Etiquette, Education, and a beach vacation

Hello!  It’s been too long.  You read that my Halloween baking experiment was an exciting success.  And before that, the last I wrote about was Colombia, and that was back in mid-October.  Shucks.  I’m way behind.

Well, we started a new cycle of classes on October 18 and we have 17 days of class left until the winter holiday break. (I can’t wait!!!)  At school we call it winter break out of respect for the religious and cultural diversity among the staff.  However, on the whole in this country I don’t think most people would think twice about just saying “Christmas break,” or “Merry Christmas,” etc… since Ecuador is far more homogenously Christian than the United States, and there is generally less concern for minority views, and less knowledge of them.  People here, at least the ones I’ve met, know that there are other religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, but they know next to nothing about them.  There must be a word in Spanish for Islam (probably just el islam), but I’ve never spoken to anyone who uses it or knows what the difference between Islam and Muslim is – Islam is the religion, Muslim is the person who practices it.  In Spanish, people just talk about muselmános, Muslims, with no reference to the religion that they practice.  And I don’t think most people know that Islam, Christianity and Judaism all have the same origin, Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael.  Similarly, I’ve corrected a few of my students with regard to the religion of India.  As you know, a lot of India is Hindu, but certainly not all of it.  There is a large Muslim population there, and a sizable Christian minority, and many smaller and more obscure religions.  In Spanish, India is la India, and the people of India are called hindues.  This naturally leads to some confusion because “hindu” can refer to a linguistic or religious group, as well.  Indians, the residents of India, and Hindus, adherents of Hinduism are not one and the same.  I realize that these misunderstandings exist in the United States and all over the world, so I can’t complain that Ecuadorians are uniquely ignorant about the world, but it is frustrating nonetheless.  And, most of the conversations I’ve had on this topic were with my students who are either college educated working professionals or university students, so they should be some of the most educated people in this society.

The root of my annoyance has two parts.  First, I have a liberal arts degree, so I assimilated a lot of information about a lot of random things during the four years I spent in college, mostly related to the humanities and social sciences.  The second is simply that I think primary and secondary education in the US is a lot more comprehensive than it is here.  I find it difficult to inspire discussions among my students about global issues, even those that affect them, because it seems that they just don’t know very much and they don’t have enough general information to make connections and contribute to a discussion.  I also think that their education does not teach them to do that very effectively.  Thinking outside the box, integrating knowledge about lots of different things, making connections, thinking critically are not essentials parts of education or the culture here.  In addition, people don’t read or write very much, either in school or in their free time; both of which, in my mind, are fundamental activities that encourage critical thinking and assimilation and integration of knowledge.  My students don’t know where Indonesia is.  And when we play a warm-up game in which they have to make a classmate say the name “China,” the best clue they can think of is to put their index fingers at the corners of their eyes and pull outward, or to say Japan: as if Japan and China are the same.  And, when they had to get a classmate to guess Saudi Arabia, I made “Mecca” and “Muhammad” taboo words, but it didn’t matter at all because they don’t know who Muhammad was, nor where or what Mecca is.  I’m not sure they even know Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country.  Hmph!

Windy Day at the beach

Anyway, at the beginning of November we had a five-day vacation for Dia de los Muertos, Fiestas de Cuenca (Cuenca’s independence), and the Friday after to promote domestic tourism.  Two of my good friends and I went to the beach for two days.  Atacames is the beach nearest to Quito, about 7 hours by bus with a crazy driver.  We took a night bus there on Thursday night, and returned by night bus on Saturday.  My host family kept saying that it would be super busy because all of Quito would be there and that they were probably the only people staying in Quito for the weekend.  It was kind of true.  The town was quite crowded, but not unbearably so.  It was the classic spring break beach vacation scene, except with people of all ages (not just college students) and dirtier (because everything in Ecuador is dirtier).  There are open air night clubs all along the beach, separated by only about 8 ft and they all play different music. So, if you are very


sensitive to rhythm and harmony, this is not the place for you.  And you should be wary about walking between the clubs, lest your brain gets rattled and you emerge with the left lobe pulsating to reggeaton and the right thumping to salsa.  One thing I love (and hate) about beaches is that there is always someone there who looks worse in a bathing suit than you do.  And this is particularly true here, where modesty is not a priority… ever – no matter what kind of figure you have.  And the best part about the trip: lots and lots of coconut!  I love how many coconut flavored things are available here.

And now, more pessimistic observations.  Living here for nearly four months, I’ve noted that people in Quito (perhaps all of Ecuador, but I can only speak about Quito because that is where I live) are not very courteous or conscientious in public spaces and interactions.  I am perpetually annoyed that when I cross paths with strangers on the sidewalk, they never make any adjustment to allow me to pass comfortably.  This is particularly noticeable if you are approaching a group or pair of people on the sidewalk.  Probably four out of five times, they notice you coming, but no one in the group makes even the slightest motion to make space on the side walk for you, even as they are walking side-by-side taking up 80% of it.  Likewise, in the halls of my school building, there are always lots and lots of people moving up and down the stairs during the passing periods.  Yet, even during those busiest times it is not infrequent that you will pass by several students sitting on the stairs chatting.  I always want to yell at them to get off the stairs during passing periods so that others can get through more easily, but I restrain myself.  Though occasionally, I deliberately step awkwardly over them to make it clear that they are in the way.

On the buses, this standard persists.  If you are sitting with an empty window seat next to you and someone wants to take it, you just turn to the side and let them squeeze over you.  And the same goes for when that person needs to get out; you don’t stand up to let them out, you just turn to the side as they shuffle past.  More than once I’ve been walking down the street and been run into full force by another pedestrian who simply wasn’t watching where he/she was going.  And you all know, I’m a big person, and I stand out like a sore thumb here.  I’m not someone you just didn’t see.  In general, it seems that people just don’t think about themselves in relation to other strangers, or how their actions or position are impacting other people.

This behavior is apparent in other settings as well.  For example, I went to McDonald’s today (for the first time, and just to get ice cream, which was disappointing).  There, I had to sit and wait for a bit as they were under-staffed for the volume of orders at that moment.  As I was sitting, I observed several tables where patrons had just left their trays and all of their trash on the table.  Some time had clearly passed because I didn’t not see any one moving around those tables.  This surprised me because the restaurant was arranged in exactly the same way as any McDonald’s in the US, and there we understand that you are supposed to take your tray to the trash can, dump the trash in the bin, and leave the tray on top.  That is how every fast food restaurant in the US works.  This is, of course, different from sit-down places where you are expected to leave everything on the table for your server to clear.  However, here, that distinction apparently does not exist.  Everyone just leaves the trash on the tables, despite the fact that there are no designated servers there whose job it is to clean up after them.

These are my observations and there is always the possibility that I am misreading something, or missing some important cultural information.  However, I’ve introduced this to my conversation clubs and heard some of my students confirm them and express the same frustration.  Ecuadorians are very sweet, kind, generous people, but that thoughtfulness does not always spread all the way into public interactions.  I’ve noticed this and heard about it from travelers in other countries all over the world as well.  I don’t have any good guesses as to what the difference is, and why in the US, we seem to care more about our shared public spaces and about our impact on strangers.  Americans certainly aren’t perfect.  We still have problems with littering and rudeness, but to a lesser degree, I think, and I don’t know why.


  1. Janet Greiner · · Reply

    Rachel, I recall McDonald’s opening gradually across the US during my youth. On one occasion while in a McDonald’s my mom commented that “they were teaching customers to pick up after themselves.” The fast-food, self-service was a new concept in the 60’s.

    Along this line and at this time a national attitude toward trash, including picking up trash left by others, rose. Mountain parks and city parks became cleaner as most of the public shamed one another into 1) carry out what you brought and 2) pick up and carry out whatever you see. Now I see many trash bins overflowing, so people are picking up but not carrying out.

    Like you say, this is how I perceive it and how I behaved and how I think the cleanliness came about but I may not be accurate. I do like the thought and principal though and hope it persists.

    Maybe the McDonald’s model will teach Ecuadorians’ and people over the world to pick-up after themselves. This model helps keep the environment clean for everyone.


  2. Nancyruth Mack · · Reply

    Very interesting observations, Rachel. So what do college students talk about? If they don’t read, what do they do? Not so sure our college students are as well informed as you are and enjoy exchanging ideas on world events, etc.

    Will you have a THAnksgiving for your family, friends? Love, Nancyruth

  3. Hi buddy,
    I just had another thought about your people-on-the-sidewalk and people-on-the-bus experiences: it’s possible that Americans just like their personal space more. For instance, here, people won’t sit down directly next to someone on the subway or bus unless all other seats are taken. That may be a bad example, as people in Ecuador might do that as well. But it’s possible that Americans would body-slam each other on the sidewalks, too, if our personal space bubbles didn’t protect us!

    Love to you, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

  4. […] know how to write, I hate getting cat calls on the street….”  Some of you will remember this post which I wrote in the middle of that Irritation and Hostility phase, can you tell?  My annoyance […]

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