Ecuador: A New Home – A Different Culture

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit”. (Jawaharlal Nehru)

Ecuador - A New Home and CultureTown workers having a break after digging a trench for our new water line. Apparently, the town has no backhoes…

We’ve been in Ecuador for over a month. Our adventure started in San Jacinto, a small town on the central coast just north of Manta. After being deceived by inconsiderate North American “cottage” owners, where we stayed for a brief time, we decided to move down the coast to Puerto Lopez.

We love it here. A small fishing village, Puerto Lopez is a very quiet and safe place to live – maybe just a bit too tranquil. The loudest noise here? Waves crashing on the beach…

This is the first stop on our quest to find a place to settle permanently. Ecuador is a very diverse country. We can choose a dry coastline with little vegetation, like here in Puerto Lopez, or a setting where the jungle meets the ocean. Maybe we’ll like a higher elevation with a cooler climate and views of the Andes – possibly a volcano as a backdrop. The Amazon jungle is another possibility.

We’ll be checking out a few other locations, but Puerto Lopez will be our home for at least several months.

It’s a good place to learn the language – not many people speak English here. Speaking Spanish will make things such as traveling, renting a house and buying a vehicle so much easier.

After reading many articles on the dangers of theft, pickpocketing and home invasions in Ecuador, it is a pleasant surprise to feel safe and secure in our little town.

The biggest threat so far was from a rogue wave that nabbed Robin’s cell phone from under her nose while relaxing on the beach…

We prepared for culture shock so it is minimal, but someone who arrives here without doing research could be in for a few surprises.

In this post, I’ll cover some of these surprises, both good and bad.

Ecuador - A New Home and CultureSaturday morning fish market, Puerto Lopez

Moving here was like entering a time machine. We were transported to not only a different country but a different era.

In some cases, living in Ecuador is like living in Nova Scotia 50 years ago – when I was a child.

Children play in dirt streets with improvised toys, such as ropes, rocks and sticks – not many “real” toys and very few expensive ones here – but, believe it or not, the children enjoy themselves! It reminds me of my childhood where we used our imaginations.

Motorcycle drivers (some not old enough to hold a driver’s license) ride around town without helmets – sometimes with little children sandwiched between parents.

Chickens, with their chicks, walk through town – roosters not far behind; dogs and cats roam freely.

Small stores and businesses are abundant, most part of the owners’ houses.

Ecuador - A New Home and CultureThis lawyer, or “abogado”, relaxes in his hammock while waiting for business.

Doctors practice from offices in their homes – just like when I was young.

A large mercado, or market, provides all the food we need.

Time slows down. You learn to relax and take your time. You try to walk slower – there’s no need to rush from one place to another anymore.

“Without question, the material world and your everyday needs distract you from living meaningfully.” (Menachem Mendel Schneerson)

People are friendly – if you show them a smile and say “hola” they will do the same. The children are amazingly cute. Some are learning English, so they say “hi” or “hello” and then giggle.  🙂

Ecuador - A New Home and CultureAs soon as they saw my camera, these two girls posed for their picture…

There are several things I dislike:
  • Poverty – I hate to see people living in hovels. Although I did witness many cases of poverty back home in Nova Scotia, it’s more obvious here with new, expensive homes built next to shelters – there are no dividing lines here. At least it’s always warm – poor people aren’t shivering under blankets during winter, unable to pay for heat as some do in Canada…

Ecuador - A New Home and CultureA short walk into the hills behind Puerto Lopez…

  • We sometimes feel out of place in our new apartment – the “rich” people on the street. We are by no means rich, especially by North American standards, but our monthly rent is a bit more than the Ecuadorian monthly minimum wage. We don’t act rich and superior. We’re friendly with everyone we meet. We don’t look down our noses at our “poor” neighbours. I know they appreciate this, but I wonder if they resent us…
  •  Stray animals – there are lots of dogs and cats wandering the streets, many without owners. A few are in obvious need of help, but most are healthy and well fed. Some scrounge through garbage bags for their meals. Neutering is just starting to become normal practice here. The upside of this? They have freedom and are not penned or chained – and they’re not vicious. We don’t feel threatened when we meet dogs, regardless of their size – except for two on the corner, where Robin maneuvers herself so that I’m between her and the dogs…apparently I’m dog-proof.
  • Garbage – there is very little recycling for anything except quart beer bottles. Plastic pop bottles and plastic containers are commonly seen on the streets and beach. Garbage is not separated, everything’s thrown out in the same bag – just like it was years ago in North America…
  • Mud! – thankfully it very seldom rains here in Puerto Lopez. After a heavy rain, the dirt streets turn into slick, clayey mud, and walking becomes difficult, very similar to sliding in slush.
  • Language barrier – we studied Spanish for 2 years before moving here and know many words, but conversing with local people is different from listening to a computer. We have a difficult time understanding. Most people talk very fast, the words running together into an indecipherable blur. Sentences sound like one long word. We’re getting better at understanding, but it will take a while before we can have relaxed conversations with our friends and neighbours. Also, my mind goes blank at times when trying to speak Spanish – all the words that I practiced and memorized disappear into the vast jumble of neurons inside by head.
  • Vegetation and wildlife – here in Puerto Lopez the climate is desert-like, with very little rain. I miss green grass and tall pine and spruce trees. There’s not very much wildlife here either –  unlike other parts of Ecuador. There are many seabirds, such as pelicans and frigate birds. The most abundant inland species? Red and gray-headed vultures. They are everywhere. They help keep the streets and beaches clean. Just a short distance from here, further into the coastal mountains, more rains produce a greener landscape and more wildlife such as monkeys and toucans. More about this in a later post…
There are many aspects of life here in coastal Ecuador that I love:
  • I’ve been wearing shorts, going shirtless, and haven’t worn socks since we arrived here! This is a big thing for us Canadians…especially in February.
  • The people – friendly people make Puerto Lopez a pleasure – we just need to learn to understand what they’re saying to us!
  • The beach – ahhh, the beach. Over 6 kilometres of sandy beach to stroll on, listening to waves, collecting shells, watching the sun set over the Pacific… Added bonus: the salt water is warm – so warm that after sunset, when the air cools down, the water feels almost the same temperature as the air.

Ecuador: A New Home - A Different Culture

  • The weather – early morning is usually cloudy, with the sun coming out around noon – clouds move in during late afternoon, resulting in beautiful sunsets. It’s only rained twice since we’ve been here – so far. This is the rainy season, so I expect torrential downpours in the near future. Temperatures range from the low 30s C. in the afternoon to the mid 20s C. at night.
  • Prices – most things are very reasonable. Examples: quarts of local rum from $6; quarts of local beer start at less than a dollar (my favourite brand “Club Verde” costs $1 at the beer store, $2 at a beach cabana); 25 or more limes for a dollar; huge papayas for 75 cents; fresh shrimp for $3 a pound; fresh fish from $1 a pound; all fruits and vegetables are cheap and fresh – year round.
  • Transportation – excellent and cheap. Buses cost roughly $1.25 for every hour you ride. Mototaxis are abundant here in Puerto Lopez, costing 50 cents for a ride anywhere in town and $1 to the bus station. Taxis are also very reasonably priced.
  • Vendors – I love the many vendors.  We see them everywhere we go. There are people pushing carts along the beach selling drinks and food – some with portable barbecues. Some have permanent booths. Others drive around town in trucks, announcing what they are selling through a microphone and loudspeaker – you have to be fast to flag them down before they drive on by. You can buy almost anything from the vendors: brooms, sunglasses, delicious sweets, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, water, juice, cooked food, ice cream – the list goes on.

Ecuador: A New Home - A Different Culture

Conclusion? We are happy with our decision to move here.

“I sometimes wonder how and when the trap of materialism drew me in and, unfortunately, controlled most of my life…”

The language barrier is the most difficult thing to overcome. Once we can speak freely in Spanish we’ll feel at home. I want to stop and have “real” conversations with the people I meet every day, not just “hola”, “como esta usted”, and other random phrases that pop into my head. I want to stop talking like a 4-year-old!

*Update: February 19th, 2017. We’ve been in Ecuador for over a year and I’m disappointed in myself. My Spanish is better, but far from good. I still have a hard time understanding – most people speak very fast. I wish I had put more effort into learning – I assumed I’d pick it up quickly…

My advice to you: STUDY! Put a lot of effort into learning your new language. Believe me, it will be worth it. Without good Spanish, you’ll find it very difficult to have a normal conversation, and almost impossible to make new friends. Check out this post about the methods we used to learn Spanish – just make sure you study harder than I did…

There’s no snow to shovel, no ice to slip on (although the mud is slippery when it rains) and no need for heating.

Basic needs are cheap, especially when you buy from street vendors and markets.

We can’t drink the tap water, but a 20-litre jug of purified water costs just $1.25.

With a few minor adjustments on our part, we’ll fit in just fine. Maybe we can’t find everything we want, such as Heinz ketchup, but we’re flexible – we’ll adapt to our new home.

We’ll always be the “minority” here in Ecuador, some children will stare at us as the first white people they’ve ever seen, and we’ll always speak with an accent, but we’ll enjoy it as much as we can…

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