Otavalo Culture

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February 3rd 2009
Published: February 3rd 2009
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This blog is just a mix of thoughts that I have compiled while staying here. Just some small observations about life here and in Ecuador in general. Perhaps it is representative of life in general outside of Canada, I don't know, I really don't have a lot of world experience to draw upon.


My hat goes off to the dog food manufacturers in North America, they must be making billions. I see the advertisements on TV all the time. I don't know anyone at home who doesn't feed their pet dog some kind of special mix dog food based on some thoughtful, (but probably based on advice from the manufacturers) analysis of their dog's needs.

Here in Otavalo, there are dogs everywhere. Running free in the streets, in people's yards, in packs out in the fields. Neutering dogs is unheard of here. I see packs of them following around bitches in heat. I hear them barking all day and all night.

Dog food is unheard of down here, the street dogs live on garbage and the pet dogs live on table scraps. They all seem to be doing quite well. The family I am staying with have a pet dog, Toni. Every day I see the table scraps scraped off of our plates into Toni's dog dish. Yes, chicken bones and all. How many of us have heard the old stories that you should never feed dogs chicken bones “because they get stuck in their throats”. Well, I now suspect that advice came from the same people that told you not to swim for an hour after eating. The people here eat a lot of chicken, and the carcasses and bones are always fed to the dogs. I haven't seen any dogs choking in the streets. I don't have to wonder any longer how dogs survived for the million years before Dr. Ballard.


The ambient noise level here is quite high. I mentioned the dogs. They seem to be most active for the first five hours or so after sunset, which includes the time when I usually am trying to fall asleep. The neighbours have a big, ferocious dog that barks fanatically at anything that moves on the street, at any time of the night. In our gentle society, anyone that owned a dog like that would immediately receive complaints by neighbours and visits by police or bylaw enforcement. Down here, it is just accepted.

People down here protect themselves from crimes of opportunity. Every house is enclosed by a cement wall, locked gates, and lots of pointy metal. Most homes have alarm systems, as do most cars. The alarms are going off all of the time. Nobody seems to pay much attention to the alarms. I walked past a house on my way home the other day that had a siren wailing. There were no neighbours looking out their windows to see what was going on, there were no police around checking it out. Car alarms go off regularly, and most frequently first thing in the morning when people probably forget to turn them off on the way to work. People at home have to buy permits when they have alarm systems so the police can keep track of false alarms.

Things down here run on a different kind of schedule. One day I heard the sound of music in the streets, music that said to me, “ice cream man”. You know, the kind of music that comes from a carillon. I watched down the road as a garbage truck
Davalos family at ChorlaviDavalos family at ChorlaviDavalos family at Chorlavi

My friends the Davalos'. They have taken me in as a friend and fellow member of the gliding club in Ibarra
turned the corner. People bring out their garbage when they hear the sound.

There are no natural gas pipelines underground here. Most people have gas stoves, and some have gas water heaters. Homes here don't require heating, so there are no furnaces. Gas is delivered in bottles by a truck that plays a different type of music than the garbage trucks. Bring out your empties and get a full bottle when you hear the music.

Vegetables are sold door to door by a truck that drives through the neighbourhoods playing what sounds like some kind of rap-talking that lists off the types of vegetables for sale in a very monotone voice. Come to the street and flag him down to buy your papayas, guavas, guanabanas, naranjillas, taxos, and pinas.

There is an election coming up here in April. The candidates are out getting their message across. Trucks and cars with loudspeakers on the roofs are driving up and down the streets playing election speeches and sound bites.

Honking the horn of your car is just another natural means of communicating. A taxi honks at you to say “need a cab?”. You honk your horn if you
Sunrise over ImbaburaSunrise over ImbaburaSunrise over Imbabura

Photo taken from my bedroom window.
see someone you know on the street or in another car. You honk your horn to solidify your taking the right-of-way. You honk your horn to get someone to move if they are in the way, or more frequently, if you think they might get in the way. You honk your horn to let pedestrians know that there is no way you will stop for them. Buses honk to ask if they need to stop for you. If you feel like digging into history, see my blog from a year ago “How to drive in Cuenca”. Many of the same rules apply here.

Down here the churches are almost always Catholic, and they all have bells. I haven't quite figured out the schedule (except from Sundays), but the church bells are ringing all the time. I assume they are a reminder to the population that their presence is required for a service of some kind. The bells ring 30 minutes before, 15 minutes before, and on the hour of the service. The bell ringing always follows a pattern: ding-ding-ding-ding-ding (goes on for about three minutes) ding-ding-ding (Then a pause for about 10 seconds..) Ding.

I'm staying in a residential neighbourhood, there isn't much grass or dirt around. Streets are paving stones, sidewalks are concrete. Cinder-block concrete walls around every home. People never have grass in their yards; most yards here are very small and are covered in concrete. Some have small flower gardens. But, that said, there sure seems to be a lot of roosters around. They start crowing before sunrise.

Homes down here are not insulated. Windows have a single glaze. Noise just comes right through. Live seems to be lived down here at a more realistic level. I'm not saying that it is better, in fact, the noise gets on my nerves at times. But, life seems to be lived much more simply and with more tolerance.


I have come to realize how much time and money our various levels of government in Canada spend to protect us from ourselves. The general attitude here in Ecuador, and I now suspect for most of the world outside North America, is that if you're stupid enough to get hurt doing something you shouldn't have, well, tough luck.

In Edmonton, where I live, every once in a while the police go on a blitz
Cotacachi town squareCotacachi town squareCotacachi town square

Cotacachi is about 15 kms from Otavalo
and ticket people for jaywalking. Protecting us from ourselves. Police seem to have better things to do here. There is no such thing as jaywalking, and pedestrians have no right-of-way. People, even elementary school children, here realize quite well that they take their lives into their hands the moment they leave the sidewalks. I am sure we would have far fewer pedestrian-car accidents in Canada, only if people were half as attentive as they are down here. I actually feel safer crossing roads in the middle of the block where I know cars will never stop for me, as opposed to intersections or crosswalks with signs where I am never sure.

When I arrived at the home of my host family here, I was given some local orientation. The daughter-in-law of the woman I am staying with (who lives in an adjacent house) showed me the scars on her arms from where she was bitten by the neighbour's dog (see my bit about noise above), so I should pay attention. So in her case after the bite, did she call the police? Did she complain to the neighbour? Did she call the newspapers and TV stations? Did she see a lawyer about suing the neighbour? In a word, no. Why I asked? This kind of stuff makes the front page of newspapers in Canada, and features prominently on local TV news. Dogs get taken away, quarantined. Judges get involved to determine the animal's fate. Legal suits get launched. Insurance companies get their lawyers into action. Neighbours get estranged and never talk to each other again. So, what exactly happened in this case? Well, first off, I was told, she knew the neighbours had a dangerous dog, and she got too close to the fence. She knew better.

A couple of kilometers from where I am staying is something of a provincial park. There is a nice waterfall, some areas for camping and recreation. There is a hiking trail up to the falls. The trail follows along the banks of a bit of a canyon. There are no guard rails to be found anywhere. Get too close to the edge and fall in? It's your fault. I think about all of the chain link fencing in Canada's national parks. Why are we so stupid and the rest of the world so smart? I think it is because we have been conditioned from birth that big brother will protect us from danger, and we have lost all of the common sense necessary for survival that still exists down here.


It does exist down here, but until recently, I had seen little evidence of it. Most banks here have an armed guard at the door, usually carrying a riot-style shotgun, you know the ones without a stock; just a handle behind the trigger. Intimidating. Private security guards down here usually carry hand-guns. Most cars seem to have security systems. Homes down here are built like fortresses. They all have cinder-block walls around the perimeter of the yard, usually with broken glass poked into the cement on top. Tall metal gates that lock, with pointy metal spikes on top. Most crime here I gather are those of opportunity. If you leave something in your yard in plain view, and unprotected, someone will take it. Anything. Noe was telling me that the empty propane bottles are prized because there is a deposit on them. Full ones are a prime target because they can be resold.

I mentioned above that I hadn't seen anything until recently. I was out for
San Antonio de IbarraSan Antonio de IbarraSan Antonio de Ibarra

Small town between Otavalo and Ibarra famous for woodwork
supper with the gang I have been flying gliders with down here, and we came back to their cars after supper to discover that someone had tried to break into them. Three in a row parked on the street. The family I have been staying with got the worst of it. All three locks (two doors and tailgate) had been jimmied to the point where the proper keys would no longer work. It took an hour to get into the car before we were able to drive away. I mentioned above that police here must have better things to do that ticket jaywalkers? Well, I don't know what that is. A police car came along with three cops in it, and were flagged down by the group who had their cars jimmied. The cops listened to the story, never got out of their car, then drove away never to be seen again.


One night shortly after I arrived, the power went out. The whole city was in darkness, and as I heard later, so was about 70% of the whole country. After supper, I noticed there was some commotion out on the street. A big truck full of vegetables pulled up, and a bunch of people were distributing the veggies into a bunch of red plastic bins lined up in the middle of the road. This was all being done by the headlights of the truck, because the streetlights were out. This scene is repeated every two weeks (usually with the power on). The neighbours order a truckload of mixed veggies from the country and share the cost. I was told it was a lot cheaper to do it this way, I think it worked out to about 30 cents a kilo for mixed veggies and fruits. My host, Laura, walked around with a notebook keeping track of the costs and collecting the payments from everyone. I have a picture of this somewhere in the blog, a bit blurred because I didn't want to use a flash and startle anyone.


30th November 2010
San Antonio de Ibarra


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