“Everyone and I mean everyone, here breaks the law. It’s our culture” —Ecuadorian banker as quoted by an expat
Let’s talk about something as simple as crossing the street. You might not expect that crossing the street will come as a culture shock, but you would be wrong.
North Americans take for granted that pedestrians have the right of way.
The level of pedestrian entitlement can vary by region; it is uncommonly high in Seattle, but all walkers assume that, given sufficient warning, cars will stop to allow the said walker to cross the street.
In exchange for this assurance, North American walkers can be trusted to wait patiently for the green walk light, even if there is no car in sight.
This is a general societal agreement. It makes for order, consistently realized expectations and a level of safety.
Cars Reign Supreme
Not so here in Cuenca.
In Cuenca and presumably in all of Ecuador, pedestrians do not have the right of way. Cars get first rite of passage, and they take it – aggressively accelerating to make a point and honking if the driver feels imposed upon by the presence of a human body scurrying across the street.
Instead of an orderly progression of turn-taking orchestrated by a system of fully functioning traffic lights, like in North America, the street crossing is more like a game of dodgeball.
Oh, Yeah, Traffic Lights
Here, though there are traffic lights, pedestrians are not bound to observe them. People cross wherever and whenever they choose.
If there is an opening, “go-for-it” is the culture, if not the law. Some, mostly the young with their admirable sense of infinite immortality, scurry across in front of oncoming cars in a risky test of timing. Mothers drag toddlers into the road with, in my opinion, more faith than sense.
When heavy traffic forces the cars to stop, like lemmings, we walkers make our way across the street by leaking between the momentarily stopped cars, moving quickly as we inhale exhaust.
This is how it is. Personally, I can’t fully adapt. I manage, but I often find myself waiting for the light long after the locals have dispersed.
When the light finally turns green, there I am standing with a bent old man leaning on a walking stick and a tiny, traditional woman pushing a heavily laden food cart.
Nanny or Nice?
I’ve been told North America is a nanny state. All that passively waiting for a green light is indoctrination. I’ve also heard visitors to America exclaim in sincere admiration that traffic in the United States is “so orderly.”
I can’t judge the rightness or wrongness of international street crossing culture. If I could, or worse, if I thought I should judge, every walk to the store would be an emotional roller coaster. That would be beside the very real test of survival that it already is.
So, I don’t judge. I stand at the corner taking in the sites, breathing the fumes and reminding myself that this is just another way of doing it. Crossing the street in Ecuador is just another shocking cultural experience; I remind myself, that is why I came.
Have you had any adventures—or misadventures—crossing the streets in your chosen country? Share your experiences with us.
by: Dana Dwyer