Responsible Storytelling

William Shain - Ecuador


January 10, 2019

“Expectation vs reality” is one of the most iconic GCY catchphrases, on par
with “you get the year you need, not the year you want,” “curiosity before
judgment,” and “discovering a world ahead.” Yet I find that the more I
experience here in Ecuador, the more I identify with the meaning behind the
phrase “expectation vs reality.”

It is important to note that as I document my experiences here through
different mediums of communication, social media posts, newsletters,
emails, or over phone calls, I do not document completely and authentically
what Ecuador truly is. I find myself wondering if it is even possible to
fully represent what a country is through media, and I am beginning to
think it is not.

The reason I am touching on this theme now is simple: I recently had my
brother and my girlfriend visit me here in Ecuador for the holidays. This
experience was rejuvenating and extremely special to me but also awakened
me to the idea that the image of Ecuador I have portrayed to them has been
skewed.

The best example of this misconception is shown in the photo attached:
buses. I regularly take buses around the province of Imbabura, and always
share with Kate, my girlfriend, about my trips. However, I had not really paid
attention to the way I was reporting these bus rides. When Kate first got on a
bus to Pimampiro, she was shocked and told me she had expected it to be
more rudimentary. Instead, she found the airplane-style seats complete with
USB ports, overhead personal lamps, reclining abilities and the
discoteca-style” lights that you can see in the attached photo. In fact,

with the TV in the front of the bus usually playing a drama, and the
movie’s score strumming in the background, it is much nicer than my
experiences with public transportation in the US.

Yet, without reporting these details of my trips, it’s easy to assume that
the buses are old, reused, and lack elegance or comfort. When I was in
Nicaragua in the Summer of 2016, the buses I rode were US school buses from
the 1950s, repurposed and slightly redesigned. I found myself expecting a
similar situation when I arrived in Ecuador. And, thinking back on it, I
had many misconceptions and assumptions in my mind before I became more
acclimated to Ecuadorian life: I brought a makeshift clothesline to my
homestay, I brought back-up hygiene products, and I expected to live far
from any nearby town. And I expected these things because of previous
experiences in a completely different country, rather than facts.

Hans Rosling, a late Swedish global health analyst and co-founder of
the Gapminder
Foundation <www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix> wrote a
fantastic interpretation in 2017 of statistical trends and predictions for
the near future of humans on this planet. He called his book Factfulness and
begins with a chart comparing every country based on their average life
expectancy and income. Through this, Rosling eradicates dated terms such as
“first” and “third world countries,” and replaces them with four income
levels. Rosling discusses at length the basic differences between these
levels, but also how different amounts of money can affect a family
depending on their income level. When I was in Nicaragua, living on roughly
$1 a day, I was in a Level 1 reality. Here in Ecuador, I am experiencing a
Level 3 lifestyle. At my home in the US, I am a part of a privileged Level
4 society. Rosling outlines the general aspects of these lifestyles but
also reminds readers not to take these for a fact.

Kate’s first impression of Ecuador was in the capital, Quito. She wasn’t
surprised to see the skyscrapers or malls with varying types of cuisines,
as she had been in the US less than thirty-six hours earlier. Yet after
four months of being in Imbabura, I found myself in reverse culture shock
as we toured the streets of the capital. Quito is made up of eerily clean
streets, lacking stray dogs, and tourists or shoppers who swipe credit
cards without checking the prices at the mall. This reminded me that though
Ecuador is marked as a Level 3 country, this certainly does not mean that
everyone in Ecuador lives a Level 3 lifestyle. The farmers that I work with
are on the lower end of Level 1: extreme poverty. My host family has no
savings. The money they receive immediately goes to pay off debts yet they
find money to occasionally go to the city or order pizza, swaying between
Level 2 and Level 3. And in the cities, some families use the holidays as
excuses to buy themselves new computers or phones, similar to the Level 4
lifestyle that many of us are familiar with.

I have not been practicing responsible storytelling. This is something that
I am determined to change, whether I am here in Ecuador or traveling
abroad. Everything is not what it seems, and it is not until we eradicate
assumptions and devote ourselves to experiencing and seeing for ourselves
while reporting responsibly about our experiences, that cultures can truly
be represented with the fairness that they deserve.

William Shain