At some point, you may have been lead to believe that soccer is the national pastime of South America. I can’t speak for the rest of the continent, but here in Ecuador the pastime, without a doubt, is food related: buying, cooking, eating, and discussing the resulting weight gain among loved-ones. In contrast to the US where, with the exception of important holidays, food is something of a nuisance and a distraction from more important business, like playing or working. At home in Colorado, I have eaten many a Little Juan burrito because that’s all I had time for. Here when I skip lunch, Lilia, sister #1, will tell me, “Taz, taz!” like the warning that a child is about to be spanked… She has also pinched me.
Since food plays a central role in relationships, it makes sense that care would be expressed in observations of each others’ waistlines, and how chins are growing or shrinking. Right now I am “hecho hueso”, or “thin as a bone”, but not a “calavera” or “skeleton”, because that would actually be an insult. I have the same chubby parts I’ve always had, but I’ve been gone for a week on a tech exchange and I missed lunch with my family a couple days after I got back. Last year I thought these observations about my body fat percentage would drive me mad, not realizing the comments were directly proportionate to the time I’d been away. My family would really like to see me content in Ecuador and gaining weight would be proof of that.
Lunch is the hub of the day in terms of family gathering. It is also the biggest meal. My sister gets up at 5AM to prepare lunch for five of us before going to work: soup, salad, chicken, and rice. This isn’t soup from a can; the soup usually requires shelling and soaking beans before cooking them. In exchange, I buy food, wash the dishes and help clean the kitchen. I suggested that we make meals to freeze and reheat for lunch during the week so that she can sleep longer, but she thinks the family wouldn’t like reheated food. It’s probably better that I fail in my attempt to export fast-food culture.
Besides lunch, coffee at 4PM and merienda at 8PM are times when a rotation of family will come to eat and visit. Since it’s a big family, everyone can’t be there at once. But, those who eat lunch elsewhere will come for an egg and rice for dinner, or a cup of black tea with lemon.
This Friday we, three sisters and a niece, went to the market to buy fruits and vegetables. The purpose of going as a group is not to avoid three separate car trips to the market, but to do the shopping together. It might take longer: waiting for people to arrive, dropping people back off at home. Accepting this ‘inefficiency’ is a shift away from the ‘time is money’ reasoning that has governed my life. Here, time is not about money. Few Ecuadorians would eat a frozen burrito, alone, while standing up and working through lunch. It’s not logical to do that when the time to eat and prepare food is central to maintaining relationships, not a distraction from productivity.
After 19 months in Ecuador, this perspective of time is more logical, and less frustrating. I still have a few months to hone my eating and hanging out skills before I have to figure out how to export this pastime back to the US.