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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Lake Atitlan

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No formal, just all the hours, days, weeks and months of research before I left on what the negatives and positives were of making a move versus a vacation. Expats, travelers online and off were a huge help...before and after the move.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

No prior Spanish unless you consider the 8th grade Spanish class and I am 48 now...so no I did not speak the language before coming, I started private lessons at mi casa for the first 3 weeks, and am going to resume after a 2 week break...too much to process without a break...private teacher was easier and cheaper than a school. Have to learn the language and want to...part of the reason for coming.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

Worried no, concerned yes, as I wanted to do everything I could to avoid it or deal with it when it did happen... and actually was surprised it hit so fast...and even with my research I was not prepared for the hands on...hello...I am green and not an experienced world traveler, or third world traveler, nor an expat... moved here solo... and thought concern and research a wise move... was...not a fail safe. lol.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Actually real significant, first I had no clue to know even after an agreed price is reached it can be upped after the service is rendered...and sometimes there just is nothing to do but pay...surprised to see the locals people do not at want to mingle with a gringo, yes the village people are kind, gentle and everything the tourist guides say...but they do not prefer to rub elbows with you. the expats: I knew to expect drop outs from society, land owners and resort owners as well as folks like me who just wanted to experience the culture and stayed...was prepared for the gringo to use the cheap labor, was not prepared for some of the expats bad attitudes toward the local people, nor way some expats actually held a master, superior, servitude attitude...some are quite ugly in their attitudes...and bitter about the culture here. Sometimes it reminds me of Southern US and the year is 1960 on the plantation...this was not spoken about on the web and caught me off guard...not always is this true...some expats embrace the culture, are here to help, not change and not add to the problems, or take advantage of the problems. The weather was another shock and important as it was not accurate either on the web...so was not prepared for the weather emotionally or mentally...quite the shock actually...yes I knew it rained, yes I knew it could be like chilly, no I did not know it was dark, gloomy, down right frio, and there was days you just did not want to get out of bed due to the weather...but some of this has to do with where my casa is located...high up on the cliffs, and in the shade...I also did not realize the amount of physical work involved to live in my casa...no roads into. We are halfway between two villages on a footpath which for the first 3 weeks I sometimes had to use all 4 limbs to navigate...now I can do it almost the whole way in an upright postion. lol And if I shop and arrive home by boat, I have 1000 steps of course at an incline which would cause heart failure if I did not stop every 4 feet and breathe and check the pulse I feel pounding in every vein...lol.. yeah the physical endurance in order to live at mi casa was a bit of a shock...lol...all good as it is making me thin,trim, and fit! lol

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

did not get honeymoon stage when I first came about 2 months ago...too busy climbing steps. JKidding! was too busy learning where to shop, get aqua, carne, struggling to learn where everything was in the two villages and one town where I needed to bank, shop and visit 3 times a week in order to live initially in the home...plus the language barrier was huge and I was thinking in 3 weeks I should be fluent with private lessons. lol of course I already knew this was not realistic before I came and had a budget for 3 months of Spanish school...but it was frustrating not to know and learn and use it the 3rd day after arriving, lol. I had a moment or three of not understanding the idea of the prices changes hugely after it was agreed upon initially. I am a bit dismayed to find I have to go clear to Pana to eat local food as the resorts serve a gringo geared menu and charge huge. Thought I could get a good typical meal at one of the local villages on either side of me...not happening. The village people are very kind and reply to your hello...and smile...and are very distant and quiet...this was different than the people of Belize...so was not prepared for this...think I am entering the honeymoon stage now as Indian Summer is here and the weather for the past week is more like it will be come November...Have not been here long enough to have experienced more of the stages of culture shock...let you know a year from now...lol Oh I did forget, I had a few weeks of adjusting to being isolated, alone...as I had no close friends to use as a sounding board close by...and the language barrier really did not help establish bonds...am adjusting to this...but some days it is still hard to know I am still pretty much isolated...yes going out to the places where the expats hang helps a ton...and my landlord lives close and he and his wife are transplants.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Homesickness; are you kidding? no way!!! My stay here confirmed I made the right decision on leaving the states, and have no intent on returning for a long time...the lifestyle is so me...here and in Belize. Frustration with not knowing the language is and was felt.I do not want the barrier.I am addressing this with classes and the ever present dictionary! lol and the weather was depressing and so I travel around the lake and decided if miserable weather to visit warmer sunnier locals. The aloneness is still an issue, but I painted, cooked and write, and know this would be a feeling to deal with even if I had moved from one US state to another...I pray and reflect more and it is good for me to grow comfortable in my own company.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The absolute connection with nature...the organic...the spiritual...the honest simplicity of the lifestyle and the people who chose to live this lifestyle...the freedom to be me...which is outside the box..and to see so many others here are outside the box...lol the food,drink, and the language, and did I mention mi casa has a view like no other...the energy of the lake is mystical...and there is no words for the feeling...and the few village people I have met are awesome,loving and teach me so much...everyday is an adventure, growth and rich for me...in so many ways.The art, the buildings, the flora and fauna. I also chose my home based on the connection to the earth...I have more freedom, and more time. I am also happy my diet is better,healthier...the physical activity needed to live in a location which has no roads is wonderful for my body...I not only am learning about the people here, the land I am living in...but am learning so much about myself...and that is what I appreciate more than anything...okay not entirely true...as the cost of living in paradise is also one of the top 4 things for coming here...

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Hello, the language...duh...kind of need it to be part of the culture and not separate...helps to function.

Using up all my fresh veggies and fruits before they go bad...lol...a juicer helps with this... Sticking to an annual living budget...lol...I want to eat out more than I should in order to supply the need of wanting the company of others...

Having some one do my laundry...which is not something I am use to...and then not understanding why she would get upset when I offer to help...true story!

Not having easy shopping access to my painting supplies and books! But I knew this before I came... Finally, the reality of being on a vacation is not the same as living here full time...Belize was vacation...here it is like a weirdness...part vacation and part living...sometimes my brain doesn't wrap itself around this idea...so when I am not working I feel like I should be...and when I am working I feel like I should be off exploring...then there is the days where I am happy to be working in paradise and it just feels strange...like pinch me some one...this cannot be for real...lol.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

I offered to help do the laundry when the woman I hired came to mi casa...not a good idea...the look on her face was...well lets just say I got the impression I was borderline close to offending her...

Walking a trail without a lamp... duh... in the rain ...after dark...

First and last time I get into a boat without asking if it is public or private!

Spent 45 minutes trying to start a fire and giving up...later to meet someone on the trail who casually mentioned it is hard to start a fire here due to the lack of O2 in the air...and so some cooking oil and a few major breathes of my hot air and I had instant fire from that day on...lol

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Research, research, research...and then know it will still not be enough...some things just have to be learned hands on...

Come and experience, do not come to change...know straight up you will see and hear things which will definitely not be of your liking...if you do not love and understand a third world country you will not like it here...do not bad mouth...just go home...you are a guest here, remember to behave like one...when in Rome as they say...there is no excuse not to learn the language...it is cheap and without learning it you will never really be happy or part of the experience...be realistic, moving from one side of town, city to city, state to state is a transition...of course moving to a new country is going to be a transition...be prepared to have a sense of humor and time to reflect on your weaknesses...no one or no thing is responsible for you being miserable...you are....so change and inner growth is part of the journey to moving to a new country...be willing to grow and change!

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Comments about this Report

Aug 1, 2011 14:05

Great story! I loved it, I was in Atitlan in 1978.I remember getting some tortillas and avocados at the market walking up the road on the side of the lake hiked down to the lake where their were sand bags around the dock and in side the bags hot water was coming out from the bottom sitting in their looking out on the lake eating life does not get much better . Good luck. I am hoping to move to next YO CREEK next year it is just out side of Orangewalk in Belize. Danc

Jan 28, 2012 23:46

Very interesting reading; thanks for sharing your experiences. I've been thinking about retiring in Guatemala in a few years and will check it out in April, just to see if I am in the right track. But I worry about being a single middle aged female and the difficulties of creating a new circle of friends. Most of the feedback I read is from couples, who would befriend other couples, so it is refreshing to see other solo transplants. I do speak Spanish and have lived in developing contries before when younger. I was susprised by the weather being cold and damp, so this might be a deal breaker.

Jun 29, 2012 08:02

I have been to Guate a few times in the past years, sometimes for months at a time. In fact, going again this July until Sept. One must be very careful there because one does tend to get robbed repeatedly if one isnt alert. Your ATM will get compromised, ur belongings will disappear from ur living quarters, u will get charged more wherever u shop, oh an every ex-pat will have an orphanage, project, feeding program etc. and the sales pitch will begin at hello. Otherwise, it's a cool country.

May 21, 2013 20:41

I am about to venture into the same World of Lake Atitlan.I have been there and fell in love with the culture and the area. We adopted a Mayan baby 16 yrs back.I was hoping to establish myself there and create a base for her to ease her way back into her culture.. I agree with all I have read here.Learning Spanish is a must. I moved to Quebec and felt what it was like not to speak fluent French. Knowing myself..I will fit in.."Wherever you go...There you are" Thanks for all the inside to your venture

May 28, 2016 14:04

Thankyou for your well written point of view. It made me laugh & really related to many of your opinions & observations....are you still living there at the Lake?

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