Monday, February 25, 2013

Cultural Curves and Parasites

I just realized it's been nearly two weeks since I wrote anything on here. There are two main reasons for this:
1) I've been here over three months now and after referencing a few nifty little culture shock curves, I think I'm experiencing something of a low point. My "honeymoon" with Ecuador is over and I'm in the process of accepting this while maybe being a bit confused and tired of the culture. I don't think I'm hostile toward it, but I've definitely been frustrated with it lately. I think, however, that I'm mostly frustrated with my job and my lack of improvement in Spanish. Still, I have been looking at ESL jobs in Russia and Eastern Europe occasionally--pining for a culture I seem to understand better. 




Latin American, or at least Ecuadorian culture, is basically the exact opposite of Russian culture. It's incredibly expressive, openly emotional, loud, confusing, and the flakiest of flaky. In Russia, people are inexpressive and seem stand-offish or unfriendly at first. Even the language reflects this: you don't call someone your "friend" until you know them super well, until you are practically family. Until then, they are acquaintances. But I learned to love this because it's so real. Another example is that when people ask "how are you?" they mean it. It's not a greeting or a formality. If you ask a Russian how they are, they'll tell you the truth. Again, very real and honest; direct. 
Here, people make a huge deal about being your friend and display a bunch of emotion--but they call everyone "friend" and kiss them and go on and on about people they don't know. It's less genuine than in the States, even. 
Anyway, that's the first reason I've been silent. It's been hard to write anything and I've been a little homesick for family and friends and snow. 
2) After about a month of stomach problems and irregular bowel movements (I'm trying to be polite here) I tried a few things to see what was wrong with me. I fasted and tried a salt water flush and the result left me pretty certain that I had parasites--I had a fever because the little buggers were so mad that I wasn't feeding them.
So, I tried to change my diet and started taking an herbal supplement I found at the hostel, but that quickly left me frustrated (no coffee for a month? Never!), so I switched to some over the counter anti-parasite medication that I'd heard of from friends. 
This whole process has been interesting while working full time. Sharing two toilets with 30 people is not recommended when you have parasites (diarrhea). But I think they are gone. I saw some suspicious-looking, translucent little suckers in my poop a few days ago and have started feeling a bit better, although things are still not quite back to normal. 
Yesterday I felt better and started drinking a beer without thinking (not supposed to drink for awhile after taking the meds); I got sick and threw up while making borsch for the hostel. 
Anyway, I don't think I'm a hypochondriac, but I spent way too much time looking up pictures of worms on the internet and getting worked up about what might be in my stomach. This whole thing has been super stressful and time-consuming, but also pretty interesting. I had no idea all of the parasites people can get and I was actually pretty excited to see that I had passed some, since that meant they were leaving my body. 
For those of you who want to know more details about having worms, basically my stomach has been unsettled, constantly rumbling, and my poop has been of the liquid variety. This wouldn't be a big deal, but when it lasts for about a month or so and you're living in a place where you can get parasites from the tap water, from veggies or fruit that isn't washed carefully, etc, then you've probably got some little guys chilling in your tummy. They just get worse, breeding and hanging out in your intestines, sucking up your nutrients, and eventually really messing things up. 
Anyway, I've mostly turned the whole experience into a joke now, but it was still pretty rough and only added to whatever cultural things I'm experiencing right now. 

...and that's why I've been silent. But I'll write more frequently as I feel better and have more time. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Surviving Carnaval

 I have officially survived the longest, most confusing holiday of my life: Carnaval. Carnaval is basically Mardi gras South American style. I think it's supposed to last four days or so--right up until Lent--but people here have been celebrating for at least a week and a half. According to Wikipedia, it's different in different countries, so I can only speak for Ecuador when I say: what a sh*tshow. 
Though there are plenty of more "cultural" events depending on where you go, the gist of Caraval here is basically just a huge water fight. No one is safe. And no one can be trusted. You think that child looks innocent? WRONG. That kind looking old woman? NO. Since last week, people of all ages have been jumping out from behind doors with water balloons, pitchers of water, eggs and flour, or this awful chemical foam spray called "Carioka." I got sprayed on my way to work once, which was a little irritating. Gringos are especially good targets--everyone loves to see a foam-covered, soaking wet gringo who didn't know better. 
Traditionally I guess there were supposed to be little devils that threw water or eggs on unsuspecting friends and strangers during this time. So it's part of the holiday for children, teenagers, and pretty much everyone to ambush each other at any point for a week, more or less. I don't know where the foam came from as far as tradition (I don't think it's been around for that long), but it's everywhere now. It's fruit-scented and colored and stings the eyes something awful. 
Anyway, I went to the town of Tena for Carnaval because I had a few days off of work. Tena is town of about 20,000 located in the rainforest. The smaller nearby village of Misahualli, which is a starting point for a lot of jungle tours, is also home to one of the many big Carnaval celebrations--parades, concerts, etc. My whole weekend was pretty much a giant fight/party. We drove around in the back of a pickup all over town attacking people and being attacked. Then we went to Misahualli and joined the festivities on the beach of the Napo river, where there was a huge concert and giant fight, complete with lots of beer drinking and a few instances of actual violence. Some kids nearly drowned, but the party continued to rage around them. 
This water bombing and foam spraying is technically illegal, but no one does anything about it because please, it's fun. I am tired of it now, but it was nice to be a part of a holiday that simply could never happen in the US. I mean, it's a free-for-all. Kids were waiting on the high way even, with huge homemade contraptions to dose every passager with water. When we were driving around in the pickup, one of our crew threw a water balloon into someone else's car. A brief car chase ensued, but the guy just had to calm down and admit he was stupid for having his window open and talking on his phone during Carnaval. In the US we would have been sued for sure. 
This is partly tradition and I think also a reflection of cultural differences. Ecuadorians are just more relaxed about everything. They laugh off a good egg and flouring because it's Carnaval. No matter that they have to continue working in their tienda for the rest of the day. It's all in good fun. I don't imagine there would be so many good sports in the US, but maybe I'm wrong. 
Anyway, the day after the beach party my eyes were crusted over from all of the foam they endured--the face is the prized target--and I still had stains on my clothes and body from the powdered paint (still unsure about the origins of this tradition) that people smeared on each other on the beach. 
Even yesterday back in Quito I was not safe. Two boys ganged up on me with Carioka and then tried to take a picture. Yes, I had fun during Carnaval, but I'm glad it's over. Now I can finally take a shower and wash my clothes. 
Having a camera on my person for this holiday was out of the question, but I found a couple photos online so that you'd get a general idea. Also, this is the one picture of the Tena area: me jumping into the river from a rope swing. 

Such nasty stuff.
Buckets of water...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ecua-Fashion


Those of you who know me know that when it comes to fashion, I typically enjoy bright, vintage clothes—clothes that might suit a teenage boy or a well-dressed old man better than a 20 something woman. While I don’t necessarily always keep up on what’s happening in the fashion world or approve of placing too much importance on clothing—or spending much money on it—it’s something I like to have fun with and notice a lot more than I used to. (There was a time, in high school and early college, when I was only comfortable wearing earth tones and loose-fitting tee shirts with puns on them.)
Now that I’m more interested in fashion, I obviously pay more attention to style wherever I am. And it’s actually quite an advantage to be a little bit oddly dressed in a different country because it’s expected for you to be different, as a foreigner. In the States I’m weird for no reason, here I’m weird because I’m not Ecuadorian. Or something…
Anyway, so far in Ecuador, I’ve noticed a few trends I love, a few I hate, and a few I’m still undecided about. Everyone here wears tighter, more formal clothes than in the States. The shoes are pointier, the scarves more European-looking, and the jackets/coats more form fitting. Few people wear flip-flops unless they are on the beach and no one really wears athletic clothing unless they are working out. You won’t see people wandering around in sweatpants outside of their homes. In fact, even the sweatpants here are tighter and somehow sleek. School children always have to wear uniforms, which consist of dresses or dress pants, collared shirts, sweaters, and often ties. Business people wear suits or nice dress pants and sweaters. 
Since the weather in Quito is usually too warm for a sweater, it’s common to see people walking around with their sweaters flung over their backs and tied at the neck. This is my favorite thing about fashion here. It would be super dorky and preppy in the US, but here it’s normal. Naturally, I’ve started following suit. I think it's Ecua-dorable. 
Modeling the sweater-cape look.
Another thing I like is the general tightness of pants here. I’m not talking about the fact that Ecua-fashion leaves little to the imagination (because sometimes that’s not so pleasant), I just don’t like how loose-fitting men's pants are in the US. If they are a certain cut, fine, but so often they’re just shapeless. There’s nothing un-masculine about letting us see the shape of your legs, boys. Come on.
The most unusual thing I’ve noticed here in Ecuador is the practice of lifting one’s shirt half way up in front when it’s warm out and just walking around like nothing’s wrong. People don’t do this in Quito because it’s not that hot, but all over on the coast I saw men with their shirts resting halfway up their exposed bellies. If they don’t have enough of a belly for the shirt to rest on, they just bite their shirt and wander around with their shirt in their mouth. It’s hilarious. Plenty of men go completely shirtless, but I guess the others are just too lazy to take their shirt all the way off? Anyway, it seemed fine to me, except I didn’t see any women doing it.

I want to try doing this next time I go to the coast and just see what happens.
There are two main problems I have with fashion here: hair gel and leggings. Hair gel is used in excess by Ecuadorian boys and men. I like the hairstyles for the most part—lots of mullets and mohawks and the like—but my god, the amount of hair gel is pretty sickening. I’ve accidentally touched greased up hair in the buses because of the tight quarters and no matter what I can always smell it. I don’t understand how it makes anyone look better or feel better to have so much junk in their hair. 
I found this online but it's not that bad. Imagine another handful of gel on there. 
As far as leggings go, I simply do not think leggings can ever be a substitute for jeans or real pants. This happens all of the time here. I guess there is a limit to the tightness I can handle when it’s combined with thinness of material. I mean, I realize that this is a trend all over the world right now, but that doesn’t make it less disturbing. If you don’t wear a long shirt or long sweater with your leggings, all I see is cameltoe. Jeggings (jean leggings), which are a little thicker, are okay. But dios mio. Half of the time girls wear white or really light-colored leggings too, so they’re see-through as well as skin tight.  
Online photos I found of acceptable leggings.  Crystal-approved. 

Definitely not the worst I've seen but not up to my standards. 
Anyway, this is all just my take so far on Ecua-fashion. I think I'm beginning to sound like a diva so I'll just stop right now. I love some people even if they wear leggings as pants or use too much hair gel. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

International Blog Competition

Hey everyone, vote for my blog here: http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/vote-for-your-favorite-ix13-blog
From the website: 
"The main idea behind this competition is to promote cultural exchange and a mutual understanding of each other. That being said, we want to show our appreciation to the best bloggers. That is why the top 3 bloggers will win an education package for children from Care's Help Her Learn program, sponsored by us, given in the winners’ name. We think this is better than any material price!"
Thanks! 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Public Transportation in Ecuador


Quito has three main transport lines that run from north to south and come frequently. It costs 25 cents no matter how far you go. These buses—well, one is a trolley—have their own lanes and so can sometimes beat out the otherwise awful traffic in Quito. They run just like a light rail, basically, with scheduled stops and what-not.
The best thing though is simply the price, which allows almost everyone to ride. The sheer number of buses is incredibly impressive as well. There is no bus schedule, but there doesn’t need to be—I usually wait 30 seconds for a bus in the morning. The longest I’ve waited was probably less than five minutes. Of course, there are fewer at night, but that is to be expected.
The down side—other than the crime—is that no matter what the outside of the bus says, the route can change. Usually it doesn’t, but because this is how I get to and from work, it can be very upsetting when it happens and I am suddenly trapped on a bus that doesn’t make the scheduled stop and instead goes all of the way to the south before opening the doors again. The good thing is that there are only three or four variations on these routes—it’s not like I’ll end up somewhere completely new.
There are also tons of other buses, but these other buses seem to go any old direction they please, whenever they please. They have a sign in the front, but mostly the person who collects the money leans out of the door and shouts a street name or direction. These buses are always a huge risk for me and since I live so near an Ecovia station (one of the main transport lines) I have no need usually.
Even more convenient than the buses in the city, are the long-distance buses that travel all over Ecuador. It takes a long time to get places, but you pay about a dollar an hour and you can go ANYWHERE. It’s so much better than a Greyhound or anything we have in the States. Of course, Ecuador is waaay smaller than the US, but still. Here, buses will drop you off wherever you want —as long as it’s on their way—without charging you extra. Plus, again, there are so many buses per day that you rarely need to buy a ticket in advance. There is some sort of schedule, but it’s not posted anywhere. I think you can call and ask, but it’s pretty easy to just show up at the terminal and buy your ticket there, right before you leave. Then you can just listen for someone shouting “A Quito!” or wherever you’re going, and board that bus.
I’ve found that public transportation is one of the best outlets for cultural studies. If you think that your culture is not so different from where you are, hop on a bus and get back to me. I guarantee you'll notice some differences. 
Buses here in Ecuador are places of constant motion and commotion. People come in at different stops (or wherever the driver will let them enter), to sell food and drinks—fried meat, ice cream, you name it. The sellers yell and walk up and down the aisles for a while before jumping off whenever they can. There is almost always someone playing loud music on their phone and sometimes people decide to have a freestyle rap contest. There was a small dog on my eight-hour ride to the coast whimpering for something like three hours. Everyone talks, yells, or sings; everyone piles in with a Latino sense of personal space (no sense of personal space).
In the US we love our space (and our peace and quiet) and we also feel some sense of entitlement to it. In Ecuador, I have yet to witness a disagreement on a bus, even when people fall over each other and shove each other to get on or off the bus. I only hear a “perdon” when someone basically pushes someone else out the door or tramples them. I’ve definitely gotten my arm stuck in the door before, in addition to only being able to enter the bus as the doors close, because they give me that extra shove so that I can fit.
This space issue was similar in Russia, except there no one talks. Public transportation is just one big awkward silence. On the long bus rides here in Ecuador, there is not a moment of silence or calm. Since there are no bus schedules, no one really cares about time either. Once on a long ride, our bus driver stopped to pee alongside the road and we waited for like 15 minutes or something. No one complained. People stand for hours on end on the buses without complaining.
I sort of love this relaxed attitude, but it can also be frustrating. For example, crime is a huge problem on buses here, but it doesn’t really seem like people try to do much about it. Ecuadorians always say, “Don’t take the trolley!” because you’ll get robbed—like it’s your fate and the only way to avoid it is to avoid the trolley. I have been pick-pocketed once already, so of course they have a point, but as an American, I want to ask, “What is being done about this?” I immediately think of how the system needs to change, rather than how I need to adapt to the system. How American. 
Here is a video that my friend Romy had me watch. It's in Spanish, but you can understand what's happening anyway I think.