Notable Hand Gestures in Ecuador

Cultural differences manifest in many forms; the most obvious ones are language, dress, and food.  Hand gestures can be a subtle facet of cultural identity, yet should not be overlooked as insignificant.  Here are a few hand signals you might come across or ones you had best avoid while visiting or living in Ecuador.

 

Come Here

In the US and many parts of the world, we typically signal for someone to come over to talk to us in one of two ways. The first is to wag/flap your hand, palm up, in a direction towards you. The second is to extend your index finger and curl it towards yourself. The former looks a bit silly to an Ecuadorian and the latter does indeed signify “c’mere” but in a sexual advancement kind of way.

A seductive invite to come closer

A seductive invite to come closer

 

Speaking of which, NEVER use the above single finger gesture with your hand palm down unless you intend to send a very sexually explicit message to the recipient.

This gesture is very offensive

A very offensive gesture to a woman

 

The proper way to ask someone to come towards you is to extend out your hand, palm down and wag your fingers towards your palm. This same gesture is also used for hailing a taxi or bus.

Proper form of signalling someone over

Proper form of signalling someone over to you

 

Sorry-No Can Do!

Typical Scenario 1: You are at the fish market and you ask a man for shrimp. The man looks up at you and simply shakes his open hand but says nothing. You think, huh, perhaps he didn’t understand me and you ask again (maybe a bit a louder in typical expat fashion).  Looking slightly exasperated now, the man shakes his hand a bit more more emphatically and as you continue to stand there perplexed, he adds, “No hay” (pronounced “no EYE”).

Typical Scenario 2: You have been waiting alongside the hot, dusty road for a taxi and now, finally see one approaching. As you hail the taxi with great hope, the driver casually sticks his hand out of the half open window and shakes it at you as he drives past. What!? How rude!, you think to yourself.

The open hand, palm down, shaken from up to down is a widely used gesture that is often overlooked or misunderstood by Ecuador newbies.  As in the shrimp case above, the gesture was used to indicate that there were no shrimp available (“no hay”). The same gesture can also mean “no hay como,” which means that something’s not possible [at the moment]. In the case of the taxi driver, the gesture indicated that the taxi was not available for hire.

no hay

An open palm shaken from up to down indicates that something (or someone) is not there or available

 

How Tall is Your Pony?

If you are ever asked how tall someone is,  you would indicate their height by holding out the side of your hand, pinkie side facing down.  If you indicated your spouse’s head height using your palm facing down, you might illicit laughter as this gesture is used exclusively for measuring the height of animals, typically livestock.

use hand to measure the height

Proper way to indicate the height of a person, with the top of their head being the bottom edge of your hand

measure

Incorrect way to indicate height for a person; it is used strictly for animals

 

Hook ‘Em Horns

A head’s up to all the Texas Longhorn fans out there who are thinking of coming to Ecuador. Flashing the hand sign of your beloved team indicates to the recipient that their spouse is cheating on them; i.e. they are “cachudo” (wife cheating on him) or “cachuda” (husband cheating on her). A side note here that the hand-horns sign IS widely used in rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a cross-over from North American/European culture.

hook em horns

Not the gesture of a Texas sports fan in Ecuador!

 

A-[Not]-Okay

The A-OK sign is a vulgar sexual reference that is best to avoid. A better option to indicate your satisfaction or well-being is to offer a “thumbs up” sign instead. While in some other parts of the world, this too is a vulgar gesture, “thumbs up” here is commonly used.

All is not well with this signal

All is not well with this hand signal which is generally regarded as an extremely offensive, sexual gesture

 

Navigating the Wrist Shake

So this last one is not so much a gesture but instead is here for etiquette purposes. Typical scenario: You are introduced to someone who has been hard at work (landscaping, chopping fish, painting, etc.). You go to shake their hand yet instead of offering out their hand in return, they ball up their fist and offer you their wrist. Don’t be shy–just briefly shake their wrist. You have been offered their wrist not as an insult of any kind but simply because they are concerned that their hands are too dirty from work to offer to you.

hands

Shaking someone’s wrist because they don’t want to insult you by extending a dirty hand

 

Hopefully the hand gestures provided here will help, if ever so slightly, with the process of familiarizing yourself with some cultural nuances. The process takes a long time no matter what but fortunately, people here tend to have great compassion and appreciation for those who genuinely attempt to immerse themselves into Ecuadorian culture.

 

 

Fried Green Bananas

Trucks regularly rumble through town, laden with giant green bananas. Usually there are a couple of guys perched at the very top of the heap calling out, “Verde, Verde!

plantains are often sold from the back of trucks

Plantains are often sold from the back of trucks (photo credit)

 

For a dollar you get about 10 or more of these green plantains or plátanos verdes. While  I quickly got used to seeing plantains for sale everywhere,  it took me a while to appreciate the extent to which they are a part of the local diet and even longer to learn how to cook with them myself.

boys selling plantains

 

Plantains are eaten more like a potato than their sweet counterpart, the banana. They are hard, starchy and require cooking before being eaten. When ripe, they yellow, become slightly sweet and are called maduros (“matures”).

Typical coastal Ecuadorian foods using plantain include empanadas, corviche, bolones de verde, bolones de maduro con queso, patacones, chifles, maduros con queso, maduros asados con sal prieta, torta de plátano, gato encerrado, and the list goes on and on.

PATACONES: smashed and fried green plantains that are typically served in seafood dishes

PATACONES: smashed and fried green plantains that are typically served in seafood dishes (photo credit and recipe)

 

Today, I’ll showcase the simple process of making empanadas de verde using photos I snapped while learning how to make them from some friends the other day.

 

Step 1: Boil green plantains in salted water for 30 min until soft

boiling plantains to make empanadas

Each plantain yields roughly two empanadas

 

Step 2: Mash and roll out the plantain “dough”

mashing the cooked plantain to make dough

Once mashed,  the plantain dough was balled into a log from which they cut off pieces to roll out.

The 1/2 inch PVC pipe make a surprisingly effective rolling pin!

The 1/2 inch PVC pipe makes for a surprisingly effective rolling pin!

 

Step 3: Cut out a circle and add your filling 

Using a small bowl to cut the dough into a circle

Using a small bowl to cut the dough into a circle

(shredded cheese or make a mixture of shredded chicken with mashed plantain)

Two filling options: shredded cheese (right) or a delicious mixture of shredded chicken with mashed plantain (center)

 

Step 4: Fold your circle in half and crimp the edges with a fork

Using a fork to close up the empanada

Using a fork to close up the empanada

 

Step 5: Fry ‘em up

Fry until golden brown

Fry on each side until golden brown

 

Step 6: Enjoy with some fresh a (pronounced “Ah-HEE”, a hot sauce usually made with pickled veggies) and a cup of coffee.

Many lovely cooks in the kitchen (plus a hungry Batman)

Many lovely cooks in the kitchen (plus a hungry Batman)

 

Ecuador’s Advances its Capacity for Dealing with Emergencies

Over the last couple of years, Ecuador has significantly advanced security measures to prevent and to better respond to crimes and other emergency situations.

As of October 2013, Ecuador has operated a nationwide 911 emergency call and response system, referred to as SIS-ECU 911.

An advanced, nationwide 911 emergency response system has been in operation since October 2013.

 

As in the US and elsewhere, all 911 calls are free. There are eight call centers throughout Ecuador, representing different regions of the country, with the closest to us in the nearby city of Portoviejo (40 minutes from San Clemente).

The ECU 911 service integrates a host of institutions including the national police, the armed forces, local fire departments, the National Transit System, Ministry of Health, Ecuador’s institute for social security, the Secretary of Risk Management, and the Red Cross as well as other local organizations.

The modern ECU 911 call center in Portoviejo

 

An integral component of the ECU 911 system is the “Transporte Seguro” (“Safe Transit”) program. This program was created in coordination with the National Transit System to reduce the number of road-related emergencies through monitoring and control of commercial transportation services. Part of this program was to install “Kits de Seguridad” (Security Kits) in all public buses and registered taxis in major cities across Ecuador.

Each of these security kits contains two video recording and infrared surveillance cameras and a panic button equipped with a GPS tracking device that immediately notifies 911 responders with the exact location of the vehicle. The system has a battery pack as a back up source of power. Buses are also equipped with sensors to remotely open and close the doors.

So far,  over 17,000 buses and 38,000 taxis have had security kits installed throughout Ecuador.

Schematic of the “Transporte Segura” program designed in part to reduce incidence of crime in public transportation.

 

Another innovative component of the ECU 911 system is a free smartphone app to quickly report emergencies utilizing a smartphone’s geo-referencing capabilities.  The app is called ECU 911 and is available for iPhones, Androids and Blackberries.

I discovered this app when doing research for this post and just installed it on Tom’s and my phone.  It can be programmed in English or Spanish. You do not have to be an Ecuadorian resident or citizen to use it so I would highly recommend visitors to set it up in advance of their trip.  To set it up, I had to input my name, passport or Ecuador cedula number, cell number, emergency contact name and number, select my blood type from a pull-down menu, and list any physical disabilities or allergies.  This app is an excellent option for residents and visitors who are not fluent in Spanish.

View of the new smartphone app to report categorized emergencies to ECU 911. The app is free, easy to use, and immediately sends your exact location to the appropriate emergency responders.

 

And another interesting security advancement I recently learned about was the programming of a panic button on any kind of cell phone. To do this, you take your phone into the nearest police station where they register your phone and your specific home address (well, as specific as possible, anyways). In the event of an emergency at or near where you live, you press a single digit on your phone and it immediately notifies the local police. The cost is a mere $0.05. A recent newspaper article reported an average response time of 3 minutes in Quito! So, in a small town like San Clemente, we should expect a rapid response time as well.

Police station located in San Jacinto with jurisdiction over the towns of San Jacinto and San Clemete.

 

Like in so many other sectors of Ecuador,  technological advances are being made rapidly. As Tom was saying today, some of these changes are taking place so quickly we don’t even find out about them until a few months after the fact! It truly has been fascinating to watch the development that’s taken place inEcuador since we first came in 2006 and we look forward to all that is surely still to come.

Last Day of “Summer”

School along Ecuador’s coast starts tomorrow (May 5) after a two month vacation which began March 1.

Interestingly, children in the Sierra, i.e. in Ecuador’s mountain region, have a different school calendar, one which more closely coincides with those in the US and elsewhere. This situation lends itself well to supporting the coastal tourism industry. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc. in effect thus have two distinct “high seasons” when families on vacation head to the beach. The first tourist season of the year is derived from the coastal families (March-May) and then second from the mountain folks ( June-August).

Since today was Kai’s last day of  “summer”  and the day was absolutely gorgeous, we had no choice but to go to the beach.  However, with Kai’s newly fractured arm, we went for a walk instead of our usual play in the sand and water.

Aiden and Kai enjoying a stroll along San Clemente’s beautiful beach.

 

The good news of course is that living on the beach in Ecuador means that every day is summer!

What is Your Address? About receiving mail and packages in Ecuador

We are occasionally asked for the address of property listings so that the area, etc. can be explored online using Google Earth. However, especially in the small coastal towns where we work,  there are no specific addresses. The streets do in fact have names (although you usually wouldn’t know it due to the lack of street signs) but there are no street numbers. Instead, locations are generally referenced using cross-streets and landmarks.

For instance, we are currently located along the main road in San Clemente, called Avenida Quito, two properties north of Hotel Palmazul. That’s our functional street address.

Hotel Palmazul’s address in their promotional brochure translates as: “Quito Avenue, no street number, and smaller cross street, 500 meters from the main highway. along the road towards Punta Bikini.” (Punta Bikini is one of the names for the scenic beachfront cliffs at the northern end of San Clemente).

 

And just FYI, the main road into and out of most towns is often called Avenida (or Calle) Quito, “calle” meaning street and pronounced “KAI-yay.”

When we bought a house in Crucita almost eight years ago, there was a giant, partially completed wooden fishing vessel on the beach one property in front of us. So our highly descriptive, yet totally functional address at the time translated to, “the thatched roof house behind the big boat, along the southern waterfront, below the paragliding hill(!)”

Southern end of Crucita in 2006 when the partially built fishing vessel was a Crucita landmark. The boat was finally completed at the end 2008.

 

So, without specific addresses (and no mail boxes), how does one receive mail? To be honest, we did not know the answer to this for years. All of our US bills were sent to us online and any other mail we had sent to my parent’s address in Texas–most of it junk mail anyways. For receiving packages, we often have people who are visiting bring us items that we’ve purchased online and had sent to their home address.

However, after many years of being asked this question, we FINALLY have some comprehensive answers.

 

INTERNATIONAL MAIL

There are basically four options for receiving international mail depending on your circumstances:

1.     If you plan to receive letters and packages regularly, one option is to rent a PO Box (“apartado postal”) at the post office in a nearby city. The national postal service is called Correos del Ecuador. For those of us living in San Jacinto/San Clemente we might choose either the post office in Bahia or Portoviejo. Rates for a standard sized P.O. box is $25/year.

PO Boxes are available for $25/year.

 

2.     To receive an occasional letter or package,  you can have it sent general delivery to the nearest post office where they will hold onto it until you come to claim it. The sender would address it in the following manner:

LAST NAME, First Name
Lista de Correos
Correo Central
City, ECUADOR

3.    If it’s an important document; e.g. containing powers-of-attorney, official birth certificates for getting your visa, etc. you should use an international courier service such as DHL which has offices in Manta and Portoviejo. There are no FedEx offices in this region–the closest is located in Guayaquil. These services are of course pricey (around $100 to send a couple of pages) but reliable.

4. Finally, if you live in a condo complex or a gated community, you can usually have mail sent to you directly since the location itself is a prominent landmark . The on-site guard/caretaker can receive the letter from the postman and then bring it to you. My in-laws who live in a Crucita condo have received mail on a number of occasions this way and say it typically takes 2 weeks from the US. Tom recently received a package at his parent’s address with prescription glasses and it took about a month to arrive from the time he ordered them. Mail sent in this manner would be addressed in the following way:

Recipient name
Condo number (if applicable)
Name of condo complex/gated community
Address using cross streets (and/or landmarks)
City, Province
ECUADOR

 

POSTAL CODES?

The other day I heard Tom exclaim, “Look at that! We actually have a postal code!” Sure enough, there is a website through Correos del Ecuador that enables you to look up your postal code (and actually has fairly detailed maps with street names when you zoom in). While postal codes technically exist, they don’t appear to be necessary or even used regularly. Not yet anyways.

Our location using the post office’s postal code finder. We discovered the names of the surrounding streets during this process and now know that we’re located between Streets H and I.

 

ADVANCES TO ECUADOR’S POSTAL SYSTEM

The national postal service has advanced significantly over the last several years. For example, the number of post office locations nearly doubled between 2006 and 2011 (today there are 412 offices in all 24 provinces), and now offer a variety of services including tracking, expedited mail service,  certified mail, and even Western Union.

Photos of postal delivery vehicles in 2006 (left) and in 2011 (right).

 

RELOCATION = LIFE WITHOUT AMAZON.COM?

Another service offered through the national postal service is Club Correos which  simplifies the process of receiving online purchases while living in Ecuador. In other words, you can still shop online from Ecuador.

Club Correos is an inexpensive service that handles your online purchases so that you can receive them in Ecuador with minimal hassle.

 

When you sign up for Club Correos, you are assigned a Miami-based mailing address that you use for your shipping address. Club Correos receives your online purchases at this address in Miami, takes care of any customs forms, and then ships your package to your Ecuador address (most reliably to a P.O. Box). As long as your package is valued at less than $400 and weighs less than 4 kg (8.8 lbs), they are duty free. There are some restrictions, now including all cell phones.  

The fee to join Club Correos is 11.20 per year. The website has a shipping calculator to determine your shipping price based on weight and value. For example, a 4 lb package valued at $100 would cost $23.21 in shipping.  In our experience thus far, it takes around 2 weeks to receive your purchases from the time they arrive to Miami.

Logistical Note: When you sign up for Club Correos they request a 10 digit identification number (US passports are 9 digits). Just add a zero and then enter your passport number.

Another note: I learned the hard way that it’s important to have all of your items shipped in a single package. Amazon often ships things separately so they arrive quicker. Instead of paying around $36 for my three items as I had expected, I paid almost $100 because each item was mailed separately. Ouch.

Here is nice summary about mail in Ecuador which also discusses sending mail (with some specifics pertaining to Quito). The ins and outs of sending and receiving domestic mail is a topic in and of itself that I’ll have to save for another time.

 

Ecuador Elections

February 23rd is election day throughout the country (referred to as “Elecciones Seccionales“).

Each of Ecuador’s 24 provinces will hold elections for the following political positions:

  • provincial governors and vice-governors (“prefectos y vice-prefectos”), 
  • mayors (“alcaldes”), 
  • aldermen (“consejales“), and
  • parish boards (“juntas parroquiales“). 

 

All are elected for 4-year terms without term restrictions.

Ecuador, with a geographic area equivalent to the US state of Colorado, has 24 provinces.

 

Each province is comprised of cantones (cantons) which are further subdivided into parroquias (parishes) that are classified as either urban or rural.

In our case, we live in the town of San Clemente, which is affiliated with the rural parish of Charapotó, located in the Cantón of Sucre, in the Province of Manabí. The county seat of Sucre is the city of Bahia de Caráquez. The provincial capital of Manabí is the city of Portoviejo.

The coastal province of Manabi is subdivided into 22 cantons.

 

In Manabí, there are nine candidates running for prefect (and thus nine political parties represented). The current prefect, Mariano Zambrano has been in office since 2005 and is up for re-election. In our canton of Sucre, there are six mayoral candidates, two of which are female.

Here is the breakdown for the number of candidates elected for each political position in the Province of Manabí:

  • 1 Prefect
  • 1 Vice-Prefect
  • 22 Mayors (1 per canton)
  • 100 Aldermen (urban)
  • 36 Aldermen (rural)
  • 53 Parish board presidents
  • 265 Parish board members

 

There are a LOT of political parties. There are 11 parties with seats in Parliament and 24 non-parliamentary parties. Each political party has a number and color scheme associated with it. For example, President Correa is affiliated with the Alianza PAIS party, with number 35 and its colors are lime green and dark blue.

The name, number and color scheme for President Correa´s political party.

 

Political campaigning is restricted to a total of 6 weeks (January 7- February 20) and consists of an onslaught of tv and radio commercials, posters and flags on vehicles, homes, and businesses, parades of honking vehicles with blaring music, as well as wide scale painting of public and private walls with candidates’ names and their party numbers. 

Walls are a primary way of political campaigning in Ecuador. This wall is located in San Clemente.

 

Voting is mandatory for Ecuadorian citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 residing in country. There is a monetary fine for not voting equivalent to 10% of the monthly minimum wage. After placing your vote you receive a “certificado de votación” or voting voucher that you are required to present for most kinds of applications such as opening a bank account, applying for marriage, etc.

Voting is optional for those aged 16 to 18 and over 65, for those serving in active military duty, for illiterate or disabled citizens, and for foreigners with legal residency.

Election results for the prefect and mayoral candidates will be determined the day of the election.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited 36 hours before the elections and 12 hours afterwards (starting at midnight on Feb 21 and ending at midnight on Feb 24). This law is called the “Ley Seca” or the Dry Law and is a real bummer to unsuspecting tourists and expats! …Sorry, Tom, guess we´ll be celebrating your birthday (Feb 22) this year at home! 

Fish Soup: It’s What’s for Breakfast

Highly acclaimed as a cure for hangovers, encebollados are one of coastal Ecuador’s popular seafood dishes. While it can be found served throughout the day, encebollados are generally considered a breakfast food.

Albacore soup with pickled onions is a surprisingly tasty way to start the day.

 

Encebollado literally translates to onioned soup and is typically made with pickled onions, albacore tuna, yuca (cassava root), tomatoes, and topped with cilantro. It is served with a bowlful of chifles (fried plaintain chips) which you crumble on top–yum, one of my favorite parts!

Make your own encebollado using the recipe from Laylita’s great cooking website. She is a native born Ecuadorian who currently resides in the US. Her site is full of authentic Ecuadorian recipes.

 

When ordering encebollado, you are also given a selection of other ingredients to modify your soup to satisfy your tastes: fresh squeezed lime juice, oil, mustard, ketchup, and hot sauce (aji, pronounced Ah-HEE). Restaurants often offer both a store bought variety of aji plus their homemade version that usually contains hot peppers,  lime, shredded and pickled carrots and onions.

Chifles and other ingredients are provided to personalize your soup. Also, note the instant coffee–it’s uncommon to find drip coffee in your average restaurant. The green labeled bottle contained the homemade aji which was FULL of tiny little pepper bombs. Tasty but potent!

 

Encebollados can be found on the menu in your average coastal restaurant but the AM die-hards go to the make-shift tent restaurants that are set up curbside around 7:30am and taken down by about 10am.  It is not surprising to have to wait around for a chair to squeeze in alongside others who are hungrily hunched over their steaming bowl of soup. 

Yesterday morning we stopped into a little nondescript place in Bahia that serves breakfast. Between the three of us  we ordered two encebollados and two balones (fried plantain balls filled with cheese and chicharron–fried pork fat–sounds gross, tastes good). Tom got an [unsatisfying] cup of instant coffee while Kai and I ordered fresh squeezed lime juice. Our bill came to $5.50.

Bolones or fried plaintain balls are another common breakfast food on Ecuador’s coast.

 

And in typical fashion, while we enjoyed our meal, the restaurant owner happily walked around with Aiden, our 5 month old baby, showing him off to other adoring clientele. For an explanation, check out an earlier blog about some of Ecuador’s cultural peculiarities around babies.  

Happy eating! or as they say here, ¡Buen provecho!

Ceibos and Palo Santo: Magical Trees of Coastal Ecuador

Without questuion, my favorite trees here on the coast are ceibos and palosanto. We’ll start this post with the ceibos since they are such a conspicuous tree and usually lead newcomers to ask, “What are THOSE??”

The province of Manabi is known for their ceibo trees

 

Ceibo trees (pronounced “SAY-bo”) are a striking feature of the coastal Ecuadorian landscape. Straight from a Tim Burton film or a page out of Dr. Seuss, these large trees feature bright green bulbous trunks, prominent buttresses and a disarray of heavy limbs extending in all directions.

Ceibo located on the hillside overlooking San Clemente

Ceibo trees have leaves only during the rainy season (or if they’re located in a well-irrigated piece of farmland)

 

Ecuadorian ceibos (Ceiba trichistandra) are one of 10 species of tropical and neotropical trees classified as ceibas or kapoks. Kapok is the universal name given to the silky fluff  produced by the ceibo fruits.

Ceibo tree full of kapok (from Gary Scott’s website)

 

Historically, the super soft kapok fibers were collected and used to fill pillows, mattresses, stuffed dolls, etc. In addition, the waxy coating found on the fibers make the fluff resistant to water and highly buoyant; thus, kapok was used worldwide until the mid 1900s in life preservers, life vests and seat cushions. Today, there are still a couple of small communities in Manabi that collect the cotton to make pillows and mattresses for sale.

Kapok cotton (taken from a site with other interesting ceibo information and photos)

 

Here in the dry coastal forests, ceibos spend much of the year without any leaves, a condition called drought-deciduousness.  They have adapted to this stress in a colorful way by photosynthesizing through its trunk (hence the trunk’s bright green pigments).

Shrek-green colored trunk of a giant ceibo

 

The wood of the ceibo is soft, light and brittle and therefore not useful for construction, making furniture, etc.  Tom and I often mused that ceibos would make an awesome tree house for when we had kids until one day we got up close to one and were surprised to find that its trunk was covered in large, intimidating spikes. This adaptation serves to protect the soft wood of young trees; as ceibos age and become less vulnerable to threats of being eaten or toppled, their bark tends to lose its thorns.

Close up of a ceibo’s spikes

 

Owing to their undeniable charisma, many artists are inspired to feature ceibos in their artwork. Below is a custom ceibo painting created for us by our artist friend Kerri who beautifully captured the vivid, whimsical nature of these magnificent trees.

Ceibo painting by Kerri of Boca Tintina (feel free to contact us if you’d like to get in touch with the artist to see more of her work for sale)

 

Palo Santo-Aromatic Gem of the Coast

Unlike ceibos, palosanto trees are all about subtlety. Their drab appearance makes them nearly impossible to distinguish from many of the other scraggly trees and bushes found in the dry coastal forests; however, what unmistakably sets them apart is their soothing, sweet, musky scent. One of my favorite olfactory pleasures is the aroma of palosanto wafting out of the hillsides after a light rain.

Palo santo trees are not beautiful to look at but possess a very pleasing, gentle aroma

 

In the same family as myrrh and frankincense, palo santo (Bursera graveolens) literally means “holy wood” and has been used by shamans since pre-Incan times for clearing negative energies and healing.

Today, locals frequently burn dry sticks of palo santo to produce a rich, aromatic smoke to keep mosquitoes away. The sticks are also used to produce a tea to help cure symptoms related to the flu and asthma.

Incense cones and burner that we purchased from the artesanal palo santo store located in Puerto Lopez

 

Use of essential oils of palo santo is becoming increasingly popular worldwide and is said to contain many healing properties to treat a plethora of maladies including arthritis, allergies, inflammation, cold and flu symptoms, depression, and anxiety to name a few. The oils are used directly on the skin in key areas (wrist, temples, soles of feet, etc.), can be diluted with other oils such as almond to produce massage oils or spritzers, and used in aromatic diffusers.

Palo santo products we’ve bought from the store in Puerto Lopez : incense cones, essential oil, and lotion

 

Palo santo trees themselves are relatively short-lived, approximately 40 years. The oils are extracted only from fallen, dead trees so it is important to buy products from sources who collect only naturally-fallen trees and who are involved in replanting efforts. Deltatau Palosanto in Puerto Lopez is one of those sources (we don’t have any affiliation with them–we just like their products).

 

Ceibos and palo santo trees represent just two of the incredible and diverse plant species found in this region. There are countless ideas for business niches left to be filled to promote greater education and appreciation of the dry coastal forest ecosystem. Examples might include leading hiking, mountain biking and birdwatching tours, the manufacture and sale of products directly using kapok fibers, or even photo-based souvenir products such as ceibo post cards and calendars, neither of which can be found here, at least to my knowledge. Like so many things in Ecuador, the possibilities are endless.

 

Tagua Jewelry: The Making of Vegetable Ivory Art

A popular source of local jewelry and touristy trinkets is “tagua” (pronounced “TAWG-wuh”) or “vegetable ivory.” Tagua is a very hard, white nut that grows on six species of palm trees in South America, one species of which is found along Ecuador’s coast.

Tagua palm

Cluster of seed pods containing the tagua nuts

 

Tagua is referred to as vegetable ivory because once dried, it can be carved and closely resembles the ivory from an elephant’s tusks.

Sequence showing how the tagua nut can be carved and dyed into intricate pieces of art. Image taken from an interesting online article about how the production of tagua helps protect elephants and South American rainforests.

 

Because of its close similarities to ivory, tagua is now often used as a substitute for ivory in the global market, which not only protects elephants from being killed for their valuable tusks, but also provides many jobs as well as an economic incentive to protect the forests where the palms are found.

Items made from tagua can be purchased in markets across Ecuador but the source of this unique artisanry is here along the Central Coast, especially in the small village of Sosote (“so-SO-teh”), outside of Portoviejo.

The art of carving tagua was brought to Sosote in 1993 by two local cousins who had spent several years in the Province of Guayas creating tagua pieces for an Italian man who exported them to Europe. Today, there are over 60 tagua workshops  in the Sosote area.

Below are photos showing the process of transforming the tagua nut into jewelry, which in Sosote usually takes place in a single location; i.e. the workshops are typically located behind the storefront that sells the finished products.

Tagua artisan and owner of one of the tagua storefronts in Sosote

 

The process begins by collecting nuts from the palms (Phytelephas aequatorialis, which literally means “elephant plant”)

 

The nuts are polished using a tumbler with metal beads.

 

A grinder is used to shape the pieces.

 

Finer details are added using a Dremel.

 

The pieces are then dyed in large batches.

 

Now the tagua beads are ready to be turned into jewelry.

 

Women, often the wives and daughters of the tagua carvers, make necklaces, bracelets, and earrings in the store where they are sold.

 

A sampling of some tagua necklaces.

 

Prices for necklaces range from $3-$10.

 

More necklace designs.

 

Selections are quite extensive and even include tagua rosaries.

 

Tagua is also crafted into bracelets, earrings and rings.

 

Keychains for $1-$2

 

A variety of other tagua creations that make unique gifts for friends and family.

 

Tagua art and jewelry-making is an excellent example of how the purchase of local, sustainable products not only supports the creation of jobs but can also make important contributions to society and the environment. Ecuador is full of untapped niches such as these, many that are yet to be discovered.

Cultural Peculiarities about Babies

We welcomed our son, Aiden Andrew, to the world on August 23. He was born in a wonderful birthing center outside of Quito.

Proud big brother Kai with baby Aiden

 

After a few days of rest, we spent a solid week running around Quito at the Registro Civil, the Ministry of Foreign Relations passport office, and the US Embassy to process all of the paperwork required to establish Aiden’s dual citizenship. As this was our second child born in Ecuador, we navigated the ins and outs of the country’s famously convoluted system of “tramites” with far more grace this round.

Running around with an infant in arms also quickly reminded us of some of Ecuador’s rather fascinating cultural peculiarities regarding babies. I’ve compiled a list of some of these infant-related idiosyncrasies that were surprising to us as new parents, especially coming from a different culture. 

  1. Epidemiology of the Hiccup: There is a common belief that hiccups can be triggered by the baby feeling cold (see #3 below). Hiccups can be “cured” by licking a small scrap of of paper (newspaper, preferably) and sticking it to the middle of the baby’s forehead. **Side note: When looking for information online related to the origin of this practice in Ecuador, I was fascinated to see that this custom is also used to cure hiccups in other parts of the world including multiple countries in Central Africa and throughout Southeast Asia!

    Paper hiccup cure in action, taken from an blog about an expat family living in Burundi.

  2. Baths Required: Vaccinations given at government-sponsored health clinics (called “sub-centros de salud”) are free for children until they are age five. After each of Kai’s vaccinations, I was instructed to immediately bathe him in a warm bath or else he would become feverish. I was a skeptic but did it anyways to avoid any kind backlash as the unfit gringo parent in town. And you know what? The one time I didn’t bathe him after a shot, he did get a fever a few hours later.
  3. The Baby’s Always Cold: During Kai’s first few weeks, we kept receiving commentaries from very concerned “new acquaintances”  that Kai was cold. The cause for concern was obvious once we became aware of the ubiquitous blanket bundles being carried around town, sometimes even on bright, sunny days. Beneath each large blanket is a warmly dressed baby, donning hat and all. Once again, succumbing to peer pressures and with the desire to avoid public derision, we starting bundling Kai while out running errands. That is until he became covered in little red bumps that we discovered was a heat rash. Oops. But even now with Aiden, we still throw a blanket over his head when out and about for both good measure and to prevent public outcry.  We were literally shooed away from the refrigerated section in the Supermaxi grocery by parents who couldn’t believe that we would be even remotely close to a source of cold air.
  4. Growth spurts: All babies spit up. Some apparently more than others (Aiden, for example). I was bracing myself to receive more unsolicited public commentary if and when Aiden upchucks all over me in public. I was pleasantly relieved to learn that there is the common belief that the more a baby spits up, the bigger he/she will be. Thus far, Aiden’s growth supports this theory in that at week six he has morphed into a 12-lb roly poly and we’re constantly laundering blankets, towels, shirts, pants… everything.
  5. “Parece un chichobello!”  Without exaggeration, we heard this phrase daily when Kai was a baby.  Whether in passing from  giggling hordes of delighted women pointing in Kai’s direction or directly to us when introducing him for the first time, at least one person would say that looked like a chichobello.  After receiving this comment dozens of times, I finally asked, “What IS a chichobello?” Turns out it is a life-sized baby doll who is usually fair skinned, bald, with big, blue eyes. When I looked them up online I realized how right they were, baby Kai (and now Aiden) actually look very chichobello-esque.
     
  6. Strange Photography: In relation to #5 above, complete strangers do not hesitate to take photos of other people’s babies. This phenomenon reminded Tom and I of our travels in China about six years ago where there were a couple of bizarre occasions where four or five total strangers actually stood in line to take a photo with us… or snuck up behind us before we noticed while a friend quickly snapped a photo (I believe that would be known as an inverse “photobomb”)  It was very perplexing to us, especially as we wondered what they did with these random photos of strangers. Do they show them to a couple of friends and then delete them from their camera? Or did we stay on their  card and eventually end up in a photo album on someone’s computer? How does that work?? Anyways, the same thoughts occurred to me as Kai’s mug must have been snapped by friendly strangers at least a hundred times before he turned one.
  7. Birth Details: Along the same lines of having different personal boundaries than in other cultures, one of the most common questions I am asked as a new mom was whether the birth was “normal” (i.e. vaginal) or “cesarea” (C-section). I don’t know why people who have never even met me insist on knowing this private detail, except that vaginal births are becoming less common (C-sections now comprise over 30% of births in Ecuador).
  8. Restaurant Service: Another surprise for us was that upon sitting down at restaurants, often one of the staff members would come and take Kai from us to allow us to order and to eat in peace. The first time this happened we were pretty alarmed as we watched Kai get passed back and forth among various cooing restaurant employees. However, we came to quickly appreciate this custom which allowed us the rare opportunity to converse and eat without the usual interruptions. Besides, Kai was clearly okay with  all the loving attention he was receiving. This probably is one of my best examples on the difference between our cultures. In US society, this pseudo “child care” could never take place these days, due to liability, mistrust, etc.  Here, those things don’t even occur to most people. 

    Pizzaria Napoli run by Fiore provides authentic Italian food  in Crucita. Fiore is also the owner of the Alba Suites condos.

  9. First in Line: Another custom that I totally appreciate is how courteous businesses and the public are to the elderly, people with disabilities,  pregnant women and new moms. If you fall within any of these classes, you either have your own special line or are taken to the front of any existing line. Tom and I reduced our wait time by probably 90% at the Registro Civil in Quito (where the frustration level may actually exceed that of most DMVs in the States)  just because I was holding a newborn. I love that! 

    No such thing as a “quick visit” to the Registro Civil” in Quito

  10. Public Breasts: I also love how unapologetic many woman are about nursing openly in public. Sure, you might see more skin by some women wearing their regular day attire, but breastfeeding in public is still a big deal in US culture. Here, it is not uncommon for a woman to be openly feeding a baby in one arm and pushing her shopping cart with the other.  No one seems to notice or get offended and everyone just goes about their business… which is nice.

 

We’ve been surprised at the number of times our perspective has shifted as we begin to see things from another cultural vantage point.  Just as you see two distinct things if you look at a statue from the front versus the back,  a given experience can be interpreted from two different cultural viewpoints.  It’s the same statue, but what you see is completely determined by how you look at it.

For example, when we first arrived in Ecuador we sat at a restaurant, had a meal, and waited patiently for the bill.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Then finally, we hunted down the owner and, mildly flustered, requested the bill, PLEASE.  We saw “Bad Service” from our cultural viewpoint.  Then, after discussing this with an Ecuadorian friend he explained that traditionally if the owner brings you a bill before you’ve requested it, he is being rude and trying to rush you out of the restaurant.  The same experience from the owner’s vantage point was interpreted as “Being courteous and welcoming.”

In other words, things that at first make ZERO sense begin to make more sense the more you hang around.  We’ve learned to be open and enjoy our experiences here by following  a few general guidelines:  “Make fewer assumptions, ask more questions, and be open to the idea that there just might be another, equally valid, cultural viewpoint to an experience or situation.”  It makes for interesting detective work to ask, “Why might that make sense?”