Coping with Culture Shock: Supporting Complete Wellbeing while Abroad

Studying abroad is fun and exciting. It’s a time to explore and practice being more independent than you may be used to. Your host country may be completely different than your home country, or it may be pretty similar, either way, culture shock still exists. In order to productively cope with the culture shock you may experience, it’s important to stay grounded and create habits and rhythms that keep you healthy physically, mentally, and socially.

Here are some of the things that I have added into my routine while in Ecuador to help support my complete wellbeing:

  1. Getting outside or in the gym.

One of my favorite things that I do regularly is to exercise. Whether it’s a workout in the gym of my hotel, a hike up a mountain, or a walk through the park, exercise always helps me clear my mind. Getting outside is an excellent way to explore your new host city and learn more about it. My time outside has been where I have seen the true beauty of my host country, Ecuador.

Some of the parks I’ve visited have been Parque Carolina, a beautiful park in the middle of the city that features a walking track, sports courts, and playgrounds among other things, (2) Parque Metropolitano, which is very natural and twice the size of Central Park in NYC, and (3) Parque Bicentenario, which stretches 1.5 miles of walking paths, bike trails and playgrounds on the backdrop of a disused airport.

My favorite hiking adventure was to Volcán Ilaló, a long extinct volcano that last erupted 1.6 milion years ago. While it was a difficult hike because it was almost straight up, the view was definitely worth it. From the summit you can see all of the other mountains surrounding the city in a 360 view!

2. Going to church

Since I’ve been in Quito, I have gone to church every Sunday that I was in town. After being connected with the cousin of a friend who lives in Spartanburg, I started going to Iglesia Alianza La Luz, a protestant church with a focus on serving the local community. I have gained a deeper immersion into the culture of my host city this way. Through singing worship songs and listening to sermons in Spanish, I have improved my vocabulary; I have also built relationships with community members. Exploring religious organizations can be a great way to support your spiritual wellbeing while being abroad as well.

A photo right before the church service started with the band getting ready to lead worship.

3. Taking time to keep in touch with family and friends back home.

 Being 2500 miles away from my family and friends can be hard sometimes, but technology has definitely made this distance feel not quite as far. A few times a week I catch up with my family, my boyfriend and my friends back at Wofford with Facetime, Whatsapp video call, or Zoom. Using technology to talk with my friends and family has been a great way to stay grounded with my support system while being away. It doesn’t make me miss them any less though!

On a video chat with my grandparents my grandma showed me her little dog, Alan Jackson, who I miss too!

Study abroad has been one of the best decisions I have made and these habits have allowed me to stay healthy and connected and be better able to handle coping with culture shock. I hope these tips help you in your time abroad as well!

Blessings,

Olivia

Let’s go to the Amazon!

The Amazon region of Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Over 3 million species of animals and over 2,500 tree species make the Amazon rainforest a “once in a lifetime” place to visit. Additionally, there is a wealth of ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants found there, which goes along with one of my program’s focuses of traditional medicine. Luckily, with the School of International Training, high value is placed on hands on learning experiences in the field.

A few weeks ago we spent seven days visiting two cities in the Amazon region. Though there were lots of bug bites, humidity, and untimely rainstorms, this excursion was easily my favorite part of the semester thus far.

A group photo as we stopped to marvel at the beginning of the Amazon region on our bus ride.

We began our adventure with a five hour bus ride from Quito to a city called Tena in the Amazon. We stopped along the way to enjoy the beautiful view as we entered the Amazon rainforest region. Arriving in Tena we settled into our lodging at a nice lodge along a smaller river. We always have roommates, but this time it was almost as if we had seven! Three rooms with very thin walls made it so that we could hear each other breathe; our time here was a bonding experience. With limited wi-fi, a girl scout camp-esque cabin, and a flowing clean river, our favorite spot to hang out was on the edge of the water.

Beginning our activities, we took a trip to AMUPAKIN, a collective of indigenous Kichwa midwives who serve the entire Amazon region and work to preserve and pass down the knowledge of traditional medicine. Here they welcomed us with a formula of medicinal plants to protect against COVID-19 and gave us an introduction to the work that they do as parteras (midwives) and healers. They have helped to birth more than 1000 babies since their beginning in 1998. We learned about all different types of medicinal plants that they use on a garden tour with one of the parteras. We also had a traditional Kichwa lunch with them, which was delicious! I got to try cocotero, or grubs that are the larvae of the palm weevil. Surprisingly they tasted very salty and greasy kind of like bacon.

The parteras preparing a rub for muscle pain from medicinal plants.

Our next adventure was a full day affair in the Chakra Don Clemente, the home of a traditional Kichwa shaman or healer and his family. We knew that this trip would consist of a hike to the nearby river, but we did not know that this hike would be down and back up a very steep mountain. Tromping through the jungle I observed the life around me: the variety of shades of green from the many plants and trees, the bugs like spiders and beetles crawling along the jungle floor, and the wear on the path we traveled, showing the meaning of this path to this indigenous family.

While the jungle was everything I imagined it to be, I was still in awe of the natural beauty I saw around me. Even though there was a lot of slipping and sliding due to the constant moisture on the jungle floor, the view of our trip was worth it: one of the most beautiful and chilly rivers that I’ve ever visited.

After we returned from our hike, we spent the day with the family of Don Clemente in slow moments as we waited out a thunderstorm eating sugarcane and Amazonian pineapple. We heard from Roger, the son of Don Clemente, who is a shaman, and how he works in this community as a healer. Finally, we shared a meal with the family and enjoyed another traditional Kichwa meal; this time I tried fried giant ants! This day was such a beautiful experience to disconnect with technology and connect with nature.

One of the most beautiful views of the trip was near the city of Puyo in the Amazon. Watching the sunset at the Mirador Indichuris was breathtaking. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains the landscape was illuminated with colors of pink, gold, and the purple of the start of night. To spend this time in the company of my classmates, now new friends, and take in the view is something that I will always remember.

The relaxing hammocks that awaited our viewing of the sunset. Aren’t they picturesque?

Each Day is Different and Exciting

I can’t believe I’ve been in Ecuador for a month now! Wow, I’ve had so many once in a life time experiences: hiking two mountains here near Quito, visiting three hospitals, participating in traditional medicine presentations, learning to dance salsa, taking a road trip to the Amazon region, sharing traditional Kichwa meals with a shaman family where I tried fried ants, and seeing the most beautiful view of the Amazon that tops my list of most beautiful views. All of this variety of landscape and activity has been exhilarating, but hasn’t left a lot of room for a “normal schedule”. Still, though each day is different and exciting, I have picked up some daily rhythms in Quito.

This semester I am living in a hotel, called Reina Isabel. Though I was initially disappointed about not having a host family, living this way has allowed me to explore the restaurants in the city and grow super close with my program classmates. Because I don’t have access to a washer and dryer, I use a lavandería that is right beside our hotel; we have made a great relationship there with the owner and her family.

To describe a normal day of classes, we eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant before walking to our classes that are hosted at Balance Works, an educational experience business, and the Fulbright Commission of Ecuador. It is about a 10-15 minute walk to each location. Walking in the morning I feel the fresh air and the bustle of people going to work and school. Typically we have two hours of intensive Spanish class each morning and from there we go to our theme classes of Traditional Medicine, Public Health, and Research Methods and Ethics. These themed classes have a different lecturer each week as we cover different topics.

One of the trademarks of the SIT experience is experiential learning. These experiences in the field have allowed me to think critically and use my Spanish language skills to talk with local experts on my topics of study. It is in these moments that I have gained many of my once in a lifetime experiences.

Though it can be draining to have a variable schedule each day and week, it is these moments that I will remember years down the road. It is these moments that I will cherish.

Globalization and Comida de Ecuador

Seco de chivo is a typical Ecuadorian dish that is served for lunches, or almuerzos, all over Ecuador. It consists of stewed goat (which is sometimes substituted for lamb), yellow rice, potato, and avocado salad. It is called “seco” which means dry, because, in its preparation, most of the liquid in the stew is allowed to evaporate. Though it is called dry, the meat is soft and nicely seasoned.

While the name of this ancestral dish has uncertain origins, one of the most recognized theories is that the name comes from the English word, “second” because this dish was served second, after soup, which is traditionally served as the first part of the meal in Ecuador. It is interesting to consider the effects that colonization, and later globalization, have had on the gastronomy of different cultures around the globe. This linguistic integration only scratches the surface of the deeper mars made throughout the centuries.

Seco de chivo has by far been my favorite typical Ecuadorian plate that I have tried. I happened across a little restaurant called Fabiolita in La Plaza Grande, one of the main squares in the historic part of Quito, when I was exploring with a few friends. This little cafe has been cooking the same traditional dishes, including seco de chivo, for over three generations. Check out an interesting article about the restaurant here for more information. The love and tradition was felt in the food as it filled my hungry tummy. This richness can be hard to find sometimes, especially in restaurants in the United States.

My plate of seco de chivo from Fabiolita–Rate: 10!

As COVID-19 continues to affect the world, it has also affected my study abroad experience in that I am not staying with a host family or in a space with a kitchen. While staying in a hotel our program has given us a stipend to buy our meals from restaurants. This, while after two weeks has left me craving something cooked at home, has also allowed me to try new foods and survey the local restaurant scene.

In my two weeks in the city of Quito, I have eaten at more than 25 restaurants. Below are some samples of my plates along with ratings of each. Each rating considers flavor, richness, and price. I know that this experience will help me expand my palate!

Grounded in Quito

The landscape, lit by magical lights, made it easy to see the mountains and valleys of Quito as we descended. The mountains and ridges donned few lights, while the valleys were peppered with the magical lights of many warm incandescents with a few blue LEDs scattered throughout. Now came the grounding. The shaking, the sound of the engine fighting against gravity along the runway, the brakes working as they should, led to a jumble of emotions, then at once, relief: we were, grounded in Quito, Ecuador.

This travel experience was one of the smoothest I have experienced in a long time. Checking into GSP International Airport, every person I encountered along the way was so friendly and nice to me, which was a pleasant surprise. As I waited to board my first plane from GSP to Atlanta, I found Evan, another Wofford student going on my program and we chatted, which calmed my nerves. Waiting on our second flight, Evan and I found some more of our classmates who we got to know better eating dinner in the airport. Both of the flights were a few minutes early and encountered only a little bit of rain. Customs was muy fácil for me as the worker was friendly and didn’t grill me on details of my stay.

Evan and I took a picture to send to our moms before boarding our flight to ATL
The rest of my classmates and I after going through customs in the Quito airport. It was a surprisingly easy experience.

Though the travel experience was smooth, each time I looked out into the clouds outside of my window seat, I thought “It is crazy to be on this plane right now.” It was the reality of COVID-19 pandemic these past eighteen months had crushed any dreams of international travel that on the plane it was almost unreal. It was finally real.

My bedroom in the garden hotel we are staying in for orientation. The bed was very welcoming after a long day of traveling.

Since arriving in Ecuador my program has been staying in a hotel near the airport to rest and adjust to the altitude while completing an orientation and introduction to our semester classes. We haven’t interacted with much of the local culture inside of the hotel, but we will soon when we move to a hotel in the city of Quito. I am feeling excited and hopeful for more cultural and linguistic immersion as we begin our classes and time in Quito.

My first morning view of Quito from our garden hotel.

Hasta pronto,

Olivia

¡Hola a Quito!

Growing up in a church that was active in global missions, I went on several short mission trips where I traveled to places like Haiti, Canada, and Honduras. The natural beauty and wonder of experiencing the culture and people of these countries left me wanting to be immersed further than a short trip would allow. I knew that studying abroad during my time in college would allow me to be immersed in and be of a part of a community in another country.

My students and I in the Bay Islands of Honduras during my summer of service there in 2019. I spent 8 weeks working as a teacher in a bilingual school, which is the most time I’ve been abroad.

That being said, I never really had a dream destination to travel or study abroad. As an easy-going person, I took the posture of “I’ll go wherever there is an opportunity” for in every travel destination there is opportunity to learn and grow academically, culturally, and personally. This mindset benefitted me as I decided to study abroad as a requirement for my Spanish major, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the major required me to study abroad in a Spanish speaking country, I had all of South and Central America as well as Spain to choose from. Narrowing down these study destinations was determined after choosing my program organization, SIT, the School of International Training, and a theme of study. I chose SIT because it heavily focused on hands-on experiential learning and gave the opportunity for an independent study project. I chose a program focusing on public health because Wofford doesn’t offer a direct program of study for this discipline on campus and this is my desired discipline for graduate school.

Originally, I was going to study public health in Urban Environments in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the Fall of 2020. Unfortunately, these plans were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. After several more changes, the program I am about to embark on this semester is Public Health, Traditional Medicine, and Community Empowerment in Quito, Ecuador. SIT has been super flexible and accommodating throughout the entire process of having program and semester changes due to the pandemic.

In preparing to go abroad to Quito, Ecuador, I have talked to a friend who is from Quito and she has given me several ideas of sights to see and foods to try in order to experience the local culture. I am excited to try helado de paila, a creamy fruit ice cream that is a gastronomic tradition in Ecuador. I am expecting to like this, but I will keep you updated once I try it in the country!

A photo of helado de paila after being freshly prepared. Photo from RT en Español

Some of the natural beauty near Quito is near the northwestern city limit: an active volcano called Pichincha. I hope to hike up this mountain to the volcano at some point during my time in Quito.

A photo of Pichincha volcano, the northwestern limit of the city of Quito. Photo from Travel Past 50.

Though COVID-19 presents some difficulties and unknowns for international travel, I know that SIT and Wofford will support me in challenges and in achieving my goals for this experience. From this experience I hope to gain a strengthened ability and confidence in my Spanish language skills. This goal will challenge me, but with all of my classes in Spanish and my commitment to interacting with locals in Spanish will allow my proficiency to increase tremendously. Additionally, I hope to gain knowledge of public health on a global level and the ability to compare health systems cross-culturally. I know that my courses and engagement with local health organizations throughout Ecuador will give me good foundational knowledge of global public health. I am so excited to share more with you once I arrive in Quito!

Until then,

Olivia