All Aboard the Big, Blue Bus: A Comedy of Errors and Aging in the Andes


Here in Ecuador, at least in my mountain town, public transit is a great equalizer, bringing together generations and social classes, Ecuadorians and ex-pats, alike. The buses of Cuenca connect, not only neighborhoods, not only people and places, but entire populations, as well—uniting them on a common journey, if only for a few minutes each day.

Most folks in Cuenca, rich or poor, young or old, ride the big blue buses that pass along streets, large and small, every five minutes or so.

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No need to worry about missing one.  Another will be along shortly.  And the ride will cost you 25 cents, a whole 12 cents, if you’re a senior.

Though it may not be as important to the culture as the subway is to New York City, Cuenca’s system of public transportation far surpasses what’s available in Little Rock, Arkansas or Lexington, Kentucky—and the city will soon have light rail service, as well—within the next two years, if not sooner.

But Sara and I have been riding buses here in Ecuador for six weeks now.

And so far, we make-believe we know our way around.  We’ve purchased maps and transit passes.

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(Of the passes, we’re especially proud—proud as any gringo-lesbians stumbling south of zero latitude can be—emphasis here on “stumbling.”)

So last week Sara and I boarded yet another bus, Mercedes Benz brand, making our way from downtown Cuenca to Totoracocha, where we now live—a mere 15 minute ride, even in heavy, el Centro traffic.

But on this day, the bus was bulging.

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Heavily sweatered women crowded the aisles—babies and other bundles strapped to their backs in blankets that wrap around one shoulder and knot at the neck.

In Haiti, excess baggage in balanced on the head.

I took this photo while we were living in Port-au-Prince.  (All other images in this post are compliments of Sara.)

I took this photo while we were living in Port-au-Prince. (All other images in this post are compliments of Sara.)

In Ecuador, it’s bundled on the back.

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But no matter where we live, I’m not known for my balance, so standing on a bus that bumps along cobblestone streets, means a fall, or at least a stumble, is almost inevitable.

So as we struggled aboard, Sara croned at me above the roar and rumble of diesel engines, motioning to the only square inch of empty plastic. “Grab that seat.”

“I don’t want to climb over the pregnant woman!”  I hissed, almost beneath my breath.   The aisle seat was occupied, a bulging belly blocking access to the window one.

But, apparently, two, blue-uniformed seventh graders heard (and understood) what I’d said, as those girls stood, pushed their smiles into the aisle, and motioned for us to take their seats.

Not only am I too old to be pregnant, but apparently I shout broken-hip-waiting-to-happen.

“Muchas gracias,” I muttered—in equally broken Spanish—grateful for braided tweens and a respect for geriatric ineptitude rarely witnessed in North America.

Would that happen in your home town?  What cultural differences have you noticed between young people in North America and those in some other part of the world?  How do you feel about getting older?

95 thoughts on “All Aboard the Big, Blue Bus: A Comedy of Errors and Aging in the Andes

    • Hey, that’s a great idea! Surely they have an expression like that here!

      Hope you are doing okay, Emily. I was so sorry to hear about your dad. I know what that loss feels like, I’m afraid. Hugs to you, my friend.

      Are you back on this side of the planet permanently now, or are you back in Japan? When do you make the move to Montreal, and will you continue to blog?

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  1. Yes, that would happen here in the Midwest. That’s something I love about living here = people are kind and usually very considerate.

    Getting older this week, I turn 50 on Friday. How do I feel? a mix of delight and annoyance. Delight b/c it’s my birthday and we’ll celebrate, annoyance that things hurt when there’s no visible reason for them to 🙂

    Bests!
    MJ

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    • Oh, MJ, I turned 50 last year, and, to be honest, I don’t feel one bit different than I did. So enjoy the celebration and don’t worry over the coming decade. Things will only get better.

      I totally believe folks would give up their seat in your part of the US! I’m so happy to hear from you!

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  2. I was just thinking about you and wondering how things were going on you adventure. I’m glad you are back to blogging. While I don’t take public transit very often, I have noticed that almost everyone is rude nowadays. It’s sad.

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    • Yes, there is a good bit of rudeness, but I’m beginning to wonder if that has something to do with where you live. I’ve not encountered any of that here. Maybe it has something to do with how we’re conditioned socially.

      I’m delighted to hear from you, Lisa. Yes, I’m trying to settle down and write again. Not easy–and pretty much impossible until now. We have finally moved into a long-term rental and furniture arrived over the weekend. I’m hoping that helps! Hugs to you and your family from Sara and me! Hope you’re going to come visit!

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  3. I was picturing this so easily thanks to your fantastic ability. I’m so glad you are settling and writing!!!!!! Working in adult protective services I see all kinds of differences in the treatment of the aging. From horrific to honorable. Personally I am planning on redefining getting older. 😉

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  4. Thanks so much for including photos! You will only understand or get acculturated by riding the bus in places like where you are. That’s where the life is.

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    • SO true! We’ve worked at living the way Ecuadorians live. We’re renting in an Ecuadorian neighborhood–not the part of town where most ex-pats live. We want to experience Ecuador–not some mutation of America south of the equator.

      Great to hear from you today! Hope your week is going well!

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  5. I felt like I was right on that bumpy, crowded bus with you! Great descriptions, Kathryn! I have been anxiously waiting to hear how you’re both doing…and it sounds good, certainly like you are learning to get around, and that’s wonderful, heartening news. Thank you!

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    • Oh, Cindy, thanks for your comment. It’s wonderful to hear from you this morning. Glad also to know that the description worked for you–that news helps make my day! As you might have guessed, we absolutely love it here and are, indeed, learning our way around. Have a beautiful day, my friend!

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    • It really was wonderful to experience someone truly wanting me to have their seat. Yes, it made me realize that I’m getting older, but, goodness, I love living in a place where folks do that. I’ve seen it happen more than once. Glad you enjoyed the broken hip comment! LOL And so, so glad you grinned!

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  6. I still relish getting older and wiser because I don’t to be younger and dumber. Then again, that also means I must accept the disadvantages.

    A couple for you …. how’s bridging the language barrier going?

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    • Glad you enjoyed the over-all transportation metaphor. You’re the first person to comment on that. I know I can always count on you for insight, Laurel! You never, ever disappoint, my friend. Hope you are doing okay. How are you feeling?

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      • Ooo, thanks for the “insight” comment! >:-D

        I’ve improved remarkably compared to, say, early May. Evening out and calming back to being Me. Brain fog lifting even more. Thank you so much for asking, Kathy.

        Taking steps to set up an Etsy site to sell prints of the latest artwork. !!

        So happy to see you back in the ‘sphere. Moving house is horrible, but moving house, country, AND hemisphere?? Gimmee the drugs, man! <:-D

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      • Yes, I suppose that is quite a bit, isn’t it? And getting married, as well! I’d happy to hear you’re feeling better–and thrilled that you are setting up an etsy site. Please let me know as soon as it’s operational.

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      • oh yeah, forgot about the life-changer of getting married! (see above for gimme drugs, etc.!)

        I will let you know about the Etsy site, Kathy. Just came back from talking to a print shop guy. Oh boy, I think this might happen!

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  7. So happy to get an update from “south of the equator”!
    Since I ride the subway every day, I forget what a novelty it is for people who are used to a car culture. (When my mom is on the subway here, she can’t help but stare at everyone. A definite no-no in NYC!) 🙂
    I bet you’ll find that public transportation is a great source for writing material. It’s all research. 🙂

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    • I actually thought about you when I was writing this post and the fact that you had written about subway culture, in effect. You’re right. Taking public transport is one of the best ways to glean writing material.

      How are you and Reggie doing, my friend? We can’t wait for you to come visit!

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    • Thanks, Charlie. I’m tickled to death to hear from you. I’ve missed your poems, as well. I’m hoping to do better with keeping up. I used to be so faithful to so many blogs. I’m looking forward to resuming my reading and commenting, as well!

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  8. Great to see you, Kathy!!

    The hardest thing about any Latin-based culture, for me, would be the close proximity. I know it’s the same in big cities, but South American cities I’ve visited do have a smaller zone of getting close.

    I hope to live where I do not need a car someday. Charleston sucks with public transit.

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    • Great to hear from you, too, Andra! I’ve missed being away from the blogosphere, but then again, I’ve had a whole new world to adjust to.

      I know what you mean about proximity. It was an even bigger issue for me in Asia, to be honest. Maybe living in Vietnam helped me adjust a bit. I remember coming back to the US from Hanoi and feeling so weird when I went into a grocery store and other people with carts weren’t invading my space. Glad you pointed that out. It’s an issue I may need to write more about!

      Hope you are doing well. I don’t think many southern cities in the US have terrific public transportation–or maybe that’s an over-generalization. I don’t know.

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  9. I don’t know…I used to ride the bus to and from work in downtown Portland years ago, and nobody ever gave up their seat for me.

    LOL. I kid, I kid. Glad you two are making the adjustment and getting to know the big blue buses!

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    • Great to hear from you, Mark. I don’t even know how many people ride buses in the US these days. I suppose no one gave up their seat for you cause you pushed them out of it first. LOL–I kid, as well. Take care and hugs to you and Tara.

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  10. Oh, how I’ve missed reading your writing! So glad to hear that you are both doing so well bus hopping through Ecuador. I think the rudeness of folks is a growing epidemic, one I’m glad to say my kids are being pointedly raised to avoid. Just the other day we went to the Circle K to get milk. I sent Jimmy in because I was having sciatica issues. While he was inside I watched as customer after customer ignored the homeless man right outside the door as if he was no more than window dressing. I had no change in my purse and was going to tell Jimmy to give the poor man the change from our milk money. Jimmy came back out with our milk and handed the change (the better half of a ten dollar bill) to the homeless man saying, “You need this more than we do.” I broke down crying. There are people out there with more compassion than the rude masses. We just have to cultivate them better.

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    • So glad we got to talk this morning. I’ve missed you. I love that Jimmy gave the money to the homeless man. Thank God you and Jim are raising your boys to be compassionate. I don’t know that enough folks are these days. Hugs to you, my dear!

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  11. You’re still nimble enough to manage a huge move and adjusting to different cultures! There are days when people have been amazingly willing to give up the seat. There have also been times when I’ve had to essentially kick people out of handicapped seating so that Orion can be accommodated. (you 4 teenagers really don’t need the wheelchair companion seats and we do!) I’m always grateful when people are accommodating and I try to do the same when I’m able. What goes around comes around.

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    • Yes, indeed! We get what we give. I suppose it really is tough when you have a child whose handicapped and you REALLY must have the seat. That’s got to be an entirely different situation. Hard to imagine that folks wouldn’t be willing to move in an instance like that! Sad. So sad. Great to hear from you, Lisa! Hugs to you, my dear!

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  12. Hi Kathy,
    I’ve been eager to hear about you to and reading about your bus adventures is such a treat. I don’t ride buses.There are none where I live so I don’t know if common courtesy has diminished or not. I do recall what riding them was like in big Canadian cities and in Mexico and my experiences were positive ones.
    It’s so good to hear from you.
    Be well and happy

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    • Great to hear from you, as well! Interesting that you have no buses. I’m trying to decide if that’s better than bus routes that are poorly planned. Glad you have had good experiences, however. Hope your week is going well!

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  13. i’m not surprised that you’re enjoying your new life here in ecuador! great story, and yes, ecuadorians are often very kind and courteous. i’m glad that the school girls were so thoughtful – it warms one’s heart to witness unselfish behavior, especially in the younger generation.

    all’s going well in quito, though it’s still hard to catch up on WP! tis a nice problem to have!

    z

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    • Yes, it is a good problem, isn’t it?! Looks like you are doing some lovely work up there. Can’t wait to see more.

      And, yes, we LOVE it! Absolutely LOVE it!

      Get some rest, dear Lisa, and keep up the stunning work!

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  14. I told my dearly beloved I wanted to go to Ecuador for my birthday in September but he was having none of it. He couldn’t find golf. Woe is me.

    You are a delight! I am so happy to see you have settled in, bus passes and all. Your story makes me even more inclined to find some place new and wonderful to retire to, some place with sweet young people who remember their manners and generational deference.

    Buses? Public Transportation? What is that? Does that answer your question about where I live, I think if our town had their way they would even do away with school buses.

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    • Oh, Val, I’m so sorry your husband vetoed the idea. I will have to find out what the golfing situation is here. If I find information other than he did, I will let you know.

      I’m delighted to hear from you! There are plenty of sweet young people in Latin America, I’m sure. I don’t think my experience is unique. Take care, my friend, and have a wonderful week!

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    • Thanks so much for stopping by! It’s great to hear from you. So many folks drive where I lived last in the US, as well. Maybe that’s how the systems get away with poor service. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Thanks for pinning my post. I have a Pinterest page, but rarely have time to look at it. Thanks for the reminder. I need to stop by again. Hope to see you again soon. Thanks again!

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  15. “Proud as any gringo-lesbians stumbling south of zero latitude can be” ha, ha! You actually made me laugh out loud. I have never lived in a city where we had decent mass transit and even if we had my previous job required me to have a car. However, on the occasions I’ve had to use it, I’ve liked it but I don’t know if I could give up my car altogether. I mean I can’t “sing” along to a song at the top of my lungs on a bus. I’d be killed to spare my fellow passengers. And where would I store Brian’s Christmas present so he wouldn’t find it? And I simply cannot imagine taking my cat to the vet via light rail. So I guess being “stuck” with my car works out ok for me.

    I love exploring your new home vicariously! Please, please keep the stories coming.

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    • I’m so happy you enjoy the vicarious exploration! You point out great reasons for keeping a car. I don’t think we could live in most parts of the US without one either. And then you raise the issue of pet transport–that’s a good one, as well. Here in Ecuador, however, vets make house calls, and folks take, at least their dogs, on the bus with them. I suppose both of those topics deserve to be written about, as well. Hope your week is going well, Nora–and keep singing! I’d deafen (or terrify) folks if I sang on the bus here. LOL

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  16. Glad that you are finding your way around your new city. I think that public transport is a great way to travel and see how the natives really live. But soon, you two will be ‘natives’ too. 🙂

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    • I’m so happy to hear from you! And I had no idea that our move has inspired you in any way. How cool. I feel honored. At any rate, good luck with selling your NZ home, and come visit us in Ecuador, if you like.

      Oh, if only I could speak like a “native.” My Spanish need SO much work, but we DO enjoy riding the bus! Take care, my friend!

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  17. Kathy, I love how you’re really immersing yourself in the culture. You can’t beat the price of a bus ticket, after all, and how nice those girls gave up their seat for an old broad like you! 😉

    Keep it up and you’ll be fluent in Spanish in no time! Do you know yet how long you plan on staying there? Oh and as for me, I hate getting old. I live in constant shock of it, particularly when I look in the mirror.

    So glad to have you back!

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    • Gosh, Monica, I notice it when I look in the mirror, as well! Lordy! Good thing my eye sight isn’t what it used to be!

      We plan on being here indefinitely. Sara is in language school, and I’m trying to get back to my memoir.

      Just saw that you alluded to my “Barbie” post in your most recent one. Will check it out asap. Thanks for the shout-out. Hugs to you, dear Monica!

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    • Hmmmm–when you clicked “like,” your name came up as “askimet . . . ” I forget what. I’ll check the email.

      At any rate, it’s so wonderful to hear from you! You may not have been getting my emails, however, because I haven’t been writing/posting–just too busy moving into our new house here in Ecuador, trying to get settled, etc. Hugs to you, my dear!!!!!

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  18. As you guys know, if I can’t get there by subway or on occasion, bus, I’d rather not go. But yes, even though I loathe air travel, I did recently ride a plane to visit my family out west. Back to you, is there something you can do to improve your balance, like hold Sara’s Spanish for Dummies book on your head as you prepare dinner?

    The subway here is always jam packed at rush hour. This morning I was wedged in-between a student’s back pack and a woman’s purse that was a little smaller than the duffel bag I carried for my week-long getaway. I think she was packing an umbrella and a bottle of water. As for English-comprehendng tweens giving you their seats, that was considerate. I’d have a tantric-sex level orgasm if anyone under 30 standing around me would lower the sound on their iPod to reduce the headphone leaking.

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    • OMG–“tantric”–now that’s a word I don’t here all the time! That’s quite the orgasm, my dear! LOL You ALWAYS make me laugh! And the bit about balance–I’ll have to tell Sara about your reference to “Spanish for Dummies!” The only problem is that Sara does the cooking. Suppose I could balance WHILE she prepares dinner!

      So glad you made it out to California and back safely–and on a plane! You are BRAVE! Take care, dear LA! We miss you and hope you’ll come visit one of these decades–though a plane might be involved. How to you feel about boats?

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      • Boats?!? Neither Milton nor I can swim. Milton is so scared of water, he won’t even eat fish. The one time we went to the beach, three years ago, he somehow managed to fall into the ocean. When he suddenly disappeared, I couldn’t figure out what had happened until I looked down. That explains the big splash I felt.

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      • I think you’re sunk then. If boats aren’t an option, you could get here by car (or bus) but it’s a damn long trip. You’ll have to fly or stay home. Fortunately (for you, not me), we have no beaches in Cuenca, but we do have rivers that are more like creeks–rocky, fast flowing water. Whatever the case, should you come, both you and Milton will be sure to make a splash!

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  19. I’m seriously impressed by the girls’ display of respect and generosity. I don’t get very far from my own hometown, much less outside the country. I would say the chances of me witnessing something similar to your experience are slim to none.

    So happy to see you back in blogland and writing again! Welcome back, Kathy! (Hugs!)

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    • I thought the girls were quite generous and respectful, as well. I don’t think I’d have witnessed such behavior in my home town either. And I’ve seen this happen more than once to older folks who get on the bus, young folks offer their seats.

      Thanks for the welcome, Terri! It’s so good to hear from you! Hugs to you, too!

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  20. Great story and so nice to know that there is still politeness in the world! I always try to look for those opportunities but alas at times I admit I am distracted and miss the obvious. So glad you and Sara are learning the lingo and navigating all over the place. No doubt your adventures will have lasting effect on those around you and on yourselves! Keep blogging and telling us about it!

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    • I’m so happy to hear from you this morning. I was up in the night looking at and chuckling over some of your Facebook posts. You always share great stuff–as you do on your blog, as well.

      Speaking of which (Teapot Tuesday)–I’m looking for a teapot here, and they are not easy to come by. And forget about finding a tea cozy! I found one pot I think I like, but there’s little choice, and they’re expensive.

      I will certainly keep blogging. I simply need to make myself. I seem to have so little time these days–which is a good thing, I guess.

      Hope you have a lovely weekend, my friend. Hugs to you!

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  21. Wonderful story, Kathy. 🙂 As someone with a driving phobia, I envy anyone who has a good public transportation system they can rely on. I’m not sure how I feel about getting older. Some days I feel like I’m the same as I ever was. Other days, I feel OLD. But young or old, I am always clumsy so falling on a bus is something I’d be concerned about too. Glad the girls helped you out.

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    • I’m so happy to hear from you, Robin. We have a lot in common–both are clumsy, both don’t like to drive, both don’t like heat. I don’t know how I feel about aging either, but when I look in the mirror sometimes it shocks me. Hope you all had a wonderful–and COOLER–weekend!

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  22. We do not have public transportation in my little neck of the woods but, I was happy to see chivalry is alive and well in New Orleans; a young man actually got up and offered me his seat. No doubt he was worried I might land on him.

    Ageing well is what you make of it, just wait until you hit sixty, LOL

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    • LOL! That’s so funny–generosity born of fear–fear of falling, aging women! But wait a minute, you’re not sixty, are you? I know I can only see a small photo of you, but you don’t look it, Marcia. At any rate, it’s wonderful to get your comment this morning. Sorry it has taken me so long to get to it!

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  23. So glad that you were given a seat. No, that doesn’t seem to happen much in modern-day USA, does it? Although it does happen sometimes. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get over to read your latest update. Really enjoyed this. It actually reminded me of a time our family took a bus ride around Toronto and the driver had to slam on the brakes and my mother slid to the floor. Fortunately, there were kind folks there to help her back to her seat. Looking forward to reading more of your adventures!

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    • Goodness, no need to apologize! I’ve been absent from your neck of the woods, as well. Summer is a busy time.

      So glad to hear that folks helped your mom off of the floor. And congrats on having your kids visit! Hope you all had a wonderful weekend!

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  24. It’s good to see you back. What an experience. It’s nice to know the people are kind there. I hate it when I witness young men or women grabbing seats or remaining in them when the elderly are standing. (Not that you’re elderly by any means.) I don’t know whether manners are a cultural thing, or geographic. Sometimes it seems like the more crowded, busier, higher tech places result in lower interpersonal standards. That’s just been my experience. Sometimes it makes me worry where the human population is headed.

    In any case, glad to see you safe and sound in Ecuador.

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  25. So nice of you to take us with you on the bus. One doesn’t often hear of teenagers who “notice” that there are older folks standing in the bus or subway. Gives me confidence in the future of the world!
    I was interested to learn that Ecuadorians carry their stuff on their backs. Women in Southern Africa carry their babies on their backs, and everything else on their heads.

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    • I’m so happy to hear from you, Rosie! I, too, have been surprised by the thoughtfulness of kids here in Ecuador. In fact, I’ve been stunned by them–in a very wonderful way. And, like you, I’m curious as to why some cultures carry things on their heads and others on there backs. Hope you’re having a great weekend, my friend.

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  26. Well, you know, less younger folk offering seat for elderly with cane.

    Well I am older just haven’t turned enough white hair yet. I love your phrase respect for “geriatric ineptitude”.

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    • I apologize that I’ve been so long in responding your comment. It has been a busy month–well, a busy 8 months, actually. So happy you like that phrase–geriatric ineptitude. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting there way too early! LOL Hope you are well.

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  27. I never realized how common it is for me to see people give up bus seats to those who really need them until I visited the Czech Republic and everyone was left to fend for themselves… even super old ladies with walkers or canes! Happy to hear that the people in Ecuador are courteous enough to prevent you from breaking a hip. 🙂

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    • And the interesting thing is that I’ve since seen the same thing happen to other people–a number of times. I guess there is more respect here for older folks. I don’t know. Kids seem more well-behaved here, as well!

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