Don’t let the easy smile and delicate poise of Her Excellency Lourdes Puma Puma, the current Ecuadorian Ambassador to Malaysia, mislead you. As the firm handshake suggests, this is a lady with a steely determination, who has worked hard to succeed in a highly competitive industry.
“I am a person of action,” she told me with a firmness that characterises her speech, “I like get things moving, and I work hard.”
It was inevitable, perhaps, that Lourdes would be a woman of drive, as her early family life was not one of luxury. “We never had it easy,” she recalls. “My parents always had to work hard.” The example clearly rubbed off on the entire brood, and while Lourdes enrolled in university to study law, her siblings followed equally impressive career paths: “One is a doctor, one an engineer, one a lawyer, one an economist,” she lists. “They live all over the place, and I miss them all very much!”
While she may spend her life at a distance from her loved ones, Lourdes’ family are still a constant part of her life, and she tells me proudly how they eagerly research whichever country she is posted to, often knowing more about the place than she does. “I had never been to Asia before I came here,” she explains, “and neither had any of my family, so they were all on the internet, reading everything they could and telling me what to expect!”
She has, it is safe to say, been delighted by what she found when she arrived in Malaysia nearly three years ago. “There is just huge diversity in every sense of the word,” she says, “and so many different religions, foods, customs, and even music; I love it!”
The stimulation is multiplied by four as Lourdes’ position covers Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as well as Malaysia – “so many beautiful countries,” she trills – and while she views the position as “such an honour”, she is also aware of the challenges of the region, not least because Southeast Asia is becoming more and more influential in the world.
Being at the forefront of development and change is another theme in her career, however, and she was a pioneer of sorts when she took on her first position within the diplomatic service.
“I was very young when I arrived on my first posting in Chile,” she recalls, “and at that time there were very few female diplomats. People were apprehensive about having women in these jobs, as most ambassadors still had very traditional ways of thinking.”
This didn’t deter the sprightly youngster, and she arrived in Chile “with resolve to demonstrate that women are capable, and that we don’t need to ask for any privileges. I worked hard to prove myself,” she says. It didn’t take long for the staff at the Mission to embrace the young diplomat, regardless of her gender, and she smiles when she tells me that “some of them remain my friends to this day.”
The apprehensive welcome has lessened as she has racked up years of service with postings in Brussels, Sweden, and Brazil before Asia, and she is encouraged by the changes being made by the government to ensure more women get the chance to be diplomats. “Now, the ratio must be 50/50,” she explains proudly, “and people are becoming more used to the idea of women taking on these roles. It can be harder for us, of course, as we have to handle the job and the house, but we are here and we are here to stay.”
She is in good company here in Malaysia, as there are currently ten other female Ambassadors and, whenever the ladies can find a moment in their schedules, they meet up for meals or make trips to the cinema. “They have become very good friends of mine,” she says happily, “although it is hard to find a time when we are all free!”
Her own schedule is understandably hectic as she flits between the countries under her care, but she always finds time to make the long trip home to see her family. “Being so far away from them is one of the biggest challenges of the job,” she admits, “and I miss them very much.” That said, she has never regretted the decision to swap her focus from criminal law to diplomacy, even if it has meant a life lived at a distance from those she loves. “I will live and die in Ecuador,” she says determinedly, “but I can’t imagine not working, I love my job.”
“No, I wouldn’t change one thing.” And with that same misleading delicacy, HE Lourdes Puma Puma waves me off.
Source: The Expat December 2012
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