Monthly Archives: April 2014

We’re going to Peru

And we’re off. Two and a half weeks in Ecuador and we’re boarding a bus for Peru. Peru, home of: the Incas, the Shinning Path, Paddington bear, and llamas.

Inappropriate use of sloths

Join with #teamsloth, and sloths everywhere, sticking our tongues out at the barbaric practice of sloth head hunting.
Join with #teamsloth, and sloths everywhere, sticking our tongues out at the barbaric practice of sloth head hunting.

There’s only so much cultural relativism that #teamsloth can stomach. Ecuador’s Shuar tribe definitely crosses the line of acceptability.

One of the makers of Ecuador’s famous shrunken heads, the Shuar have evidently decided that killing each other for heads to shrink is no longer appropriate (so far so good). But they now just use sloths instead (no longer good). As part of a coming of age ritual adolescent boys are sent into the jungle with green bananas. When the bananas ripen to yellow they return to their homes with the spoils of their hunt. They’re hunting for sloths to cut off their heads, steam them to reduce their size, and then use them as ornaments.

This seems both mean spirited and cowardly. Seriously, want to have some ridiculous ritual to prove manhood, why not try hunting something that can effectively run away from you? It’s not even like these Shuar boys take blow darts. If the Ecuador National Museum of Ethnography’s illustrations are to be believed, they hunt with guns. That’s an inappropriate use of sloths.


Fast food development: Ecuador and McDonaldization

It’s time for the next installment of our project to track the fast food development of all the countries we’ve visited as a tongue in cheek proxy for their overall development. If you’re not familiar with our categorisation, you can find it here.

Ecuador is a pretty easy case. There are Western fast food brands here – we’ve seen McDonlad’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway – so it’s at least a stage two. But there aren’t many franchises. We’ve seen them only in Quito, the largest, and most cosmopolitan city, and in Cuenca which has a significant population of US retirees. Nothing anywhere else we’ve been including tourist centres and towns of more than 100,000 people.

And where it is available, Western branded fast food is really expensive. Victims of an inexplicable public transit system in Quito we found ourselves seeking shelter under the golden arches from an impending rain storm. The lunch we ate there was maybe three times as expensive as a set meal in a local restaurant. And the clientele was mostly foreign, or at least very European looking Ecuadorians.

The conclusion is clear. Ecuador is stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.


McDonalization is a term developed and used by a psychologist called George Ritzer. He uses it to talk about societies that develop characteristics that are also seen in fast food chains: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.

One example of McDonalization that Ritzer uses is of a certain style of journalism that’s served up in bite sized pieces, with predictable narratives and general inoffensiveness. On that front, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation with the fast food development we’ve observed. That kind of ‘junk food journalism’ is very much alive and well in Colombian and Ecuadorian tabloids.

But you can see his more general point, and we could probably think of other examples. More developed societies tend to feel more efficient and more rational. There’s certainly a stronger sense of control and order. And the less developed have that enigmatic sense of functional chaos that’s the polar opposite of a McDonald’s drive through system.

Double (bed) dipping

Arriving in Cuenca tonight we looked for accommodation. The first place with space had a lovely room – the nicest we’ve seen all travels, balcony and all – and quoted us $15USD. This seemed like a total bargain. We were chuffed and about to unpack when the hotel owner came back and offhandedly mentioned that was the price per person. To be fair, $30USD was probably a reasonable price for the room. But we were still disappointed. We’re even more disappointed that our couple advantage from Colombia doesn’t really seem to have stretched to Ecuador.

In Colombia we commonly paid less for a private double room than two individuals would have paid to stay in a dorm. This was very gratifying. I mean, we both vehemently oppose income splitting as a policy, but it’s nice to get a couple perk every now and again.

In Ecuador private rooms are often, though not always, priced per person. This leads to some confusion, as in tonight, but also means Ecuador is a comparatively more economical place to travel if you’re by yourself.

Neither situation quite seems to make sense. The advantage we got in Colombia was probably too high. But we don’t think we should be paying twice what one person would pay to stay in the same room. There’s a mix of costs that are associated with the space and some with the occupancy. Maybe hoteliers could learn from our approach when couples replaced singles in rooms in our flats: they paid 1.5 times what a single would. Perhaps some wisdom can be found in the spate of rent splitting articles I’ve seen floating around facebook recently.


Some of the Catholic stuff we’ve witnessed on our travels has been both interesting and kind of quaint. My suspicion is that the particular brand of Catholicism – almost folk religion – is a little different to many Catholics’ practice at home, but I’m not sure. DSC08491DSC08489

  • In Baños we followed a parade of the virgin statue normally housed in the basilica. Marching bands played and the statue was followed as something to be revered. Good fun was had by all.
  • We saw a holy week parade in Quito where, dressed like the KKK, thousands of devotees put themselves through significant pain carrying large crosses, dragging chains and even flagellating each other.
  • We were once in Manila for the parade of the black Jesus, an ebony idol that was paraded through the streets for a crowd of millions. People were anxious to have their possessions touch the statue, believing it would bring them good luck. Sometimes people die in the stampede to get close.

And that’s to say nothing of transubstantiation. It feels quite foreign. I went to Anglican and Presbyterian schools. Most of the sermons I heard would still have worked without mentioning God. Fiona has only recently learned who parted the red sea (“It was Jesus, right?”). Neither of us come from a particularly religious tradition. But to the extent that we have experienced Christianity it has been of the ethereal protestant variety.

There’s something different about what we’ve seen in Catholicism. For a start there’s the focus on idols – one supposes not false idols in ten commandment terms. It feels a bit more supernatural to put stock in a statue. Further down the disbelief continuum. More towards the Amazonian shamans that wave leaves over people to see whether they have a grave disease or a minor ailment.  (One indigenous tribe we visited reported they practice both Catholicism and their more traditional beliefs at once.)

And there’s a difference between a nativity play, retelling a story, and a procession of penitence that processors understand to cure them of guilt. It’s a different kind of belief. It’s something beyond a moral code bound together by faith.

We might be overplaying the distinction and given we’re not Christian we are somewhat splitting hairs of disbelief anyway. But from what we see there is a real distinction. Maybe that’s why when we talk to Spanish speakers about New Zealand and they ask about religion they say “is it Catholic, or Christian?”

Pigging on guinea pig


Cuy – guinea pigs – are eaten here as a delicacy. A medium sized cuy will set you back $20USD, about the same price as eight set meal dinners, so they tend to be sold on special occasions only. They were roasting them for the festival of the Virgin yesterday.

They’re roasted and eaten whole. Apparently getting the meat off is a bit of a challenge. You’re supposed to break off a claw to fish it out of the small skeleton.

I’m not sure I’m game to try, and the price tag makes a convenient excuse not to. Fiona, quite reasonably, says that they’re not so different from the ubiquitous rotisserie chicken here. That’s sort of true. But cuy do have heads and beedy little eyes.

Some people say they taste like chicken. I readily admit that chicken is delicious. But if they taste the same then I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. Why not just have some chicken?

Equivocating about Ecuador


I’m just going to come right out and say it. We’re not totally wild about travel in Ecuador.

It hasn’t helped that we’re here in rainy season, which means unexpected dumps of impossibility on our outdoorsy plans. And we’ve both been more than a little under the weather too. But our review of travel in Ecuador will have some equivocation.

We’re not really in a position to complain – many struggling with nine to five jobs at home (or nine to nine, more likely) would probably kill to be here. It’s just that one of the challenges of the kind of long term travel we’re doing is there are likely to be highs and lows of destinations. Ecuador isn’t really a low, but it isn’t a high either. It’s funny the impacts that reference points have on your perspective.

Quito has a really charming old town, and there’s amazing views to be had like the photo we’ve finally an excuse to use in this post. But it’s touristy to the point of seedy in parts. The jungle was entertaining, but our tour company had some issues, and the animals didn’t really show up for us. And, while Banos is a pretty little town, tourism here is much more pervasive than it was in Colombia: we get asked if we want menus in English, there’s hostels on literally every corner, and some light harassment to take tours or go rafting as we walk down the street. That’s probably great if you want to go rafting…

There’s something else more fundamental too. In Colombia we had time to get to grips with things. We had personal relationships with locals. We had the chance to go off the beaten track to places like la Guajira. And we had the time to seek out the things we really wanted, like sloths. Plus we were volunteering, which nearly always seemed meaningful. We’ve less time in Ecuador, and will have less in most places we travel. That makes our journey seem a bit more conventional – the gringo trail.

We’re expecting things to be a little different when we get to Bolivia. Travelers report more of a wild west feel there. And our forthcoming odyssey across Asia will be well off the beaten track. In the meantime, we’re not ungrateful for the the experience we’re having, and we might try and spice it up a little with the unconventional too. But when we look back at our travels we’ll likely rave about Colombia, and be a little ho-hum about Ecuador.

Ten bites of Ecuador food


  • Tomate de arbol, literally tree tomato, but known to us as Tamarilo is a key ingredient of Ecuadorian chili sauce. It explains the vibrant orange colour of the sauce.
  • Tamarilo is also the go to juicing fruit for set meal breakfasts. It’s like the Ecuadorian lulo.
  • Avena – oats – is also sometimes served in a ‘juice’ form. This is not appropriate. Tamarind juice is only marginally more acceptable.
  • Whereas in Colombia cheap set meals were normally only available for lunch, in Ecuador you can get them at dinner time too. Tonight we had chicken soup, roast chicken, beans, salad and rice and it cost $2.50.
  • All these set meals have soup and then the seco or dry course. Luckily it’s seldom dry.
  • Another excellent seco option includes fried egg, chorizo and hash brown.
  • They make toffee from sugar cane here and they stretch it out dramatically from pieces of wood (see above). We bought some that was mandarin flavoured and it was excellent.
  • Local Ecuadorian chocolate is available here and some, for example the lemongrass flavour, is delicious.
  • The ice cream culture is more subdued than in Colombia (it’s much colder after all) but Magnum ice creams are widely available and a fraction of their cost at home.
  • Bacon also exists on breakfast menus.


Today Fiona purchased new contact lens solution. It cost more than a night’s accommodation.