Guinea pig for breakfast? Yes, really. Andrea Gardiner tells of how she’s made Ecuador her home – guinea pigs and all.
When I left Britain eleven years ago for the bustling equatorial city of Santo Domingo, Ecuador, I never expected to call it home. I was going as a missionary doctor, to serve for an undefined period. Everything I encountered was different, other and strange. I constantly felt plastered in sweat and dust. The barbecued tripe, cow’s udder and maggots that people offered me to eat did not appeal. Whilst I admired the beauty of the tropical flowers and humming birds, they did not conjure up the feeling of home that wind-swept heather and the humble robin did.
Each morning, I ventured forth to a world where I had to make myself understood in Spanish, fight off the mosquitoes and ride the over-filled bus with chickens pecking my feet. Each evening, I returned to my rented home where English DVDs, toast and tea could be enjoyed.
Three years later, I was married to an Ecuadorean with a beautiful baby girl. Now, Ecuadorean culture invaded my home. My husband expected rice three times a day. Spanish was the predominant language spoken. My in-laws were free with their help and advice.
“Don’t sit the baby up, she will end up with saggy cheeks! Cover your shoulders when you nurse her, or your milk will be cold. Keep a hat on her at all times or evil spirits will enter her through the soft spot on her head.”
My own toddler woke me one morning waving a leg of guinea pig in my face. It was left over from the previous night’s meal. “Want meat Mummy,” she cried. For her, eating guinea pig was completely normal. I wondered what on earth I was doing bringing up my daughter in this strange place. I felt a sudden yearning to go home to “normality”. Tea and toast seemed a distant dream.
There followed a steep learning curve of not only knowing the local customs, beliefs and ideas, but also understanding their values and priorities. At first, it drove me mad when people told me that they would be at an appointment at a certain time, and then were late or did not show at all. It was frustrating when my husband set out to do a, b and c in a day and only did a, leaving the rest for tomorrow. Gradually, I came to realise Ecuadoreans value people and relationships above work and money. If they meet someone who wants to chat, they will, disregarding prior plans. You will always be welcomed into an Ecuadoreans’ home when you turn up unannounced. A family shares the food they have cooked among the number of people who happen to be there at a mealtime. If a friend has a crisis, everything else can be set aside in order to help them.
I found I had to embrace living as part of an extended family. In a society where there is no social security or insurance, families rely on each other. When my car breaks down, I phone my father-in-law, not the breakdown services. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live close by and are a daily part of each other’s lives. Individualism is frowned upon. Adult children take their parents into their homes when they are elderly and nurse them.
It was only as I came to appreciate the culture of my adopted country that I began to feel at home. Life became more familiar and predicable. It stopped shocking and jarring me at every turn. Life in Britain remains more intuitive, but there are now aspects of British culture that I find hard.
Living in Ecuador has taught me to appreciate the positives in a different society. Our God is a God of variety and creativity and each family has their own way of expressing themselves and making a home. The experience is stripping away my illusion that my way of doing things is the best way, and is making me more of a world citizen. It is making me look forward to the day when our home will be with God and with His people from every tribe and nation, living in perfect harmony and love.
Andrea Gardiner is a medical missionary in Ecuador. She tells her adventures in Guinea Pig For Breakfast. She works for Project Ecuador www.projectecuador.co.uk.