Not since my tween years when malls = boy heaven have I taken such an interest in hanging out at malls. Malls in North Quito, the part of town where I live and hang out (which I will explain in another post), are places for the elite. It is an unspoken rule, or "public secret" that only certain people, who look a certain way can enter these upscale palace-like structures. Perhaps the heavily armed guards at the entrances help deter people who "don't belong" (the lower classes, who also happen to have darker skin, more indigenous features, etc. etc..). Unlike the upscale malls in other parts of Latin America, like in Mexico City, the big brand stores (Prada, Dior, Diesel) have not yet arrived in Quito. However, they have stores that carry a complete mish-mash of brand-name stuff flung on racks in no particular order. It is a curious thing. You might find some Diesel jeans and a J. Crew sweater in one store for example. These malls also carry the fancy local brands from Ecuador and Latin America. Because much of the stuff is imported, the stores are absurdly expensive--things will cost double or triple the amount they would cost back home (come to think of it--I don't think I have ever purchased an article of clothing in a mall here...) A pair of converse sneakers could easily cost over $100... The few people who actually buy clothes at these stores are the same people who make frequent trips to Miami for weekend shopping in order to "save money".
One thing's for sure--the food courts are booming. They are always booming, despite the high prices. A typical three course lunch (lunch is taken very seriously here--I'll save that for another post) outside the mall will cost roughly $2.00. Inside the mall, it will cost at least $4 but more frequently much more depending on where you go. There are very expensive restaurants--a sushi place, a steak house, TGIFridays (ha ha), as well as all the fast food joints imported from Gringolandia. On Sundays entire families come to the mall to do shopping, or at least window-shopping, eat at the food-court and then go to the cinema. This is a typical Sunday ritual among the upper classes (I sound like Malinowski). The streets are empty and the malls are stuffed--so crowded that you have to wade your way through, pushing past multiple sets of extended families.
As in the United States, malls also serve as a haven (and heaven perhaps) for Quiteno teenagers. Ecuador is heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and so young couples do not have quality cuddle time--they most definitely do not cuddle at each others' homes. Instead they head to the mall and parks. As such, you see lots of cuddling couples at the mall. It is fun to superficially "categorize" the couples--for example, just like in the States you will see "goth," "preppy" "sporty" "hippie" types (that is all done tongue-in-cheek--I'm an anthropologist! we don't do that sort of thing)..uh um...You even see kids here who are their own sort of "hipsters". I have faith that they could slip into the East Village or Billysburgh scenes.
My personal love affair with Quito's malls, aside from enjoying gawking at the rich kids, began during my first stay here 10 years ago when I went to hang out at the mall to alleviate homesickness. Where else could I sit in a food court, do some window shopping, buy some Skippy peanut butter and corn flakes at the imported food store, watch a trashy Hollywood blockbuster (most often dubbed) and generally, "feel at home." Malls are fairly generic places, which is probably why I find them so boring at home...but when I am far from home, they become familiar and comforting. I also got into the "mall scene" because I feel completely safe in them. I decided long ago that taking money out from cash machines in the mall was the safest place--obviously I prefer not to use cash machines on the street, nor from inside banks because you're target when you leave the bank.
My interest in malls also stems from my anthropological research interests in public versus private spaces. Lots of academic literature has focused on malls in the "developing world" as "private" public spaces--this is most definitely true in Quito, and my own project about sex workers in the historic center touches upon similar themes of how public vs. private space become divided...
so....in conclusion....I can add hanging out a malls to the list of things I do in Ecuador that I don’t do at home (along with eating copious amounts of meat, watching TV, not bothering to buckle my seatbelt—I know, I know....I’m living on the edge…)