When I first came to Ecuador in September of 2004, I was clearly a tourist. Every corner I turned revealed some new and alien scene: a five-year old boy selling gum on the street, his mother nowhere in sight; a pick-up truck with a clearly unsafe number of passengers precariously balanced in its bed; men jumping on moving busses while the money-collecting assistant shouted, ìToda la Colon, Plaza Artigas, Doce, La Catolicaî; dogs looking both ways before crossing the road. It was, as they say, something to write home about. And I did.
I kept a website, updated with frequent journal entries and photos of our adventures in Ecuador; I wrote emails every chance I got. And often, when I was typing away in some internet cafÈ in the ìMariscalî neighborhood of Quito, Iíd encounter other gringo tourists. I looked at them with a sort of disdain, especially when they were talking to each other too loudly about how drunk they got the previous night, or showing off their knowledge of Quito, making claims about how ìcoolî various parts of the city were.
My wife and I were to be here for a year, and I knew that in time, I would be more familiar with this place than any tourist, that we would come to call Quito home.
We spent the next couple months trying to find our niche in Quito. For four or five weeks, we searched for a quality gym. We frequented fancy bakeries, where we could find American-style pastries. We scoured the town for bagels. Despite our loathing of big boxes like Wal-Mart, whenever we walked into the Mega-Maxi in Quito, our eyes illuminated with a mixture of nostalgia and hope. In fact, entering any sort of Americanized realm gave us a certain sense of comfort, especially as Thanksgiving approached.
By then, I had met my students and had been teaching them for four or five weeks already, long enough to finally have built some sort of relationship with them. There was Lourdes, who worked part time at an orphanage, setting up a workshop where the children could create handmade crafts to sell to the public. She inspired me with her ideas and dreams and before long, got me dreaming of various side-projects ñmaybe volunteering at the orphanage, or creating a foundation for more affordable study/live abroad programs.
There was Diego, the policeman in my morning class who told me about his wages, describing the pay schedule and the various raises for having a wife, a child, for having worked for one year, five years, ten years. At twenty-five, he was married with two kids. He made $360 a month, about the same as I was making as a ìvolunteer.î Because of this, he explained, many policemen accept bribes, especially for petty crimes. You need to supplement your income somehow.
I talked extensively with Natalia, a mother of four boys, about adolescents. She spoke freely about the failings of Ecuadorian schools, and urged me to talk with the teachers at her sonsí school, hoping that I could somehow inspire them to make their methodology more like my own.
Ivan, in my night class, was a high school teacher. He worked from 7:00 to 12:30 every day, took lunch until 2:00, then worked four more hours as a volunteer with a foundation that helps poor and homeless children. At 6:00, he came to a two-hour English class, often late, but always eager to learn.
In talking with my students outside of class time, my Spanish began to improve; I began to feel more comfortable with the culture. And I had no lack of stories to send home in emails or to post on my website. Three months into my stay, I had worked through much of the homesickness. I had a routine. I could navigate Quitoís bus system and negotiate successfully with cab drivers and fruit vendors. I had become the person I thought I might be, the American in Quito who could chuckle at the naÔve tourists who bragged about the fact that theyíd been in Ecuador for three weeks.
We still sought out Duncan Hines brownie mixes in the grocery store, and pancakes at the very touristy ìMagic Beanî restaurant, but despite these clear gringo preferences, my disdain for the tourists remained. They were there to see new places, but very few of them were learning about the people and the culture like I was. I was always quick to tell Ecuadorians I met that I was living in Quito for the year. I wanted to set myself apart from my traveling countrymen.
After my third month, however, things started to change. I donít recall one single incident that precipitated the change. It came gradually.
One day, I was playing soccer with my morning class, which consisted of 14 policemen and four civilians. I thought Iíd be horrible, but I was doing okay. My team captain had put me on defense, saying, ìTim, you play last man.î I was in the swing of it, directing my fellow defenders, and keeping pace with the footwork of my opponents. In the final minute of the game, however, with the score tied, I misjudged a high ball and jumped up for a header too soon. The players on the opposing team swept in and scored easily. I felt horrible. I literally hung my head in shame, lamenting the fact that I couldnít swear in Spanish with the same sort of convincing authority as I could in English. I wanted to show my self-disgust, just like I would back home, just like I did back home many times throughout my life. The trick had always been to show enough disappointment with yourself that others didnít need to lambaste you with insults.
I was surprised, however, when my Ecuadorian teammates didnít allow me to exceed their disappointment. All at once, they unabashedly blamed me for the loss. They described my error in detail; they told me about how that one mistake lost the entire game; they questioned each other on whether or not they had seen my gaff. And when I tried to agree and demonstrate how awful I felt, they didnít allow me that even. ìYa, okay,î they said, letís go eat. And that was that.
I had already been noticing that when I got on a bus filled with teenagers, they didnít talk about me, the obvious foreigner. I had observed how little I saw children cry when playing with each other. And after the soccer game, I began noticing other little things. On busses, three or four times I witnessed people get knocked in the head with a backpack. They never uttered a word. Just last week, I saw a man moving a pizza delivery scooter on the sidewalk that was not his. He ended up tipping it over, then picking it up and awkwardly trying to get the kickstand back in place. Just then, the delivery man came out and very kindly took the scooter from the man. In my head, the profanity-filled American version of the confrontation played out, contrasting the tranquility of the Quito scene, and illuminating the profundity of the reverse culture shock that awaits me when I return home.
With such observations, I began to change. In my musings on my website, I theorized about the differences between American and Ecuadorian cultures. Though I am a foreigner here, I have never been made to feel self-conscious in public, except by other Americans. I have never felt the American variety of competition-for-whoís-coolest. And though this culture certainly has its racism and classism, from what Iíve observed of teenagers in colegios and in my own classes, theyíre much kinder to each other, much more accepting of varying levels of ìcool.î Your individual worth in Ecuador is not on such shaky ground. Thus, you donít see kids crying out of embarrassment, you donít get labeled an ìassholeî if you accidentally bump someone with your backpack, and you donít need to insult goofy-looking tourists to establish your own level of ìcool.î
Of course, my conclusions about the differences between the two cultures are very amateur. I am no cultural anthropologist. I can imagine that a less individual society, one more family-oriented and less competitive, would logically lead to one in which individual social status were not that important. But my conclusions are not science. They are personal.
And since they are so personal, I have to look twice at my own behavior. My impatience, my hasty judgments, my comparing myself to them ñ I am a product of my being an American. To compete in my own mind with other gringosí worth, and to have a vague set of criteria by which to measure that worth ñ these things are alien in this culture, and even more so than my Patagonia shirts and Nalgene water bottle, mark me as a foreigner.
You can read any number of travel narratives relating in flowery detail alien scenes in foreign lands. You can even pick up a National Geographic or an Outside Magazine and see some of those scenes captured on film. Indeed, narratives relaying experiences in foreign lands are so abundant, theyíve earned their own genre label. Iíve done my share to add a little to that pool of ìtravel narratives.î I have turned my experiences here into media ñ website, blog, pictures, stories, essays ñ but my whole experience itself is mediated by my being an American.
We all know that real experience differs from virtual experience. But when youíre a tourist, the difference is not that huge. Virtual experience comes to you through the medium of a magazine, a film, or a book; ìrealî experience is mediated by the long history of your cultural background. Thus, it wasnít until I released some of my cultural trappings that I could release myself from the American medium through which I looked at the world. It wasnít until I altered my disdain for my fellow tourists that I could even begin to stop being one.
I remain, however, an American in Quito. Itís still something to write home about.
I suspect it always will be.
copyright 2005 Tim Storm