One of the most popular destinations for American expatriates is Ecuador. Thanks in large part to websites such as internationalliving.com, Ecuador has become a hot spot for gringos looking to relocate, particularly over the last ten years. The majority of those moving to this small South American country have been retirees, mostly baby boomers.
Though I am not a baby boomer and am nowhere near retirement age, I was enticed by the information I came across on the internet regarding Ecuador. I was already leaning heavily toward South America as my ultimate destination, so I just had to narrow down my choice of country. Ecuador offered many inducements; the climate was tropical to temperate. The geography varies from tropical beaches to spectacular Andean mountains to lush Amazonian rainforest. Ecuador is considered a ‘megadiverse’ country and has more biodiversity per square kilometer than any other country. Its political leader is left-leaning and independent minded , steering clear of U.S. hegemony. The cost of living is relatively low, compared to the U.S.A. ,and the country uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.
I chose the southern Andean city of Cuenca which is where the majority of North American expats settle in Ecuador. Within a few short weeks of my arrival, I was feeling disappointment in my new home. It seemed like every day there was a new problem. Some of those problems were the normal circumstances which a new expat can expect to encounter in a foreign country; however, a realization was quickly growing inside of me that I had chosen the wrong country.
Note: The following observations are generalizations and certainly do not reflect all the people of Ecuador. I met some wonderful people there and made a few great friends. There are always exceptions to any rule.
Lying, cheating, stealing
The prevalence of lying, cheating, and stealing in Ecuador was far beyond anything I had experienced previously. The general standards of ethical behavior were quite low.
Theft is rampant throughout large swathes of South America, and Ecuador is no exception. In fact, it seems to be a way of life for many, not just juvenile delinquents and thugs. Most people I met in Cuenca, both locals and expats, had been robbed at least once. During my second month there, my colleagues were robbed at gunpoint after leaving class at 9 p.m. in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood less than one kilometer from the downtown. The experience severely traumatized a young female teacher. My backpack which contained my computer was stolen right out from under me in a cafe, in the middle of the day by a group of professional thieves. The house where I lived, which was located in an upper-class neighborhood, was broken into and robbed. A pair of young female tourists in Quito related to me their horrifying experience of getting robbed their first day in Ecuador.
Some of my friends and colleagues started to carry weapons with them when they walked around at night. I contemplated doing the same. Expat newcomers and tourists learn quickly to carry nothing of value with them when they go out and avoid most areas along the riverfront. Some of my Ecuadorian friends told me that they didn’t even trust their own family members when they came to visit. After the family members returned home, my friends discovered something missing from the living room or bedroom.
The high occurrence of robberies in Ecuador has had a number of sociological effects. For example, every bank has two or three armed guards standing in front with machine guns. The guards stand at the ready, with fingers on the triggers, and have severe expressions on their faces. When an armored car pulls up to take cash out of a bank or an ATM, at least a half-dozen heavily armed guards jump out and hold their machine guns tightly, looking extremely tense and frightening. All houses are heavily fortified. Nobody takes chances. A typical house, even in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, has a ten-foot -high concrete wall with embedded glass shards surrounding it. This wall is often supplemented with razor or barbed wire above the glass shards. A large and vicious dog such as a pit bull is often present as well.
To live in a society with such a profound level of paranoia and fear was a jarring experience for me. I reflected on what this fear did to human relations. If people are hiding behind their fortified compounds, what does that do to neighborliness and interaction with strangers? What does this fear do to street life itself? To community? In my neighborhood, I never saw neighbors talking to one another.
I also pondered the root causes of robbery. I came up with some rough hypotheses. First, there appeared to be few consequences for those caught stealing. By law, any theft in which the stolen item has a value under 500 USD is punishable only by a small fine and perhaps a night in jail. Juvenile offenders are usually set free with a fine, a warning, and possibly probation. That’s not much deterrence, is it? Furthermore, most boys and young men in Ecuador, and South America in general, are overly coddled , especially by their mothers. They understand intuitively that no matter what they do, their mothers will only give them a mild scolding, and go right back to cooking and cleaning for them, even when the boys are well into their mid- to- late 20s. Finally, the Catholic church, which plays such a prominent role in people’s lives in South America, does nothing to stem the rate of robberies. Boys and young men know that they can go to confession and obtain ‘forgiveness’ from a priest.
With little to fear from the government, family, or the church, young punks, juvenile delinquents, and professional thieves are free to roam and prey on the populace.
Lying is commonplace. Trying to get a straight and honest answer from most Ecuadorians was exhausting. Some long-term gringo expats justified this behavior by stating that Ecuadorians spoke in a ‘circular’ manner instead of a ‘linear’ manner, and furthermore they preferred to give a ‘good’ answer instead of the right answer. Well, I’m not a psychologist nor an expert on Latin American culture, so I must rely on my common sense and the values I was brought up with. To me, this talk of circular conversation and good answers smacked of shallow apologetics. A lie is a lie.
An example of this behavior is the reply you will get if you go looking for something in a store which doesn’t have what you want. Instead of the owner telling you, “Sorry, we don’t have that and we can’t get it,” they will smile and nod and tell you to come back in ‘a few days’ when the product will be available. So, you return in a few days to see that it is still not there, whereupon the owner will repeat the line. A few days later, you return and the scene is repeated yet again. It took me a while to catch onto this silly little dance, but it reflects how the people operate. I now live in a country where the store owner will wave me away rudely when he doesn’t have what I’m looking for. While I despise the rudeness, I much prefer it to the fake smiles and lying that I encountered in Ecuador because the end result is a much greater waste of my time.
Cheating is widespread and rampant in schools. In the school where I worked, teachers learned never to turn their backs on the class when the students were doing an assignment or taking a quiz, even for a moment. The notion that cheating was acceptable was ingrained in many, if not most, of my students. I had to wonder how they grew up with that idea in their heads and how their native teachers dealt with the issue. In any case, given how commonplace cheating is in the primary and secondary levels, it is hardly surprising that Ecuador’s tertiary education is so poorly rated.
The noise level in Cuenca was horrific. The city is surrounded by hills and mountains and noises are amplified and ricocheted by this configuration.
The city buses are old, diesel models which are loud, dangerous, polluting, and obnoxious beasts. They are manual stick-shift models, so every time the driver violently mashes the clutch down, the buses make a low, rumbling growl which is audible from a kilometer away. In fact, I could set my alarm from the buses. They woke me up every morning at 5:30 a.m. with their shifting. Lying in my bed, I was able to distinctly hear first gear, followed a few seconds later by second gear, and then third, and so on.
In addition to the bus noise, Cuenca suffers from year-round firework noise. You see, Cuencanos and Ecuadorians LOVE fireworks. While people in other countries reserve fireworks for specific holidays, Ecuadorians love fireworks for their own sake, and see no reason to reserve their use for only a few days a year. Hence, firecrackers, bottle rockets and the like are set off nearly every day, in every neighborhood, at every hour. It makes no difference whether it is 1 p.m., 5 p.m., 10 p.m., or 3 a.m. Somebody, somewhere is setting off some fireworks. If you are a light sleeper, like I am, then you are S.O.L. Fireworks are sold widely with no restrictions on age. With no noise ordinances governing their use, it’s hell on earth for those who like a little peace and quiet.
Ecuador is a middle income country which means that many people are now able to afford a car. Given the fact that theft is so rampant, naturally people want to protect their asset. Every car sold in Ecuador comes equipped with a hyper-sensitive alarm system. If a leaf fell from a tree and landed on the hood of a car, the alarm would go off. If I brushed against a car with my shirt sleeve, the alarm would go off. I lost count of how many times I saw people sitting inside their cars with the alarm going off. Nobody seemed to know how to turn it off, so they would fumble around with the controls, giggling and laughing while their eardrum-shattering alarm went on for five or ten minutes, affecting people for kilometers around. The absolute lack of awareness of noise pollution was stunning to me. One afternoon, I sat inside my apartment and counted 27 car alarms go off in the space of three hours.
If all of that were not bad enough, locals had also decided to augment all of their home security apparatuses with yet one more: THE HOUSE ALARM. Prior to moving to Ecuador, I was unfamiliar with this hellish invention. Compared to the house alarm, car alarms are a tiny, insignificant nuisance. The decibel level of the house alarms in Cuenca is comparable to a Rolling Stones concert. While they could, and did, go off at any time, they most often went off somewhere in the middle of the night, just when I was reaching REM sleep. I would bet that they were audible from at least 10 kilometers away. What’s more, the alarms seemed almost useless. I once witnessed one going off in the middle of the day in my neighborhood. I stood in front of the house to see what happened. Did the police or some private security agency come running to the house? Did the neighbors come over to check on things? Did anybody pay attention or do anything? NO, no, and no. The thieves could have been inside, cleaning out the house with their earphones on and nobody would have noticed.
There’s much more I could talk about, such as the lousy weather, lame nightlife, introverted and dour people, graffiti, basic lack of respect for pedestrians and mediocre food. Amazingly, I still see Ecuador and Cuenca mentioned as great landing spots for Northerners looking to relocate and retire. I only hope they are better prepared than I was.