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Culture shock when traveling

Culture shock – how to tell when it’s happening to you

Culture shock can be a big issue when you travel abroad, especially if the country where you have just landed has very different ways of doing things to what you’re used to. Here, GlobalGrasshopper writer Pris Killingly tells of her experience when she touched down in Nicaragua…

“Don’t drink the water!” It seemed like such a cliché, one of those jokes people always make about developing countries; but at that moment, it was perfectly true. Desperately seeking a cure for my in-flight dehydration, I chanced upon a water fountain inside the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport. Unfortunately for me, and recalling my parents’ sage advice, I knew that it was prohibited to take a sip of that lovely, foreign H20. I’d never so much as left the country before this, let alone traveled to Central America. It was strange to know that from now on I should do my best to only drink bottled water, but that was only the beginning of my first brush with culture shock.

Soweto South Africa


Now, one can already experience a bit of culture shock upon leaving the comforts of their hometown. It can be little things, like calling your soft drink a soda versus a pop, depending on what part of the U.S. you’re in. It can take the form of political climate or religious fervor, what form of transportation you rely on most, or even the kind of shelter you inhabit. And it’s not hard to guess that culture shock becomes even more pronounced the further you are from home. If you’ve ever traveled to Nicaragua (and most other Latin American countries), you definitely know this. But for those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of sleeping in mosquito nets, here’s a crash course on what you might expect.

You know you’re experiencing culture shock when…

You buy a soda but aren’t allowed to leave with the bottle. I was hanging out with my cousins at a carnival in Managua when I bought a gaseosa (their regional name for soda) to drink while I walked around. When the vendors saw me trying to leave with the bottle in hand, they quickly stopped me and said this wasn’t allowed. They then proceeded to pour the contents of my beverage into a plastic bag with a straw and took back the bottle for re-use. At least the flavor stayed the same!

You’re in the middle of a shower and the water goes out… possibly for days. It’s already a bit of a shock to be in a country where hot showers are exclusively for the rich or hotel dwellers. Every single time I’ve stayed at my grandmother’s in Corinto, it’s almost 99% certain there will be a water shortage. In order to adjust to this, people keep huge rain barrels filled for all kinds of use. As a result, I’ve taken many showers out in the backyard with little more than a bucket full of cold rainwater and a bar of soap. Brrr!

getting culture shock while backpacking


You encounter a giant paper mache woman dancing down the street and no one seems to think it’s bizarre. La Gigantona (The Gigantic Woman) is a pretty common “person” to see dancing down the street. Created originally as a form of creative protest by the indigenous people against the Spanish colonizers, Nicaraguans often bring out a Gigantona and dance her down the street to show how they maintained control over the Spanish crown, no matter how gigantic she was. It’s certainly a fun sight, but the first time I saw one, I ran out tourist-style with my camera while others merely smiled and went about their business. Suffice to say, giant paper mache people are not a common occurrence near my own home in the suburbs of Miami.

Fireworks explode at just about any time of day. Alright, so maybe that’s an exaggeration but Nicaraguans sure do love their fireworks! I once visited Nicaragua in December and was witness to firecrackers of all kinds for a week straight. On December 7th, the main day of the Purisima/Griteria festivities (Catholic celebrations revolving around the Virgin Mary), fireworks went off every 6 hours (from midnight to midnight), and sometimes in between as well. Smokey, but awesome.

You’re driving and are suddenly stopped at a red light by a child looking to wash your window. It pains me every time I visit to see children in Nicaragua either begging or working for money. However, this is the reality of such countries. This was probably what hit me the hardest on my first trip. I recall one such night, bar hopping around la Zona Rosa. On one side, I could see club goers dressed in their finest clothes, splurging on Flor de Cana cocktails, while on the other side, barefoot kids ran around from drunk person to drunk person, asking for a Cordoba or two.

Being late means being right on time. This actually wasn’t a culture shock moment for me, but I hear about it often from visitors. Living in Miami, we tend to joke about running on “Cuban time,” but it’s also applicable for most other Latina American countries. Many of my non-Hispanic friends don’t understand this and in a way I guess I can’t blame them. However, I’ve grown up in a city where many of us show up an hour late for an event and are actually on time or even earlier than other guests. This holds true in the relaxed atmosphere of Nicaragua as well.

Nicaragua Food on GlobalGrasshopper.com

Saying “No” to a meal is almost equal to spitting in the cook’s face. This is especially tricky for a vegetarian like myself. There’s a thing about Nicaraguan culture (and again, this goes for other Latina American nationalities) where it’s considered plain bad manners to refuse food. It may have to do with the limited access to large quantities of food the people have had in the past. This is a country whose people have experienced food rationing, and a country where most of the population is impoverished. Therefore, it seems to be expected that you should always be very grateful for any food that comes your way, and that the best way to express said gratitude is to eat everything on your plate. Note that the possibility of gaining a few extra pounds in Nicaragua is not a rarity.

Culture shock - how to tell when it’s happening to you

And finally… Your commute is interrupted by a herd of wandering cattle, sheep, horses, etc. We were driving out to Granada when we came face to face with a bull. And then a cow. And another cow. Our driver stopped the car and I pulled out my video camera and we watched as the cows moved around our little rental Toyota. Not a human in sight, just a bunch of cows hoofing about on the road. Took about 15 minutes away from our day, but it was kind of nice. Cattle might not be such a strange sight, but I’m sure you’ll encounter even more wildlife culture shock the more you travel!


These are just some examples of the ways in which you might get thrust out of your comfort zone while you travel. The great thing though is that humans are the most adaptable creatures, so get out there, do some exploring of your own, and embrace the shock!

Culture shock – how to tell when it’s happening to you was written by guest blogger, Pris Killingly.


  • Escape Hunter

    12 October, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    The worst thing is when someone doesn’t know a thing about the local culture and commits all sorts of “bad acts” without knowing, only to find out when it’s already too late!

  • Lori

    21 March, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    I have to say that kids are amazing at handling culture shock, my daughter came with me on a trip to Nicaragua, she had never been on a chicken bus, nor to a farm without running water, and had never even seen a latrine. She handled it amazingly, only yelling at the bus driver for driving so “crazy” according ot her canadian standards, but normal in Nicaragua. When we returned to Leon to stay at a local b&b she found it a luxury to have a privae room and bath, and no chickens running around. If you are ever in Leon, check out la Gordita.

  • Jane

    25 January, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I think if you plan to travel to somewhere quite different to what you are used to, as long as you read up on the culture and the people of that country, nothing should come as a shock. Embrace the culture change and it will, in turn embrace you.


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