Cuenca High Life logo

Expat Life

New expat adapts to life in Ecuador; things ARE different here!

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.chl walt logo

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!

Family: It means something different in Ecuador.
Family: It means something different in Ecuador.

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.


8 thoughts on “New expat adapts to life in Ecuador; things ARE different here!

  1. Wow… more than a year and half here, and all this time I’ve been using my dining utensils incorrectly. And nary an Ecuadorean gave me the head’s up. Honestly, I had no idea that there was a sub-clause in my visa-acceptance papers, telling me that I had to conform in this way. No wonder everyone stares at me, too, what with my atrocious dining skills. (Or do I have cilantro in my teeth?) Ay! And my further breaches in etiquette for all those times I’ve asked for (and received) additional napkins! What must the local dining establishments think of me? Now that I think of it, I *do* recall seeing a young girl dart out a back door with an armload of napkins the other day as I approached the family eatery; my reputation must precede me. On a more serious note, I find that most Ecuadorians pay me little or not attention when I’m walking down the street. Maybe if were being really loud or obnoxious, perhaps. (Those people always get the stares.) But I try to minimize that aspect of my North American ways and somehow manage to stay largely in stealth mode. Oh, I was in the US very recently, and it appears that the same paint-on apparel is now widely available there, too. But apparently they don’t make it in the sizes required for the average North American female. (Darn Chinese clothing!) But I do believe both male and female Ecuadorians here have a genetic predisposition to staying on the thinner side, so while I am horribly shocked at some of the ultra tight jeans and skirts the ladies wear hear, I am actively trying to make peace with myself over it. It’s a good thing that those kids having their noses straightened or getting butt-cheek implants are happy with the way they were born! Now, I do see the closeness of Ecuadorian families, which is very nice. But for those teenagers with boyfriends or girlfriends, I’ve heard that they do whatever they can to break away from the prying eyes of family in order to make out in the park… or at the mall… or on the bus… under under Puente Roto… But overall, yes, families appear closer here. And I agree that little kids are also less intimidated/frightful of strangers than in the US. But I consider that a delightful things. I’ve had very small children walk right up and practice their English on me, or to otherwise engage me in some manner; I get a real kick out it, but it’s certainly nothing I’d describe as hard to get used to. I’ve poked some fun at the author, but I suspect this is his first time living abroad. When I lived in the UK and other people looked more or less like me, I still felt like the Brits were always staring at this young “Yank” and wondering why I was co-mingling with their native populace. I hope he (the author) follows up on his own self-advice to adapt-to and accept local differences. (However, I’ve seen greater differences between various groups of people in the US deep south (y’all best commence to fixin’ to start runnin’ if you start hearing banjo music!). Speaking of music, Walter, did you know that your name is one “W” off from the name of my favorite trombonist? De todos modos, the further you immerse yourself into local society, you’ll find yourself “having had adapted” and not feeling like you still need to get used to anything; you’ll just be “at home.” You’ll likely still have your awful dining-room habits that bring you under scrutiny, but in the overall scheme of things…

  2. For Latin Americans looking at someone is a sign of respect. It says “You’re important.” Ignoring someone is a sign of disrespect. Much of Latin American culture developed when most people lived in small towns or in the country where you must greet each other every day.

  3. For Latin Americans looking at someone is a sign of respect. It says “You’re important.” Ignoring someone is a sign of disrespect. Much of Latin American culture developed when most people lived in small towns or in the country where you must greet each other every day.

  4. Walter, you make some very cogent observations and I revel in some of them. However, when you make your comments about the ladies with painted on pants, you missed the opportunity to go further. What about the wonderful display of escote (Spanish for decolletage)and the high heels they always wear?

    When I first arrived here, I was a gym rat and would always ride the bus to my workouts wearing just gym shoes, shorts and a singlet top. I did so, rain or shine, warm or cold and used to get a kick out of the Cuencanos dressed in heavy chompas, guantes, gorras y bufandas (heavy jackets, gloves hats and scarves) who would look at me as if I was nuts. Because I had 20 inch muscular arms, the little kids couldn’t take their eyes off of me and with the wonderful candor that children always possess, they’d ask their parents if I was the Incredible Hulk. That was my cue to spring into action. I love kids and they seem to have an affinity to me as well. I’d beckon them to come to see if those arms were real and if I was, in fact, The Hulk. Most would squeal with delight at the opportunity and as you point out, the parents were never overcome with fear of strangers as they seem to be in the U.S. I never failed to send them on their way with a quarter or half dollar and they’d retreat to their parents side as if they had just made a visit to some holy shrine. For some, I’m sure it was the topic of conversation all day. To see the smiles on the faces of the parents as their kids were enjoying the experience was priceless.

    Years ago, I ran into a gringo neighbor out on the street on the way to my bus stop. In our conversation, he said to me that he was really put off by the unfriendly aloofness of the Ecuadorians he would pass on the street and who would never greet him or make eye contact. I asked him what universe he was living in and we debated the subject for ten minutes on the sidewalk as many people passed by. As they did, I greeted each of them with a smile and a “buenas tardes” and without exception, they all smiled and returned the greeting. After ten minutes, I asked my neighbor if he was getting the point. This man was a highly educated retired physician and I didn’t think I had to explain any further, in words, the point I was trying to make. He moved from my building a short time later, and in the ensuing years, I’ve run into him a number of times and he seems to still be one of those gringos that hangs out only in gringo circles and still speaks no Spanish. I think my lesson was lost on him, but I have a funny feeling that folks like Walter don’t need it explained to them any further.



  5. Nice article. Really enjoyed this one. Didn’t know about the finger food no-no’s. That’s something I’ll start practicing now. As far as eating with fork in my left hand and knife in my right, that’s the way I’ve done it for many years. Probably due to the Euro influence of some of my in-laws but I find it to be a more relaxing way to eat a nice meal.

  6. Another reason that American women are uncomfortable with their bodies is , quite simply , most are fat over-eaters .

Comments are closed.