Monday, July 2, 2012

Expat Dilemmas: What To Do With All The Stuff

Stuff is a major problem in the expat life, caused in no small part by weight limits on your suitcases. This dilemma is front and center on my mind today for two reasons - I'm packing to go home for my sister's wedding and trying not to overload my suitcases, and I just finished reading J. Maarten Troost's excellent and funny book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, which has several great chapters on the deprivation-overabundance extremes of international life.

In the States (and Canada and Europe, for that matter) you can get pretty much anything you want, anytime you want it. They don't have it in stock in your town? Amazon will make that right in about 48 hours.

In Ecuador, things that I want I can't have until I go back to the States for a visit. And maybe not even then. Period. That's just the way it is here. Yes, people have mentioned various schemes for getting monthly postings of goods from the States, but the cost makes it prohibitive for simple things like my favorite shampoo, my facewash of choice, my favorite teas, etc, etc, etc. In Cuenca, ask for these things and you get a shrugging, "No hay" (Don't have it) and they don't care either. There was no Haagen-Dazs, dill pickles, or tahini sauce at the local Supermaxi for close to three months, and anyone I asked about it was pretty darn indifferent.

And that's just the silly little things. Those things really don't matter. Not compared to say, a hernia sling, which retails for about $14.99 in the US and "No Hay" in Cuenca.

You learn to make do. You get used to going without. You catch yourself jerry-rigging the most ridiculous solutions to problems with little more than masking tape and hope.

Troost talked about the extremes of this on his island, where they got even more "No hay" than we do in Cuenca. At one point, there was "no hay" on beer for weeks, which in Cuenca would cause riots. A little power outage? No biggie. Water off in the building for the day? No heat or air conditioning the whole city? Whatever. Like Troost, I'm just used to that sort of stuff.

And then you go back to the States ... land of here, now, whatever you want, instant gratification.

Troost wrote this great scene about he and his girlfriend walking into a megamall in Washington D.C. and leaving without buying anything because all the choice was too overwhelming. I laughed out loud, because I've totally been there. Going from not being able to buy a pair of shoes in your size off the rack to a store full of your size on sale? You just walk around looking at things in wonder, like you've stumbled into some sort of alternative universe museum display.

You also do a lot of asking. Mostly you're asking "Why?" as in "Why would anyone want a ..." In the States there's a pressure to have ... more ... lots more ... and THIS .... this gadget is absolutely necessary ... but for someone who jumps out of that for a while and then comes back in, it starts to look a bit ridiculous.

I see this hit expats in Cuenca who've moved down with everything from their home in the States. After about six months, the local bare-bones way of getting things done starts to sink in. "Why do I have all these kitchen appliances?" is one I hear a lot. People realize they don't need a toaster, a toaster oven, a toasting rack for their regular oven, and a toasting rack for their microwave. They hear about somebody who came down here with one bag on their back and who toasts their bread on a fork over the flame on their gas stove. And they start thinking of the freedom that comes with not having to clean, store, and cart around all their stuff. And then, even if they go back to the States, they give up on a lot of their stuff ... which is why garage sales in Cuenca are the most delightful collections of oddities you've ever seen.

So where am I going with all this? Just to say that when you start thinking of life in make-do, fit-in-a-suitcase packages, most of your "essentials" are anything but ... and sooner or later, you're going to be looking around at a pile of necessities that are now just "things" to you, wondering, "What am I supposed to do with all this stuff?"


  1. Yeah but admit it - you would kill to be able to buy a full bottle of advil or a box of tylenol cold without a fuss. because some things are just a pain in the ass to go bare bones on.

  2. Jen, did you know that from a bottle of $1.25 baby shampoo to the most expensive (some running around $200 plus) all have ~ 75 cents worth of ingredients? I have seen this many times in science journals and as a chemist, I've compared the ingredients from 1 - 18 bucks. Plus or minus, it's all the same. Fragrance, other gelatinous formulas to manage viscosity and so on. It's just soap.