Traveling or moving abroad naturally causes some anxiety on many different levels. One major factor is cultural differences: Will it be difficult to adjust and acclimate? Are the local people warm to foreigners? What is the general opinion regarding expats? What intricacies should I be prepared for? How do I avoid offending people? After some years here, GoGo’s got some insights.
This blog is written in sections, so feel free to scroll through and find information pertaining to your curiosities.
One of the most attractive things about living in SA is that, compared to, say, Eastern countries, acclimation is significantly easier and the culture shock isn’t nearly as daunting. But of course, there are relevant cultural differences that one should be aware of before coming. With most of our experience being in Ecuadorian culture, this blog focuses mainly on what to expect when visiting or moving permanently to Ecuador.
Culture and stereotypes are tricky topics to write about. As an American from California, I find it difficult to summarize Californian culture, let alone American. Sure, Ecuador is smaller, but opinions expressed on these matters are largely subjective: everyone has different stories and opinions — positive and negative — regarding foreign cultures. So readers should take all things they read and hear about stereotypes with a grain of salt.
On Ecuadorians’ Opinion of Foreigners
It has been our experience that Ecuadorians have either indifferent or welcoming attitudes towards expats and travelers. Because Ecuadorians are not, by any means, outwardly warm or extroverted, sometimes it is hard to gauge their opinions. Of course, once you get to know Ecuadorians, they are some of the kindest and gentlest people you may meet, but what throws you for a loop is that some of these same wonderful people will do some incredibly flaky things.
On Flakiness and “Ecuadorian Time”
Yes, Ecuadorians, in general (and comparatively to US culture) can be extremely flaky. Getting stood up or having plans canceled at the last minute (or second) is commonplace here. So much so that many Ecuadorians don’t even bother to be apologetic about it. And for me, the lack of acknowledgment is what will drive me crazy sometimes.
The other behavior that can irk the common Westerner is what is dubbed “Ecuadorian time.” Things are at a much slower pace here, which can be both enjoyable and irritating. Of course, with less than perfect public transit and bad traffic issues, some tardiness can be understood. But there will be many, many times that you will experience frustration in Ecuador due to a lack of punctuality. In U.S. culture, tardiness and flakiness are generally not tolerated and can be perceived as offensive. This is NOT the case in Ecuador, these ideas don’t even exist. To “survive” here successfully, you need to try and drop these preconceived notions and not take offense to flaki/tardiness.
On Permanent Residency And Acclimation
Due to the masses of North Americans seeking permanent residency Ecuadorian hot-spots like Cuenca, Loja and Vilcabamba, you definitely hear your fair share of rumored resentment towards the inflation that is caused by Western money coming in and buying up property and real-estate. I have never, personally heard this kind of animosity, but we’ve “heard” that it exists. And considering that the inflation is quite real, you can’t really blame locals for complaining. But many understand that it is a give and take: Western money tends to benefit many people in the community, not just tax collectors and the elite. If you want to avoid contributing to some of the negative opinions that already exists, do your research before arriving, learn how to not get ripped off (which drives inflation) and learn how to acclimate with respect to the local standards and culture. Don’t be demanding, don’t act superior, you are a guest. GoGo recommends GringosAbroad.com, a wonderful blog ran by a Canadian family for all-things settling in Ecuador.
If you are coming to Ecuador, study Spanish! Whether you’re 19 or 67 years old, you have to make an effort to study the language. To not do so is a complete slap in the face to your hosts and/or new neighbors, and frankly, just lazy. The effort alone goes a long way and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can pick up the basics for survival. Simon Bolivar Spanish school is popular here in Cuenca. Also in Cuenca, we recommend CEDEI, a local non-profit that offers affordable classes with a good atmosphere. There are also English teaching opportunities there, where you can receive free Spanish classes in return.
On Gestures and Greetings
Some of the smaller, more intricate things of the culture to be aware of are gestures and greetings. Of course, when a man greets a woman or a woman greets a woman, a small kiss on the cheek is exchanged. This “kiss” is simply a “cheek-bump” with a kissing sound thrown into the air, and only done one time on one side. Closer relationships warrant a “real” kiss on the cheek. Men do a standard handshake with other men, but their handshakes tend to be much less firm here.
On Taboos and Sensitivity
Some of the more “sheltered” and/or less educated Ecuadorians you will meet tend to be extremely conservative, curious and gossipy. They can also be extremely closed-minded. Don’t be surprised if you get some relatively “personal” questions upon first meeting. If you tell them you are an atheist, for example, it will be shocking to them and you can expect a lecture on faith and its importance. Due to the 95% Catholic population, they are extremely socially conservative as well. Living with a partner before marriage is a huge no-no, and participating in any “taboo” behavior will win you shame and gossip throughout the family and community. For these reasons, it is advised to avoid religious discussions, especially if you’re a non-believer. People generally tend to live with their parents until they get married, often times well into their early 30′s. This can make inter-cultural dating extremely difficult in Ecuador.
Family life in Ecuador trumps all. They are not without their problems with divorce, teenage pregnancy and dead-beat dads, but in general, the family unit is tight, and not many wander far from their family throughout their life (be it for cultural or economical reasons). To put this in perspective, my Cuencana girlfriend (who was 30 years of age and living with her parents), had never been to Loja or Vilcabamba, two of the most beautiful and popular tourist spots for foreigners. These wonderful cities are only a 3 and 4 hour drive away from Cuenca, respectively. So, keep in mind that, as a foreigner, you most likely have seen more of Ecuador than the majority of Ecuadorians you meet. For this reason, I find myself trying not to “gloat” about all of the places I have been.
On Food, Drink and Siesta Culture
Almuerzo (lunch), tends to be the main meal of the day in most Ecuadorian cities. This is the meal you probably go out for, and you’ll most likely find yourself with a group of friends and/or coworkers. Most Ecuadorians eat light breakfasts (bread, yogurt and juice), so when 1pm rolls around, they’re ready to eat. And eat they do. Ecuadorians don’t mess around with a little sandwich, they have three course meals, that you can usually enjoy for $1.50 – 3.00. A soup always starts the meal, followed by a large main dish, usually consisting of white rice, fried meat and a side of salad or veggies. You can also expect fresh juice and a little pastry. Like anything else, you get what you pay for, but generally you can get a wonderful 3-course almuerzo for 2 or 3 bucks.
And after you’ve stuffed yourself with a large lunch? Well, with siesta culture, you still have another hour to enjoy before going back to work. If you’re lucky enough to work close to home, you can head back for a power nap. Generally, locals work from 9-6pm, preferring their 2-hour lunch as opposed to going home at 5pm. And once you’re used to it, you understand why.
In general, most foreigners enjoy Ecuadorian soups, fruit juices, fruits and veggies. These are the things that stand out the most, as your typical, run of the mill Ecuadorian cuisine isn’t anything to write home about. Sure, there are wonderful things to discover, but Ecuador isn’t exactly world-famous for their native dishes. But get out there and try every soup, fruit and fruit juice you can, because they are just wonderful.
And what would a blog on Ecuadorian culture be with the mention of cuy? Ahhh, yes, the famous, over-sized guinea pig delicacy. It can be a bit gamy, others say it is more like chicken and a challenge to pick away the good meat, but, either way, it must be tried.
On Drinking and Music Culture
Not unlike other South American countries, music, drinking and dancing are deeply integrated into Ecuadorian culture. And while there are many fascinating, indigenous and beautiful cultural arts in Ecuador, pop music still rules the airwaves and clubs. And if you happen to be someone who prides themselves in underground, indie-rock, electronica, etc., undoubtedly the lack of musical diversity will be one of the biggest challenges for you. We’re talking about a country that is excited and lucky if a group like the Johnas Brothers tours through, and DJs that insist on playing the same 2 David Guetta singles, ever single night, at every single club, for years on end. And what do the revelers do when these “played out” cheesy songs come on? They go wild. It is a pop music culture that is akin to the musical tastes you and your middle school friends had.
To be fair, once you’re more integrated into your local community/scene, you can often find a cultural and/or underground type of event to attend. Various bars host talented jazz and blues bands. You can find Beatles cover bands, 80s and 90s nights, etc. And, on rare occasions, a semi-famous international DJ will swing through town on an South American tour.
Like the music, consumers of alcoholic beverages in Ecuador don’t enjoy too much diversity. Sure, your upscale bars/clubs will have legitimate mixoligists who can concoct some wonderful cocktails, but by and large, you’re going to see a lot of mojitos and Cuba libres. As far as beer is concerned, you have about three local choices, and they all taste exactly the same. Whether it is Pilsener (the national pride), Club or Brahma, prepare yourself for light, crisp, pilsners and lagers. I prefer the Club to Pilsener, only because the latter is incredibly over-carbonated. There are a handful of micro-breweries in Cuenca and Quito worth a try, but they generally only serve as a “better than Pilsener” kind of experience. Lastly, Zhamir, Ecuador’s national liquor, is a sugar-cane based liquor that comes in various flavors. As one could imagine, it is cheaply made and sweet, AKA: a “hangover in a bottle.” Beware.
But one good thing that derives from Zhamir is Canelazo, a traditional Ecuadorian liquor drink, served hot, in various fruity flavors. A few parts fruit juice and one part Zhamir, on a cool night, is a wonderful drink to sip on.
But despite a lack of booze-diversity, boy do people drink. They drink to dance, drink with lunch/dinner, drink to get drunk, and drink in any general social situation. Despite the conservative/religious culture, alcohol has less taboos surrounding it compared to the States. And although there are some pretty strict alcohol laws on the books, you can expect to see much more “lax” behavior surrounding drinking in public. Youngsters can easily get into clubs, it isn’t uncommon to see people drinking inside liquor stores and/or as they walk down streets. You can read more about Cuenca nightlife here.
On Safety and Stability
While safety understandably plays a huge role in people’s decision to move/travel abroad, I feel that the dangers of SA are usually exaggerated. There is no shortage of resources out there to warn one of the common dangers and precautions to take, so get smart and do some research before coming, and talk to people upon arrival. In general, most Ecuadorian cities are not any more/less dangerous than many North American cities. The vast majority of muggings and pickpocketings you hear about occur when one is not vigilant. These criminals are opportunists, so don’t give them the opportunity! At the end of the day, almost anyone will experience some kind of robbery during their stay/travels in Ecuador. While I’ve had my fair share of unfortunate run-ins with petty crime, generally, in Cuenca, I do not feel nervous walking down the streets at night.
Ecuador has a notorious history with political instability. More often than not, though, it is a failed coup attempt that usually only affects the streets/daily lives of people in Quito. Overall, compared to other neighboring countries, political instability isn’t something to be overly concerned about.
Ecuadorian culture is not vastly different from most North American and European cultures, especially compared to trying to acclimated to Eastern cultures. From religious beliefs to nightlife, food to language, with patience, research, an open mind, some Spanish speaking abilities, and friendliness, you’re bound to find your niche and feel integrated into Ecuadorian culture. It is vitally important that, despite how long you’ve been around, you always understand that you are a guest in the eyes of most, and to act accordingly.
July 17, 2011