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.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Culture Shock and the Expat

Cultural shock is something that almost all expats experience to one degree or another.  Cultural shock is relative dependent upon the expats and their previous experience with interacting with other cultures.  Even when experienced expats relocate from one foreign country to another, the transition may be easier, but it doesn’t mean that living in a new culture will not present some significant adjustments.  The greater the disparity between the expat self-identified culture and the foreign culture to be experienced will generally result in greater culture shock as well.  The important thing for someone with little travel or expat experience is to reduce culture shock by doing extensive research about all the logistics to settling in a foreign culture, and to do an intensive study of the newly embraced culture as well.
Expats who only worry about the logistics of settling in a new culture, and fail to learn as much as possible about the new culture before they arrive in that culture do themselves a great disservice.  Some such expats are often the people who either planned to live for whatever time allocated by their employment or permanent residency in expat enclaves isolated from the culture at large. Other such expats are people who arrived at their new destinations with enthusiastic intent to mingle with the culture at large, and then discover from the hard work involved in adjusting to a new culture that they settled for much less than their original intentions and simply fell-back on their expat friends for emotional sustenance.  These are the folks who are most vulnerable to eventually returning home and sometimes very abruptly. 
As I mentioned in the previous post, expats can have much to complain about with justification.  However, most of the complaints seem petty when a particular problem becomes a deal-breaker, and people decide “this is the straw that broke the camel’s back”, and “I am going home”.

I examined some complaints of expats related to Cuenca.  Some of these are valid, at least in the disparity between what they were accustomed to in their native culture and what they may experience in their new foreign culture, and in forming their given rationales and rationalities for deciding to return home.

Number 1:

Cuenca has much in the way of culture and arts, but quality is questionable.  I won’t argue the merits of the comment.  Simply when one is exiting Ecuador and this is their primary reason, did such a person not do their homework ahead of time?  If the quality of the arts in Cuenca is so questionable, where would they find superior arts and cultural venues:  Chicago, the Big Apple, Boston, Washington, D.C.?   If so, then why did these art patrons come to Cuenca in the first place, if the arts loomed so big in the minds of these people as a make or break point to come or to leave?  Had cost of living factors been the reason these connoisseurs of the arts don’t live in the American art and cultural centers; or chose not to be an expat in London, Rome, Florence, Paris, or Vienna?

Cuenca does not offer the museum complexes of these major art centers.  There is no opera company, or professional dance troupe of national stature in Ecuador. The Cuenca orchestra does an admiral job and could hold its own with many regional orchestras in the states, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination on par with the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic.  

Yet the arts are vibrant in Cuenca.  Many expats with art backgrounds find a very active community with which they enjoy working.  These expats enjoy sharing their expertise, and in turn, learning from the cultural interaction of the South American mind and experience to appreciate what makes the Ecuadorian art forms vibrant from music, to the fine arts, to literature, to theater, and increasingly to film.  While at the same time expat artists share a wider venue that contributes efforts to introduce new art styles to the Ecuadorian artists, and watch to see how Ecuadorian artists may choose or not to incorporate these new styles into a fusion of new art forms that emanate from their new experiences and from what they already know.  What can be more exciting for an artist and for those who have an appreciation of art than to share in an art form that is ever-changing and even impacts upon incorporating South American art designs and structures of thought into the expats own art experiences?

Comment Number 2:

A complaint about living in Ecuador which is shared by a larger number of expats than the first comment is that Ecuadorians will ingratiate themselves to you only to take advantage of you.  

No doubt there are instances of this to one form or another.  It certainly has happened to me.  However, if I am honest about it, I have also let it happen to me.  Don’t think I haven’t done some soul-searching as to what was going on with me at a sub-conscious level that I allowed it to happen.  However, to broad brush stroke an entire nation of people for what a few have done is not only an injustice, but also is more reflective of a superiority attitude that dominates some expat thinking.  Ironically and laughably when such comments are made, is that too many expats are very well aware of the expat charlatans among us who have plied their trade here in Cuenca.  Amazing how people can see these crooks as individuals when they are from their own cultural or racial group, but completely stereo-type a whole group as crooks when it involves “the other”.

Comment Number 3:

Culture Shock
Culture Shock

Probably the most legitimate complaint for expats is the “manana attitude” of many Ecuadorians.  That “tomorrow” can mean any indefinite time in the future.  

This is not a serious problem with expats dealing with Cuecanos, for example, who have lived in the U.S.  Such Cuecanos either learned from the Norte Americano culture that if they wanted to keep their jobs they needed to be on-time; and/or they learned that being on time in Ecuador is essential, if they want to earn their living by primarily servicing gringos.  The “manana attitude” is an attitude found “south of the border” and throughout southern Europe as well.

I have one Ecuadorian friend where “I will pick you up at 8:00 p.m. was interpreted by Ecuadorian psychology to mean, “I am to begin to get ready at 8:00 p.m. when my friend arrives.” It literally meant to my Ecuadorian friend that when my friend arrives and while my friend watches television; I will shower, I will shave, I will brush my teeth, I will brush my hair,   I will dress myself, and I will get ready to go out.  Every time we went through this scenario, it was a great opportunity for me to practice almost all of my reflexive Spanish verbs.  It did no good to show up an half-an-hour later, because appointment time did not start until whenever my arrival time began.

Potential expats need to learn that when an Ecuadorian gives an exact time for a social event, that time in reality may not commence  for two or three hours beyond the given time.  Potential expats need to know that Ecuadorian dinner hour, whether at home or in restaurants begins no earlier than 8:00 p.m. and as late as commencing at 11:00 p.m.
Expats may be quite knowledgeable of the “manana attitude” before they arrive if they did some research, but knowing about it and experiencing it are two different things.  I didn’t have too terrible a time with the “manana attitude” when I arrived.  As I have often advised my readers: hire a trusted Ecuadorian who can not only translate for you, but also cut through the red tape for you as well.  Things will be much easier when you first settle here if you do.  Increasingly, more expats can also fill this role, or can refer you to a trusted Ecuadorian.

I did not mind standing in line to pay bills, or conduct bank transactions when I first arrived.  I knew what to expect, and I enjoyed watching people in this new culture while I stood in line. I wonder if another group of people have the infinite patience on the face of this earth that Cuecanos have.  It has to be a genetically inherited gene from the indigenous blood-line that has been perfected by generations of cultural inbred habits of patience.  I certainly did not find such patience exhibited by either Brazilians or Portenos (the name for people from Buenos Aires, Argentina) last year when I visited.  

After a couple of years of such patience, and running into line experiences that I endured for an hour to and hour-and-a-half, my type A personality began to emerge.  Actually my type A personality erupted like a volcano,  and laid to waste many hours of meditation.  Fortunately, many such delays can now be handled by electronics with immediate deductions from my bank account. Far worse than standing-in-line in perpetuity and failing completely at navel-gazing in the process is dealing with the government bureaucracy, its ever-changing rules, and its ever-changing interpretations of those rules dependent upon whatever bureaucrat with whom one is dealing at any given moment in time.  Personally, this is the aspect I hate most about living in Ecuador.  It isn't helped by the fact that dealing with the American bureaucracy only compounds the situation.

I lived my full adult life under the pressure of meeting deadlines, of frequently doing things quickly, and of having multiple balls in the air that constantly needed to be balanced.  I am still learning how to get off my “Type A” hobby horse, but I still deal with times that I find myself right back in the saddle again, no matter what strategies I employ.  Being task-oriented and wanting to get everything nailed down does not work well in Ecuador.  The difference now is that I am older, and I don’t handle stress and pressure well like I did when I was younger, and occasionally my Ecuadorian friends are the ones who calm me done and remind me that it won’t really be the end of the world, if things don’t fall into place in just the manner and time parameters I prefer. I am not sure I will ever completely relax, but I continue to find ways to leave lots of time open with less expected to be accomplished on a tight schedule.  How does one learn to be relaxed in the land of tranquilo?  Thank God, at least I know how to cultivate two-to-five hour lunches and dinners with friends.

There is something very beautiful about a culture that can enjoy time, enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner, and where life is enjoyed in the moment and not rifed with stress.  That is the South American gift to us if we knew how to embrace it and throw off the shackles of our Norte Americano experience.  Unfortunately, even El Presidente has spoken on the need to change the Ecuadorian culture by increasing time efficiency, and therefore, productivity to increase the GDP.  Increased GDP in itself will not make for a happy people, and will primarily benefit the corporations at the expense of the workers.  Not to mention, increased materialism which if the South Americans learned from their northern counterparts doesn’t necessarily produce more happiness either.

I know–everything has its advantages and disadvantages.  Getting things done and counting on people to show at the time or on the day that service people say they will are just as important to a stress-free life as well.  However, I remember how often my work colleagues and I would often take time off from work in the states to be available for a service delivery or Internet installation or whatever, only to reschedule because the delivery time and date were not kept. Or my friends in the states who hired plumbers, electricians, and/or carpenters to complete a remodeling project; only to discover that what was promised in weeks transpired over months.  Why?  Oh the young dude didn't show up as promised on Saturday, because he and his friends were out drinking or smoking pot on Friday night; or his girl promises to ditch him, if he doesn't show her more attention.  Or the carpenter tells the owner what he wants to hear, when he promises that the job will be done in two weeks, but doesn't tell the owner that he also has two other clients he is working for outside of his full-time job which therefore will result in months of delay because he is trying to balance his time among all of his remodeling jobs.  Why do expats forget all of this?  I think sometimes expats forget that everything in the U.S. is not always done efficiently either, and it's easier to focus on shortcomings in "the other".

Ultimately, what can I say, if the “manana attitude” is more than somebody thinks he can handle, then Ecuador is definitely not the place for such people?  Why move to Ecuador and “bitch and moan” during ones entire duration of residing in Ecuador, when one should already know what to expect?

Comment Number 4:

“I can’t live any longer without a Walmart or Costco’s.”  Yes, I actually hear this especially from expat women all the time.  Well, once again, such expats knew before they moved here that such amenities would not be available.  It sure would be nice if expats discovered that their lives were going to come to an end, without the old standbys before they moved to Cuenca or anywhere in Ecuador.  On the other hand, there is no doubt, if one has lived in Cuenca for three or four years, the ever-increasing restrictions to imported items and the huge fees in the way of import taxes has made it even more difficult to import products that are not made in Ecuador.  I would venture that it is only going to get worse in that respect. As oil prices plummet, the national revenues in turn plummet, and the need to keep dollars in the country accelerates.

Comment 5:

Another complaint departing expats have in their decision to leave Cuenca is there is too much rain, too many cloudy days, and the weather is not spring-like.  Well, of course, no one from Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; or Vancouver, Canada thinks Cuenca has too much rain.  Once again, why wasn’t due diligence in research done before a move was made?  Why would someone move here as one person told me because she thought the weather would be more like the tropics?  Or people complain that the on-line magazine, International Living, misled them with the idea that Cuenca is perpetual spring.  Well, it is, if you are from the Northern U.S.  Actually, Cuenca is more like autumn in the Northern U.S.  Too much of especially early spring in the Northern U.S. is generally colder than Cuenca.  Why would one’s research on such an important point as the weather end at International Living?

Comment 6:

Some expats admit that they just can’t adjust to the culture, and want to return to what is comfortable and familiar to them.  While other expats hide such a motive behind the pretext of wanting  to return to family or some other excuse.  Sometimes family and other concerns are legitimate.  Whatever the motive for leaving, it doesn’t really matter once the decision made is for departure.  The person,  couple, or family are returning home, and for better or worse, have no reason to feel like they are losers.  Maybe they have had some or many good experiences; even if in some cases, more due diligence would have prevented them from suffering possible major financial crunches.

So basically, it all boils down for potential expats who are going to make a financially significant move to another culture, which if it doesn’t work out can cost a good chunk of money, to seriously prepare and research extensively before taking such a monumental leap.  If you are young, you have plenty of time to regroup your financial losses and start over again.  However, when you are a senior citizen, the financial losses may never be made up again.  Moving to another culture by wearing rose-colored glasses that primarily envisions an exotic or romanticized adventure can transform into one of the biggest disappointments when intense preparation is not exerted.  Poor planning, a lack of reflection as to whether or not living in a foreign culture and as a minority is right for you, and impulsive decision-making should all be very important points to ponder to the decision-making process of relocation.

If you decide that permanent relocation is not right for you, but you still have a yen to experience other cultures.  By all means travel, spend a few weeks or even a few months visiting other countries and living in other cultures, without making life-changing commitments for which you may be unduly prepared psychologically and financially.  Why you can even come and visit Cuenca.  We'll keep a light on for you, and have a mint sitting on your pillow when you arrive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Essential Questions Potential Expats Need to Seriously Consider: Part II

Essential Questions Potential Expats Need to Seriously Consider: Part II

by Jim Mola
I would suggest, if you have not already done so, that you read Part I in my previous post, so that you will have a proper context for today’s Part II blog post:
It is my opinion based upon my academic studies and more importantly in my own life, work, and travel experiences that everyone is to one degree or another racist, classist, and cultural chauvinists.  No one can escape at least a subtle form of a mixture of all three at one time or another in our psychological make-ups and thought patterns that eventually are vocalized or worse acted upon.   Anybody who says otherwise is either untruthful or very na├»ve about themselves.  In one way or another we will think or express ourselves about another group with some kind of stereo-typical mind-set.  I have worked with and interacted with so many different kinds of people over my life-time, that no matter who they may be, they eventually will express some kind of negative expression about another group either out of a belief about another group, or in anger, or frustration with another group, or even if it is in jest or disguised as jest.
The question to my way of thinking isn’t whether or not we are racists, classists, or cultural chauvinists; but whether or not we recognize such behavior or thought patterns in ourselves, particularly when those thoughts and patterns are negative, and we are not willing to allow ourselves to think and behave with such patterns as a permanent mindset.  Can we recognize the stereo-types we have toward whatever group, and prevent it from causing us to behave in a way that ultimately causes us to discriminate against an individual with whom we hold such stereo-types?  Are we so psychologically insecure that we can only feel a sense of self-worth, when we feel superior to someone else or to another group?  Or do we hold negative emotional baggage toward a group that becomes exhibited in racist, classist, or chauvinistic language and behavior, or in avoidance behavior of those who are different from our self-perceived identity group?  Active discrimination and resentment toward “the other” results in stress and anger.  Avoidance of members identified as “the other” is easier, more convenient, and less stress-inducing.  Either strategy played out consciously or subconsciously can often be found in the expat community as it is found in any community.
Such conscious and subconscious strategies are, therefore, nothing unique when ascribe to the Gringo community in Cuenca.  The Gringo community in Cuenca is the largest expat community in Ecuador of approximately 4,000 people.  Ninety percent of the expats are from the U.S. and about ten percent are from Canada.  Its numbers have not grown appreciably over the last two years.  Approximately, the expat community experiences a forty percent turnover about every three to four years.  There has been over the past year an uptick of expats who arrived around 2010 to 2011, who have chosen to move-on from Cuenca to other parts of Ecuador, to other international sites, or to return back to Canada or the U.S.A.
There are times when readers and people I know in the U.S. are surprised to hear or read references to the expat community as “gringos”.  “Gringo” has often but not always been used as a pejorative term particularly by Mexicans to describe the Anglos in the United States.  I don’t recall if I have ever heard any Ecuadorians use the term, but it is widely used by expats to describe themselves here in Ecuador.  In fact, when two on-line news sites were formed by expats in 2011 and 2012 and focused on the expat community, they named themselves Gringo Tree and Gringo Post.
The Gringo community for the most part is a microcosm of varied people much like one finds in the U.S. and Canada.  As expats have settled in Cuenca, they gradually have splintered in various groups based upon common interests.  The openness that incredibly existed in 2009 to 2012 had many people focused more on getting to know one another and sharing a common and delightfully n­­­­­­­­ovel experience of being in a new culture.  Gradually the openness gave way to people who began to group into their similar cultural beliefs and interests.  While none of these expat groups are cemented in concrete in isolation from any other group, and few people would choose to stagnate in any given group; I believe these groups have a certain validity in identifying various categories of expats in Cuenca and their preferred social settings.  Such groups include social conservatives, who of the religious stripe created a number of churches which cater to their brand of Evangelical Christianity, generally divided between Pentecostal and Non-Pentecostal; also included within this group are Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and a sprinkling of devout Catholics who have an English mass at one church they can attend on Sundays.  There are many and various types of New Age Movement experiences which are flourishing.  The very natural setting of Ecuador, and the shamanic practices of some indigenous are inviting to such New Age groups.  Cuenca also has it share of agnostics and atheists.  There are also theists as well, who might identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, which means they do not identify with an organized religion, but have a belief in a higher power.  There are political groupings such as libertarians, political conservatives, liberals, and Marxists.  We have our meat-eaters, vegetarians, vegans, and hippies--old and new.  We are expats who have money, expats who are financially comfortable by American standards-of-living in an Ecuadorian society, and expats who live marginally financial existences.  We have expats who are world travelers, and expats who have moved to Cuenca and for the first time find themselves living outside the United States.  We are expats who may isolate ourselves in our expat bubbles, or we are expats who attempt to maneuver between both the expat and Ecuadorian world, or we are expats who want to have little if anything to do with other expats.  Needless to say, each of the above groupings experience some kind and degree of overlapping.  Some of the expats remain isolated in their own little groups, while others stray into a cosmopolitan mix with basic loyalty to their identified group.  Well, other expats pretty much defy identity with any group, and will mix with people from any group which will accept or at least tolerate them despite differences in values.  If one wonders how well various expats interact and mingle with their host culture, imagine when expats have their own differences which may be friendly, tolerable, or at times conflict-laden within their own expat community.
Ultimately, once again, we are an expat community which is a microcosm of our countries of origin—mainly Canada and the U.S.  Whatever are our values, interests, and group associations; they are not left at the door of the U.S. or Canada at the time of exit.  When I first arrived in Cuenca, I recall expats who at Gringo nights would mention how they did not want to bring the conflict and divisiveness of American politics with them to their new life in Cuenca.  That seemed to work, until the Presidential campaign election of 2012, then all the old divisiveness emerged.  One word of advice to new expats to Cuenca, stay away from politics unless you are talking with other "true-believers" like yourself, where you can bask in the reinforcement of one another's already shared beliefs and prejudices, and then can congratulate each other on how intelligent and correct all of you are.  Such advice if followed, will greatly reduce tension and divisiveness within the expat community.  The one major difference, however, which separates expats from our microcosm of American society is the fact that for the overwhelming majority of us who are Anglo-Whites, we are the minority, who must navigate our way through a culture that is not the one that has nurtured and socialized us into whom we have become as people and as senior citizens.
Unfortunately, I have known my share of people in the Gringo community who are overt racists to the extent that they not only make racist comments to other Gringos, but make them loudly and deliberately within earshot of any Ecuadorian who may understand English.  I won’t repeat some of the vile comments that some of these people make about the indigenous.  Fortunately, some of these people have moved on, usually back to North America.  Some of these people were/are very negative souls to begin with, and their racism was/is often a symptom of other problems in their lives that is simply being manifested through racist comments as one outlet.  Gringos who would fit in this category are a miniscule percentage of Gringos in Cuenca.
Other Gringos are less overt.  Sometimes their attitudes of superiority manifest in constant complaining and the desire to remain in their cultural bubbles where they can feed off of each others negativity.  I remember a couple of years ago a new individual to the scene who invited me several times to have breakfast/lunch with a particular group of expats he had met and dined with on an almost daily basis.  However, when he continued to tell me how negative the people in the group were about everything Ecuadorian, it was like why would I want to surround myself with such negativity?
All of us expats one time or another complain about something.  The government and financial bureaucracies alone are enough to drive anyone crazy.  There are days when our moods are not what we would like them to be.  There are days when improper sleep, health concerns, and personal or family problems back in the states can play into our moods and frustrations that get acted out in frustrations with life in Ecuador.  We are after-all human.  The problem, however, becomes when those doing the complaining are chronic, and in the process debilitating to the psychological well-being of the social community of expats at large, or who begin to reflect badly on the expat community as a whole with Ecuadorians who have the misfortune of experiencing the wrath or negativity of expats.
One of the strongest qualities, in my opinion, of the Gringo community in Cuenca is that it is not living in a physical Gringo ghetto.  It is a community scattered all over the city:  from the West Side, particularly along the Rio Tomebama, to the South Side, particularly along Avenida Solano and branching out from there to wingspread along the Rio Yanuncay and then further south to the Mal del Rio area; from throughout El Centro, especially on the east and west sides of the core business area; and increasingly to the northeastern sections taking the autopisto out to those neighborhoods, which are truly like moving into the suburbs while still being within the city boundaries of Cuenca.  A number of those northeastern neighborhoods and gated-communities are defined by class lines that increasingly separate the professionals from other Cuencanos as originally played out historically in the U.S. since the beginning of the 1950’s.  Interestingly, not one of these communities are Gringos by majority or even approach  a majority in any neighborhood in the city.
I live on the West Side of town, which is known as "Gingolandia".  I am not at all certain as to why the West Side was dubbed with what was intended to be a pejorative term, when the density of Gringos is no higher on the West Side than many other neighborhoods in the city.  The West Side is an affluent part of town.  However, so are the South Side communities where Gringos tend to congregate.  Not to mention the very exclusive gated-communities in the northeast part of town, although the vast majority of Gringos in that area live outside the gated-communities, which are almost the exclusive domain of the Ecuadorian professional classes.
The story is, and I have no way of ascertaining if it is true, that an expat living here for years who has not exactly been thrilled with the influx of Gringos, and more so with Gringos living outside of El Centro gave the West Side the disparaging name.  Even though it is a misnomer, the name has stuck.  The name is even used by Ecuadorians, although not coined by them.
I live in Edificio Palermo, which is the largest and tallest high-rise in the city, with a total of 154 units.  The large number of units in the Palermo allows us to have amenities no other condo building has in Cuenca; including a decent size swimming pool, workout facilities and saunas, tennis/volley ball court and barbeque area, and a theatre.  While such amenities are not found in other high rises, there are large numbers of luxury apartments and condos--some more luxurious than the Palermo--that are built throughout the city in the last ten years, so luxury apartments are hardly a phenomena restricted to the West Side of town.  Mention the Palermo, and Ecuadorian taxi drivers are quick to say with a sly smile, "Oh you live in Gringolandia."  Many Ecuadorians and expats think most people living in the Palermo are Gringos, even though only thirty per cent of the owners and tenants in the Palermo are Gringos.  "Gringolandia" is an example of how an idea can take on a life of its own without little substance or evidence to support it.
Living on the West side in an upper middle class residential area of large homes and high rises, which is two to three miles west of the core of El Centro at Parque Calderon, does have the feeling of living a semi-suburban life experience.  One truly has to go into El Centro to get the traditional Ecuadorian experience, and escape the ho-hum experience of suburban quietude on the West Side.  Unless one is visiting indigenous neighborhoods outside of El Centro where the all-expansive, or should I say awe-expansive mercado, Feria Libre, is located; or the comparable communities on the north side of El Centro which reach into the foothills of the mountains surrounding Cuenca, one does need to spend time in El Centro to experience the historical sites, greater mix of classes and people, and much of the traditional feel of what may still exist in cities like Cuenca.
I certainly know Gringos who live in El Centro, who are irritated with expats moving out of El Centro into other parts of the city.  Many expats may begin their first residency in  El Centro and eventually move to other parts of the city.  Others are very happy there, and would not think of moving outside the confines of El Centro.  There are expats who initially move to El Centro who are excited about the parades, the countless religious processions, the flower market and other open markets scattered in El Centro, the festivals, the galleries, the restaurants, the center of shopping, the Calle Larga bar scene, the easy access to Parque Calderon and Parque de Madre, and the beautiful stroll along the Rio Tomebama.  Only Avenida Remegio Crespo on the south side can rival El Centro for bars and restaurants.
Yet some expats grow weary of the noise, the hyper-activities, the auto traffic congestion on narrow streets, and the bus fume pollution.  These expats eventually choose to move outside of El Centro.  Many expats will move three or four times the first year or two from when they arrive in Cuenca, before they find the neighborhood and housing accommodations that are just right for them.
El Centro is also undergoing gentrification.  Real-estate prices are sky-high by Ecuadorian standards.  The old noblis homes with their large enclosed court yards are being converted into hotels, hostels, and restaurants.  In recent decades, the population has dropped dramatically in El Centro.  While the population numbers will never return to El Centro's halcyon days, they steadily are increasing, as renovation and conversion of many buildings into expensive condos and apartments takes place.  I recently saw a photo advertisement with luxury studio apartments renting for $1,000 in El Centro, which is an absolutely ridiculous rental price.  There are so many two and three bedroom luxury apartments for rent in Cuenca, often fully furnished for less money than $1,000 per month.  However, if naive Gringos foolishly pay such amounts, then what can one expect?  So even El Centro for better or worse is undergoing change.  Will it maintain its mixture of people and classes, and its old traditional customs; or will it become a nice upper-middle class haven of gentrified homes and shoppes and restaurants and galleries like so many communities in the U.S.?  Only time will provide the answer.  It is understandable why Gringos who have been here for decades are not entirely happy with all the changes they see taking place in Cuenca and blame the new arrivals for them.
While there is plenty of physical housing integration of expats throughout Cuenca, that type of integration does not necessarily  translate into cultural integration.  People can live together in the same condo building, and only have superficial contact with one another.  Most Gringos have contacts mainly with Ecuadorians who lived in the U.S., and who from that experience, also speak English.  The unwillingness of most Gringos to learn Spanish is in my mind the single biggest factor that contributes to cultural isolation beyond commercial transactions.  I am guilty of a failure to learn Spanish as much as the next guy.  I, like many Gringos, and particularly with my academic background, came to Ecuador thinking that learning Spanish would find me competent if not fluent by this time after four years of living in Ecuador.  It hasn’t happen for many reasons.  Most of these reasons have some legitimacy, but when all the excuse-making is expressed, it simply amounts to my not wanting to devote the daily grind of practice to the language.  I haven’t given up, but neither will I speculate in the years ahead how much more advanced I will become in mastering the language from my current one year ability in the language.
On the other hand, I will never understand the Ecuadorian culture in any in-depth semblance, if I don’t understand the language.  So ultimately, all of my education, travel, and culturally diverse experiences where I have commonly been the minority will never ripen into the fruition of appreciating an immersion in another culture if I fail to master Spanish.  Expansion of this theme of language and cultural understanding is one with which I will need to deal further in a later post.
The chronic complainers are a minority of expats.  There are so many expats involved in the community through missionary work, volunteer work, and working with and knowing Ecuadorians in areas of business and art that offer opportunities of meaningful vistas of interaction, where they and their Ecuadorian friends can practice their Spanish and their English with one another and come to a better understanding of shared intercultural meaningfulness. These actions are more emblematic of Gringos in Cuenca than the chronic complainers and malcontents.  Most Gringos, however, fall somewhere in-between these two groups.
In reality, most Gringos here in Cuenca, are happy to be here.  Some of us are even ecstatic.  Cuenca is for me as close as I can hope to get to Paradise, but that doesn't mean it is Nirvana 24/7.  For the Gringos who are so unhappy with the way things are done in Ecuador, I only can hope that you will return to the states or to Canada, or find a Gringo community in another country where the only locals you will commiserate with will be wait-staff and bus boys, so you can live out your final days in as close a thing as you can experience to being in the U.S., and where you will only need to deal with people of color when they are serving you.  I would not want to deprive you of your inbred experience, and I certainly have no illusion that anything I write will change your minds are get you to consider self-reflection.
For those expats who have enjoyed your time in Cuenca, and look forward to moving on to your next experience, thank you for being a part of my life, or being a part of whatever positive experience you shared of yourselves both with the Gringo community-at-large and the Ecuadorian community while you were here.  I would never encourage anyone to stay in Cuenca or Ecuador when you believe it is time for you to go, even if some of you will be missed.  The best of luck to you in your future adventures and endeavors.  While Cuenca is the right place for me today, even I can't say what the future will hold for me tomorrow.
As editor, Bob Martin, of ExpatIsland and the other writers on-site have shared, every expat community has its complainers, its folks who don't want to adjust to a different culture, and its people who think things are always greener somewhere else.  So whatever complaints some expats in Cuenca may have that they can't work around and adjust without being in a constant state of misery, such experience is not unique by any means to Cuenca or Ecuador.
Part III of the next installment will deal with culture shock and the Ecuadorian side of the equation.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Essential Questions Potential Expats Need to Seriously Consider

Recently, Bob, the founder of Expat Island, did a post about the considerations that potential expats should think about before making a permanent move to a foreign country. I have done many blog posts on my site dealing with the pluses and minuses of moving to Cuenca, Ecuador. However, I think there is an underlying feature that needs to be discussed and is often ignored. After one factors all the reasons for why you may want to move to Ecuador, Costa Rico, Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, or wherever; you need to consider one of the most important factors that will contribute to whether or not you succeed in a foreign culture, and that is how well can you psychologically deal with people of different races and cultures?

Rarely anybody will concede that they are negatively prejudiced toward another group, particularly if they are Americans who have been taught the politically correct things to say and not say, and to do and not do. Hardly anyone will return from a failed attempt to live in a foreign culture and admit they could not adjust to being a minority, or looking around them every day and hardly anyone looks like them.

I would encourage any reader thinking of relocation to another culture to reflect very openly with yourself, and whoever may be making the possible move with you, to ascertain how well you will feel comfortable in a different culture, with people who may look different than you, and with people who do not think and behave in many respects as you do. What are your experiences in your home culture of mixing with people who are not like you? If all you can answer, is “Oh, I’ve gone to school with folks different than me. I’ve worked with people different than me in job situations, but I was a part of the majority. I supervised work forces that were different than me. I’ve traveled on business or vacation in foreign cultures at various times during my life.” Such responses may not be sufficient for success in a foreign culture.

More importantly, dig more deeply into your psychic reactions and social responses. Ask yourself how you felt and functioned when you were in mixed racial, social, and cultural situations. Did you feel superior to those who were different from you? Did you feel socially uncomfortable around those who were different?  If you were in a work situation, did you perceive that their work efforts or their values did not meet your standards? Was your judgment of someone from a different group based upon group stereo-types? Did you have personal friends from groups who were different from you, or did you and your co-workers simply co-exist? If you were the minority, did you generally play the victim card and see everything through the prism of discrimination or prejudice? Are you the type of person who accentuates the differences, rather than what you may have in common with those who are racially, ethnically, or culturally different from you?

Give thought to what it may really feel like for you to be the minority. How will you genuinely feel when the vast majority of people around you do not speak English, and every day the sound you hear on the streets will be a cacophony of a tongue that will be foreign to you? How will you feel when you are walking down the street, and all you see around you are a sea of faces of colors different from yours, and you are but a dot of whatever self-identified color? I hear expats exclaim, “Why are they always staring at me?” Is that really so hard to understand? You are “the other”. How will you feel when many of the people you pass and with whom you deal daily are of a different class and educational level than you? Will you be like so many expats who intentionally barricade themselves mentally, psychologically, and physically in their own little ghettos with no desire to grow and to understand the majority culture and its matrix of nuances that truly make living life a rich tapestry of experiences? Will you learn only enough of the language to conduct basic greetings and negotiate simple business transactions?

When I first arrived in Cuenca, I had a friend who moved here after living twelve years in Mexico. She said, “Jim, we are coming to Ecuador at a time when there is an influx of expats. Believe me, you will soon see the expats forming their own community and bringing their institutional and cultural baggage with them.” She was right. Today expats have their own churches in English, poker nights, American Legion, Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous groups in English, etc., etc., etc.  At the same time, some expats have formed bi-cultural groups that include Ecuadorians and expats alike, particularly in areas like arts and the theater.

When my friend first announced that these groups would come about, I wasn’t too thrilled. However, with time, I came to realize that every ethnic group that has settled in the United States or anywhere else in the world when their numbers became large enough often brought their cultural traditions and institutions with them. Some of these people would die with little acquaintance to their new culture. Some would continue to practice their traditions as they remembered those traditions when they left their home country, often with the failure to realize that as the years passed such traditions had changed with time in their country of origin. Others would embrace the culture of their new country with cautious, if not at times, open arms. What some members of one generation failed to embrace would certainly be embraced by their children’s generation. To some degree people need a security blanket, a sense of familiarity, and a respite from the very hard work of functioning in a different culture.

For retired expats, that security blanket may require an electrical thermostat, as they have accumulated more years of aging,  and more personal and cultural baggage. Although retired expats may find in general that it is more difficult to change, that doesn’t mean “an old dog cannot learn new tricks”. It just may take a little longer, if at least one makes the effort. However, I believe that security blanket becomes an albatross around one’s neck, when it becomes an island of insularity and with its insularity anger and resentment. These are the people who will return home (and I am in no way saying that there are not a host of legitimate reasons for why people return to from whence they came), or who will remain in their host country primarily for economic reasons and are ensconced in an “unhappy until death do us part” state of mind.

Once again, before making a leap into a change you may come to regret; begin first by dealing with the heartfelt questions of, “Do I really have what it takes in the way of experience to make it in a foreign culture? Is my notion of being open to change based upon a realistic view of the tough work primarily of psychological adjustment that will be required of me, or do I have an idealized and romanticized view of what I think this change will be? Have I done my homework and in-depth research to understand that visiting a country is not the same as living full-time in that country? How adaptable and flexible am I, or am I someone who generally is fixed in my ways?” If your answers to these questions mainly are no and maybe, then either think wisely about making a move that will make great challenges upon your psychological comfort zone; or if you must move to a foreign culture for which you are not very adaptable, choose to go to a country where expats are known to live in their physical and mental enclaves of insularity, and oftentimes, arrogance.

Next week, in part II, I will discuss my thoughts on this topic further, and how it relates particularly to Cuenca.

Monday, February 2, 2015


Cuenca, Ecuador has been a retirement magnet for expats for the past five years. While the vast majority of expats moving to Cuenca are retirees, in the last year there is a greater movement of younger families, especially from the United States who are migrating to Cuenca. Questions arise as to what educational options are available for expat school-age youngsters in Ecuador and particularly in Cuenca. While my career background was in education, I am not an authority on education in Cuenca. Whatever I share is a starting point for further investigation to those parents who may wish to move to Cuenca, and wonder what options are available for  their youngsters’ education.

The Ecuadorian schools  are setup along similar elementary lines in the U.S. (K-6), but with a difference in the way Ecuadorians count their grades with kindergarten being counted as grade one, and therefore, grade 6 by American count is counted in Ecuador as grade 7. Grade 7 (6th in the U.S.) is the beginning of secondary school. The secondary schools are divided into two, three year programs. By American standards grade 12 in Ecuador would be grade 11 in the states, so a student graduating from an Ecuadorian high school has actually had one less year of schooling than in the United States. Also, if you ever hear an Ecuadorian young person tell you that they are attending a collegio, this does not mean that they are a college student. Rather collegio students are attending a college preparatory high school.

Photo of a Collegio in Cuenca
                            Photo of a Collegio in Cuenca

The quality of education varies tremendously in Ecuador and even in localized communities like Cuenca, which in this respect, is no different from the United States. Also like in the United States, if parents remove their children from one school to place them in another even within the same school system, there is generally not a standardize curriculum of pacing through instruction that provides uniformity in instruction. On the other hand, parents are not limited to a neighborhood school choice, and can choose a school anywhere in the city as long as the parent has a viable private or public transportation mode for their children. It is my understanding that a small majority of youngsters in Cuenca attend Catholic schools. There are also some private schools that offer secular programs. The third group of students attend public schools, which are free through the ninth grade. No matter what type of schools children in Ecuador attend, they almost always will be wearing school uniforms.

School Girls in Uniform
              School Girls in Uniform

English is mandated by federal law to be taught at least one hour per day. Some schools at the secondary level teach classes in English throughout the day. However, many of the teachers of English are poorly qualified. About two years ago, the federal law required that teachers of English had to pass a qualifying exam in English to keep their jobs. A number of teachers crammed through additional English lessons in preparation for the exams. I have no idea what standards of mastery were exhibited by teachers of English to pass the exam. There have been no reports of which I am cognizant about how many, if any, teachers of English actually lost their jobs, because of their failure to pass the English mastery test. I would assume very few to none. While the test may be a step in the right direction of improving the language ability of teachers of English, many teachers who passed at low levels while possibly demonstrating improvement from their level prior to their qualifying exam prep tests classes still would not be fluent and possibly even competent in the language. Therefore, I believe a parent needs to be very vigilant in seeking out quality English instruction for their children.

For expats with youngsters moving to Cuenca, I would suggest that you look into three schools mentioned in the link below. I personally have no idea what quality programs these schools offer. However, the link provides you with a starting point and a point of comparison. I would highly recommend that upon your arrival to Cuenca, that you not only talk with officials from the school, but also spend the day attending the classes of the age group of your child or children and see what is transpiring. Observation will be difficult, if you arrive in July or August, which are vacation months in Cuenca and the Andes communities in general. However, if you can observe your child’s likely classes, then you can determine to what degree instruction is actually taught in English, and to what degree the teacher is able to facilitate the English language so that your child can succeed in that classroom.

I have personally known two expats who were living in Cuenca for only a year, and had their teen sons attend two different local schools with good reputations, but where English was not taught throughout the school day. If English is not spoken and your children are not fluent in Spanish, the teachers will not give them the time of day. Your children, as was the case with these two boys, will lose valuable instructional time. One of these boys lost a year of schooling, in spite of sitting in class every day. The other boy, after a wasted semester of little if no idea of what was said in class, returned to the states without his father and lived with relatives so that he could continue with his education. One or two years of high school Spanish in the states are not sufficient preparation for Spanish immersion in an Ecuadorian high school.

If your child is at the kindergarten or first grade level, you may wish to consider enrolling your child in a Spanish-speaking school. Children at that age can quickly pickup Spanish both in the classroom and from the other children. Not only will it help your child to develop new neurological pathways to language skills, but also will make learning Spanish easier in a classroom-setting where reading skills are still basic. By fourth grade, the necessity for developed reading skills and vocabulary makes it difficult for foreign language students to catch up with their native language peers. Best to get your child’s language immersion started as early as possible. Along with being immersed in the Spanish language, such youngsters also are immersed in Spanish culture. Such an immersion would also be a very valuable experience to these children in many career opportunities as adults, as well as their ability to navigate through various cultures with ease and adaptability. Of course, expat parents will have to compensate their primary grade youngsters with English language reading skills in the home environment.

I have no statistics to offer you. Even Google has little to offer, since I assume Ecuador has not reached the level of statistical disaggregation of educational data as the U.S. It is my belief anecdotally that most expats with youngsters in Cuenca home- school their children. Either one or both parents assume the task and responsibilities, which is more difficult but not impossible at the high school level. Most parents likely use interactive programs available on the Internet to home school their children. These programs are much more expensive than private schools in Cuenca. However, especially with secondary students, where parents will not often closely supervise their child’s instructional time; you must know your child well enough as to whether you think your teen is motivated to be a self-starter and accomplish the instructional tasks at hand without close supervision.

Home-schooling of younger children requires commitment on the part of the parent(s). From my conversation over the years with parents who home-schooled, elementary youngsters can usually be taught in two to three hours per day. Home-schooling parents, unlike classroom teachers, don’t have to deal with all the classroom management responsibilities that have little to do with instruction that devour so much of the typical elementary teacher’s day. Parents also have the advantage of personalizing and focusing on just their child’s instruction.  Best of all for home-schooling parents, the government of Ecuador is very friendly to home- schooling, unlike a number of state departments of education in the United States which are down-right hostile to parents who home-school. For better or for worse, the Ecuadorian government at this time, provides next to no supervision over the instruction of home-schoolers.  Parents simply need to sign a document that they are home-schooling their children.

Sorry, but currently I do not personally know any expat parents who have youngsters in the Cuenca schools, nor do I know any parents who are presently homeschooling their children. Most of us retirees are obviously beyond this point of schooling consideration. Such parents, however, certainly would be a good source for potential expat parents as well. If any parents who are home-schooling here in Cuenca should contact me, with their permission, I will gladly post their email address on this post site, so that potential expat parents may contact them.

Here are three links which may be helpful to potential expat parents:





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