Connie: Living and Retiring in Ecuador
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Ecuador, etc.
It seems that the travel bug “bit” me early in life. As an Air Force brat, I had the opportunity to live in Japan for the first five years of my life. Reciting nursery rhymes and singing “London Bridges Falling Down” in Japanese was part of my daily life until we moved back to the States. I’m a California girl at heart—being raised in Southern California and later moving to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was eight years old.
After high school, I attended Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington where I met my husband, Mark. As soon as I met him, I knew that travel was once again in my future. We’ve been married for 38 years and have moved 32 times; six of those years were spent in Sicily, Italy where our oldest son was born. When our boys were growing up, we told them when they graduated from college or got married (whichever happened first!), we would once again return overseas. Sure enough, the day after our youngest son’s wedding we left for Cuenca, Ecuador–our retirement destination in June of 2010. Most of our family lives in California and our boys live on the East Coast, so we rotate visits (East and West).
As a writer, it doesn’t matter where I live; there’s always a story waiting for me. Our journey to Cuenca is recounted in the upcoming book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress (May 22, 2012). Our story is titled “Just Breathe.” In three months we sold our home, all our possessions, and put on a wedding before we boarded the plane for Cuenca. It’s only after we arrived in Ecuador that I was finally able to take a deep breath!
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
On January 28, 2010, I wrote the blog post “The Journey Begins Here” and that’s even before Mark made his first exploratory trip to Cuenca. We had done our research and narrowed our choices down to Italy or Ecuador. Having traveled extensively in Europe, we realized that our retirement dollars would stretch further in Ecuador than in Italy so the decision was easy. Because we had so much to do in so little time, it seemed logical as a writer to blog about our experience to keep family and friends informed. I also wanted to create a chronological component to our story just in case someone might want to follow in our footsteps and indeed they have done just that. It’s also fun to go back and read some of the earlier posts to chart our progress in language learning and also to remind ourselves that we weren’t crazy after all! Although I traded my Frances Mayes life in Under the Tuscan Sun for “South of Zero” in Cuenca, Ecuador, I’ve never regretted “un momento.”
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
One of my favorite blog posts is “Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Tears” on May 23, 2010. It seems like everyone who has made this journey has realized that it’s not easy; in fact, some have referred to it as “purgatory before paradise.” Emotions run high during the last few weeks before departure when you start whittling your life down to four suitcases. Those who bring their entire life in a container seem to have less difficulty with the moving phase as they know their “life” will be following them. After I had emotionally separated myself from our material possessions, the journey became much easier—almost liberating! It allowed me to embrace our new life with joy and excitement. “The Top Ten Things We Love About Cuenca” (June 15, 2010) is my second favorite blog post and one that I refer to often as validation that we made the best possible choice for our new life in retirement. “Los Frailes” (August 2, 2011) is my third favorite blog post. When I need a beach vacation, I read through that post and all the sights and sounds of the most pristine beach in all of Ecuador come rushing back in. I have to admit that if I had my choice, I would live on the coast, but since I married a mountain man I’m content to live high in the sierras (8,300 feet). But that doesn’t mean a girl can’t dream!
Tell us about the ways your new life in Ecuador differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
After having lived in Sicily for six years, there wasn’t much of a culture shock in moving to Cuenca. We had mentally prepared ourselves for life in a foreign country and knew that language learning would once again be an obstacle. The first six months in Ecuador, I spoke “ItaloSpanglish.” Italian was the first thing that jumped out of my mouth and still continues to surface at unexpected times.
I did go through a period of “grieving” during the first few months because we arrived on the heels of our son’s wedding and I missed our boys terribly, but thankfully I thought ahead and brought several cards and letters that our boys wrote through their childhood years and it helped to soothe the separation anxiety.
At first I thought that I would miss not having a car, but it has turned into more of a blessing! We have lost weight and our blood pressure has returned to normal limits. I never knew how stressful those morning commutes were back in the States. Instead we take a bus or taxi wherever we need to go and since they are ubiquitous in Cuenca, we haven’t even missed having four wheels of our own. In fact, we go through more of a reverse culture when we go back to the States; the cost of gas alone makes us want to get back on a plane to Ecuador where a gallon of gas is $1.48.
We live along the Tomebamba River and every morning when I peer out the window and watch the indigenous people beating their clothes on the rocks and laying out their colorful laundry on the grass to dry, I think maybe there are a few differences between here and the States, but nothing that I can’t get used to!
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Ecuador? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
We both read several books on expat life and especially the book Culture Shock Ecuador: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Nicholas Crowder which was a great introduction to our new life in Cuenca. We also had the advantage of reading blogs on those who had gone before us and paved the way, so we took careful notes and interviewed people who had made the move to Ecuador. There were very few surprises when we arrived. However, there were some things we would have done differently. I tell everyone not to make the move during a time when there is another major event going on in your life, like a wedding and a book deadline! Some expats plan years in advance for retirement to another country and we did it all in three months. I think a slow, gradual process is much better than a whirlwind move. I had never even laid eyes on Cuenca until we arrived on June 4, 2010 and thankfully I fell in love with its charm!
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
It’s always those “false cognates” that get you into trouble every time; words that look or sound similar to an English word but have a totally different meaning. We were in Cuenca for about a month and I ran into my neighbor at the grocery store, but I couldn’t remember her name. The first phrase that came to mind was “Estoy tan embarazada!” She glanced at my stomach, shook her head and then smiled as she scooted past me with her shopping cart. I thought I had said, “I’m so embarrassed!” but instead I said, “I’m so pregnant!” The word for embarrassed is “avergonzada” and the word for pregnant is “embarazada.” Instead of being embarrassed for not remembering her name, I had to explain why I really wasn’t pregnant at age 56. Thankfully, I only had to make that mistake once!
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Ecuador?
Some expats come to Ecuador and expect that things will run exactly as they do in the States. Those are the folks that end up packing it in and going back home. Instead I tell future expats to view their new life as an adventure, keep an open mind and bring a boat-load of patience! You’re not going to change the culture, so you need to adapt and change your mind-set. Driving is crazy in Cuenca and pedestrians don’t have the right of way. If you try to change the system by stepping off the sidewalk—expecting the car to stop—you just might be dead right!
How is the expat community in Ecuador? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community in Cuenca is warm, friendly and welcoming. It’s one of the great highlights of being in the cultural capital of Ecuador with so many expat-friendly events and one of the biggest draws for expats looking for a retirement destination. Each week we receive the GringoTree via e-mail which is chock-full of information regarding concerts, get-togethers, newcomer meetings, and helpful advice. We’ve been fortunate in that we have found three great couples that we have so much in common with and continue to do things with regularly. A great place to meet other expats during the week is Zoe’s, Eucalyptus Café and DiBacco’s Restaurant where newcomers can mingle with veteran expats to glean words of wisdom and receive a warm welcome. You’re never a newcomer for long in Cuenca!
How would you summarize your expat life in Ecuador in a single, catchy sentence?
“Living a five-star life on a one-star income at latitude zero!”