We lay together in the inky, cobalt darkness beneath the freckled twilight sky. Our backs pressed to the plush sandy blanket beneath the golden mountains of San Clemente, Ecuador. As close as we could possibly be, cheek to cheek against our tangled mess of sea- breeze teased hair. My little ones and me. Only two and four, and silenced by the beauty of this place, just like me.
“You shouldn’t go,” they said. But, we went anyway.
“This is crazy, they pleaded”. But, we had heard that before.
“We will miss you,” they cried. And they do. We miss them, too.
It has been one year since we packed up our cozy life in wintry, Iowa to trade it in for something new. We chose the country of ultimate contrasts. The place that indecisively straddles the equator, bobbing between mountains, volcanoes, highlands and islands. One foot stuck in the mud in the south, and one hand waving goodbye- somersaulting into the north. A definitive location where one can stand in two places at once: the northern and southern hemispheres. We chose Ecuador.
We started our journey after landing in the bustling, high altitude city of Quito. A place where 1.6 million inhabitants happily breathe in the thin, mountain air. Diluted oxygen that effectively produces a brain fog; only highlighting the extremes of the city. Here, life collides in a happy mess of desolate and wealthy, filthy and pristine, antiquity and modernity.
For us, it was just a pausing place, as we gathered our wits together. My husband, born and raised in Quito, had not resided in the city for some 25 years. The kids and I, and our dogs too, had never so much as tiptoed through. This was the insane the part, the tiny detail that worried our friends so much. We had come to Ecuador, the 6 of us…only 2 parts being supposedly responsible adults. Our kids were just nearly 2 and barely 3 years old. Our dogs: two sixty-pounder fur babies.
Yeah, it was quite crazy. And spontaneous, too. We had only bought our tickets and informed our confidants a short four months before. The moments and months in between we had spent selling off every last imaginable item, then giving copious amounts away, and finally burning the last bits. We left Iowa with nothing more than 8 seriously stuffed duffel bags.
After a short time in the high altitude city, we high tailed it down the mountain in search of peace and serenity. We soaked up the sights of life as we wound down the highway between rainforests and farmlands, near deserts, and coastal cities. We found comfort in the humid, breezy air. We eventually settled into life on the sandy shores of a humble fishing village. We adore our life in a cozy, beach cottage in San Clemente, Manabi. A tiny, salty town of just 2,000 villagers on the central coast of Ecuador. A parish so small, it has not yet emerged on the maps.
In those first weeks and months, I contemplated on many occasions, my own childhood in small town, USA. I reconciled with memories I had long since forgotten. Of the faces of sixty some kids, all of which I went to preschool with and my last year of high school, too. Of riding atop a local fire truck in the town’s Fourth of July parades. Field trips to the lake: learning to fish and swim, and canoe in the perpetually murky waters. Camping trips with my Dad adjacent to dismissed railroad tresses. Candy and popcorn balls, and giant Snickers bars from the neighbors on Halloween. Climbing trees, scraping knees, coming home muddy from little league practice. These were the joys of my childhood, many of which still exist for kids living there today. Many of the reasons, we had chosen to start our family there. It haunted me to think we might be depriving them of the very things we had dreamed of.
In the beginning our children were startled by the centuries-deep sun-kissed faces and the coal colored eyes of Ecuadorians. They were awe-struck and frustrated by the gibberish that they spoke. But now, they don’t see colors and disparity. They see many beautiful shades of people who are all the same. They don’t hear languages; they hear voices singing different songs. They don’t see fear or hate or indifference, they only see kindness. To them, only kindness matters. Only kindness.
At first we were rendered hopeless, incapable of any culinary success beyond 10,000 fruits and 20 new varieties of cookies. I disliked most of the foods I tried, and the kids did, too. Spices, carbs, meats…all had different scents, textures, and tastes. Our go to staples for two toddlers: milk, ketchup, and cheese were an utter disaster. Milk comes in boxes, ketchup in bags, and cheese was left on the counter all day. It was tough and we caved on familiar fruits and chicken nuggets priced for millionaires. But, that was a year ago. And oh, how much a year can do. Now, we love the leche that arrives warm on the back of a motorcycle, the queso that comes from a neighbor down the street, and the tasty salsa de tomate made here in the Andes Mountains.
These days, we have gone back in time in many ways. We make mac-n-cheese, popcorn, and fish nuggets on the stove. All home-made, all natural, all local. The kids know who sells the cheese and where the corn grows. They even watch the very fish they eat come out of the sea. We bathe in buckets, hang our laundry on the line, wash dishes by hand, and take naps in hammocks. We go “out” for tripe (grilled cow intestines), fish soup, or batidos(3 ingredient milk shakes). We enjoy flavors like avocado, mame and guineo. These foods and many others are sold on food carts with no health regulations, by locals who kiss our dogs and pinch the cheeks of our kiddos.
We miss our friends and family dearly, those from “back home”. But, now we are also grateful to know beautiful souls from Canada, France, Spain, Scotland, Argentina, Germany, and Mexico. They have shown us what it means to have friendships beyond borders. We have learned that time and space mean nothing. That friendship lives in the heart.
Every American holiday has come and gone, sliding past us like a cat in the night. We have mentioned them, but not obsessed over them. We have been very busy celebrating all that is beautiful and new. Our kids have immersed in fishing holidays like the Sardine Festival and The Festival of the Copper Virgin. They have witnessed endless nights of prayer, drag queens in the streets, salsa dancing and burning midnight effigies. They have watched drunk cowboys on dancing horse in broad daylight. Kids playing in the streets long after the moon has risen. Soon, they will see what Carnaval means.
We have no regrets. Our children are not deprived of anything. They are gaining every possible benefit from living abroad. They understand love, culture, geography, equality. The appreciate music, art, and food. They remember their homeland, are proud of their heritage. They have embraced a new place, accepted versatility, even honored their blood line. They are Americans. They are Ecuadorians. Yet, they are so much more. They have become global citizens uninhibited by birth place or latitude lines. They have become children unimpressed by class, religion, color, or sex. In this we have gained the opportunity to erase mind and heart barriers that would surely inhibit their growth. We are proud to raise children with an improved sense of self and an improved sense of others.
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We lay together in the inky, cobalt darkness beneath the freckled twilight sky. Our backs pressed to the plush sandy blanket beneath the golden mountains of San Clemente, Ecuador. As close as we could possibly be, cheek to cheek against our tangled mess of sea- breeze teased hair. My little ones and me. Only two and four, and silenced by the beauty of this place, just like me.
We watched the silhouette of their father, as his weaved in and out and all around the dancing feathers of our first seaside bonfire. He tip toed into the darkness across the noiseless expanse of sand, peeking over our shoulders in hopes of finding two tiny pairs of closed eyelids. But, their lashes faltered in his presence and any slumber that was lurking, quickly darted to the other side of the world. The amber glow of the flickering flames highlighted the soft round edges of their angelic faces, and they burst into giggles at the sight of their favorite person in this whole universe.
He knelt to the ground, sliding his hand into mine, and effortlessly fell into his place among our heap on the sand. All was right with the world, all our little noggins and fingers and toes, perfectly intertwined to capture this moment in our minds forever. Our eyes turned to the skies, the tips of our fingers floating above; hopelessly aiming to target every last star. We whispered about the patterns in the heavens, of the dot to dot game that makes up the artistry of the delicately orchestrated constellations.
Soon our voices fell silent again as we succumbed to the predictable rhythm of the surf lapping against the sand. I watched, as a flirty, white foam collected at the water’s edge; glowing in the late evening air. It mimicked the patterns of a pearly lace hem, lifting in the wind; at the edges of a navy satin dress. And then, my eyes returned to our children, as I noticed the soothing rise and fall of their tiny chests. Their only betrayal, that sleep had welcomed them.
The silence of civilization collided with the thunder of nature, as my husband and I lay together, welcoming in the arrival of secluded night time. The crickets and geckos sang their songs, like the cello and the violin, singing into the sparkling blackness. A little yellow crab darted past my chin, all along the sand between our bodies, over my knee, and then back into oblivion. The stars jogged on their axis, as the sky tilted away from them, sliding them further into the abyss. We watched a tiny orange spot that was Venus on the horizon, as it slid from view beneath the impossible seam of sea and sky.
We lay there for what seemed like hours, no words between us, just the pulsing blood between our palms. We were tucked against the most perfect cradle, in the comfort of the sand that held the sun in its memory. In those moments we were granted an escape, a removal from civilization, freedom from socialization. We found ourselves blanketed in every perfect ounce of solace that nature brings to the spirit.
We have realized a gift for our children, for our selves, and for our family as a whole. We will be accepting it, allowing macrocosm to infiltrate our lives. There will be much, much more of this: salty kisses and starlight wishes…
So it happens that I have come to find a certain fondness for one particular fruit stand over the rest. It certainly isn’t one anyone else would notice. Especially not in this region of Ecuador; where every imaginable dusty street corner is home to one. And then some. Fruit is everywhere here and I am in heaven. Bruising in a basket in any tienda window, carefully displayed beneath palapa stands on the highway, dangling from beneath umbrellas attached to bicycle carts, even bobbing to and fro in the back of makeshift pickup trucks. Fruit is life here. It is the essence on the wind, swirled up into the salty air, in a combination of nature’s most intoxicating perfume.
I have tried so many unimaginable fruits here, from furry to slimy, tiny to oversized, sour to sweet to bitter…and sometimes flavors and textures indescribable. Learning the crazy names of these edibles, is like trying to the learn riddles from Eve’s own book of garden debauchery. But, I try in my earnest, to impress the fruit keepers with my knowledge and love of all things grown around our home.
These guardians of the fruit, they have been the first set of ears, the first set of smiles, the first unwilling victims at my feeble attempts to speak Spanish. And so it goes, that they often tease me and taunt me and applaud me for my miserable sabotage. But, as my confidence grows, I dare to step out a bit further, guessing rather than asking, when I see a new one that I vaguely recognize.
This is where I get into trouble, as I am not the type that wears confidence well. I’m more like the monkey that hides behind a tree, hoping no one will notice me there. And when I’m caught eye to eye with the vendors, my cheeks swell up and turn pink. Yes, I am 33, and I still embarrass hopelessly easily.
But, this particular fruit stand is a quite a bit out of our way, considering we bypass at least a half a dozen others in pursuit of this one particular hut. A couple of girls run the place, and occasionally a young man is around too, I presume either a husband or brother. And if we stay around long enough, little toes poke out from the creaky bamboo door, followed by sparkling black eyes that peer up at me with curiousity. These people are so humble and so intoxicatingly happy. And it’s just this simple: they sell the best fruit in town.
These ladies wield a machete like something I could only imagine in a movie, tossing aside pieces of coconut and dropping in a straw, in one smooth sweep, as if nothing more significant that tucking their hair behind their ear. They stand on their tippy toes to reach the bananas at the very top of the bunch, only willing to share the most perfect gem. And they effortlessly run their fingers across the fruit; tap tap, tapping the skins, picking the perfect one. Ripe for today, tomorrow, or from yesterday (for juicing). It isn’t possible to lie, they wouldn’t dream of it, or likely even conceive of it. Only the best for everyone.
A few days ago, we took the short drive to pluck up a couple of bags of goodies, nature’s candy if I might. I soon spotted a pile of some of my Ecuadorian favorites, which I hadn’t seen in a while. The fuzzy grayish- brown skin makes me think of the innocent coat of seal pup. It is shaped like an acorn, only it’s the size of my palm. And inside, is the most divine stringy, fleshy, orange fruit that somehow smells just like corn silk and tastes a bit like squash.
I marched straight for it, hands in the air, declaring a need for half a dozen zapatos! And this pretty twenty-something Latina burst into the grandest smile I had ever seen, and I knew that she must be so proud of me. For she knew she has not taught me this word. But, no, I was wrong. I misjudged her pride for unfiltered candor. She quickly ducked her eyes beneath her lashes and tried to cover her smile with the tips of her fingers. But, her friend in the back round betrayed her, and soon enough their giggles filled the air around me as they struggled to compose their amusement. Finally, she quietly and shyly spoke to me, holding up the prized fruit. “No, Senora, No. Estas son ZAAAPPPOOOTTES, no Zapatos”.
Before the words left her mouth, I knew my mistake, and I couldn’t help but giggle, too, even if my cheeks blossomed as if I’d had too much sun. My friends, I had asked the fruit princess….for six shoes.
This is the longest I have ever gone without writing since this blog began. The time swept by in one fell sweep, carrying me seamlessly from one year to the next. Yet tangling me in too many projects to keep up with them all. The sudden rush of chaos had nothing to do with chasing promises of goals and aspirations in the new year. In fact, it had little to do with any of that. It just so happens that we are in a time of movement, propelling forward with each breath. It also happens to be January.
December was a big one for me, a month for the records in my newfound writing career. This blog and the affiliated Facebook page quite suddenly catapulted in popularity, keeping me swamped with maintenance and reciprocation. My cup was full, but apparently not full enough. In the same swirl of energy, I earned a raise at my current freelance writing job and with it a challenger to write infinitely more. This meant triple my previous pay and pressure to write 20 full-length articles at a whopping 3,000 words apiece.
I was grateful for January and for the relief that it promised. And all in good time, I woke up one morning last week to discover that my toddler had blossomed into a girl overnight. She rose all aglow full of passion for makeup and hair bows, tea parties, and dollies. She also started writing and reading and pleading for instructions in her art. Clearly, she is passing through a milestone, and for this, she needed me desperately and incessantly. I wouldn’t miss these moments for anything, and I willingly discarded all distractions of heaven and earth, to be immersed in her world.
I’d be so thankful if you would continue reading this on our new blog site:
We knew Christmas would be different this year. We just didn’t think it would be quite like this.
After months on end of watching every American holiday come to pass with little acknowledgement or recognition, I had honestly begun to lose all hope of a memorable Christmas. Especially after Halloween and Day of the Dead, when my high expectations fizzled out; void of anything worth writing home about. November crept by and I began to feel something like “the holiday blues” settling in. I believed it in my heart, that Christmas would be hard this year. This is our first Christmas abroad, away from family and friends. Without twinkling neighborhood streets, aglow with houses topping a powdery blanket of snow. We were not in Iowa anymore.
Then, December welcomed us with a sultry heat reminiscent of July back home. And still: no sign of red and green, glittery artificial snowflakes or jolly elves in storefront windows. We had our own festive little Christmas Tree at home, but that was it. No jingling holiday tunes, no posters for Christmas concerts, none of the typical infiltration that signals an American Christmas. Nothing. I started to believe that our tiny fishing village in Ecuador would not be celebrating Christmas. I told myself that it didn’t matter, we would be fine, it was no big deal, we didn’t need to be a part of all that over-commercialized nonsense anyway. But, secretly my heart sank. I had always loved Christmas.
A little more than five days into the month, the kids and I sat on our balcony with dripping popsicles watching the late afternoon waves roll up the beach and pound at the rocks beneath our house. My husband came rushing up the stairs, dogs trailing behind, exclaiming about something was happening in the street. We slipped on our flip flops, bounded down the steps, spilling into the sticky afternoon air. It was quiet and deserted, just as it usually is on a midweek afternoon, except for a few men huddled beneath the shade of one the storefronts a few lots down. We saw a few round bamboo poles splayed out on the street, and a large rectangular corral erected where there hadn’t been one before. We were intrigued, but the kids and I looked back at Carlos in bewilderment, waiting for his explanation of what we were seeing. “Christmas is here,” he said with a big, festive grin. After several minutes of pointing and explaining, the workers stopped their tinkering, waiting expectantly for our reaction. We never would have guessed what this was. It took the full limits of our imagination and the willingness to believe, before we came to understand that we were indeed witnessing the first moments of an Ecuadorian Christmas. These were the beginnings of a man-made Christmas Tree and one-of-a-kind Nativity Scene.
From that day on, it was a ritual, to wake up to the sun pouring in through the windows, and to rush down the street before we even had breakfast. It was the most important moment of the day, to see the new progress made on the greatest Christmas display we had ever seen. It wasn’t just something fancy and splashy and store bought. It was all custom, intricately detailed, truly Ecuadorian hand-made. It was nothing short of fantastic, to solve the riddles each dawn. To guess, speculate and imagine what each tiny part meant and how it fit in to the work of the next day. Approximately 10 days went by before it was all said and done, complete with a hand painted angel scene, a dozen tiny Bethlehem ranches laid out in rice hulls, twinkling lights, glittering backdrop, and a wishing fountain with running water. And as for The Tree, it lay on its side, protruding nearly 30 feet into the street with adornments being added almost every day. Each night we waited to receive word, of the official raising and lighting of the tree.
Finally the evening came, when the villagers knocked on the door, telling us to gather for the official start of Christmas. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my husband would be the one to raise The Tree, standing barefoot on the back of a moving city bus! I am sure this is one of those memories that we will hold in our hearts until the days when we are old, when we lay in bed giggling and reminiscing on the absurdity of it all. The whole event was hysterical, and irresponsible, and impossibly full of Ecuadorian ingenuity. But, The Tree was up, without harm, and stood tall above the dusty street; casting a seasonal glow impossible to escape. Our heads hit the pillows that night, fully satisfied and heavy with Christmas spirit.
The following weekend, the street beneath The Christmas Tree was filled with chairs packed in tightly beneath rows of bobbing balloons strung up in the evening breeze. We gathered once again, with all the townsfolk, to witness an evening of cultural Christmas dance and a live Nativity put on by the children of the local church. A local man took the microphone and spoke for a short while about the meaning of Christmas. He told the story of a local elder lady, who noticed a change in attitudes and practices surrounding Christmas here sometime around 30 years ago. She found it troubling that the kids were becoming consumed by Santa and many didn’t know about Jesus and the religious side of the holiday. She was determined that her people would not, and could not forget the real meaning of Christmas. And so these traditions began and have continued ever since, to be sure future generations always remember that the story of Jesus is where it all began. This Lady of Christmas has since passed on, but her legacy has not faltered and the community is determined to keep her dream alive. That night we were enamored by the eclectic mix of bible verses and holiday hymnals, free sugar cane liquor being passed through the crowd, and festive Ecuadorian performers prancing gaily through the spectators.
Midway through the next week, a startling burst of music pierced through the lazy afternoon air. We peeked out our window to see an inflatable Santa bouncing in the street, and a large group of “elves” huddled beneath a shady corner of the street. Shortly after, we watched as young children came out of every nook and cranny, creeping into the town center. You could just see it on their faces, the anticipation bottled up beneath their incredibly composed little cheeks. Santa was in town! Literally. One by one, “the elves” called out the name of the families and their little ones to come up to their workshop and to receive their gifts. It was an incredible feat, to understand, that this local organization called “The Friends of Christmas” knew the names and ages of every single child in the village. Our children included. Nearly 400 kids were given gifts that afternoon, and each of the families also received a large bag full of pantry items that included numerous necessities, like: flour, sugar, oats, pasta, rice, lentils, and cooking oil. We were completely stunned and amazed. We had never seen anything like this, and coming from a far from wealthy community, we could not quite make sense how something like this was even feasible. But, in times like this, you just don’t ask question. You simply allow yourself to be completely and utterly overcome by the wonder of the season.
As if all this weren’t already enough to blanket us in the Christmas spirit, a few days later we caught wind of an all day event in honor of the children. Bright and early, according to Ecuadorian standards, balloons and tents and music once again infiltrated our humble little village by 10 am. Soon after, sleepy eyed kids tumbled into the streets, hopping and buzzing with glee. Clowns and characters trickled in through the bobbing heads of children lined up for free popcorn, shaved ice, and ice cream. Mickey Mouse and Santa Clause, even a Christmas Fairy danced and teased the children beneath the unforgiving mid-morning sun. Soon after, the kids gathered round for fun and games and contests galore, in their best efforts to win toys and candy and even crowd recognition. Our 4 year old daughter was the first to run to the front, eager to participate in something like a dance-off for little girls. I was nearly left speechless, as I watched in awe as my little girl flourished and flitted in the limelight. My light-haired princess immersing herself with the ever-graceful Latina girls, all on her own accord with zero influence from us. The crowd roared with pleasure when her turn came, laughing and cheering and prodding her on, each as hopeful as the rest that our little white girl would be crowned Queen of the contest. She did indeed win her heat, and she beamed with pride and delight as she was awarded the cutest little toy doll.
Over the next few days, our daughter blossomed as she relished in the attention she had gained through her dancing success. She made many friends and admirers at that Christmas celebration, and her “crown” was the talk of the town. Her confidence soared as little girls from all over the neighborhood, flocked to come and play with her. This kind of cultural immersion was the best kind of Christmas gift we ever could have imagined.
There was yet another afternoon street party on the day of Christmas Eve, inviting the kids once more, to engage in games and gifts and music. This time, our kids played on the sidelines, huddled with a group of kids they know call their friends, paying very little attention to the organized event. They were fully engaged in playing, side by side; age, gender, nationality, and language holding no consequence to them. The group even retreated from the sun-filled fun a little early; preferring quiet and shade cover over the hot and bustling street scene. We couldn’t help ourselves but to award the whole bunch with a special Christmas treat of Oreo Batidos…something a bit like a milkshake. Our children played the day, evening and night away; running, screaming and riding bikes into the early night hours. The excitement of the day had them struggling to go to sleep on the night before Christmas. It wasn’t the presents they anticipated so much, but rather another day of fun and games ahead with their group of new friends.
My husband and I did stay up late, wrapping a few presents and stuffing two wool socks full of candy and a traditional, wooden toy top. The kids leaped from their beds squealing, just the same as all kids do on Christmas Day. They were plenty happy with just two wrapped presents each, but just as we suspected, their new toys were quickly forgotten in lieu of playing outdoors with the same group of kids they had come to adore.
Christmas was different this year. That is for sure. We are different this year. Now Christmas has a whole different perspective. It was honestly so much more than we had ever hoped for. So much better than any Christmas we have ever had before. We are so Hopeful“>hopeful for what the next year will bring!
In November, the wonderful village of San Clemente put on an appreciation dinner for all of the expats who live in the area! I never would have expected something like this. In the nicest way I can possibly say it, this village does not have very much to give, but what they have they give gleefully to anyone who will accept.
The event was a nice surprise with a complimentary dinner and drinks. The room was full of lively music and spirits, and of course the kids were absolutely thrilled when we walked into the restaurant all decked out like an American Christmas. A big lit up tree, twinkling garlands, and trays of treats on the tables. All of us were equally awed and delighted when an American meal was set out before us, complete with roasted turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes.
It was quite unexpected, as we had come to accept that we wouldn’t see these glimpses of the holidays back home, this year. The delight of it all definitely gave us a little holiday spirit and some cheer to start spreading of our own.
To think about the efforts the locals went to, in their desire to offer up some semblance of a holiday back home is not just heart warming, but is startling in it’s purposeful gift to show gratitude and appreciation to those who have chosen to make our life here, abroad. It is just one more reason for us to stay, one more example of how this place continues to reiterate that we are home-away-from-home.
And since then, the Christmas spirit has jut kept on building! We have now managed to find and put up our own small Tree, and in the past weeks we have been watching as the village has literally built it’s very own, unique Christmas Tree and Nativity Set (I’ll have a new post coming soon about all of that).
It just goes to show that Christmas is not something that fits into a tightly wrapped box, nor is it a one-size-fits all type of deal. Christmas is what you make of it, where you choose to make it. It has nothing to do with the commercial versions we are so accustomed to in The States.
The best part of it all, is how we have learned to set our expectations aside, and in that lesson, we have been so beautifully impressed with the many, wholesome efforts around us that tell the true meaning of Christmas. It is easy to be disappointed when our expectations are not met. But, guess what? It’s just as easy to be impressed when you have no expectations at all!
We’ve never been so excited so know that are still two more weeks left until Christmas…we can only anticipate the wonder of all that is unknown! We can’t wait for all of the surprises to be unveiled.
Thank you once again, San Clemente, Ecuador for providing a local experience that curated lasting memories! We just can’t get enough of the party-for-anything mentality. Lately, every weekend has felt like a holiday and we have been enjoying every ounce of the festivities. Much of the time, we honestly have no idea what the party is about..but, this time we did!
The lovely collection of expat residents that live in our tiny fishing village organized this event. It was put together in response to the ongoing need for respite to the earthquake affected families in our community. It has been over 7 months since the 7.8 earthquake rocked our world, and the world of everyone on the coast of Ecuador and beyond. Unfortunately, there are STILL families who have not received the aid that they so desperately need.This event was a collaborative effort to finally get the remaining local families out of tents and back into their homes.
The day was one of hope and good vibes, and a playful energy resonated in the streets. We shared in the moments of youthfulness that bring hope for the future. It was a time of jubilation rather than of a somber mood. The events were built from simplicity and memories of the good ol’ days. What a pleasure it was to see the generations joyfully colliding for a good cause!
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.
Last weekend we finally had the chance to meet up with the lovely gal that braids our hair for us. We don´t this ALL the time, but I think it’s the 4th or 5th we’ve had them in now. We already had plans for a beach day with the other expat kids, so we invited her and her partner to join us there! The sand was wet and it wasn’t very warm that morning, so we huddled together on the rocky shoreline.
We always find this relaxing to have her comb and braid our hair, and it was especially nice to experience it with the group this time.
The process takes about 20-30 mins each and cost $6 per head for each of us. The hair stylist walks the beaches on the weekends, looking for willing participants. She carries with her, a photo book with close to 2 dozen designs to choose from. She also carries beads and colored strings around her necks that can be added for fancier braids. If we are gentle in our care for them, they last anywhere from 1 week to a month.
As you can see from the photos, she is always very sweet and happy and seems to thoroughly enjoy spending her days this way. On this busy holiday weekend, she had her sister along that was helping her. Sometimes she has her young daughter (maybe age 5?), who loves to laugh and play with the kids, and to help us pick out the prettiest braids. Every time we see her, she teaches me around 4 or 5 new Spanish words, and I appreciate her all the more for that! She was the first person who taught me the Spanish word for Husband, as well as how to ask “how much?”. Pretty simple words, but also incredibly important to know! She even sings little songs to the kids, counting and naming the colors of the rubber bands in Spanish. It’s a wonderful experience all around, and we all squeal for joy when we see coming up the beach.