An expat explains why she pulled up stakes in Vilcabamba and returned to the U.S.
To know the road ahead, ask those coming back. — Chinese proverb
A healthy balance in reporting expats’ real-life accounts is beneficial for readers to gauge the character of a place, with readers being the final judge of the writer’s intelligence and honesty. Here I narrate for your consideration my personal experiences in Ecuador.
While we continue to learn about ourselves on many levels as expats living in a foreign country, our expat education does not stop when we move back to our native land. This is because the expat experience itself has irreversibly opened our eyes in significant ways.
Every experience is a form of exploration. — Ansel Adam
In April, my husband and I returned to Northern California after living six months in Cotacachi and nearly two-and-a-half years in Vilcabamba. We had initially come to Ecuador in mid-2013 because of its affordable medical care after overcoming a life-threatening (and very costly) illness the previous year.
Neither of us drove a car while we lived in Ecuador, relying instead on public transportation and taxis. We had shopped at the mercados and explored some of the country’s big cities, its interior, and la costa del Pacífico, from Guayaquil to Manta. We spoke Spanish decently well and had befriended tourists, foreign residents, and natives. In short, we tried to immerse ourselves in Ecuadorian culture.
One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.
— Charles Dickens
Our experience in Ecuador was not easy by any means. Early on, the condominium we had rented in Cotacachi was burglarized by a young man who worked on the complex premises. Though the crime was reported to the authorities straightaway, none of the video/computer/electronic equipment necessary for making the film we had brought to Ecuador was recovered by the police, and the thief was not apprehended.
In retrospect, I confess to (naively) welcoming workers into our home as a gesture of cordiality, when we should have been more cautious. In Latin countries, acquaintances regularly meet in public places so trust and friendship can be forged before they are invited into the family home. Strangers are kept at arm’s length.
By casus fortuitus, we moved our residence six times: either the place became unsafe or, with escalating transportation costs, too expensive to get into town from; or it had pests or water leaks, unannounced on-site construction, or noise that increased exponentially with each new dog, motorcycle, and car radio in the neighborhood. Eventually we did find a nice apartment in the Vilcabamba pueblo with wonderful neighbors and settled in, optimistic that we would spend the remainder of our days in Ecuador and hoping that our sons would follow us there.
Were I to rewind and do it again, I would have booked an exploratory trip to Ecuador before relocating. Internet research (no matter how extensive), personal accounts, travel guides, pictures, etc., provide valuable yet limited information. There’s nothing like seeing a place with your own eyes.
I should mention that after contracting two attorneys and paying thousands of dollars in legal fees and costs, the processing of our paperwork was inexplicably put on hold, and we never did receive our residency (one of the reasons we did not have the option to travel to the U.S. for visits), a condition that caused us considerable stress living abroad. In spite of this, we tried to make the best of the situation and hoped that in time – poco a poco – we could straighten things out.
I learned later that the residency paperwork can be started in the U.S. Although we did visit the Ecuadorian embassy in San Francisco prior to moving to Ecuador, the staff was not particularly helpful in answering our questions about residency, suggesting that we contact an attorney once we arrived.
In February my husband’s health took a turn for the worse (we attributed his ongoing vertigo to complications from living at high altitude — 5,000 ft.) so we quickly made preparations to resettle on the U.S. West Coast.
Underlining our decision was the alarming escalation of violent crimes against gringos in Vilcabamba and a growing awareness that, although the money and job opportunities expats bring to the country are welcomed, extranjeros are generally not well liked in Ecuador. One can easily see why this is so after studying the continent’s history of the last five hundred years. As a North American living in South America, I felt the burden of that history. Upon reflection, I simply believed that if I came to Ecuador with goodwill and an open heart, I would be treated differently. This was a mistake.
Additionally, U.S. television programs, translated into Spanish, imported to Latin America, and often copied in style and content, give Ecuadorians the impression that all Americans are wealthy. (Former President Hugo Chavez understood the psychological dangers of a dominant power imposing its values through mass media on other nations. This was the primary reason he established Villa del Cine: so Venezuelans would be free to tell their own stories in the context of their shared cultural background.) Although we know this is not true, media can easily penetrate the subconscious and negate actual evidence. I struggled to correct this stereotype and thought that presenting the facts would change opinions, but change was not as easy as that.
Having traveled to many parts of the world, I don’t make this statement — extranjeros are not well liked in Ecuador — lacking a means of comparison. Of course, “exceptions justify the rule,” and thankfully there were exceptions for us. However, even among Ecuadorians, xenophobia is common. The black and indigenous populations have a lower social status in society; they are also the poorest of the poor. While seizing tribal lands for mining and oil exploration, the Ecuadorian government simultaneously highlights the indigenous in its advertising campaigns to garner tourist dollars.
Although fun places to interact with colorful people from all over the world, Vilcabamba and Cotacachi are not melting pots; integration is visibly absent. Addressing this reality in Vilcabamba, a dedicated group worked for nearly a year to create an intercultural center where greater understanding and acceptance could be nurtured through the arts. Month after month we came up against so many delays and so many broken promises by the government that purported to support intercultural projects (Ecuador ranks low on the scale of preferred countries in which to do business in the world) that our fledgling cooperative had taken an altogether different approach and launched itself privately. I am grateful and proud of all the men and women who joined together to bring it to life. Children in the province now benefit from both the library and the community art outreach program we established.
As much as I had wanted to believe the government’s representatives — individuals to whom I had offered my friendship and personal assistance — their repeated non-performance spoke louder than any of their pleasing assurances. Such across-the-board disingenuousness was difficult for me to stomach. Although it was no consolation, I later learned that other expats, after presenting proposals to the government, had similarly found themselves being put off over and over again, until they ultimately gave up. It made no logical sense to me why the government would feign interest and waste precious time if it had no sincere intention of following through.
Looking back, several in our group had cautioned against doing business with the government; however, since I believed my friendships with the government officials were genuine, I expected them to treat me well and honor their commitments. It was a big personal blow for me to learn otherwise.
And so with a heavy heart, we emptied our apartment of the little treasures we had collected to make it feel like home.
What would we miss? Foremost, our friends. Rainbows and birds. The pace of village life. Plaza de Ponchos. Tropical fruit. The low cost of health care and the ease of purchasing medicine. $3 bouquets of a dozen long-stemmed roses.
The afternoon of our departure was both tearful and beautiful: families and children we had known suddenly appeared to say, Adios, Vaya con Díos, wishing us good fortune as we drove off to the airport in Catamayo, taxi loaded with eight suitcases containing all our personal belongings. A bittersweet ending to our South American adventure.
It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells
the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.
— Benjamin Button
It didn’t take me long after arrival at SFO to witness the wealth of choices and opportunities Americans routinely enjoy. After living frugally for the past three years, I renewed my commitment to use and share these abundant resources responsibly.
The staggering amount of processed food Americans consume, the volume of advertisements with which they are daily bombarded, and quantity of still-useful items they waste or discard (to their credit, Ecuadorians find a purpose for almost every item) also struck me.
I joked about “re-entering the Matrix,” but had forgotten how second-nature it was to know the system – how and where things are done – and to be able to communicate on multiple levels, understanding nuance and jest within the context of my own culture and history.
Certain American traditions – community volunteering, donating to charities, lending libraries, and gift-giving – were once again a marvel.
Oh, and to be a pedestrian with the right-of-way!
The loveliness of the natural landscape, bedecked with redwoods and oak and newly green and full of wildflowers after the Spring rains, made my heart sing again.
Finally, and most important, I had returned from Ecuador with deeper compassion for those peaceable foreign residents who struggle each day to navigate and understand a new and unfamiliar culture.
The only true realist is the visionary.
— Federico Fellini