The World as a Mirror

To be clear about our adventure in Ecuador, I must clarify that Captain and I have spent our time where most foreigners do not venture.   The northern coastal area has a reputation of being dangerous because of Columbian cartels, kidnappings, and drug rings in the past.  We have experienced no such things. The President has reportedly secured the borders and this is no longer a reality though the stigma remains.   Until recently, it was also difficult to travel to this area but with the help of new roads the area is now accessible.    A bridge has been built which connects the north coast to the south.

The south is where most foreigners are going to retire and live their traditional, but affordable lives.  If one is looking to live a cheaper ‘American’ life, I would encourage a lengthy trip to Ecuador to test drive Ecuadorian living.  There are many expats loving their retired lives here.

The North is vastly different from the South.  In the North, one will rarely find people fluent in English, occasionally foreign tourists and no large department stores other than Aki, the generic Wal-Mart.  Even there I could not find a wine opener…

Captain and I are different from most coming down here to start a new life.  We are not looking for shopping malls, high-rise condos and gated communities of English-speaking people.  Finding an affordable piece of land to live our simple lives in the paradise we dream of-that is why we are here. The Esmeraldas Province is the perfect place for us to settle.  Most people have yet to realize how wonderful this area is, so as of now, we can afford coastal land! I am hesitant to tell anyone until we find our own land.  But the secret is out! As a young couple, we can invest our savings into our paradise and not have to work the rest of our lives to get out of debt!

This country’s landscape is not doubt charming and the cost of living a simple life is relatively cheap.  But beginning a life in Ecuador will inherently come with its challenges that I must face.

Racism is something I have never experienced personally until I came to Ecuador.  Though it is only a mild form, being judged solely on the color of my skin has tested my strength as an individual.  We no longer ask how much things cost; we observe what the locals pay and offer the equivalent. Asking the price of something is asking to get gringoed!

These issues run deeper than with just us ‘gringos’. The mountain people don’t trust the coastal people.  The coastal people say the mountain people are rude.  City people in Quito and Guayaquil don’t like the other and so on goes the judgments.  Many of the elder Ecuadorians are light-skinned with European roots.  Supposedly, this is a result of racism of past generations.   This culture is one of harsh criticism.

As a traveler who moves every 3-6 months, I have grown accustomed to being far from my family and friends.  It is usually 6 months before people open up to a traveler so I am used to not having close friends while on assignment.  This ‘assignment’ in Ecuador is not for a temporary visit I took on a different perspective in regards to my social life.  Where will I fit into this culture?

***

In almost 2 months along the Northern coast here in Ecuador, we have met only a handful of persons who speak English as a first language. This week it all changed…

As our property hunt continues, we have come to know a few of the locals in the surrounding villages.  One village has imprinted on my heart and we find ourselves going back there day after day.

Our main concern with the area and surrounding property was access to water.  Potable water is not common and before purchasing property, this issue needed to be addressed.  Off to ‘our village’ we went in search for water.   Captain doubted we would find the answers we were looking for with our poor Spanish.  I didn’t know how it would all work out but it would…it always does.

Captain and I waited again at the truck stop to hitch a ride down the Pacific Coast Highway. We were joined by another woman who was heading the same way.  It is a challenge to begin a conversation with another knowing comprehension for us both will be difficult but I have to get over this.  Instead of saying all that comes to my curious mind, I try to recall the scenarios Rosetta Stone has taught me.  A conversation about the weather is always a good icebreaker, right?

As I opened up to the woman, I learned she was a nurse.  She went on to tell me she works for the President and asked me who I worked for back in the States.  At this point, with the new Health Care Act I may be working for President but I didn’t go into this!   With my broken Spanish, I learned the basics of her role as a nurse; she takes cultures for ongoing coughs to rule out TB, provides prenatal vitamins to expecting mothers and distributes medications for those with hypertension.  Like any good nurse, she was patient, kind and informative.  This was the longest ongoing Spanish conversation I had thus far; it felt good to have a friendly conversation.  I miss chatting with kind strangers…

A van offered the three of us a ride and we filled the few empty seats.  A young teen began a conversation with the nurse and it was apparent his first language was not Spanish. He overheard Captain and I speaking English and quickly wanted to begin talking with us.  Italian was his primary language and he was practicing both English and Spanish.  His English was impeccable but he was a harsh critic with his grammar.  This sounded familiar to my inner critic.

The Italian boy temporarily became our translator and helped us discover that our village has a main water source.  Sure enough, we got an answer to the question of the day. It all worked out and we hadn’t even made it to the town yet!

Having spent many days visiting our favorite village, we are recognizing the locals and learning their roles.  To use the public restroom, talk to the elderly man who carries the key to the locked door. The youngest kids run around barefooted in the streets and play in the water.   The eldest man can always be found hanging out his window spending the whole day people watching.  Another man is commonly seen at the bus stop keeping tabs with who is coming and going. There are maybe 100 people in the town and most everyone wears a smile.  There is nothing more important than enjoying every moment of every given day.

Captain wanted to dig deeper into the water discussion so we hung around the village, had a snack and waited for another opportunity to arise. We hoped to run into the young surfer who is always so friendly when we visit.  He had talked about his Australian girlfriend and we knew she could tell us more about the water situation in town. Captain spotted a girl out surfing and thought this surely was the Australian.  Then we spotted a guy walking way down the beach and thought this must be our friend.  As we caught up with him to say hello, we realized we had the wrong guy. But there lying on the beach was our surfer friend! How ironic…

Even more ironic, our friend was sitting with a woman from Ireland! My heart keeps telling me this is a place I must visit and meeting a new friend from this magical country made this day even sweeter.  She introduced herself and I asked how to spell her name to help me better pronounce it.  But the spelling offered little assistance with the pronunciation.  I typically use only pseudonyms when I write but unless you can read Irish you will never figure her name out-Sadhbh?!?

Sadhbh is a teacher from Ireland and solo traveling through Central and South America.  She had just come from Columbia.  “Columbia?!” What was she doing traveling through there all by herself?! Sadhbh had a wonderful experience and claimed people were even friendlier in Columbia.  Despite a few pic pockets, she hadn’t felt unsafe or in harm’s way.  Interesting that I had the same reaction to Columbia as many do with us traveling the Northern Coast of Ecuador…

After a long day of surfing, it was lunchtime for our new friends and they graciously invited me and Captain over for a meal. Encocado was on the menu.  I had just said this was one dish I had to try before I leave Ecuador!  Fresh fish and sautéed vegetables over coconut milk rice-delicious!  We offered to buy the fish since they were hosting us.  Off to the market we went!

The area of town I’d considered ‘residential’ was actually the best part of town for our dinner needs. Whether it was handmade lampshades and hanging door décor or homemade ice cream, every home had something for sale!

The Surfers took us to the fish ‘market’ which was really just the backdoor of a neighbor.  Here we bought a giant red fish; red snapper, perhaps?  It was only a dollar and a half per/kg…that is some cheap sushi!! There was a quiet confusion about the price when it came time to pay. With us gringos standing alongside, it seemed the fish mysteriously gained a few kilos.  We were not about to dispute the charges with the fisherman but were sure our friends would have gotten it for cheaper if we weren’t along.   This was probably the first time our Ecuadorian friends had been gringoed!

The Surfers are a young couple living an extremely simple life in Ecuador. The Australian came to Ecuador a few years back, fell in love with an Ecuadorian and made this her home. Aussie dreams of living in a tree house, planting a garden and working with the locals on environment issues. We are surely kindred spirits.

Their home was illuminated with love like any happy home but there were some profound differences. There was no refrigerator in the kitchen, no television to be found and definitely no screens on the windows.  The home was 12×20 with only the bare necessities-a stove top and…well, that’s about it. This couple appeared very content and stated they are easily entertained without a television! Dogs came and went through the open doors.  Aussie says one of them is hers; the others have only welcomed themselves into her home.   A chicken jumped through the window to have a taste at the rice cooking on the stove.  This is country living in Ecuador…

The disregard of the locals to spiders and insects has fascinated me. I saw a huge spider scurry across the floor and did my best to not be alarmed.  This surely was of no concern to the homeowners.  I imagine there were lots of critters living in the thatched roofs and among the many wide cracks of the home.  Mosquitos must be of little concern too because I saw no mosquito net over their sleeping area.  One night of sleeping without a mosquito net and I would be ready to leave the country!  Sadhbh spent the night and woke in the morning having been eaten alive.  What are the locals doing to keep from being bit or is this just a part of life and they see it no other way?  I want to know their secret!

As dinner simmered on the gas stove top, I took note of my new friends’ slow pace and followed key. Aussie’s ITunes played some familiar music and we lounged in the hammock in the living area.  We relished in the English stories and listened closely to the Spanish ones.  Everything was talked about from environmental and community needs to how large many Americans live in comparison to the simple lives of most Ecuadorians.  The Surfer couple trade most of their food and catch the rest in the river and sea.  With such a simple life living off the land, work and money play a small role in their lives.  They do enough to just get by…

When Captain asked Aussie what it was like being a gringo who is fluent in Spanish, she claims it is not much different.  Aussie still gets the gringo price.  She was charged $15 for “the cheapest pair of flip-flops” when her Ecuadorian partner bought them for $3.  We probably would have been charged $18.

The Surfers had a friend visiting from Quito. Her style was funky and expressive, very artistic. Hip Hop was from the coast but moved to the city in search of a much different life than the Surfers. When I first saw her, I felt a familiarity but I quickly brushed it off.  No matter where I am, I always think I recognize strangers. My ‘rational mind’ speaks up and I tell my Self it is highly unlikely I know this person halfway across the world in the middle of nowhere!

Hip Hop seemed very shy so I assumed she didn’t understand our English conversations.  When she first spoke to me and asked if we had met before, I was taken aback by how well she spoke English.  For seeming so quiet, her English was quite sassy! She swore she had met me in a hospital in Texas which could have been a possibility until she said Houston.  In the hospitals, patients often say they have seen me before. Here I am deep in the jungle and still I am recognized as a familiar face. Kindred souls we must be…

Hip Hop went on tell her story of an accident in which she was emergently flown to Houston where she remained in a coma for months.   Her uncle lived in the Texas and came to visit her every day.  While he prayed for her to wake, he would turn the television to MTV music videos while she slept the days away.    The day she woke up and the doctors began explaining to her the situation, her uncle started translating. She stopped him quickly and said she understood everything the doctor was saying.  Hip Hop didn’t need a translator; after her comatose state, her brain could comprehend English.

After returning home, she would have instances where she would she could not recall Spanish and only speak in English.  Hip Hop’s friends would tease her and call her a snob; they wouldn’t believe that she was having dissociations of her native language.  The story sounds unbelievable but after hearing her street slang, she definitely learned English from MTV!

While riding home on the bus, I sat next to a high school student who seemed very shy in my presence. A vendor came through selling sugar covered peanuts. Captain and I were debating whether to buy them when the young girl sitting next to me said “good” which convinced Captain to buy the peanuts.  She was very timid but I went on to ask her if she spoke English and the conversation blossomed from there.  She spoke very little English, but I understand she was an English student and longed to speak the language.  Ecuador offers her little opportunity as a young woman and English is necessary for her to live a successful life outside of her native country.  The young woman confessed that verbs and grammar are the most difficult for her; I have the same frustrations with the Spanish language!   Us girls shared a laugh when we both pulled out our Spanish-English dictionaries.

***

There is a depth to our soul that goes beyond the mind’s comprehension.  Is this be why searching within is so trying; we don’t know what we will find? As Captain and I get closer to taking the plunge into this very different lifestyle I’ve had to be very honest with myself about what truly makes me happy. Some of the answers I have found been difficult to face and others have surprised me. After a few reflective heart-to-heart interactions and spending time with like-minded people, I know I will find my place here. I suppose it wasn’t so much a matter of ‘fitting in’, just being accepted. Isn’t that all any person really wants anyways-to be loved? Until each one of us can accept our whole Self, hate, prejudice and judgment will continue. The world is our mirror. When we can start loving ourselves, flaws and all, we can be open to loving one another.

***

When I asked Captain what he could not live without, his dead serious answer was football. As long as he can get the NFL Sunday Ticket, Captain can be happy anywhere.  He had concerns with us getting satellite living on in the middle of nowhere until seeing this:

“If this guy is getting Direct TV…”  At this moment Captain declared Ecuador home!

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