Posts Notes Resume

FFF23: Ecuador

22 Mar 2023

I’ve been calling this year my “Footloose And Fancy Free 2023”, or FFF23.1 The first chunk of the year, I’m traveling to a handful of countries with mountains I want to see. I’m not going to write travel blog-esque posts as I do this since there are a lot of those, but instead will write about things I notice in each country that interest me.2

First up was Ecuador with my sister for 12 days. We went to (or near) Otavalo, Quito, Quilotoa, Baños, and Riobamba. Here are two interesting things I noticed.

Cinder Blocks And Concrete

I’ve heard that the US is unique in its heavy use of wood for construction, but I underestimated how extreme it can swing the other way! Almost everything is built with cinderblocks, concrete, and steel in Ecuador. Out in the country in particular, it seemed like having a stockpile of cinderblocks at the end of one’s drive way was common (or, these were local small cinder block sellers?).

Houses, sheds, power poles, privacy fences, and almost anything you can think of was made of cinderblocks and concrete.

This wasn’t the part that interested me, though. What interested me was the finish on mortar used in cinderblock construction. In the US, I’ve always seen brick or cinderblock mortar finished with a brick jointer that leaves a smooth and concave joint.

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I’m not sure I saw this finish done on any of the block work in Ecuador (both in cities, and in the country). Instead, the mortar was left as placed and often protruding. It got me thinking about the why of either case.

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My first thought was that paint seemed less common as a finish in Ecuador - instead they put a full plaster / mortar layer. In that case, maybe having protruding joint mortar provides a feature for the finish layer to grab onto. But, in a lot of cases it seemed like they’d just leave the bare brick unfinished (eg: in the image above, it looks like those walls have been left as is for years).

This also got me thinking about the opposite - why take the time to put a smooth concave finish on every joint? It is neater, but if vanity is the only reason I’m not sure smooth and concave is the winner.3 It’s also worse from a construction efficiency perspective because it adds an entire scales-with-wall-area finishing operation.

Water and critter defense stick out to me as the most likely reasons for the concave smooth finish. The rough protruding joints provide both water pooling and critter perching opportunity at each joint. And the rough lengthwise finish means that in some areas, there are unbroken tunnels into the center of wall where, again, both water and critters can get in. I’m not actually sure if water is an issue since this is concrete, but mould and critters definitely are!

I haven’t gotten a definitive answer to this one. The internet has a lot to say on the topic. But, the reasons given are short on evidence, and if anything they show that the variety of joint finishes is huge and that my assumption of “smooth concave is normal” was just wrong.

If you know why the unfinished approach is preferred in Ecuador, let me know!

One-At-A-Time Traffic Lights

Driving in Ecuador is easy if you’re used to urban US driving. It was different in that people mostly did what seemed safe and what flowed best in the situation (versus what signage and traffic law strictly dictated), but as long as you knew that it was easy.

I’m not knowledgeable on civil engineering beyond loving Practical Engineering, so my knowledge of traffic light stages and cycles isn’t great. But one pattern that I saw in at least 3 intersections stuck out: the unilateral round robin (made up name).4

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I cannot for the life of me figure out why, in some cases, this intersection design was used. Each of the intersections where it was used had 3-4 roads coming into it, and each road going into the intersection had separate straight and left turn lanes.

It was also interesting because there was no green turn arrow for the turning lane, so the drivers in the turn lane needed to know that a single “green” light meant that they had right of way to turn (because they, and the straight lane paired with them, were the only ones in the entire intersection with a green). I tried to figure out if there was a sign to indicate this, but couldn’t. I just had to use context clues (eg: I get a green, but the oncoming traffic opposing me doesn’t move) to figure out when I was at one of these intersections.

From a throughput perspective, I don’t know how this pans out. I guess it makes for simpler lights (you only need a red, yellow, green and don’t need a green arrow), but it means that at any time 75% of the intersection is sitting stopped!


  1. Mid career break, sabbatical, bum year, and the others I could come up with sounded too euphemistic, drab, or serious. It’s supposed to be a do-the-things-I-can’t-do-with-a-fulltime-job year, and help dismantle the seriousness I’ve engrained in myself over the last few years. Footloose and Fancy Free 23 hits the right set of silly and fun notes! 

  2. If you don’t know me, I’m interested in most things engineering, figuring out how and why things and systems work, mountains and nature, and the internet and its culture. The tl;dr is that I’m a bonified engineer, nerd, and nature lover. If it fits in any of those stereotypes, it probably interests me! This isn’t to say that people, how people work, real world culture, and the eq side of the world don’t interest me. They do, but when I’m daydreaming that’s not normally where my mind goes. 

  3. Looks are important! But there are a lot of examples from fashion, art, architecture, and life showing that neat isn’t necessarily the most beautiful. For example, sticking to structures, take a look at brutalist architecture versus trees, mountains, or many things in nature. 

  4. If you’ve never gone down the traffic signaling internet rabbit hole, and are prone to rabbit holes, good luck and have fun! There is so much to it and is a whole ton of fun (everything from the different hardware used, to optimizing intersection throughput, and all the wacky intersection designs that exist).