Life is Less Stressful When Your Rent is Free

As 2016 drew to a close and family and friends were starting to feel the growing pressure of the holiday season…we hadn’t a care in the world. My husband, Michael, and I were enjoying a stay in a three-bedroom apartment in one of the nicest suburbs in Quito, Ecuador…for free.

The Gonzales Suarez district has a huge selection of restaurants and cafés—with supermarkets and malls just a short walk or taxi ride away. Our exquisitely furnished apartment came with all the mod cons and a stunning view of Quito and the slopes of Volcan Pichincha beyond.

Being away from home at Christmas has its advantages—no shopping, no icy roads to battle, and no big rent bills on top of all that. In fact, thanks to our daily helper Maria, we were feeling even less stress than usual. She served us breakfast, made the bed, did the dishes, the laundry, and cooked lunch (the biggest meal of the day in Ecuador) and cleaned up afterwards. Plus Maria knows how to cook. We enjoyed delicious Ecuadorian specialities and she showed us how to prepare them too. We were well and truly spoiled.

We gained a unique insight into Ecuadorian culture over Christmas and the New Year. In Ecuador, Christmas is widely celebrated. Every home, store, and church sported a Christmas tree and often an elaborate nativity scene. The malls were meticulously decorated, yet surprisingly empty compared to the frenzy that you would see in Canada or the States just a few days before Christmas.

The most popular gifts—judging by the range found in every store—were gift bags or gift baskets. The least inexpensive were gaily tied bags of mixed candies and the more elaborate contained a wide selection of Christmas goodies: cookies, gourmet canned goods, chocolate, and sometimes wine. We resisted buying ourselves a gift basket…but couldn’t resist the roses. The area around Quito is famous for its roses and a beautiful long stemmed bunch could be had for $2 a dozen.

As Maria was off on Christmas day, we had to fend for ourselves. But we were happy, as a turkey and all the fixings (apart from cranberries) were easy to find.

Like most Ecuadorians, we had a quiet Christmas. But New Year’s is an entirely different matter.

Ecuadorians have so many traditions at this time of year that it was hard to keep track. After Christmas, roadside stalls sprang up populated with every cartoon or movie character imaginable. Papier-mache versions of Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Batman, politicians, and the cast of Frozen waited patiently for someone to buy them and take them home. There was also a wide array of masks for people who wanted to make their own effigies.

The tradition known as Los Años Viejos (the Old Years) is a way to cleanse yourself of old griefs or grievances by burning a replica of the cause or adding a symbol of your grief to any effigy that is doomed to a fiery end. Oh, did I mention these are often stuffed with firecrackers?

We witnessed our first burning well before midnight… Workers cheered over an effigy of their boss on the pavement outside their offices. Walking around our neighborhood, we found dozens of effigies ready to burn. Then there were the “Merry Widows.” Young men—dressed in drag—set up roadblocks and stop passing cars for donations, as they are now “widows” (widows of all those burnt effigies). The money collected goes to charity.

Even though we were far from home, we didn’t miss out on social gatherings. We met some of the expats who live in the neighborhood and spent time getting to know them over drinks and nibbles, coffee mornings, and a prime rib dinner on New Year’s Day.

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