Over the years of living in South America, I have learned how to do many things differently. Additionally, I am maturing in my walk with Christ and He’s enabled my eyes to see situations that might have ruined our experience had I not embraced the culture, the differences and the learning experiences.
I’ve made a list that may sound to you like complaints. They aren’t! These 14 items are to remind myself of parts of our life down here and to be ever-grateful to be born American, to have the luxury of so many comforts. Besides not complaining, I am also not trying to paint a picture that our lives have been so tough and oh-poor-me. I hope you understand my heart!
That said, in no particular order, here are 14 things I never want to take for granted when we move back to the States (some are small & silly, but hey, they’re still something I could have let driven me crazy!).
14 Things I Never Want to Take for Granted While Living in the USA
For anyone who’s done much traveling, this one is probably familiar. You don’t flush your used toilet paper – the piping is usually too small to handle it. So there are bins (we call them “poo cans”) in which you place your used paper. Gross, right? Well, it’s just life here. I actually don’t mind it much – what I don’t care for more than anything is the chore of emptying them. 😉
This encompasses many facets of our lives down here: you can’t drink it (out of the faucet). You have to rely on clean bottled water being delivered or available on time. Pressure changes all the time which can cause scalding-to-freezing showers. It takes a long time to get hot due to the low pressure. Washers take over 90 minutes to do a medium-sized load (again – the pressure). And I’ve never lived anywhere that got hot water in the bathroom faucets (just the kitchen). Lots of little things that are totally tolerable and not a huge deal, but just another thing that is usually more reliable and convenient in the USA.
3. Gas Tanks
We have to get these large gas tanks delivered to our home to run our range, dryer and hot water heater (if it’s not electric). We now live in a high floor apartment in an old building so we cannot keep the tanks outside like in other living situations. They are stinky!! They sit in a cabinet in our kitchen and, even if they’re not technically leaking, the outsides of them are dirty from banging around in the backs of the gas tank trucks with all the other old dirty tanks. I smell them every day and I’ve stopped asking my husband if they’re leaking. They just smell ha ha. The other nuisance here is they aren’t always delivered when you need them, the young delivery boys often try to take advantage of the foreigners and charge more (so you have to stay knowledgeable on current prices), they take up good cabinet space and they’re just one more thing to deal with.
4. Public Outings
I’m redheaded and extremely white. My mother lovingly once said, “Our whole family is quite white, but you my dear? Your legs glow!” My husband and I both have blue eyes and now we have a white blonde baby with large blue eyes himself. We live in a big city with a variety of cultures and races, so locals are used to seeing foreigners – but they typically think we’re tourists. We always try to blend in with our clothing and my husband wears a hat like other men, but my hair you just can’t hide. 😉 The stares always happened but increased exponentially when I was visibly pregnant. Then they increased even more (which I didn’t think possible) when we had a baby. Tourists don’t have babies with them so it caught peoples’ eyes. Anyway, I don’t usually get a second glance in the States. That’s partially a component of the American Individualism mindset, in my opinion, but also because I blend in more. I’m a shy introvert (who strangely likes to publicly blog) and I really appreciate not being noticed in public.
5. Trash Bags
This is one of those little things, but still… until very recently you couldn’t find rolled packages of trash bags (of any size). They were folded into a flat package – what’s the big deal, you say? Well, they were folded together. So, to get one out, you had to get all 20 out, unfold them all completely and, if you’re like me, fold them all back individually so you didn’t have a royal mess. Remember, we have to deal with a lot of trash bags for the “poo cans,” not just the kitchen. Like I said, silly. 😉
They’re just typically smaller. A common-sized cookie sheet in the USA wouldn’t come close to fitting into ours here. We have smaller everything and because of that, you have to do about half a thousand batches of cookies when you’re baking. Ha ha. Also, the gas line is never perfectly consistent so the fire (which is an open flame at the bottom inside which you have to light by hand) will go out quite often. Re-lighting the fire multiple times is part of preheating my oven. Lastly, my current one constantly wants to go up past 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius) no matter where I put the dial, so if I’m doing sensitive high-altitude baking, I have to obsessively be aware of the temperature on the extra thermometer I placed in there and regularly open the door to cool it off. But don’t close it too hard because the fire will go out!
There are laws here and they are followed more than in other South American cities we’ve resided in or visited, but still… People turn right from the left lane on a highway. They drift in and out of lanes like lines don’t exist. The average driver doesn’t appear to understand who has the right-of-way and often turn in front of oncoming traffic. If the left turn lane has too long of wait at the stoplight, they’ll drive past all the cars and pull in front of the first one (this is actually my husband’s favorite – he does it!). In general, the infrastructure/communication isn’t solid – for example, if there’s construction or anything unusual happening in an intersection, it’s often not clear what to do, with lack of signs or traffic cops, which causes confusion for all parties. Sometimes you’ll turn a corner on a highway going 100 kilometers an hour and there will be a random cone in your lane. Some of the new highways are ridiculously nice but they were built out of mountains and my husband is often worried about landslides – he has seen two in the last few months. There are no shoulders on these roads. Finally, like most big cities, congestion is pretty bad. You have to really plan your day to go almost anywhere because you’re going to be in the car a lot! This particular city is one of those that enabled “Pico y Placa” several years ago. The law is strict and, depending on your licence plate, you cannot drive during certain hours of certain days each week. This backfired on the government’s planned to reduce cars on the road because everyone went out to buy a second car for a different plate number. These second cars are often junkers so the air gets polluted even more and the cars on the road doubled.
You just don’t have the variety the States has. Sure, it might not have as much junk in it, but there are certain items that would make cooking a lot easier and quicker while still maintaining healthiness. You have to prepare almost everything from scratch here – a cool tool to have in your kitchen skills, but I just don’t have time every day to cook like that. I’ll be thankful for this when we move back, because meal planning is stressful to me now that I am a mom. I’m not good at it – it’s likely I’ll blog on that topic another day…
9. Paper Size
This is probably the smallest/silliest thing on my list, but often we need to print documents created in the States and paper size is different here. It never looks quite right. 🙂
This could be a long section if I let it… The culture here is extremely relational – very different from the American culture and very different than my comfort level. I’ve significantly grown in that area, but let’s just say it’s hard at times. We’ve never had super private living quarters, you can hear conversations through thin walls in the next apartment and in our current place, neighbors can actually see into a big portion of our apartment at all times through the strange construction of the building (windows facing each other and no curtains).
11. Stick Shift
This sorta goes into the “Traffic” paragraph, but I appreciate the abundance of automatic transmissions available in the USA. I can drive a manual and that’s what we have here, but I don’t like it! 🙂
12. Home Care
This one is interesting. At first glance, certain homes can look nice. Good paint colors, modern-looking kitchen cabinetry, that sort of thing. But when you get closer, you’ll notice the carelessness with which things are painted or put together. I can see what previous colors all our rooms were based on the sloppy drips all over the door frames and floor edges. Cabinets aren’t always put together well, base boards just fall off sometimes, showers aren’t built with any slant so water just sits in it after use and other little things. It’s really not a huge deal, but it is just an interesting observation. It’d actually be something I’d like to study further – get into the minds in this culture and figure out why certain things that matter to Americans (resale value!) just don’t seem to even be a factor here.
13. Consideration for Others
I titled this one like that, but my husband said it a better way – Everything is Everybody’s. To Americans (and still often to me), my first reaction to various scenarios is that these people don’t care about anyone else. Loud construction late at night in an apartment above us…music throbbing on our floor until early morning hours…people parking wherever they want to park even if it’s “your” spot. Stuff like that. Well, as we discuss it, observe it and experience it over the years, we can see it’s more the socialistic lifestyle that is in play rather than a clear disrespect for others. In the USA, we have our rights and our laws and we have the tendency to make sure people honor that. Here, it’s a mindset of community – that if we play our music so loud, you might enjoy it, too. Like in #12, this is a deep subject. One I wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about.
This, of course, is the biggie. Some people may consider me “fluent,” but I define that differently. I still struggle communicating in certain situations, depending on how well my vocabulary is in that particular topic. There are different dialects that my ears aren’t used to. I’m very adept at doing the right facial response based on tones of voice, not on what people said (because I didn’t understand them!). This is not always the case – I get by just fine most days – but it can occasionally be stressful. Besides language, just basic cultural differences cause stilted communication at times. There will always be a new-to-me phrase I didn’t understand or just a part of the culture that is of course ingrained in local people which I will never even realize is in existence. All these things affect perfect communication. I want to always thank God for this experience when I’m ordering a chai tea at Starbucks, asked to lead a Bible study or just getting all the jokes at a party.
Of course, these things are generalizations. There are all levels of cars, homes and experiences across the continent. We’ve lived in a couple countries in South America and are basing this on four years’ of experience. Don’t assume it’s all exactly like this everywhere!
I am so deeply overwhelmed when I compare certain situations to what we have as Americans living on American soil. The USA may seem in shambles in other ways, but we have it good, folks. I hope this helps you appreciate what you have, as it does for me. These four years will be a big part of how I view life until the day I die.
Surely this list lacks items that could easily be included! Do you have anything to add?
Update: I wrote a post on the opposite – things I’m going to miss here (in South America)!