The first time I walked into my new host family’s house at site, I was overwhelmed by how fancy it was.
Layers of curtains! Matched sectionals! Crown molding! Dazzled by the spaciousness after living in an apartment in Quito, it was several days before I noticed the bare hanging bulbs and exposed wiring above me — and the fact that the electric water heater attachment in the shower didn’t always work.
For Americans, houses in Ecuador have a confusing mix of socioeconomic signals. Almost everyone has a fence around their yard, parking space or entry, but they run the gamut from ornate wrought-iron worthy of a gated community to poured concrete topped with cacti or barbed wire. And the exterior in no way reflects what’s inside.
A family I know in Quito lives behind an plain eight-foot brick wall with sharpened knives of glass embedded in the top. But their yard is spacious, and their house even more so, with plush armchairs, gold-framed mirrors, an enormous dining room table — and the ubiquitous bare bulbs. My own apartment features built-in bookshelves…and gently sloped walls that tilt away from my bed. The living room has hardwood floor, while the kitchen floor is partly painted cement, pitted with holes and slanting in different directions depending on where you’re standing. Of course, I live in a colonial-era hacienda, with an interior courtyard and outdoor bathroom. Some anomalies are to be expected.
But my living situation is, for a Peace Corps volunteer, pretty fancy. Relatively few bugs get in compared to the open-air homes some coastal PCVs live in, although the wind coming through the un-insulated walls and gaps between the doors and frames can be discouraging. My walls are whitewashed, though a few chunks came off in the last earthquake. And I have plenty of space.
It’s partly a matter of culture: my landlady finds it confusing that I would rather not put curtains over my windows (natural lighting!) and her son finds my decorating choices (mostly snapshots of places I’ve visited) questionable, at best. But it’s also about availability. Light fixtures, from floor lamps to any kind of hanging options, are difficult to find, and a single bulb directly overhead is shockingly bright, if not particularly effective. Water heating, outside of hotels and very expensive housing developments, is limited to shower head attachments. When I wash my dishes, I either have to heat a pot of water on the stove or only run the tap in five minute bursts, before my hands start to hurt too much.
There are bigger interior design fish to fry; with uninsulated walls, homes tend to accumulate a discouraging amount of dirt and dust in a week, so there’s always sweeping to be done — and mats and rugs are widely available. Mirrors are expensive, but with so many earthquakes (I’ve felt seven since I arrived a little over a year ago) it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hang anything fragile on the walls anyway.
Space is expensive, too. My three-room apartment is significantly discounted because my landlords know Peace Corps. In my small town, I found a lot of single rooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen, no windows, and no lock on the door for $80, or else a four- or five-room apartment meant for a family for $250. Ecuadorians typically live with their families until they marry, so having all this space to myself and the freedom to decorate it however I want is luxurious, by Ecuadorian and Peace Corps standards.
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.