Thursday, December 10, 2009

Constant adjustment

For us, living in Ecuador is all about learning how to do everything all over again. And it’s not just the language or the culture, although that certainly presents its own daily obstacles. I’m talking about the minutiae of everyday life, the stuff you do that you don’t even realize you’re actually doing. I’d thought some things to be universal, that humans held a set of commonalities built into our DNA. As it turns out, you can’t take anything we do, not the smallest detail, for granted. Let me explain.

Waiting in line. I don’t remember the first time I tried to buy something here, but I learned soon enough that something was a little off, at least according to my perspective. I do remember stopping to get a bottle of water one day at a little bread store. The person running the counter was helping somebody else, so I waited behind, as I thought would have been standard practice. A minute later, some guy shows up, walks right up to the front, and just speaks his order like I was invisible or something. Even worse, this guy was served as soon as the counterperson was done helping the previous customer. What the hell? I was pretty annoyed, but I was new in the country, and I figured maybe there might be better ways to represent the US than by getting into a fistfight with the first person that looked at me cockeyed.

When entering a busy place, at home anyway, I’m used to lining up behind the people who are already waiting, letting them have their turn, and then doing what I came to do. After a few weeks in country, I was beginning to think that maybe my experience with the line cutter wasn’t an isolated incident. It would happen everywhere. People just don’t wait in line here. You walk in and go right to the front. Getting customer service anywhere in Ecuador is like trying to get a drink from a really busy bartender; it’s all about jockeying for position, boxing-out the competition, and using your outside voice while shoving your money in whosever face is running the place.

Luckily for me, I’m tall, and I tend to stick out down here, so now that I know how the game’s played, I don’t have much trouble getting what I need. But learning the system meant enduring some pretty frustrating experiences. I’ve already written about the post offices here, but the lines at the branch in Quito were out of control. There were benches for waiting and everything. They even told us they would call our names when it was our turn. What it basically came down to was everybody crowding around this little window screaming his or her name every ten to fifteen seconds until somebody responded. Needless to say, we wound up waiting for a while.

Another nightmare scenario was our first trip to the bank. I forget why didn’t just use the ATM, but for whatever reason we needed to speak to somebody. Upon entering the bank, you actually see a bunch of lines, people lined up waiting for service, which is encouraging, but ultimately misleading. There were maybe seven or eight lines all leading to various tellers and desks. Once we figured out which line we were supposed to “wait” in, we noticed how after about twenty minutes or so we hadn’t moved much closer to where we needed to be. Could we have been farther away? It’s very possible. People just kept cutting. A person would walk in and right away cut four people in line. Then those people that just got cut would cut another five people. There were no confrontations or anything; it was all very passive-aggressive. It had all the characteristics of a line – people, waiting, standing single file – but with the constant shuffling it was anything but.

It all came to a head one day while I was waiting to buy something at some random store somewhere. I was waiting and blah blah blah this lady comes in and just orders ahead of me. That’s it, I can’t take it anymore! I turn to her and go, “excuse me, I was waiting here first, you just cut me,” trying to sound just pissed off enough to let her know I was serious without going overboard and sounding like some maniac. Hopefully I could handle this myself, without the police having to get involved. She just looks at me, confused, and says, “Well, you were just standing there.”

And that’s when I realized that I just hadn’t understood the system. Here, you’re expected to just walk in and order. Suddenly a fog lifted; things got immediately better. There were some minor details to iron out, like, I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to let little old ladies order ahead of you. I mean, with my size I didn’t want to be a bully. Unfortunately, any hesitation is a sign of weakness, an invitation for everybody else to cut you right then and there.

Now when I enter a place, I feel like I’m finally getting the respect and attention that I deserve, that I wouldn’t even get in the States. It’s great; I just walk in, walk through everyone right to the front, and demand my order in a loud voice from whoever happens to be serving. And it’s totally acceptable! Out of my way grandma, I’m here, and I need to be taken care of, right now.

Hand signals. Here’s something else that I thought was universal: trying to give someone a very basic message from far away using your hands. For example: hey, come here for a second, or no. Again, nothing should be taken for granted. It started when I’d see people down the street, and they would hold up an arm and wave only their hand, palm facing away and down. Then they would wave just that hand, all the way down and up again. I hope I’m describing it well enough for you to picture it correctly. I guess it would be similar to a person on stage receiving a standing ovation and trying to signal for everybody to please sit down, expect only with one hand, not two … and more wrist action.

Anyway, I just didn’t get it. Was I being made fun of or something? How should I respond? Should I even respond? Being at a complete loss, I figured it was kind of similar to someone waving hi, someone like a two-year-old, but still. So I just started waving back. I didn’t take to long to at least figure out what this hand signal didn’t mean, which was to say hi. For some reason, some reason that I still don’t understand, it’s a signal for you to come over. I’m used to palm facing up, with fingers motioning towards the signaler as the standard means to call someone over, but who said that was universal, right? So picture me for the first few weeks here, and every time somebody tried to get me to come over, I’d just be standing there waving back, smiling like an idiot before I eventually just walked away.

Another hand signal they do is sticking out the pinky down and thumb up, and then shaking this side to side. This is supposed to mean no, but only if you’re asking for something … I think. Like if I’m trying to flag down a ride, and the driver gives me one of those, I know I have to keep looking. If I’m looking for a drink, this sign will mean they’re all out.

There are still more signs that I have yet to figure out. Sometimes I’ll say hi to someone and they’ll just kind of point in the opposite direction. So I’ll just kind of stand there and smile. Once in a while somebody will point up a finger and move it around in a circle. Again, I have no idea. As frustrating as not knowing the very basics of everyday life, thankfully I haven’t lost it enough to test out the universality of one of our most infamous hand signals.