By Walter Panko
There are a lot of things that happen in Ecuador that I didn’t see in the United States. Some are easy to get used to. Others take more time. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I found easier to get accustomed to seeing, hearing and doing. I’ll cover the more difficult things in my next installment.
1. Being served what I considered cocktail napkins in the United States with meals, whether I’m at a $2.50 almuerzo place or a top-notch dinner restaurant.
These servilletas must be designed only to dab your lips with after you complete your meal, because they are almost useless to use on your fingers. Luckily, Ecuadorian manners dictate that almost no food is picked up with your fingers, so that makes it easier to understand. Of course, for me, raised in the U.S. with a multitude of finger foods, it took a while to realize that Ecuadorian fingers are only to be used for holding utensils—not food!
2. Speaking of utensils, it seems as though I have to learn to eat with them all over again.
Ecuador follows the European custom of not changing hands with your fork when you eat. Instead of holding the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, and switching for cutting, the fork stays in the left hand and is used only to bring the food to one’s mouth.
Of course it makes more sense. Why spend all the energy constantly switching the fork from one hand to the other, just to switch it back again. (Unless, that is, one believes that the extra motion burns up enough calories to allow for an extra serving of dessert!)
Nonetheless, learning to eat with the fork in the left hand—using the knife to push food onto it instead of using it to spear and scoop food, means I have to develop a new set of fine-motor skills, like the ones I developed when I was about three years old. And it seems to be taking just about as long now as it did then.
3. Ecuadorian women seem to have a much healthier acceptance of their bodies than do women in the U.S. (Please cut me some slack here. I don’t quite know how to describe this without appearing to be sexist, but I’ll try.)
Ecuadorian style for women is to wear clothing, especially pants, with a much tighter fit than in the U.S. In fact, one expat lady I know described it as “spray-painted pants.” Without being judgmental about it, let me just say that the size, shape or age of the women seems to make no difference when it comes to the tight fit.
And, I think this is healthy! It says to me that the women in Ecuador are comfortable with their bodies. They don’t subscribe to the North American concept of beauty being “anorexic”. They seem to understand that any body shape is beautiful because it contains the true nature of the owner—the mind, soul and personality.
4. The number of multi-generational families walking in the park arm-in-arm is nice to see. It’s something I rarely witnessed in the U.S.
Instead of teenagers trying to appear as though they don’t know their parents, in Ecuador they show that they enjoy being part of the family. Instead of trying to hide their parents from their friends, the teenagers glory in the relationship.
And, the thing I found most surprising is that teenage boys were as physically affectionate with their parents as teenage girls! Again, that is something one might have seen in the U.S. in the 1950’s, but very rarely today.
Siblings in Ecuador seem to act differently toward each other than in the U.S., too. Just as they are affectionate with their parents, they are affectionate with each other. It is common to see brothers and sisters interacting with each other as though it were the most common thing in the world. One sees older brothers and sisters playing with younger siblings publicly, whereas in the U.S. this is typically only done in the privacy of their own homes, out of public sight.
By watching the actions of family members in public, it’s easy to tell that the concept of family in Ecuador is alive and well. It is equivalent to the concept of family that people in the U.S. claim to want, miss, and long for.
5. Being stared at on the streets is a constant occurrence.
While I would like to think I am stared at because I resemble George Clooney or Matthew McConaughey, I understand, however, that it’s probably because I look like a foreigner.
Children and older people—especially the older ones—are the most open about staring. That’s understandable. Children are trying to figure out who the funny-looking man is. They are used to seeing dark-haired people with a certain set of facial characteristics, and I look different. Older people grew up unaccustomed to seeing tourists and expats. Many are from rural areas where the only people they saw regularly were family members and fellow villagers. Gringos look odd to them.
The people from about age 18 to 55 seem to be the ones who are most furtive with their staring. They try to glance, look away, and glance again. Sometimes they get caught up in the moment and forget to look away.
I found the best way to handle stares is to smile, offer a “Buenos Dias” or “Buenas Tardes,” and see if they respond. Some do, often returning the smile. Others seem embarrassed to be caught, and hastily look away. A few just keep staring as they walk on by.
With little children, I smile, give a little wave, and watch for their smile. It’s usually forthcoming.
Someone asked if it bothered me when people stared. I told them it didn’t. It’s just part of looking different. I figure that it comes with the territory!
6. Speaking of little children, I never see parents get uncomfortable when I interact with kids in Ecuador.
Parents here don’t have the built-in fear of strangers smiling and talking to their children as they do in the U.S.
These are just some of the things I’ve learned to adapt to in Ecuador, my new home. When I think about it, I understand how minor they are in my journey of getting used to a new culture. For me, it’s important to understand that Ecuador is not going to change to accommodate me; it’s my responsibility to understand that and adapt to the way things are here.
Walter Panko and his wife, Karen, recently moved to Cuenca from the U.S. He is a retired educator and business owner looking forward to adapting to and adopting the local culture. He is experiencing life in Cuenca through “Gringo Eyes” and sharing some of his observations.