Our Expat Life: It's Different. It's the Same.

Life is different here and life is the same. But most of all, life is good. And that's what we're really after, right?
02/05/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We spent time in the States over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays this past season... more than we should have if our dwindling bank account is any indication.

But it's not just the difference in how much more things cost in Arizona and the Midwest (where our families live) than where we live in Ecuador (and most all of Latin America, to be honest)...

There are some other little cultural differences that this trip has us considering:

The weather. This one may seem obvious, but when you are used to a daytime temperature averaging a delightful 75 degrees day in and day out, it can be very tough to deal with a bone-chilling daytime high of 5 degrees. Ouch. Not to mention that this type of winter climate suffered north of the Rio Grande can cost you a small fortune in heating bills and coats and mittens and boots and... well, you get the idea. We suppose that's why closets in Latin America tend to be small. You just don't need all that survival gear.

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Courtesy Suzan Haskins, InternationalLiving.com

Food. In the U.S., healthy food costs more and you often have to go out of your way to find it, while food that's bad for you is cheap and plentiful. The opposite is true in Latin America, where we have abundantly available local produce...often plucked from the ground the very day you buy it. And that's year-round. For $10 we can buy almost more than we can carry at our local mercado. And in our little town we do not have a single fast-food chain restaurant.

People. Obesity levels are on the rise everywhere in the world. And the U.S. seems to have more than its fair share of this problem, possibly related to the things we've already mentioned. Fast, processed, unhealthy food is cheap. Bad weather (and dare we say it, the internet and television) keeps lots of people from getting outside and doing much exercise.

On a positive note, we encountered lots of nice, friendly people in the States and it was a guilty relief to give our Spanish conversation brains a rest for awhile. (Although we did speak Spanish a fair amount in Arizona and even on one occasion in Omaha. And it felt really good to be able to converse with those Spanish-speakers.)

Public transportation. In Latin America it's easy and inexpensive to hop on a bus or grab a taxi to take you across town or across the country. That's how most of the population gets from place to place. That's not the case in most of the U.S., where a vehicle is practically a requirement. Happily we did try Uber on our recent visit to Omaha and had a good experience with that.

There are lots of (enforced) laws in the U.S. For good or bad, in the U.S. you'll find zoning ordinances, noise ordinances, laws about seat belt usage... You have to carry a bag and pick up after your dog when you're out an about in public places. Jaywalking is against the law. So is raw, unpasteurized milk. You can't drink a beer on the street corner. And on and on...

In Latin America there aren't nearly as many rules... and that's for good and bad, too, of course. Trash on the streets, graffiti on the walls... no one thinks these are good things. But nothing much are done about them.

We've been criticized for not writing about the incessantly barking dogs, the parties that loudly rage until the wee hours, the holes in (and dog poop on) the sidewalks in Latin America.

But to be honest, we don't really notice these things much any more. We watch where we walk and we have a sound machine we crank up when we go to bed at night that drowns out the outside world. You learn to shrug it off and adapt.

Here's one U.S. law we're in favor of, though, that we wish would be adopted in Latin America:

In the U.S. pedestrians have the right of way.
We don't have much problem with dodging cars while we are out walking in the little town where we live in Ecuador (there's just not that much traffic). But in any sizeable city in Latin America (or Asia, for that matter) pedestrians need to be hyper-vigilant when crossing streets or when sauntering across a parking lot. U.S., Canadian and European citizens are, for the most part, well-mannered drivers. Latin Americans.... well, not so much.

There's more.
There are many more small differences you'll notice when you've been away for awhile and you go "back home." In the States, there's a Walgreens on every corner and a gun in every closet. Here in Latin America, we have a mom-and-pop tienda on every block and a machete (used for gardening) in every closet.

You will, though, see armed guards stationed in front of some businesses here, especially in the cities. (As a local once told us, "In the States, you push a button or make a phone call to summon the armed police. Here, we just bypass that step.")

It often takes us off guard when newcomers to Ecuador point out the differences we now take for granted. Street dogs. Bars on the windows. Women openly breastfeeding in the park or while walking down the street... and not with a discreet blanket thrown over the baby. Flowers that bloom year-round. The menu del dia (a home-cooked meal that comes with a starter of chips or nuts followed by soup, and then meat, salad and potatoes and/or rice, dessert and freshly squeezed juice) for just $2.50 per person. Getting into see the doctor the same day you call... Or walking into a lab and requesting your own lab work, without a doctor's order...

To us, these things are now our "normal." And we wouldn't trade them for anything.

There are also many similarities, of course. People are the same everywhere. Those friendly people we met in the States... well, we have friendly people here, too. People who genuinely want to help you. People who love their families and are kind to their neighbors... who will join you for a $2 latte or mochaccino at the local coffee shop where you can sit on the terrace in the sunshine. Or invite you to one of those all-night parties with the blaring music.

Life is different here and life is the same. But most of all, life is good. And that's what we're really after, right?