Wherever You Go…There You Are

The U.S. News & World Report ran an article on August 26, 2015 reporting that according to a survey of 14,000 expats in 64 countries, Ecuador topped the list of best countries to live in as an expat. This is the 2nd year that Ecuador made the number 1 spot. Click HERE to read the article.

August 26, 2015 Article in U.S. News & World Report

August 26, 2015 Article in U.S. News & World Report

 

The survey was conducted by InterNations, a social network for expats with over two million online members around the world. Ecuador received the highest scores for the following subcategories: “personal happiness,” “feeling welcome,” “personal finance,” and “cost of living.”

As full time expats first coming to Ecuador in 2005 and then running a business and raising a family here since 2010, Tom and I have a pretty well-rounded perspective of life here on the coast of Ecuador. We can attest that, in our  own experiences, Ecuador deserves high marks for these subcategories. We have witnessed many clients who arrive here in fairly poor health and often stretched to the limit with stress, that, a year or so later, are hardly recognizable to their former selves, having lost a considerable amount of weight and donning flip flops, a golden tan, and a relaxed smile.

The caveat? Ecuador may well score high on these kinds of surveys, but there is absolutely no guarantee that relocating to Ecuador be will be the solution to your problems. We have seen firsthand that this is especially true for those expats who come here strictly seeking a lower cost of living.

“Wherever you go, there you are.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you tend to be more of an optimist you will see the smiling, welcoming faces as you wave. You will see families laughing and playing volleyball or soccer together at the end of the day. You will notice the lack of beggars (at least here on the coast) despite there being evident poverty. You will see a gorgeous coastline with warm water and breathtaking sunsets. You will quickly make friends who welcome you, arms wide open, to dinner in their home at a moment’s notice.

If you tend to be more of a pessimist, you can be in the exact same time and space and experience an entirely different reality. You will see what you perceive as poor people lounging about in hammocks in front of their unfinished shack-like homes. You will see trash. You will see countless dogs roaming the streets and notice with alarm men walking around town with machetes in hand. If you do not tend to trust people, you will be suspicious, questioning people’s motives for being friendly to you. You will focus on the lack of efficiency, how “they” do “everything” here backwards compared to where you are from.

Speaking of which, an article came out yesterday in Cuenca High Life that provoked considerable commentary from its readers, entitled “The Arrogant Expat: Let me tell you how we do things in the USA.”  Important Note: If you come to Ecuador and attempt to change what you perceive to be wrong with it, you will drive yourself crazy.

A couple of related insider tips and insights:

  • In the U.S. there is a culture of becoming snide, loud, and even threatening towards employees in an attempt to get them to affect whatever it is that you want/need done. In Ecuador, this approach will not work. It will back-fire and they will simply move on to the next person in line (believe me, I ashamedly admit that I learned this early on firsthand). Instead, try to befriend and empower people whose assistance you are seeking. Ask calmly and with a [genuine] smile if there’s anything they might possibly be able to do to assist with the situation. While not foolproof, it’s amazing the difference it can make.
  • When facing a frustrating, mind-numbingly “illogical” situation (and there will be many!), instead of  banging your head against a brick wall, try your best to reflect upon the experience as an opportunity to strengthen your patience “muscle.” (Think how strong you’ll get to be after a year or so-Yay!).  Our friend  Kris used to refer to our province of Manabí as “mañana-bí.” And there is the famous saying here that mañana doesn’t necessarily mean tomorrow (or even next week, for that matter). Always try to find the humor in the situation and with yourself. It just makes life easier that way.
  • Consider the possibility that there might actually be logic behind what you perceive as illogical or a faulty way of doing something. A classic example we often use to illustrate this point is getting the bill at a restaurant. Newbies to Ecuador are quick to complain that the server never brings them the check. They are unaware that it is considered rude here to “rush” clientele out of the restaurant. When you are ready to leave, you simply request the bill.  (And even then, it might take a while to get the check. And then they might not have change for your $20 so they’ll have to send their 10 year old son out to go find you change). Remember, you’re building your patience muscle!
  • Pick up a copy of the book CultureShock Ecuador: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette  by Nicholas Crowder

 

While some of our clients have thrived as coastal Ecuador expats, there are others for whom Ecuador simply wasn’t a good match, high expat survey scores notwithstanding. Some arrived here and immediately did an about-face because their Ecuador experience did not match their expectations.

Then there are others who, like most of us, first delighted in Ecuador (the “honeymoon phase” of the widely accepted “stages of cultural adaptation“).

Proposed stages of cultural adaptation (taken from xx)

Four proposed stages of cultural adaptation (image taken from this site). I would venture to say that the realistic length of time for adapting is more like a year or two for most Ecuador expats.

 

During the honeymoon phase, newcomers appreciate and even celebrate the myriad differences in culture, food, and can find the humor in not being about to communicate well in the local language, at waking up at 4am to the crowing of a rooster in the city, or not being able to find products they were used to having back home.

However, as time passes, the honeymoon inevitably comes to a crashing halt and a new stage begins. Now the focus becomes disproportionately on what is wrong, instead of what is good and new. For some, this so-called “hostility stage” is but a passing phase as they continue to move through the ups and downs of adapting to a new culture and life. Those who eventually adapt arrive at a middle of the road experience where they generally accept and enjoy their new life. That is not to say there are no longer challenges, delays, or frustrations. But by now they have learned to better navigate the obstacles and move on.

There are others, however, who may stay stuck in the “hostility” phase. Their negative perception of their reality can become further compounded if they have already sold or moved everything they previously owned, cannot afford to return, and now feel trapped in a place where they are just as unhappy (or more so) than they were before relocating.

So if you have been considering becoming an expat in Ecuador:

(1) Do your due diligence and visit/rent first to make sure Ecuador will be a good match for you before you make the official leap;

(2) Come with an open mind and an open heart. Don’t assume you know better than the “locals.” There is a good chance that your perceived “solution” does not fit with the context in the same way it would back in your home country. Often, there actually is some semblance of logic where many new expats assume there to be none;

(3) Expect that, like anywhere in the world, you will face many unexpected challenges, especially as you are adapt culturally. Try your best to embrace the inevitable hurdles as they arrive and view them as opportunities for growth.

(4) Ecuador is no panacea for one’s problems. If you were unhappy in your home country, chances are you will find reasons to be unhappy here as well.  “Wherever you go, there you are. You take yourself with you.”

places you'll go

Ecuador’s Halftime Super Bowl Ad

Ecuador saw a 14% increase in international tourism between the years 2013 and 2014 and are hedging their bets that an expensive ad during the Super Bowl on February 1 will have big payoffs for even greater numbers of visitors in 2015.

Ecuador is the first foreign country to buy an advertising spot during the Super Bowl to promote tourism. According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, the 30 second Super Bowl ad that boasts, “All You Need is Ecuador,” cost $3.8 million (earlier news stories reporting lower amounts did not include taxes).

Ecuador's Super Bowl commercial boasts that "All You Need is Ecuador"

Ecuador’s ambitious Super Bowl halftime commercial boasts that “All You Need is Ecuador”

 

The Super Bowl advertisement will be featured during half time and will be aired in 13 major markets, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Miami. There will be an additional 8 commercials that will run during NBC’s “Today Show” leading up to the Super Bowl.

The focus of this bold campaign is to highlight Ecuador’s four unique tourist destinations: Galapagos, Coast, Andes and Amazon. Truly, this small country has a lot to be proud of!

The "All You Need is Ecuador" campaign highlights

The “All You Need is Ecuador” commercial is to be aired during the Super Bowl and highlights Ecuador’s four distinct regions

 

Inspired by The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” tune, the first phase of the “All You Need is Ecuador” campaign was launched in April 2014 and was featured in 19 major cities throughout the world including NYC, Paris, Madrid, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam to name a few. The $19 million campaign lasted 10 days and consisted of displaying one giant letter in a major plaza of each participating city. Together the letters formed the words “All You Need is Ecuador.”  Each letter was covered with iconic images that show off Ecuador’s tremendous beauty and diversity, including giant tortoises, rare birds and orchids, colonial buildings and cathedrals, and spectacular natural landscapes.

Unique campaign strategy

The Ministry of Tourism’s unique campaign of placing giant letters from their slogan in key cities around the world.

 

In conjunction with the theme of “All You Need is Ecuador,” the government of Ecuador has adopted the slogan of Ecuador: Ama la Vida which can now be seen on buses, sides of government buildings, and even Ecuadorian product packaging. This upbeat reference to savoring life is reminiscent to me of Costa Rica’s famous “Pura Vida!

Ecuador's new slogan

Ecuador’s new upbeat slogan

 

While the first phase of the “All You Need” campaign focused on highlighting the richness and diversity that Ecuador has to offer, the airing of Ecuador’s Super Bowl commercial presents the second phase which aims to emphasize how all of these incredible experiences are concentrated into one tiny country. “One Country. Like Nowhere Else, All in One Place, So Close” is the motto.

Only the size of the state of Nevada, Ecuador offers much to explore.

Merely the size of the U.S. state of Nevada, Ecuador is a rich play land ready for exploration. A 30-minute domestic flight west from the snow capped Andean volcanoes transports you to the beautiful, warm Pacific coast. Thirty minutes to the east and you’ve arrived to one of the most biodiverse rainforests on the globe. Where else in the world is that possible?

 

Ecuador’s government increasingly recognizes the economic potential of tourism saying that it is the future of Ecuador. Last year, approximately $600 million dollars was generated by the tourist sector. The goal of Ecuador’s Super Bowl ad is to make the estimated 120 million spectators fall in love with this little known place and come visit.  Of the 1.5+ million tourists to Ecuador in 2014, twenty-one percent visited from the U.S. Officials say that  a 1% increase in U.S. visitors to Ecuador in 2015 will cover the money invested on the Super Bowl ad.

To wrap up this post, below is a playlist of eight promotional videos from the Ministry of Tourism that are definitely worth the watch.

 

It is no doubt an exciting time to be here in Ecuador watching a myriad of transformations taking place.  When we bought a house on the coast in 2006 we never could have imagined how quickly Ecuador would become a global destination for both tourists and expats alike.

 

**UPDATE (Feb 5): Here is the final advertisement that was run at halftime.

 

Annual Mango Festival

Yesterday was the city of Portoviejo’s 5th annual mango festival. The festival was hosted by the Universidad Técnica de Manabí, at the jardín botánico (botanical gardens), a beautiful and enjoyable place to visit in its own right.

Mango Festival poster

Poster for the Mango Festival, held at the botanical gardens in Portoviejo

 

The gardens, created in 1993, boast 10 hectares of tropical flora to explore and even includes a surprisingly challenging maze formed from tall hibiscus hedges. Other features include a nursery with plants for sale, food pavilion, open park area (see photo below) and a host of natural fauna that call the gardens and the surrounding 35 hectares of hillside reserve their home, including large iguanas, turtles, and many tropical birds (mot-mots, oropendula, and parrotlets to name just a few).

View towards the stage and food vendors

 

We are pretty serious about mangoes in our household, often consuming multiple mangoes in a single sitting, especially during mango season (Nov-Feb). During this season, mangoes are ridiculously plentiful and very inexpensive. Tom recently purchased a giant bag of  big, juicy mangoes for $15. The price per mango came to roughly $12 cents each. So far we’ve eaten about half of them, chopped and froze another quarter (mango smoothies, mango daiquiris!) and we still have so many left!

Remaining mangos

The remains of our disappearing bag of mangoes

 

We’ve even gone so far as to request a custom mango painting for our kitchen from our artist friend Kerri (the same artist who created our beautiful ceibo painting that we featured on our ceibo blog post).

mangoes

Mango painting made locally by our friend Kerri (feel free to contact us if you’d like to get in touch with the artist to see more of her artwork for sale)

 

So with this background it comes as no surprise to find our crew at the mango festival. There we enjoyed mango cupcakes, a meal of grilled chicken smothered in a mango sauce, and even sipped on a couple of mango mojitos.

Mango cupcakes and ice cream

Mango cupcakes and ice cream

 

There are a surprising variety of mangoes grown in Ecuador. At one booth they had 16 different kinds on display. Our favorite mango thus far is the “Reina” mango, a giant yellow-skinned mango that is pure juicy pulp with no stringy fibers that get stuck in between your teeth.

Many types of mangoes are grown in Ecuador

Many varieties of mangoes are grown in Ecuador

 

The festival also had the requisite, WAY-too-loud music which may be found at any public event in Ecuador but we actually enjoyed the live music and dance performances. There were also locally made goods for  sale, products for which the province of Manabí are known, such as hand-woven straw hats and bags,

Hats woven from straw

Hats and headbands woven from paja toquilla straw and banana leaves

 

tagua jewelry and bamboo knick knacks,

Hand crafted products made from bamboo and tagua

Hand crafted products made from bamboo and tagua

 

Plus fruits jams, chocolates, and assortments of ají (hot sauces) flavored with mango and other fruits.

Assortment of products from Manabi

Assortment of products from Manabi

 

While Kai got his face painted, adoring women took turns cuddling and taking photographs of Aiden.

babies

Aiden being treated like a local celebrity

 

Bellies full of mangoes we ventured back home to San Clemente and spent the remainder of our Sunday afternoon playing with on the beach…after which we came back in and somehow managed to eat MORE mango!

 

Notable Hand Gestures in Ecuador

Cultural differences manifest in many forms; the most obvious ones are language, dress, and food.  Hand gestures can be a subtle facet of cultural identity, yet should not be overlooked as insignificant.  Here are a few hand signals you might come across or ones you had best avoid while visiting or living in Ecuador.

 

Come Here

In the US and many parts of the world, we typically signal for someone to come over to talk to us in one of two ways. The first is to wag/flap your hand, palm up, in a direction towards you. The second is to extend your index finger and curl it towards yourself. The former looks a bit silly to an Ecuadorian and the latter does indeed signify “c’mere” but in a sexual advancement kind of way.

A seductive invite to come closer

A seductive invite to come closer

 

Speaking of which, NEVER use the above single finger gesture with your hand palm down unless you intend to send a very sexually explicit message to the recipient.

This gesture is very offensive

A very offensive gesture to a woman

 

The proper way to ask someone to come towards you is to extend out your hand, palm down and wag your fingers towards your palm. This same gesture is also used for hailing a taxi or bus.

Proper form of signalling someone over

Proper form of signalling someone over to you

 

Sorry-No Can Do!

Typical Scenario 1: You are at the fish market and you ask a man for shrimp. The man looks up at you and simply shakes his open hand but says nothing. You think, huh, perhaps he didn’t understand me and you ask again (maybe a bit a louder in typical expat fashion).  Looking slightly exasperated now, the man shakes his hand a bit more more emphatically and as you continue to stand there perplexed, he adds, “No hay” (pronounced “no EYE”).

Typical Scenario 2: You have been waiting alongside the hot, dusty road for a taxi and now, finally see one approaching. As you hail the taxi with great hope, the driver casually sticks his hand out of the half open window and shakes it at you as he drives past. What!? How rude!, you think to yourself.

The open hand, palm down, shaken from up to down is a widely used gesture that is often overlooked or misunderstood by Ecuador newbies.  As in the shrimp case above, the gesture was used to indicate that there were no shrimp available (“no hay”). The same gesture can also mean “no hay como,” which means that something’s not possible [at the moment]. In the case of the taxi driver, the gesture indicated that the taxi was not available for hire.

no hay

An open palm shaken from up to down indicates that something (or someone) is not there or available

 

How Tall is Your Pony?

If you are ever asked how tall someone is,  you would indicate their height by holding out the side of your hand, pinkie side facing down.  If you indicated your spouse’s head height using your palm facing down, you might illicit laughter as this gesture is used exclusively for measuring the height of animals, typically livestock.

use hand to measure the height

Proper way to indicate the height of a person, with the top of their head being the bottom edge of your hand

measure

Incorrect way to indicate height for a person; it is used strictly for animals

 

Hook ‘Em Horns

A head’s up to all the Texas Longhorn fans out there who are thinking of coming to Ecuador. Flashing the hand sign of your beloved team indicates to the recipient that their spouse is cheating on them; i.e. they are “cachudo” (wife cheating on him) or “cachuda” (husband cheating on her). A side note here that the hand-horns sign IS widely used in rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a cross-over from North American/European culture.

hook em horns

Not the gesture of a Texas sports fan in Ecuador!

 

A-[Not]-Okay

The A-OK sign is a vulgar sexual reference that is best to avoid. A better option to indicate your satisfaction or well-being is to offer a “thumbs up” sign instead. While in some other parts of the world, this too is a vulgar gesture, “thumbs up” here is commonly used.

All is not well with this signal

All is not well with this hand signal which is generally regarded as an extremely offensive, sexual gesture

 

Navigating the Wrist Shake

So this last one is not so much a gesture but instead is here for etiquette purposes. Typical scenario: You are introduced to someone who has been hard at work (landscaping, chopping fish, painting, etc.). You go to shake their hand yet instead of offering out their hand in return, they ball up their fist and offer you their wrist. Don’t be shy–just briefly shake their wrist. You have been offered their wrist not as an insult of any kind but simply because they are concerned that their hands are too dirty from work to offer to you.

hands

Shaking someone’s wrist because they don’t want to insult you by extending a dirty hand

 

Hopefully the hand gestures provided here will help, if ever so slightly, with the process of familiarizing yourself with some cultural nuances. The process takes a long time no matter what but fortunately, people here tend to have great compassion and appreciation for those who genuinely attempt to immerse themselves into Ecuadorian culture.

 

 

Cultural Peculiarities about Babies

We welcomed our son, Aiden Andrew, to the world on August 23. He was born in a wonderful birthing center outside of Quito.

Proud big brother Kai with baby Aiden

 

After a few days of rest, we spent a solid week running around Quito at the Registro Civil, the Ministry of Foreign Relations passport office, and the US Embassy to process all of the paperwork required to establish Aiden’s dual citizenship. As this was our second child born in Ecuador, we navigated the ins and outs of the country’s famously convoluted system of “tramites” with far more grace this round.

Running around with an infant in arms also quickly reminded us of some of Ecuador’s rather fascinating cultural peculiarities regarding babies. I’ve compiled a list of some of these infant-related idiosyncrasies that were surprising to us as new parents, especially coming from a different culture. 

  1. Epidemiology of the Hiccup: There is a common belief that hiccups can be triggered by the baby feeling cold (see #3 below). Hiccups can be “cured” by licking a small scrap of of paper (newspaper, preferably) and sticking it to the middle of the baby’s forehead. **Side note: When looking for information online related to the origin of this practice in Ecuador, I was fascinated to see that this custom is also used to cure hiccups in other parts of the world including multiple countries in Central Africa and throughout Southeast Asia!

    Paper hiccup cure in action, taken from an blog about an expat family living in Burundi.

  2. Baths Required: Vaccinations given at government-sponsored health clinics (called “sub-centros de salud”) are free for children until they are age five. After each of Kai’s vaccinations, I was instructed to immediately bathe him in a warm bath or else he would become feverish. I was a skeptic but did it anyways to avoid any kind backlash as the unfit gringo parent in town. And you know what? The one time I didn’t bathe him after a shot, he did get a fever a few hours later.
  3. The Baby’s Always Cold: During Kai’s first few weeks, we kept receiving commentaries from very concerned “new acquaintances”  that Kai was cold. The cause for concern was obvious once we became aware of the ubiquitous blanket bundles being carried around town, sometimes even on bright, sunny days. Beneath each large blanket is a warmly dressed baby, donning hat and all. Once again, succumbing to peer pressures and with the desire to avoid public derision, we starting bundling Kai while out running errands. That is until he became covered in little red bumps that we discovered was a heat rash. Oops. But even now with Aiden, we still throw a blanket over his head when out and about for both good measure and to prevent public outcry.  We were literally shooed away from the refrigerated section in the Supermaxi grocery by parents who couldn’t believe that we would be even remotely close to a source of cold air.
  4. Growth spurts: All babies spit up. Some apparently more than others (Aiden, for example). I was bracing myself to receive more unsolicited public commentary if and when Aiden upchucks all over me in public. I was pleasantly relieved to learn that there is the common belief that the more a baby spits up, the bigger he/she will be. Thus far, Aiden’s growth supports this theory in that at week six he has morphed into a 12-lb roly poly and we’re constantly laundering blankets, towels, shirts, pants… everything.
  5. “Parece un chichobello!”  Without exaggeration, we heard this phrase daily when Kai was a baby.  Whether in passing from  giggling hordes of delighted women pointing in Kai’s direction or directly to us when introducing him for the first time, at least one person would say that looked like a chichobello.  After receiving this comment dozens of times, I finally asked, “What IS a chichobello?” Turns out it is a life-sized baby doll who is usually fair skinned, bald, with big, blue eyes. When I looked them up online I realized how right they were, baby Kai (and now Aiden) actually look very chichobello-esque.
     
  6. Strange Photography: In relation to #5 above, complete strangers do not hesitate to take photos of other people’s babies. This phenomenon reminded Tom and I of our travels in China about six years ago where there were a couple of bizarre occasions where four or five total strangers actually stood in line to take a photo with us… or snuck up behind us before we noticed while a friend quickly snapped a photo (I believe that would be known as an inverse “photobomb”)  It was very perplexing to us, especially as we wondered what they did with these random photos of strangers. Do they show them to a couple of friends and then delete them from their camera? Or did we stay on their  card and eventually end up in a photo album on someone’s computer? How does that work?? Anyways, the same thoughts occurred to me as Kai’s mug must have been snapped by friendly strangers at least a hundred times before he turned one.
  7. Birth Details: Along the same lines of having different personal boundaries than in other cultures, one of the most common questions I am asked as a new mom was whether the birth was “normal” (i.e. vaginal) or “cesarea” (C-section). I don’t know why people who have never even met me insist on knowing this private detail, except that vaginal births are becoming less common (C-sections now comprise over 30% of births in Ecuador).
  8. Restaurant Service: Another surprise for us was that upon sitting down at restaurants, often one of the staff members would come and take Kai from us to allow us to order and to eat in peace. The first time this happened we were pretty alarmed as we watched Kai get passed back and forth among various cooing restaurant employees. However, we came to quickly appreciate this custom which allowed us the rare opportunity to converse and eat without the usual interruptions. Besides, Kai was clearly okay with  all the loving attention he was receiving. This probably is one of my best examples on the difference between our cultures. In US society, this pseudo “child care” could never take place these days, due to liability, mistrust, etc.  Here, those things don’t even occur to most people. 

    Pizzaria Napoli run by Fiore provides authentic Italian food  in Crucita. Fiore is also the owner of the Alba Suites condos.

  9. First in Line: Another custom that I totally appreciate is how courteous businesses and the public are to the elderly, people with disabilities,  pregnant women and new moms. If you fall within any of these classes, you either have your own special line or are taken to the front of any existing line. Tom and I reduced our wait time by probably 90% at the Registro Civil in Quito (where the frustration level may actually exceed that of most DMVs in the States)  just because I was holding a newborn. I love that! 

    No such thing as a “quick visit” to the Registro Civil” in Quito

  10. Public Breasts: I also love how unapologetic many woman are about nursing openly in public. Sure, you might see more skin by some women wearing their regular day attire, but breastfeeding in public is still a big deal in US culture. Here, it is not uncommon for a woman to be openly feeding a baby in one arm and pushing her shopping cart with the other.  No one seems to notice or get offended and everyone just goes about their business… which is nice.

 

We’ve been surprised at the number of times our perspective has shifted as we begin to see things from another cultural vantage point.  Just as you see two distinct things if you look at a statue from the front versus the back,  a given experience can be interpreted from two different cultural viewpoints.  It’s the same statue, but what you see is completely determined by how you look at it.

For example, when we first arrived in Ecuador we sat at a restaurant, had a meal, and waited patiently for the bill.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Then finally, we hunted down the owner and, mildly flustered, requested the bill, PLEASE.  We saw “Bad Service” from our cultural viewpoint.  Then, after discussing this with an Ecuadorian friend he explained that traditionally if the owner brings you a bill before you’ve requested it, he is being rude and trying to rush you out of the restaurant.  The same experience from the owner’s vantage point was interpreted as “Being courteous and welcoming.”

In other words, things that at first make ZERO sense begin to make more sense the more you hang around.  We’ve learned to be open and enjoy our experiences here by following  a few general guidelines:  “Make fewer assumptions, ask more questions, and be open to the idea that there just might be another, equally valid, cultural viewpoint to an experience or situation.”  It makes for interesting detective work to ask, “Why might that make sense?”