Hot and Cold In Different Cultures

Kirstie (Jon’s girlfriend) just asked me what place has been my favorite so far on this round the world trip. It is a question frequently asked and it is impossible to answer. Each culture is very different and our experiences are not even in the same categories. This has made me think about the different cultures we have visited and the varying degrees of culture shock we have experienced.

Cultural Disorientation

Flying from one country to another sounds so exotic. Life in a foreign culture can be exciting, but it can often lead to misunderstandings and this is something I have tried to keep before me as I listen to leaders from so many different countries and backgrounds.

When travelling like this you can have periods of confusion and cultural disorientation and even find it hard to cope with the easiest tasks required for life. This is part of culture shock and not uncommon. Bob and I had decided before we started to just roll with it – whatever that would be.

The Shower

In Kuwait I was ‘inwardly’ thrilled to be in a country where things seemed familiar from a North American perspective. It started in the morning when I went to have a shower. I could hardly wait. I trusted the water and even recognized how the faucet worked. Believe me, these things were new to us!

I turned the tap on and tilted it to the middle. The water was quite warm, so I moved it towards the blue dot. The water temperature increased.

“Ah”, I thought, “it is not a ‘civilized’ here as I thought. They put the tap in backwards.” So I moved the handle back towards the red dot – but the water was hot there too. Strange?

At breakfast I shared my experience with Warren and Debbie Reeve where I was staying. They smiled (laughed actually) and told me in Kuwait during the summer that water heaters are turned off because water tanks are stored outdoors in the 45 degree Celsius sunshine.  So it is all hot – blue or red.

While I was trying to impose my Canadian expectations on the shower faucet it simply functions differently here. It takes a different type of traveller to consciously set aside our predispositions to listen to the culture of others. We all know how it is when you visit a place as a tourist and it seems so ideal. You just want to stay there. Yet when you really listen to those who live there you find it is not as glamorous as you thought. No place is perfect.

For Bob and I as we are travelling abroad, we have discovered that it’s when we experience and see things that you do not see when you are just a tourist that we have really ‘listened’ to the people and begin to understand the culture.

The potential for culture shock or misunderstanding is present every time you change cultures. For us that has been almost every week for the last month and half. Although we have both traveled widely we can still experience culture shock.

Having a sense of cultural disorientation is normal, but there are a few things that I have been processing that I think may be very applicable when I return home to Vancouver to a very international church.

Travel Tips

In communicating with people from different cultures in your city here are a few things we have learned that help:

  • Try not to respond with contempt for those from a different culture.
  • Stop anticipating you can do everything just as you would back home – toilets alone will make this real for you.
  • Don’t always compare the new culture with your culture; doing so may cause you to see the new culture as inferior.
  • Try to learn the local language. Bob is very good at this, although his attempts have also caused rooms to burst out in laughter.
  • Ask questions so you can understand the culture and the rules of social behavior.
  • Refrain from making comments about the amount of litter lying around in public places – we often don’t see the litter in our own back yard.
  • Be aware of common ethnocentric expressions like talk of drivers driving “on the wrong side” of the road. Just say the “opposite side” or even the “left-hand side”?
  • Don’t speak about the Arabic language as being read “backwards.” Just say “from right to left” or “in the opposite direction from English”?
  • When sampling the food of another culture, using a phrase like “Oh, that’s different” rather than more pejorative terms or awkward facial expressions that clearly imply you didn’t like it. (I have used this a few times.)
  • Don’t assume you can take just take photos whenever you want, ask first. Oh and a safety tip, do not take pictures in government buildings or public transportation buildings without asking. 🙂
  • We all have a comfort zone, an invisible zone of psychological comfort that we carry with us. We call it our personal space and it varies with different cultures. How much personal space one needs varies depending on who we are talking to and the situation we are in. Don’t assume that your degree of personal space is correct (especially important in India or other very crowded cities).
  • There is an additional resource I would recommend on this subject. World Vision Australia has a two-page pdf  on being a culturally sensitive traveler I encourage you to read if you are planning to travel to other cultures – especially those of extreme poverty. It is available here.

So while this all seems easily applied while I am the minority in another country and culture, I am pondering how I might live differently at home.

Round the World: Traveling Tips after one month and 24,000 kilometers

Well we have been travelling for one-month today. Bob and I have journeyed almost halfway around the world. We are in Kenya, East Africa. How are we doing?  Well…

  • I snore and Bob wears hearing aids that he turns off at night #awesome combination
  • I waken easily so I can defend us from intruders – animal or human, and also hear the alarm
  • When Bob tries to be humorous and is misunderstood – I can interpret for him #whatfriendsdo
  • I am a bit of a techie and Bob isn’t so it is like he has his own IT department with him #technopeasant
  • Bob’s Parkinson’s is controlled by medication – nothing like having a friend to ask if you have taken your meds #nag
  • When dealing with a legal matter in Chile it is sure helpful to have your lawyer with you – (even though he cannot practice in Chile unless in the Canadian embassy, he still thinks like a lawyer) #lawyerhead
  • It is totally possible to travel around the world with a carry on suitcase. You do want to check it though as the security searches for carry on takes too much time #inconsistent
  • Quick dry travelling underwear – where have you been all my life. #amazing
  • Travel shirts and pants – again terrific. Don’t bring blue jeans or cotton of almost any description. It may feel comfortable but takes forever to dry #useahairdryer
  • Get over an desire to buy souvenirs. You don’t have room and no one needs more trinkets. #photomemories
  • Take a big bottle of acidophilus with you and take several daily. It helps give you a fighting chance with a diet that changes every few days #reducegasemmissions
  • An iPhone can serve as your movie camera, camera, microphone for interviews replacing all these gadgets. Get really comfortable using it before a trip. Oh yeah, and do not allow it to join a network and roam. That can cost as much as the trip J #threedollartextmessages
  • There is a lot of time for reading while travelling. Bring your library on an iPad or Kindle device – you will be glad you did
  • Energizer Batteries. In all the travelling I have done in my life I have tried every AA and AAA battery there is. None have performed like Energizer in fact I think of Energizer as an unofficial sponsor of this round the world tour. They are powering my flashlight, digital recorder, noise cancelling headset and none have required a change yet #keepsgoingandgoing
  • Carry US dollars as it is often the preferred currency for visas or paying reciprocal fees at airports (cash only). That said don’t bring bills larger than fifties and none printed earlier than 2000 or they may not be accepted #goodoldusa
  • Take naps. These are the ultimate cure for frequent time zone changes so plan your days around naps #melatonin
  • Lower travel expectations. There will be flight delays, cancelled flights and mix-ups. Act like the travelling professional you are and seek solutions with the staff #getoverit
  • Remember that you are entering into someone else’s culture. Don’t impose your culture on everyone around you; instead take a real interest in his or hers. Try to speak their language #notegocentric
  • Worldmate – a travellers dream app. We use it twenty times a day for weather, conversion of currency, flight info, hotel info and time zones

Now here is a list of what I would do differently:

  1. Not carry books as gifts #tooheavy
  2. Bring one more pair of travel pants that can pass as dress pants in a very light color or shade #classy
  3. Print a bookmark or even just photos with contact information as gifts for people #nottooheavy
  4. Bring teaching materials with me and anticipate being asked spontaneously #beprepared
  5. Allow more time for journaling. It takes as long or longer to record the experiences #capturewhilefresh

So that is it after one month, let’s see what I would add to these lists after two months!

Day 3 Lima, Peru: “The Other Side of the Tracks”

In North America you hear the expression “the other side of the tracks” referring to a part of the city that is considered poor and dangerous. As in, most fathers would not want their daughter going out with a boy from the “other side of the tracks.”

Well here in Lima the expression is “the other side of the river” and it has the same meaning.

We began our third day meeting Pastor Samuel Reátegui and his daughter Susana, who drove us to the other side of the river, and provided a different view of the city. The central parts of the city, and the districts of Miraflores and San Isidro, are as modern as any city in the world. Yet, on the outskirts of Lima, the terrible slums remind one that Peru still has a long way to go.

Now from what I saw today I have to say that I have seen worse, but I also know that our pastor friend was not showing us the worst that Lima has to offer. He carefully warned us of dangerous areas and told me when to pull my camera back in as we passed some sketchy looking youth.

Bob commented to the pastor on the lack of beggars in the streets, to which he replied that the beggars are all found in the rich districts of the city. Ironic yes, but makes sense.

Sitting on the right side of the river is the Plaza de Armas, a spectacular colonial square with a fountain n the center surrounded on four sides with the Presidential Palace, The Archbishop Palace ( a seemingly new structure by a few hundred years), the Lima Cathedral (a strong statement about the history and influence of the Roman Catholic church in this part of the world), and the CIty Hall as well as a few other building not described to me. This old colonial center in Lima is a World Heritage site and was the crown jewel of Spain’s South American empire.

It is the economic contrasts that is so challenging here in Lima. The majority of Peruvians live in poverty – 54% according to the CIA World Factbook. It is estimated that 19% live in absolute poverty surviving on less than a dollar a day CDN. Sobering. In several conversations with leaders here the work of World Vision has come up as one organization that has really helped to transform communities or districts. This did not surprise me after experiencing their work in Bolivia, Peru’s neighbor to the east.

At noon hour we went back to Bethany Baptist Church where pastor Samuel had invited other ministers to come meet me. We enjoyed a lovely time talking over lunch about the work they are doing in this complex city. I was able to video tape several of them sending messages back to those working in the cities of North America.

Two insights from today: 1. These pastors were all happy folks despite working in more challenging circumstances than almost every pastor I can imagine in Canada or the US. 2. They are just busy being the church in the heart of the city and by that I mean helping others, discipling believers and bringing truth and justice to bear for the sake of their communities. It is not flashy – just effective.