Charged by the bright equator sunshine, I felt motivated to make my first month in Quito, Ecuador count.
At first, everything was beautiful and intriguing, from the lush flowering trees that filled the boulevards to the volcanos looming around us like stern parents. One afternoon I planned to meet some friends for a tour, which required taking a taxi to an unfamiliar part of the city.
I furtively waved over a cab from the main street, parallel to my own depa, feeling emboldened by adventure but a little shy, considering the Spanish I would need to harness in order to communicate with my driver. Ride-sharing services hadn’t peeked their heads out from under the capital city’s strong taxi union, and all conversation would be mandatorily face-to-face. There was no clever app savior.
A yellow car noticed my raised arm and pulled over to pick me up.
The door slammed closed, and the driver and I greeted each other, engaging in a sort of verbal wrestling match, as I struggled to convey my intended destination. He was a pleasant Ecuadorian man who looked to be in his forties. We both smiled a lot, and I sweated, hoping good intentions would make up for missing nouns and verbs. He nodded in agreement with my jumbled directions.
Prematurely triumphant, I sat back into the ragged seat, dust puffing out from under my weight. Quito slid by my backseat window as we drove through the city.
After a pleasant-enough ride, the cab slowed. I shoved my crumpled ten-dollar-bill through to the front seats, waiting patiently for it to be snatched then replaced with my seven dollars in change.
Instead the driver turned around, “No tengo cambio,” (“I don’t have change”) he said sheepishly, likely hoping our shoddy miscommunication would continue and I would leave just the same, overpaying due to my own unpreparedness or confusion. But the ten-dollar-bill was all I had brought for the day, and I knew I’d need a taxi to get home later that evening.
“No tengo cambio?” I muttered under my breath, understanding perfectly and feeling annoyed. “Okay,” I said aloud a few seconds later, using the universal response for acceptance or annoyance. Here I hoped to convey both, as in, “Ok, I hear you, but no way am I paying the gringa special for this $2.78 cab ride.”
I gestured for the man to park the taxi. Once the vehicle stopped, I stepped out onto the curb. Not wanting him to think I was blowing off our contractual agreement where he drives and I pay, I beckoned him to follow me just across the street. We hurried in time to the crosswalk shriek. I was determined and he was utterly confused, literally scratching his head in my wake.
Old storefront canopies sandwiched new elastic ones, with people beckoning out from under their shade: all verbal promotions and flattering names. With forced confidence, I stepped into the panadería I had spotted from the car, and gestured toward the display.
“¿Cual quieres?” (“Which do you want?”) I asked.
He shrugged, then pointed out a chocolate pastry from under the fingerprinted glass. I ordered two. The man at the cash register stole a long glance as he handed them over to us, an unlikely duo. I wrapped one of the treats in a napkin, and passed it to the taxi driver who was just a few paces behind me.
Once the register pushed closed, the cashier placed the change from our pasty purchase into my open palm. Like an erratic mime, I carefully counted out the exact amount I’d read on the taxi meter just a few moments earlier, handing it over to the startled taxi driver, who by now had begun taking careful bites into his bread as he watched me from the corner of his eye. He accepted the change with a smile that reflected back my perceived strangeness.
More awkward smiling filled any gaps in understanding, and now, I too triumphantly bit into my pastry and turned to leave. We stepped back into the sun; I approached my nearby friends and he left shaking his head and chewing.
“Gracias, señorita,” (“Thank you, miss”) he said, polite and chuckling as he returned to his car.
I considered the driver recounting this to his family later, the silly and freckled tourist who stubbornly refused to be taken for a ride. I was a character in this story over dinner: an extranjera with a peculiar set of principles.
More months in Quito perpetuated this incident: in most cases it was the responsibility of the patron to provide accurate change or people just wouldn’t do business.
At first, this was maddening to me.
With time and enough taxi rides, I came to understand that I was the foreigner participating in this different and established culture. When I turned the situation over in my hands, I saw my own privilege glaring up at me. My visa, pasted carefully into my passport, said “hey, stay here for awhile.”
How generous of the school, where I taught fifth grade, to open its community to me. For Quito, to share its classic card game, cuarenta, and allow me unlimited opportunities to taste delicious, fresh guanabana juice for breakfast. What luck I possessed to travel throughout Ecuador by bus and plane, soaking up treasured moments on the coast, in the Amazon, and in the Andean mountaintops.
Travelers like me are gifted with a token of goodwill and welcome, and I was learning my role: to find the very best method of appreciating the gesture. Complaining about cab rides didn’t fit easily into that equation.And anyway, while my two-cents were irrelevant, I had better bring them along to pay the check. If I wanted to benefit from the taxi services, I needed to come equipped to compensate them, or who knows how many pan de chocolates I would gift in stubborn collateral?