Oxford Dictionary gives this definition of culture shock:
“The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes: Jet lag, culture shock, altitude sickness; we struggle to get to grips with this, our first morning in South America”
I find it very funny that a dictionary is mentioning “first morning in South America” in the definition of cultural shock, but I could not agree more! My first week in Barquisimeto is a good example of what a cultural shock is and how it feels. As an open-minded person I did not think the cultural shock was going to be that big, but I could not have been more wrong. I will do my best to describe the things I experienced my first days, but I don’t think I will ever be able to describe how absurd it all felt.
I come from a country where summer temperatures hardy reach +25C so the first shock was the heat. Because I have been to south of Europe during summer I thought I knew what hot felt like, but again I was wrong. My goodness, the heat was extreme! People kept telling me that this was fresh compared to a place called “Marcaibo” where the temperature sometimes reach higher than +45C! I though: “I will never ever go there” (I was wrong about that too). The constant heat was suffocating and my room did not have air condition. I actually though I was going to die from heat stroke or something. When they told me that there is not always water in the shower I really started panicking, but only on the inside. I did not want to show how shocked I was.
Maybe I have myself to blame for not doing more research before leaving, but nevertheless I was shocked how underdeveloped Venezuela was. The first days I was seriously doubting if I could live here for 8 months, but there was something that made me snap out of these thoughts: the people! I have never felt more welcome anywhere I have been. People showed genuine interest in why I was there, where I came from and always finished a conversation with “if there is anything I can help you with let me know”. Even though people starred at me on the bus it was never in a hostile way, but rather out of curiosity.
Talking about the “bus”… After living in Venezuela for 3 months I still find it amusing using the transportation system and I will definitely write more about that, but for now let me try to describe my first meeting with this absurd system. Getting to the “bus stop” from my place we first of all had to cross the street. Sounds simple enough right? No, crossing the street is an extreme sport in Venezuela and it takes some weeks to really get a hold of it. There are traffic lights, but I am not really sure why because they do not have any real function. Look left, look right and then you run in between the cars that do no under any circumstances stop for pedestrians.
We walked along the sidewalk and at no specific place we stopped. “Why are we stopping?” I asked. “This is where we wait for the bus,” said my new friend. “Oh” I said, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world waiting for the bus in a completely random place along the sidewalk. There was no sign, no schedule, and no information. I had to laugh because nobody seemed to understand why I thought this was strange, but at least there were busses.
What appeared was not a bus, but an overcrowded van with homemade signs saying where it was going. And when I say overcrowded I don’t mean European overcrowded. I am talking about people hanging out of the doors and windows, people on top of each other and sitting almost on the driver’s lap. The personal space was non-excising, but people really did not seem to mind. In the van there was blasting Latin music, people were staring and the driving was crazy. And again the worst part was the heat; I could not breathe and could not be happier when we got off at our “stop”. To get off we had to shout and clap for the driver to hear us through the ridiculously loud music.
We walked around in the heat and I could not help noticing the dirty streets with occasionally huge holes in the sidewalk, I noticed the intense smell of gasoline from the old cars, the loud music coming from everywhere, the constant honking in the traffic, people shouting and there were palm trees everywhere. I was very far away from anything I have experienced before.
After some time it was time to go back and when I thought the transportation could not be more amusing… this happened:
Once again we stood in a random place waiting for…something. I thought how on earth would I figure out how to get around in this city. As an ridiculously old car pulled over with the same home made signs in the front window I thought: you got to be kidding me, what the hell is this! I was told it was a “rapidito” and that it works almost like a bus/van/whatever. We got in and everyone said “buenas” to each other, which means hello. I thought how funny it would be if I did the same on a bus in Norway, people would think I was crazy. We were in the back seat of the rapidito with another guy while there were two girls in the front. Everyone was talking together like they where best friends until someone said “en la parada por favor” and the driver would pull over and let the passenger out.
Back in my extremely hot room, in a house with a family I just met and who did not speak English I felt the homesickness creeping up on me. All the impressions and emotions started to sink in as I sat in front of the fan trying to cool off. Without any possibility to connect with world (no wifi) in a house I knew nobody and without knowing the language I felt lonelier than ever. I started to panic, what have I done!!! Would I ever be able to adapt to this lifestyle and culture so different from my own? Calling home would not make any difference. I chose to come here, nobody forced me to move to Venezuela, and so I made a choice…
I decided that I was going to like living here. I was going to live here and I decided that I would have fun doing it. And what a great decision to make! From that moment I have not been homesick and I am having the time of my life in this slightly crazy society. In a country like Venezuela it is easy to see the bad things around you, but learning to see the good things takes a little more effort. Why is life so good in Venezuela? The answer is easy: the Venezuelan people!