Author: Zach Lantelme
As I packed for my 5 month stay in Ecuador, I was so excited. Not only would I have another stamp in my passport (this marks 12 countries), I would also have a Visa, indicating that I was not just passing through, but also living abroad! (Again!) My friends at work knew that my routine was about to radically change and they asked, "What are you going to do?".
I described all the things I would do through Submerge. Ministering at the soup kitchen we partner with, taking classes, attending art campaigns. These are all true... but now that I’m here and settled in, I want to peer through the fence in a side alley to see graffiti or order "cuy" (ginnea pig) because it’s available. I want to ride the bus with the locals or go bike riding for ten miles on the train tracks. Basically, I want to live and be present. Here’s how you can live in the moment:
This goes out with saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. I step out of my normal routines with food in a different city because you experience part of another culture through food.
Quito is a metropolitan city with many of the trappings of home: McDonald’s, Tony Roma’s Burger King, Papa John’s... the list goes on. But if I stayed with what I knew, I would have missed out on Cevichocho, a recipe which uses “chocho” beans in place of white fish or tuna for a twist on the classic ceviche dish. It has a sour front, rounded out with ketchup and orange juice, a real sassy flavor. And Ecuadorians put roasted corn on top of this dish, adding a crunchiness that pairs well with the softer beans.
However, often in a foreign country figuring out where to eat can be easy and hard at the same time. There might be restaurants lining the streets beckoning you to come in, and you have no one to guide you. TripAdvisor (a website that has reviews of many tours, hotels, and restaurants) might be one option, but often these reviews are written by people passing through. Not to say their opinions aren’t valid, but the local who drives these streets by days and goes to the hidden food cart later in the evening might point you towards a hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving handmade empanadas.
Making local friends
My friend Rachel has done a great job of becoming friends with Ecuadorians. She says this,
Most of my good friends come from being part of an organization and the ministries we do and/or the translators we use. Otherwise they're just people we meet here and there, living our normal lives. This city is big and people are everywhere, so you can literally make a friend anywhere you are, you just have to talk to them.
Making friends in another country will make your experience far richer. To being in the know about things only local would know about to having a larger network hang out and do life with--becoming friends with locals will give you more depth to your stay. And if your local friends have a car, that can help with the next point.
When you are in a foreign city, sometimes it might feel like you’ve gone far enough away from your home that you don’t need to travel more. That may be true, but there is never a better time to travel to places that are a few hours away than when they are only a few hours away. For example, in Quito, it can be easy to stay in the city and feel submerged. Quito is also only two hours away from the largest outdoor market in South America, or only three hours away from Baños, a city named for its waterfalls and hotsprings.
These famous destinations and getaways will allow you to have vacations from your life, which even in a foreign country will begin to normalize with its own routines. Departing from the city gives you fresh perspective. These trips will also cement a desire to do similar adventures when you return home. To go visit the mountains near your home or go to lake in a neighboring state will not seem abnormal to you.
When I packed to come down here, I didn’t know all that I needed. So I brought as much as I could think of. Toothpaste, underwear, books, long underwear, Peanut butter…. The list goes on. But whether you're packing for a five-month trip or a two-day adventure there is one thing that helps immensely: Having a list.
In my suitcase, I have a list written out and zipped into a Ziploc bag. This list documents things I would want on every single short-term adventure I might go on. And since I leave it in a waterproof bag (that’s relatively durable), I only need to consult it when I’m packing to know I got what I must have. That way, whether I have a week to pack or 30 minutes, I get the same results every time and do not forget something that would really put a damper on my travel (like head phones… I would forget those often until I put it on my list).
Also, it turns out the long underwear I brought from Denver did not need to make it down here as I’ve been here for three months and haven’t used them yet.
Talking to strangers
If you go to a foreign country with a language different than your native tongue, and you want to get better at speaking, then speak! Ask for directions, Consult with people about food (“How is your food?” is a simple question) or negotiate buying something in the “tiendas”. Also, get in cabs and talk with the drivers. Cabbies will talk about pretty much anything if you ask. You get to practice asking and listening. Many people who want to learn a language will not practice for the fear of looking stupid. When you practice and make mistakes in the cab, you just get out of the cab at the end of your ride.
Which brings me to my final point.
Get lost on purpose, in a safe way. With some friends, go to an area of town that you are familiar with and get off the main streets. Go through the (safe) alleys, take a right here, and zag a left there. You will find beauty in the shadows as local churches with graceful architecture greet you at a corner, or hand painted murals of yellows, purples, and greens adorn the walls of small buildings reveal themselves .
In life, there is no substitute for experience. Do yourself a favor and go get it by traveling smart.
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