I suggest before you read today's post, that you click on the link to the following post or "copy and paste" if necessary. I wrote about my thoughts and experiences after I returned to the states from my one month first encounter with Cuenca in the summer of 2010. The post will help you to better appreciate and understand how I view living in Cuenca now with what were my original reflections with my first time experiences:
I am celebrating nineteen months in Cuenca, an odd time I suppose for anniversary reflection. However, at the one year anniversary, I thought I needed more time to experience living in Cuenca before I offered my reflections. As I read the linked post above from 2010, there is little that I would change. I believe that earlier post offers an accurate portrayal of how I thought then and what I think now. Much of what I offer in today's post is an enhancement of those earlier reflections.
I originally visioned my relationship with Cuenca as a romance, and like any young romance the tingling feelings of meeting someone that one feels may be life-transforming was certainly there with Cuenca. It was for me love at first sight, and she (Cuenca) has not for a minute let me down.
Like any new romance, the initial highs give way to a more maturing of the relationship. When I read some of my earliest posts in 2010, I am almost embarrassed with the giddiness with which I approached everything related to Cuenca. Although it had been years since I had done any international traveling, my month in Cuenca was not like I had never before spent lengthy times abroad, particularly in countries and cultures that can truly be describe as exotic, which Cuenca is not.
Much of the early excitement and novelty of visiting and then relocating to Cuenca has subsided. Things that were so new, now are just part of the everyday landscape. I miss some of that excitement of the first year. New experiences can really make a person feel alive again. I immersed myself delightedly in the novelty of new experiences of everything a new culture had to offer. I greatly enjoyed making new friends. What a passion of mine it was to find the "right" apartment, and the delicious delight in all the hours of planning and envisioning with my friends what my newly furnished apartment would look like once it was completed. Of course, there were all the adjustments which needed to be made to the innumerable challenges presented by learning where everything in the city was located, and the cultural differences that arise and are relished on one hand, and require my personal adjustments on the other hand.
While I miss the thrill of a new found crush with my new lady, I am also glad I am getting settled. It is nice to no longer pull out a map to figure out where I am in El Centro. It is convenient since I arrived that many bills can now be paid by on-line transfers through one's bank account, which results in avoidance of many long lines. Even for new arrivals the residency process has become easier and smoother beyond anything we could have imagined even a few short months ago. It's nice to get into a routine with shopping, and know I can go through Supermaxi or Coopera, and quickly pickup what I need without taking time to pull out my translator and find out what on earth the product is, or what it contains, or how it works.
How has Cuenca, nestled in the South Andes, changed or at least my perception changed of this city since I arrived for that first monthly visit in 2010? Well, I remember the first time I walked into the Mall Del Rio, the largest mall in Cuenca, my heart sank. I was not looking for the Norte Americano experience, and with it, its emphasis on consumerism. I'm not opposed to Ecuadorians wanting a better material life-style. However, people being people, most do not know once sucked into the matrix of Hollywood's, Wall Street's, and Madison Avenue's human conditioning of people to consumerism, to style and form over substance, to self-aggrandizement over the self-sufficency and the loyalty to the family; the humongous price a culture will pay with the loss of its soul.
The strong family orientation becomes undermined by consumerism. Many Cuencano young adults tell me that they want only one or two children, even when they may be the progeny of four to six family offsprings. The reason given is that it is too expensive to have more than one or two children. The Cunecanos remind me of the United States in the 60's, as keeping up with the Joneses, and the increasing number of working mothers began to undermine the American family. It is compounded in Cuenca by the large number of absentee fathers that work abroad in Spain and the United States, although many have returned in recent years due to the economic conditions and the crackdowns on illegal immigrants. It would make an interesting academic study to attempt to ascertain not only the absence for long periods of time of many of the men from Cuenca, but also the impact these Cuecanos have in changed values from their experience in the United States or Spain and their impact upon current Cuencano culture as they return.
An example, of the sixties flavor was observed by me with one of Ecuador's leading bank's television commercial; whereby the perfect family of a handsome husband, attractive wife, and the prerequisite cute and adorable young son and daughter make their way smilingly and delightfully through a store happily choosing whatever merchandise their hearts desire; and no problema, just charge it on their bank credit card as if that were the end of the story. Immediate gratification will due more harm than good to Cuencanos in the years ahead. Hopefully, Cuencanos will not go down the same rabbit hole as Americans in the United States, but affluence seems to breed similar results across all cultural lines.
I have already noticed a change in many of the teens, particularly the boys, as they are plugged into their ear phones, and become increasingly oblivious to their surroundings while they walk down the street. The proliferation of cell phones in the last eighteen months has been dramatic. The drop off in young people who once responded with a "buenas tardes" has been noticeable. In fact, almost an excuse not to speak. The amount of text messaging becomes as absorbing of teens' attention as in the states. It has not become unusual to see families in restaurants, where the teen boy in particular is busy either text messaging, or playing whatever games these phones provide. So much for family time together, when some members are physically present, but mentally absent.
When I first entered the malls, teens were usually with their families. This summer while school was out, I was amazed at the large crowd of teens just hanging out in Millenium Mall. Cell phones being the point of communication to bring so many together. The teens were not causing problems, but it was another demonstration of how the culture is changing, and how mall management is faced with how to deal with large numbers of loitering teens. In fact, I've been told that as little as six years ago, there were no malls in Cuenca. Another example of how consumerism has grown in Cuenca and is affecting Cuencanos.
I am the product of the baby boomer generation, so I have lived through all these changes. I do not find myself free from consumerism either, but I never allowed myself to go into debt by buying things I could not pay for when my credit card balance came due the next month. There is no doubt while some of the open markets in the city can be initially enjoyable to experience and haggle over prices, I am also glad that there are places like Supermaxi, Coral, and Coopera where I can just pickup what I need in one stop shopping. I am a creature of my own culture, and I like the convenience of such shopping, while saving the open markets for when friends and family come as tourists. On the other hand, I hate to see the cashiers become mindless and numb as they ring up prices from one customer after another, and the human interaction that takes place in the tiendas is lost.
Calle Larga provides the main bar, karoke, music, restaurant section of Cuenca. This strip from what I was told didn't even exist five years ago. I have watched it grow since I have arrived, and even spill over to other adjoining streets. Cuencano young people in general don't have a lot of money for excess. The taxes are high on liquor, and that keeps the younger folks generally limited to beer drinking in the bars. Most young drinkers in the bars appear to drink responsibly, possibly because their budget only allows for two or three beers. However, there are those that over-drink as well. I thought one weekend while in the Larga area that crowds were getting large, and may get out of control. There were no problems. However, by the next weekend, there were many police present along Calle Large, and in Cuenca the simple presence of police goes a long way as a preventative measure to the potential manifestation of youthful irresponsibility in Cuenca. There is nothing heavy-handed about the police, they stand around more like chaperones.
I also notice fewer teen boys than when I first arrived in Cuenca, who as they walk down the street with their mother may have their arm around her shoulder as they walk, or as they walk hand-in-hand. A teen in the states would choose death by a thousand means before being seen in public demonstrating such behavior toward his mother. In Cuenca, it has been so endearing, and speaks volumes of the central role of family in Cuencano culture, which becomes undermined by increased exposure to the matrix spoken of early in this post. There is a great deal of resilience in Cuencano culture, but outside influences can undermine it more quickly than people think, as seismic shifts in the attitudes of the young can emerge like two tectonic plates that suddenly crash into one another and thrust upward.
The increase in mindless and deliberate tagging is also something that has emerged since only the summer of 2011, and goes unabated. Whether it's political slogans, or "Jose loves Maria", or just spraying over decently created graffiti, it demeans the beauty of the city. The desecration of churches, monuments, and public as well as private property with spray paint indicates in my opinion something brewing underneath the changes that may be taking place in some of the Cuecano youth.
Currently, Parque Madre, has been closed off to the public while supposedly an underground garage is being built with a new park on top of it. The entire block of the park has been walled off by plywood about eight feet tall, if memory serves me correctly. Rather than look at the bare plywood, a beautiful job has been done in completely decorating the plywood in grafitti art. I unfortunately don't know who the artists are who rendered their contributions to this mammoth undertaking. I assume it was primarily young artists who did the work, but it appeared to be an organized effort for each painting to give way to the ones aligning it. The graffiti also represents a break of some of the young artists with the dominance of traditional art that has held sway over conservative Cuenca to this day. However, while the designs may be innovative to Cuenca, they are typical of what one sees in graffiti art in other parts of the world. However, the graffiti art serves as a reminder of a break by some of the young with the traditional standards of art that have governed Cuenca for generations.
Don't misunderstand me. Yes, I am surprise at the number of gringos I know who have been robbed or been faced with attempted robbery; and I am among them. However, Cuenca is still the safest place to live of anywhere I have lived or visited. I still walk the streets at night and greet strangers as we pass by one another. The young people as a whole behave far better and more respectfully than one will find among most North American youth, and the little children with their big brown eyes are truly adorable. It warms my heart to see young parents in their late teens and early twenties taking on the responsibilities of family and adulthood in such a mature fashion, just as was natural for my parents generation in the 50's. Unfortunately, so many Norte Americanos are still behaving like adolescents in their thirties and forties. Yes, a number of these young couples will eventually experience divorce, but at least they are not behaving like perpetual adolescents. It is great to see the role of the fathers among the families, and how involved, affectionate, and doting they can be publicly with their children. Most Cuencano parents are authoritative in their parenting style. The parents set the rules and parameters, but they do so with much love, affection, and attention to their offspring.
Of course, many young men here can get a decent job without a college education to support a family, which is often an impossibility in the United States. Young people don't need to own a car. Many will live at home with parents until and even after they marry. Much of the close family relations are reinforced by economic conditions that don't allow children to generally move away from home. Also, buying a home is most difficult, because the home must be paid for in total up front before the family can claim ownership and take possession of it. Many homes also have multiple family members who pool their financial resources and have multiple family members share in the ownership. Economic factors like these are major reinforcements to the need for family support.
However, as more women enter the work force at the professional level, combined spousal incomes can allow for apartment rentals away from the family homestead. Higher incomes bred more cars and motorcycles, which along with cell phones makes it more difficult for parents to keep tabs on their teens, and the media and advertising only further presents an image to Cuencano teens that over time can undermine traditional Cuencano values of respect, of sexual responsibility, and of a work ethic; with hedonistic and narcissistic behaviors.
Unlike the United States, Ecuador has not rapidly move toward technological innovations that have put the unskilled and semiskilled out of work permanently. The government with the tariff it implemented in 2009 has also protected Ecuadorian industries from competition, which otherwise may have cost Ecuadorians jobs. Being a small country, the Ecuadorian government can get away with such actions.
I am amazed with what I see when I watch the little kids play in the morning nursery located below my condo balcony at ground level. I have never seen these children fight, push, and appear to argue. One little boy will chase another little boy, and then when he gets to him, he stops, and the other boy may then begin to chase him. Fathers as well as mothers come to pickup their children from the nursery. They take time to greet and kiss the teachers as they depart in what is another beautiful Ecuadorian custom. What factors breed a culture that avoids so much of the conflict, competitiveness, and aggressiveness found in North American kids and their career-driven adults? Why is there so little of the psychology of insecurity of ego that drives so much of American ambitions, or results in "build myself up, by tearing the other guy down" found existing in comparison much less among Cuecanos?
An important change I have also observed in Cuenca since I first arrived is that drivers are actually driving much more safely. Not
since the first few months when I returned in March of last year have I seen or experienced the game of cross three lanes and approach a pedestrian on a sidewalk as if you are about to jump the curb and take out a walker. Bing, additional points in the video game of life if its a woman with child. The taxi drivers, some of whom use to drive so incredulousy recklessly in ways even I would not have attempted back in the states, and I was a terror behind the wheel, have slowed down considerably. Many drivers now will actually stop by the intersection and allow pedestrians to cross, and at times some drivers even wave for pedestrians to cross first. However, most will still roll up past the stop sign to see if traffic is coming crosswise, if not they will move one car after another through the intersection stop signs and pedestrians be damned. If traffic is crossing then the pedestrian waits for multiple cars of cross traffic, so they can then cross between at least two waiting cars. Some drivers still have a penchant for straddling the yellow line while they determine which lane offers them the best advantage, and cutting off people in traffic is common place as drivers switch from one lane to another, but such traffic maneuvers are just as common in places like Chicago. Speeding has been greatly reduced in Cuenca.
A major contributor to change has been the fact that the drivers are now faced with very stiff fines and even jail time if the fines can not be paid. The fines in Cuenca can run to the equivalency of $200 to $600 in the United States, which in a country that averages $200 in wages per month can be staggering. Of course, drivers with cars are generally upper or upper middle-class by Ecuadorian standards, but such fines can still be a stiff penalty to pay.
My only real negatives in relationship to Cuenca were the two back-to-back Ninas, which poured 70 plus inches of rain on Cuenca last year, well above the 28 inch average. Much of the rain has dissipated since June, and I heard no expat whine about the rain more than I did. Of course, that was the action of Mother Nature, not exactly anything for which the city officials could be held responsible. On the other hand, the other sore spot with me is the random, destructive spray painting. Addressing the tagging either is not a priority with the city officials, or just doesn't enter on their radar. Many of the broken sidewalks are being fixed. Eventually twelve miles of new sidewalks will replace broken walks in El Centro.
The new rail system is suppose to help relieve auto traffic in the city, or at least replace many of the combustible gas buses. While the latter will contribute to Cuenca's main pollution problem, I am very skeptical that the new rail bus lines will result in fewer cars on the road. Cuencanos want cars, and many live in outlying areas that I currently don't see on the proposed transit lines. Many Cuecanos near the lines didn't buy their prestige symbol just to let it sit at home for out of town use on occasional weekends, while they use public transportation. Time will prove how this works out.
The government may have to find a way to make cars much more expensive or more expensive to use than they already are before more people will be forced to use public transportation. The logical reality, which of course rarely has anything to do with how people behave, is the fact that Cuenca is not built to handle a major increase in additional traffic on its streets. I have also been told but have not had this statistic verified, that 70% of the drivers on the road in Cuenca lack auto insurance. While I can believe this, I find it incredible that people would take on such a huge investment, the interest alone on a car loan can be 15%, and if they total a car they are mired in debt for a vehicle that is no longer available to them. For me, that's a scary thought.
How do Cuencanos feel about gringos? I think Cuencanos were possibly somewhat more inviting when I first came to Cuenca. Americans were well thought of, because many Ecuadorians had met with financial success in the states by Ecuadorian standards, and many Ecuadorians benefited from the money brought back or sent to Ecuador. The economic slowdown and the crack down on illegal immigration have somewhat tarnished Ecuadorian relations with gringos--but by no means nothing serious. I have had taxi drivers irritatingly ask me why it is so hard to get visas to the United States. I beg off the question, because I explain to them I don't know sufficient Spanish to answer their question.
Another striking change is that when I visited Cuenca in 2010, whenever an Ecuadorian who spoke English heard I was from Chicago, I would be greeted with a big smile and the comment, "Oh, you are from the hometown of President Obama". When I returned in March of 2011, not once when I tell Ecuadorians I am from Chicago has one of them mentioned Obama. Unless some taxi driver has relatives living in Chicago, just the mention of the city is greeted with silence or indifference.
I also believe that many Cuencanos were genuinely pleased when Cuenca received world-wide attention as the best retirement city in the world back in 2009, but that novelty has also worn somewhat thin, and sometimes with it the need to be overly gracious to newcomers and tourists.
Furthermore, Cuencanos are very concerned that too many gringos are coming to Cuenca, and it will forever change their culture and possibly in time like in places like Panama City become gringo-dominated. Yes, I know what some of you back home our thinking. "Now they know how we feel with the influx of millions of immigrants legal and illegal." The reality is no matter what cosmopolitan or universality of humankind one wants to spout, ultimately tribalism and community group identity will trump everything else with the vast majority of people.
I explain to Cuencanos when this issue of gringo influx comes up, that to date the growth has not been astronomical and has been relatively small. Four thousand gringos out of half a million people is miniscule. Many of the gringos Cuencanos see are tourists or temporary students. Half of the 4,000 gringos are in Cuenca on two year temporary visas as missionaries, college professors, teachers, peace corp volunteers, business, etc.
Quite frankly, some gringos come to live in Cuenca for two years to secure their permanent residency when they are not allowed to be outside the country more than ninety days in each year. Once gringos meet the two year, ninety day requirement; they then have the opportunity to spend much less time in Ecuador while maintaining their residency status. Residency becomes a safety valve for them. If things get a great deal worse in the states, these gringos want to have a backup plan for escape. Otherwise, they have no genuine interest in living in Cuenca full-time.
Many gringos will not make the adjustment required to live in another country, or family matters may call them home to the states, or serious health problems not first anticipated develop, etc. Some gringos live in Cuenca until they become bored and then move on to new travel experiences. The turnover of so-called 2,000 permanent gringos is very high. The turnover is estimated to be about 1/3rd to 40% of the supposed permanent gringo population over a two to three year period.
Many gringos, particularly from Minnesota and Canada are snow birds who may come for a few weeks or months after the holiday season. Other gringos come to live for a few months to determine whether or not Cuenca is the right move for them, and never return after they depart back from whence they came. It is difficult for the Cuencanos to understand all of this when they can be in El Centro and see so many white faces in the crowd compared to just a few years ago.
On one hand, while the gringo community is growing, it is dispersed throughout most of Cuenca. Many gringos live scattered throughout El Centro. Others live along the Rio Tomebama, which can find them living all the way to the western boundaries of Cuenca. Many gringos live on the south side of town, and fewer numbers to the north and the east sides of town.
Gingos have been quite charitable in their giving in Cuenca and to outlying areas. Some gringos have Cuencano friends. Other gringos choose not to associate with their own gringo community at all. No doubt gringos have made a significant contribution to the incomes of many Cuencanos. Gringos buy and rent homes and condos. They furnish their unfurnished property, make improvements to their property, even surprisingly some gringos make improvements to their rental units at their own expense; and of course, they support cultural activities and a flourishing restaurant trade. Finally, there is the cost of everyday living expenses, which also add to the increased jobs and incomes of the Cuencano population.
On the other hand, as more gringos come to settle in the city, it becomes easy for them to form their own little community, maybe not spatially, but culturally as they mix only with other gringos, and their social life revolves around only gringo hang-outs. The biggest factors to exclusivity among some gringos is choice and the lack of speaking Spanish. Some gringos also prove themselves to be intentionally or otherwise insensitive in public to the remarks they make in the presence of Cuencanos, and the cultural ignorance of some gringos becomes more evident when they get a few drinks in them. Originally, gringo nights were intended to bring gringos and Ecuadorians together for an evening of socializing. Gringos don't seem to worry about the inter-ethnic mix much any more, and quite frankly many of the Cuencanos who did attend at one time were usually those who had lived in the United States, language sharing being the impetus to participation among both groups. Inca Bar is one gringo hangout where the mix of gringos and Cuencanos is very high.
Cuencanos are generally quick to greet whoever they meet or pass on the street including gringos, particularly if they find gringos receptive. Some Cuencanos, however, will stare at gringos until they get close and suddenly look downwards or away. Depending on the circumstances when this type of Cuencano behavior is manifested, or maybe just how I'm feeling at that moment; I will usually take the initiative and greet first, and generally will get a positive response.
While speaking of greeting, yes if you are in El Centro on a busy street, you can't greet everybody. Nor will they greet you. Nevertheless, gringos have changed. When I traveled in the 70's, no matter where I traveled, gringos always greeted each other as if they were long lost cousins. Even if they never laid eyes on each other before or would ever again. Over the years in the United States, there has been such a built-up of distrust, that people now find it acceptable not to have to speak when they pass strangers. Gringos, if they don't know each other will generally pass one another looking ahead as if they don't even see one another. I've looked directly at gringos both in the states and in Cuenca, and they still will walk directly by, looking straight ahead, as if I wasn't there. I remember one day, when a Canadian friend and I were walking from the Vega Art Studio to the Turi spot that provides a panoramic view of the city. We walked past an entire bus load of tourists who were making their way down to the Vega Studio, not a one of them as they passed us looked in our direction to say hello or make a comment; even though we were certainly looking at them, walking only a few feet from them, and attempting to make eye contact.
Gringos, whether from the Americas or from Europe, get over yourselves!! Stop behaving like soul-less zombies. Put a smile on your face, take the initiative, greet the people you pass, and especially the Cuencanos. A failure of such a basic lack of respect that is valued in Cuencano culture does gringos no favors, and may be encouraging Cuencanos to behave in like manner toward gringos who can be perceived as unfriendly by Cuencano passersby. In turn, as affluence breeds increased self-absorption, if Cuencanos begin to adopt such basic interaction of a simple greeting as no longer of value, another cultural value of beauty in Cuenca would be lost.
If such a little change in behavior is so much to ask of some people, then they need to stay in their own homelands. If you are serious about living in a culture that is foreign to you, be prepared to diligently learn the language, become familiar with that culture's mores, and yes, practice some of those cultural mores. If you have a sense of racial or cultural superiority, stay home. You have nothing about which to feel superior. There is more than one way to do things. Each culture has its pluses and its minuses, and there is much we gringos can learn from Cuencanos, like how to live quality lives that are not just based on materialism. Cuenca is a city of politeness, if you are uncouthed, don't move here.
When I first announced that I was moving to Ecuador, a number of friends and colleagues asked if I was going there to do missionary work. I have had other expats here in Cuenca share the same stories with me when they first made such announcements to their friends. Many people in the states think Ecuador is a backward third world country, where nobody would choose to live unless they were missionaries. One reason why I post photos of Cuenca and particularly my apartment in the Palermo is to dispel the perception that Ecuador lacks modernity.
Ecuador is known for its biodiversity, which is incredible for its small size comparable to Nevada or New Jersey. Yet the diversity of the people is every bit as widespread, not just along racial, tribal, and economic class lines; but more so along other extremes. Cuenca, like Quito, and Guayaquil represent modernity in Ecuador, where many old ways still linger uneasily in a coexistence between modernity and tradition.
At the other extreme, are isolated tribal bands deep within the rainforest who live like Neolithic hunters and gatherers where any outsider is not welcomed and takes his life in his own hands if he so much as attempts to enter into their tribal territory. In more remote rural areas farmers can be found who farm as their ancestors did upon the arrival of the Spaniards 500 years ago. Farmers closer to the large cities have modified their farming methods from years back, while other workers work on the plantation farms of various fruits, coffee and chocolate. Fishermen along the coast, do not go out in trawlers. Rather they go out in boats, or even just with nets and capture fish the same way fishermen did in the time of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Blue collar workers continue to craft by hand, and do much construction by hand as well even in the cities. Meanwhile, professional business people are working out of modern offices using the latest electronic gadgets. Such a wealth of diversity among a group of people, who live peacefully together for the most part is quite a phenomena. Ecuador for better or worse is a second and third world country taking some giant leaps to become a first world country.
Is there anything I miss from back in the states that is not available in Cuenca? Besides the usual stock answer of obviously family and friends, I would say the one thing I miss is the wide range of ethnic restaurants that can be found in Chicago and not in Cuenca. I miss Hunan and Szechun Chinese culinary delights, good spicy Indian food, as well as Thai dishes. Both entail hot spicy foods, for which Ecuatorianos have no stomach. Ecuadorian food is basically bland tasting, with cilantro and salt being the main seasonings. It is amazing how much salt is used in Ecuadorian cooking. Pepper is appearing on more Ecuadorian restaurant tables, because gringos ask for it, but Ecuadorians consider pepper to be bad for the stomach. Ecuadorians make excellent soups and ceviches. The pork from the whole pigs braising on the rotisserie is sumptuous. On the other hand, occasionally the chicken and especially the beef can have the life cooked out of it, until it tastes like shoe leather, unless covered in some sauce or gravy. Ecuadorians cut beef differently than in the the states. The best steak is called Lomo Fino. It can be tough and chewy, if one does not find the right restaurant which buys the best grade of beef and knows how to prepare it properly.
Ecuadorian cuisine is nothing like Mexican, with its emphasis on corn and flour tortillas, frijoles, and hot spicy chili peppers. There are a few Mexican restaurants in Cuenca of varying quality, and a couple of Cuban and Argentinian restaurants as well.
There are many fine Italian restaurants in Cuenca. There are also many pizza places of varying quality. If you like deep dish or lots of tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes on your pizza, you won't find it here in Cuenca to the best of my knowledge. The focus in Cuencano pizza is on the cheese, which is fine with me.
There are Chinese restaurants in abundance. Many are bad and remind me of the Chinese restaurants in the 50's and 60's in the states, when the most popular dishes with gringos where bastardize dishes created by the Chinese who worked on the building of the TransAtlantic railroad, with dishes like chop suey and chow mein. One Chinese restaurant didn't even use typical Oriental vegetables in their meals. Because Cuecanos do not like hot spicy food, the better quality Chinese restaurants will serve basically Cantonese dishes, which may be flavorful but not spicy. Three or four sushi bars can be found in the city, and the Pakistanis have a number of Shawarma restaurants and bars available on Calle Larga.
The cost-of-living is going up, but so is it everywhere else. The 35% tariff has especially hurt consumers who three years ago could live in Cuenca for a quarter of what it cost in the states. Drought both in the United States and recently in parts of Ecuador as well as too much rain in other parts has also hurt crops and increase prices, but fresh fruits and vegetables are still vastly less expensive that in the states. In the last three years the real-estate market has grown from almost nonexistent to becoming as sophisticated as the American market, and with it the increase in prices in procuring homes and rentals. The prices, however, are still generally below what one would buy or rent in the United States of comparable value, particularly when compared to the big metro markets in the states where the price differentials are major and dramatic. Medical care is of a high quality, and very low in cost compared to the United States.
What have I learned about myself since I moved to Cuenca? I allow myself to enjoy life more. I am surprised at how I never seem to have enough time to do all that I want to do. The fact that I sleep on average two to three hours more than when I worked can eat up a big part of my day. Walking is my main source of exercise, and I walk less than I did my first year here. Now I walk about ten to fifteen miles a week. Whereas I use to walk twenty to thirty miles a week. Once again, time constraints to do other things as well, caused me to open up hours walking less. I particularly have learned that I don't change from a Type A personality all my life to a more relaxed, laid-back individual overnight.
A better standard of-living as a retired person than I could enjoy in the states was my initial draw to Ecuador. My affair with Cuenca was enhanced by the city's beauty. I enjoy the spring-like weather the year round, and yes if you are from Chicago like myself, late night temperatures in the upper 30's is not unusual in April and even May. The low crime rate, and the tranquility of a city of 500,000
were further major draws. The big city with a small town feel, where
it is almost impossible to walk to El Centro and not run into someone I know.
When I reached the point where I need a break from Cuenca, there are other parts of Ecuador to explore, and many parts of South America invite a journey as well. Cuenca makes the perfect home for me, and the perfect way-station that allows me to travel to other parts of the world as the cost-of-living in Cuenca allows me to save more money than I could ever dream imaginable almost anywhere else in the world, while also still enjoying a high standard of living.
Ultimately, and most importantly, what I absolutely love about Cuenca is its people. No they are not perfect. It is not as a people that they don't lack vices and foibles, they generally just don't have these negatives to the degree that these characteristics exist in other cultures. This is particularly true of the Cuencanos, as oppose to some of the social problems found in Guayaquil and Quito. The Cuencanos have made me feel so at home in Cuenca. Many Cuencanos have such a beautiful spirit about them. Not to mention that proportionately, I think Cuencanos have more handsome men and beautiful women among them than can be found in most cultures. I love the level of respect that they show one another. The patience
they show in long lines to transact business and pay bills. I love
when (please teens don't let this die) the teen boys demonstrate their
closeness to their mothers and other family members. I love the way so
many Cuencanos will take time to greet me or respond to me when I pass them on the street. I love the time Cuencanos devote to their children, and the warm affection that is demonstrated. I love how rare it is for Cuencanos to argue, and when I see an argument, it rarely qualifies as an argument compared to what goes on in many cultures. I love the Cuencanos probably because my own temperament is more like theirs than that of
my native culture. It is why I feel so at home in Cuenca. It is why
for however long Cuenca and I will be together, the love affair
continues. Ultimately, I did not chose Cuenca. Destiny brought us together, and we will remain together as long as it is our destiny.