Reflections on experiencing life in Ecuador

Picture of door of apartment 5c in Cuenca
Apartment 5C in Cuenca

My wife, Missy, and I are now down to eight days left of our visit to Ecuador. In just over one week, we’ll be back in the United States, returning to the lives we put on hold and friends we left on November 28th to experience this most interesting and joyful adventure. While I was very concerned about our journey here and what that might do to my job prospects and other opportunities for work at home, I grew to embrace this journey as a challenge and experience and I see how its helped me grow as a person.

In my lifetime, I have traveled to other countries, but never to Latin America and never for an extended period. There have always been thoughts in my head of living somewhere else, but I’ve never aggressively reached out through my networks to make the leap. So many friends and acquaintances have lived in other places. All my trips were short 7 to 10 day stays, mostly to Europe or Canada. It took marrying an International educator to show me how these things can be done. Once you take the leap and go, you’ll figure it out.

I don’t want to sugar coat this. Financially, we were fortunate that an investment that has grown over the past five years allowed us to take some of that growth and apply it to this trip. Without that, I’m not sure how we would have done it.

Almuerzo in Cuenca

We also knew that we would cut our rent in half here in Cuenca, where taxi fares are between $1.50 to $3.00 and “almuerzo,” a prix fixe lunch that is a cultural fixture of this area costs $2.50 to $3.00.

Mold in the bathroom in Cuenca apt
Mold in the bathrrom

Even at $600 a month, our rent is probably a bit high for Cuenca. That’s because we live in a modern, well-kept apartment building we found through a friend that had most of the comforts of home. We could have kept looking, but after having an issue with mold in the first apartment we’d rented, we knew we didn’t have the time to look around. We wanted to quickly settle in and make our plans.

Living and Thinking

Our building, La Cuadra II, sits on a hill overlooking the Coliseo Jefferson Perez, a major sports complex just across the Tomebamba River and along many other modern apartment buildings dotting the neighborhood informally called, “Gringolandia,” because of its popularity as a retirement area for expats from the US and other countries, as well as its proximity to a large supermarket, SuperMaxi, which caters to middle class Ecuadorians and expats.

Of course, I mistakenly thought before our move Cuenca and Quito would not be as modern as many places in the United States. In some respects, it isn’t. Heading in from the airport in Quito, I marveled at the many barrios we passed. Looking down each street from the main highway, there are block-long walls of nondescript, two-story apartment buildings that seem to go on for as long as each street is to their end, as far as the eye could see. What seems like huge, thick-walled villages that are there to simply house the masses of lower-income Ecuatorianos that live outside the city. I have to remember that New York City, Chicago, Boston and other cities in the northeast are full of ugly, red-brick apartment buildings housing low-income families. You realize people have to live somewhere and this is there somewhere.

Photo of Paute Ecuador street outside the town center
Paute street outside the town center

Here, it just looks different that what you’re used to seeing back in the USA. Maybe I’ve seen it so much, I’m not shocked at all. But when you see it somewhere else and it looks different, then it feels different, because it’s unfamiliar. Why I’m surprised, I don’t know. Seeing something new for the first time begets a range of thoughts and emotions that you’ve never had before, so you have to work within yourself to make sense of it all. You have to tell yourself not to judge, but to learn from what you’re seeing.

The Division of Class: Wealth and Poverty

The miles upon miles of housing pass you by. To the untrained eye, it looks exactly the same and it makes you realize how hard people work everywhere for a better life. How some are born into areas where there is far less opportunity or the connections to advance in society. Not all, but many conservative American voices I’ve heard seem think that like in the USA, people here could simply pull themselves out of poverty and into the middle class, if they just worked harder. What they don’t see is the depth of the hierarchical system that inhibits movement between the classes. Things they know exist in America, but refuse to acknowledge. Seeing it down here in Ecuador reinforces my understanding that the powerful and wealthy prevail and everyone else grinds it out to the best of their abilities.

I’m also reminded that some people simply enjoy their lives, no matter what their circumstances. It’s what they know and while they may marvel at everyone else’s money and means, they go back to their families in their barrio here in Ecuador or low-income areas elsewhere and they live their lives modestly. Not everyone needs a luxury apartment in NYC, London or even Quito.

Home in Paute Ecuador with gated entrance - photo
Home in Paute with gated entrance

Like any city, the barrios (neighborhoods) we visited in Quito, Paute and Cuenca also contain middle class and upper class homes that are either connected or only a few feet from each other. Because there are fewer zoning restrictions, you can have an ultra-modern luxury apartment building sitting next to a run down house with ducks and roosters grazing an empty lot. Most homes are surrounded by high walls and barbed wire with steel-gated fences leading into their driveways. It seems as if Ecuatorianos focus their energies on the inside of the walls and not the outside. The security precautions here are heavy, because petty crime and robberies are rampant. I’ve been told the police won’t investigate a petty crime if the value is less than $600

While Americans take great pride in exposing their carefully crafted lawns and gardens to anyone who happens to drive by, Ecuatorianos decorate in the same way, but it’s all contained within the walls and you don’t see it unless you pass through the security doors onto the property. Or, like the house shown here, through the iron fences. Of course, there are some incredible old, thick wood-carved doors or sleek ultra-modern fences protecting these properties as well. For many, it’s a necessity, but for those who can afford it, it’s a display of wealth and power.

Sure, in America, there are many walled communities you can only access by identifying yourself to a guard or pushing a buzzer.  I shouldn’t be shocked or surprised, but like I said, it’s just different. In most American suburbs, the entire community looks the same and in my experience, the houses surrounding the gated communities are maybe just a little older and not as big as what’s inside the walls, but most people would still call them very nice. In a place like Paute, you can have what looks like a $200,000 home sitting next to a row of run down apartment homes or vacant lots. In my mind, that’s the difference. Seeing it for the first time, it doesn’t make sense, but the more you understand the country and the culture, it begins to make perfect sense, because it simply is what it is. You’re somewhere else. You’re not at home. And, you can’t say it’s better or worse than what you know, because it’s not what you know. It’s what the people in the town you’re visiting know, so it’s important to be aware of it.

In just a week, we’ll return home to Asheville, North Carolina. We’ll move into a relatively new, modern apartment community with all the creature comforts and only a few miles from one of the most attractive destinations in the country. There are certainly some comparisons. While looking at housing options in Asheville, we definitely stumbled across some relatively lower-income communities, but nothing like I’ve seen in Ecuador. I hate to say that maybe some people don’t know how fortunate they are to live in Asheville. We know people who live there that do, because they’ve been around the world, but for those who don’t realize what Asheville represents, then I highly recommend taking a trip to Ecuador to understand the difference. Knowing the difference will give you a greater appreciation for what you have, but also makes you realize that not everyone chooses to live the way we do and that there are those who will never live the way we do, simply because of the circumstances they were born into.