An American I met last night asked if I noticed any similarities between Thailand and Ecuador. Having been here only 6 days I told her I had.
I made the move from Chiang Mai to Cuenca because I wanted a change. I hadn’t been living in CM for very long, just under a year, but I’d always wanted to experience a Latino culture. I also couldn’t find any decent work in Chiang Mai, so I moved to Cuenca where I was hired fairly quickly after my inquiry.
So, here I am just 48 hours from my new teaching English job, an American Asian with minimal Spanish or castellano in the middle of a mountain town located in the Southern Highlands about 2500 meters above sea level.
The more I travel the more things look the same. And I’m not talking about strip malls and KFCs cementing their way through cities one original recipe at a time. I’m talking about how local populations conduct business, day-to-day activities and live in remarkably similar ways.
Outdoor markets here have the same character, or flavor as the ones I’ve encountered in Thailand (or SE Asia for that matter). There is the raw meats section with the pig’s head sitting atop its body parts. The roasted corn or meat on a stick sizzling over a grill and ice cream ala carts. The fresh produce and live animals areas, the tasteless-clothing section, electronics, dishware and old beggars thoughtfully placed throughout.
Cellular or mobile phones can have their SIM chips removed, internet cafes still reign supreme (did they have a brief hey-day in the States?), you can bargain for select purchases like your rent, religion is an integral and important part of society, music is played blaring, cheap petrol is consumed widely, shady taxi drivers and even shadier police patrol the streets.
Immigration or visa offices are a bureaucratic hellhole infested with fees, misinformation and DMV-like gatekeepers whose goal it seems is to see how long they can make you wait before you start sobbing into your hankie. Music and movies are generously pirated; both love sugary sweets and grow the same fruits like strawberries, mangoes, papayas, bananas and pineapples.
And while Chiang Mai and Cuenca are both mid-size if not small cities, you can get by in CM with English and in Cuenca you cannot. Well, you can nitnoi, un poco, a little, but it hurts. It hurts a lot. Despite the fact that Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is becoming a popular retirement community, and is touristed, folks generally do not know English.
Thailand is cheaper although both countries seem to take advantage of charging farang, gringo or foreigners “special” pricing. Things are more expensive in Ecuador, too and I don’t think the quality of life is necessarily better than Thailand. Especially since safety is a concern.
I’ve only been here a short while but everyone I meet seems to have a mugging story. They know someone or just as often they themselves have been the victim of a slashed backpack, stolen passport or ipod. This is not to say these things do not occur in Thailand, but The Land of Smiles is much safer.
But I like that Cuenca is a very walkable city. You still need to pay attention to where you step, but not because you are inundated with dog feces and trash, but because the cobbled roads and sidewalks are uneven. It is common to see street cleaners (there better be with the city’s 12% tax!) and rubbish bins, too.
The tap water is safe and pleasant tasting to drink. And Cuenca doesn’t have that Thailand smell. Although, I did catch a whiff of it at the markets. Perhaps best of all Cuenca doesn’t burn their trash like Chiang Mai. . .but as I settle into this unique town I’ll let you know what else I discover.