Thursday, August 23, 2012

"What's Different With the Culture?"

Since I'm not sure exactly when I'll have my new computer, this seemed like a good post to do that really doesn't require photos.  They'd be nice and I will probably add some later but for now, text is fine.

I was recently at one of the events where I tell tourists what it's like living in Cotacachi.  One thing I stress is that if you don't like the culture, don't move here.  It's critical to be able to enjoy the environment in which you live.  This is something I've really come to understand in the last month or so.  I kind of knew it was true before but it's really come alive recently--not for me--I love the culture here, even the frustration at the post office hasn't gotten me down any more than it would in the States if there was a little glitch in the system, especially since I don't speak the language hardly at all.

Back to the culture.  One of the attendees, after I told them a little about what was different here, kept asking more questions about it and I realized it was something that had just kind of gradually worked its way into my consciousness rather than being something I actively recognized anymore.  So, I thought that if he kept wanting more information, you might too.  Here's what I came up with during that chat, along with some another of our local people added to the mix.  Here's the primary list:

Manana--I don't have to say much about this because I've covered it before and almost everyone knows about it.  Very briefly, manana means "not today."  It might be tomorrow but it might be next week, next month, next year, or never.

Fiestas--there are more reasons to have a parade, celebrate, and drink than I ever imagined there could be.  Just this past weekend the whole city and, I heard the following day, the areas around the city was filled with home parties.  I have no idea if they were celebrating an event or if it was coincidental that a bunch of people partied most of the night.  It can get loud when that happens and one simply does not call the police for a noise complaint.  It just isn't done.  All this celebrating (and sometimes without it) causes much public drunkenness.  That can lead to men (women seem to have more sense) passing out on a sidewalk or in a doorway somewhere.  The police don't hall them off to jail--they let them sleep it off and then the drunken person goes home with a major hangover--or, if it's Monday, he goes off to work with a major hangover.

Personal Space--I noticed fairly quickly that people here aren't averse to touching one another.  In the States we were almost all aware of personal space for other people.  That isn't the case here.  When I take a bus somewhere, there's none of that business of each person squeezing as close as possible away from the person with whom they're sharing a seat. They just sit down and all parts of a seated body that can touch, do.  Women, whether they be relatives or very good friends, will walk down the street hand in hand or with an arm around the woman next to her.  In the States there might be speculation on the sexual preference of those women--not here.  It's just how it is--there's closeness.  Men don't do this as often as women but I still see it occasionally.

Greetings--it's traditional to greet one another with a kiss on the right cheek and a half hug.  This isn't done with strangers but acquaintances will.  I've mentioned this before but it's also customary to greet just about everyone you pass on the street with "buenos (fill in the appropriate time of day--dias, tardes, noches)" possibly followed with asking how they are?  Stopping to talk isn't done unless you know one another but you generally toss "muy bien" (very well) over your shoulder as you keep going.  Of course you don't intrude on a conversation in progress, or young people, but otherwise, it's pretty much considered the polite thing to do.

Public Displays of Nakedness--this one took a little getting used to.  It is not unusual for a man or boy to stop where he is to urinate on a wall.  He will generally look for a place where there,s a corner, where one building sticks out a little more from another, and he will turn so you would have to look closely to see any generally private body parts but it happens.  It isn't like every man does it or that they do it on a regular basis.  I'm not sure what the criteria is for it being acceptable but no one pays any mind to it.  I read the phrase "visual privacy" in a book many, many years ago and it appealed to me so that's what I call how I treat that.  The other instance of that is breast feeding.  This more often applies to the indigenous population but certainly not exclusively.  It's not unusual for a woman to nurse her baby wherever she happens to be when the baby gets hungry.  The most potentially disconcerting of these times is when a woman is nursing her baby on the bus and they both doze off and the baby, of course, stops nursing, and the mom is still uncovered.  Oh, that's the other thing.  When women nurse their babies in public in the States, they almost always cover the baby and their breast with a little blanket or something.  They don't generally do that here.

Less-Than-Perfect Construction Practices--people just aren't as concerned about whether or not everything is true and squared off properly.  I'll add a couple of photos later to illustrate this but for now I'll just tell you that there are a few places in my apartment where the tiles have had to be cut on a slight angle to fit up against the wall.  Painting isn't a huge concern, either.  Oh, everything new is painted (this is referring primarily to interiors) but they don't use tape and there isn't much concern about clean lines where colors change at the ceiling or in corners.  Also, I have many spots where the paint doesn't quite go all the way to the floor--not unlike how it would be if you were planning to put quarter-round or molding around the floors.  The other thing I noticed is that there wasn't always attention paid to cleaning the concrete very well when it was painted.  I attempted to attach a Command hook to a wall and the paint pulled right off with almost no pressure on the hook--oops.  It's very interesting and takes a little getting used to.  There are contractors out there who do an excellent job but it can be a challenge to find one.

Cruelty to Animals--this one is tough and I have no idea if there's any way to stop it from happening.  I think I've mentioned the street dogs we have.  Of course they aren't fixed so they keep having puppies like crazy and if the mother can find enough food to nurse, most of those puppies survive.  The local solution is to poison them.  I haven't witnessed a dog in the process of dying from the poison they use but I've heard it's pretty awful.  Roof dogs frequently never get let off the roof.  That's where they live and their only purpose is to warn the owner if someone attempts to break in.  This is just dogs.  It's frequently the same way for all animals, including cows and other domestic livestock.  The roosters next door that are raised for cock fighting is just another example of that.  Some people have worked hard to get the injured street dogs attention and help them get adopted by expats who give them a much better life than most dogs have here but there are just so many expats who want or have space for a dog (or cat).  Don't get me wrong--I see many dogs on leashes who are obviously well-loved and cared for.  There are people in the country who treat their animals more like we expats are accustomed to but cruelty is far more prevalent here than I've ever seen before.

To end on a more positive note, one of the lovely things here is how well-behaved almost all of the children are in public.  They may not be at home (I speak primarily from my knowledge of my little neighbor and his very frequent and loud temper tantrums) but they certainly are on the streets.  One of the thing I notice is how few children get upset in a store if their mother won't allow them to purchase something they want.  There are also a lot fewer little ones screaming because they want to do something Mom doesn't want to.  I see it happen, of course.  They're little kids and that's one of the things they do when they're around two or three years old but the parent, usually Mom, just walks away with the wailing child following or holds the child's hand and continues on her way without paying any attention to the noise.  The child quiets down amazingly fast.

As usual, this got a lot longer than I had thought it would or intended for it to but it gives you a better idea of what some of the differences are in this culture that you need to be aware of before you make a serious decision about moving here.  It's one of the reasons an extended visit is a good idea.  The other thing to keep in mind is that these are things that I have seen up here and may not be true in the bigger cities or in different parts of the country.  Even though Ecuador is pretty tiny, there are distinct differences between the northern Andes, southern Andes, coastal regions, and the Amazon.


  1. Congratulations Cynthia on your understanding of the Ecuador Culture.
    I am Hispanic, and I understand everything you say.
    What is wrong with some of the Expats is that they tend to isolate themselves from the Culture, living in their fenced communities, very seldom intermingling with the locals, most of the time only meeting with other Expats.
    I can foresee that you will live a really happy life in Cotacachi, not a fairy-tale.

    1. Thanks, Edward--

      Yes, I have a very happy life here. When I was pet sitting earlier this month (there will be at least one post about that in the coming weeks) I was in one of the expat condo communities and I definitely noticed the difference. None of the people I met there (or already knew) were exclusionary but it was still a different "world" so-to-speak.

  2. Cynthia, this is one of your best posts ever. I am well versed in cultural issues and it is absolutely true that when newcomers ignore the dominant culture ANYWHERE the newcomers always have serious problems adjusting to the new country. If you don't respect the culture, you will not survive in a dominant culture other than your own.

    1. Thanks, Roger--
      It really does make a difference, doesn't it? I saw it in the US when people from other countries and cultures would band together in tiny communities and not stretch into their new cultural environment. I'm glad I'm thriving rather than just surviving.

  3. We had the joy of living in Guyana for a while. We see life in Ecuador as being similar - although better - and we're planning to retire to Ecuador.

    The Guyanese people, too, are very poor, are very humble, and have a non-supportive government. But they are very happy. We so fell in love with them, as we expect to fall in love with Ecuadorians as well.

    Just one note about "manana:" In Guyana, Trinidad and the Caribbean islands they say, "Just now." It didn't take long to learn that "just now" means later...tomorrow, next week, next month...just later (when I get to it). That was tough at first since all our lives we've been driven by deadlines and goals, but it soon became part of the charm of the people. And we began to use the term even when we knew we would get the project completed right away.

    I can't imagine living in a country without enjoying its people and culture! Your blog is helping me already learn to love the Ecuadorians, especially the women and children!

    1. I'm glad I can help you learn more about the folks here. I love them! Of course, as with any culture, there are some I like better than others but I don't think I've run into a mean Ecuadorian yet. Perhaps I'm just lucky that way.