By Lee Shrader, Jr.
I recently read an article entitled 10 Ways to Make Ecuador Remarkable on another website. I had an immediate negative reaction to it. I read it and reread it trying to determine why. After all, none of the suggestions were bad. Most made perfectly good sense.
And then it dawned on me; it was the implicit paternalism. Why should foreigners — extranjeros — be the ones to tell Ecuadorians what they need to do to make their country “remarkable.” This is a pretty remarkable country as it is. There have been substantial improvements over the last fifteen years in health care, education, infrastructure and personal security, far out reaching those in parts of the United States. We are far safer here than in many parts of the United States. This leads me to think about what we, as immigrants can do to ensure that Ecuador remains remarkable:
1. Learn, or at least attempt to learn, the language. Learning the language allows us to become more knowledgeable about the culture and to listen more acutely to the native born people who have been a part of the country all of their lives, and it helps us to do some of what follows.
2. Support the local small businesses. Remember that one of the charms of Ecuador is what has long been lost in the United States — the local merchant who knows you by name and remembers who you are and why you are there. They may not be the cheapest but they provide part of the attraction of the country. My wife is the shopper and in several stores and at the market, she is greeted warmly by several merchants and often gets a “yappa,” or a little extra.
3. Get to know a few local people “deeply.” That means to know them in a deeper way than to simply say hello. Get to know their family. Celebrate their holidays with them. Connect in a way that you understand their aspirations, fears, and hopes. We have been lucky to have been “adopted” by the administrators and teachers at Amauta, the Spanish school we attend. When I fell and broke my hip, they provided an immense amount of physical and moral support that was totally unexpected, but extremely welcome.
4. Help protect the environment in any small way. Use the “blue” recycle bags. Pick up after your pets. Use induction stoves. Whatever way “you” can help, do it, before complaining about all the ways that the “locals” are not doing it.
5. Read the local newspapers, in print, or online, not just someone’s English translation (however wonderful that might be). Struggle to understand what the local and federal governments are doing, how they work, and what difficulties they are faced with. And remember that many of those improvements we would champion (better parks and more open spaces, better laws regarding pet control, noise control, etc.), come with unintended consequences — consequences many of us resented in the United States, like higher taxes leading to increased costs for consumer goods, and more restrictions (laws) on individual freedoms.
6. Contribute to one or more local activities. For example, if you like the symphony, make a contribution to it. Contribute to the Ecuadorian Red Cross or some other “local” activity, sponsored by and run by Ecuadorians. It’s okay to support charities created by extranjeros, but don’t let those be the only one’s you support. And remember, when you are enjoying “gratis” activities, it is often the “locals” who are paying for them through their taxes.
7. Before criticizing the Ecuadorian governmental processes (visa, cedula, driver’s license, etc.) think a bit about the bureaucracies in your country of birth. Bureaucracies here, in my opinion, are no worse than many I experienced in the United States, when trying to title a used car, get tags for a car, get a driver’s license in new state I had moved to, etc. And, also think of what it is like for an Ecuadorian to get a visitation visa to the U.S., much less to immigrate there compared to how comparatively easy it is for us to visit or immigrate to Ecuador.
8. Don’t spend your life in “gringo” hang-outs. Enjoy the plethora of restaurants frequented by Ecuadorians. Enjoy the wide variety of foods available. Try the local markets, the abundant fruits and vegetables and the variety of local environments in the different neighborhoods.
9. Ask for advice, not only from other “gringos,” but also from “locals.” Ask where the best bargains are. Ask how to avoid being overcharged. Ask who to trust and who not to trust. (Of course, this assumes you have made some “local” friends.) After frequenting a local cell phone store for some time, I had problems requiring a repair that the store was not capable of doing. The store owner quickly recommended who would do the repair for a reasonable price and warned me away from some other places that would have overcharged me. Before the taxi meters, we had friends who told us what were “reasonable” prices to pay to get to the places we wanted to go.
10. And, most importantly, learn to suppress the natural desire to assume that we know best and should always be giving advice to others. Learn to listen, to observe, to understand and to appreciate. Be thankful for the climate (yes, even the rain), the beautiful mountains, the many local “pueblos” with their scenic attractions, the friendly and helpful “locals,” the walkable city. Enjoy the differences from what you are used to “back home.”
I recognize that many of you already do these and other things.
(To read the article the author is responding to, click here)
Lee Shrader, Jr. is a retired university professor and organizational development consultant who consulted to the military, government, education and businesses before retiring. He and his wife, Holly, are enjoying life in Cuenca, Ecuador.