Part 8: Mind your Manners

Social customs and manners are different in this country, naturally. It is at times exasperating to navigate them, and you have to remind yourself that Ecuadoreans DO have manners and etiquette – sometimes very formal and prescribed – but they’re just different.

Ecuador places a high value on family. It is much more family-oriented than in the U.S., and this is in many ways very refreshing. On the flip side, though, it manifests itself in ways that not all Americans would find palatable: For example, it is customary to spend most weekends and vacations with your extended family (can you imagine?), and it is customary (and indeed expected) that you will live at home with your parents until you are married, especially if you are a woman.

Ecuador is still a very machista country – men rule the roost, and that’s that. Accordingly, some men may feel free to wolf-whistle at your wife while she’s walking down the street with you; moreover, extramarital affairs in Ecuador are all but accepted as a fact of life.

This is changing, though, ever so slowly. In a recent weekly radio address, President Correa decried the notion that a woman abused by her husband should stay with him regardless. This is a big break from tradition.

But traditions in Ecuador, as elsewhere, are often incongruous: Despite all this machismo, allowing a lady to enter an elevator ahead of you is de rigueur.

Moreover, pregnant women, parents of infants, senior citizens, and the disabled are afforded special considerations by law. Everywhere from buses to banks to government offices offers special rights to these groups. This is a bit of a welcome contrast from the U.S. — especially the northern U.S. — where it is not expected for men to hold doors for pregnant women anymore, and where senior citizens and mothers with babes in arm routinely stand while other (younger) bus riders remain seated.

There are prescribed ways for greeting and interacting with people at family reunions; no child in the family fails to formally greet their family members and visitors at these gatherings, and kids – especially from upper-class families – tend to be very polite and well-behaved.

But to a foreigner, the really nice customs are just as noticeable as the bad ones. Chiefly, there seems to be very little sense of others’ personal space or privacy in Ecuador, and there is little consideration for others’ comfort. If you are waiting in line for something, someone is liable to cut in front of you if you’re not guarding carefully (and sometimes even if you are). This has happened to me several times. It still drives me crazy.

Recently, we were visiting a resort way up in the Andes in a town called Papallacta (pronounced “Papa-yacta”), a place famous for its geothermal baths and which attracts many international tourists. We were waiting in the hotel to be checked in while a concierge was helping other tourists who were waiting in line. At some point, a couple of Ecuadoreans butted in front of the line to ask the concierge a quick question. The concierge said nothing and proceeded to try to answer their question, but the Dutch tourist who was ahead of them in line was having none of it. “Excuse me! Excuse me,” she said sternly in English, “but vee ver in de line first! I don’t know vot kind of manners people in Ecuador have, but vere I come from dis iss unacceptable!” The line-jumpers were visibly surprised and dismayed at being called out, but they were not about to have it out with an angry 6-foot-tall Dutchwoman. They went to the back of the line.

And this happens in Ecuador because almost no one, Dutch tourists aside, complains about such things. For example, there are parties held regularly in the ground-floor patio of our apartment building. A party here requires gratuitously loud dance music provided by a DJ until 2 a.m. or later (in Ecuador, 2 a.m. is considered early). The noise from these fiestas resounds throughout the building — even up to our apartment on the 11th floor. The noise echoes off the concrete walls of the high-rises around us, and our cheap, flimsy windows are no match for it. It truly sounded as though we were the ones hosting the party; I can only imagine what it sounded like to someone living several floors below us.

Nevertheless, no one complains. But then, complaining is fruitless: Even the police would tell us that it’s an issue best dealt with among the building tenants, not by police.

Ear plugs, sleeping pills, and a white-noise machine are powerless against thump, thump, thump…. We, like our fellow neighbors, just had to deal with it; the party-goers had paid to rent out the patio, and so it was “their right” to have a loud party. But you just go ahead and try this in a reasonably nice high-rise apartment building in Chicago or New York, to say nothing of Western Europe – your neighbors would kill you, if the police didn’t get there first.

I’m not trying to rip on Ecuador – I have just as many grievances about what passes for civility in the U.S. – but it’s simply a different culture with different norms, and learning them (and managing them) can be difficult at times.

In fact, I saw a bit of the reverse while waiting to obtain my visa at a government office in Quito. An American woman – maybe 65 or 70 years old – was sitting in a booth near mine. We had been waiting in a large room with other foreigners, and now we had made it to the end, and we were sitting at individual desks with government employees who were sifting through our paperwork.

I was waiting at my little desk while the man who was helping me left to go find some papers. After a few moments, the American woman started haranguing the young lady who was assisting her, bellowing loudly in thickly New-York-accented English: “What are you TAWKING about? I was just here two days ago with this dawk-ument, and now you say I have to bring something else? I’ve been waiting here for three hours! What’s wrong with you people? … Yes, I made a copy! A copy! C-O-P-Y! Yes! … YES! What more do you want? This is ridiculous!” and on and on. And on. The poor employee was totally flummoxed, as she spoke little English, and the entire staff at this office was in a tizzy – no one knew what to do about the angry American woman, because no one in Ecuador acts this brazenly discourteous.

The guy who was helping me with my visa returned, looked at me and made a motion toward the screaming New Yorker. “¡Qué maleducada!” I said. (“How rude!”) He grimaced in agreement.

I knew why she was yelling – Ecuadorean bureaucracy is maddening. I had wanted to yell, too, having just found out that what I thought was going to be a $60 fee for this visa had turned into $200 because someone in the office had “made a mistake.” But there’s no use screaming: Ranting and raving might work for you in Queens, but it won’t help you in Quito.

When I finally got my paperwork and walked out of the office, the woman was still at her desk, howling about this and that. Way to represent America, lady.

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