstorm that was blitzing the coast, my lack of anorak – or a hood! Any kind of hood! – became painfully apparent.
Then there was Banos; a humble 40 minute bus ride away from Cuenca – harmless, right? Except for the fact that the walk from the bus stop to the thermal baths was a good ten minutes – and when you’re forced to make that walk in a pelting downpour wearing nothing but flipflops (and that same blasted plaid shirt), it’s not quite so casual.
Eventually, I’ve started to notice a pattern emerging. Every time I cart my electric blue anorak around (a statement piece that makes me look super cool) there’s never quite as much of a downpour as the days when I go out in soft shoes and a tee shirt. And the days I forget to apply suncream ware always the sunniest – effectively meaning that I have to wear more layers the next day anyway in order to shield the burnt bits.
Sunglasses, a raincoat, suncream, and a spare layer: four completely opposing clothing elements that are fast becoming staples in my day to day life. It still feels a little ridiculous.
Handling the hair
But there are positives to this Cuenca-based anomaly of South American weather. Before I left, I was promised a vision of frizz protruding, halo-like, from the top of my head – the result of extremely hot temperatures in a very humid country. What people forget, of course, is that Cuenca’s high altitude essentially de-humidifies the air, making the thought of crazy hair a wonderfully distant memory.
Not to be underprepared, though, I brought a pair of straighteners with me, just in case. And although I probably should, I don’t regret my decision for a second.
I’m not normally that traveller who fusses over beauty products and can’t cope without her appliances; six months in Asia was handled, skillfully, with a pair of tweezers and one lone black eyeliner pencil. To be fair, any other make up would’ve slid straight off my skin anyway. But after I inadvertently chopped all my hair off in an Indian bathroom, the long, luscious locks I used to have became, well, a little bit erratic. Inasmuch as various sections of my hair decided which direction they wanted to head in, and gravity be done with it.
For a while this wasn’t too much of an issue; their very shortness belied any real ability for them to cause havoc. But, as time went on and my scalp follicles did their job, things changed. My head remembered what it was like to actually have a semblance of long hair, but the hairs themselves didn’t want to pay attention.
Thus I’m still in that halfway stage, almost a year later, and the ends are so curly that some days I look a little like a circus escapee. So when I’m attempting to teach large groups of teenagers English, it’s somewhat pleasant to have straightened ends to my hair and not feel completely scruffy.
But Ecuador is proving to be a good thing for my hair. In the last six weeks, those curly ends seem to have grown at least an inch – yet another reason why living in somewhere with sunshine is simply wonderful.
Something wrong? It must be the altitude
The strangest element of the Ecuadorian climate to become accustomed to is the altitude. Thanks to Cuenca being around 2500 metres above sea level, a number of rather bizarre ailments have befallen our group of volunteers over the last few weeks – and it’s quickly become something of a catchphrase to blame literally everything on altitude issues.
So far, I’ve suffered from the relatively normal dizzy spells and impromptu headaches, but I’ve also dealt with sporadic pins and needles in my three littlest toes, as well as a sudden discovery that a piercing in the cartilage of my ear was throbbing and hurting so much that I had to take it out.
And the pinnacle of weird altitude-related ailments was suddenly feeling that my legs could barely hold me up; strange enough normally, but bordering on the bizarre when it resulted in an impromptu tour of the school nurse’s office, two rounds of thermometer sticking, a lot of stethoscope action and a narrow avoidance of a penicillin injection in an unmentionable region.
She surmised that I have an inflamed throat and my legs are too cold, easily remedied by my wearing socks more often – which is the prevailing solution for just about every illness in this city, if you consult an Ecuadorian. That, and eating lemons.
Following the weather rules
Of course, rain is the one thing we can’t blame on the altitude. And as it gets steadily heavier, and April, the wettest month of the Cuencan year, draws closer, I’m starting to behave appropriately, and following the unspoken but still unquestionable Cuenca weather rules:
1. Always carry an anorak. 2. Always put on suncream. 3. Always consider how wet I’ll get if this particular outfit gets caught in a rainstorm.
And, fundamentally, above all else; always be ready to accept that it’s just a bit of water.