Published: July 11th 2012July 11th 2012
Hey! Pretty boy! Taste some of my crackling!
Dozens of competing stalls in Latacunga Market vied for our custom. Sadly this particular lady didn't quite make the grade.
How time flies when you're having fun...It's been seven weeks since we crossed the border from Colombia to Ecuador, seven weeks we've spent criss-crossing this most extraordinarily varied of countries. Ecuador is tiny by South American standards, almost exactly the same size as the United Kingdom: within its borders, and often within little more than a day's travel, you can find Amazonian rainforest teeming with monkeys and macaws, windswept grassy highlands where tapirs and pumas roam in the shadow of ash-spewing volcanos, glaciated peaks six kilometres high, cloud forests resonant with the sound of five hundred bird species, sun-kissed Pacific beaches and rocky islands populated by seabirds in their thousands. That day or two's journey might take you from an isolated jungle settlement connected to the rest of the world only by a meandering tributary of the Amazon, to a grimy oil boom-town, to the bright lights, shopping centres and cosmopolitan airs of a big city, to a tiny highland village where you'll hear more Quichua than Spanish and see more ponchos than jackets, to a refined colonial town plaza, to a sunburnt fishing village. Even with such countries as Argentina and Chile to compare it with, Ecuador really does -
Street vendor selling freshly-boiled quail eggs
There's nothing you can't buy on the streets of Ecuador
for the moment! - stand out as South America's knockout all-rounder. A real jewel.
Ecuador would not be Ecuador, however, without its share of quirks - many endearing, others...less so. And so to my usual selection of non sequiturs - the things we'll miss, the things we most certainly won't. "Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to disturb your journey on this wonderful sunny day..."
One of the most astonishing things about Ecuador is the degree of small-scale entrepreneurship to be seen everywhere. And I mean everywhere
. It seems at times that there isn't a single person in the entire country who is not self-employed. Wherever you go, wherever you are, whatever the time, there is always
someone on hand in Ecuador to sell you something. And here's the difference with many places we've been, particularly in Europe: in Ecuador, more often than not, you actually want to buy what's being sold.
No Ecuadorian street corner is complete without one - or more often two or three - vendor. It might be socks, it might be newspapers, cigarettes, sweets, fresh fruit, popcorn, grilled bananas or a thousand and one other things, but there's a vendor almost anywhere
One of Ecuador's most delicious (and healthy!) snacks
you care to lay your eyes upon. In some places in the highlands it's almost impossible to walk fifty metres without tripping over a hog-roast stand, its owner shamelessly trying to attract your attention by calling out "mijito! guapito! acá! acá!"
(sonny! you, gorgeous! here! here!) or, even less discreetly, waving a piece of pork crackling under your nose. Very good tactics they are too, at least for us, since they usually worked - crispy pork crackling and melt-in-the-mouth hornadita
being virtually impossible to resist, as my waistline (and serum HDL levels, no doubt) will attest.
The crème de la crème of vendors, however, is the bus vendor. We've spent a lot of time on buses in a lot of different countries - the bus vendors in Ecuador are something else
. You're at the bus station, you've loaded your luggage into the boot and taken your seat. A three-hour journey awaits you. Just as you pull out of the station the bus stops and the passenger door swooshes open. On steps a man loaded with one of those woven-plastic tartan bag jobbies. "Señoras y señores...",
he will politely begin. He wishes you a happy, pleasant journey. He might comment
Vendors squeezing their way down the bus
This one is carrying a tray of chicken stew.
on the delightful weather we're having. He'll apologise for disturbing your precious nap. And out pours a complex, detailed and often exhaustingly lengthy spiel about what he's got to sell. This could be anything: a brand new chocolate bar, homemade coconut and palm-sugar toffee, coca-leaf teabags, medicated ointment for arthritic joints, torches - we've seen it all. After having droned on for several minutes about how his new chocolate bars are infinitely more amazing than all the other new chocolate bars on the bus-vendor-market, he will proceed down the aisle of the bus, passing out a sample - sin compromiso
, no commitment - to each and every passenger. You can wave away the sample, at which point he might make a pointed comment about being grateful for everybody's cultura
- manners - in graciously accepting his wonderful no-obligation offer. Ecuadorians invariably accept the sample, even if they just hold it in their hand and resume their nap. "How much is
this amazing new chocolate bar?", you wonder. With perfect timing, the vendedor
continues..."for the bargain price of cincuenta centavitos
being psychologically much less than a centavo
, of course) this amazing chocolate bar/pot of ointment/herbal Viagra tonic can be
Taking a break from snack selling at the Corpus Christi festivities, Pujilí
yours today". And you know what? It works
. Not once have I seen a vendor leave a bus without making at least one sale. Many of these salesmen know how to work a crowd, offering free tasters, telling jokes, giving out prizes for mini-quizzes...This is the microempresa
, the mini-business, in action. Despite the comedy value to outsiders like us, this is the reality of employment for many thousands of Ecuadorians. Fliers in large towns advertise training courses for budding microempresarios,
banks offer tailor-made loans to get these tiny businesses off the ground. There's no doubting, of course, that this widespread buying-and-reselling is a tough way to make a living, if a living can be made at all. Neither are all vendedores
adults, something which is hard for us to accept and which the Ecuadorian government, to its credit, is working hard to fix. It's nonetheless a fascinatingly Ecuadorian phenomenon. Vendedores
are a savvy bunch, with some ambushing not just buses but private vehicles too at toll booths, roadworks and traffic lights - with little plastic bags of their wares carefully attached to coat hangers, they dangle their tempting array of snacks just outside bus windows...and watch the dollars roll in!
There's never far to look for a snack in Ecuador
There's much more to buying stuff on buses, however, than your classic spiel-sample-sale vendedor
. Oh, yes: the snack vendors. The snack vendors!
We might have taken fifty buses in Ecuador, perhaps more - not once has a journey passed without a snack vendor tempting us, or at least trying to. The range of snacks on offer on Ecuadorian buses is extraordinary. At the simpler end of the scale you might see bags of potatos crisps or banana chips - the latter, chifles
, are one of Ecuador's most delicious snacks. Slightly further up you can have pre-peeled, pre-segmented oranges, boiled corn on the cob or hot cheese empanadas
. At the upper end of the complexity scale you might buy yourself a bowl of chicken stew - yes, chicken stew, on the bus - or, delight of delights, a bowl of freshly-prepared cevichocho
, one of the culinary highlights of this country. Cevichocho
is a mouthwatering mix of boiled white corn, crispy toasted corn kernels, lupin seeds (a typically Andean food, tasting like beans) dressed with spicy tomato relish, shredded red onion and topped with a few banana chips and popcorn. These snack vendors - occasionally one, more often than not half
Pork skins! Get yer pork skins here!
This man is selling giant pork scratchings - we didn't try one.
a dozen or more - will board the bus mid-journey, barging down the aisle and calling out their wares like fishwives at the market. Never mind you're on a bus! "Choclos! Seco de pollo! Chiflecitos! Cevichochos!"
If the aisle is full of standing passengers, as it often in: they'll squeeze through, trays loaded with bowls of tomato-juice-rich cevichocho
or hot chicken stew balanced precariously above their - and everybody else's - heads.
These snack vendors also have a spooky sixth sense: no sooner do you formulate some vague desire for something, anything - ice-cream, banana chips... - than, hey presto!, on steps just the right person
to satisfy your craving. On a particularly long and dull trip from Baños to Puerto López I found myself thinking "I could really do with a Cornetto right now". Yes, a lovely Wall's vendor - a brand rather cutely known as Pinguino
here in Ecuador - boarded the bus no more than fifteen minutes later to relieve me of a dollar in exchange for...a lovely, actual Cornetto. Love it. Pearl Harbor? Again?
Vendors are not the only entertainment aboard an Ecuadorian bus. Even the dingiest, oldest and most decrepit bus has
And this enterprising lady...
...is selling plastic stools to watch the Corpus Christi processions in Pujilí
a television screen - on any journey longer than about three hours you can count on an in-bus movie. This is fine in principle - we've got earplugs handy if we want a nap instead - but in practice there are a couple of problems. Firstly, nobody bothers to turn the loud, blaring, Ecuadorian music playing on the radio down while the film is playing. Secondly, and rather more annoyingly, the films on offer usually leave rather a lot to be desired. Cheap and nasty 1970s kung-fu movies complete with even cheaper Spanish voice-overs (with one person doing all the voices) dominate the fare on offer. The odd Hollywood blockbuster does make it through, though: I became very well acquainted with Ben Affleck's chin-bottom after being subjected to Pearl Harbor
twice in a row, on connecting bus journeys, on the same day. Still, it's better than Ecuadorian television, which plumbs new, previously unplumbed levels of inanity. In the space of a few short weeks we've come to detest - viscerally - La Pareja Feliz
, a locally-produced soap which appears to be on all
the time and on all
channels. I haven't tried to actually to register the plot but like
Ecuadorian street food
This is hornadita, or hog roast, served with llapingacho potato cakes. Delicious!
a lot of South American television it involves a lot of screaming, crying, exaggerated facial expressions, silly voices and discreet costume touches (the nationality of one supposedly Spanish character is delicately conveyed by having her permanently got up in a flamenco dress, mantilla and fan). When, by amazing quirk of fate, La Pareja Feliz
on the box, there are umpteen talent shows (is there anywhere Simon Cowell's tentacles don't reach?) to take its place. Sigh. David Attenborough we miss you. Come and make some programmes for Ecuadorian television, please!
Should the DVD machine not be working - or if the bus is that
old and crap that it doesn't have one: not a common occurrence - the soundtrack to your journey will be the same selection of perhaps a dozen syrupy and melodramatic South American love songs playing on loop. Typical numbers might include Lejos de ti voy a morir
("If we are apart I will die" - please do and stop subjecting us to this song) or Sobredosis de amor
("Overdose of Love" - quite as bad as it sounds). Something tells me Peruvian buses might not be all that different. "Polite notice: don't
be a pig"
Snack on the bus
A bowl of fritada (roasted pork) and mote (white hominy).
The snack vendor phenomenon also drew our attention to a particularly unpleasant Ecuadorian habit: littering. Despite signs on most buses politely asking passengers to throw rubbish in the bin rather than just chuck it out of the window, we saw Ecuadorians - on far too many occasions - casually slide their window open before tossing out plastic bottles, sweet wrappers, polystyrene chicken-stew bowls, cups, everything. It's obvious from the multitude of public signs visible all over the place that the government is trying to do something about the problem, but there's a steep hill to climb. While Ecuador is certainly not swimming in litter by any means, it's rather disconcerting to find yourself in a tiny Andean village and see heaps of rubbish strewn in the street, right outside people's homes. One thing I did notice was that most litter-chuckers were older people, so one hopes that younger Ecuadorian have more environmental awareness than their elders. Which, in a country as rich in ultra-fragile ecosystems as Ecuador, is pretty much essential. For such a small, clout-less nation, Ecuador looks set to be a big player when it comes to deciding the future of the world's most
Looks like ice cream
But isn't ice cream. This whipped-cream concoction is sold all over Ecuador.
endangered environments: its government has offered not
to exploit a huge untapped oil-field situated right underneath on the planet's biodiversity hotspots, Yasuní National Park, in exchange for economic compensation...as I mentioned in an earlier, blackmail or common sense?
While walking around Ecuador's towns we've seen several other amusing notices, in addition to the ubiquitous "don't litter" ones. On many a street corner you might see an angrily spray-painted sign reading "no orines aquí - no seas puerco!" -
"don't be a pig: don't pee here!". Garage doors around the country are often daubed with the following words: "Cuide sus llantas" -
"look after your tyres". Ouch! I suppose this thinly-veiled slashing threat is much more satisfying than calling the clampers, though! Neeee-naaaaah, neeee-naaaaaaah, beep beep beep, WEEE-WEEE-WEEE-WEEE
Ecuador is also home to the world's most sensitive car alarms, and its most irritating ones. It would be very little exaggeration to say that no more than ten minutes on any day go by without one going off nearby. Big cities, provincial towns, tiny villages, it matters not. There hardly seems much point to them, since all vehicles have the same one - the exact same, head-bangingly infuriating one
Emergency hog-roast stop by the roadside
Our bus stopped here for five minutes, long enough for most of our fellow passengers to jump off and buy some roast pork, before speeding off again.
- they constantly
go off and the sound is so commonplace that everybody ignores it entirely. I once saw a couple sitting in their car merrily chatting away, without a care in the world, while their own deafening car alarm blared. I've often found myself desperate to ask an Ecuadorian: does it not drive you MAD?
Absolutely raving MAD?
Apparently, it doesn't. But it drives me
mad. Noise is a fact of life in Ecuador: as in Viet Nam, there's no getting away from it. Unless you're as clever as we are and bring industrial earplugs with you.
Ah, Ecuador. Land of a billion pharmacies (as in every other shop, like, literally), satanic car alarms, awful love-songs and comically bad television. What a wonderful time we've had galloping, climbing and boating on your plains, volcanos and rivers. What on Earth will we do when there's nobody to sell us stuff?