Between snapping photos of the scene, I eavesdropped on a congenial conversation between the driver and my boyfriend, Daniel, a native Ecuadorian. Held up in the Francisco de Orellana district, the driver started to complain about overpopulation and traffic congestion. He seemed to be on the verge of an irate-cabbie rant when I asked his name and braced for a golden quote to land on my notepad.
Alas, taxista Marcelo Aguirre didn’t have one gripe about the capital city of Ecuador or Ecuador, for that matter. He praised the country’s improved services for the poor, the decrease in unemployment, and Quito’s new subway system, which is under construction and scheduled to be up and running in 2016.
As an American living with a different sort of gridlock, I wasn’t used to positive talk about the government — especially from taxi drivers — but optimism became a recurring theme during my first visit to Ecuador this past May. Over and over again, middle-class Ecuadorians were surprisingly upbeat, and as Marcelo indicated, the working poor are seeing improvements as well.
The nation that gained independence from Spain in 1830 and has been honored by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site” gets its name from “equator” in Spanish. The equator divides the country unequally, putting most of Ecuador in the Southern Hemisphere.
“It may be the smallest Andean country, but it has four distinct and contrasting regions,” National Geographic’s fact sheet says: the Costa, or coastal plain, where bananas grow (Ecuador is the world’s largest provider); the Sierra, or Andean uplands; the Oriente, jungles east of the Andes that are rich in oil; and the anthropologically fascinating Galapagos Islands.
Throughout history, Ecuador has dealt with one corrupted dictatorship after another, reaching an economic meltdown in the 1980s that led to a U.S. buyout of its currency. In fact, the country still uses the U.S. dollar, one of its many interesting contradictions considering President Rafael Correa’s criticism of American foreign policy.
Since its low point in the ’80s, Ecuador has been rebuilding. It is now an internationally, socially conscious nation, where human rights aren’t just relegated to memes about Edward Snowden or Julian Assange on Facebook. Citizens get first-class treatment in medical facilities, which are subsidized by the government, and enjoy a number of other services, from low-cost auto insurance to cheap gas to scholarships for high school grads to study IT abroad. Visit Ecuador and you’ll get a sense of why the WikiLeaks founder sought asylum in the republic’s London embassy.
That said, the country has a long way to go. Crime is always on its citzens' minds. Homes are protected by security walls, sometimes topped with tacked-on broken glass if more high-tech protection is too costly. There's a pervasive paranoia of muggings, and most major stores enforce strict bag check-ins.
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