2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage

2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage


My mission in publishing this blog is first to provide a living history of my settlement and life in Cuenca, and to provide myself and the reader with a journal account delineating my reasons for why I have chosen to settle in Cuenca. Second, the posts are my way of staying in contact with family and friends back in the states, and to provide them with an understanding of a country and culture that most North Americans have little knowledge and awareness. Third, the blog is open to one and all who wish to compare and contrast the experiences of expat bloggers living in Cuenca, so that you can determine whether or not from your perspective Cuenca is an appropriate move for you. Fourth, my blog provides another example of how expats view and interpret life in Cuenca. Ecuadorians and Cuencanos who may read this blog are especially invited to post comments that may enhance all expats understanding and appreciation of Cuneca and its people, or to correct any misinterpretations in my assumptions and perceptions of Cuencano culture. Finally, I hope I can convey the feeling of love and appreciation that grows within me each passing day for this heavenly city nestled in the Andes and its very special people.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Beginnings Revisited

I published the following in my first post back on June 10th:

I discovered her by accident through a link on Yahoo, in which "International Living" listed Cuenca "Numeral Uno" among the ten best places for retirees to live. Of the ten cities listed, Cuenca most definitely caught my eye. Was it love at first site or just infatuation? As I researched this beautiful city, I fell more in love with her with each passing day. So now I begin a journey to find out if Cuenca is just a long-distance romance, or if for me, is she the real thing?

I am bewildered that I wrote the above only ten weeks ago. I feel as if I have lived a lifetime with all that has transpired in the last ten weeks. When I journeyed to Cuenca, it was to discover if she was as great and delightful as everyone indicated, or whether the perspectives presented by commercial outlets and even the bloggers were like most things in modern day life, little more than glorified marketing? It wasn't that I was looking for negative things or attempting to find excuses for justifying a no move option. I just could not believe anything in actuality could be that good. I'm still somewhat concern, because Cuenca was beyond what I could have imagined. Will I wake up one morning and discover that it was all just a deliriously delicious dream?

On the other hand, why look for problems were there are not any? What will be in life will be, and we all must follow our destinies before we can discover what they are. Cuenca is and appears to be my next chapter. You have probably read a number of the blogs if you are considering moving to Ecuador, and each will tell you the same thing. You must decide for yourself if it is the right move for you. You must know what it is you want out of life at this juncture, and to what degree Cuenca meets that criteria. I can only share with you why I have fallen in love with Cuenca. Maybe you will share many of the same experiences with similar responses, but you should visit at least for a month and maybe more than once to make that final decision.

One obvious attraction of living in Cuenca is the fact that the cost-of-living for most things is so inexpensive compared with living in the states. One could live decently on $15,000 to $20,000 a year. That kind of income won't allow for much in the way of extras and foreign vacations, but will certainly allow a more sustainable standard of living than comparatively in the United States. When I retire, assuming that the government can still honor its social security and pension payments, I will be able to live as well in Cuenca as I now live in the United States employed. I will be able to travel, enjoy nice meals in upper-scale restaurants as I choose, and I will still be able to save. No way would I be able to continue my currently employed lifestyle with the exorbitant costs of literally everything in Chicago.

The weather in Cuenca is also an attraction. As I've grown older, I no longer enjoy hot weather, particularly hot and humid weather. Muggy weather is not just uncomfortable, but it tires me out as well. Cuenca is spring-like with a narrow band of weather variations the year round. There are days or hours where the sun shines and it can feel like it's in the 80's without the humidity. Let the sun hide behind some clouds, and the temperature can feel ten or fifteen degrees cooler. In the coldest months of the year, temperatures can easily get down to single digits in the Chicago area, with moderate amounts of snow throughout the winter months, and with average daytime temperatures often in the 20's to 40's range. In Cuenca the daytime temperature highs are rarely below fifty degrees and when they slip into the 30's at night during their coldest periods, for Cuencanos that's cold. Having visited San Francisco and Monterey in the summer months, I never liked their weather. San Francisco frequently had fog that rolled in the mornings and the evenings. Fog quickly became tiresome, and treacherous for driving. Both cities with comparable weather to Cuenca, have two disadvantages that Cuenca does not have. Not being near the Equator, the warmth of the sun does not compensate for their cooler climates. Since both California cities are on the coast, there is a greater wind chill factor to consider, with which Cuenca does not have to contend. The result, Cuenca enjoys milder weather. Along with that mild weather comes the absolute delight of no pesky flies or mosquitoes. I frequently ate meals on the balcony, and did not need to concern myself with closing the sliding doors behind me. The inside becomes an extension of the outside on most days, where I am not isolated by heating and air conditioning.

Nothing is perfect. I found while I was visiting Cuenca more cloudiness and cooler nights than I would have preferred. However, I had to remind myself that these cloudy conditions in late July early August are the equivalent to Chicago's January weather. Not such a bad trade-off after all. Cuencano homes do not have central air, which definitely is not needed. Cuencano homes also have no central heating systems, which for most of the year are not needed either. However, there are some days when temperatures can get quite cold, particularly in the evening. I would recommend to anyone moving to Cuenca to get a highly energy efficient heater that can warm up 1,000 sq ft of living space quite quickly. I have no idea if such heaters are available in Cuenca. However, you can purchase them for about $400 in the states and you will have to pay an import tax of 35%, but in my opinion, it would be a wise investment. If you particularly should choose to live in older housing stock, the homes will be quite drafty and on the colder side. I have family members who have an electric heater called "Eden Pure", which they find to be excellent. "Eden Pure" (1-800-588-5615)is a quartz infrared portable heater, which heats evenly from ceiling to floor, does not dry the air, no fumes, and will not harm children or pets. (This is not a commercial, and no family members are associated with "Eden Pure". It's just an example of what's out there to do your heating job efficiently and at low cost.) I also am the type of person who does not like to wear layers of clothes when I am home, so an efficient heater that runs on a few cents a day in the states is a real plus to my way of thinking. During the night in Cuenca, I was always warm and toasty under the covers, but in the evening and if you are an early morning riser the right heater can take the edge off the cold air.

Today was a beautiful day in Chicago. The temperatures were in the mid-80's and with our dry spell, the humidity was not a factor. I looked up at the absolutely clear blue sky, and it reminded me of something else I miss about Cuenca. The sky for me in Cuenca always had a sense of presence in my day. It was as if I were in a large athletic arena and I was encapsulated within this sky dome surrounded by mountains, where often its programing of spectacular cloud formations and lighting effects would play out on the stage above me. Here in Chicago the sky looks so distant.

I am also looking forward to getting back to my newly made friends and acquaintances, which is another real plus about Cuenca. There are just enough expats scattered throughout Cuenca to have contacts with people from the states, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Those who choose to seek out contacts have ample opportunities to make acquaintances and friendships through activities like Friday night at Zoe's, introductions in Parque Calderon, gatherings at the English language bookstore, The Carolinas, etc. These expats are very giving of themselves and their time, and are a great resource for smooth transitions to a new city and adjustments in understanding the local culture. Yet the numbers of expats while these numbers will certainly grow are very small in relationship to the total population of Cuenca. Therefore, the expats are not threatening at this point to abrupt changes to Cuencano culture, or to reinforcing the easy choice of exclusively "hanging out with others like ourselves" syndrome that characterizes some expat communities in other countries, or ghettoizing ourselves in one neighborhood in the city. What I found most promising about the current expats with whom I have met and heard about is the fact that they generally are very well educated, most have been world travelers of one kind or another, and they have a great deal of stimulating thoughts and experiences to share. They not only bring an enhanced cosmopolitan touch to Cuenca, but also contribute to the Ecuadorian economy and social well-being; whether as consumers that support local retailers and services, or as entrepreneurs of new businesses, or as teachers in the universities, or as tutors to families in English, or as volunteers for many of the social needs of Cuencanos, or as initiators and planners for a Christmas party and needed gifts for kids on the coast. The list is endless of what expats can and do contribute to Cuenca. These in general are the kinds of people who are coming to Cuenca, and hopefully will be the kind of expats that will continue to populate Cuenca.

Which, of course, leads to another important factor about the expats. Most whom I have met have a desire to know more about Ecuadorian culture and to learn the language. I know I have been diligently practicing my Espanol since I returned to the states. I can see improvement. Even my student tutors have commented on my improvement. I make time for practice everyday to assure that I do not lose what I have learned and then challenge myself beyond that point. I started out with two student tutors who are native Spanish speakers, but increasingly more students who have had a year or two of Spanish in school want to get in on the act. Who knows before long I may have the entire classes speaking in Spanish.

Another very important factor is that the Ecuadorians themselves are such a welcoming and inviting people. When I hear expats talk about how living in Cuenca today is like living in the states back in the 40's or the 50's, they are generally referring to a less hectic life-style, the courtesy of the Ecuadorians, the work ethic that appears to take pride in what they do, their willingness to please, the laughing and smiling children, the family bonds, and most of all the ability to find contentment in the simple things in life. I don't want to spin an "Ozzie and Harriet" picture for you. There are many in the middle class who work long hours and have hectic lives as they have bought into the American dream of materialism foremost. About a quarter of the population of Ecuador is living outside Ecuador to earn enough money to send back home and to eventually purchase a home. The owning of a home in a society where cash must be paid for the home has become quite a status symbol for many Ecuadorians. The concern, however, becomes one of what happens to a traditional culture when its family life is interrupted by long absences of the fathers, particularly since a majority of the Ecuadorians living abroad are unable to bring their families with them? There is no doubt that the extended family still plays a larger role in Ecuadorian life than it does in the United States, which can help to compensate for absentee fathers. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for multiple brothers and cousins from the same family to all be abroad at the same time. On the other hand, many Ecuadorians like Americans from the United States, as a result of their contacts from living there or having relatives who live in the states. Ecuadorians identify the United States as the country which legally or not gave them the opportunity to improve their living standards, and those who lived abroad have developed some familiarity with the English language. Some of whom have become quite fluent in English.

Cuenca, in particular, offers itself as the cultural capital of Ecuador with two universities, its intellectual leadership, a multiplicity of museums, a very fine city orchestra, and the center for many of the arts and crafts of the people; as she is bespeckled in her jewels of Spanish Renaissance colonial facades, and is an ideal size for a city of 500,000 without the density of population that is found in most big cities in the world today. Cuenca has a low urban crime rate per capita when compared with not only larger Ecuadorian cities, but even more so with American cities. Cuenca proportionately offers the largest middle class of any sizable city in Ecuador. There is no begging to speak of, and not the homeless and shanty towns that can be found in many large cities in the world today. While expats are warned not to be out on the streets late at night, because as Anglos their appearance may attract the thief, I have in any city I have visited in the world always come and gone as I have wanted. I never during my month in Cuenca ever had any incident that even approached a need for a sense of fear. I walked in some neighborhoods that appeared not too likely to be the kind of neighborhoods I would want to walk about in the night, but I did walk the streets quite late at night. Anything can happen anywhere and I am not suggesting that you should not be cautious, but I feel safer in Cuenca than I would in most cities I have visited.

So what is the downside of Cuenca? Possibly I don't know what it is and have not heard about it yet. There is no doubt that if you do not want to learn Spanish that there are a sufficient number of Ecuadorians who are fluent in English, who can help you with the most important issues in relocating and settling in Cuenca. You can always get by on a little shop Spanish with a mix of Spanglish, but you will miss out on the best part of living abroad, which is to experience the people and the culture up close and personal. If you have never lived or traveled to other cultures before, where you are the minority; a move to Cuenca may be unnerving. If you come from a hot climate, Cuenca may be too cold for you, and if you come from a dry climate, Cuenca may be too wet for you. I have yet to weather the bureaucracy of Cuenca with its notorious delays, and its incessant need for multiple copies of every document imaginable. I am told to develop a stoic attitude about the waits and the frustrations of having to go elsewhere to get copies made; but a retired, slowed-down life-style allows for such inconveniences, and such incidences are not everyday occurrences. I am more concerned about being the victim of an auto accident as a rider or as a pedestrian, than I am worried about any crime. Cuencano driving is insane, but it does seem to have a logic of its own. I'm amazed I saw no accidents when in Cuenca, although I heard about a couple of them. The sidewalks are often in need of repair, and can be treacherous. It is not uncommon to walk along very narrow sidewalks that require people passing one another, for one of the parties to have to step out into frequently busy streets. Sometimes a piece of property jets out and absorbs what should have been the sidewalk, which once again requires walking in the street until the sidewalk picks up again. I recently had a friend who fell and injured her wrist, so walking does require a great deal of focus and attention. The political situation with the Ecuadorian government could become more risky, but that has not been unusual in modern Ecuadorian history, and what happens at the political level of a country does not always result in ruptured changes in ones personal life. Quite frankly, things are not so politically and economically stable here in the states right now either, so who is to say where the safer political climate may be at this time or in the near future?

These are all the imponderables in life. Every country I ever visited I enjoyed immensely, but Ecuador's Cuenca is the first where I have ever wanted to live. I only know that I am in love with Cuenca, that my relationship with her will change as all relationships do over time. I'm just gambling at this point in my life that she will be the best fit for me, and that through the ups and downs we will experience life together for as long as we are together.


  1. Wow, Jim, excellent synopsis of Cuenca -- beautifully written. I will refer folks to this blog post for a snapshot view of life in Cuenca (Ecuador). We're thankful to be here and hope we live long enough to see our Social Security,but not counting on it! For now, our pension is enough and we're grateful to be able to retire at 55 which is a blessing in itself!

  2. Connie, thanks for the kind comments. All I keep thinking about is what I left out--like the very good health-care, and the weight loss from living in the Andes. I would have easily gained fifteen pounds if I ate at home the way I ate in Cuenca, especially with the huge carb intake. Geez, I've only been home three weeks, and already I've gained four pounds, and I have not eaten anywhere near like I did in Cuenca. Please forgive me, but I don't recall meeting you at Zoe's when I was in Cuenca. There were so many people. If I did, I hope to get reacquainted and know the two of you better. If I did not, I look forward to meeting the two of you when I return. Until then, continue to enjoy Cuenca for me.

  3. Jim,
    This was a wonderful post. Like you, we are looking forward to getting back to Cuenca. We are currently in the throws of disposing of all our stuff, and will be flying out of here on October 17th come hell or high water. We are also looking forward to you getting back to Cuenca!

    Gil & Deborah