Having co-facilitated an orientation for a group of volunteers arriving in country exactly two years after I arrived as a volunteer was a surreal experience. At this point, I like to think of myself as a Veteran Expat. Not much surprises me anymore about living in Quito after having spent almost two entire years of my life here. That’s half the time I spent in college. The entire time I worked as an RA. 1/12th of my entire existence on this planet. When the volunteers arrived, though, I tried to focus on remembering how I felt as a brand-new-to-Ecuador human. The wonders of waking up to see Cotopaxi majestically sitting atop the clouds on a clear morning. The curiosity and delight of tasting new tropical fruits whose names I couldn’t begin to guess in English. The smell of smog mixing with frying empanadas de verde. The roar of the government-run buses, and the barks of rooftop dogs. The sounds of Spanish and a bit of kichwa. The feeling of jogging in the park on a Tuesday morning, and thinking, Man, I actually live here.
During one orientation session, I had volunteers write a moment of “YAY ECUADOR!” on a post-it. Beside the positive comments about amazing host families, deliciously cheap lunches, and the view of gorgeously formidable volcanos, I posted another headline: “What the heck-uador”. In the spirit of bonding over both the amazing and challenging aspects of living in this country, I asked volunteers to share both their positive and negative experiences. Among the negative were things like the buses, the high quantity of carbs consumed daily with their host families, language mishaps, and timeliness. At this moment, I felt a self-congratulatory smugness. I thought to myself, Yep, I already know all the annoying aspects of living in Ecaudor. And I am pretty much unfazed by them.
In the spirit of providing a bit of wisdom to the newly minted volunteers, I reminded them to think about what they could control and what they could not. This, I expounded, would allow them to be a lot happier and more successful during their time in-country. For example: You can’t control that lunch at your Ecuadorian friend’s house will be at 4:30 pm instead of the supposed 1:30 pm, but you can plan ahead and bring snacks so you don’t feel like biting your host’s head off in a fit of hunger. Learning tips and tricks for how to deal with frustrating situations goes a long way towards fighting off culture shock and the “I hate Ecuador!” mentality which can strike at moments of distress. I, for one, never go to an Ecuadorian meal without toting along a snack or having sueltos to buy a little something at the local tienda. Or take, for example, the fact that the government-run bus systems will tell you your dog isn’t allowed on the bus when the municipal law explicitly permits them if they are muzzled. When the worker inevitably tells me I can’t bring Gaby, I tell them that I bring her almost daily, and to please call their supervisors to check the law if they don’t believe me. Instead of getting angry that they don’t know the policies that govern their jobs, I usually get my way by calmly sharing the rules. And the one time this didn’t work, I simply walked to my destination instead. Take the fact that as someone who is clearly foreign, taxi drivers will always try to take advantage, even after you’ve lived here for years. All you have to do is refuse to get in the cab if the driver won’t turn on the meter. This is one the volunteers saw in-action when, during orientation, we had to hail 9 cabs to get everyone to the Teleferiqo. I knew it should cost under $4, so when a cab driver had the audacity to quote $7, I said no and shut the door and didn’t think twice about it.
These types of incidents happen so often that Devin and I use #thatssoecua to describe any situation that is trying for us coming from our US cultural background. (**I want to insert a disclaimer here that our hashtag is a way to help us laugh about the frustrations as opposed to actually getting frustrated. It is in no way meant to be a derogatory term. There are many more wonderful elements of life in Ecuador than there are challenging ones.**) One of my favorite #thatssoecua moments which is a bit non-sequiter to the rest of this story happened during orientation, when Devin and I hosted our first Volunteer Council meeting at a popular chain coffee shop (that will go unnamed because of strict libel laws in Ecuador). We had a group of 8 people, and each of us ordered a drink or a snack or both before settling at the table. The staff then brought us our orders. We realized after everything was brought that there was a small pastry that no one had ordered. Upon realizing this, one of the volunteers tried to get the attention of the staff to let them know, but no one would pay attention. Twenty minutes and no staff coming to collect it later, a volunteer started eating it. Less than two minutes passed before a staff member came and demanded we pay for the pastry that we had not bought. I thought, No way. They brought us this pastry, they wouldn’t listen when we tried to call their attention, and as soon as someone takes a bite, they demand money for it! I flat-out refused, stating it was their mistake and no one paid us attention when we tried to fix it for them. The staff member threatened to talk to their manager and I said, Please do. Thankfully, they did not make us pay, but they did stare daggers at us for the rest of the time we were there. And as a group of 8 people who had bought several items! I could only imagine the response in the US. “Oh, so sorry for bringing you an additional item, please enjoy it on us.” Ecuadorian customer service is notoriously bad…
…Anyhow, back to the story I was trying to tell.
The past couple of weeks, I experienced a particularly high rate of #thatssoecua moments. Once was when we were asked by an entity to turn in some hefty reports immediately that had only been requested two business days earlier. Another was when an entity requested several time-consuming items from each volunteer to be submitted the following day. Then when I walked to the nearest cajero to withdraw cash, neither of the two machines were in service. Then I went to the next-closest ATM machine and that one was down, too. A few days later, I went to the gym to try out a 6:30 pm class intriguingly titled “Samauri Fit”, only to be told at 6:37 that the instructor was running late due to protests and the resulting traffic and would arrive within 15 more minutes. Then the class turned out to be basically cardio kickboxing. Through all these slightly ridiculous experiences, all I did was laugh about it afterwards. It’s the best option when things that, from my cultural background are hard to believe, happen. Suele pasar, as we say in Ecuador. It’s known to happen. These are a few of the lessons I have learned after living here for two years. You can’t count on smoothly-run banks. When you actually have to go inside one, plan for a full hour of wait time. You can’t think that anything will run on time, including classes. The concept of time in general is very different from what someone from a US perspective understands. You just gotta roll with it, or, as we tell volunteers, flow like water.
And then I went to Guaranda on a work trip. Guaranda is a very small city in southern Ecuador, about 6.5 hours away from Quito via bus. On Monday evening as I was on my way down, I reached out to my AirbNb hostess about my arrival time. The response? I’m in Quito and didn’t know you had made a reservation. I about flipped my s***. It was dark, it was getting late, and the reason I had made a reservation on AirbNb in the first place was because the hostels were all booked on both hostelworld and booking.com. I had visions of walking around, homeless, ending up in the street for the duration of the night or desperately knocking on doors like Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. While I was perhaps over-reacting, it was a real concern that I would be stuck in an unknown town with nowhere to stay. Instead of going to Guaranda, I hopped off the bus and was able to just catch a bus to Riobamba, another city I had come to know through working with the Fellowship program. Thankfully, the hostel had space and I snagged a room there.
Upon arrival in Riobamba, I was starving and it was almost 10 pm, so I saw a KFC near the bus terminal that was open and decided to grab some dinner. While I generally wouldn’t pick KFC, restaurants aren’t open very late on weeknights in Ecuadorian cities, and I didn’t want to risk it. As I go to order chicken strips, I’m told that they are completely out…and I had thought the night couldn’t get much worse. When I said, Bueno, que hay entonces? , all they had were the super processed chicken patty sandwiches. I bought one anyway, figuring bad food was better than no food, and hopped in a cab to get to the hostel, where I went directly to bed after eating, knowing I would be up early the next morning.
In order to make it to my 10 am meeting in Guaranda, I knew I would need to leave by no later than 7:30 am, because according to Maps, I was just under two hours away. I left my hostel room at 6:40 to pay and leave by 7. I had to wake up the staff member to pay her, and as I take out my $20 bill to pay for my $18 stay, she asks if I have sueltos. No, I replied, I don’t have a 10, a 5, and 3 ones. In my head: “WTF how do you not have $2 in change when you’re a hotel?!” Thus ensued the wait of what was supposed to be 5 minutes but was really about 25 minutes for another staff person to arrive and bring sueltos. By this time I was worried I would miss the bus and arrive atrasada to my meeting. I asked the staff person about getting to Guaranda, checking to be sure that I should go to the terminal terrestre bus station. She corrected me, saying I should instead go to the terminal intercantonal to catch a bus to Guaranda. Imagine my surprise when, after driving far past the terminal terrestre to arrive at the other terminal, I was told I was at the wrong place, and that the bus to Guaranda only left once per hour…the next one was at 7:30, and it was 7:25 already. He suggested I grab a taxi and try to meet it on the road, which led to me standing on the sidewalk anxiously searching for a green bus to Guaranda, knowing if I missed it I would miss my meeting. I was also hungry, as I did not have time to grab breakfast.
At this point I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: I HATE ECUADOR. Maybe it was the hanger, or the fact that I had been in transit for about 8 of the previous 16 hours, or maybe it was the accumulation of unfortunate events that led to me having to sit through an extra two hours on a bus, a last-minute hostel change, a crappy dinner, but I was not feeling charitable towards this country. How can someone who has a property on AirbNB not check their reservations? How can a whole town be booked on a Monday night? How can someone who lives in a city and works in the hospitality industry not know which bus terminal to go to for a certain bus? How does KFC RUN OUT OF CHICKEN STRIPS?! I was most definitely crying ugly and angry tears during key moments in this ordeal, and dreaming of moving back to a country where things seemed to just work better. And here I was, just recently thinking I had overcome cultural shocks and was able to just brush it off…
The tricky thing about culture shock is that it can be difficult to identify when the incident is a result of culture (like meal times consistently being way later than the established time) or if it is merely a result of bad luck (like the hostel lady not knowing the correct terminal to direct me to). But when you have an upsetting experience abroad, it is really easy to blame it on the culture or the country itself. One must take a step back and reflect–was this an Ecuadorian thing, or just a random incident? Which is easiser said than done when you’re starving and stranded.
So what did I learn from this? Well, the cultural curve clearly continues beyond just year one of living abroad. It very might well exist the entire time I’m here, albeit with fewer moments of steep decline. Maybe I need to take a page out of my own book and remember to be flexible and not have expectations, because that’s probably the best way to approach life abroad. And when moments of cultural frustration do happen, to remember to laugh instead of cry.