A Long Road Ahead Part I

Culture shock. I’d used the term before. I thought I grasped the definition: visiting a foreign place, experiencing a different way of life and being overwhelmed with shock and awe of all the differences. I suppose vacationing and short stays in new places is only a shallow experience of culture shock. On two different occasions, Captain and I spent over two months in Ecuador. The way in which the people lived such simple lives was quite fascinating. This intial infatuation with a new country is the first stage of culture shock, the honeymoon stage…this stage doesn’t last for long.

Cultural norms are imposed on us as children and soon become second nature. We learn quickly when we cross the culturally unacceptable line. When immersiing ourselves in a new place, social behaviors and essentially all aspects of life that are second nature no longer apply. Everything from the way we greet others to what behaviors are considered rude is foreign. It wasnt until I actually moved to Ecuador and started building a life here did I realize how deeply rooted culture is in all aspects of our life. For anyone moving to a foreign country, it is helpful to understand culture shock and its stages. Awareness and understanding of the process may be the difference in surviving this very serious syndrome or not.

When everything around us is so foreign, we will cling to what we know. This is why at this point the home environment takes on such great importance. (I think back to unpacking my kitchen and being overly obsessed about how I was going to set it up…) More often than not, the culturally shocked individual tends to cling to others who are more familiar, those who speak their same language and have similar culture backgrounds. Perhaps this is why there are so many segregated communities of similar nationalities all over the world. But the culturally shocked individual must be careful as this relationship can become quite dependent and burdensome for the well-adjusted foreigners. Best case scenario, the well-adjusted are helpful yet not co-dependent and patient as the newcomer works through the initial shock stages.

In our parts, there are no gringo communities so we really didn’t have the “luxury” of leaning hard on other Americans. But Caffeine, our Ecuador savvy friend has been a great help; thankfully, she is familiar with the process of culture shock. But being the overly generous person she is, Captain and I never want to overwhelm Caffeine with any of our matters; her cup is already overflowing. We try to keep our neediness to a minimum but when beginning construction of our Paradise on the Pacific, we knew calling in a favor from Caffeine was due.

“My friend knows all the good builders in town!” She seemed thrilled to help us out. Caffeine had arranged a dinner date with her friends. The thought of a Spanish-speaking dinner party with new people tied knots in my stomach. Introductions and interactions with new people here in Ecuador are becoming less awkward but nonetheless still a bit uncomfortable. But meeting people is a delight and dinner parties with friends is always a good time. It turns out Bob and Babs speak a little english so swapping language lessons is a great icebreaker and along with the lessons usually come good laughs!

Our new friends met us at the door with open arms. “Ello!” the kind man exclaimed. With his thick accent he continued, “this my wife Babs.” Babs and I leaned in to kiss one another on the cheek. This truly intimate moment is becoming less uncomfortable these days…I thought to myself, “Okay…this feels quite natural.” Then the man went on. “And I am Boob.” Opps. There it was. Bob’s accent transformed his name into a never-ending joke for Captain. “Pleased to meet you Boob. I’ve never met a boob I didn’t like!”

The single most important element in surviving culture shock is learning to speak the native language. Without the use of verbal communication one cannot thrive in a new environment. Every interaction with others is stifled when so much, or so little, needs to be said but no one understands the other. Conversations with strangers at the market don’t happen. Dinner parties and community gatherings lose substance. There is often so much that I wish to say but without the vocabulary, much is left unsaid.

Every day my spanish is improving. I am recognizing more words in nearby conversations. In general, I am much more comfortable listening to the language. No longer am I speaking Spanglish and my language skills have evolved from Caveman. But nonetheless, there is still much I do not comprehend.

Lost during most of the dinner table conversation, I was in my own head. “I sure do miss my family.” “How I’d love for a deep conversation with my dear pals.” “When would any of them visit?” “Would they like Ecuador and want to come again?”

I snapped out of my daydreaming when I heard Caffeine say, “let’s get down to business. These two need help building a road. Can you help?” Boob pulled out his cell phone, excused himself from the table and made a call. Moments later he returned and exclaimed, “Ten minutes he come here!” I’ve been in South America long enough to know ten minutes usually means an hour so I didn’t expect to see the man promptly.

Our plates were cleared by the housekeeper and she received many compliments for her delicious encocado. This is my all time favorite dish here on the coast. Fresh fish cooked in coconut milk, with sautéed tomato, peppers and onions served over rice…yum! Her husband is Boob’s security guard. “This man is good,” he exclaimed. “I trust him much. He has key to my house. You can have him if you like!” Captain replied with excitement, “I like…I always wanted my own person. Can we take him home?” He was serious. And I was seriously offended but I told myself this must have been a poor choice of words…

It couldn’t have been much longer than ten minutes when the door bell rang. In walked a young man wearing a work tee and steel toed boots. He owns a smaller, yet quite successful hardware store in Atacames and looked the part of a working man. I was impressed with his timeliness and had a good feeling about him right away.

There was a short discussion about the road work we needed. From the main road, what I call the Pacific Coast Highway, there is a cow path half of a kilometer long to our property. It it only the right of way but if we were going to be doing construction, we needed something better than a dirt trail. With the thick jungle, our Chevy couldn’t make it through. The smaller Lada was easier to manuever but the grass towered over the hood as it plowed through the lush green. A few times we snuck up on confused cattle who were hesitant to make way. No way would big trucks make it through. Transforming this cow path into a road was the first step of construction.

Cow Path

Wet season was approaching as well. Supposedly rainy season is December through February with the most intense rains in February. I see the weather patterns changing all over the world so what is really normal anyways. But according to the locals, it can just rain and rain for days. Our province is named the Esmeraldas Province because of all the rain turning the jungle into a beautiful emerald garden. If it was going to be as wet as the locals claim, we wanted to build the road first to see how well it would withstand rainy season. And of course, if the road couldn’t be built because of the wet ground, building our paradise would be delayed that much longer. And we didn’t want to be in the House on the Hill for long…

Before quoting us a price, Timely Tim of course needed to see our project but he was ready to get started right away. Right now? Oh, okay. Sure! We were thrilled he was so motivated to begin but he needed a lift to our property as he doesn’t have his own vehicle. He would then need a ride back to town which would add an extra two hours of driving for me and Captain. I was surprised such a man could run such a successful business and not own a vehicle. Having one’s own ride is truly a luxury here in Ecuador. We requested we meet when he was able to arrange his own transportation.

Timely agreed to meet us the following morning at 8AM. It just so happened that his backhoe was already out our way so timing was perfect. The plan was to first widen the cow path, by clearing the thick bush, then large stone layed for a base and next digging a deeper path in which “amarillo” dirt would be layed and packed down. After a few of these dirt layers, another layer of dirt and stone would be placed for the top layer. When both parties agreed on a price within our budget, a deal was made. Rule number one: always be very clear about the final price and agree to only pay what was quoted. It is common for there to be unnecessary miscellaneous charges at the end of a job that were conveniently not discussed.

Tim took our contact information and we were told to expect the backhoe driver at 8AM “manana” which means tomorrow in Spanish…

The next morning Captain was very prompt in opening the barbed wire fence at the start of the appeasement. Captain is right on time according to America’s standards but in Ecuador that is always really early! Two hours later he returned home and said the driver hadn’t shown. “Maybe he was coming later on in the day.” The following day the backhoe still didn’t return. Captain was at our gate at eight in the morning for three days and no backhoe ever arrived. Quite frustrated that we were told a worker would show and it was never communicated he wouldn’t be there, we had learned rule number two: if the other person takes your contact information, do not expect a call if plans change. Day four we felt as if we wanted this project to begin we needed to be a bit more persistent. We drove to Atacames to clear up the miscommunication and find out the status of our road.

When arriving to Timely’s hardware store, Boob was called. He knows less English than we do Spanish so I was a bit confused as to why he was in the middle acting as our translator. But Timely didn’t want to start the project until we were all on the same page. Captain and I were actually very clear about the right of way project plans and asked to get started promptly…

We hadn’t even started building our inn and already miscommunication was costing us money, time and energy…

After a week, our road was complete. How quickly it all happened. We’d been here less than a month and our road was built. But this was only the beginning. Constructing something as simple as a road was so challenging due to our language barriers. Every time I wished to say something, even just the simplest things, I had to carefully construct a sentence or rephrase my question. Perhaps I was in denial about it all because obviously building a home in a foreign country without speaking the language is going to be a great challenge. But it was until now I realized the long road we were traveling…

The Long Road

Thinking of all the challenges Captain and I were facing caused great anxiety. How do we find our about the water? Who do we talk to about the electric? What will it be like working with an architect/builder who can’t comprehend what I am asking for structurally. However was this project going to be successful? Had I made a huge mistake coming to Ecuador? My anxious thoughts led to an uneasy feeling in my gut that turned into an intense knot. I had to relax.

Okay, slow down and stay focused. We already have a road. What next? Water. For now, just sit back and enjoy paradise. Making my way to the hammock, I made peace with the moment and took in the sounds of the sea. Minutes later I was awaken by, “Tat! Tat! Tat!” Mr. Deeds had decided this was the perfect time to replace the bamboo along the cabana where I was relaxing. The hammering and sawing interfered greatly with my deep relaxation. Apparently he hadn’t thought twice about disturbing my slumber. I chalked it up to cultural differences and left the space to find comfort inside on a couch where I could listen to the sounds of the birds. I still couldn’t escape the unpleasant sounds of his tools.

The littlest things were starting to get on my nerves. My annoyance would then flare into anger. “Can’t he see I am trying to relax?!?” Perhaps if I was fluent I would have been more assertive and asked him for peace and quiet for a bit. Instead I went inside where only became even madder still hearing him work for four hours on a job that could have taken me one…

I couldn’t wait to get out of the House on the Hill…

Brooklyn, the American student was so helpful when we asked him if he knew anything about the water situation. Right away he got us connected us to the right people in town to discuss our need for water. It just so happened the community was already having a discussion. A small pipe had already been laid along the PCH but because more homes were in need of water, the community was discussing laying a larger, more appropriate pipe that would serve the houses along the way. The meeting was the approaching Sunday.

Returning home after the successful day with the town’s water committee, we discovered we had no running water in the House on the Hill. The electric was out. There is no relying on the electric system here. We don’t always know why but some days there is just no electric. The power goes off in the middle of the night. Often during holidays, fiestas will short-circuit the system. No one ever knows how long before it turns back on. One occasion, the electric company was working on lines down the road and shut off the power to our town. For three days, we were without power from exactly 8AM to 4PM. The townspeople appear to be the least bit frustrated with the power company shutting off their electric throughout the day. I imagine it wasn’t long ago when the town didn’t have electric so I would be surprised if much of their lives today are structured around its use.

It was dinnertime so Captain and I were getting out our headlamps so we could cook supper. I heard the puppies barking outside so I went to investigate the situation. Had I known what I was going to find, I would have sneaked a picture. There were our two puppies with their pubescent voices, barking up a tree where Mr. Deeds was posted. He was terrified. What he was doing, I am not sure and I sure hope it wasn’t window peeping. But whatever it was, he was now wishing he hadn’t been doing it! My guess was the puppies and Mr.Deeds snuck up on one another, scaring the other and there you have it. Miles and Grace have the gardener pinned in the tree…

Too Cute

We calmed everyone down and coerced Mr. Deeds out of the tree. Still terrified of Miles and Grace, he was uneasy in their presence. The relationship between people and dogs is so different in Ecuador. Dogs are wild and most people look to all of them with fear and dominance. What a challenge it is going to be socializing our dogs in a place where everyone reeks of fear. And with a gardener who is terribly frightened of our dogs but still likes to hang out at our place more than his, this was going to be a challenge.

This was the push I needed to keep trucking down the long road ahead…

It was as good of a time as ever to stop at the electric company to request a power line to our property so we drove to Atacames. A security guard greeted us at the door and directed us to one of the desks in front. There was one really long line and several people taking a number and sitting for another line. Thankfully, we were at a desk that had no long lines to wait in. Though we were not helped promptly, we learned about the billing process. Each month, a rate of electricity usage is projected depending on typical demand and every few months the meter is read; bills are then adjusted accordingly. Bills are printed at the electric company on request and paid at that time. No online bill pay?!? Yeah right…

We were able to explain our need for electric on our new property. An appointment with the electrician was set the following day at 10AM and, I am assuming, the paper we signed was agreeing to new services. Another great challenge of not being fluent in Spanish is not comprehending what others are saying. After I carefully construct a sentence to explain myself, I get a really long-winded answer. Not everyone talking back speaks slowly with small words for my comprehension. Many conversations are cut short when each party ends with the implied, “nevermind. You don’t know what I am saying anyways…”

Before leaving town, we stopped by our favorite video store in Atacames. The video stores in EC are much different from the U.S. Here in Ecuador, every movie is pirated. Because the movies are all pirated, the quality of videos can vary greatly. After choosing four new releases for five dollars, the cashier puts each one into the player ensuring it plays correctly, the quality is suffice and it has English options. This particular day we were saving us all time and effort and asked the cashier what movies were good quality and which were not. He was entertained at our poor spanish and responded with, “what can I help you guys with?” His english was spectacular. Captain and I were both taken back. This is the only video store we have been frequenting for all our time in Ecuador. We’d never crossed paths with this young guy. TJ had spent ten years of his life in the United States. And of all places, New Jersey. He and Captain reminisced about what it was like living in the “armpit of the United States”. TJ said when he was eighteen he came back to Ecuador. “Yeah, I like it here better…” Captain said, “yeah, what place isn’t better than Jersey!?”

We asked him if he was interested in translating for us. Captain and I had important business matters to handle and our improving Spanish was not going to be good enough. “Of course, I would love to help you guys!” We left the video store in complete bliss having just met Translator Jose.

The following morning we were at our gate five minutes until ten. Captain and I are starting to adjust to the difference in time references so we knew the electric company would not be there at 10. It was an hour later the electric company passed our place so we chased them down assuming they missed our property. They hadn’t missed us. There was another stop they were making first. Oh, okay. Thanks for letting us know? The workers said their other stop would only take an hour but we knew better. Captain and I took an early lunch break and came back to our property. The last thing we wanted to happen was the workers to drive back into town without stopping at our place. We are learning that if one is not persistent in this country, little gets accomplished at a very slow pace.

When the electricians arrived at two in the afternoon, I was a bit perturbed thinking they all probably took a long leisurely lunch while Captain and I were waiting for them. But this is South America so if I expect someone to show when they say they will, I am going to be disappointed because it doesn’t happen like that here.

Apparently, when we described the location of our property the previous day, there was a misunderstanding of where it was. That is why initially they drove right passed us and didn’t stop…the electricians didn’t realize that’s where we were located. It took them minutes to inform us we lived outside of city limits and they would have to use a private contractor. Wow. We waited for four hours to hear you explain in four minutes you couldn’t do the job. Urg…yet another miscommunication wasting time and energy.

Patience and understanding, perhaps the two greatest lessons I am to learn throughout this experience in Ecuador…

Despite a few big bumps along the road, Captain and I were making unbelievable progress having not only a road to our property but expecting water and electric soon as well. We figured it would take some time to find the right builder but as our utilities were falling into place, it seemed like a good time to start inquiring about local builders.

Down the road is a Canadian woman who came to Ecuador 30 years ago and bought a beautiful piece of beachfront property. She now is selling lots and creating an interesting international community. We decided to stop there for any recommendations, expecting she had a team there already working.

Sure enough, when Captain and I pulled down her long drive, a team of men were doing the finishing touches on a single story concrete structure. It was the future site of the community’s laundry services. We discovered they lived a few towns up which was important. In Ecuador it is customary for the paying customer to house and feed the workers while constructing. This was a cultural norm I’d rather not participate in…

First off, it was important to discuss with our neighbor if we could use her builders. We heard through the grapevine that she was building her house so we didn’t want to take her workers out from under her. She told us she wouldn’t be starting construction of her house any time and welcomed us to talk with her team. Candy also told us about another team of workers that had been hired by a gringo couple who “don’t worry much about money”. They were being overcharged, spending $100,000 on a two-story concrete home. Ummmmm, no. Not interested in that team. Thanks though…

The team had already left for the day so we asked for the number of the head worker. Candy talked with her security guard and said he would bring them to our property the next day. Again Captain asked for the phone number of the builder but our neighbor’s guard didn’t want to give it to us. Captain asked bluntly, “and why is he getting involved?” Her reply was surprisingly honest. “He probably wants to get a cut of the deal but that is just the way it is done in Ecuador.”

The next day a group of five men showed up at our property. The “maestro” is the boss which is translated to teacher in english. Along with the maestro was his two brothers, one a plumber and the other an electrician. Candy’s security guard was there; he of course wasn’t going to miss out on this deal! And the fifth guy was the driver. Yes, the designated driver. Why there is always one person who is only the driver I do not know. Perhaps it is a social status symbol. “Do business with me. I have someone who drives me around.” Maybe it’s that rare that people have cars so odds are when doing business, a driver has to be called in. The driver could just volunteer in hopes that he sees some dinero. One thing I do know, is everyone wants to be involved in the transaction. Lesson number three: there is always a group effort when handling business matters in Ecuador. Whether or not any work was done, each person wants to see payday.

We briefly discussed what our plan was for the standing structure and asked the maestro to take his time in quoting a price. My only expectation of this meeting was to get a feeling for this maestro. While the maestro was chuckling under their breath with his brothers, and the security guard and driver were also engaged in the deal, I knew right away this was not a team that I would be entrusting to build our inn. The maestro pulled a quote out of left field and it was outrageous. Perhaps they thought we were gringos that “don’t worry much about money” so I can’t be shocked he went big. Captain laughed and told him to go home to think seriously about a reasonable quote…

For some reason, Captain wanted to meet with these guys the next day with our translator along side. I had no rapport with this maestro and I was convinced he was not the man for the job. Maybe they would be our back up maestro if we had no luck elsewhere. Even then?…

During our meeting with the maestro, it was very clear that he was only interested in making quick cash. His plan was to finish the first two stories before building up. I had a feeling they had no intentions of completing our project and would only take our money and run. When the maestro wouldn’t budge on his inflated quote, I quickly ended the business meeting. We shook hands and wished the maestro well. I was more angry this maestro hadn’t seen the opportunity before him than I was disappointed we hadn’t found our builder…

The second stage of culture shock is aggression and hostility toward the people of the host country. This is where I have found myself these days, very angry toward the people around me. When I am confused about my unusual hatefulness towards others, I remind myself this is a symptom of culture shock and the very real difficulties of adjusting to a new place. It is important to understand that the locals are not purposefully trying to cause me discomfort. They are largely indifferent to the difficulties I am experiencing. This is a crucial point along this journey of moving overseas. Those who survive, eventually make the long road of adjusting to the culture. Those who don’t, take the road back home…

Advertisements