When I’ve lived abroad, it’s always been in cities, or at least close to a city. Mary Fifield, a friend of mine here in Portland, had a totally different experience: She lived in the Amazon in Ecuador, and her ‘commutes’ sometimes involved a canoe. She shares some of her experiences below.
Why did you decide to go to Ecuador? When did you go? How old were at the time? What did you family and friends think?
I first traveled to Ecuador when I was 34 as a communications consultant for a California-based community health organization. I went to get to know the community where the organization was building a small water system. Eventually I stepped into the executive director role at the organization, and as the only full-time staff member I traveled frequently to Ecuador and Mexico and developed a small-grant making program for communities and local NGOs. After a year of piloting the program in Ecuador, we realized we would need someone on the ground year-round to really have an impact.
At the same time, I had a number of personal goals–including mastering Spanish, buying a home, working directly with communities, and making time to write–that I was struggling to accomplish in the States. I had grown disillusioned with the economic, environmental, and social cost of living in the U.S. and felt drawn to Ecuador, especially the Amazon. The organization I worked for agreed to send me to Ecuador as a program director, and I stayed on after the organization decided to narrow its focus to Mexico.
How long did you stay abroad, and how did that differ from what you were expecting?
I didn’t have any intention of returning to the U.S., but I ended up living in Ecuador for five years.
What kind of work were you doing in Ecuador?
After the community health organization closed its Ecuador operations, some colleagues of mine and I founded Amazon Partnerships Foundation, which provided small grants and training for Kichwa communities that designed and managed their own projects to promote conservation and fight climate change. My daily work involved traveling by bus or canoe to rural Kichwa communities and facilitating workshops or participating in project meetings.
Did you speak Spanish before you went to Ecuador? How did you improve, what happened to let you know that you were improving?
I had studied Spanish in short, intensive courses in Central America and Ecuador. When I moved abroad, I would say my language level was advanced conversant, but my speaking skills outpaced my comprehension skills. I had friends and colleagues from a wide range of education levels and socio-economic classes, from elderly Kichwa women who had little formal education and spoke Spanish as a second language to mestizos in professional government jobs who had advanced degrees. I also had an Ecuadorian boyfriend who didn’t speak English. The diversity of people in my life gave me an opportunity to expand my vocabulary quickly and even get comfortable speaking in public, which had been a challenge for me in English. I knew I was improving when I stopped rehearsing what I would say in my head when I initiated conversation.
What were some of the most interesting events / cultural lessons that happened when you were abroad?
A Kichwa friend of mine, N, invited me to go with her to her husband’s relative’s wedding reception. She said she didn’t really like that side of the family, and I got the impression she was asking me to go for moral support. I was touched that she thought I could help her, though I didn’t know what I was expected to do. I was correct in assuming that I would be the only gringa in the crowd.
The reception was held in the large, institutional hall of a community center outside if the town where I lived. After a ceremony in which the newlyweds received a series gifts of increasing size and expense, including a refrigerator wrapped in a bow, the women passed out styrofoam plates piled with chicken, rice and yucca. We sat in chairs lining the perimeter of the room and ate with the plates in our lap. Then the dancing and drinking started. I’d seen plenty of heavy drinking at these parties and had drunk plenty myself with no adverse consequences, but there were sometimes moments where a subtle shift in the mood set me on my guard. This was one of those moments.
I sat next to N, whose sister sat on the other side. Then a very drunk uncle of N’s husband wedged himself in between N and her sister. He threw his arm over N’s shoulder and rested his hand on her breast as he whispered something to her.
Her expression went stone cold, and I had no idea what to do. I tried to send her nonverbal signals to ask if she wanted me to do something to help her get out of his clutches. Then I asked her if she could show me where the bathroom was, thinking she’d take the opportunity to excuse herself, but she just pointed vaguely to the exit. She kept peering straight ahead and nodding once in a while; the sister sat on the other side of the uncle straining to listen.
Finally he pushed himself upright and N thanked him as he stumbled away. I asked her if she was okay, and she looked at me like I was crazy. Then I asked what he said, and she said he was just giving her some advice about a family disagreement. I must have looked stunned because she asked me if older people don’t give advice to younger people in my culture. I said yes, but not by putting their hand over my boob. She and her sister burst out laughing. N had confided in me before and I think she would have told me if he was crossing a line, but to this day I still have no idea what to make of that exchange.
What are some of the interesting stories you have? What were some of the biggest challenges living abroad?
One of the biggest challenges of living in Ecuador was constantly being asked if I was married and had kids. My answer to both was no, and I didn’t want children. People had a hard time understanding that and would often suggest that I have just one child. Another major challenge was navigating a corrupt and oppressive bureaucracy. Although there were some improvements in the time I lived in Ecuador, there was a lot of backroom dealing, public manipulation, lying, and fraud, though I didn’t experience any outright bribery. This was agonizing for me as a foreigner but far worse for average Ecuadorians, especially indigenous people who are still blatantly discriminated against despite some legal protections that exist. “Structural violence” was palpable, not just conceptual, and it was easy to understand what a struggle it was for people to organize against such grinding injustice.
Could you talk a little bit more about deciding to buy a plot of land to build a house on, and then selling it when you decided to come back to the States?
I bought property and started building a house partly to qualify for a residential visa and partly because I wanted a permanent home. The contractor situation was a disaster, and I ended up spending more than I budgeted on construction that took almost four times as long as it should have. It was a huge battle to get the city to provide water and electricity, even though they were legally obligated to do so. At the same time, I had to take a huge pay cut because we were struggling to raise money for the organization in the midst of the global recession. I didn’t have other employment options in Ecuador, and so I had no choice but to return to the US.
What made you decide to come home, and did you have any difficulties adjusting to life back at home?
It was incredibly difficult, partly because I took such a financial hit and I lived in such a rural area in Ecuador. It was strange to speak English all the time, and sometimes conversations didn’t make any sense even though I could understand the words. I had to remember that you have to stand at a bus stop here–you can’t just wave down a bus and hop on. I missed working with communities and making all of the subtle, daily adjustments that are necessary when you are a foreigner and speak a different language. It gave me great empathy for people who immigrate to the US, most of whom do it with a lot less choice and freedom than I had when I emigrated.
How has your time abroad influenced your career?
I see that many of the issues that come up in international development, especially around forming relationships and building trust with people from different backgrounds, are also present in community work in the U.S. My experience abroad inclines me to think about solutions in a global context or look outside Oregon or even the U.S. for good ideas.
Want to know more? Check out Mary’s blog, Earth In Here and her consulting company, Kaleidoscope Consulting.
Do you have stories from living abroad that you’d like to share? Contact me!