As the pages flip past on the calendar, like the images in old cartoons, we look at the dates as if we’ve been suspended in time. In many ways our assimilation into a new life and culture has been so encompassing, that we could have forgotten the rest of the world existed. Although to some, it appears glamorous from afar, these have surely been the toughest moments in our life. It is not easy to pack up your family and leave behind a life that is routine and predictable. Not easy to say goodbye to the only friends and family you have known. Not easy to alienate yourself from all signs of comfort and familiarity, in lieu of all things that are brand new.
There have been so, so many days that I have wanted to pack up our bags and return “home” with my tail between my legs. But, those days were mostly in the beginning and by now they have thankfully faded into memories of our struggles to acclimate. We’ve been through the ringer folks, but we don’t dwell on it much, as it’s hard to carry on when you’re stuck looking back. For months on end we were sick far more days than we were well; and we were moving far more often than we were settling in. From what I know now, this a familiar tale, and is reminiscent for most families who move abroad. But, finally, we have been rewarded with enough time to catch our breath, to claim a home, and fully absorb just how far we have come. We are now in our 4th home since our arrival in Ecuador just nine months ago. The earthquake that uprooted us from our second house is over 6 months past now. The aftershocks have finally quieted and mostly we don’t notice them anymore. It feels like the event happened ten years ago.
Life has a funny way of throwing a wrench right in the middle of the best laid plans, and kicking you square in the rear to put you on the right path again. Why we all fight the universe so hard is something I’ll never comprehend. But, if we’ve learned anything at all, it is that we aren’t as in control as we think we are. It doesn’t really matter if you believe in god or some other entity, or in no one at all; there is at least some sort of force that guides us, if only we will listen. We came to the village of San Clemente, where we now live, shortly after the earthquake. This community wrapped its arms around us and shielded us from our shock. The citizens pulled us in as quickly as they could, to comfort us and reassure us, and to make us part of them. They have won us over with their hearts and their charm, and from this moment we are sure this where we belong. This place is one that we ran circles around, likes bees to the perfect flower, trying to deny it until the choice was ours no more. But, it wasn’t meant to be until the moment that is was, even as inspiring as the circumstances are.
Tonight I sit writing from the kitchen, in the heart of the house; that was always intended from the start. I picked this quaint sea-side home from my over-sized android screen, over a year ago, in the midst of the brownest winter I’d ever seen in Iowa. Even then, all the arrows were pointing here. We were blessed with almost no snow that year, as we organized mid-winter garage sales and home-for-sale tours at our nearly-rural location. It should have been a dead-zone, an impossible time to get rid of everything in that space and place. But, somehow the planets aligned, and everything was gone in just four months over the typically worst days of winter, and the house sold long before summer surfaced. At least by then we were listening, and it paid off, as life was going smoothly and better than according to our plans.
Funny enough, we didn’t choose this house back then; there were too many unknowns in planning a new life with a young family from behind a screen on a different continent. We knew this village was small and without many modern conveniences, we couldn’t tell if there was a school, a doctor, or even a market. We just weren’t that ready to leap so far out of our comfort zone. So, we settled in a neighboring small city of about 20,000 people. Bahia de Caraquez is a known vacation haven for expats and city dwellers. It was known for being criminally safe, and a little more modern, with an American school, and paved streets, a department store and reliable taxi services. Bahia, as the locals call it, was the perfect place for us the blend the best parts of both worlds. We were happy there, acclimating, starting to gain confidence in our new surroundings. But even then, we knew it wasn’t permanent as we just aren’t city souls. We continued to wander around through several small beach villages, looking for the right fit.
We loved San Clemente immediately and by some miracle, this very house was still available to rent, almost half a year after the first time we had seen it online. We made our choice and proceeded to make plans to move in at the beginning of May. We pondered several times, if we should cut our losses and sacrifice a few weeks of rent in Bahia, to move in to this beach house in mid-April. For some reason we kept our patience, and decided to finish out the month where we were. The night of April 16th was when the earth shattering 7.8 earthquake hit the coast of Ecuador. We were in Bahia, sitting outside the house on the sidewalk. As the buildings crumbled and the streets buckled, we were fortunate to escape unharmed. But, we stayed in our unstable home beneath a faltering hotel for nearly a week without running water, electricity, or humanitarian aid. We couldn’t reach the realtor, as the phone lines and internet connections were also nonexistent. We wrestled with ourselves all week, feeling unsafe and afraid, and wondering if we would have been okay had we moved to San Clemente the day before the quake.
When we finally got the news about this house, the order of events was eerily intact. As awful as the earthquake situation had been, we were all alive and unharmed. That would not have been the case if we had moved in to the seaside cottage early. We very well would have been killed or severely injured on just our second night here. The entire roof of the front balcony that overlooks the ocean had caved in; the pieces were splintered and mangled, and largely unrecognizable. We are certain we would have been sitting there that night, just as were in Bahia, watching the sun set. It still makes me feel ill, just as it did the first time I saw it, as I realized what the universe had spared us.
We still moved to San Clemente, but not to this house for obvious reasons, it wasn’t condemned but was in dire need of major repairs. And regardless, I was terrified and uninterested, afraid of more earthquakes and tidal waves. I didn’t even want to see the ocean for awhile. We moved into the condo back against the mountains, and did all our recovering hidden at the end of dusty street in a guarded community. A few weeks crept by and my husband took up residency for his gym, in a vacant building just two lots down from here. For months, we looked at this house almost every day. Watched the debris move away, the new bricks come in, and new roof going up. We pondered it, weighed it, and debated it. Hesitated, and even briefly thought about leaving this area. But, exiting San Clemente wasn’t in the cards for us, and just as it wasn’t mean to be, other plans never panned out.
Eventually we found ourselves standing here, looking at this perfect space again. Hair dancing in the wind, noses turned to the sea; squeezing hands in confirmation that this was the place to be. Our children squealed with laughter when we broke the news. We wanted to move in that night but we had learned to wait until the timing is right.
We have since moved in, just a bit over a month ago. All of the colors on the wall are perfect, even though we never would have picked them. The floor plan is ideal. The location is a dream. We have two bedrooms, but we all fit comfortably in one. We have learned that being close is essential in this family, and even night- time separation is unnecessary for all of us. The tiny kitchen is the center, as all kitchens should be, without walls and open to the sounds of the house and the sights of the sea. And somehow, perfectly, there is one corner meant exactly for this computer. So I can effectively write, and cook, and parent, while enjoying life from this control center of sorts. From here, I can see the sights, seemingly as I had imagined from nearly a year ago, when I hoped that this was the perfect place for me and my family from far, far away.
In this moment, I can safely say, through the good and the bad, this place was meant to be. This journey has been worth it. We feel at home more than ever before. Yesterday, we hung the paintings and photos on the wall, the very few things we brought with us from our life before. We even put a small Christmas Tree up, that glows from the glassed- in corner window. A tree we never thought we’d purchase here. I said the day we moved in, that exact space was made for nothing more than a lit up holiday icon. And there it is, sparkling back at me, as I write this beloved note on how wonderful life is in Ecuador after just 9 months abroad.