Cultural Experience | Ecuador

Reverse culture shock, pre-departure


The end of one adventure is just the beginning of another, right?

If the last three and a half months have passed this quickly, then the next two weeks will be over before I can even finish writing this blog post. I have been in Cuenca since January 19, and in Ecuador since January 12, and it is hard to believe that in less than two weeks I will be starting my journey back to the United States. My first stop will be in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, where I will spend about a week and a half teaching computer assisted reporting to (what I have been told will be) a group of students, professors and professional journalists. I’m nervous about translating what I learned less than a year ago to a group of strangers in a language that I am still definitely not fluent in, but I’m also very excited for this opportunity. So, thank you Aimee, Consuelo and everyone else who is helping a second-year journalism student teach CAR internationally, for believing in me.

After teaching and spending some time being a tourist in Quito, I’ll head back to Ohio by way of a 7-hour layover in Miami, FL. There are so many “Cuencanisms” and other small cultural differences that will probably add up to a significant shock to my system when I get back. Luckily for me, this is apparently completely normal and actually very common. Reverse culture shock, which is exactly what it sounds like, often hits harder than the initial culture shock of traveling. I attended a charla (mini-seminar type thing) this week about reverse culture shock and how to handle it, which honestly just made me depressed about going home. However, I now know more of what to expect and how to handle it. Obviously this experience is different for everyone, but I think that in today’s world with easy communication (Skype is my best friend!) the culture shock experience isn’t as great because keeping up with family and friends while overseas is much easier. But who knows… I guess I’ll find out in a few weeks.

In the meantime, I have started compiling a list of small things that either bothered me when I arrived, still bug me a bit, or that I know will be weird experiences when I get back to the United States. Here are my top 10 items, in no particular order:

• Toilet paper does NOT go in the toilets here. There is a trash can provided in every single bathroom for this purpose. Why? The sewage system can’t handle anything except for human waste and water. In public places, sometimes you have to pay either to use the bathroom (bring your own TP), or for the TP before you enter a stall. This generally doesn’t cost more than 10 cents, but if you don’t have a dime you may be out of luck.

• Taxis are (comparatively) very cheap here. A 25-minute ride partway up a mountain from the center of the city cost me $5, and this is the most expensive ride I have taken. The average price is about $2.50 in Cuenca, but depending on where you are going and what time of day it is (also how obviously gringo you are), the price fluctuates slightly.

• Coins are everywhere. Dollar coins are more common than paper dollars. Also, most storekeepers don’t have change for bills larger than a $5 (or at least they say they don’t). If you need to break a $20 that the ATMs like to give, I recommend finding a gringo-friendly, highly popular coffee shop. Cafe Austria in Cuenca has been very good about having change (and marvelous omelets), and there are a few other places that are generally pretty good about taking larger bills. For the most part though, stick to coinage and nothing larger than a $10.

• Wireless internet…one of the most unreliable things in this city. When it hasn’t rained, sometimes the wifi (and general electricity) goes out because a significant portion of the city is powered by the rivers, and when there isn’t enough water going through, it gets rough. When it is raining, sometimes the wifi goes out because it just doesn’t like the weather. And sometimes the wifi just decides to stop for no reason. Some cafes have decent wifi (Cacao y Canela is the best I’ve found, but their business hours are less than helpful), but others aren’t so great.

• Business hours are the second least reliable things in this city. For the most part, businesses don’t open until at least 9am (Cafe San Sebas opens at 8:30am), and even then if the hours are posted they generally tend to just be suggestions. Some cafes participate in the daily siesta, and others serve food during those hours, and it’s hard to tell unless you ask or practically live at a cafe.

• The siesta – one of my favorite parts of the day, and one of my least favorite. From about 12pm to 3pm, pretty much all businesses that don’t sell lunch food close down for a few hours. This time is generally reserved for returning home to eat lunch with your family (lunch is the biggest/most important meal of the day here), and for a short nap, if you so choose. Even schoolchildren head home to have lunch with their families.

• Personal space, especially on the bus, doesn’t exist. In general, people here are much more touchy and slightly in-your-face physically, but when it comes to sharing secrets or actually talking, a lot of people are very closed off. It’s sort of the opposite from the United States, in which we post our deepest thoughts and any random sentiments on the internet while maintaining bubbles of personal space. Even if this bothers you, a 25-cent bus ride across the city will save you a lot of time and money, so I think it is worth it to be very friendly. Busses can occasionally turn into oversized clown cars though, so if you have time, wait for the next one just in case.

• Traffic “laws” seem to be more like suggestions here. Cars and busses alike like to zip past each other on the narrow, one-way streets downtown, especially when a vehicle is stopped to pick up or drop off passengers, and motorcycles will slip through the cracks in traffic. Lane lines don’t really exist since most streets are only wide enough for a parked vehicle and one driving, but on wider roads (such as Huayana-Capac) turn signals don’t usually exist. I’m also not allowed to drive here, so that’s going to be a whole new experience when I get back.

• Tampons are both rare and expensive here. If you’re going to be in Ecuador for a significant amount of time and don’t want to spend a lot of money on these suckers (or prefer the kind with applicators, which I haven’t seen anywhere in the city), bring your own. Not only will you have room for souvenirs at the end of your trip, but there’s one less SuperMaxi cart full of feminine supplies.

• All yogurt is drinkable here, even the kind that comes with the little add-in packet of M&Ms. I usually have a glass of yogurt and either cookies, bread or cake for breakfast (I don’t decide what I eat, that is a job done by my host family even though I have offered to make my own breakfast since I have to leave the house before they even need to get up). Also, it comes in a bag…so does milk and cooking oil. I have no idea how to store it, and whenever I have purchased groceries for myself I have spent the extra quarter on the box of milk or bottle of oil so that I can actually sit it somewhere when I’m not using it.

Though many of these “Cuencanisms” used to (or still) bother me, I know I will miss them all when I get home in a few weeks. It may take some time to get used to my “old ways” of living, but I’m sure I’ll catch on eventually. After all, it’s just another adventure…

Kate Hiller

Ohio University | 19 stories

Kate Hiller is a Dec. 2015 graduate from Ohio University, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism and a B.A. in Spanish. Over the last two years, Kate has lived and studied in Ecuador, covered the World Cup in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium, worked with the Young African Leaders' Initiative Connect Camps in Namibia and Rwanda, spent time doing radio production with students from the University of Leipzig in Germany, visited family friends in Norway, and spent 10 days on a research exchange in Hong Kong. When she isn't planning her next adventure, you can find her taking photos, getting lost, pretending to be athletic, or cooking something that usually includes noodles. Follow Kate on Instagram @kmhiller527.


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