What is it really like living in South America? The following is the truth about life in Ecuador, from a little British woman’s point of view. I am coming to the end of my second year here (the first was 2009/10) and, as with when anything draws to a close, I feel as though this is a time for reflection. Moving abroad is not an easy thing to do, alone or in a couple, and the last year has been one of the most difficult, and rewarding, years of my life. Ecuador, you have tested me, but I love you.
Health and Safety regulations do not apply! You could say that we are a little too married to the concept of Health and Safety in the UK. Here they laugh in the face of danger. Sometimes that is refreshing, and sometimes it is horrifying. It’s great being allowed to hang out of the open door of a packed bus and not having some sour faced driver slamming the door in your face, not quite so fun when there are sparks flying off your electrics, and your landlord doesn’t see the problem.
Livin’ La Vida Loca. The stereotypes are true – in South America they love to party! Fireworks at 4am, marching bands at dawn, national holidays every other weekend, chivas! These guys know how to party. Don’t expect to ever sleep again, because while you’re trying to get an early night, your neighbours are livin’ la vida loca.
It is dangerous. Yes we have crime in England but not to the same extent as there is here. Pick pocketing and muggings are common, as well as other more serious crimes such as Sequestra Express (kidnapping in a taxi). It makes me realise how lucky I am to come from a safe place with a relatively low crime rate.
Family First. Being in South America is a wonderful lesson in the importance of the family unit. Ecuador is a traditional country and the family comes first. When you go out you regularly see generations of families together, from little babies to octogenarian grandparents, and it is lovely. I think we in the west could learn a lot from those old fashioned family values. Also breast feeding is absolutely normal here, there is no stigma attached and it is usual to see women with their breasts exposed, feeding their babies when walking down the street, sitting in a park, or on a bus. Anywhere and everywhere. Women are not sexualised when they are nursing and it’s great!
Homesickness is hard. If you spend any significant time abroad, unless you have an infinite pot of cash, it is inevitable that you will miss some important life events, and once you reach twenty five they will be biggies. Christmas and birthdays are tough but by far the most challenging moments are weddings and births. They are the times when you feel that deep ache in your belly that is homesickness.
Allow yourself to be wowed. Ecuador is beautiful. It is one of the most bio diverse countries in the world and its highlights include The Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, and The Galapagos Islands. It is quite extraordinary.
You will feel united and separated from your loved ones in equal measure. Unless they have experienced it themselves, your loved ones will never fully understand the trials and tribulations of living abroad. Of course they will be interested and want to hear your stories (or not, depending upon the person) but they won’t get it, and that’s okay. One great thing about living away from home is it really puts things in perspective. All those petty niggles and irritations you experience when you spend too much time with someone will be gone and you will realise just how much you love them, and why.
Learning a new language and making friends. If, like me, you suffer from shyness or any kind of social anxiety, making friends and learning a new language are hard. Really hard. I find it difficult enough meeting new people, let alone having to speak to them in a language where my skills are so limited I feel like a three-year-old child. And that is why I’m a hermit. Why not just get a furry friend instead? Then you can speak to them in any language you want. (That was a joke – taking an animal back to the UK from a South American country is an extremely time consuming, costly and stressful business. Having said that – look at that face!)
Living abroad tests your relationship. You know all those things I said earlier about how petty niggles and irritations disappear when you are away from people? When you move abroad with a partner, quite the opposite will be true. It is stressful and challenging and will shine a spotlight on both the weaknesses and strengths of your relationship. The good news is, if you can get through all that, you can probably get through anything.
Allow yourself to be inspired. People here are highly politically active. It seems like every week there are huge marches in the streets and it is truly inspiring, they go out in their droves and fight for their rights. They don’t care that the whole city grinds to a halt, they just want their voices to be heard.
You will be confronted by challenging sights. Despite the best intentions of the Tory Government, in England we do have systems in place to protect the weak and the vulnerable. If you are like me you will never get used to seeing children as young as five or six working full time as a shoe shine, or people with no legs dragging themselves around and begging on the streets. It is horrific and I hope I don’t ever get used to it.
The tea is shit. I know it’s a cliche but I am happy to admit that I am an Englishwoman who is addicted to tea. After going for months without a decent cuppa I went back to England in February and stocked up on lovely ‘proper’ tea bags. They have already run out and I haven’t had a real cuppa in weeks. Gutted. Luckily the coffee here is great.
As a woman, you will experience sexism. Of course sexism appears all over the world in various guises but living in a traditional, Catholic society women are perceived in a very different way. Again, that is changing slowly but at the moment it is a very different experience living here as a woman than it is living in the UK. One example of this is that cat calling is rife, and men will look you up and down and make comments towards you whether you are alone, in a group, or walking hand in hand with your husband. Perhaps even more shocking to me, they will cat call regardless of how much of a hot mess you look. No taste.
Animal neglect and cruelty. This is a big problem; animals are not treated the same way here as they are back home. Of course I am not suggesting for one moment that this applies to everyone but culturally it is just not the same. This is changing but generally speaking people here don’t view animals as part of the family in the way that we do. It is really difficult to cope with seeing street animals who are clearly malnourished and mistreated but it is a fact of life that you have to get used to quickly, as I have begrudgingly learned, you can’t save them all. There are many organisations doing great work here, for example PAE. When we lived here before we found three puppies abandoned in the street near our house and this is where we took them.
Your problems don’t go away. If you think you can move abroad to get away from your problems, think again. Running away never works because they are usually at least 50% in your head, and you don’t have much choice but to take that with you.
Remember How Lucky You Are! You are creating memories that nobody can ever take away from you, and if you are lucky enough to do it with a partner then you are creating stories that you will be able to bore your children and grandchildren with one day. Magic!
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