Ecuador Expat Profile – Melita Vega, Cuenca Ecuador
The Expat: Melita Vega
Name: Melita Vega
What is your blog url?
Where are your currently living?
Cuenca, Ecuador since August 2011, on and off since the 1990’s.
What’s Your Story?
I tend to call myself the “hybrid-expat” as I’ve spent significant periods of time in Canada and Ecuador, being uprooted and then uprooting myself several times throughout my entire life.
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada to Ecuadorean immigrant parents until the age of 12, at which point my dad decided to move us all to Ecuador. After spending my teens and early 20’s in Cuenca, I moved back to Toronto with my Ecuadorean-born husband and son and spent another 10 years there before returning to settle in Cuenca again in 2011.
So while I’m not exactly a newcomer to Ecuador, I have experienced many of the same feelings of wonder, isolation and culture shock that other expats have, many times over.
When and where did you get the idea of living in Ecuador?
Coming to Ecuador for the first time at the age of 12 with no knowledge of Spanish or the city of Cuenca was definitely not my idea (the Cuenca of 20 years ago was VERY different from what it is today), but as the years passed I grew to love the city and had no plans whatsoever to leave.
However, after the Ecuadorean banking crisis in the late 1990’s, my husband and I decided to make the leap to Canada with only $500 in our pockets and a back up plan to return to Ecuador within a year if it didn’t work out.
Flash-forward 10 years later, with a growing teenager in the house, it became important to us to teach our son about his Ecuadorean roots and be closer to family, so we uprooted ourselves once again and made the tricky transition into the way of life in Cuenca. We’ve been back” for two years now and the plan is to stay put. (but as I’ve learned over the years, never say never).
How’s your Spanish?
Spanish is technically my second language, as I didn’t speak a word of it when I first moved to Cuenca (despite the fact that my parents only spoke Spanish in the house when I was a child). I did find that the age of 12 was a good time to pick it up as I don’t have a noticeable accent in either language.
I do think it’s important to be able to have at least a moderate understanding of the local language of the country to where one is planning to build a new life, otherwise, the potential for misunderstandings and frustration just grows exponentially. I know many fellow Ecuadorians who were part of the mass wave of emigration to the States in the late 1990’s (my own parents were part of the wave in the 1970’s) and experienced considerable frustrations that were compounded by the fact that they didn’t understand English.
How do you make your living?
I’m a communications consultant and I currently work as a public servant.
Being away from Cuenca for over a decade means I wasn’t around to experience all the spikes in prices and changes in the city landscape (the city got its very first mall in the early 2000’s). After the first few trips to the local supermarket, I was shocked to see my monthly grocery bill was the same as it was in Canada, which, as I later came to learn, is to be expected if you want to maintain the same standard of living you had before. The cost of imported, packaged goods and local dairy at the supermarket still shocks me, but I view it as a necessary evil as I don’t want to deprive my 16-year old son of his favorite comfort foods like Fruit Loops, Pringles, and Mac ‘n Cheese. That said, the reasonable cost of fruit and flowers always makes me smile!
Being a city gal, the cost of purchasing a home was also another shock. Coming from Toronto, where condos are billed as a cheaper alternative (I use this term lightly) to a house in the city, I found it odd that a 1400 sq. ft. condo, depending on the location, can cost more than a two-story house of the same size in Cuenca.
What do you love about Ecuador?
Having been away for such a long time, it’s truly amazing to see just how much has changed for the better in Cuenca. I do think some of that is due to the massive influx of tourism and foreigners making Cuenca their home. New roads have been paved, parks have been revitalized, diverse restaurants (with good prices) have cropped up everywhere and people seem to be truly taking advantage of all the city has to offer.
Being a design and home decor nut, I’m also impressed with the quality of architecture and construction these days, compared to 20 years ago. It’s truly is possible to have your dream home. Being a smaller city, the selection of home decor and furniture stores is rather scant compared to the larger cities of Quito or Guayaquil, but one of the great things about Cuenca is that just about anything is fixable. I had my breakfast bar stools reupholstered and shortened for less than $200 total. No one here would even think of dumping a couch or a fridge on the side of the road here, which translates into a less wasteful lifestyle.
While it’s true the city isn’t as safe as it once was, I think the same can be said of many cities, large or small, around the world. As a woman, I do miss being able to walk around alone at night like I used to in Toronto, which is something I can’t really do here unless I’ve got company. However, I do think people simply need to employ common sense when getting around and be aware of their surroundings. Thieves prey on distracted people, or those they perceive to be “easy targets”, so it pays to be alert.
As for tips for other expats considering moving to Cuenca, I would definitely recommend paying a visit first to make sure this pace of life is for them, as things here roll at their own pace compared to larger cities. And definitely keep checking websites and blogs like these, which I think are extremely helpful.
Check out: 15 Ecuador expat stories.