Becoming Cuenca

Lessons We’ve Learned in Cuenca

May 16, 2023

Recently an American couple in Cuenca that Joanna and I are friends with celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary. We were honored to be part of their celebration at a Japanese restaurant in a person’s home (There is an excellent Cambodian restaurant in El Centro that does the same thing).

In the middle of the seven-course meal, Carol asked everyone what lessons they had learned since moving to Cuenca. To me, this was very enlightening as the answers were coming from a diverse group of people who have experienced life for six to seven decades.

The length of time in Cuenca for the group ranged from three to 10 years. Harry and Carol have been in Cuenca one year longer than us.

Since Carol was the moderator (so to speak), she led off with what she and Harry had learned in their four years:

-Keep an eye on those sidewalks – they’re out to get you.

-If you don’t know what you have, Dra. Maïté does (or will).

-Balance keeping up with old friends with making new ones.

-People usually aren’t here forever.  There is churn.

-Embrace the SLOW.

-When you retire, you don’t have to keep going at full speed.  Sleeping in is okay.  So is spending the morning, or the day, in your PJs.

-Never forget your umbrella. No umbrella = rain.

-The easiest job in the world is the Cuenca weatherman’s job.

-I REALLY miss sharp cheddar and babies.

Like my previous post, yours truly has to interject his thoughts, and expand upon what was stated by Harry and Carol. I won’t address each point as this could turn into a Leo Tolstoy novel!

And Dra. Maïté will have to be a post by itself (She’s wonderful!).

I want to focus this post on Cuenca, so I’ll leave the life coaching to Ajit Nawalkha, Marisa Peer, Christine Hassler, and Jason Goldberg.

Walking may be one of the most favorite activities in Cuenca. Why not? Every street seems to have a sidewalk on at least one side. To say the least, sidewalks are uneven. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards are not to be found in Cuenca.

On top of that, open manholes and big drops are possible at any time. Many expats have injured themselves by walking on these sidewalks. If you are not watching where you are going, you will be the next statistic.

This is not to say it is dangerous. Most pitfalls can be avoided by using my wife’s and my rule. With so many wonderful things to see in Cuenca, it is easy to focus on what you are enjoying and not paying attention to where you are going. This is when most accidents occur for expats.

Our rule is basically foolproof. When we see something of interest, we stop. We do not take another step forward to look at what interests us at that moment. By standing still, we do not trip over something unexpected, nor do we fall because of a drop in the sidewalk.

An umbrella is a must wherever you go. Do not let those beautiful blue skies fool you. One minute it is pure blue, and the next minute it is raining.

The weather in Cuenca can change on a dime so you have to be prepared for warm temperatures that are quickly followed cold temperatures. The opposite is true, too, as I watched the digital thermometer on our terrace constantly change in front of my eyes. The temperature has gone up eight degrees Fahrenheit in just 45 minutes.

It is easy to say that the easiest job in the world is the Cuenca weatherman’s job. The problem is that there is not one forecast for the entire city.

I have made many Cuencanos laugh when I tell them that when the forecast calls for rain, I ask, “Which street?”

Seriously… Joanna and I have walked so many times in the rain, and it is not raining the next street over. One time we were along the Yanuncay River in a huge thunderstorm as it had popped up out of nowhere.

As we walked in the deluge, just three blocks south of us, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining brightly on the southern part of the city.

At that dinner celebration, yours truly was the first to speak up (I don’t think my wife was surprised about that).  I added:

-Appreciate the small things.

-I’m not driving, so it doesn’t matter.

Though I said I would not be a life coach with this post, I will say that Cuenca has truly made me enjoy life again. Many times, it has been the small things.

When one slows down and walks most of the time, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the small things that are all around you. Cuenca is such a beautiful city that there is no shortage of things to be a part of your life.

As I have said to many people and many times on Facebook, there is always an opportunity to take a great photo in this city. And not driving is a major factor in being able to do that…

Which leads to expats and cars.

A Gallup poll from five years ago explored Americans’ driving habits and their attitudes toward cars. It revealed that 34 percent of Americans enjoy driving “a great deal.” A bigger portion (44 percent) say they enjoy being behind the wheel “a moderate amount.” Only 8 percent said, “not at all.”

If Gallup were to come to Cuenca, it would find that “a great deal” would be in the single digits. “Not at all” would be over 90 percent.

Seriously!

Joanna and I know a good number of expats in Cuenca. A good reason for that is my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life: A Rejuvenated Enthusiasm in Cuenca, Ecuador,” this blog, and because I answer many questions on the Ecuadorian Facebook group pages.

Though Americans have a history of loving cars, we do not know anyone from the U.S. driving a car in Ecuador. The funny thing is the only people we know with cars are two different Canadian couples.

Why should we have a car? It is expensive. Parking in El Centro is difficult. One has to maintain and repair the vehicle and pay for fuel. You get the idea. It is not cheap to own and operate a vehicle.

Most of us walk (It’s a healthy and fun thing to do!). When it is a very long distance, we opt for an inexpensive taxi. Getting across town in a taxi will set you back about four dollars (including a tip).

My wife spoke up and said:

-Cuencanos are some of the finest people I’ve met.

I recently mentioned this in a previous post, but it is important to say that if one is thinking of moving to another country, they need to know how the locals feel about them.

If a non-white was thinking of moving to the U.S., that person would definitely have second thoughts. A 2019 Pew Research poll found two-thirds of Americans – including majorities across racial and ethnic groups – say it had become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views. A smaller but substantial share (45 percent) said hatred and discrimination against non-whites had become more acceptable.

Every expat I have ever talked to thinks Cuencanos are some of the finest people they have ever met. Obviously that opinion includes my wife, Joanna.

They are welcoming, open-minded, and very helpful. Cuencanos are so thoughtful that they will try to speak English with you. That includes Rene in the photo above. I cannot count the times Joanna and I have been walking and a Cuencano will greet us in English.

There is a good chance you will become part of a Cuencano family. Joanna and I are considered part of the Garcia family. We feel honored to be friends with these wonderful and loving people.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and we cannot wait to celebrate the day with them. Renata Garcia said to me, “I would like to celebrate this day with Joanna. She is very motherly and deserves to be celebrating with us.”

Two different people had similar things to say. Jerry has been in Cuenca for over ten years, and Elizabeth is at three years:

-Jerry: We’ve made more friends in Cuenca than in the 30+ years in the States.

-Elizabeth: My definition of family has changed:  It’s who rallies around when you need them.

This may not be surprising to many: One does not have a lot of true friends in the United States. Maybe that is why last October, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “How to Make, and Keep, Friends in Adulthood.” It had a “friendship expert” who shared strategies for finding connection in what the newspaper called “a lonely, disconnected world.”

Jerry and his wife have been in Cuenca for a decade. What he said has been expressed by many expats.

Joanna and I have a theory as to why so many expats have more true friends in Cuenca than they did in decades back in the U.S. and Canada.

The first reason is the lives we had back in North America. Most of us were working 40+ hours per week. Then, there is the five hours on the road each week for commuting to and from work.

That meant the weekends were dedicated to what we could not get done Monday through Friday. There was little time to forge new friendships and spend time with the ones you cared about. The “friends” one had were mainly co-workers, and those bonds are not very strong at all.

As Elizabeth said, “My definition of family has changed:  It’s who rallies around when you need them.” That is Elizabeth and Joanna in the photo above. The two of them might as well be sisters. That is how strong the friendship has become.

Because we have become such good friends with Elizabeth and her husband, Ralph, we are planning a four-week trip to Europe together. That is a long time to spend with friends, but they are family to us (and vice versa).

It takes a special person to leave a country they have lived their entire lives in. And both Joanna and I feel that for the most part, the type of person who moves to Cuenca is progressive, open-minded, and compassionate. They are a person who supports new ideas and social change. Most expats in Cuenca have modern ideas about how things should be done, rather than traditional ones.

Having so much in common makes it easier to make friends. And some of those friends will be your family. Let’s face it: Your biological family is in the country you left. Your family will be the ones near you in Ecuador.

The bottom line? Do not be afraid to move to Cuenca. You will make friends quickly, and some of them will be dear to you… Family.

Since I mentioned Ralph, here is what my friend said that evening:

-Accept cultural differences. “No, it’s not like in the States, it’s like in Ecuador.”

-Don’t schedule more than one thing per day.

Ralph is spot on. Do not – and I repeat, do not – think you are going to change the way things are in Cuenca. Or anywhere for that matter.

A Cuencano friend of ours is tired of the ethnocentric and selfish attitude that some bring to her city. “They ask, ‘Why don’t we speak English?’ ‘Why isn’t there peanut butter?’ These people are going to be unhappy anywhere in the world,” Diana told us.

Our friend added, “Do not have too many expectations before moving here. Enjoy it here. If you do not have anything nice to say, then don’t say it. Support our community.”

Another Cuencano we know is Cristina. She says there are a good number of foreigners who are ethnocentric and that does not sit well with her.

“There are expats here who want Cuenca to be like their country. Do not expect the same things here as you had in your country. Be open to what is here,” said Cristina. “It is different here. People are more polite than many who move down here. We should be treated with respect.”

Though you are retired, your calendar is very important. As Ralph said, do not schedule more than one thing in a day.

The culture in Cuenca is rather loose with schedules and appointments. Someone who is supposed to provide service in the morning may not arrive until 4:00 in the afternoon unannounced.

If you really need that service and you had something planned for the afternoon, it means blowing off the afternoon event.

Pardon the cliché, but you have to go with the flow. Do not fight it. We have an excellent landscape architect, who built our terrace garden. The other week, we asked him for more white decorative rocks for our garden.

This talented Cuencano promised to show up on Monday at 8 a.m. He never showed and there was zero communication from him. For those who are used to punctuality and specific times, this will drive them crazy. But for us, it does not as it is part of the culture here.

Oh!

On Wednesday night, we received an apology from our landscape architect. He said the rocks he ordered did not arrive until Wednesday. This is typical for Cuenca that no updates are provided. On Thursday morning, the white rocks were put into place on our terrace.

We never complained.

And as Carol said, “Embrace the SLOW.”

Not everyone is that way. Our Cuencano tailor, Leonardo, told me the other day, “I like working with foreigners. Their culture is different, including being on time.”

Leonardo added that he did not used to be punctual, but working with expats has helped him to be on time. “If I am going to be late, I will tell them,” said Leonardo (He did that for me when he was two minutes late).

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.

You may want to sign up to be notified when I post new information and photos. By doing this, you will get the latest as soon as it goes online.

Salud, mi amigos.

 

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.