Little Differences, Big Changes From Living in Ecuador

By Jim Santos, InternationalLiving.com

“Honey, we’re out of eggs. I’m going to the mercado; do you need anything?”

Salinas Beach, Ecuador
Salinas Beach, Ecuador

“Yes, we need poop bags for the dog,” my wife, Rita, replied. She wanted me to pick up a pack of small plastic bags used to collect the little gifts our Corgi leaves around the neighborhood.

So this morning, I set out to the mercado (market) for poop bags and eggs. And as I walked to the market, I couldn’t help thinking about how much my life has changed since we moved to Ecuador.

In the States, I would have first checked the weather, dressed appropriately, then jumped in the car to drive to the grocery store. There I could have found a dozen eggs for about $2.50, and a package of specially designed doggie dropping bags in the pet aisle. According to Amazon, an eight-pack containing 120 bags currently sells for $6.97. Errand completed, I would drive back home, having interacted with only a disinterested cashier, and maybe we’d mutter “morning” to each other.

Here in Salinas, the beach resort city on Ecuador’s coast we now call home, I never think to check the weather. At 9 a.m., it is almost always around 76 F. I may glance outside to see if I need sunglasses, but not always. Experience has taught us that, this near the equator, you can find yourself squinting on a cloudy day, anyway. Rain? We get maybe three or four days a year when it rains hard enough to notice, so it’s not likely I need to worry about that.

No jumping into a car, either, as we haven’t bothered to buy one yet. Buses are 30 cents, cabs a couple of bucks to most places, and the mercado is only a half-mile away, so I just walk. Oddly enough, back in the U.S. our house is probably about the same distance to the local Food Lion. But it would never occur to me to walk there. Cars are just too easy.

Once at the mercado, I head to the woman who sells plastic products. A pack of 100 small bags is 55 cents, but I have only a 50-cent piece and a $5 bill. If you know anything about Ecuador, you know she would not appreciate being asked to make that much change. So I tell her I’ll go buy eggs first. I greet our regular egg guy, who goes through his mysterious sorting procedure, selecting some eggs and rejecting others, to fix me up with a 30-egg carton, fresh out of the chickens, for $3.50.

Back to my bag purchase, and the vendor smiles and thanks me as she gives me change from my 75 cents. With that, I leave the mercado for the walk back home. I pause only to wave to our regular veggie vendor.

In many ways, a trip to the mercado is a trip back in time. I remember that, as a small child in rural Maryland, I would walk with my mom to a place called “Harold’s.” It was basically a large shack, exposed to the air when the weather was warm, with thick plastic sheeting for walls and large gas-burning heaters blowing hot air down in the winter. Harold’s was where the local farmers trucked in all their goods. It was the kind of place with a big dill-pickle barrel and a shopkeeper who knew your name and your regular order. In Ecuador, our mercado has that same personal touch, and it echoes the memory of a simpler life.

There is something very calming about shopping at the local mercado; I just feel better after a visit. I think it reinforces the more relaxed lifestyle we have now, where the quality of life is the most important thing. It is all about how much you enjoy what you do today, not how many things you can get done. I also feel much more attached to the community shopping where the locals shop.

I love the way the sellers take a personal interest in their steady customers as well. When buying a papaya or avocado, I will be asked “par hoy, o para mañana?” (“for today or tomorrow?”), so they can make sure we get the freshest products. My regular shrimp stall will always show me the scale to verify that they filled my order, and then throw in another handful as a bonus. I’ve also had them tell me not to get the shrimp today—they are expecting something special tomorrow, so I should wait until then. It is refreshing to be treated like a human being, not a walking wallet.

I know it’s popular in overseas retirement discussions to focus on cost: on how I’d just spent $4.25 instead of almost $10, and have more than twice as many eggs to boot. But that’s not the important thing to me. What matters most is that I had a pleasant one-mile walk in the fresh air and enjoyed the great weather. I used my beginner’s Spanish skills to explain that I needed to buy eggs to break the $5. I greeted some of our regular vendors. And I got smiles and a buenos días from everyone I passed. I’ve found Ecuadorians are really pleased and proud when they see us expats shopping where they shop, eating where they eat, or riding the buses like they do.

It’s a little thing, walking to the mercado to buy some eggs. But that little difference has made a big change in my life. For one thing, experiencing another culture and communicating in another language naturally broadens your mind and your view of the world around you. The increased time that I spend walking outdoors, combined with the healthy, whole foods, has had a profound impact on my health. When we moved here, I weighed 290 pounds and was taking two diabetes medications daily, and pills for hypertension. This morning I weighed in at 236 pounds (and still dropping), and I no longer need to take medication.

Those little changes in weather, diet, walking, and learning a new culture have not only made me healthier and happier, but they also have made me a richer person.

This article comes to us courtesy of InternationalLiving.com, the world’s leading authority on how to live, work, invest, travel, and retire better overseas.

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