I have two homes in Ecuador, one in El Tambo and one in Cuenca. My host parents and I live in El Tambo during the week and my host siblings in Cuenca for school. I end up traveling between the two a few times a week. Although they are only seventy kilometers apart, the sharply defined distinctions between them would suggest they are farther. Going from one to the other feels almost as if crossing a border and entering another country.
These stark contrasts are immediately apparent from a glance at both houses. My house in El Tambo is fused with its surroundings: the tiendas on both sides which share doors into my house, the homes of both of my host parents’ families just a few steps away, and the closely knit community that is so obviously well-developed. When you walk into my home in El Tambo, it is immediately clear this is a family home, one that has been taken care of all its life, furnished with carefully picked fittings, composed of colored walls lined with family photos and figurines, and kept up with meticulous care.
In contrast, my house in Cuenca isolates itself from its surroundings, safely tucked behind an electric gate guarded by security cameras and patrolling sentries. Inside of that gate, my house is almost indistinguishable from the cluster of houses that surrounds it, all of which bare the exact same resemblance: the same white paint, the same driveways, and the same windows, all shielded from the “dangers” that await outside. It’s not necessary to go inside of my house to know that the interior looks the same as all the others with the same layout, the same tiled floors, the same white walls, and the same rooms.
It is a weekly occurrence in El Tambo for streets to be blocked by parades marching through on floats for the holidays, playing instruments, riding horses, or waving flags for political causes. The town center really is the center, of culture, fiestas, and events. New Years Eve is spent with the entire town in the compact central park, taking no more space than is necessary to fit the statue, benches, and plants, with just enough room to walk through left. The cultural traditions and celebrations like burning años viejos, dummies dressed and masked to look like people (ours of my host parents), to signify burning away the old year and starting the new year fresh, men wearing bras, skirts, and wigs running in the streets harassing everyone in sight, and choosing the town’s queen are experienced together by the entire town. Although these things are certainly present in Cuenca, the intimacy seems to be somewhat lost. The center of the city is not within five minutes of everyone’s house in town, and it is not as common to see people I know, as is such in a much bigger city.
Cuenca is full of modern attractions, including mega malls, supermarkets, fast food chains, discotecas, movie theaters, upscale restaurants, and grand hotels. Only a couple hours away, none of this exists. The food is bought at street markets directly from the farmers who’ve just harvested it. Choices at local restaurants are limited to classic almuerzos, consisting of soup, rice, salad, and a choice of meat (or fish on special days). Pastime is mostly spent playing soccer or volley or enjoying the company of friends and family. The difference in the lifestyles of two places so close in distance, but so far in culture, is uncanny. Going from a place where the tap water is not even potable to one of such privilege every few days places a feeling of reverse culture shock in me each time.
Although these two places are so different, they are not cut off from one another, and they are even very interconnected and interdependent. There are no universities in my town, so most of the people who do go to university go to Cuenca to study. The best hospitals are located in Cuenca. Certain work is centered in Cuenca. It seems to be a necessity to have such a place as Cuenca so close for people who need the services that are only offered there, but the disparity in development between Cuenca and El Tambo is quite astounding. There must be a balance between luxury and preservation of community, values, and tradition, but perhaps these differences are what truly define each place and its unique culture.