Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse

In my last post I talked about differences between life in Ecuador versus the United States, focusing on shopping at the grocery store. This time I want to mention a trend just beginning here that reflects a behavioral shift already in full swing in the States.


When we're visiting our daughter in New Jersey we usually find ourselves in Manhattan at some point. Riding the train into the city, walking along the streets, and dining in restaurants it's impossible not to notice how many people are staring at their phones. Or wearing ear buds connected to their phones. On a recent train ride I'm not exaggerating when I report that every single passenger in sight except Cynthia and me was "connected" in some way to a smartphone.

This was of great curiosity to me so I would steal surreptitious glances at the screens of folks nearby to see what they were so interested in. Maybe they were learning a new language--keeping up with current events--taking care of some business during their ride.

Nope. Every single person was either playing a game or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Pinterest or some other form of social media.

On the streets people are transfixed staring at their phones as they shuffle along oblivious to their surroundings. In restaurants almost everyone has their phone perched on the table so they don't "miss anything." At a movie we went to little screens were visible in the dark throughout the theater as fellow attendees were texting away during the previews.

This technology explosion is happening so quickly that I'm honestly having trouble processing it all. On one hand I'm amused and on the other concerned about where we're heading. Here in Ecuador I am the proud owner of a $40 "dumbphone" on which a call is made or received maybe once a week tops. Circumstances occasionally force me to send a text, but in the time it takes me to fumble my way through the process I could have made three calls, gone to the bathroom, and fixed myself a sandwich.

I like to walk around town feeling the sun on my back and the breeze blowing (no, not through my hair). The sights and sounds of my surroundings are always interesting because, well, they are part of my life. But I'm saddened to see what I call the "Zombie Apocalypse," this phenomenon of smartphone addiction already prevalent in the U.S., beginning to take hold in Ecuador as well.

A recent survey in the States revealed that making a phone call is only the sixth most popular use of a smartphone. Surfing the Web, texting, playing games, posting photos and God knows what else all ranked higher. Here you still see most people using their phones for what they were originally intended--talking to someone. But the writing is on the wall.

Walking down the sidewalks I'm starting to encounter folks slowly meandering with that familiar stooped shoulder, downward facing posture. This even happened recently as I came up behind a little indigenous woman in her traditional dress. How mind bending to notice that the phone she was staring at is much nicer than mine! At traffic signals young professionals are hurriedly texting before the light turns green. Ecuador's emerging middle class is eager to own all manner of status possessions, and the latest electronic devices seem to be at the top of the list.

One day I know I'll be forced to either upgrade to a smartphone or risk being left behind and labelled as a hopeless old fogey wallowing in the past. Until then I'll remain blissfully disconnected, fully participating in my life and enjoying face-to-face conversations with interesting people.

So if you need to reach me feel free to call, but be advised I probably won't even have my phone with me. And should you need a quick reply, for God's sake don't send me a text!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Grocery Shopping Here is----Different

We've recently returned from a couple of months in the States visiting family (with a week in Cancun at the International Living Ultimate Event thrown in). When we come home I can't help but notice the differences between life here and in the U.S.

Take going to the grocery store, for instance. Since we had zero food in the house, the first thing I did after unpacking was head to the Supermaxi to restock the refrigerator and pantry. I was, as always, welcomed by a greeter upon entering the store. Does that happen where you shop? I didn't think so. This gentleman also checks any bags (except purses) that you bring in and hands you a number to reclaim your property when you leave. A shoplifting deterrent, I'm sure.

I obviously needed a lot of stuff and grabbed a buggy. But even if I was there to purchase only a few items I would have still needed a buggy because our store has no hand-held baskets. Why? Insider tip--you don't ask "Why?" in Ecuador because the answer, if there is one, is irrelevant. It just is-----. (A corollary anecdote: I was once scolded for taking photos inside the store. See--you want to ask that question again. Don't.)

The first aisle you come to has the dairy products. So where are the milk and eggs? On the shelf in another part of the store. Milk is ultra-pasteurized and in boxes or bags; eggs don't need refrigeration because, unlike in the U.S., they aren't so rigorously cleaned that their protective coating is scrubbed off of the shells.

Next is the deli. We have rotisserie chickens but, contrary to the mantra that Ecuador's low cost of living, the darn things are expensive. The bird you buy for $5 at the Kroger or Publix costs $9 here. I've never understood how a chicken that takes 8-10 weeks from hatching to your table no matter where it hatches, raised in a country with a minimum wage of like $340 per month, can cost almost double. But I buy them anyway because they're s-o-o-o convenient to have around.

You're used to a deli with all kinds of meats and cheeses, and probably a nice selection of prepared foods to go. Ours has lots of ham. Plus cheeses that have names like cheddar and Gruyere but somehow all seem to taste the same. Oh, there are a few other choices but when I say lots of ham, I mean LOTS of ham. I tried many of them but, much like their cheese neighbors, they have different names and prices but all of them have the flavor, or lack of flavor, of that pre-packaged sliced stuff that was stacked between slices of white bread in my brown bag lunches in grammar school.

But here's an example of how learning just one new Spanish word can improve your life. I've always avoided this jamon (ham) ahumado I'd seen for months because I didn't know what "ahumado" meant and the word didn't look too enticing. I recently found out at a restaurant it means "smoked." Well---now I was interested. Lo and behold, jamon ahumado is fabulous! After tasting it I immediately wanted to whip up a bowl of potato salad. This very well may seem silly and trivial to you but little treasures and discoveries mean a lot when you've learned to do without so many things you used to take for granted.

Moving on to the meat section. Poultry, beef, and pork--just like the U.S. The chickens are whole or cut into breasts, thighs, wings, and legs--just like the U.S. The beef and pork---not so much. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of styrofoam trays sealed with plastic that have meat inside. Some you recognize as ground beef or pork (no ground chicken or turkey, by the way), pork chops, or tenderloin. But most of it looks like someone hung a dead animal on a hook and started hacking away with a chain saw. Looking for a nice chuck roast or maybe a pork shoulder? Fuggidabowdit. You just stare at unidentifiable chunks of flesh and think, "What the hell is this???" For that reason we only prepare chicken, hamburger, filet Mignon, pork chops, or pork tenderloin at home because we have no idea what to do with anything else.

Inventorying throughout the store is done with clipboards so you never know from one visit to the next if your favorite cereal will be there. If not it may be back in a week--a month--or never. So hoarding is a common practice when you spot something that's been unavailable for awhile. A friend told me just today that she grabbed a dozen jars of Dijon mustard that hasn't been around for months and quite probably will disappear again.

Here's another reason produce may be unavailable: restaurant owners shop in the grocery stores!! You'll see someone loading all the broccoli or a type of lettuce into his cart and you know what's on his menu today.

I could go on and on, but let's get in the checkout line. Sometimes that's a challenge in itself because the area in front of the lines is often a mish mash of empty carts. Why? This time there is an answer: the damned carts won't fit through the space next to the cashier!

I learned this the hard way my very first trip to Supermaxi five years ago. I'd been in the store f-o-r-e-v-e-r because I didn't know the layout plus, uh, everything was in Spanish----. I happily stepped in front of my cart, unloaded some groceries onto the belt, and pulled the cart forward. And pulled the cart forward. And--why wouldn't the stupid cart move??? The cashier and bag boy were in stitches! How was I to know you unload all of your groceries and just leave the empty cart, along with everyone else's, sitting there in everyone's way until some employee decides to clear them out.

That's only the beginning of interesting occurrences in the checkout line. Your items are totaled and the cashier tells you the final tally. Say it's $40.37. You give her two twenties and a five. She'll actually ask if you have the thirty seven cents! Maybe you do, but the automatic response is always "No." Small change and dollar coins are a precious commodity here. You want to give the bag boy some change for taking your groceries to the taxi; you've gotta pay the taxi driver $1.50 to take you home. Hand him a twenty and you'll quickly be given a lesson in Spanish curse words.

Finally let's focus on that bag boy. If he was given any training at all it most certainly didn't involve the concept of weight distribution. The goal seems to be, "Let me see how many heavy things I can get into one bag. How about this huge jug of laundry detergent with the two bottles of wine and the cartons of milk. Excellent!!" I guess they assume that many of these shoppers have a housekeeper back at the casa waiting to help unload. I've got to haul those bags up four flights of steps!

All of this may sound like I'm complaining but the truth is I like having that guy greet me when I come in and thank me when I leave. I like knowing where everything is (or isn't) and not having so many choices to consider. I don't even mind the fact that I can't get all the products I enjoy because it gives me something to look forward to and really enjoy when we go back to the States.

So, yes, there are many differences between Ecuador and the U.S., even in the grocery store. And I think it's all wonderful. How boring would it be to move abroad and discover that everything is just the same as where you came from?!?