Back in Quito, we caught the good ol’ 15 de Agosto bus across town and I entertained fantasies of being a bus driver’s ayudante for a day. Those guys are crazy. They spend half their time dangling their bodies outside of the moving bus, shouting out their routes to people on the streets (“Toda La Colon, Plaza Artigas, La Doce, Catolica!”), and the other half of their time, they spend collecting the 25-cent pasaje from the passengers, jumping on and off the bus, weaving through the sometimes-standing-room-only aisles, somehow keeping track of who they’ve already collected from and who just got on two stops ago.
We were headed for the SwissHotel, another famous gringo haunt, and one we had to return to because it was a quasi-tradition of ours four years ago to go to the Japanese restaurant in the basement for sushi. Later in our stay, we went out to an even posher restaurant called Zazu. (It’s been written up in the New York Times!) And in both locales, we felt just a little out of our element. Sophistication is sophistication. And even though in Ecuador we can get away with going to the nicest restaurants in town dressed like the travelers we are (an REI outfit rather than an Armani suit), we still feel completely out-classed.
Luckily, our Spanish isn’t always good enough to know if/when we’re being disapproved of. We slipped into the Hilton Colon to get directions to Zazu and the guy at the desk asked what room we were staying in. We guiltily revealed we weren’t staying there and he said, “no hay problema,” and proceeded to give us the address. When we thanked him, he said, “por nada,” which, translated directly into English, means thanks for nothing. It doesn’t translate directly. And we knew that. Still, it was enough to give us pause: was he being insincere? We know American English’s various euphemisms and hidden messages very well, but when it comes to Ecuadorian Spanish, we’re pretty deaf/blind in the realm of subtle insincerities and hidden meanings even after living there for a year.
In the past, it’s been tempting to say that Ecuador is the land without irony or verbal abuse. I remember how much trouble Eileen had in teaching her class the expression “Do you mean that?” They simply couldn’t understand why you would ask such a question.
And if the email forwards we get from our Ecuadorian friends are any indication, they are sentimental suckers who whole-heartedly believe in inspirational quotes.
But email forwards can never be an indication of anything. And Eileen eventually got through to them by using an example of a woman wearing an unflattering dress.
“You look great.”
“Do you mean that?”
The trick in really posh establishments is to dress well and act like you own the place. When the waitress brings you your five sushi rolls, you shouldn’t take a picture of them with your iPhone. Or when the hostess catches you marveling at the really cool, circular wine closet with glass doors and a ceiling at least 25 feet high and offers to let you look inside, you should turn her down. And when the waiter brings you and your wife a delicious swordfish in a pisco-soy consommé and grilled sea bass medallions in coconut foam, you really shouldn’t go halfsies.
But if there’s no disapproval from anyone, why not?