Wednesday, 23 April 2014

All you need is Ecuador (for a caffeine detox)

They say that it's the small things in life that make a difference. The everyday occurrences, or non-occurrences as it may be, that matter most. To be honest, most of us don't think about them that often – life could become a little overbearing if we did. It's only when you step outside of your routine, encounter differences, that they may become apparent.
The picturesque Ibarra, Ecuador.
Ibarra: The lack of coffee is not a deal-breaker.
There's also the chance that it might come as a surprise how attached you've become to such 'small things' – a case of 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone'.

On a recent, necessary trip to Ecuador – a country I've visited on two previous occasions – some of those, what are best described as 'home from home comforts' considering it's in comparison with Colombia, were noticeable by their absence.

Now such comforts must fall into the bracket of things I've just got used to over the last 36 months or so. For when I was in Ecuador in both 2009 and 2011 their non-existence didn't bother me. Moreover, my own rural, west of Ireland background ensures I wasn't born accustomed to them – well at least one of them anyway.

That 'one' being my penchant for daily coffees with a drop of milk – café con leche, cortado, perico or pintado as you'll find them called in these parts – in value-for-money panaderías (bakeries/bread shops). You see in Colombia (or Bogotá in any case) all panaderías sell coffee, all through the day. Usually it's nothing glamorous but when you get it at a price that's easy on the pocket, it makes it all the tastier.

In Ecuador, in the places I visited on this latest trip that is, while almost every second shop is a panadería, that's just it: they are panaderías/bread shops and no more. They don't sell coffee. Indeed when you ask the staff in them for one, it's like going into a police station asking for a burger and chips (watch from 3' 20'' on the link for the reference). And informing them that selling coffees in a panadería is the norm in neighbouring Colombia generally doesn't go down too well.

One panadería in the coastal city of Atacames did at least make some effort to compensate. There, the wily owners had instant coffee on each table, a hot water dispenser and even made milk available for those partial to a dash of it. Perhaps the idea might take off. It's not brewed coffee, but it's a start.

The other things conspicuous by their absence were tienda bars. I've documented on umpteen occasions my liking for such places in Bogotá. Yet in Ecuador – well Tulcán, Ibarra and to a lesser extent Atacames – they don't seem to be the norm. What would be a tienda bar in Colombia, in Ecuador it's just a shop where you can buy beer for takeaway only. Drinking it on the premise isn't really an option as there are no tables and few chairs available. Of course they do have bars – pool halls, karaoke joints and the like – but the rough-and-ready, basic tienda one isn't in the mix.

It's important to state that I'm not pointing these out as negatives. They're not deal-breakers; as alluded to, there are alternatives. What's more, a little less coffee (and alcohol) isn't a bad thing every now and again.
Tulcán's somewhat different cemetery.
Tulcán's rather arty cemetery: Everybody's dying to get in.

Plus, one of the reasons tienda bars and panaderías-cum-cafés are popular in Colombia is because they are much cheaper than many 'proper' bars/pubs and cafés. In Ecuador, from what I could see and also sounding out the locals, the big price swings between different neighbourhoods in one city doesn't really exist. You can treat yourself in a 'fancy' location there for much less than it would cost here in Colombia. That is to say there appears to be more equality in Ecuador. Colombia, take note.

It is, nonetheless, interesting to notice the differences, subtle as they may be, a border can make. For landscape-wise, there's not much to choose between the two countries; both are equally impressive in similar ways. You might go as far to say that if you were led blindfolded into one or the other, you'd do well to say with certainty which country it is.

Make a quick visit to a panadería though, and you should get your answer. On that front, the famed Thai-English phrase springs to mind: 'Same same, but different.' Not in a bad way of course.

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NOTE: If you're making the overland crossing into Ecuador at Rumichaca, seek out an old man wearing a hat called Moses if you want to change Colombian pesos into dollars. From my experience, he gives the best rate.

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