Cultural Cordiality in Ecuador

There is a tendency in travel literature, particularly in pieces written by white males from Western nations (the dubious cohort to which I belong), to exoticize foreigners, to lump them all together beneath a banner of benign pleasantness, and to emphasize “simple living,” a mode of being that seems straightforward and joyful compared to the bustling, money-driven culture in which many of us live. But while I’d like to avoid such blatant othering, such generalizations can hold a small grain of truth. Overall, the people I encountered in Ecuador were happier and much friendlier than the average Torontonian.

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I landed in Ecuador on January 5, 2016, having never been south of Savannah, Georgia. I was there to teach English, but quickly found the classroom dynamic to be universal: the teacher teaches, the students listen and ask questions. So I pursued my own curriculum after class by walking the streets of Guayaquil, Montanita, and Olon—a sleepy town on the Pacific coast and currently my favourite place in the world.

I experienced a few instances of culture shock. I didn’t expect to see dogs everywhere, some of them frighteningly vicious, and I was unprepared for the abject poverty many families were living in. In Olon, many houses had holes for windows, and I saw one family run a wire across the street every night to “borrow” electricity from a transformer belonging to the municipality, only to unhook the cable every morning when the local police made their rounds. There are shanty towns on the mountain in northwest Guayaquil, a population of thousands living without plumbing or electricity and facing the constant threat of eviction by the authorities.

But in my many encounters with these people, I noticed an emotional well-being that most Westerners would deem at odds with such economic hardship. There is a culture of mutual respect and friendliness in Ecuador I haven’t encountered anywhere else. For example, in Ecuador it’s considered extremely rude to pass people on the street without acknowledging them. For this reason, many South American people find North Americans snooty. Of course, I was oblivious to this custom of cultural cordiality until my second week and was therefore unwittingly rude to a lot of people my first seven days in Ecuador. Speaking to strangers in Toronto, even when your thighs are touching on the streetcar, is unheard of. In Ecuador, to ignore somebody sitting so close to you is to insult them, and rightfully so. I embraced the practice. Soon I was nodding and saying buenas tardes, señor (or buenas noches, señorita, depending on the time of day and the gender of the person) to everyone I saw.

I don’t mean to imply that all Ecuadorians are cheerful and friendly: everybody has an interior life, and everybody has problems. But, even leaving room for the inevitable exceptions that make humanity so diverse, people generally seemed less rushed and harried in Ecuador than here, and my return to Toronto only solidified this impression. I took the TTC back into the city from the airport, emerging into an arctic blast of wind at Bathurst and Bloor. I hadn’t slept the night before and stood on the sidewalk for five minutes, dazed, watching people scurry in and out of the station. People were scowling, wetting their lips in worried thought, grinding their teeth in frustration, and I thought to myself why do people live here?

Why indeed. Some Ecuadorians might live in complete poverty, but some of us live in utter misery. And it might be the distance that does it, our culturally enforced indifference toward one another. So I made a belated New Year’s resolution. As soon as economically possible, I plan to move to Ecuador and never come back. Adios, amigos.

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