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Interview with Scott and Jody Arnold – American expats living in Quito

Updated 15 Jul 2020

Scott and Jody Arnold are American expats living in Ecuador. Scott had been a CPA (certified public accountant) for more than 30 years, and they wanted to go somewhere and do something for Christian missions, using his accounting abilities. So they raised support for almost two years and spent seven and a half months in Costa Rica in a Spanish language school. Then, in August 2014, Scott and Jody moved to Quito. They’ve had their fair share of experiences in Ecuador, from visa complications to surgery, and write about them on their blog, Adventures in Middle Earth.

For more on expat life, read our essential guide, Moving to Ecuador.

About Scott and Jody ArnoldScott & Jody

Q: Where are you originally from? 
A: Springfield-Eugene, Oregon, USA.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: In Quito, Ecuador.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: We both lived overseas back in the '70s: Scott in the Peace Corps for two years in Ghana, West Africa, and Jody in Europe during and after university, about two years total.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: Just the two of us; our kids and grandkids are still in the USA.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: We work with Voz y Manos, a mission with connections with HCJB radio and Hospital Vozandes, both here in Quito. We are behind-the-scenes missionaries, Scott in accounting and Jody in personnel in Voz y Manos administrative offices.

Living in Quito

Q: What do you enjoy most about Quito? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the USA?
A: Quito is a long and narrow city, with its two or three million people spread out in a narrow valley about 20 to 25 miles (32 to 40km) long and three to five miles (five to eight kilometres) wide. So, although it is a large cosmopolitan city with just about everything one could want, it doesn’t feel like a huge city because most of the time we are just looking across to the other side of the narrow valley with mountains on both sides. We only realise how big it is when we have to go from one end to the other!

Our quality of life is good here. We can live without a car, walk, ride a unicycle (Scott), use public transport or hire a driver when needed. We have a lovely apartment with mountain views in both directions; the nicest place we’ve ever lived. We love the Andes with their grandeur, steepness and beauty. We also very much enjoy abundant and inexpensive tropical fruit and we have a small fruit and vegetable store about three blocks away which is wonderful.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: We miss our family, especially grandkids. Technology helps but we can’t hold them on our laps. We get back to the US at least once a year, but not this year (2020) because of COVID-19.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: It took about three years to feel that Quito was home. That was about when our neighbours started returning our greetings and we started feeling comfortable. There was so much to learn, from grocery shopping to buses, taxis, bank accounts, paying bills and finding doctors. Because we are part of a mission, our co-workers helped answer questions, give advice, helped us move, etc. They are our closest friends and it would have been hard to adjust without their help.

Spanish is a huge adjustment. You might be able to manage here without Spanish, but it would be hard and you would miss so much of the culture. Healthcare is especially challenging. The doctor may speak English, but the receptionist probably won’t nor the nurse or technician.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Ecuador compared to home in the US? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Ecuador?
A: The cost of living is much lower if you can manage without imported goods. In 2015, we did two blog posts on the cost of living here, and a few things have gone up in five years and our internet has gone down (and improved in speed). 

We do ‘mule’ things back from the US that are hard to find here or much more expensive. Electronics and speciality foods top that list. Computers and cell phones are about twice as expensive here as in the US. Vitamins are much more expensive here and we always bring those back.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Quito? What is your most memorable experience of using Quito’s transport system?
A: Quito has an excellent bus service and abundant low-cost taxis. We don’t have a car and manage well without one. We’ve at times gotten on a random bus and rode it to the end of the line to see where it goes. Probably my best memory was having a taxi driver ask me if I was from Chile! Evidently, he knew I was not Ecuadorian but still thought I was from South America. That was quite a thrill.

Quito has been building a subway system for about two years. With COVID-19, the finish date keeps getting pushed out. It will be a bit more expensive than buses but will make longer trips faster.

Buses are the prime place for pickpocketers, which is a bummer. That said, most people are courteous and kind. Because of her grey hair, Jody almost always gets offered a seat on longer trips. Someone will get off, everyone looks around for the oldest person standing, and someone taps her on the shoulder and points to the empty seat. It’s charming. Scott’s older but he rarely gets offered a seat.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Quito? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: We have found some good doctors at a low cost. Jody has glaucoma and her glaucomalogist has done a fellowship in the US and published articles in international medical journals. Jody also had rotator-cuff surgery here in 2017 and the surgeon was excellent. Medical care is the most stressful thing to handle in Spanish, as it’s so important to understand and so easy to misunderstand when you are stressed. 

Our mission has a hospital, Hospital Vozandes Quito, which offers good care. It is about half the price of Hospital Metropolitano, which is probably the best in the city. However, the same doctors practise at both hospitals, so what you are paying extra for are amenities such as WiFi in your room and a more modern facility. We’ve been happy with Vozandes.

Ambulance service here is often just a van and a driver, and there’s general agreement among expats that it’s better to get a taxi in an emergency rather than an ambulance. 

While it’s much cheaper to live outside Quito in smaller communities, the quality of healthcare plummets. The local clinic will be basic, the defibrillator may not be charged and emergency care just may not happen. ‘Old people die’ may be the philosophy you face in a small community, and if you have a medical crisis you may well die.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Quito or Ecuador? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: We rarely go out after dark, which in Quito is about 6.30pm year-round since we are on the equator. Being on the street after dark is asking for trouble whatever part of the city you live in. We live in north-central Quito in a middle-class neighbourhood. There are places you don’t want to live but we don’t know specifics. ‘Good neighbourhoods’ can attract criminals from other areas because there is more to steal there.

Pickpocketing (especially on crowded buses), purse or backpack slashing and muggings can happen in the daytime. Usually, muggings are not violent attacks, and the rule is that your life is more important than your stuff – just give them what they want. It is illegal to defend yourself here. You will be arrested if you harm someone who is robbing you, you're not allowed to carry a gun, and police rarely solve property crimes.

That said, we haven’t (yet) been mugged in our almost six years here. We’re expecting it sometime, as most all of our co-workers have been mugged at least once. We’ve been pickpocketed three times. I don’t know that Quito is much different than any large city – even in the US, petty crime happens everywhere.

Home invasions and express kidnappings are real threats. Express kidnappings usually happen after dark and involve getting into an unofficial taxi. The driver lets in accomplices who force you to withdraw money from multiple ATMs. Date rape-type drugs are used in thefts to the extent that we never accept flyers or touch anything handed to us on the street. We hate being rude but it’s necessary. An Ecuadorian friend was coming back from a holiday celebration in an official taxi and woke up the next day in his apartment where everything of value had been stolen. He has no idea what he touched that affected him so badly.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Quito? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing here is at least half the price of equivalent housing in western Oregon. Our lovely apartment is USD 700 a month: 2,000 square feet (185m2), two baths, three bedrooms and an office, large living areas and kitchen, and vaulted ceilings. It’s by far the nicest place we’ve ever lived and we’re savouring every moment.

Most of our fellow missionaries pay between USD 400 and 700 per month on rent. About two miles away is Quito Tenis where upscale apartments are USD 1,500 to 2,000 a month. About 10 miles away are reasonable places for USD 250 per month. Shared apartments which look pretty nice are advertised on the Expats Facebook page for USD 200 to 300 per person per month. I think there’s a wide spectrum of housing to choose from.

Most homes wouldn’t have a dishwasher, but that’s not important to us. And there’s no insulation or weatherstripping, so you can see outside through your doorframes (except in modern housing). Few places would have heat and usually, that’s fine. When it’s rained for two or three days we find ourselves huddling on the couch with blankets. But then the strong sun comes out and it’s glorious again.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: You’ll need to come, visit, talk with people and check out what’s available. We wanted to be walking-distance from work. If you are retired, you might want to be down in the valley (Cumbayá or Tumbaco) where there is more space, it’s warmer and prices are a bit lower.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Quito?
A: There is tremendous respect and appreciation for missionaries here, even though we are Protestant and most people are Catholic. Our parent mission, HCJB, has been here since 1931, is well known and has done much to help the city and country. Missions, in general, have started schools, hospitals, orphanages, food ministries, rescue homes for those in the sex trade, prison ministries, etc. So, the general response of strangers when we tell them what we do is positive. 

Also, many Ecuadorians fled the country to the US or Spain in the late 1990s because of economic troubles. So, many people we meet have family in the US and want to tell us about their daughter, son, brother, sister, and so forth, who lives in New Jersey or Chicago or Denver. (Trivia: the top three cities in the world with the most Ecuadorians are Guayaquil – Ecuador’s port city – Quito and New York City).

The main discrimination we experience is being charged a ‘gringo price’ rather than the usual price for goods or services. In general, we (North Americans) are desired as renters because we have resources to pay our rent on time and (usually) don’t trash the apartments.

The indigenous people here are subject to discrimination, whether they are from the coast, mountains or jungle. The cultures are just so different that there can be friction. We haven’t seen this first hand, though.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Our Ecuadorian friends are mostly people we know through our work or our church. It is rare and very special to be invited into someone’s home. Outside of our church fellowship group, we’ve been guests in four Ecuadorian homes in almost six years. Scott has a close friend and mentor who is now a close friend, an Ecuadorian who was a missionary with our mission for many years.

We do know people at our large church. When we were in the US for four months last year, we were surprised to have people greet us enthusiastically when we came back. We do stick out, of course, but we didn’t realise how many people knew us.

We feel privileged to be included in our church fellowship group. About 10 to 15 people meet weekly (in non-coronavirus times) in a home for a bible study and cafecito (fellowship and food). Spanish is rapid, especially at the cafecito, with three or four conversations going on at the same time. Even after six years, we are lucky to figure out the main topic of conversation. But we are accepted and honoured for our service here.

We’ve been in our apartment five and a half years and have always greeted our neighbours on the street. It took three years for people to start greeting us, and I’ve heard that is pretty common. People wait to see if you are going to stick around. None of our neighbours are friends, although everyone probably knows us. During this lockdown for COVID-19 when more people are staying home, we’ve noticed more neighbourly interaction.

Q: What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: One issue with meeting people is that foreigners are a bit scary to initiate a conversation with. Maybe they won’t speak Spanish? Maybe they aren’t interested in talking to an Ecuadorian? People often avoid eye contact, and that can wear on you. But it is a treat when we have conversations with people. The main advice is to learn Spanish if you want to connect with locals. The more Spanish you know, the more fun you will have here.

Scott rides a unicycle to and from work and it has been a great way to meet people and strike up conversations. He knows the names of all the guards and cuidadores (people who watch cars parked on the street). And when neighbourhood people started talking to us, it was his unicycle which was the safe conversation topic.

Working in Quito

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: We didn’t need a work permit as our employer is a US organisation. We do have residency visas which we got ourselves. It was challenging and lengthy and probably would have gone smoother if we’d had a specialist help us. But our main problem was that Jody has very worn fingertips and we couldn’t get a criminal history report from the FBI for her. Eventually, Ecuador made an exception for us; the US was inflexible. 

Q: What is the economic climate in Quito like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Ecuador wasn’t doing that well before COVID-19, as crude oil exports are a huge part of their economy and the drop-in price hit them. It’s much worse now because of COVID-19 and putting the economy on lockdown for three months. 

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Quito or Ecuador? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: In general, relationships, courtesy and full-time employment are more important here than efficiency and productivity. Greeting people is extremely important, along with parties and celebrations. A subordinate generally wouldn’t make suggestions for improvement as it might make the boss look bad.

Research the differences between individualistic cultures and community cultures, hot vs cold cultures, direct vs indirect. The list of things a North American can do wrong is almost endless. We are too direct, abrupt, rude and ignorant. Thankfully, Ecuadorians are gracious, kind and forgiving, especially when they trust your heart. But research and sensitivity are important. 

Family and children

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Quito?
A: Scott likes to hike and climb mountains. The TelefériQo cable cars up Pichincha are a favourite with both of us. Before COVID-19, Quito had ciclopaseo every Sunday when about twenty miles of major roads were closed to cars for four hours. Thousands of cyclists, runners, walkers and one unicyclist enjoyed the route. We hope it will start again as it was a very special event, travelling through several distinct areas of the city.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Most of our co-workers with kids send them to Alliance Academy International, a private school very close to our compound. The classes there are in English, and graduates receive both Ecuadorian and US high school diplomas. 

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Quito or Ecuador?
A: Come and visit before you decide to move here. Learn as much Spanish as possible and use it every chance you get. Expect to always be a foreigner. Appreciate the differences here and try not to criticise the things that bother you.

Quito is about 9,200 feet (2,804m) above sea level, so visit for two or three weeks to see if your body can handle the altitude. Cuenca is popular with expats and is slightly lower elevation. There’s also the coast and the eastern part which is more jungle. Quito has springtime weather year-round. It’s pretty close to a perfect climate.

►Interviewed July 2020

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