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What the Hecuador!

By Peter Stomberg

If you've lived abroad long enough, you know the type. They just can't seem to figure out their new environment. Bless their hearts. They seemingly go against the grain as if they are trying to transform their new country into the country they've left behind. As they pile on mistake after mistake, their situation seems to worsen each day, and eventually, they seem to disappear into the ether, boarding a plane and chasing the next disaster. But alas, not before leaving the obligatory scathing post on their local Facebook expat community page. Preaching down from their high horse about how Ecuador and the Ecuadorians have wronged them and warning others to look out for this or that person. It's sad on many levels, and they always seem to put a lot of effort into making a grand exit instead of putting that energy into learning how to adapt to the new culture or simply grow as a person.

Conversely, if you've been abroad long enough, you've probably met the type of people who

have adapted to their environments and have a way of moving and interacting with their

surroundings that looks very natural. Often, those people are the entrepreneurs who make it

look easy or the retired but "culturally active" types. The ones who keep a busy schedule and are seen scooting from project to project, attending a painting class, book club, or engaging in volunteer work. They are the ones you meet as a tourist, and they make you think, 'Damn, that couple is having a great time down there. I wonder if we could do that.' You know these people because they were probably a factor in your decision to move here.

The ones who make it look smooth are generally not the ones you see at happy hour seven

days a week, complaining about the speed of the internet as if it were the equivalent of making small talk about the weather. We don't have small talk about the weather here on the coast of Ecuador because the weather is gorgeous every day! Instead of writing an article about what not to do in Ecuador or how to race to the bottom, I thought we would try to flip the switch and talk about how to thrive in Ecuador. By sharing some lessons gleaned from people who make it look easy abroad, we hope to provide a couple of tips that might help you thrive in your grand adventure of being an expat.

I posed a question on a popular Facebook expat group here in Ecuador and asked for

responses from people who have lived in the country full-time for at least five years. The

question was, 'What is one tip or one piece of advice that you view as essential to

thriving in Ecuador?' The caveat being that learning to speak Spanish was the obvious number one answer, so what were the tips besides overcoming the language barrier, if one exists? The answers were enlightening, and some of them were very well thought out. Here are a couple of the top comments from the post, some great points, and some thoughts that everyone living abroad can certainly consider. In no particular order, here are some of the comments from expats living in Ecuador.

1. Always greet passersby with a smile and eye contact, for me the benefits have been

threefold. First, I am known in all the neighborhoods I frequent. Second, people who "know"

me look out for me. Lastly, I have averted being mugged a couple of times.

2. Earplugs.

3. A medical plan that includes a translator in emergency situations if needed.

4. In writing or speaking, always begin with a greeting and take time to inquire about the other person before you start your topic of conversation.

5. Adaptability.

6. Rent, don’t buy the first year. Go through all the seasons to see if the spot is right for you.

7. Visit first. The honeymoon phase is real. Enjoy it, but recognize it's not going to last.

Ecuatrocitites and Ecuatastrophies happen. The fastest way to make a small fortune in Ecuador is to arrive with a big one. Not all sharks swim in the ocean, and the most dangerous animal you will meet is a Gringo with a business card.

We may all be expats, but we all come from very different backgrounds and lived experiences. In addition to experiencing the culture of a new country, you will encounter expats with very different personal agendas from yours. Living like a local sounds cool, until you really learn what that means. You want to be sure you have the basics (for you) before you agree to live anywhere long-term.

8. If your idea of the Amazon is getting a box of stuff delivered to your front porch every day,

Ecuador is not for you.

9. Be open to adventure, no matter your age, and live simply. Strive to make a minimal impact on your surroundings.

10. If you see something that surprises you, just say 'What the Heckuador!' and roll with it.

In 15 years of living in Ecuador, I have seen several people move down here and live a life

without Spanish. They are constantly out of the loop and never really know what is going on

around them. They have to rely on the interpretation and explanations of others to form their

worldview. It creates a subtle anxiety and a palatable fear of engagement with the locals that

can lead to a whole slew of unintended consequences and misinterpretations. It’s sad to

watch. There are plenty of ways to learn Spanish, from taking in-person classes to using

language learning apps or simply hanging out with locals and interacting in a non-expat

environment. The key point is to have the desire to learn and participate, despite having some reservations about how you might sound or the fear of not sounding grammatically perfect.

Learning a foreign language is a lifelong work in progress. The more you live in Ecuador, the

more your vocabulary will grow just by living in your new surroundings. The learning curve is

steep. You will learn your banking vocabulary when you go to open your first bank account,

and it can catch you off guard, but you just put it on your 'to learn' list and carry on. Practical

immersion starts with a lot of hand signals and Google Translate and eventually ends with

using slang and local colloquialisms to communicate. If you're really going to thrive as an

expat, it is imperative to be able to communicate proficiently in the local language.

A portion of the world measures the success of a country based on its GDP or gross domestic product, which generally indicates how much money a country produces and is often used by "first-world" countries to rate progress or “success” In another part of the world, success is measured by a person's daily calorie intake. How much food a person gets or doesn't get is another marker of success. This paradigm shift is important and can be easily overlooked by expats coming from the "first-world" and moving into a developing nation. One trap that an expat can fall into is living in the neighborhood of "Comparison Heights," constantly comparing their new country to their country of origin. Some of the things that expats complain about often come down to a simple matter of economics; there simply isn't as much money circulating in a country like Ecuador compared to Europe or North America. Drinking water from the tap, reliable electricity, and transportation infrastructure are utilities often taken for granted in North America. Seeing things in Ecuador as different rather than better or worse is an important shift for truly integrating as an expat.

Another common thread among successful expats is that they refuse to play the role of the

victim. Trust but verify and do your due diligence are the first steps in avoiding victimhood. It's amazing how many times I've seen people overly trusting of strangers in foreign countries, as if they think the only people with nefarious intentions are the crooks in their countries of origin, as if people in tough economic positions can't be criminals. You would never enter into a lease agreement for a rental property in North America without first reading the lease and understanding the details of the transaction, in a language you understand. While Ecuadorians are some of the most hospitable and gracious people I've encountered in my travels, there are good and bad elements in all societies, and not putting yourself in a position to be taken advantage of in the first place is key. “No pone la papaya!”

Mostly encouraged by economic factors and also a fierce sense of entrepreneurship the locals can and will do most things. If you ask a taxi driver if they can recommend a home builder, they will say of course they know a fact it’s your lucky day, not only am I a taxi driver, I’m also a builder. They “can” do it but they might not do it well or up to your standards.

Most of the time they are not in the economic position to turn down such an opportunity. It’s

not like North America where we specialize or we have the economic means to hire a

professional master electrician or plumber. In Ecuador most people have to be more

resourceful than their North American counterparts. They are the original DIY culture. There’s a saying here, “there’s no junk yards in Ecuador” which holds true for most developing nations where they don’t have the “throw-away” society that we’ve unfortunately been infected with up North.

There are plenty of countries in the world to make money in. Beware of expats making money in developing nations. It's often at the expense of another expat. I'm not saying that every expat making money in Ecuador is a bad person, but there is a percentage of the population.

Just because you are from the same country as another person does not mean that you have the same intentions or the same set of values when traveling or living abroad. Some of the most nefarious transactions or worst cases of abuse I've witnessed have been committed by an expat at the expense of another expat, and it usually happens in the realm of real estate.

Rent for a while. It's a very North American trait to have the urge to "own" something. When

rents are so cheap in Ecuador, it makes financial sense to experience a location for a while and make sure it's the spot where you'd like to settle before committing long-term.

While it's true that certain things in Ecuador may seem really cheap when compared to North America, such as food, where you can still find a great lunch with a soup, main dish, and a juice for $3.50, it can create a false impression that everything is cheap in Ecuador. There may be a wider range of prices and options for things like medical care and legal services, but the cheaper options are not always the ones you'll end up enjoying. There are certain things in life where quality is imperative, such as financial/legal advice and doctors. These are areas where it's worth spending a little more money. I've seen some lawyers down here give "legal" advice that is downright criminal, but it's cheap. I've seen North Americans with the means or insurance to seek out the best medical care in their countries of origin end up dying in a public hospital here in Ecuador due to minor complications. Ecuador may be cheap, but medical care and legal advice are universal services where quality truly matters, and cheaper does not always equal better.

Learn the language, avoid living in the realm of "should or shouldn't" or "better or worse," and don't put yourself in a position to be a victim. That's a good start on the path to being a happy expat. Writing this article was a challenge for me because I truly believe that there are a million ways to live as an expat, and I by no means have it all figured out. I still stumble and put my "cultural" foot in my mouth from time to time. I can't tell you how many times I've been the only person sitting at a party with blasting music, right on time and alone. Even though I know it's culturally accepted and expected to be late, I just can't do it. To this day, I show up on time and laugh at myself for not being able to fully adapt to the less-than-punctual culture here.

Seek professional advice for matters of great consequence, such as large financial transactions or medical services. Just because something seems cheap now doesn't mean it will prove to be cheap in the future. Put your best smile forward, act as a guest, trust your instincts, and try not to take yourself too seriously. Good luck and see you around sometime.

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1 Comment

John Williams
John Williams
Jun 16, 2023

Thanks for sharing your experience. I must quarrel with one piece that implies one MUST "learn the language" to enjoy life in Ecuador. A significant percentage of the retired ex-pats here are advanced in age. Among the general maladies of aging, many of us experience significant hearing loss as we advance. IS a real disability even if you can't see it! Some, like myself, received their "gift" of hearing loss due to a military service environment during a period in their life. Would you tell someone that they can't "make it" here if they have other impairments?? Hearing loss is not just a loss of volume - it also usually includes the loss of the ability to discern similar…

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