By Kathy Cohen
Whenever we return to the U.S. after living ten years on on a mountainside above Vilcabamba—an Ecuadorian pueblo of just 5,000 people–we feel like the Beverly Hillbillies or the Rip Van Winkles. We see unidentifiable products and overhear conversations that make no sense.
Once, in a crowd in Buenos Aires, I saw a woman holding an intimidating two-foot-long pole and asked my friend, “What does she have there, a cattle prod?”
“No, Kathy, that’s a selfie stick.”
Nor do we know how to use Uber, TV remote controls, landline phones, GPS, auto-check-out lines in stores, GoPro, Roombas, Snapchat, Netflix, Shazam, X-Boxes, Fitbits, Alexa, Echo, Fire, Bird scooters, smart watches, or Twitter; and we know little or nothing about Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, or even Seinfeld. We don’t know why credit cards have to have chips, or which end the chip is on or when to sign the credit card receipt with a pen or when to sign with an index finger or when not to sign. We never know how long to leave the card in the card machine, and Mrs. Van Winkle usually snatches it out too soon and has to start over as the people behind her snort and sigh and shift their weight from one foot to the other.
We identify now with the hillbilly know-nothings Ellie Mae and Granny Clampett and Jethro Bodine all those times when they called their Beverly Hills swimming pool a cement pond. However, if we take care to refrain from asking questions, usually no one except my family is aware of our backwardness, simply because we have not yet happened to rent a car with gizmos.
That was not the case with our local friends, who flew to Europe several times recently and had to use Uber as well as a very modern rental car. When the wife visited Berlin, her friend living there called Uber, and the driver picked them up and said to the friend, “Hi, Stephanie!”
Our friend was amazed that in a city the size of Berlin, the two of them could be acquainted. “You two KNOW each other?” she asked, astonished. Thankfully, as yet, I have been spared the kind of laughter that ensued.
The car that our friends rented on another trip was keyless, and they had no idea how to start it. They sat in it quite awhile, touching many things on the dashboard and waiting for magic to happen until finally some passing teenagers explained what to do.
Every time they parked somewhere and walked back to double-check that the car had locked, it never had. Not even once. As a result, they spent a week of their vacation lugging their computer and backpacks into every restaurant and grocery and on every walking tour. They even took their laptops to the beach.
“I’ve been living on top of a mountain for the last seven years, and I don’t know how to lock the damn car!” the overwrought husband finally exploded, approaching a timid German couple with very limited English. The German man made a pushing gesture and said, “Away!”
Our friends came to understand that their keyless car had been locking automatically as they left and unlocking automatically as they obsessively returned to check it. Thenceforth, their belongings remained in the car during lunch and dinner.
Once, when I was back in L.A. and shopping in a large, upscale kitchen store, I overheard an outraged woman say to no one in particular, “What’s the DEE-al? Nobody has any RED SPRINKLES! This is so WEIRD!”
“What’s a red sprinkle?” I wondered. To inform myself, I glanced over and saw on the shelf what apparently were green, blue, and yellow sprinkles. It seemed strange that the lack of red ones could engender such an overwrought response.
In spite of the times in Vilcabamba that I had fantasized about being able to shop again, to understand pop culture and modern life, at that moment I wanted nothing more than to hightail it back to the Land of Non-Consumption Where There Is Nothing to Consume and No One to Show It Off To.
Our close friends who rented the car with gizmos moved away, onward to Europe, where their humiliations continued to mount up and up. I like to think that that their stories have spared us a few surprises, but we still need them to do reconnaissance. We heard a nasty rumor that self-driving cars were in the pipeline!
On the bright side, considering that we were two retired, somewhat spoiled Americans, we have proved to be relatively adaptable, and after the initial shock of finding that many “necessities” were not to be had, we found workarounds or did without.
Unlike many others, as a general rule, we did not attempt to change the culture or expect it to accommodate us. We worked on our Spanish and never once expected to hear English, unlike some Americans who demanded it, with little luck. We knew not to search for Starbucks or Walmarts or Bed, Bath, and Beyonds. If we needed more all-cotton sheets, we would drive to the city, buy cotton fabric, and take it to a seamstress with measurements of our mattress. But on the plus side, we do not need to file Ecuadorian income tax. Some things are harder and some things are easier.
As of the time of this writing, Edward and I still have no plans to leave Ecuador. We have made friends with the gringos (not a pejorative in Ecuador as it is in Mexico), indigenous neighbors, and with other locals. Here, we are uninformed more often than back in L.A., but our motto now is, when in doubt, ask an Ecuadorian. We rescued two callejeros, or street dogs, and we have two burros, Josephine and Jasmine, who will never carry a load of bricks or cane, only mow the pasture.
Yet despite all that we have learned, the surprises never stop. One of the hardest has been hearing that friend after friend would be moving home or to another foreign country. They have seen they could handle expatriation here, and they are confident enough to try it again.
The older we get, it seems, the more adaptable we have to be.
Kathy and Edward Cohen are the authors of Blood Relations. To find out more about this book, click here.