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Interview with Heidi - An American expat living in Ecuador

Updated 11 Jul 2016

Heidi Schultz is an American expat who has been living in the bustling and beautiful Quito in Ecuador since August 2010. She lives there with her Ecuadorian husband and is employed as a translator and teacher. Although there are things about Quito that frustrate her (like the crime and pollution), she enjoys its authentic street food, its natural beauty and the ever-present sense of adventure that comes with living there.

About Heidi

Heidi - An American expat in EcuadorQ: Where are you originally from? 

A: Boston, Massachusetts.

Q: Where are you living now? 

A: Quito, Ecuador.

Q: When did you move to Ecuador? 

A: August 2010

Q: Did you move to Ecuador alone or with a spouse/family? 

A: Alone.

Q: Why did you move to Ecuador? 

A: I first came to Ecuador in 2009 to perfect my speaking skills in Spanish; I have a master’s degree in Spanish from Harvard Extension School. While in Ecuador I hunted for and obtained a job offer. I then returned to pursue my job opportunity at the Centro de Educación Continua at Escuela Politécnica Nacional (CEC-EPN), where I work mostly as a translator. I also teach an advanced level class in writing in English.

Living in Quito

Q: What do you enjoy most about your life in Quito? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Boston? 

A:  I like eating fresh food from the street market. Also, the views in Quito are pretty spectacular. But compared to Boston, Quito is rough on the soul. The crime rate is high, the drivers routinely ignore traffic rules, the air is dirty, and the city is noisy and dirty.

Q: What do you miss most about home? 

A: I miss the Atlantic Ocean and being able to see the sunrise and sunset. Quito’s mountains block those views. 

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Quito? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock in Ecuador?

A: When I first moved here, I experienced a lot of assaults, con games, and robberies. Now, I don’t walk around like a deer in headlights and assaults against me personally have greatly diminished. Also, I’m not very fond of Ecuadorian dietary habits. Ecuadorians eat mammoth portions of white rice—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the same time, even though they live in a paradise of fresh fruits and vegetables, they don’t eat them. The average salad in Ecuador is a stingy affair, and the only fruits regular people eat is a juice with their lunch. Ecuadorians also eat a lot of fried food. After figuring out where I could buy ingredients that I favor, I just started cooking for myself.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to Boston?

A:  Living in Ecuador is cheap, especially compared to expensive Boston. Local public transport costs 25 or 30 cents a ride in most cities. In season you can get five mangos for a dollar (Ecuador uses the US dollar as currency). I pay $270 a month for rent and I live in downtown Quito.  

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Quito? Do you need to own a car?

A: In Quito, public transport is overcrowded. People push to get on and off the buses, and the hours of operation are inadequate. However, I don’t need to own a car and I walk to work, the bank, yoga class, and the grocery store. Quito’s mayor has invested in a new subway system, but I doubt that it will solve the transport problem; it will only alleviate the problem a little. Quito has a system of public bicycles, but imagine being in a city that goes up in all directions! In addition, there’s lots of broken glass and other trash on Quito’s streets. Interprovincial transport is very good compared to the US but also dangerous, mostly due to reckless and uncertified bus drivers. I use it all the time, nevertheless. I have already been on a bus that has flipped over, and another one on which the bus driver ripped the back window panel out of the bus. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Quito?

A: In terms of modernity, Ecuador’s health care treatment is about 20-30 years behind. You can get basic treatment, but even rich Ecuadorians travel to the US to get complex procedures done. Doctors can be dishonest and invent procedures in order to make money. Prices are cheap in public service hospitals, but expensive (US prices) in private ones. Lots of Ecuadorians use folk wisdom remedies based on Andean or Afro-Ecuadorian ancestral practices. Alternative types of medicine (homeopathy, herbal treatments, etc.) are also very popular. 

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Quito? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A: Crime, crime, crime. Assaults with weapons (knives and guns) are actually common against foreigners. Expats should avoid the San Marcos neighborhood right next to the historic center of Quito, and should never walk up to the statue of the Virgin on top of El Panecillo alone. They shouldn’t walk on the beaches alone, especially women and especially at night. Visitors should not buy marijuana or any other recreational drugs while in Ecuador nor accompany drug dealers to their homes to pick up products; they are only inviting robbery and/or rape. Personally, I carry a switchblade with me when I go out. I never had to do that while living in Boston. 

Expats new to the area have to think about food cleanliness since the hygienic practices of regular Ecuadorians are not very advanced when it comes to washing hands after peeing, cleaning up after dogs, etc. You can buy bacterial killer for food in most grocery stores. After you live here for a while, however, your stomach adjusts and you can eat most things with some caution. I recommend not eating street food because the oil is often rancid and the meat and grains have sat in the sun for some unknown number of hours and then are served again the next day (and the next). Ecuadorians kill the bugs with ají (hot chili sauce) and I recommend using that. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Quito? 

A: The housing standard in Quito is average—basic with few frills. Most houses have an electric, barely adequate shower in the bathroom and cold tap water only. Hot water heaters are more uncommon, but usually found in high-rise apartment buildings. Electricity is usually reliable except when there is a drought, although water and electricity are problems on the coast. Manabí Province, for example, is undergoing desertification due to overplanting of monoculture coffee (now a dead industry there) as well as changes in El Niño patterns. 

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in Quito?

A: There are a couple of ricachón (rich) suburbs on the fringes of Quito (Valle de Tumbaco, Valle de los Chillos, and the north of the city near Mitad del Mundo) where there are gated communities. The north of Quito is very dry. The valleys are more pleasant, with their own shopping complexes, IMAX cinemas, etc. But due to Quito’s geography, it will take an hour to travel to the downtown area where most cultural events happen. I recommend that expats live right in the downtown areas: La Mariscal, el Centro Histórico de Quito, La Floresta, Guápulo, etc., and mix in with the locals. There are also some interesting barrios (neighborhoods not far from the center: El Batán, El Inca, La Gasca). In La Mariscal there are expat bars that cater to the beer crowd, but there is not expat culture per se in Quito. For that you have to live in Cuenca or north of Otavalo. 

Meeting people and making friends in Quito

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.? 

A: Ecuadorians pride themselves on being polite and friendly, but I find that they are not particularly friendly. The natives tend to be insular and stick with their families due to the high level of insecurity (corruption and crime) that prevails in Ecuador. Politeness is superficial and if an Ecuadorian gets upset, things can turn violent. False pride is abundant in a country that is tiny and insecure. People in the sierras tend to be more racist than people on the coast, where things are more relaxed and there are more black people. Taxi drivers in Quito, for example, routinely discriminate against black people, refusing to pick them up. Women are tolerated in professional positions, but Ecuadorian women feel a lot of pressure to conform to sexual standards, and they will usually do things like go grocery shopping, or even take a walk in the park, for example, in high heels and tight pants. 

Ecuadorian society is conservative and traditional. Gay men have a real hard time in Ecuador, including being the targets of violent assaults despite the government’s official policy of tolerance. The annual gay pride march in Quito, complete with police escort, is about 100-150 people tops. Many Ecuadorians are religious, but religion is restricted to forms of Christianity, either Catholic or evangelical. Most Ecuadorians are completely ignorant of other options and/or other cultures. But they usually won’t bother you. There are remnants of indigenous beliefs and practices, but practices are mostly hollow spectacles of what once existed, usually accompanied by excessive drinking.  

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Ecuador?

A: I meet people through my work. The best set of friends I have made is through my yoga institute, where attendees practice a form of conscious ethics. Most of these people are Ecuadorians. I have also made friends through my husband, who is Ecuadorian. It’s not easy to make friends in Ecuador, though. You have to find your niches, and you have to speak Spanish. 

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends in Ecuador? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?

A: I hang out mostly with locals, but my Spanish is very good. I recommend that expats take dancing lessons, swimming lessons, music lessons, Spanish lessons, or engage in some other learning opportunity. Probably the best way to meet people is to take an interest in Ecuador’s incredible natural beauty and go on hikes, organized historical tours, birdwatching and whale-watching trips, etc.  I recommend the Yanapuma Foundation and South American Explorers Club.

I belong to two Facebook groups. Kitu Milenario is dedicated to recovering Ecuador’s indigenous past. They host walks to see the “hidden” side of Quito’s past. UIO Sketchers is a group of mostly architects who select one site in Quito per month as a point of interest for sketching, drawing, and painting. They’re a great bunch! 

Working in Quito

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Ecuador?

A: My work place sponsored my visa, which is a special category of visa: the VIII-12 or “cultural exchange”. These are very hard to get. I am in the process of acquiring my “professional” visa (after having lived here for 5 years or more) which is an “immigrant” visa. I applied for the latter visa by myself and did not need any help from the overeager lawyers that hang out outside the immigration centre. Many services for paperwork are online now and don’t cost much, but visas themselves are now quite expensive due to the economic crisis in Ecuador. 

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Quito?

A: Ecuador’s economy, never robust, has tanked in the past 6 months due to the fall in oil prices. This was compounded by the April 16 earthquake and project overreach on the part of the government. Getting paid on time is now an issue here. Most Ecuadorians are underemployed, cobbling work together here and there to make ends meet. Expats considering moving to Ecuador should either be retired already or hook up with a foundation or organization that can provide some work. English teaching is in high demand in Ecuador, and there are some relatively well-paying places to work: CEC-EPN, Escuela Politécnica del Ejército, British School of Language, Wall Street Institute. Translators can find work. Anyone with good medical skills can probably find work through an NGO, but transferring credentials can be problematic due to new laws. Shopping around in person and/or making phone calls works best as Ecuadorians prefer to meet prospective clients in person. I have a friend who started a business here through word of mouth plus website outreach, so anything is theoretically possible. 

Q: How does the work culture in Ecuador differ from home?

A: Quality standards are low and corruption is rampant. Stay away from all that and set an example for others in terms of business ethics. Ecuadorians generally work hard but enjoy their leisure time too. Be prepared to socialize with co-workers or at least build social relationships, since things get done in Ecuador according to who you know (i.e. influence). Contracts are often word of mouth rather than in writing which can be a problem since Ecuadorians commonly do not do as they say. The best networks are international, a mix of screened Ecuadorians with foreigners such as Argentinians, Brazilians, or people from English-speaking countries. 

Family and children in Ecuador

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?

A: See above: food, noise, hygiene standards, and transport dangers. Take advantage of the fresh food, spectacular vistas, and outdoor opportunities. Learn a martial art and/or some self-defense techniques. Ignore the rest and enjoy! 

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: Quito is not a green city. There are parks, but they are overused. Parque Metropolitano is the best and can be reached by bus. Enrol your kid in a sports club. 

Q: What are the schools like in Quito? 

A: Like medicine, Ecuador’s educational standards are behind the times despite governmental reforms. Ecuadorian students and teachers alike are poorly prepared. Learning is by rote, memorization, copying, and outright cheating. There is a dearth of critical thinking skills and well-rounded disciplines. The educational system is a weird mix of public (fiscal) and Catholic schools—look out for surreptitious religious indoctrination! I would home-school my kid, if I had one. There’s a multi-level school in the North of Quito, Einstein Academy, which is supposedly pretty good and is attached to the very tiny Jewish community in Quito. Otherwise, get a foreign tutor!

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals in Ecuador?

A: Ecuador is squarely placed in the so-called “third world” category. Most of the people on the planet live like this, so this is good place to learn what it’s like. Corruption is widespread in the police forces, armed forces, judicial system, educational and medical system, and private sector. Basic stuff works; there’s running water, electricity, ample but dodgy public transport, and the general desire on the part of Ecuadorians to better themselves. In terms of nature, Ecuador is a fragile paradise full of surprises. You will need to adjust yourself, but once that is done, there is plenty to enjoy and discover. Life in Ecuador is definitely an adventure, and you will never be bored.

~ Interviewed in July 2016

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