15 December 2017

Connie Pombo - Expat in Ecuador

Connie Pombo - Expat in Ecuador

We’ve had the chance to talk to Connie Pombo, 62, an American expat who has moved to Ecuador with her husband. Mrs Combo, who has been living there for seven years, now works as a writer. Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I’m originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California.


Q: What made you move out of the US?
A: We lived in Lancaster County, PA for 23 years because of my husband’s work. When he retired at 55 years of age, his retirement package didn’t cover medical insurance so we explored the idea of retiring overseas. We had lived in Sicily, Italy for seven years, so living overseas wasn’t a big stretch -- culturally or linguistically.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
A: We’re living in Cuenca, Ecuador (the pearl of Ecuador) at 8,300 feet in the Andes Mountains. Cuenca is the cultural capital of Ecuador with an abundance of free concerts, art exhibits, international restaurants, and cultural exhibitions. It reminds me a lot of Italy with the terracotta rooftops and cobblestdocone roads; the flag-bedecked balconies, and the brick buildings. It’s traversed by four rivers with biking trails and lots of nature to explore – especially in the Cajas Mountains (national park).


Q: How long have you been living in Ecuador?
A: We’ve been living here for seven years; we arrived in June of 2010.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?
A: My husband and I are living here together. We’ve been married for 42 years and bought a condo four years ago.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?
A: The longer we’re here, the less we miss family. I know that sounds terrible, but this is our life now and we can’t imagine living anywhere else. In the beginning, we missed our boys, but they’re married now with families of their own. Somehow it seems easier with sons because they gravitate towards the wife’s parents. We will have two more grandchildren at the end of December, so we’ll try to visit at least twice a year on the East Coast. And my parents are still living at 88 years of age in California, so I will visit them twice a year. About every three or four months we make trips back to the States to see family.


Q: What do you think about the locals?
A: The Ecuadorian people are so friendly and soft-spoken. They’re very giving people and so helpful. It’s such a stark contrast to living in Italy where tempers flared (often) and the people were so demonstrative in their emotions. Ecuadorians are much more reserved in their emotions (except when they’re driving).


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Ecuador? How did you manage to find a social circle there?
A: When we first arrived in Cuenca, there were just a handful of expats so we were forced to make friends with the Ecuadorians (Cuencanos). It was the best thing for us culturally and linguistically. We had no trouble adapting because it was a lot like Italy and we’ve made lifelong Ecuadorian friends. Now there are about 5,000 expats living in Cuenca and it’s a good thing as there are so many events going on all the time. We try to maintain a balance between expat events and Ecuadorian events. I would say it’s about 50/50.


Q: How does the cost of living in Ecuador compare to your home?

Q: How much is a cup of coffee?
A: There’s a broad range from 50 cents to $2.50, but the average is about $1.20.

Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?
A: You can still find almuerzos (lunches) for $2.50. If you’re going for dinner (pizza and drinks $10.50).

Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?
A: There is much more diversity in the expensive restaurants ranging from $24 to $45 for two people for dinner. We don’t drink alcohol and rarely order dessert and we’re vegetarians, so we can eat out quite often (and very economically). We recently dined at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel (Cook’s Restaurant for $34), which included appetizers, salmon entrée, and a free desert for our anniversary. We usually only drink sparkling water when we dine. An executive lunch at a nice restaurant is about $6.50 - $10.00.

Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
A: If you buy cheap wine it’s about $12.50 a bottle. They also have a brand called Clos, which is wine in a box for about $5.50. I have absolutely no idea how much cigarettes cost. The packages are very small – maybe six cigarettes. Most Ecuadorians only buy one at a time; you can do that here and there aren’t many Ecuadorians who smoke. No smoking is allowed in restaurants unless it’s an outdoor dining place.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Ecuador?
A: We have our bank account in the US and one here in Ecuador – Banco Bolivariano. It was easy to set up as my husband teaches ESL part-time and his checks are automatically deposited at our bank in Cuenca. The best banks are Banco Pinchincha and Banco del Pacifico. At some of the banks you will need up to three Ecuadorian references. If you bring money into Ecuador and deposit it in a bank, you’ll make a lot more interest (5-7 percent) and sometimes more depending on the amount of money. Be sure to check with the bank on how much is insured – usually up to 32K. Credit unions give higher rates of interest on CD’s, but I would only recommend JEP Cooperative as one credit union collapsed and people lost their money. For that reason, it’s best not to put all your “eggs in one basket.” Also, when you take money out of the country, you’re penalized 5% on the amount. And you can only take out $1,098 per person if you’re flying out of the country. For that reason we keep most of our money in the States, but do own property here which is what Ecuadorians do because they don’t trust banks. They put their money in land or real estate and that’s what we do as well. You can negotiate interest rates and some folks are able to negotiate higher rates, so they don’t mind taking a hit of 5% if they take the money out. My only advice is to diversify; don’t put all your money in one bank.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?
A: When we arrived seven years ago we used an immigration attorney and the process was very easy. The paperwork was mostly completed at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington DC before we arrived and three weeks later we had our permanent visas in our hands. The process is more complicated now. You first have to apply for a temporary visa. After two years, you can then apply for a permanent residency visa. It comes with a lot of paperwork (birth certificates, marriage certificates, decrees of divorce, FBI reports, etc.). Each document has to be apostilled and then translated once you arrive in Ecuador. And the new law states that you must show proof of medical insurance as soon as you arrive in Ecuador. You can’t apply for IESS (the Social Security medical coverage) until you have your permanent visa. Permanent visas need to be renewed every ten years. Dual citizenship is allowed, but requires Spanish proficiency and a test on the history of Ecuador. There are also time restrictions. You can’t be out of Ecuador more than 90 days in three years (approximately 30 days every year). Some people choose to do the process themselves, others hire professionals (like immigration attorneys), and others use facilitators. The magic is in the paperwork.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Ecuador is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?
A: We have IESS (the Social Security System which is for retirees, associates, and those who work for an employer). It is economical for us because my husband works at a language school, part-time, but if you’re not employed and you’re paying into the system, the rules have changed. They can’t deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, but if you have a pensioner’s visa, they base it on a percentage of 17.5 percent of the amount you declare as your pension. Some folks applied separately for their pensioner’s visas and used their Social Security as their income source. They are paying dearly – some up to $700 a month. There are also private medical insurances, but they sometimes don’t cover cancer (it’s under a separate policy) or they have age limits (higher rates after age 55). Bellgenica is popular with a lot of expats as it covers those over 60, but you’re limited to a certain group of doctors. The IESS system is ideal for us as we pay very little and everything is free (office visits, tests, labs, surgery, prescriptions, etc), except for the monthly fee. But medical is about 1/10th of what it is in the States, so some use IESS for catastrophic coverage (i.e. broken hip, heart attack, etc.) and pay as you go for private doctors. An average office visit is $20 - $45 per visit. The private clinics (hospitals) are more modern and state of the art with private suites. At the IESS Hospital there are usually three beds to a room. We make our appointments online and are usually seen in one to three days. For a specialist, you need to first go through a primary physician (much like HMO’s in the States). Doctors really care here; you’re not just a number.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in the US or Ecuador? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?
A: We’ve had a variety of medical insurances through the years. First we had private medical insurance in Ecuador, but the paperwork was lengthy and they usually didn’t pay what they stated they were going to pay (there were always exceptions). We switched to IESS about four years ago and have been very happy with the price, the coverage, and no paperwork. We do everything online. IESS cannot deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, which is ideal for us. Some of the private medical insurances have fine print that you need to read carefully. Many don’t include cancer coverage; it usually is a separate policy. Many private insurances have age restrictions. And there is always a lot of paperwork, which gets denied if it is not filled out properly; you need the originals of everything. There are international policies, but they’re pretty expensive. Ecuador has made it a law that you cannot be a resident without medical coverage; in fact, you can’t enter the country unless you show proof of medical insurance. As residents, Ecuador does not accept Medicare or TriCare; you are obligated to purchase an international policy or Ecuadorian medical coverage.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Ecuador? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?
A: We sold or gave away everything and arrived with four suitcases. We had done the whole container thing with our move to Italy and we knew we never wanted to go through that again. At 55 years of age, we knew we would be forced with going through everything some day and we didn’t want to be 80 when we did it. We did our children a favour. With the proceeds we bought a two-bedroom, two-bath modern condo and we couldn’t be happier. We bought all our furniture and appliances for 10K. It was a good choice for us. The only thing I would have done different was to take pictures of all our photo albums, but we ran out of time. So every time we go back to the States, I take pictures of the photo albums (that we left in the care of our kids). I actually wrote a story for Chicken Soup for the Soul on our move to Ecuador where I wrote about having to sift through 35 years of marriage. The story is titled “Fire Drills” and that’s exactly what I did. We had whittled our belongings down to eight boxes and then down to four suitcases, so my husband would set the timer and I’d pretend there was a fire and I grabbed the most important thing.

There’s no right or wrong way. Some folks just can’t get rid of their stuff and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I would do exactly the same thing again. We’ve seen folks who have their stuff stuck in customs forever because they didn’t get the paperwork done properly and then ended up going back to the States after three years and paying thousands of dollars once again to ship everything back.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?
A: Learning the language and the culture. It was easier in some respects because we knew Italian, but since they’re so similar we blurted out a lot of Italian in the beginning. The cultural nuances were a little harder than Italy. Italians speak their minds, so you don’t have to guess what they’re thinking. Ecuadorians are always polite and well mannered, but you don’t know what they’re really thinking. Now that we have a goddaughter, she’s helped us out a lot culturally speaking. Fluency is always a matter of degrees. You will always be learning; it’s a never-ending process, but it gets easier and easier. Our friends who are twenty-something and have boyfriends or girlfriends are fluent in three months because they speak it 24/7. If you only hang around expats, you probably won’t learn much Spanish. You get out of it what you put into it.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Ecuador?
A: The positives are cost of living; a laid back, relaxed way of living; no need for a car; fresh fruits and vegetables for pennies on the dollar; our real estate tax is only $50 a year; our utilities, gas, electric, water, and phone are $50 a month. There’s no need for heat or air-conditioning, as the temps are low 50’s and high 70’s year round. And we’ll never have to shovel snow again. Plane tickets are cheap for us as we fly out of Quito to NYC – sometimes as low as $196 - $250 roundtrip with JetBlue. Average cost is about $299. That’s cheaper than flying West Coast to East Coast. And best of all the friendliness of the people, quality health care for pennies on the dollar, and excellent public transportation with new buses and the tranvia (electric train) to be completed in 2018.

The negatives are getting more complicated. We have grandchildren now and elderly parents so we’re in the “club sandwich” generation. Thankfully, we have siblings who take up the slack, but I don’t think our kids have ever forgiven us for moving away. They thought once we had grandchildren that we’d move back in a heartbeat. In fact, they don’t even want to know about our life overseas, so we never talk about our life in Ecuador with them. It’s a closed subject. I think it’s sad because many of my sons’ friends have come to visit us here in Cuenca and they can’t wait to come back. That’s probably been the worst part for us, but we’ve adapted to it.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?
A: There are unlimited things to do. We enjoy the Cajas Mountains National Park, which is about 40 minutes out of the city and transports you into a different world at 14,000 feet. The flora and fauna is amazing and one of the few aerated forests in the world. There are over 200 lakes and the scenery is magnificent. El Centro (Old Town) is within walking distance of our condo and it never gets old. There’s always a new museum to see, a concert to attend, or a new restaurant to try. And 30 minutes out of the city you can be in another town that makes silver jewellery, leather products, textiles and more. In 90 minutes you can be in the Yunguilla Valley, where many Ecuadorians have second homes (quintas) with swimming pools and a subtropical climate. Giron Falls is like a paradise and it’s in the same area and makes for a wonderful day trip. And we’re only 3-1/2 hours to the coast, where we vacation frequently. Recently our friends who visited us loved the zoo in Cuenca – Amaru. They’ve travelled everywhere in the world, but they say it’s the best they’ve ever been to. We love to walk the steps of Turi (to the overlook of the city); there are 438 steps to climb, but it’s amazing at the top (a panoramic view of the city). We still haven’t seen all the museums and churches in the city (even after seven years). Our favourite is the Pumapungo Museum, which I call the “Smithsonian of Ecuadorian Culture.” And our favourite thing is biking, running or walking the trails along the river or visiting one of the many indigenous markets where we buy our fruits and vegetables.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
A: No plans to move anywhere.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?
A: Give yourselves time to adjust and don’t beat yourselves up if you’re not fluent in Spanish in a certain timeframe (that you set for yourself). Everyone learns differently and at different rates. Try to integrate as soon as possible and don’t just hang out with expats (that really defeats the purpose of living in a different country). Make friends with Ecuadorians and volunteer in community projects (orphanages, schools, and churches). One of the cross-cultural classes we took really made a difference. Remember: “It’s not wrong; it’s just different.” If you take that attitude to life in Ecuador, you’ll be amazed how your perspective will change. There’s more than one way to do everything!


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Ecuador?
A: Yes, I love GringosAbroad. They are a Canadian couple, who had to move back to Canada for health reasons, but they still write and do interviews about Ecuador and it’s always very informative.

My blog is: http://living-and-retiring-in-ecuador.blogspot.com
My website is: www.thebestoflivingandretiringinecuador.com also on Facebook – The Best of Living and Retiring in Ecuador.