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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

Living in Ecuador: 5 Stages of Culture Shock

Written by Laurie Pickard
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1. Initial Culture Shock

When I introduce myself as an estudiante de intercambio, recognition floods people’s faces. They nod their heads. Yes, they have met others like me. There is a bin for us in their brains, and they drop me in alongside Dieter from Germany and Akiko from Japan. But the paradox of being a foreign exchange student is that although everyone can connect instantly with what you are, absolutely no one truly understands you. My orientation packet contains a chart showing the stages a foreigner goes through in a new country. After the “initial culture shock”, a “honeymoon period”, and an “adjustment period”, there comes “mental isolation” and the ominous note, “some travelers remain here”.

I have been in Guayaquil, Ecuador for one week, and I have made three friends. My friend Jorge is a politics and government student who hopes to one day be a congressman. He knows my host sister Mariola. My second friend, from what I gather, is employed by the city of Guayaquil to keep the streets in my neighborhood clean.  When I met him, he was wearing a shirt that said “Jesus loves me and I am saved” in Spanish.  He identified himself as Peecher Pan, and asked me if I was a fellow evangelist. When I said no, he assured me that both he and Jesus loved me anyway, then shouted “I love you!” in English as I walked away. My best friend is Mariola’s three-year-old daughter Melanie. I think she, more than anyone else I’ve met here so far, actually gets me. We can laugh together. She calls me ‘girl’ to my face and ‘the girl’ to her mother and grandmother. We watch TV together sometimes, and she explains all the jokes that I don’t get.

I will be staying with my host family for the next two months while I volunteer at a health clinic in a squatter settlement north of the city. The senora of the house calls me her hijita (daughter), and she feeds me like she expects me to grow in front of her eyes. My host family is very well off by Ecuadorian standards. The family makes money importing high end liquor, the brand name stuff, from the States and Europe. The whole operation is run by a character everyone refers to as el jefe (the boss), who is my host mother’s husband and the father of my host siblings. So far, I haven’t seen el jefe, but he is spoken of only with the greatest reverence. In addition to my host sister, Mariola, and my host niece, Melanie, I have a host brother named Neco. He wears gold jewelry, drives a shiny red pickup truck, and carries around a fat wad of cash.

Every day, I travel to a semi-urban squatter community called Luchadores del Norte. More than half of Guayaquil’s residents live in squatter settlements, without running water or basic sanitation. They get their water from tanqueros, who come by and fill up the big blue tubs that sit in front of every house. The government-run clinic where I volunteer is free to children under 5 and pregnant women.  For everyone else, a visit costs 50 centavos.  The staff consists of one doctor, several nurses, a dentist, and various student volunteers from the US and Latin America. There is also a pair of physician’s assistant students from Oregon, Lisa and Melissa, who are doing thesis research on parasites. They are a funny pair. They’re both loud and overweight, and when they introduce themselves in Spanish, their names are the equivalent of Pete and Repeat.

2. Honeymoon Period

People ask me constantly if I have found love here in Ecuador. It seems many northerners (men and women) come here and fall for a Latin lover or a sweet mamasita. No, I tell them, I have not yet found love in Ecuador.  Love, however, seems to have found me - more than once.  As I walk down the street I am bombarded constantly with professions of love and things far more vulgar, only some of which I understand. It seems a girl could easily fill her date book just with the offers from a single city block. My favorite of these would-be Ecuadorian boyfriends is Peecher Pan.  Every time he sees me he yells an enthusiastic “I love you!” in English, even if I’m across the street.

Apart from Peecher, there is my host sister’s friend Jorge, who has declared his undying love for me after knowing me for a little over a week. I like Jorge, but I am not interested in him in that way.  For one thing, he believes all school children should be shown anti-abortion propaganda films depicting a fetus struggling for life as it is being aborted. For another thing, Jorge is prone to singing along with the radio loudly, off-key, and directly into my ear, and to staring at me meaningfully and saying things like, “I could spend a lifetime looking at you.” I do have fun with Jorge, though. The other night, he taught me all the dirty words I would have learned in 5th through 7th grade if I had been here instead of in the US. Some of my favorites are the euphemisms for oral sex. For a man, it’s hacer karaoke and for a woman it’s trapear, which translates literally as “to rub with a towel” – a little scary if you ask me. The best, though, is the euphemism for masturbation, which is Manuela, as in manual. But Manuela is a woman’s name, so if you’re going out with Manuela, well, you know.

As if Jorge and Peecher Pan were not enough, my host brother has also developed a crush on me.  He is 26 and lives in a pimped-out bachelor pad on the second floor.  He has cable TV, a private phone line, a stereo system, air conditioning, everything. On Saturday, we went salsa dancing together, but we had to be secretive about it because if el jefe (who I have still never met) finds out, there will be hell to pay. Host siblings are expressly forbidden from dating foreign exchange students, and the family could lose an important source of revenue if we are caught.

Neco took me to a club on the south side of the city, and everyone there, with the exception of the two of us, was dark-skinned. Ecuador is very segregated by race, and the color of one’s skin can be a good indicator of social status. My host family is light-skinned, evidence of their Spanish blood. The people in this club were dark, of indigenous or even African descent. Neco knew everyone there. He pulled out his cash wad and bought rounds for everyone in the club. The beer was flowing and the hips were moving. Neco guided me around the dance floor, introducing me to everyone in the room. We danced salsa until I thought I might collapse.

When we got home, Neco parked his truck, closed his eyes, opened his mouth, leaned toward me, and tried to ram his tongue down my throat. He was one of the worst kissers I have ever encountered. After receiving one of Neco’s slobbery kisses, I now know why the verb for oral sex translates as “to rub with a towel”. Really, that bad.

“You enchant me,” said Neco. “I want you.” I was having none of it. I got out of the car, and headed for the house. He got out too, and we ended up screaming at each other (quietly) in the entryway, just like on the telenovelas. Now every time I see him in the house, he says in a loud voice, “Hola mi hermana.  ¿Como estás?” (Hi, sis. How are you?), and then more quietly, “Me encantas, quédate conmigo, cásate conmigo.” (I love you, stay with me, marry me.) Then loudly again, “Ciao, hasta luego.” It's a trip.


I want to go dancing again, but I don't want to have to lie, nor do I want to play pimps and hos with Neco. However, if I am to leave the house after 6 pm (which is when it gets dark here at the equator) I must be escorted by a man. It’s house rules, and it’s also common sense in this city. Which leaves me with two options – Jorge and Neco. Neco is more fun, but he’s harder to fight off. My current strategy is to alternate between the two, making sure I am exceedingly clear that my intentions are completely and utterly platonic. Unfortunately, though, women’s liberation has not yet arrived in Ecuador, and I fear my message will be completely lost on my eager suitors.



3. Adjustment

Each day I take two buses to work. I get off of the first one at the Coca-Cola plant. I always pay very close attention and make sure never to miss my stop because I have no idea where the bus’s final destination is, and I think it might be Quito. My reason for thinking this is that a man hangs off of the side of the bus yelling at people as we go by, “QUITO QUITO QUITO!”, as if they might realize spontaneously that they need to go to Quito. While I wait at the Coca-Cola plant for the second bus, other buses pass by, many with their own men calling out the names of various cities.

Ecuador: 5 Stages of Culture Shock, Guayaquil, Ecuador, living in equador, exchange studentAt the clinic, I've been doing school health checkups.  My job is to give eye exams and physical exams.  The physical involves me asking the kids to take off their shoes to determine who has flat feet.  Then I look in their mouths for cavities and listen with a stethoscope to see if their hearts sound more or less normal.  About a quarter have flat feet and about a third have cavities.  All the hearts I've heard are within the range of normal.  Some are a little bit fast, probably on account of the fear of flat feet and cavities.


Besides work and school, the only place I really need to go is the mall, because that is where I can get cash. They use American dollars here - Ecuador stopped printing its own currency in the 90s – but absolutely no one can break a twenty. And if you were ever wondering what happened to all the Sacagawea dollars the US was minting a few years ago, I now have the answer.

It is strange going every day from one extreme to the other in Ecuadorian society. The homes around the clinic, many of them made out of found objects, make my host family’s home seem palatial by comparison. This moving back and forth reminds me of something my best friend Lili once told me. Lili volunteers with high school students who are involved in gangs. She talks about how these kids survive, moving between worlds, interacting with their families, within the structure of their gangs, in schools, and with social workers. She calls these kids world-straddlers, and I’m starting to understand what she means. Here, I am moving constantly from one world to another within Ecuador, and at the same time, I am carrying around in my mind a world that seems as far from here as anything could possibly be. Even the other Americans I’ve met here are nothing like the people I know at home. I am straddling all kinds of worlds, and with far less fluidity than the kids Lili works with.

4. Mental Isolation

I am eating high protein. I am also eating high fat, high cholesterol, high starch and high sugar. Basically, I am eating a lot. I eat fried eggs in the morning, fried chicken in the afternoon, and fried plantains in the night. As you might imagine, I am getting gordita. In fact, my salsa dancing hermano told me recently that he likes me because I am carnosa y jugosa, meaty and juicy. Speaking of juice, I also drink what my host mother calls “juice” at every meal, and by that she means a blended creation typically consisting primarily of sugar, with some water and fruit thrown in as an after thought. Today Josefina, who helps my host mother in the kitchen, asked me if I wanted this certain kind of juice that she said the last American girl really liked. She brought me a glass filled with a cloudy mixture.

“This is American. You’ll like it,” she said.

“What kind of juice is it?” I asked.

“It’s kwa-care juice,” Josefina told me. “It’s American, kwa-care. You know it.”

“No, I don’t think I have ever heard of this kwa-care,” I told her.

“Oh, yes you have. The last American girl loved it. She had kwa-care every morning for breakfast.”

“Is it a fruit?” I asked.

“No. It comes in a container. Here, I’ll show you.” She went to the kitchen, leaving me with the juice, which I tasted. It had a reminiscent flavor, one I couldn’t quite place. Moments later, Josefina returned with a carton of Quaker oatmeal.

“You see? Kwa-care. You know it!” She smiled down at me condescendingly, nodding to indicate that she had been right all along.

“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t have the energy to explain to her that no American has ever made juice out of Quaker oatmeal. Actually, though, it’s the best juice I’ve had here so far.

I’ve started to feel a little homesick, which unfortunately fuels my barely controlled hypochondria.   It only makes matters worst that I’m in a health clinic seeing sick people every day. Everything anyone has, I instantly get. Pete and Repeat took the opportunity to tell me about the worst kind of parasite they know of. This parasite gradually works its way into the fatty tissue of your brain, where it burrows in and then calcifies. It’s been a rough week. Including the freaky brain parasite, I’ve contracted three parasite infections, as well as typhoid and dengue fever. I am also pregnant.


I went to bed early last night to try to sleep off some of my various ills. This morning I woke up to not one, but two love letters that had been passed under my door while I slept. One was a lengthy meditation, culminating with, “I think that for now I will not say or write any more. I only hope that you follow the dictates of your own heart, wherever they may take you. I wish you all the best in this life.” The other was two lines long. “I want you. Come find me upstairs.” After reading them, I put both of the letters back down on the floor, and pretended not to have seen either one. I ate my breakfast and headed off to the clinic.

5. Integration

Feeling a need to get away from Guayaquil, with its fried delights and its persistent men, I took a trip to Montanita, a little surfer town on the international travel circuit where I planned to eat ceviche and work on my tan. As soon as I arrived, though, I felt strange. The town is full of backpackers, hippies and surfers, and for the first time in six weeks, my appearance did not distinguish me from those around me.


During my time in Ecuador, I have become so used to feeling out of place that not feeling out of place made me feel out of place. I realized then what a strange kind of freedom it has been to feel equally conspicuous everywhere I go. It’s pointless to try not to stand out anywhere, so I go everywhere with the same expectation of not fitting in. I blend in equally well, which is to say equally poorly, in Luchadores del Norte, in downtown Guayaquil, in the mall, in the club with Neco, everywhere. There is an openness that comes with being an outsider in every situation, and that openness has allowed me to see parts of Guayaquil that even Guayaquilenos don’t necessarily see. In a way my difference is an invitation to those around me to either accept or reject me. More often than not, I have found myself the recipient of the most gracious hospitality, even in unexpected places, like a salsa club in the roughest part of the city.

Ecuador: 5 Stages of Culture Shock, Guayaquil, Ecuador, living in equador, exchange studentWhat’s more, I actually found myself missing Guayaquil, missing the kids I’ve come to know at the clinic, missing Jorge and Neco, missing my Ecuador, which is decidedly not the Ecuador of Montanita. I’ve heard people say that it is leaving home that allows us to truly see what home is, but until now, I hadn’t considered that this piece of traveler wisdom might apply to travel within travel. In the past six weeks, Guayaquil has, after a fashion, become my home. I will be returning to the US soon, and I wonder if it will be possible for me to keep one foot in Ecuador, to retain the perspective I have gained here. Or if not an entire foot, maybe just a toe, enough that I don’t forget that it is sometimes possible to bridge the distance that separates one world from another.

© Laurie Pickard

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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