John Villanueva - Ecuador

September 21, 2012

The first two weeks in Quito, Ecuador have consisted of excitement, learning, and a slight case of paranoia. During the first week in Quito, I pondered the fact that I´m only one of the two million plus people who currently populates this massive, sausage-shaped city. I’m not exactly a big city type of person, so I found it disheartening that my addition to the population was pretty insignificant. I was just another sardine packed onto the busses each day, and worse, I sensed that I was nothing but a source of money to everyone I passed. Whether it was the vendors that charged me the gringo (foreigner) price or the supposed pick-pocketers and bag-slashers my discretion had labeled, nearly everyone I didn’t know distressed me. With all that distress, I realized I might be missing out on the Ecuadorian culture when I’m too much of a cheap-o to buy a certain food or too cautious to enjoy myself. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I experienced culture shock the first week – just not in the way I expected.

With the modern appliances and technologies in Quito, I had convinced myself that culture shock would NOT find space on my agenda. In fact, I even had the fear of missing out (FOMO) on Ecuadorian culture itself because this city seemed too high-tech compared to the romanticized understanding of culture shock I once had. I used to think culture shock only meant waking up too early for my liking, or having to force feed myself a certain food because Mamita thinks I’m too skinny (and that’s all they eat here anyways), or taking bucket showers in the frigid cold, or accidentally offending my family with a burp, or having to wash my clothes by hand. But now my FOMO for the Ecuadorian culture stems from the fact that I’m too scared of becoming a victim of gringo thievery: in essence, an insignificant tourist who’s bought out by a vendor selling a façade of the Ecua-life, or the kid that walks off the bus with emptied pockets.

During the second week of Quito madness however, my kidneys finally stopped pumping out so much adrenaline. I finally broke out of my “set-price bubble” and I´m not afraid to negotiate prices when they seem unreasonable; all you have to do is tell them that “I´ll check another tienda”, “5 dolares?”, “There is a lot of air in this bag of chips” or “So that´s the reason no one is buying from here!” I´m kidding, I didn´t say that last one, but if I get desperate enough I might go for it. As far as theft goes, it has become my second nature to stay cautious: I instinctively place my hand in my pocket full of valuables; my messenger bag automatically swings with to its front side against my stomach and even feels awkward on my back at times; my messenger bag retains its inward curvature to fit snugly on my stomach; and I´m always keenly aware of the sensations on my thighs and butt. Though these habits have been ingrained into me, I honestly don´t think the fellows have been experiencing much theft; I only know of a single case where the bag-slasher successfully stole a disposable water bottle from a fellow. But that just goes to show these habits are necessary.

I came into Ecuador as un chiquito, a little boy, a little scared in the big city at first but growing through adaptation and learning to love. Though I realize that the problems I adapted to are pretty prevalent in other large cities and that I could have felt this form of culture shock in any of those metropolises as well, but from all this, I´ve learned to adapt and take in a new culture as it is, allowing my own culture to gradually transform into a new one. In fact, I think of Quito as my baby step into our second host communities. So when we arrive in our 6-month host communities I´ll make sure to keep that lesson in mind (By the way I´ve been placed in the city of Riobamba for 6 months!) But now that I feel well adapted to Quito´s ways, it´s only reasonable to say that I´m finally experiencing the culture I´ve been longing for. But Quito is a big city, and a wise man once told me that “Cities are cities”. No matter which major city you go you´ll find the tourist attractions, the grand structures, the restaurants, the stores, and the discotheques. Not to say Quito, or any major city for that matter, has no culture. I just have to dig a little deep amongst the flashy signs and lights in “Gringolandia” to find it here. But that´s also another lesson I want to bring to Riobamba with me. The culture of a city is not limited to the stores and restaurants, or whatever you find on the main streets. And with another two weeks in Quito, I don´t want to feel like I´m on vacationing on the main streets anymore, I want to feel like I really live in this city with my Quito family. With all this talk about culture, I´ve been eager to mention – in no particular order – some facts about Quito and/or Ecuador that I´ve learned or noticed:

  • People rarely use “Adios”. Instead, Ciao is often used instead. In fact, Ciao is such a thing here, that my Quito host family didn´t know that it´s actually Italian, and not Spanish.
  • In America, we have “See you late, alligator”. Ecuador has ”Ciao Ciao, Pesca’o” or Bye-bye, fish!
  • Chinese food is called Chifa here, and it´s just as big as in America.
  • Videos at the video stores are mostly bootlegged and go for less than a dollar per movie. I´m still trying to decide whether it´s an awesome thing, an awesome thing, or a bad thing.
  • I actually have to make my bed in the morning. Talk about culture shock.
  • For a cheap 25 cents, you can sacrifice your personal space for a bus ride across the city. It’s the mode of transportation I take every day. I know I make it sound bad but it’s easy to get used to.
  • 50% of the taxis are not certified by the government, but for some reason the government legalized them.
  • This is actually a basic one, but Ecuador uses the US dollar as their official currency. They had to switch from the Sucre in the 90’s after it dramatically inflated.
  • Fresh, home made juices are made every morning from many of the fruits, and coladas are also made from the fruits, which can be described as warm “liquid pie”.
  • In the Ecuador Constitution, the environment has its own rights.
  • The accent mark, or the tilde, on the keyboards is placed where the apostrophe key normally is for us Americanos, so you may have found some tildes where an apostrophe should be in this blog post.
  • The main form of advertisement for the street food and food shops are the incredible aromas they emit.

There is so much more to Quito and Ecuador of course. But hopefully with what I´ve learned in Quito, I can offer a list of Riobamba facts to share too. And I know you probably have no idea where in the world Riombamba is, but I’ll clear that up later. All the fellows are headed to their new, 6-month host communities for a week-long stay of complete immersion and I wish everyone in Brecuagal Buena Suerte, good luck! Ciao Ciao, Pesca’o.

John Villanueva