Often, we expats face unforeseen problems and make matters worse by resisting the flow of life. This was one of those days for my husband and me. Every two weeks, we grocery shop at Supermaxi in Ibarra, thirty minutes away, for many imported goods from the U.S.A., such as Kellogg's Muesli, Pace picante sauce, Gatorade, and Snickers bars. Normally, we hire our favorite taxi driver, Giovanni, to take us shopping, run various errands, and return us safely home with a loaded car of goodies. In all, it’s a three hour round trip for which he charges a measly $15. Today is the Day of the Dead, however, and our driver said he could not drive us. Instead, he would be spending the entire day at the cemetery. In American past-time nomenclature, this was strike one.
Without a taxi, we strapped on our backpacks and schlepped ourselves over the dusty, cobblestoned miles to catch a bus in town. Immediately, we noticed a shortage of buses with one standing out in particular, a sad- looking one with dirty seats and a sagging chassis. That was our Ibarra bus. After riding the side streets for ten minutes in first gear, we thought we had an inexperienced driver who didn’t know how to shift. After turning left on the La Pana (highway), we realized the bus only had one working gear. Down the La Pana we chugged while cars whizzed by. Arriving hours later at the Ibarra bus station with green, motion- sickened faces and a sweaty to-do list in hand, we still had that American can-do spirit and were determined to run our errands and check off the tiny boxes on our list.
Since we knew this day was one of many holidays, we had previously called the Saitel office to verify their holiday hours. They assured us they would be open until 1:30 p.m. At 11:00 we had plenty of time to pay our internet bill. From the terminal, we hailed a taxi to take us to the Saitel office a mile away on the corner of Vicente Rocafuerte and Flores. Dumbfounded, we saw a metal door securely covering the entrance and a sign read CERRADO (closed). We looked at each other, then our watches. It was only 11:10 a.m. How could this be? Strike two.
Another taxi later, we were off to add to the swarm of holiday shoppers inside Supermaxi for our U.S. imported groceries. Abuzz with small children in tow, mothers stopped mid-aisle to socialize and share the latest gossip with their amigas, making it very difficult to pass. Impatiently, I say, “Permiso. Con permiso!” I tap on the senora’s shoulder but no response. Softly I nudged her, and that did the trick. Carrying on through the aisles and nudging as needed, we had enough groceries to make it through the week but way too many for the bus ride back to Cotacachi. When the bag boy whisked us out the door we nodded to the taxi stand. Surprisingly, we were the first in line. Finally some luck, we thought. The next taxi would be ours. We spotted the bright yellow taxi turning into the plaza and moving toward us. Seeing the long line that had formed behind us, we sensed a potential run on the taxi, and assumed our tactical positions. As it pulled in, my husband briskly approached the driver's side to negotiate price while the bag boy prepared to load our groceries in the trunk, and I would secure the seats. As I reached for the passenger door of the vehicle, peripherally I saw a teenage girl rushing past me. The little chica hopped in the front seat of MY taxi. By this point, my middle-aged body is hot, tired, and hungry. Overwhelmed by the crowds, and incensed by the faster female taking my cab, I briefly thought, “SERENITY NOW!” But I let it go. Haughtily, I refused to allow the third strike on my day and confronted the teenage girl. I said, “NO!” and pointed at the long line of other older, tired, hot, and hungry faces waiting for taxis. She looked at her dad for guidance and then glimpsed all of the disapproving eyes glaring at her, and finally she acquiesced. Cutting in line is quite common in Ecuador at the bank, in stores, in restaurants, anywhere, though it’s reserved for the old and infirm or pregnant women with small children. She was none of those.
Within a few minutes, we were on our way down the La Pana back to Cotacachi. Passing the cemetery, we were astonished by the hundreds of people gathered there, including children running all over the cemetery grounds and the food everyone was eating next to the headstones. At first, we thought it was a bit disrespectful trampling on such sacred ground. Then we got the scoop on The Day of the Dead from a genuine traditional Ecuadorian, our lovely housekeeper, Sonia.
While unloading groceries back at the house, our kind and ever so thoughtful Sonia brought us empanadas, stuffed with spicy chicken, and a pitcher of warm colada morada, a delicious sweet drink made from blackberry and other fruits. While we drank and ate the scrumptious delicacies, she explained the custom of drinking the dark purplish red drink that symbolizes blood and the lives of those who have passed on. She further explained that although the day honors the dead, it is not solemn. She pointed out differences among the Ecuadorians too. While the indigenous eat at the cemetery, the mestizos visit the cemetery, go home, and share their prepared dishes with their neighbors. Dolls made of bread are given to the children along with the colada morada. The adults eat the fried to perfection empanadas topped with powdered sugar. While listening to her, I recalled seeing the range of emotions of people praying, laughing, and joking at the cemetery. Children played tag around the headstones and vendors sold bread dolls and colada morada. It was a carnival-like atmosphere.
Relaxed with a full belly and the warm colada drink in my hand, I reflected on the day's events and felt silly for spending my day the way I had, preoccupied with paying our internet bill, grocery shopping, and competing for taxis. Like crazy Americans, we were worried about succeeding, even if it was just to complete a to-do list and preventing a strike-out instead of joining in the spirit and celebrating this feriado (holiday) like our driver and housekeeper had done. Luckily for me, Sonia dropped by. As she shared more about the Day of the Day tradition, I realized the importance of remembering past relationships and appreciating those who are still with us.