Becoming Cuenca

Corazón de Oro

Jun 27, 2022

A Spanish title is in order for the latest concerning Cuenca, Ecuador. The translation is “Heart of Gold” and there is an excellent reason for it.

When making a decision, many times we use our experiences and knowledge from the past to formulate an opinion or decision. It is why you will see my posts compare the United States to Ecuador quite frequently.

It is ‘not’ to pick on the country I left, but to help you formulate an opinion or decision about moving to Cuenca, Ecuador. Using your knowledge and experiences combined with what I am passing along to you, an informative conclusion can be made about life at three degrees south.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

This leads us to the June 26th opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled, “America the Merciless.” Opinion Columnist Pamela Paul said, “I can’t help but see a particular American bent toward cruelty.  Especially when it comes to life-or-death matters, with a merciless streak that dictates not only how we live, but also the laws around who dies.”

Pamela goes on to say, “The laws on both capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide are clear. Our enthusiasm for the death penalty puts us in the same camp as China, Iran and 16 other countries that killed its citizens in 2020; as of early June, America had put seven people to death.”

Twenty-four states allow the death penalty. Three states, California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, have governor-issued moratoriums in place, halting executions in those states. On average, 26 people have been executed annually in the United States since 2000.

Ecuador is definitely different than the United States. Article 19.1 of the Constitution of Ecuador establishes that: “The State guarantees the inviolability of life and physical integrity. There is no death penalty. Torture and all inhuman or degrading treatment are prohibited.” In accordance with the constitution, foreigners in Ecuadorian territory have the same rights and duties as those of Ecuadorians.

Worldwide, euthanasia is legal in only seven countries: Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. As you can see, Ecuador and the United States are in the same camp.

Cuencanos Mosquera Rodriguez and Vanessa Margoth are trying to change that. Their research project entitled “The Right to a Dignified Death and the Need to Legalize Euthanasia in Ecuador,” is aimed at encouraging the legalization of Active and passive euthanasia in the country. They emphasized the legal foundations that support euthanasia as a “right that all Ecuadorian citizens could enjoy.” The Cuencanos said the country’s constitution the Human Rights Treaty all state Ecuador should legalize euthanasia.

That is all for the legal stuff. I do not want your eyes glazing over with statistics and legal jargon. Besides, I want to get back to “Corazón de Oro.”

One of the big reasons that Joanna and I live in Cuenca is that “Heart of Gold” attitude. While the United States has regressively moved back seven decades with its recent Supreme Court decisions and red states laws, Cuenca is living the 1950s in a positive way.

I am talking about Cuencanos’ respect, friendliness, and compassion. Walking along the streets of Cuenca reminds me of the South during the days of Mayberry. You may remember that fictious town in North Carolina that Andy Griffith was the sheriff of.

When one walks down a sidewalk and passes another person in Cuenca, they should say, “Buenos Días” (Good Day), or “Buenos Tardes” (Good Afternoon), or “Buenos Noches” (Good Evening). It is a sign of respect. Both Joanna (a native North Carolinian) and I find it to be refreshing and uplifting.

We know it makes Cuencanos feel good as when we greet them on the sidewalks, our acknowledgment usually puts a big smile on their faces. Part of it may be that they weren’t expecting Gringos to be like them and acknowledge their existence. But I truly think it is more of the human spirit in play. It is a positive interaction that uplifts one’s soul and feelings for the fellow man. It is respect.

Sidewalks are not the only place for salutations. Anytime we go by our condo’s administration office, we are always greeting whoever is in there. Usually, it is Gabriella, and she always smiles and returns our greeting. If she is busy, I will always wave to her with a smile. Gabriella always smiles back and takes time to wave back to me before going back to what she was doing.

We do the same with the guards in our lobby. The two of us have done it so long that many times they are greeting us before we can get to the lobby (They spot us on their security cameras).

There was one new guard, who I think was trying to be tough. Seguridad (security) is important and apparently, showing emotions was not part of his job. Nonetheless, in the spirit of Cuencanos, I would always greet him. These days, he is greeting me first, smiling, and sometimes opening the front door for Joanna and me. As far he is concerned, we are Cuencanos.

Probably where “Corazón de Oro” is very evident is Cuencanos helping you. Almost every expat has a story about how wonderful Cuencanos are with their assistance and honesty. It is something that is missing in most parts of the United States.

Our very good friend, “W,” has a great example of “Corazón de Oro.” He was walking along Calle Agustín Cueva when our 81-year-old friend tripped and started falling into the roadway. This is a busy street, and the outcome of the fall could have been fatal. But it wasn’t as a Cuencano came to the rescue and pulled “W” up from the street. Our friend calls the Cuencano, “His Angel.”

Many people can relate to my story concerning Cuencanos. Because most expats do not own a car, we walk or take taxis. One evening, I was taking a taxi to a musical performance at Teatro Sucre. When I got to my El Centro destination, I paid my fare and got out of the cab.

Seconds later, I realized my cellphone had fallen out of my pants pockets. How that happened, I do not know. But the bottom line was that my $500 phone was sitting on the back seat of the taxi, and it had driven off.

I quickly went into the theater and had my friend, T.J., call my phone. A man answered it. The Cuencano on the phone was the next fare for the cab I was just in. Through some WhatsApp texts (Latin America uses WhatsApp, not SMS), we arranged for me to get my phone back the next morning.

When the young Cuencano showed up at Teatro Sucre the next morning, I wanted to thank him for his kindness and honesty. I pulled out a twenty-dollar bill to give to him. He quickly rejected it. “I am an honest man,” said the Cuencano. “All I want to do is return to you what is yours.”

Frankly, I think I insulted Kevin for offering $20 for his good deed. We came up with a better solution than my monetary reward. The Cuencano is learning English so he can be promoted in his business. Joanna and I invited him over to our home for dinner and we spoke English for over four hours. It was a wonderful evening with our new friend. As we waited in the lobby for his taxi to take him home, the security guard took a photo of all of us with our Miniature Australian Shepherd, Peanut.

Please note that getting back my cellphone is not a unique story. Expat after expat has told a similar story. And if you think you will never lose your cellphone in a taxi, think again. Yours truly thought the same thing. But! I am now securing my phone as soon as I get into a taxi.

One of our friends misplaced her handbag with money and her identification. “N” was sickened by the fact that she had accidentally left important documents and cash behind. Of course, the story has a good ending as it happened in Cuenca. The handbag was returned to our friend with everything in it.

I wish I had video of my next story to show how caring Cuencanos are. While walking down Calle General Torres, in El Centro, a huge and unexpected gust of wind came out of nowhere. The unusual gust of wind blew a lightweight store display into the street. The store’s employee ran after it and retrieved the display. She was not able to save her balloons that had become detached from the display.

The employee walked back to her store that was about a hundred feet from me. That is when I noticed a young Cuencano go into the busy street and retrieve the balloons. If this had been the United States, it would have been a coin flip as to if the young man would walk off with them or return them to its rightful owner.

Since I was in Cuenca, I knew what was going to happen. And I am pretty sure you know the “rest of the story.”

I passed the young man with the balloons and turned around to see what he would do. He waited patiently for the numerous cars to go by before proceeding to the store to give the lady back her balloons. I stood there smiling at what had just transpired. And I felt reaffirmed about my choice to live at three degrees south.

The Irish poet, dramatist, and writer William Butler Yeats could have easily been talking about Cuenca when he said, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”

Renata and her beautiful family (in the first photo) are a great example. Last year, while working on a story, I met this lovely young lady. She did a great job helping me with my article about the place where she works.

To my surprise, Renata befriended Joanna and me. For Father’s Day, she invited us over to her family’s home to celebrate Día del Padre. Her entire family was there to be with their Padre. Joanna and I felt so privileged to be a part of it.

And we spent about seven hours at Renata’s home, enjoying life and celebrating our new friendship. I truly mean it when I say it was the best Father’s Day I have ever had.

Since then, Renata and her family have been to our home a couple of times. We have been back to her home several times. On one occasion, Renata’s mother went to the family garden, cutting all sorts of greens for us and giving us lots of fresh vegetables. It is so typical of a Cuencano to be so generous and loving. They give it no second thought.

We feel like we are now family. Heck… We are! Later this year, we will be going to Renata’s niece’s baptism. Apart from the quinceañera (the 15th birthday of girls), marriage, and funerals, a baptism is one of the important occasions in the Ecuadorian life cycle. To have us participate makes us feel so honored to be part of this loving family.

Social media in the last few days has been busier and angrier than usual. People, such as a Twitter account with 10,000 followers, are saying things like, “Would you consider moving out of the U.S. if the opportunity presented itself?” A woman with 16,000 followers responded, “Already planning on it.”

Remember what the American author, coach, speaker, and philanthropist Tony Robbins said: “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.” I say to those people and you, follow your dreams. Follow your heart. Don’t be afraid to pursue what you truly desire. For me, it was “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.”

I hope this post makes you move forward to what I think is a better life at three degrees south. A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.