What can expats learn about living in Ecuador?

Plenty, according Carmen Chuquín, director of a new course offered by the University of Otavalo entitled “Living in Ecuador.” The course has attracted 18 English-speaking expats from the Otavalo and Cotacachi communities of northern Ecuador, all of them over the age of 55, most of them retired professionals.

"What we want to do is provide tools for new residents of Imbabura province so they can integrate more easily into Ecuadorian society,” says Chuquín.

She adds: "This is a one semester pilot project that targets U.S. and Canadian citizens interested in learning Spanish as well a more about the local culture. Moving to a foreign country that speaks a different language is a major challenge for North Americans and this program is designed to make it easier.”

Chuquín is assisted in the course by U.S. expat and anthropologist Kate Henry, who explains: "In the course, we not only teach them to speak Spanish but we offer training in the basics of daily Ecuadorian life, from how to make cell phone and landline calls to understanding the history of this country." Henry, who has lived in Ecuador for five years says that, "My intention is to give advice about how to get along day-to-day in this country. I know first-hand what it feels like to come to a place where everything is new."

Sixty-four-year-old expat Donda Wallace, a student in the class, says that the hardest part of her adjustment to Ecuador has been her inability to communicate with neighbors. “This is the first thing I need to overcome. In the class, we’re learning Spanish but also about the customs and traditions and how to get along in our new home,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Although the class focuses on language, grammar, history, law and traditions, it also offers field trips to local historic sites. Two weeks ago the students visited the Cochasquí Tabacundo pyramids in northern Pichincha Province. The 15 pyramids and 21 burial mounds were built by the people who inhabited the region from 1,500 BC and 850 BC.  According to Chuquín, it’s important that the students become acquainted, first hand, with the history that surrounds them. “This a part of the education process for new residents.”

According to Adelaida Gonzalez, who is teaching Spanish to the expat students, it is critical to include cultural training in the process. “These are older students, so the teaching process is different. And because they are coming from another country, they need to learn much more than just the language to successfully integrate into our way of life.”

“These are really unique students,” says Henry. “Most of them have been professionally trained and have had successful professional careers. It’s rewarding that they are so eager to learn.”

Because of the popularity of the pilot project, the University of Otavalo is consdering offering more clases for expats, as well as an advanced class for those who want to continue their training.

Community officials in Otavalo and Cotacahi welcome the new course and say it is badly needed to help North Americans acclimate. Byron Rosero, Director of Planning for Cotacachi, says that ignorance of language and traditions has led, in some cases, to tensions between locals and expats. “We need something like this to bridge the cultural divide between gringos and the local citizens.”

Photo caption: Expat students in Otavalo.