Making New Friends in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador

When the old man waved first, and offered the faintest of smiles, I knew we’d made progress in making Puerto Cayo, Ecuador our home.

I begin almost every day with a one-hour walk from our home into town and back. And every day, without fail, I see the same local people, going to the same places in their own morning routine. In the beginning, the Puerto Cayans weren’t unfriendly at all. They just didn’t seem overly friendly. They always waved back. It just seemed I was the one who always made the first gesture.

Then one day two weeks into my new routine an older fisherman I’d seen at the same place each day surprised me. It was his wave, and his smile, that made my day.

From the beginning of our expatriate adventure to Ecuador, my wife Dana and I made sure we immersed ourselves in the culture. If we were going to reject their food, fear their religion, avoid their language and dismiss their ways altogether, we might as well stay home, I surmised.

And now, almost 100 days into our adventure, we’ve seen progress in achieving our cultural goals by doing two simple things: just being ourselves, and regularly pushing our comfort zones.

By nature, Dana and I are social people. We have a natural curiosity about other people and places, and we find—regardless of where we are in the world—that’s true for most other people as well.

Our camera, for instance, has been a huge icebreaker. As journalists, we take it almost everywhere, because Ecuador is truly a photo journalist’s paradise. There are opportunities at every bend in the road.

And little did we know just how many Ecuadorians love having their picture taken. Yes, we always ask permission before taking a photo of an individual, or family, but the answer is almost always an enthusiastic “yes.”

During the recent four-day Carnival holiday here we captured some great photos by simply asking permission, and showing a genuine interest in the people, their traditions and customs. In a matter of minutes, it was as if we were a member of the family.

And the great part is, we’re just being ourselves.

But there are also times, when in order to grow, we know we must push ourselves, not beyond what’s safe, but certainly, on occasion, what’s comfortable.

The whole second language issue is a perfect example. Most gringos don’t speak fluent Spanish, but it’s certainly no reason to avoid it altogether. It’s okay to sound like a gringo, especially if you are one. I have blond hair and blue eyes. I think the locals know I’m a gringo so there’s no point in trying to hide the fact.

The point is not to be intimidated by the fact that you don’t speak perfect Spanish. If I’m in a local tienda, or comedor, or anywhere that I’m obviously the guest, I speak Spanish, and though I know it’s not perfect, I do it purely out of respect for the people who I now consider to be my neighbors.

I find that they respect me for it… and when cultures occasionally collide, respect goes a long way.

For us, the rules for being accepted into the local culture are simple: be yourself… respect others… and dare to explore.

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