This blog post has been percolating in my brain for well over a year now, and as we recently celebrated the third anniversary of our arrival in Ecuador, I thought I should probably, you know, write it. In actuality, this post should be titled "First Years," as we have now been in Ecuador three years, but as I wanted to write this as a follow-up post to First Days and First Weeks, I decided to stay with "First Months." I look forward to writing a "First Years" post once we have been in Ecuador longer than in any other country!
As I reflect back on our first 36 months in Ecuador, I am reminded of how far we have come. And also how different our life here looks now than how we envisioned it! We arrived in Ecuador with a few pieces of luggage, a working knowledge of Portuguese (not Spanish!), a Land Rover Defender we had purchased sight-unseen a few weeks before, and a plan to serve with the Kumanii jungle ministry. But God has a way of taking our dreams and our plans and our neat 10-year projections and turning them upside down and inside out. I have seen this in my own life several times in the last few years. His sovereignty is real! Instead of Kumanii, we are now at Camp Bellevue. Instead of jungle ministry in a remote region, we are administrating a Christian camp and working with area churches. Instead of the capital city of Quito, we now live out in the country on the slopes of an extinct volcano.
When we first arrived, we lived in the tiny, awkward apartment at the Colón church, while we studied Spanish and looked for a house. Even after we found a house (which happened in record time!), we had to camp out for a few months with borrowed beds and appliances while waiting for our container to arrive. What joy when it finally came, and we could unpack things we hadn't seen in 3 years or more and make our house a home! After several years of being in transition and living with my parents or making do with a furnished rental apartment, creating my nest was all the sweeter.
When we first arrived, we knew my sister and her family. Now, three years later, we have many friends and acquaintances in various circles. I am thankful for the relationships we have formed through church and ministry as well as for the homeschool group and the Quito Youth Baseball League that helped us expand our expat acquaintances outside our own little Church of Christ missions circle.
When we first arrived, we communicated in a stumbling, bumbling way. Thanks to the good foundation we had in another Latin language (Thank you, Eunice!), and several months with a private tutor (Thank you, Chela!), we now communicate more smoothly. We still make lots of mistakes and still have lots to learn, but yes, we speak Spanish now, not some weird Portuguese-Spanish blend. We have moved from just surviving in the language to beginning to thrive in it. And my children are growing up bilingual, which is going to give them a real edge in the future!
The first few months in a new place are so disorienting and require an enormous amount of mental energy. Not only for the big things like learning to communicate in a new language, making friends, and learning your way around a new city, but for all the little things as well. All those things that you were able to do without really thinking about them -- like greeting people and paying your utility bills and ordering a hamburger at the McDonald's drive-thru -- now require thought and effort. It's exhausting. Thankfully, after a few months, you adjust. You reach a certain level of automaticity, where you don't have to think so hard about every little thing anymore.
I can now breeze through grocery shopping in half an hour or less. I know what brand of laundry detergent I like, where to find the canned tomatoes, and what works as a substitute for graham crackers or cream of mushroom soup. I am no longer intimidated by the municipal market because I know the names of the fruits and veggies and I can communicate with the vendors easily and well. I even have a few favorite people that I like to buy from if I can. I can cook the foods our family likes using mostly local ingredients. I kiss people's cheeks in greeting and don't find it especially awkward. I know that when we take communion at church, I am supposed to hold the cracker and the juice until we all take them together. And while I am still sometimes annoyed by this quirky tradition (obviously, thought up by a man who never had to wrangle four kids in the pew while balancing a teeny cup of grape juice in one hand!), I am not caught off guard by it anymore.
I feel like we have reached the point where we are comfortable in our new environment. We have done the hard part -- I have heard it said many times that the first three years in a new country are the hardest -- so it should be easier from here on out. Does this mean we won't experience culture stress anymore? NO, we will still have those moments (I had a moment just a couple of weeks ago, actually!). But they are fewer and farther between and not nearly as intense as they were at first. These are all signs of adapting to the "host culture." And having done the slow, difficult, exhausting work of learning to adapt, we can now reap the fruit of increased functioning and effectiveness. That's my hope for the next few years, anyway!