Culture Shock! Rules of the Road in South America

In the United States there are many laws that definite exactly how one i supposed to drive while on public streets.  Every vehicle is meant to follow the same rules no matter how big, small, expensive, or cheap.  In South America, the rules seem to be a little different.  Here are a few things that we have determined…

  1. Stop signs are only a suggestion and in general mean you should slightly slow down and honk your horn to let every else (who are also not stopping) know that you are not stopping.
  2. A traffic light, though very uncommon, is to be followed more closely than a stop sign.  At a red light cars will, in general, stop at least until they get bored, and then of course, honk before they run it.
  3. Most intersections have no signal and conform to the “General Rules of Intersections” which go something like this:
    • If the street isn’t crowded, then you can probably just blow your horn and cruise right through without looking.  Maybe speed up a bit to lessen the chances of being hit.
    • If multiple cars get to the intersection at the same time, the order in which you go depends on the size of your vehicle, i.e. semis and buses go first, then vans, then taxis and cars, then motorcycles.
  4.  Motorcycles can usually squeeze in between everyone else because it’s not necessary to stay in lanes.  A two-lane road will usually have three lanes of cars with “motos” sneaking in between.
  5. Bicycles go last and people even after them.  Never EVER walk into a road when a car is coming, even if you have a “Walk” sign at a crosswalk, because people will not even slow down.  They will probably honk at you and pray that you don’t make a very big dent.  Unless, however, you think you weigh more than the vehicle coming at you, in which case they may stop for you.
  6. When driving around corners, people don’t stay on the right but rather take the shortest distance, cruising all the way to left like racecar drivers, possibly honking if they can’t see around the bend.
  7. When on a narrow, dirt, one-lane road, if two vehicles are coming towards each other, whichever one is smaller has to somehow back up, nearly go off a cliff, whatever, in order to let the bigger one pass.

This might all seem very crazy and unsafe, but we have seen significantly less traffic accidents here than we do back home in the U.S.A.  Why this is, we can only guess.  Maybe it’s because no one has insurance so they don’t have the option of “Yeah!  Let them hit me and buy me a new car!”  Or maybe everyone’s car is so precious to them that crashing is not an option.  When we first arrived, I was scared silly every time we got in a car, but now I’ve realized that it was mostly only frightening because it was different.  I do think it’s not as good of a system and probably less safe, but because of all the insanity people in general are better drivers.  Not safe drivers, but more skilled at maneuvering to avoid accidents.  Having said that, I’m still not sure I could safely drive here myself and don’t want to try!

Culture Shock! Why Doesn´t Anyone Read?

When traveling on long bus trips, or when we have time to kill sitting in the park, we always have a paperback or a Nookbook to pull out.    What we are wondering is, why do we never see any of the locals reading?  Sure, once in a while you catch a student studying for classes, or an old lady reading  a romance novel, but for the most part people just sit and stare into empty space when unoccupied.   Every day we also see street vendors and bus attendants or various other workers with an abudance of downtime, but they are never reading.  You´d bet if I were them I´d read a book a week!  I don´t think it´s a literacy problem, just something that´s embedded in the culture.  The positive opinion on this is that people evidently aren´t in constant need of stimulus (ADHD) like people from Europe, North America, or China are, but there is definetly a HUGE downside!  Not reading seems to indicate a lack of curiosity, as well as decreased learning potential, vocabulary, and general reading skills.  Reading for pleasure would definitely be a hard phenomenon to introduce, but we think it would have great benefits.  Fortunately we have come across many NGOs and charity groups starting libraries and trying to encourage reading.  It´s going to take awhile though.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Culture Shock! Let’s just throw all our trash on the ground, why don’t we?

Latin America has a growing trash problem.  In the major cities the garbage lines the sides of the roads until locals start small fires to diminish the piles.  This creates smog and the cities smell more and more like trash.  There are a few ideas that we have had to help with the problem.  The first and most major problem is that everyone buys the small single serving plastic water bottles.  This problem is intensified by the fact that the water from the tap is not drinkable in most places.  Sure, tons of people have drank the tap water from birth, and most boil, but everything else is purchased in small bottles.  They do sell the big bottles, but people don’t think ahead, “Maybe I will drink more than 600ml of water before I die…”  And to make maters here worse, NO ONE knows how to use trash cans.  When you are riding in a bus someone will eventually come onto the bus to sell small waters and sodas.  As soon as people have finished the drink, they open the bus window and dispose of the bottle onto the highway.  There along the highway it will sit for years and years making a larger and more disgusting pile.  Is this the peoples’ fault?  Yes and no.  I don’t think there has ever been proper education on disposal of trash.  Many times you have to carry your trash through half the city before you can find a can to toss it into.  There is no recycling system set up.  Sure, there are people (pickers) that sort through all the trash for recyclables and sell what they find to the recycling companies, but there is no specific place to throw the recycles.  Not that the average person would even know what can actually be recycled.  In a few cities we have been to there have actually been three cans side by side, (like in San Francisco) “Trash, Compost, Recyclables” but, since no one knows (or cares) which is which, the three cans are all full of the same things (mainly plastic bottles).

What can be done and who is at fault?  There needs to be better education on how and where to dispose of your garbage.  There needs to be more trash cans and more reliable collection.  Basically, the South American governments need to start addressing this as a serious problem.  Yes, there is major poverty, hunger, class division… but by the time they fix these problems, the entire continent is going to be covered in an inescapable pile of filth.  Compared to all the stupid things that I see governmental money going towards (like huge stupid statues in the center of every tiny village…) I think they could spring for a few trash cans and a couple of people to collect garbage.  Maybe the whole problem is that life is so hard for so many people here that it’s nearly impossible to get them plan farther in the future than tomorrow.  The attitude is to worry about today first, then think about tomorrow.

Culture Shock! Everything is OTC

Guys, we totally forgot to post a Culture Shock! on Wednesday!  Woops!  We were too focused on finishing the Inca Trail epic.  So here it is for this week, better late than never!

So far on our adventure we haven’t needed to use our health insurance.  That is not because we haven’t gotten sick (we have), but because everything you need is sold over-the-counter at your friendly neighborhood “farmacia.”  The only thing you need to do is diagnose yourself!  It’s sometimes actually fun playing doctor.  The process usually goes like this.  Day one: stomach pain and diarrhea.  Day two: usually everything is better once it’s all out of your system, but if you are still feeling problems, wait one more day.  Day three: If you still feel terrible then get yourself some Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic for bacterial infections which will knock out just about anything.  If the Cipro doesn’t clear it up, then you are in trouble and should probably go to the doctor.  Carrie and I have both taken the Cipro once and both times within a few hours we were feeling much better.

There are some potential negatives to this system, of course.  Firstly, you really can get anything you want over the counter.  It is of course possible to abuse this for recreational purposes.  Secondly, pharmacists are not actually educated or trained like they are in the United States.  When we went to get some Cipro for Zach the pharmacist actually tried to sell us more than two times as many tablets as we needed and tried to convince Zach he needed to take a large dose for 10 days.  Either she was being totally dishonest to make a sale or we really knew the drug instructions better than she did, because you’re only supposed to take a small dose for five days!  You have to be smart and research to find out what you really need when you’re sick.  If in doubt, you should see a doctor first!

However, I think needing a prescription to cure yourself of obvious problems is part of what makes medical care super expensive in the United States.  Sure, pharmacies shouldn’t hand out addictive drugs over the counter, but there’s also no reason it should be necessary to pay a doctor to tell you what you usually already know.  Maybe instead of forcing money out of people’s pockets, we could focus on educating people on how to help themselves.  But no, let’s continue to let the drug companies tell us what medicines we need.  We all know that they have our best interests in mind.

Culture Shock! Rastafarianism

As you may or may not have realized by now, I changed up my hair quite a bit recently!  I got dreadlocks (otherwise known as “rastas” in Spanish)!  The process was pretty long and excruciating: about 14 hours over two days while in Montañita, Ecuador.  I’ve always loved dreadlocks and have been wanting them for awhile.  I figured South America is the perfect place because I already don’t blend in at all, why not just go all out?

This photo from the Inca Trail shows my dreadlocks pretty well.

They’re pretty crazy, I know.  I didn’t make the decision lightly because I know I probably will have to cut all my hair off whenever I want to get rid of them.  But I like them so hopefully I’ll be keeping them for awhile!  The part of getting dreadlocks that I didn’t really expect was the instant bond that developed with other Rastafarians.  There is some sort of unwritten code between dread-heads that you have to at least acknowledge each other with a nod or fist bump when you pass on the street.  The local Rasta/hippy crowds are usually so thrilled with my hair that they will stop me to talk and even invite me to hang out.  Having dreadlocks is definitely a good way to meet some interesting people!  Other people are curious and so my hair becomes a conversation-starter.  “Is Bob Marley your favorite singer?” one of our guides on the Inca Trail asked me.  Haha.  Of course, there is also a downside as there are many negative stereotypes related to having dreadlocks.  But all in all, I think it’s interesting that I am now included in this unique subculture, just because of my crazy hairstyle!

Culture Shock! Would everyone just SHUT UP already????

As I’m typing this, it is 8am on a lazy morning at our downtown hostel in Ica, Perú.  There’s no reason for me to be awake right now, especially since I wasn’t tired last night and didn’t go to bed until around 1am.  And then did I sleep soundly?  No, not really.  Alas, this is a frequent problem in Perú.

Right now, it’s car horns.  Despite being on the 5th floor, having the windows closed, and having a fan blasting, the stupid STUPID taxis and mototaxis and cars and whatever else were so loud all night long that I just tossed and turned.  Zach too, and he’s normally a better sleeper than I am.

A few nights ago, it was dogs barking.  We were Couchsurfing in a “quieter” neighborhood in Ica, however for some reason the dogs just got going and sounded the midnight bark ALL NIGHT LONG.  Plus, it was too hot to close the windows.  Another night of tossing and turning.

And get this!  A few nights ago, on New Years Eve, in Huacachina, our hostel decided to have an all-night-long pool party with an obnoxiously loud DJ right next to our camping spot.  (Do not go to Silva House!  They’re not nice!)  Of course they didn’t feel it necessary to inform us that this would be happening before we set up our tent and paid.  Nor was it necessary to allow us to eat from their tasty NYE buffet for free, despite the fact that we had already paid a ridiculous 40 Soles ($13) for one night of camping!!!!  All this insanity did turn us into quite the grumpy NYE Scrooges.  Oh, and the music.  It definitely didn’t get turned off until 7AM!!!!!!!!!!!!!

On New Years Day we of course decided to vacate that crazy-land in search of cheaper and more peaceful lodging.  Not before not-so-quietly ridiculing the drunk guy who was in fact asleep sitting up on the edge of the pool until 10am though.  What we found was quite pleasing…an actual bedroom with a bathroom for the same price we had paid for camping!  In the evening we were even serenaded with the lovely sounds of Peruvian flute, guitar, and bongo drums, as the local hippy-vendors gathered to make their jewelry on the street below.  But then, of course, the Peruvian flute band continued, right outside our window, until well past midnight.

Come ON, people!  Obviously, there is no law enforcing anything like a noise pollution code around here.  I’m convinced that Peruvians all just naturally can sleep through anything, because no one else complains about the noise that’s everywhere!  I’m hating the fact that I’m a light sleeper, and sometimes I’m just hating Perú for being so LOUD!  I’m tired!

I know, I know, I should just find some earplugs.  But I never find them comfortable and they always just fall out in the middle of the night.  Agh!

Culture Shock! Refrigerator Schmigerator

In the United States we keep everything in the refrigerator, but when that refrigerator doesn’t exist, how does life change?  Not too much, in Colombia and Ecuador.  Most people keep eggs and milk for a few days without refrigeration.  Even those who do have fridges never put eggs in there!  The trick is to only buy what you need for the next few days.  We haven’t had any problems with eggs or milk so far.

Also, when people cook and have leftovers, they just keep them covered until the next day, when they heat them up again before serving.  Many restaurant’s breakfasts includes some sort of rice/beans/hot food that is most likely leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.

Do our stomachs grumble occasionally?  Yes.  Are we contracting any serious illnesses or being poisoned?  No.  As a former restaurant server, this whole thing just makes me think about the food safety standards in the U.S., and how strict and particular they are.  Are we just being super paranoid in the good ol’ U.S. of A., I wonder?  The conclusion I usually come to is that our U.S. safety standards are good, of course!  BUT we should be more lax when it comes to issues of wasting food.  Did you forget and leave your doggie bag of restaurant leftovers in the car overnight?  Eat it!  It’s probably fine.  If things are a couple days past the expiration date, but aren’t growing mold or stanking, they’re probably fine too!

Am I just gross?  Has backpacking on a budget left me with no standards and no shame?  Or do you agree that we’re often WAAAY too picky about this stuff in the U.S?