Fed up with the Canadian winter and yearning for a liveable climate year-round, Donald Bosch and his wife Monique settled on Ecuador.
Though he’s only 58, the former West Island resident’s idea was to retire and live a simpler life. Little did he realize that his skills and experience renovating houses and his desire to transmit his knowledge to Ecuadorian workers would soon get the better of him.
Not that he’s complaining, far from it.
We bumped into Bosch at his and our favourite lunch spot – Jhimmy’s on the second street behind the seaside malecon in Salinas, Ecuador, where he lunches with his workers.
A boss sharing the $3 lunch with employees is not something that most Ecuadorian employers will do — for most it’s a no-no, a reflection of the inherent class system here that divides those who give orders and pay wages from those who carry them out.
But Bosch has a different attitude toward labour relations. He was born in Lachine to a French Canadian mother and Flemish father, grew up in Dorion and Dollard des Ormeaux and moved to Holland at age 8 in 1968 with his new stepfather.
“My goal is to help people, to show them how to do things differently, and give them extremely valuable skills,” he says.
In construction and renovation, that means showing Ecuadorian workers “all the little things that we have learned, sharing that wealth of knowledge they don’t have and are eager to learn.”
This includes how to use materials to increase insulation to maintain a constant temperature, and such simple techniques as using longer handles on tools to reduce wear and tear on workers’ backs and putting wheels on a box of mixed cement so it follows the workers to where they are using it.
“They just don’t come to work — they come to learn,” he notes.
When we stopped by to visit Bosch and crew at a construction site in nearby Punta Carnero, a few kilometers from Salinas, we saw smiling workers and Bosch working with them, wearing a cloth under his cap to keep the sun off his neck.
The workers appeared pleased, not only to be earning a living but to be treated with respect by their boss-teacher. Bosch learned Spanish to add to his repertoire of languages that includes French, English, Dutch and German.
Returning to Canada from Holland at 22, he opened West Island Glass in Pierrefonds, selling windows and doors with his wife, Monique Clermont.
As he remembers, he started his sideline as a renovator doing favours for people, which morphed into a business. “I’ve always been working with my hands,” he recalls.
“We bought a lot of homes in our lives, we lived in them, worked on them, and when it was done we’d say, ‘okay let’s sell it now.’ It gives you more experience as you go along, every house gets a little bigger, a little nicer — after you’ve done a whole bunch of them, you know what you want.”
In 2005, the couple decided to semi-retire. He was 46 and his interests were elsewhere. They were living the quiet life on Carillon Island, in the middle of the Ottawa River, raising chickens and rabbits on this relatively isolated site. But life was tough in winter when they needed an airboat to cross the water to Lachute.
“We enjoyed the lifestyle, but the winters got very long. We were the only people living full-time on the island. We had a well dug, and hydro via an underwater cable. Once we started living there full-time, other people started doing it as well.”
When neighbours noticed the improvements Bosch had made on the property, they asked for the same. “We started doing a lot of work for people there.”
But the long arduous winters with “snow piled up six feet” and mountains of ice in the river during the spring thaw persuaded the couple to look elsewhere in 2008.
“I put a spread sheet together of a bunch of different venues, including Asia, with a checklist for political climate, stability, weather, safety and we narrowed it down to Belize, Panama, and Ecuador.
“We decided to come to Ecuador (in the winter of 2009) first to take a look at what we would not like about it. We wanted to live in a place where we could appreciate things better, often because of the lack of them.
“In Canada, everything is perfect, everything is right there. You pay a lot for it, but it’s right there. Here it’s more concentrated on people as opposed to things, and that’s what really attracted us.”
As they travelled around, they saw that things in Ecuador today are similar to what they were half a century ago in Canada and Holland.
“We were still about neighbours and community and people as opposed to how big your car is, how big your house is, what kind of clothes you wear: It was more about who you are as a person, and that’s what attracted us.
“Walking in the streets of small towns, people and little kids look at you, want to know who you are, so different, friendly, and welcoming.
“Yes, the poverty is there, but coming out of these homes, the kids have clean clothes, they are happy, they’ve got something to eat, and in many cases they own the home they live in.”
The first few years the couple drove about 30,000 kilometers around the country. “Everywhere we went we felt safe. Driving at midnight through the mountains, we came to a restaurant and the guy was just about to close, and we stopped and said, ‘could we have something to eat?’ and he says ‘sure, come on in’, and we spent about an hour there, talking to him, his family. He gave us his number, wanted us to come back – it’s stuff you don’t have any more in Canada.”
At the time, only Monique spoke some Spanish, “but we managed to communicate — there was a genuine interest.”
“Here, if you don’t want to do something for a month, you don’t do it. In Canada you can’t do that, unless you’re extremely wealthy. Here you might pay $100 a year in taxes for your property, when in Canada you’re paying $3,000, $4,000, $5,000. “You don’t have the same stress here and you don’t see that stress with the people you meet here.”
After spending a winter in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest, in 2009, the couple returned and bought a condo in 2010 at the Puerto Lucia Yacht Club in La Libertad right on the water.
They were coming in the winter, six months on, six months off, but finally in September 2014 moved here permanently.
“Winters were getting to us. I like my liberty and I did not feel I could stay free in Canada anymore.”
Issues with l’Office de la langue française, which complained there was more English than French on the company’s website, was a contributing factor. They moved across the provincial border to Ontario, then decided, “Why don’t we make our base in Ecuador, where we can be in flip flops all year round.
“Sure, things are a bit slower here, and in some ways it’s 50 years behind the times, but that is a small price to pay for the feeling of liberty.”
After selling the condo they bought a little house in the La Molina area of Salinas. But Bosch’s skill in upgrading properties did not go unnoticed. Expats and Ecuadorians alike came by, liked what they saw, and asked if he could do the same for them.
That was the fall of 2015, and Bosch and crew now have more work than they can handle. “An Ecuadorian lady I know could not get her construction guy to do her closets the way she wanted. I told her how it should be done and she asked me to do it.
“When a welder was working there and he saw me with my tools, he said he’d like to work with me, saying ‘you work so differently from the way we do.’
“They don’t plan like we do, they don’t do finishing like we do, they are not well organized, don’t have the right tools, or don’t understand visuals.
“So the welder started working with me at my place, and then for an expat. I’ve been teaching him for over a year and four months and then a younger worker came on.
It’s all by word of mouth — he hasn’t registered his business and he doesn’t want the hassle that goes with it.
“I just want to teach these guys how to do things differently so when I decide to stop they have the skills, the tools, and the knowledge necessary to increase their level of income for their families.”
He spends his own cash buying tools he plans to turn over to the workers once he pulls back.
“I’m not going to get rich doing this,” he observes, but the men he is working with will be able to carry on for both Ecuadorians and expats.
He recalled how proud and appreciated they felt when an American expat insisted on taking their picture together after they finished her kitchen in three weeks — lightning speed compared to the normal pace.
“When these men work at our house, they eat at our table — that’s unheard of in Ecuador,” he reflected.
Bosch says he hadn’t planned this experience and is not looking to make it permanent. “If I had a younger guy come down here from Canada who has construction experience, and would want to live here, I would start an official business with him taking care of it.
“Sharing knowledge is about the best thing you can do for these people: giving money does nothing, but teaching them skills does a lot, and if you’re doing something you like, it’s even better.”
“These guys have 25 to 30 years of experience as masons, but they have never used an eight-inch cinder block. (eight by 16 by eight) as we do in Canada.
“The eight-inch block reduces the need for pillars. In this country they only work with four-inch or five-inch blocks. It’s a learning experience for them.”
So is working with someone who treats them as equals — the look on their faces says as much.