Written by Oswaldo Muñoz*
Let’s go back in time, some 70 years ago, for an idea of how I got into one of the most addictive activities that does so much good to the world: tourism.
I was an expat from Ecuador living in NYC in the early 50s. My parents, sister and I made the move to look for work, when my father’s contracting company took a toll after economic woes hit the country, parallel to the post-war “American Dream”. At that time, I was a mere 18 months old, so I didn’t have a say on this paramount decision. However, two brief but impacting incidents have lingered in my mind since then: getting an unexpected vaccination in the butt (one of the requirements to travel abroad), and having my trusty milk bottle confiscated, given we had some 18 hours flying time to our destination on the Panagra two-prop plane, hence having enough hands was imperative. The route was not direct and the plane would stop at every possible airport on the way. Therefore, my dad carried me in his arms during that long journey, while my mom lugged her two 20-pound grinding stones, indispensable for her to “cook Ecuadorian” to remind our taste buds where we were from. That was the deal: no grinding stones, no meals. Needless to say, mom’s delicious cooking soon gained recognition in our new Lithuanian-Polish community in Long Island City, Queens, where countless neighbors would partake of scrumptious dishes, long before the Hispanic culinary trend of recent years caught on.
Culinary delights were the first strategy we had in mind for our new friends to get acquainted with a country that was tucked away in the north-western corner of South America, and most importantly, straddling an imaginary line called the “equator” that made this land even more mysterious and untouchable, or should I say, hard to find. As the saying goes, “small is beautiful”, but we continued to be overshadowed by neighboring countries like Brazil, 31 times larger in area, or iconic places like Machu Picchu (put on the map by Hiram Bingham in 1911), Buenos Aires (with populist leader Evita Peron), Cartagena (the walled colonial city), or all of the popular ports of call when circumnavigating the continent.
The next strategy was music, that universal language capable of touching the hearts of all, regardless of nationality. Therefore, it was practically after every dinner that my family and I would engage in a one-hour Ecuadorian music and song get-together to keep our roots alive and well. Soon our repertoire became the icing on the cake when hosting neighbors. As a matter of fact, they would also join these jam sessions, awed by the different rhythms. I eventually learned to play the guitar at the age of 5 and to this day this family tradition lives on. Those that were not musically talented were given drums and other percussion instruments to set the beat. Moreover, sending musical tapes back and forth between NYC and Quito became our most precious and feasible way of keeping in touch with the homeland, since phone calls were not only expensive but unreliable.
Soon, we became so attached to our new home that, after the initial 4-year contract was up, my father was asked to stay longer. Longer meant another 12 years to which we all agreed. By this time, it was obvious that we loved our new residence, primarily the product of our amicable friends – we were now part of each other’s families. Also, we all wanted to immerse ourselves even more into the language and culture of the USA. Therefore, I learned to read, write and talk fluently in both languages, though my father never lost his German accent, product of his dealing with clients escaping the Second World War to take shelter in Ecuador. That total of 16 years in NYC was interspersed with four vacation visits to Ecuador, that is, practically every 4 years, to keep in touch with our original homeland. I would return to school each time with many unusual nick-knacks for the then so popular “show n’ tell” in an effort to present my classmates with a better picture of Ecuadorian culture and nature. Even the teachers would not miss a single “show” and there were quite a number of people interested in visiting this “south of the border” wonderland that boasted so many unique regions hard-to-believe that could be easily visited in one single country.
The return date was set for the summer of 1967 and I must say it was not easy bidding farewell to so many friends that made our stay memorable to say the least. Television shows, movies, music and trends of the 50s and 60s came back with me. But it was time to immerse myself in Ecuador in every way possible, while validating my high school diploma, taking entry tests for college and even brushing up on my Spanish in an effort to vanish my subtle English accent. And I needed to find a job, which came about without even trying. A cousin of mine found me a job as a tour guide at one of the largest inbound tour companies at the time. So, I was pretty much juggling my time between school, Ecuadorian ambience, culture and life-style, as well as work. It was a crazy five-year transition in which my major, Agricultural Engineering, introduced me to the most remote and beautiful regions that I gradually started to share with my American tourist guests. In addition, my having lived so many years in the States granted me the unique opportunity to better understand the American mindset and, most importantly, give back to my guests the countless episodes of friendship and support during those two decades of my life. This is without a doubt the reason why to this day tourism is my passion, where initially the uniqueness of a new destination is only enhanced by having guests realize that the world has more things in common that bring us together. Tourism promotes peace and understanding, generates income directly to all those involved (in Ecuador, 1 out of every 7 people are engaged in some facet of tourism) and helps us appreciate foreign visitors who in turn can open up our eyes to the uniqueness of our country. Soon enough, I was baptized by my classmates with the nickname of “one dollar”, then a rather rare currency in Ecuador.
Today, I still consider myself an expat from NYC that “moved” to Ecuador and stayed. With our Galapagos Islands, beautiful Pacific beaches, towering snowcaps over ever-green fields and the mysterious Amazon basin, who could ask for more? Additionally, when it’s time for me to retire (which is still some time from now in my agenda), I don’t have to go anywhere. I am already here, in fabulous Ecuador!
*Oswaldo Muñoz is the founder and CEO of Nuevo Mundo Expeditions. This is the first post in the Anniversary series.