On the desktop of my computer is a picture of my son walking through the courtyard of a Cuenca apartment building. It was taken a week before his fifth birthday. Everything in the picture reminds me of our time in Cuenca — the plants, the architecture, the beautiful weather, the statue of Mary, and even my son’s dinosaur t-shirt he out-grew a long time ago.
We had just arrived in Ecuador then, and it was an exciting time. The next two years would also be exciting, living in three different cities both in the mountains and on coast.
Now, having returned to the U.S., I look back through pictures of hiking in Cajas, sitting in Cuenca parks, relaxing on the beach, climbing to the lighthouse in Guayaquil, walking along the Malecon 2000, and touring Quito on a double-decker bus.
I feel a longing for that time — a feeling that I mistake for regret that we left. But I don’t regret leaving Ecuador, just like I don’t regret going to Ecuador in the first place.
The longing I feel when I see these pictures of our two years in Ecuador is the same longing I have when I look at other great moments in my life. These aren’t times I want to go back to, but they’re times I’m happy to have experienced.
I often wonder why I might be tempted to feel regret for leaving, and I don’t have a concrete answer. But I think a piece of it has to with a certain pressure I felt when moving to, living in, and moving from Ecuador. It’s a pressure to either ‘go big or go home’. It’s a pressure to either bring one bag or move your whole life in a shipping container. It’s a pressure to stay for a short period or obtain residency (or even citizenship).
I don’t know if this pressure comes from within ourselves, from things we read, or from an international online community. It’s likely some combination of sources. But I know it’s there. I felt it, I heard it, and I read about it. I still think about this because I regularly get emails from CuencaHighLife readers who have dreams of moving to Ecuador — they want to make Ecuador their new permanent home.
It seemed to me, before I moved to Ecuador, that you either visited another country for a week or you became an expat and settled down in that country until you died. There is (or at least was) a sort of joke floating around that says gringos have an average two-year limit in Ecuador. Person after person tells themselves, “Not me. I’m really staying. I love the country, I love the people, I love the culture, and I’m living here for a long time.” Then, they feel obligated to stay when they don’t want to anymore. They feel bad about their decision to return to their homeland, and they sometimes feel like they need some great excuse to tell others to get them off the hook.
My wife and I left our Ecuadorian stay open-ended. It could have been six months or six years. It ended up being two years, the “average” Gringo stay.
In reflecting on my time abroad and my move back to the States, I can’t help but run through the pros and cons.
Writing this from the States, I can tell you all the great things I like about being back. I could tell you about how great and cheap the bourbon is or how nice it is to have a car. I could tell you about how I can make ends meet teaching in the U.S. whereas I struggled financially in Ecuador. I love getting a Chick-Fil-A sandwich or a Moe’s burrito. Good books in English cost me a penny plus shipping online, and my internet never goes out. I could tell you how I appreciate a place where a lot more people wash their hands after using the bathroom and fewer people stick half their finger up their nose on the bus or in the church.
But I could also tell you about how I miss the beautiful weather of Cuenca, our beach house in Playas, and the college I taught at in Guayaquil. I miss the friends I made in Ecuador, the expats and the Ecuadorians. I miss teaching in Ecuador. Right now, I could really go for one of those economical almuerzos that saved me many times when I was in a financial bind — a good meal at a low price. I enjoyed the parks and playgrounds in cities. I could tell you how I miss the cheap taxis and buses, and the ability to walk to where I needed to go. I could tell you how I miss speaking Spanish and buying a Coke in a returnable bottle. I could tell you how much I miss hornado, soups, breads, and pernil sandwiches.
Instead, I want to tell you that I didn’t make a mistake. I made decisions. I made a decision to move to Ecuador. Then I made one to move back to the U.S. And now I look back at my return to the U.S. as exciting, too. I had fun coming back to my home country, just like I had fun going to Ecuador. Now my family has memories of an experience living abroad that I’m grateful to have.
I’m not suggesting that future Ecuador residents and travelers give up their dream of retiring abroad, permanently moving their family to South America, or opening a business in another country. I’m also not suggesting that people dismiss the opportunity to simply visit a country for a week. I’m only suggesting that they recognize the third option on the table as something just as exciting.
As expats or travelers, you are are not obligated to stay in a foreign country for a lifetime. Stay as long as you want.
Christopher Lux and his family spent two years in Cuenca, Playas and Guayaquil before returning to the U.S. last year. Currently, he teaches English at John Paul II High School in Tallahassee, Florida. He holds bachelor’s degrees in theology and English from Belmont Abbey College and a master’s in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.