Sunday, April 11, 2010

Walking around with my hands in my pockets

Well, it’s been a while since I last posted something. Lately I just can’t seem to think of anything to write about. I guess the newness of this experience is starting to wear off. So far everything’s been about how different life can be here, how we are sort of just fumbling along trying to figure out how everyone operates. But there are only so many first times. After a while, life has its way of leveling out, and a lot of what at first felt novel or strange has now become something that feels more like normal. It’s weird, but it’s also really amazing how after a while you kind of just adapt to and become part of your surroundings.

And it’s definitely a good thing; I mean, soaking up new circumstances and relearning basically everything has been thrilling, but also really exhausting. There were, and still are, days when just getting up in the morning and going outside seems impossible. Just that fact that we live in such a small town is at times this crazy concept that I can’t get my head around. To walk out the door is to have to say hello and probably have at least a light conversation with everyone I see along the way. I compare that with what my life was like last year, where heading out for the day meant riding my bike to work or making a beeline to the subway. It makes me miss the anonymity that comes with living in a city, with being where you’re from, with not being a foreigner.

I’ll have really crazy days where I just feel like everyone is watching, staring at me. Everything I do feels alien. I know I can never really blend in here, but am I walking normal? I’ve tried to slow down my step here, but am I walking too slowly? How’s my posture? Is it normal to walk around with my hands in my pockets? When I’m greeting people in the street, is my voice coming off as too forceful? My hello, it felt a little unnatural. Are people picking up on this stuff or is it just in my head?

Peace Corps warned us about this during training; they called it the fishbowl effect. It boils down to feeling like you’re a fish stuck in a tiny bowl, constantly on display with nowhere to hide. Whereas in the beginning, the more notable differences between you and your community were a great opportunity to start a conversation – wow the food is so different here, let me tell you about how it is back home – it would be a pretty lame exchange, for example, to point out to an Ecuadorian that a lot of people here walk around with their hands clasped behind their backs while I’m used to walking around with my arms at my sides. A really lame conversation. So that’s an observation that I just have to keep to myself. But the difference exists. And even if it would be crazy to talk about something so trivial, the fact that I’ve noticed this difference means that there’s a good chance the people here have picked up on it also. Do I try walking with my hands behind my back? I have, and it feels uncomfortable because I don’t usually do it. Plus, I wonder if people look at me like I’m trying too hard or something. So I go back to normal, only to get even more paranoid. Do I look like I’m fidgeting? Why’s the gringo moving his arms around so much?

If this sounds totally crazy, well it is totally crazy. Living here at times can be an exercise in not going insane, in just constantly telling yourself, nobody’s looking at you, chill out, take a deep breath. Because I know that most of this nonsense is just in my head.

Thankfully, as I was starting to say before I got kind of sidetracked, the craziness is starting to subside. I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely natural here, but it’s getting closer.


  1. I swear, even the goats and chickens looks at us weirdly!

  2. The good thing about drawing attention is that when you have something to say, or attempt, you already have the villager.s attention. If it works out, they look at you with respect. It's not so much how you look, as how you perform.

  3. Keep these posts coming, Rob. I really like reading your thoughts on the experience down there.