Expat Diary: Life in Ecuador During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Donna Stiteler, IL Cuenca Correspondent

I’m from Florida, so I have a master’s in getting prepared for hurricanes and that has taught me well. I’m used to having a stash of canned and dry goods year-round to ease last-minute shopping. In Florida, we fill our bathtubs with drinking water, put up the shutters, stock up on necessities weeks in advance, and wait for the storm to hit. The big difference is the quarantining only lasts a few days, maybe a month if you are a direct hit by a Category 4 or 5, but things will return to normal for most people quickly.

This is different. Who can totally prepare for an indefinite ‘hunker down’? So I am learning a new skill—preparing for the long term. And things are going pretty well.

What’s Daily Life Like at the Moment?

Cuenca, the city I live in, is located in the Andes and has a population of 700,000 with a concentration of 450,000 people in the city center. I’m proud of our President Moreno as he reacted early and instituted a total quarantine on the country starting on March 17 before cases got out of hand. There are no flights in or out of Ecuador at this time. The few people who were traveling in Ecuador are slowly leaving. We are shut down.

You can still go out to get groceries, medicines, and walk outside if you have a dog during the day. Since this was announced, I’ve had several people ask me if they can walk my dogs, so in some ways this has worked for me. Moreno has since tightened the restrictions to total lockdown (no errands) from 2 p.m. to 5 a.m.

They are thinking about restricting alcohol sales but other than that, because we are a sustainable country, we aren’t afraid of running out of basics—veggies and fruits are plentiful at the major grocery stores and tiendas, as well as dry goods.

For me, I miss my weekly canasta games with the girls, Spanish lessons (not really), Friday hikes, and Saturday walks with my friend Sandy. I also have my friend Ivan, who still comes over twice a week and brings fresh produce, which I cook for us in return.

On a stranger note, a friend of mine came to visit for a few weeks one day prior to the quarantine so now I have an unexpected guest staying with me indefinitely. We have divided up the house into floors (he gets the first floor and I get the second floor) to keep us from killing each other. He’s 10 years younger than me and can run shopping errands without restrictions.  So again, it works.

How are you Passing the Time?

With four dogs, one cat, an unexpected roommate, and my unofficial pet walker’s twice-weekly visits, I keep busy cooking plant-based foods and cleaning up the house. I write the balance of the time or watch television.

My friends and family are sharing how they pass the time via Facebook or Gmail, most of which are entertaining ideas—like a drinking game involving puzzles. My sister Laura, who is in Florida, picks shows for us to watch together and we compare notes the next day via Messenger.  We’ve watched Grey Gardens (our future) and Little Fires recently.

There are special hours for the elderly (how dare they call me that) for shopping but I am sending my younger guys out to forage for food. People are not cleaning out the stock and there are few shortages. But again, we are sustainable. When you grow organic foods in your yard, you don’t have as many worries about running out of food.

I’m a bit of a hermit, so mostly life is not that different for me.  No one I know has gotten the virus, and my house sits 25 feet above the street level.

I sunbathe on the front porch with the dogs to make sure I get Vitamin D. I’m also watching lots of old movies and have Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, as well as an internet service with more than 1,000 channels.

I’m taking long naps, which I’ve never done before and hope to Rip Van Winkle myself out of this crisis.

Border Crossings Closed

According to my friends at CuencaHighLife, “The Azuay Province Emergency Operations Committee (COE) has closed all border crossings into the province to private cars, passenger vans, and light trucks without safe-conduct permits. That traffic will be reduced even further, to vehicles carrying essential supplies to Cuenca and other cities.”

The indigenous have closed off many entry points to cities across Ecuador the old fashion way— they place trees across the road to prevent cars from getting into their towns. It works.

Possible Water Restrictions

The possibility of water restrictions for Cuenca customers has been discussed. Public utility ETAPA said it has not made a final decision but that a recent increase in water usage of 25% per household and lack of rain has prompted the consideration. They think the increased water usage is due to people washing their hands more.

Is Public Transport Still Running?

There’s little traffic on the street but some taxis are running.  Everyone is requested to wear a mask now and they comply. You can get out in the sun on the river trails if you practice social distancing.  You have to carry your original cedula or passport and prove you are going on an ‘approved’ errand.

Buses recently stopped running.  Cars aren’t allowed out unless there is a valid reason and the cars are staggered to travel on separate days depending on the license plate number. The police are strict on enforcing these rules but there’s no strong-arming. Everyone complies.

Is Ecuador Prepared for the Virus?

Cuenca is relatively well prepared, and the hospitals are not overwhelmed. However, the regional Ministry of Health office said that COVID-19 patients from Guayas Province could be transferred to Cuenca if hospital space in Guayaquil is exhausted. The country is working in concert but there is some concern as Cuenca has been relatively low in cases.

How are you Preparing for the Future?

The good news is my healthy cooking skills have improved dramatically. But I will be happy when things return to normal. I will still be able to order in from my favorite restaurants and the uptake in new restaurants delivering has increased home deliveries, which I assume will continue after the crisis. Online deliveries from grocery stores have also been a plus which I will take advantage as well in the future.

I also have found I like living alone, so it will be nice to get my house back to myself. But I will say I’ve enjoyed the company of the guys helping me and will miss their help and their interesting chatter.

I’m proud of the generosity of the Ecuadorian people and their tranquillo lifestyle. They are kind and quick to help. Their faith helps them believe this too will pass, and by example, they show everyone that kindness is the best medicine.

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