Friday, September 30, 2011

Adaptability - a most important word!

I frequently talk with people about what is helpful in moving to a new culture, starting a new life around
middle age or older. I think adaptability is the most important concept to consider.
     adaptable =able to adjust oneself readily to different conditions

This is not a word to skim over lightly if you are considering a move to any new culture or community with different values. Some values will be similar to things you may be used to but many will be different.  

I personally wonder how "plastic" or moldable the human personality is regarding being able to adapt.
It takes more than mental determination or an intent to be able to adjust oneself to new situations.  Can you change yourself to tolerate more than your usual comfort with new situations and major changes?  An acute awareness of the need to be adaptable is key in making a major life change.  This quality helps one survive a divorce, process loss of a loved one, rebound from losing a job and other challenges.  Having an ability to be flexible, find new ways to cope and a thirst for many challenges all feed into one's "adaptability". 

I have no way of estimating the number of Americans who move to Ecuador, buy property and within a year or two, decide it just is not right for them.  But it happens.  I  have seen some people make huge life changes to come to Cuenca and then be shocked at the cool nights, the prevalence of pick pockets in certain parts of the city, the lack of familiar conveniences that are common in Estados Unitos. Conveniences such as Jif peanut butter at a reasonable price, having a garbage disposer, missing the convenience of big box stores where so many things can be purchased in one stop, having a dishwasher, accepting that not every country has a post office that delivers mail in a reasonable amount of time (or at all), other issues reflecting your own interests and biases.

It is one thing to note the inconveniences and feel a little frustration, it is another to let it ruin your day, day after day.  Whether we live in Midtown America or a city in South America, we all complain and get frustrated from time to time. But these little things ruin the experience of some people and make life miserable. Take a careful, thoughtful look at yourself and see if you fall into the adventurous group or the group who want things to be the same as the US, only cheaper.

What I am suggesting is that it is important to consider inconveniences, such as those described in books, the press and the blogs on any new country you are thinking of moving to.  Think about how that may impact you.  Could you "roll with it" or would it get you seriously down? If you felt anger about some issue, could you handle it appropriately or would you expect your new place to be "a smaller version of the US" with all of the same rights but costing less?  Please do not think that you will change a whole culture to meet your needs.  It will be your job to adapt to the way things run in your new culture, should you move. are you ready for that?  Are you flexible enough?

Most important - evaluate yourself.  What are your hopes and dreams?  What are your goals in moving to a new culture?  Are they realistic?  Do tons of research.  And then do even tons more.  "Due diligence" is a fancy way of saying read everything you can on the blogs, in books,at the library, anywhere you can find a resource.  And beware of stories by people who have never lived in the culture about which they rave, be very cautious about people who have an agenda.  Study the weather patterns, the health care system, the local foods, common recreation. real estate, rental prices, hidden costs  -  and think over and over "am I being realistic in my dreams?  Will this be right for me?  Am I a person who is a risk taker and can be flexible in a new culture?" I know one couple who moved here sight unseen - BIG risk takers - but that is an unusual way to approach the issues of living abroad.
I asked them "What would you have done if you did not like it here (they LOVE Cuenca)?"
They both answered "move somewhere else!"  That is an adventurous spirit!

Second most important - visit.  Many people say visit more than once and as long as you can to get a sample of life there at different times of the year. A lot of people move to Cuenca, for example, expecting there to be long, balmy evenings with a late setting sun and hot sand.  Hmmmm...Cuenca is situated high in the Andes where it usually drops to around 40 degrees nearly every night of the year.  The sun sets about the same time every day of the year - near 6 pm.  There is no sandy beach at 8200 ft altitude.  Carefully research every aspect of life you can think of .
Consider what you would sacrifice to live in a new culture.  An example: I love the moderate weather here.  The chilly nights feel a little colder than I expected but I've adapted.  It helped that I read other blogs where people said they were buying an electric mattress heater or blanket. And there are beautiful alpaca jackets for $25. A little reality check. Yes, I miss the balmy evenings but there are so many other things I love here.  It is something I can adapt to. Next year, perhaps I'll visit the US in summer to get a taste of balmy evenings and hot pavement again.

And yet, I had not considered that I would miss the angle and deep gold color of the setting sun late on a summer evening, the long moderate Oregon August evenings, walking with bare feet on hot pavement and music floating on the cooling breeze.  Is that a deal breaker for me?  Certainly not.  But for some people, these type of things would contribute to unhappiness. And perhaps eventually returning to the US, feeling they failed.  

Of course, there is another way to look at this issue.  You could cut yourself some slack and say "I'm going to try living in another culture for xx months or a year.  Then I'll return to the US... or I may decide I want to stay or move to yet a different place."  

A couple of issues I want to touch on.  These are sensitive issues and I am not saying I know the answers.  I'm just bringing these up for you to investigate on your own and assess for yourself.

1) the state of life in Cuenca for physically handicapped people is not at all forward thinking.  Cobblestone streets and broken pavement are not friendly to wheel chairs.  Some of the sidewalks in old town are about 12 inches wide and pedestrians have virtually no rights in traffic. Buildings up to 4-5 stories tall do not need to have elevators.  Most houses and apartments do not have grab bars or other helpful conveniences in my experience.  Even single homes for older adults usually do not have simple adaptations to make life easier as you age, like grab bars and easy clearance into bathroom and entrance.

There is talk of building a retirement home with mixed types of housing where these sort of adaptations would be built in but...that is a way off.

2) The second issue
 Let me preface this by saying I am a feminist.  I have worked toward equality for women in the workplace and in university settings for about 40 years.  Having said that, consider the stereotype of some Latin American males looking differently at single women or a woman alone. It may be an accurate assessment of some people in Latin America. 

Investigate this for yourself.  Some people live here as single women and report no problems.  Yet a couple of women have told me of different incidents that caused each of them to return to the US.  One woman had her earrings pulled off in mid-day in a crowded market area  The earrings were from Walmart so it was not their value that was sought.  She felt it was an assault on her being an "unprotected" woman out on her own. 
I had a very minor but interesting incident where I was walking alone and workmen along the path stared hard at me and spoke to me - I did not understand the Espanol but but their tone and expressions were clear.  It made me recall walking by construction sites in 1970 where the same behavior and worse was evident. Whistling, leering, jeering were common at that time in US cities. Back to Cuenca and present day:  An hour later I walked that same path with my husband at my side.  The same workmen looked up and said "buenas tardes" in a respectful fashion, unlike their behavior half an hour before. I am not talking about all men, just a few who seem to practice certain behaviors that we saw in the US prior to 1980, behaviors that are more unusual in the US now.  Ecuador may be on a different time line in its own development of how to treat women or it may remain stable with the cultural values held for women.

Now remember these incidents can occur anywhere.  But consider the stereotype and investigate for yourself before making huge decisions like selling everything you own. 
And I want to say again that these are my thoughts and experiences reported to me.  I am not saying this is a problem across the board.  Some women have lived alone in Cuenca for years and have never had a difficult incident. I am not trying to be offensive or politically incorrect but I have said I would bring up difficult issues. 

I know people who live in New York City, take the subway, go out in the evening to concerts, jog in Central Park on busy week ends and never have had a problem with safety issues, although they do have good "street smarts" and are aware of their surroundings all the time. No big deal.

I also know people who would not even go to New York City because of fears about crime and safety.  Riding the subway would be so far out of their comfort would never happen.
So please, take the best and leave the rest.

Have a fantastic week end!


  1. Great post, Sharon. I've seen a couple of these stories elsewhere but appreciated how you put it together. I'll be in Cuenca by next weekend, after registering my 12-IX visa in Quito first. BTW, I'm a former lawyer, single mom of 3 grown kids. I knew there would be a machismo element in Latin America, but figure if I could practice law in Texas in 1978, a little machismo won't trouble me. Hope to meet you.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It made me smile. We must meet once you get settled. My email is at the top of the page. Sharon

  3. I really liked how you talked about these issues Sharon, they are really important. I remember having lots of trouble in Honduras, but also the other way around as well, lots of "gentlemanly" like behavior, if that's a word. I guess it can go both ways.

  4. Buenes Noches Sharon;
    Loved your article about adaptability. At the risk of offending your feminist genes I will state that there are three types of women in the world: High Maintenance, those who want to be high maintenance and low maintenance. I feel that I am an authority, in that I have been married three times; once to each type. My late wife was the classic high maintenance woman. She grew up in a small town in rural Georgia where her daddy owned half the town. Her mother had dresses custom made for her and she began having her hair done weekly at the age of four. At the other end of the spectrum was the completely low maintenance woman. She owned her own home, was a landlady, she owned a 26' sailboat and was the only female member of a yacht club. She didn't own a dress and had never even had her nails done. Plus she thought I was just wonderful.

    I am not offended by the lack of Jif however, it is an inferior product to Peter Pan, which is food for the gods. Miami is just a short plane ride and you can go restock your favorite vittles.

    American appliances, dishwashers, disposals can be purchased and imported as household goods, but the the high maintenance type would have to bring her plumber along as well. I also suspect people complain about the lack of ice makers in refrigerators even though in most cases, the water is unfit to drink. Some years ago, I was in Guatemala on business and one morning I came out of my hotel to see a young man filling plastic bottles from a public faucet. I asked what he was doing in my best Spanish. His reply was a classic: "Stupid Americans want bottled water."

    I am deeply disturbed about the almost total lack of any cultural knowledge Americans have
    about other cultures. It really pis---se me off to hear them complain; "don't you even speak English".

    That's the end of my tirade. Keep up the good work


  5. Excellent post. It is important for people moving here to consider what will happen when one spouse inevitably becomes handicapped or dies. There are not the support services available here as in the states and those unpleasant life changes with no family around are very difficult. And this "eternal spring" is cold!

  6. These comments are important additions to thoughts about this subject. Thanks for your thoughts!