Interview by Linda McFarlin
Life in Ecuador has not always been easy for Phyllis Cooper, who bought land several years ago in Cotacachi while on sabbatical in South America. Meeting difficulties with courage enough for ten women, she carved her own personal paradise out of a small-town cornfield. Within a few years’ time, Lueva, a 13-room retreat center in Cotacachi, was open for business.
As you drive into Cotacachi from the Pan American Highway, taking the left fork into town down Diez de Agosto, which is also known as Leather Street, you will see a big sign on the left pointing down a cobblestone road. The sign reads Lueva, a word that sounds vaguely Spanish, but which is actually Hawaiian for “love.”
Phyllis' property is a 12-acre spa, retreat and healing center, conceived and brought to life through her strong desire. She is a North American woman of vision and courage who first came to Ecuador over a decade ago.
Her story follows, told to me one cloudy morning as we sipped tea in her dining room, watching the hummingbirds zipping through her orchard.
Linda – How did you end up in Cotacachi?
Don’t know…. For many years I had plans to build a health retreat in Mexico after retiring from university teaching.
In 1989-90 I was in South America for a sabbatical, doing research on women in the Americas and stress. I formed the habit of taking a few days off after interviewing professors at major universities, so I could visit the area and learn more about the culture of each city and country.
Following visits to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, my next stop was Quito, to interview women faculty at the Catholic University and Central University, the two largest universities in the 1990’s. I took a day trip by bus to Otavalo. Then I was going to Peru.
But upon returning to Quito, I happened to check the U.S. Embassy’s travel information, the only time I ever checked it during the trip. The information said not to go to Peru. Since I was travelling alone, I decided to go back to Cotacachi.
Linda – How did you find the land for your retreat?
On the return trip to Quito I met a man on the bus. He invited me to meet his family in Cotacachi. Since I had decided not to go to Peru at this time, I went back to Cotacachi and looked up the guy I had met on the bus. He agreed to act as my guide and we hired a truck.
I don't know why I asked if property was for sale in Cotacachi. I had already found great properties in Guadalajara, Mexico and Costa Rica. I wasn’t even thinking of retiring for another ten years… and I was certain that I was going to Mexico. The truck driver took me to look at a piece of property. The owner wasn’t there, so the driver said, “I have a piece of property for sale.”
When we arrived, I stood on the cobblestone road and looked out over a cornfield. The two volcanoes, Cotacachi and Imbabura, were in the distance and I said, “Okay. This is it!”
I don’t think that I even stepped onto the property. There was a feeling that welled up inside me, a feeling that perhaps in another life I had lived on this property.
So in 1990, I bought the cornfield. I finished my sabbatical, then returned to Ecuador Thanksgiving, 1991, and bought more land--the strip of woods that joins my property.
Linda – Would you share with us what your experience in building your retreat was like?
The man I met on the bus and his family treated me like a member of their family. One family member, a lawyer, offered to help me buy the land and to set up a company. He said he was a lawyer, but he hadn’t finished his degree.
I didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know the customs. As it turned out, he did the paperwork incorrectly.
He also told me that I had to have an Ecuadorian partner in order to do business in Ecuador. So I told him, “Okay, you can have ten percent of my company.” He dragged the whole process out for four years. I thought it was just the Ecuadorian way of doing business.
Linda – Tell us about the challenges you faced during the building process.
I started building my retreat in 1994. I drew the primary buildings on graph paper and took the drawing to Ecuador. I was told that because I was building a business I had to have an architect do professional plans.
The lawyer told me to send him money for materials and payroll and I did. “I’ll take care of everything for you,” he promised me.
As many Americans do, when I heard that Jorge Quilumbaqui, the builder we hired to do the construction, was only making $100 a month, I thought that amount was too low. I told the lawyer to pay him $100 per week. That was my first mistake, giving the idea that I would pay far more than the customary rate.
The lawyer introduced me to one of his friends, one of Ecuador’s ambassadors, so I thought he must be a good guy. I trusted him.
He took care of all the bills. Once when I asked him how much I owed him, he replied, “Nothing. I’m a partner.” I was unaware that he was telling others that my property was his project.
The next mistake I made was in inviting him and his wife to my home in the U.S. a few years later. When he saw my large house, my Mercedes, I guess he decided I had so much money that I should share it with him.
He said he needed my power of attorney in order to create the Ecuadorian company. Now I know the difference between giving total power of attorney and giving a power of attorney for specific reasons, but back then I gave him carte blanche.
Because he had my power of attorney, he took out two large loans in 1996 in my name, without my knowledge, transferring the money into his own account. Meanwhile I took another sabbatical in ’96 or ’97 so I could be in Ecuador to watch construction progress. I was doing relaxation workshops with women from small towns in Ecuador, teaching meditation, tai chi and testing their stress levels.
Going to the bank where I had my account, I told them, “I’ll be here for a year and will be signing my own checks.” Imagine my shock when they informed me that my account balance was only $4000, despite the fact that I had just deposited $30,000 into it!
The bank’s reply was that they had withdrawn $25,000 in interest on two loans I had not been paying.
I went directly from the bank to the lawyer’s office. Slamming my hand down on his desk, I yelled, “You are a thief! Where’s my money?”
His reply was, “Shhhh. It’s all right.”
I went to his house and talked to his wife. She knew all about the situation but hadn’t known how to tell me.
As I later discovered, other people in Cotacachi had wanted to tell me what was going on but were afraid because he was a lawyer.
As the years passed, several people told me they wished they’d said something to me. When I asked why they hadn’t, they said it was because he’d said he was my partner.
The bankers said they couldn’t help me, so I had to pay off the loans. In total, I lost about $100,000. I stopped building.
For about three weeks I was very sick for the first time in my life. I had a cold, lowered immunity, probably high blood pressure. It was a difficult time for me.
Linda – How did you overcome this stressful situation and complete the building of your dream?
I had a talk with myself: “Phyllis, get hold of yourself. You can run away or you can stay and fight this!” I stayed a year in Ecuador, then went back to the U.S. I filed suit against the lawyer, hired my own attorney in Quito.
Sometime after our first meeting, the lawyer who took my money admitted one of his sons to the hospital, where the son died. Because I felt sorry for him, I didn’t push the case.
He counter-sued me for $200,000, a process that took three years to settle and proceeded from the lower courts all the way to the Supreme Court of Ecuador. I eventually won the suit he had against me and by then, he was out of my life.
I decided to finish my retreat.
I dropped my suit against him. I can still sue him because there is no statute of limitation in Ecuador. But I wanted it over.
I believe in people. In my heart, I knew that I had to forgive him for my own good.
Linda – Please describe your process for finding peace, forgiveness and the courage to continue with your dream.
I reminded myself, “You are alive, in good health. This is not the worst thing that can happen. There is a lesson here. You’ve gotta forgive or else keep the upset with you every day.” So I forgave.
I try to teach people that when we can’t live in the moment each day, someone’s winning and it’s not us. So try not to let someone else have your thoughts and feelings. If you do, you are letting them get to you.
My building contractor only built the “obra negra,” the skeleton of the main building and the nine unit suites outside. I subcontracted out the rest, the floors, windows, tile. I chose the best materials I could find, like chanul, a hardwood like oak. I had custom wood furniture made.
Linda – What kinds of programs evolved at your retreat center?
My first group numbered twenty-six, all from an Ecuadorian company. Later others trickled in after seeing my website.
I’d worked with the German company Seimens and they were going to send me people. But because I stopped building and was 3 years behind schedule, when I was finally ready, they weren’t. A new guy had taken over the position of the man helping me and he didn’t follow through with clients for me.
Sometimes there were people here and sometimes none at all. After that first big group, the most I had was about 14 people at a time. I found that I preferred to work one-on-one and I’d give 3-day workshops for only one participant.
I specialized in weight reduction, overcoming addictions and stress management. Later I operated Lueva as a day spa, allowing people to use the indoor pool, hot tub, steam room, sauna and Turkish baths.
About this time it occurred to me that maybe I’m just the architect of Lueva and am meant to turn it over to someone else. I have been an architect of sorts all my life.
After building a national gymnastics team, I handed it over to someone else. After building internship programs in industrial health, I passed them on to someone else.
I developed and taught stress management and sport psychology courses at the College of New Jersey, relinquishing them to other faculty after 20 years. After developing programs for Fortune 500 companies—Forbes, Johnson and Johnson--stress management, smoking abatement, weight loss, again I trained someone else to do them.
I operated the retreat until 2006, going back and forth about selling. I considered turning Lueva into an old folks’ home. Then one day I asked myself, “What am I doing here? I want to be free!”
Freedom is going back to having just a little house, taking time to sit on the patio, looking at the views and not having to worry about full-time help. I know that I already have a lot of freedom, but I want more!”
Linda – Tell us about your childhood.
My father was a carpenter and my mother worked in a health department. I grew up in Maryland but was born in Washington D.C. because there was no hospital in our town. The sixth of seven children, I began to work around the age of 14 or 15.
Ironically, although we had little money, my dad’s mother was wealthy. But the $250,000 inheritance he received when my grandmother died quickly disappeared.
My mother was the world’s kindest person. Working in the health field, she was exposed to people in need. Our house often had lots of extra children staying with us. Instead of stray dogs, my mother brought home kids.
Once she took in a family and their four or five children. That Thanksgiving we received a gift basket of food, the kind that is given to the poor. It hit me, “We must be poor!” When I look back, it was only because we’d taken in that large family.
Linda – What was your educational background and career path?
I majored in health science and physical education with a minor in psychology at the University of Maryland. During a summer job I went into a grocery store to buy some fruit for lunch and met my future husband,who is seven years older.
We married a year later, at the end of my sophomore year, and six years later our first son, Scott, was born. Three years after that, Kevin was born.
I was in gymnastics the first part of my career, teaching health and phys ed, gymnastics and other sports in a junior high school for 2 years. I was selected to represent the state of Maryland at a national gymnastics symposium.
From that symposium, I was invited to teach at Westchester State University, even without a masters’ degree. Burgess Publishing Company asked me to write my first book in 1968, “Gymnastics for Women,” later renamed, “Gymnastics for Men and Women.”
After finishing my masters’ in psycho-educational process and exercise physiology, I moved on to teaching statistics and psychology. Certification followed in the areas of sports psychology, biofeedback and stress management. I gave seminars in Saudi Arabia, Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
I’d return home and say to my son, “Hey, Scott! Remember me?”
On our 25th wedding anniversary my husband and I decided to divorce, but waited another year. Our divorce was amicable.
Linda – What are some of the experiences that have shaped your life’s direction?
When I was about 15 I saw a picture of the cross at Rio de Janeiro and wanted to go there one day. I don’t really know why. It was just so far away. My parents were strict. No lipstick until I was 16.
I was athletic, a gymnast even after I married, a national gymnast. When I had my first son at the age of 26, we had a woman care for him in our home. I put him into a nursery school after I searched and searched to find the right one for him.
One day I received a call that my 3-year-old son had been in an accident. I rushed to the hospital to be told that they would have to remove his eye.
At the time, I was coaching gymnastics. I had often observed how athletes worked so hard and do so well in practice, yet screwed up in meets. This, coupled with my son’s accident, led me to want to learn to manage athletic stress, my own stress and to enhance performance.
After that, things began to just come to me. New techniques would pop into my head, concepts I hadn’t studied in school, like forgiveness, the importance of self-talk. I tried them on myself first because I was a very concerned mother.
I was pregnant with Kevin at the time of Scott’s accident, but I didn’t know it. When Kevin was born, I was very worried about him. I took him to the hospital and said, “My child can’t hear.”
The doctor told me I was just an anxious mother because of Scott’s accident—overprotective. I returned one month later and again was reassured that nothing was wrong with Kevin’s hearing.
So I changed doctors and they listened to me. When they tested him, they found that he indeed, could not hear. At the age of 5 months, doctors performed an ear operation and Kevin could hear! The very next day he began to walk, toddling around inside his crib.
These occurrences made me think about the stresses that we all encounter. If I could help myself, I could also help others. And that is what I wanted to do.
I would talk to myself in a mirror, saying, “You’re strong. It’s not my fault. I wasn’t home with my kids. I feel guilty, but if I feel guilty, I can’t do my job as a mother or a teacher.” This technique worked for me.
My dissertation:“The Effects of Biomedical, Physiological, and Psychological Techniques on Performance Enhancement,” was done with national-level gymnasts using control groups from all over the country .
After the results proved very successful, some executives that I was working with in the Philadelphia and Princeton area invited me to do the same program with their employees.
Linda – Can you give an example of how you work?
Many of the techniques I’ve done with people were not learned in courses. I learned from my students and clients, from observation and from inner guidance.
One method involved having students/clients draw trees representing each member in their childhood family. (Phyllis did this technique with me and she is very intuitive. She accurately pegged the dynamics operating in my family of origin.)
Even though I am no longer operating Lueva, I still offer help when I feel it is appropriate. Recently I met a very stressed woman from Panama on the plane to Mexico City. She was a designer and was also having problems with her son. As we talked, I could tell that her son was probably an indigo child, so I coached her to allow him to grow, not to castigate him.
She wanted to know what she could do to persuade people to buy her line of clothing. I reminded her to be honest, to be herself and to look people in the eye when she talked to them.
Linda – What is your advice for others wanting to live in Ecuador?
Are you running to or running from something? If you are not happy with yourself, you are not going to make it here. If you are looking for something or someone to make you happy, then you won’t feel happy anywhere in the world.
If you choose to live in another country, learn the language. It’s also very important not to want the same things you had or want things done the same way they were done in your home country.
Linda – What’s next for you?
Right now I want a couple of years to do things just for me, to spend time in Mexico with my boyfriend. When Lueva is sold, I will go to Mexico and buy a house.
I want to travel to Madagascar. It’s always been on my list. I don’t know Spain. I want to see the pyramids.