Hindsight is 20/20. I expect we’ll see much more of that cliché this year. For me and Chantal, however, it’s appropriate.
We retired to Ecuador on the fourth day of January 2019. It’s been a full year since we left everything we knew, in Canada, and moved to a place that calls itself the bellybutton of the world. I think that gives us a certain perspective, though it may or may not be worth sharing.
Certainly, the expats who’ve been here longer have walked this same sendero, or one very much like it. To you I say well done. It’s no trivial thing to settle oneself abroad. This foolish business takes an intestinal resolve that few possess.
No, I write instead for the family and friends we left behind; and also for those who may wonder if they have what it takes to uproot their lives, utterly and without regret.
My entire blog is a testament to that experience, most of it well planned and some of it very badly executed.
But hindsight, I’ll say again, is 20/20. On this particular anniversary, I have some perfectly acute hindsights to pass along.
Children and Grandchildren
Watching your children arrange their lives without you is almost to experience your own death.
Of course, my boys had already moved out of our city to establish careers and families for themselves. My youngest returned to his birthplace, Montreal, to become a professional mixologist. Not someone who taps kegs for tips: a salaried cocktail wizard at one of the top ten watering holes in Canada. (Yes, that’s blurry Aidan in the photo.) My eldest, on the other hand, moved with his wife and son – soon to be wife, son, and daughter – to a very small town one hour outside Ottawa. There, he operates his own business and raises our grandchildren in an environment similar to the one in which he was raised, and of which he has very fond memories. I salute them both.
They moved away and we saw less of them. That’s what happens. But when we retired to Ecuador, it was with the full understanding that our grandchildren would grow up without us, and that my boys, like most young people their ages, would probably only ever text but rarely call or take calls. My ex-wife and I brought them up to be independent self-starters. That comes at a price when you expatriate.
To be sure, we keep tabs on Facebook – such as tabs can be kept on a social media platform that has been virtually abandoned to the old. My boys don’t post much but my daughter-in-law shares photos of our grandkids. It’s strange to watch their lives from this distance. I wonder sometimes if they watch back or read my blog. Or if we’re not really present at all in their thoughts. It’s funny and terrible, at the same time, to realize it all comes down to a stupid Like.
Language and Culture
If you think you will move to Ecuador and bypass any requirement to learn the language or culture, you are seriously uninformed.
Often, on expat forums, you will come across an oblivious know-nothing who wonders, in public, if not speaking Spanish might inhibit his or her odds of a job in South America. To which I would reply, are you fucking kidding? But I keep those comments to myself.
Poor souls. They watch a single episode of House Hunters International, then sell every last item they own to re-establish themselves in Ecuador’s gringo paradise. Which doesn’t actually exist – at least, not while HGTV’s cameras are busily misrepresenting some other tropical locale, usually at the behest of a real estate agency that pimped itself for the privilege.
This isn’t Florida. It’s not Costa Rica or Roatán or Belize. There aren’t so many of us white folk in Ecuador that everyone else learns English to oblige our bank balances.
I studied online for a couple years before we retired, and I still wasn’t prepared for the rapid-fire strings of vowels that pass for Spanish in these parts. It’ll take years more, and my willing immersion in the local culture, to achieve fluency. Chantal is not much further behind. It’s a challenge we relish. But I wish I’d been better prepared. Perhaps that was never an option.
It’s comforting to think you can retire among your fellow countrymen and gradually immerse yourself in a warm bath of patrimonio cultural. For many, Cuenca is the ideal choice. For others, it’s a seaside urbanization built by and sold to other expatriated Canadians or Americans. These are reassuring options, to be sure, but they aren’t without risk.
For one, you’ll never learn anything about Spanish, or about Ecuadorians, if you aren’t truly among them. That buffer of pudgy, middle-aged North American bellies does nothing to enhance your experience of life in a foreign society. In fact, it’s like being back home. With worse neighbours.
Don’t get me wrong: I count many of the people here at Mirador San Jose to be among my close friends. But there are specific temperaments that expatriate, and not all of them are benign.
You have explorers and free spirits, both of whom embrace the myriad opportunities for lifelong learning that living abroad provides. You also have retirees on a budget: folks who could never make it work on their meagre savings, up north, but have a chance to really live down here. You have people who move for business, and people who come to study. In my experience, these are also, in the main, open-minded individuals with a well-developed sense of adventure.
And then there are the deeply estranged: those maladjusted individuals who got along with nobody back home and thought they’d try it here for a lark. They occupy a community, much like a cancer assaults a vital organ, and they rot it from within. It is uncanny how even a small number of this personality type can make your retirement all about them and their petty grievances. Because they find each other, very quickly, and they metastasize.
If I were to do this again, I’d choose differently. Rent, move around, find the right spot and then settle in.
One thing I’ve learned this past year: the easier option always costs more. Much more.
In the end, the one who changes most in this unlikely enterprise is you.
Forget anything you thought you knew about your tolerance, or intolerance, for unsettling experiences. The transformation presents itself like a poopy diaper. You’re not immediately aware of your change in circumstance. But after a while, there’s this smell…
When you move to a place like Ecuador, you really do find yourself at the very edges of your comfort zone. If you can’t locate within you a genuine willingness to explore those edges, those awkward fringes, then pack up your moist towelettes and go home. There’s nothing for you here.
But if you can wipe that gruesome crack, without gagging, then be ready to learn things you never knew about yourself. And be ready, also, to meet that individual for the first time.
It can be a shock to discover who you truly are. Ecuador offers only introductions.