Kielys in Ecuador 12

A Missoula family navigates life the Southern Hemisphere

Giant lemon ants and caimans are the new norm for young Missoulians Hayden and Evelyn Kiely. So is sitting in a classroom all day surrounded by rapid-fire Spanish. These two are about to return home from a five-month-long adventure in Ecuador with their parents, Kay and Daniel.

After a decade of dreaming about an international trip abroad and a full year of planning, the Kielys left in January to live, work and volunteer in Cuenca, an Ecuadorian city at the lofty elevation of 8,500 feet. In between their daily cultural immersion, the family is avidly exploring all corners of this ecologically diverse country, from dense jungles and snow-swept mountaintops to the tips of volcanoes and the shores of the Galapagos Islands.

The family’s recent adventures include canoe rides through the Amazon jungle, watching shamans at work in indigenous villages, and hiking up to a glacier on Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest active volcano in the world at 19,347 feet.

“My dad and I made it all the way to the glacier, which was over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. It was really hard to breathe that high,” Hayden, 12, says. Evelyn, 9, remembers one particular jungle walk in the Amazon: “I was petting a wild monkey when it turned around and slapped me!”

Both kids also picked up some helpful hints from locals during their travels.

“Did you know you can rub termites on you as bug repellent? Or eat them, if you’re hungry,” Evelyn shares.

Unfortunately, tips on termites aren’t the only thing the kids picked up—Hayden, Evelyn and Kay all contracted giardia and four other parasites within the first month of living in Cuenca from produce purchased at their local outdoor mercado. Luckily, Ecuador’s health care system fixed them right up, and for only $2 apiece. Now they soak all fruits and veggies in grapefruit seed extract before cooking or eating them.

Living at such a high elevation also comes with its share of headaches—literally. “I’ve had day-long headaches, even when I drink tons of water,” Kay reports. And transitioning from safe, small-town Missoula to a medium-sized Latin American city where theft is rampant requires the family to stay on their toes during daily walks to school or on errands.

However, despite the typical curveballs that come with any trip to a different country, both Daniel and Kay agree that the trip has been muy tranquilo overall. “It’s such a pivotal experience for our family,” says Kay.

As for the nuts and bolts of setting up a family trip abroad, Daniel says that“traveling with kids adds a whole different layer. The Kielys chose Cuenca after exploring several possible places to live in South America. Cuenca made the most sense for several reasons: The water is clean enough to drink, the city is walkable for a family without a car, the school schedule is the same as Missoula’s, and Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar. They worked with a study abroad program called El Nomad, which allowed them to integrate quickly by helping the Kielys with everything from finding an apartment and volunteer opportunities to setting up weekly cultural classes and mapping out their excursions around the country.

“We’ve been talking about setting up a forum back in Missoula to help others plan and undertake living abroad with kids,” says Daniel.

Hayden and Evelyn were well-prepared for their bilingual experience abroad, since both of them have attended the Missoula International School (MIS) since the age of three. Even if the language isn’t new, the kids have had to adjust to plenty of other differences in Ecuador.

“There’s a lot of poverty here,” says Evelyn. “And lots of pollution, too.” She has plenty of first-hand stories related to poverty from the family’s twice-weekly volunteer work at a local community center.

Hayden had an even bigger transition than his sister. As an eighth grader in Ecuador, he’s in high school, which is a very different environment from the small, familiar classrooms at MIS. “It was hard at first to adjust to all of the cultural differences, like standing up and saying buenos días when a professor(a) enters the room. My school is not used to having foreigners, so they expected me to just know what to do.”

Kay and Daniel list three reasons behind their decision to relocate abroad for a half-year: to see other cultures, to ensure Spanish is “sealed in the kids’ brains,” and to spend more time together as a family. Daniel points out that they were fortunate that his role with Merrill Lynch allows him to work remotely and that MIS encourages its students to take a trip like this.

“We have no social obligations here, so we’re constantly on the go absorbing the culture together,” Kay explains.

When they reflect upon their imminent return home, each Kiely has a unique response. Evelyn thinks she could live a long time in Ecuador, but only if she could import all of her Missoula friends, family and pets. “It’s definitely been eye-opening to learn how the other half of the world lives, but I am super excited to return to my friends and the best school and teachers on this planet.”

Kay laughs about how they are now pros at successfully navigating “disgusting” foreign bathrooms. “I love the culture here, but I’ll definitely be happy to flush toilet paper again when I get back!”

Daniel stresses how pivotal the trip has been for each of them individually and as a family.

“Once we had a change of place, we also had a change in perspective,” he says. “We aren’t sure exactly how we’ll feel when we come back, but we all agree that we’ll be glad we made the trip.”