The simple explanation is that God told us to do it.
Steve and I were both Christians since early childhood and regular church attenders for 50+ years. While our children were still at home, we spent a few weeks at a time in the countries of Brazil, Guatemala, South Korea, Kenya and Venezuela carrying out mission projects and assignments. But, shortly after all three children finished college and married and we were both (seemingly) settled into jobs we loved; we learned of an opportunity to go to another country as full-time missionaries.
We started the application process in January of 2002, and two days after Christmas that same year, we landed in Ecuador. During that tumultuous 11 months, we filled out dozens of questionnaires, sat through many interviews and endured strenuous physical and psychological evaluations. We sold his veterinary practice, our home, both vehicles, most of our furniture and even his John Deere lawn tractor – a highly-prized possession.
In the beginning, we thought we were going to Indonesia, but over time, Ecuador was discovered to be a better fit for our skills and personalities.
It was a formidable task to sift through EVERYTHING we had accumulated in over thirty years of marriage. Fortunately, our children were highly supportive of this decision. However, other family members, particularly older ones, disapproved vehemently.
The Expat Life Begins: Ecuador Awaits!
We drove out of the driveway of our dream home set on 10 wooded acres and headed to seven weeks of intensive training; living in a small dorm room with twin beds and sparse furniture. We went from each having fulfilling careers and coming together each evening to share our days – to being together, as in CLOSE proximity, 24-7. One of our first major adjustments.
I took Spanish classes in high school and college, but Steve arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador knowing only 2 words of Spanish –
“Taco” and “Gracias.”
And, tacos are rarely eaten in Ecuador. Bless his heart.
We both enrolled in language school immediately. A large part of our assignment was getting out and about through the town and practicing with restaurants owners and shopkeepers. They are probably STILL laughing at some of the things we unknowingly said to them.
Adjusting To An Elevated Lifestyle & Eating Guinea Pig
There were several noticeable adjustments we had to make. One was the altitude.
Cuenca is in the Andes Mountains at an elevation of approximately 8300 feet.
The air was a pleasant temperature, but the sun was still intense. We learned to drink a lot of water (bottled, of course) to avoid altitude sickness. There were still times when we’d wake up in the night gasping for breath and needing to be in a sitting position.
My cooking, especially baking; was also affected by the altitude. Over time, I learned to reduce the amount of sugar and baking powder, turn the oven down about 25 degrees and increase the amount of liquid. But, there were several epic failures while I learned.
Ecuador restaurants and hostesses tend to serve plates heavy in starch – potatoes AND rice on the same plate for example – and guinea pig is a delicacy in the Andes, especially among the Quichua people; the ones with whom we worked.
Called cuy (“kwee”); it is served on special occasions and to guests. We were almost ALWAYS the guests.
My first taste of guinea pig came in fried form. Not too, too bad. But in soup or roasted – the most common preparation method? That’s another matter! Meat is scarce on those little rodents, and it’s pretty greasy.
Our goal was to try very hard to never offend our hosts, so we found ways to eat what we were served. After all, for the Quichua people, this was a way to share their very best.
The Friendly Nature Of Ecuador & Its People
Steve and I thoroughly enjoyed the Ecuadorian people. They were friendly, kind and helpful. We learned that in Ecuador “time = relationships,” in contrast to how it is in the States where “time = money.”
A good example occurred in restaurants. We were NEVER brought our check until we requested it. This culture assumes that you’ve come to a restaurant not just to eat a meal but to spend time with friends or family. They don’t want the diners to ever feel rushed in any way.
We loved the festivals (Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the Day of the Dead, etc); and the anniversaries of the founding of various cities through the country. Most come with their own set of traditions or foods.
Cuenca’s Christmas Eve Parade is amazing, lasting at least SIX HOURS!! Floats, musical groups, decorated donkeys and horses pass in review endlessly. People come from miles around to be in the parade and to watch. But, on Christmas Day itself, shops and people are pretty much back to business as usual.
The Hard Aspect About Having An Expat Life
Our first Christmas in Cuenca was rough.
For the first time in their lives, we were away from our children. We managed to get phone calls through to each of them – scattered in Seattle, New Orleans, and Huntsville, AL – but not being able to physically hug them was very hard on my Momma Heart. They cried, and we cried.
After that, we carefully planned vacation time to be home for Christmas. I would say that when all things were considered being away from our family was the hardest part of living in Ecuador. Every other challenge paled in comparison.
One of my biggest fears while we were out of the United States was that one or both of us would have a serious accident or medical crisis. After all, we were in a Third World Country. I was forced to face that fear head-on about a year and a half after we arrived. I thought I was having a heart attack. We called some other expats we knew, and my husband decided to take me to Hospital Monte Sinai. I was cared for quickly and efficiently by a team of doctors. The problem turned out to be my gallbladder, and two days later I had laparoscopic surgery without any problems. The ENTIRE bill for the hospital stay, the surgery itself, and the fees of four doctors was only $1500. The US probably has a lot to learn in that area!
Now, my quests for good dental care or a proper haircut had different outcomes, but those are stories for another day. And, it was puzzling to me why a country that is the 3rd largest exporter of bananas in the world doesn’t have a single box of Nilla Wafers for sale to make a banana pudding . . . but maybe that was just “a Southern thing.”
Looking Back On Our Experience
After living in Cuenca for two and a half years, we moved to Quito for another year and a half. In both cities, we made some lasting friendships with incredible Ecuadorian people. Through the invention of Facebook, we can still connect with them quickly and easily.
They taught us far more – about hospitality, love for family, exuberance for life — than we could have ever taught them.
When we arrived in Ecuador, we had one grandchild. Now we have TWELVE.
After four years, we felt that we had fulfilled the assignment God gave us. We came back to Alabama, found jobs, built another house and started over.
Our perspectives changed. Our priorities changed. Our view of the world changed.
We are retired now, but we will always be grateful for the years we spent away from the States. The Ecuadorian people enriched our lives immeasurably.
Connie Pearson is a native Alabamian who lived for 4 years in Ecuador while she and her husband Steve served as missionaries. They have 3 married children and 12 grandchildren.
If you enjoyed this story, be sure to read Meri’s about life as an expat on the high seas! It is very unique!