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Culture Shock, Roatan

Most people who move to Roatan have visited before, often several times, and feel that they are familiar with the island. However, the day-to-day reality of living on Roatan is not the same as a relaxing beach vacation and most people suffer some degree of culture shock.

Culture shock is a form of stress experienced by those who find themselves immersed in an unfamiliar environment. A new language and different social customs can make adjusting to our new home difficult. We may expect people to react or behave in the same manner as in our previous home and are often surprised when they don’t. Difficult situations can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety and even inadequacy. Fortunately for us, human beings are extremely adaptable, and over time, most hurdles can be overcome. Besides which, the decision to move to Roatan was usually based on the desire to experience change and a new way of life.

There are four phases to culture shock, which generally sets in during the first few weeks after arrival: during the first phase, referred to as the euphoria phase, there are feelings of excitement, fascination, and enthusiasm for the new culture and people. Unfortunately, the first phase is often short lived and the feelings of distress of the second phase set in. During the second or distress phase, language barriers and cultural differences can lead to feelings of discontent, impatience, anger, sadness and loss. The transition from the previous way of doing things to the methods used in the new country can be difficult process. Dealing with sales people, taxi drivers, the banking system, and in particular Honduran bureaucracy can often times make a person new to the island want to scream. These feelings are often exacerbated by the unavailability of a familiar support system (family and friends). It is important during this phase not to become over critical about the way things are done or develop stereotypes about the locals, which will only lead to further dissatisfaction and prolong the effects of culture shock.

During the third phase or acculturation phase, an understanding of the new culture emerges and comfort zones tend to increase with the heightened familiarity of the new setting. A person’s sense of humor is usually restored and situations that were once so frustrating can even be laughed at. A sense of belonging sets in as the feeling of being lost decreases and language skills improve enabling more effective communication. During the final or independent phase, the individual feels more stable and settled. Self-confidence and self-esteem begin to return as the person functions more effectively in the new environment. The customs of the new country are accepted and a person can operate within the new culture without overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Straining situations continue to diminish as a person acquires a complete grasp of the new culture. When this happens, food, drink, habits and customs are not only accepted, but also enjoyed. Although people suffer from varying degrees of culture shock and the large expatriate community on Roatan helps to minimize the effects, there are several steps you can take to minimize the stress caused from moving to a new country.

Culture Shock Management

The first step is to realize that Culture Shock is a normal experience that can happen to anyone and recognize the symptoms. Frequently reported symptoms include: frustration, feeling incompetent, lack of confidence, anger, anxiety, disorientation, withdrawal, loss of identity, role confusion, stomach pains, headaches, tiredness, rejection of the culture on Roatan and Honduras, and idealization of the previous culture. It is also important to point out that problems related to living on Roatan are very real and can make the adaptation process that much harder. For some people, the move from a temperate climate to a tropical one causes intestinal problems. Power and water outages are also frequent occurrences in the Bay Islands. Feelings of frustration and anxiety are completely understandable when these difficulties are compounded by unfamiliarity of life in the islands.

Over time, however, the person is usually able to adjust. Ways are found to deal with the day-to-day living experience. People adapt to the food and to the brief power and water outages or find ways to circumvent these and other problems. In other words, the environment does not change. What changes is your attitude towards it. Things don’t bother you as much, and you stop projecting your troubles on to other people, the new country and its customs. In short, you acquire a new life style.

Other steps you can take to make your life easier include:

Develop and maintain social support system. Sharing experiences or just being with people that you feel comfortable minimizes the effects of culture shock.

Learn Spanish. Although it is not necessary to be fluent in Spanish, learning a little will go a long way. While Roatan has traditionally been Creole English speaking, Spanish is the official language of Honduras, and during the last decade there has been a large influx of mainland Hondurans to the Bay Islands. While most islanders speak both languages, mainlanders often speak only Spanish with a smattering of English. If you learn a little Spanish, you’ll be able to communicate better with such people as maids, gardeners, store clerks, bank tellers, taxi drivers, government officials, etc. Once you can hold a friendly conversation with these people, you gain confidence and at the same time, open the door for cultural exchange.

The Roatan Language School located in Casa Calico in West End, specializes in teaching Spanish to vacationers and residents on the island in one-on-one or group sessions.

Manage your expectations. Being realistic about what you expect of yourself and others can reduce stress significantly.

Establish comfort zones. Take the time to establish positive routines or habits that you find enjoyable and that help you relax and unwind, such as establishing an exercise routine, watching a favorite TV program or taking a walk on the beach. Find out where you can buy the food you like and cook yourself a great meal. There are several stores on Roatan that specialize in imported items.

Learn about your new culture. The more you know the more comfortable you will feel. Participate in community activities, volunteer, or just go out and immerse yourself in the island culture. The more familiar you get with island customs, the easier it will be to enjoy them and feel part of the community.

If you would like to volunteer: Island Friends,, is an organizing and networking group that puts people who want to help together with those in need.

Recognize what can/cannot be controlled. Although there are some things you might be able to change in your own personal environment, it’s usually a waste of time to try and change established social structures and customs; and sometimes you should just let go. This is not to say you shouldn’t address important issues, but many times, things aren’t important or can’t or don’t need to be changed (it’s just a matter of cultural perception on the best ‘way’ to accomplish something).

Continuing on this thread, Maintain a sense of humor and perspective; and be patient. Keeping things in perspective during trying situations and looking for the funny side of things are good ways to deal with culture shock, while patience will get you through the hard times.

Survival Tips from those who have survived the move to Roatan.

“Forget about what you know from where you are from. You are no longer there. Do not expect to have things like where you are from and complain to others how they are not. There was no reason to move “here” if “there” is what you preferred. Learn the way the people and community do things here. Best way to do that? God gave us two eyes and one mouth. Use them accordingly.” –Larry Schlesser,

Every person, everywhere, (no exceptions) who goes to a foreign country to live, experiences culture shock. (to various degrees negativity, depression, uneasiness, etc). These waves of culture shock will overcome many having them obsess and eventually despair over their move or lengthy visit. The best way to deal with culture shock is to recognize the fact that it is there to begin with. Knowing what you are dealing with is half the battle.” –Larry Schlesser,

“Bring lots of Skin So Soft or sun tan oil, have lots of patience (third world country), make no enemies (poor legal and police system) and help where you can (third world country).” –Judy Wright, Judys Fantesea

Judy wasn’t the only one surprised by the bugs, another couple who recently moved to the island said “We weren’t prepared for the mosquitoes, but we’ve gotten used to them. However, we were totally surprised by the cleaner ants, they just took over the whole house!”

Tip: Cleaner ants will descend on a home in droves, cover every surface and eat everything in site and continue peacefully on their way. As they won’t harm your home or your belongings, it’s best not to disturb them to avoid getting bitten!

From another expat:

“Living on the island is a state of mind. If your expectations are too high, you will have disappointments and resentments. If you are able to go with the flow on the little irksome things, like electrical outages, you will be much happier. If you require air conditioning and hot showers 24/7 you are in the wrong place. Just a tip also – we have a generator but the outages most often take place (out East anyway) at night after dinnertime. It is much more romantic to sit by candlelight without a lot of outside noise, watch the moon from our front deck hammocks, and talk with your loved ones about their day and experiences apart. For those times we run out of conversation, my husband has rigged up two little 12Volt lights over our bed where we can read during the blackouts and not have to run the generator. It is not always necessary to have a house blazing with lights and the internet up and running at all times. The outages do not have to be an inconvenience and can rather be a sometimes needed reminder to “slow down”!” –Kelly

Bob McCain, Roatan Discussion Group provides a list of tips for surviving culture shock.

Survival tips to help get Gringos through almost any crisis:
– Indecision is the key to flexibility.
– There is absolutely no substitute for a genuine lack of preparation.
– The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.
– Someone who thinks logically is a nice contrast to the real world.
– Things are more like today than they ever were before.
– If you think there is good in everybody, you haven’t met everyone.
– Not one shred of evidence supports the notion that life is serious.
– The trouble with life is you’re half way through it before you realize it’s a do it yourself sort of thing.
– And finally, one that I heard in Helene some ten years ago: “Just because the waters be calm don’t mean there be no crocodiles.

For more on Living in Roatan we recommend the Roatan Relocation Guide. The guide supplies you with the insiders information necessary for you to make an informed decision about Investing and Living in the Bay Islands of Honduras. A must have guidebook for any one considering relocating, living or investing in real estate in Roatan, Utila, Guanaja or La Ceiba.
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