Becoming Cuenca

Respect and Community

Aug 19, 2022

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”

This famous song by Aretha Franklin was a groundbreaking female empowerment anthem of the late 1960s. It was a minor hit by Otis Redding in 1965, but Franklin’s “Respect” was given a new arrangement and new lyrics about a woman boldly demanding the respect of her man. It was so powerful that she sang it in the 1980 hit movie, “The Blues Brothers.”

Being treated with respect is a sign that we belong in a community or society. It is being addressed in this post due to it disappearing quickly in the United States. Polarization is no longer just a problem in Congress, but in almost every community. That is an observation, not a political statement.

A sense of belonging matters. Respect is a signal of mutual membership of society. While respect is hard to find these days in the United States, it is easily found everywhere in Cuenca, Ecuador.

The best example that everyone in the world can relate to involves the Covid pandemic. We need to go back to when it was rampantly expanding throughout the world, especially in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

In April 2020, Ecuador’s largest city became the poster child of what not to do concerning Covid. It was “Ground Zero” for deaths from the coronavirus. Mainstream outlets throughout the world, including the New York Times and Reuters, reported on the higher-than-normal death rate in Guayaquil. There were photos of bodies on the side of streets. It was gruesome.

Initially, Ecuador struggled to battle the pandemic as almost all of the vaccine was being hoarded by the United States and Europe. Little vaccine was making it to the poorer countries in the world.

By the first of June 2021, the U.S. had vaccinated around 42 percent of its population. Struggling to get the vaccine, Ecuador was still in single digits.

Respect is a skill as well as a virtue. It is alive and well in Ecuador, especially Cuenca. The Chinese vaccine, Sinovac, was shipped to Ecuador in large quantities. By late-July, Ecuador had 38 percent of its population vaccinated while the U.S. had gone up only six points.

In early-September 2021, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso said the country reached its vaccination goals. “Plan de Vacunación 9/100” was to vaccinate nine-million people in just 100 days.

September 9th marked a milestone (so to speak) as 52.95 percent of Ecuadorians were totally vaccinated compared to 52.76 percent of Americans with two shots. It is quite an accomplishment considering Ecuador was more than thirty percentage points behind the U.S. in late-May.

Most of the reluctance in the U.S. was ideological. The right side of the political spectrum held the belief that taking the vaccine imposed on a person’s civil liberties. Other Americans feared the jab posed a significant risk to their health after reading discredited theories online.

That was nowhere to be found in Ecuador. Because of respect for each other and looking out for the good of the community, Ecuador was getting vaccinated. Cuenca was doing better than the rest of the country.

That same day in September 2021, Ministerio de Salud Pública de Ecuador (Ministry of Public Health) announced that Cuenca and Azuay province had reached “herd immunity” against Covid-19.

At announcement time, 86 percent of the province had received at least one shot, with 81 percent of the population in Azuay province fully vaccinated. To give you an idea how impressive this is, Vermont was the most vaccinated state in the United States at that time with 68.35 percent totally vaccinated.

Cuenca and Azuay were the first in the country to achieve the immunity level set by the ministry, which had originally established herd immunity at 70 percent, but raised it to 80 percent when the Delta variant entered the country.

The respect and attitude about community continued in Cuenca. In May 2022, it was announced that 91 percent of the city was fully vaccinated. I would assume that percentage is even a little bit higher now.

To give you how impressive those numbers are for Cuenca, the Los Angeles Times reported on August 8, 2022, that only 72 percent of Californians were fully vaccinated. The province that Cuenca is in is a full twenty points better than liberal California.

Respect.

Helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Cuenca is the mandatory wearing of face masks out in public. In Cuenca, we are in our 29th straight month of wearing masks, and we still have about a 95 percent compliance rate in Cuenca. For about two years, about 99 percent of the people in Cuenca were wearing their face masks out in public. These figures are an observation that expats agree with.

My wife, Joanna, and I have not heard anyone complaining, “My masks make it hard to breathe” or “My mask is too hot” or “Masks infringe on my freedoms.” We did hear about a minor protest about mandatory face masks by some Americans at Parque Calderón (where everyone protests), but that was ignored by the rest of the city, so they never did it again.

I think almost everyone here in Cuenca has the spirit of Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.”

Everyone in Cuenca is making the “right decision” and looking out for the betterment of the community. Earlier this year, hospitals in Cuenca were open for any type of medical procedure while at the same time in the United States, overwhelmed hospitals were turning people away.

The statistics prove that too. Rates of getting infected with the coronavirus in Ecuador have been about one-fifth of the United States. By respecting each other by wearing face masks, transmission of Covid has been greatly reduced.

Respect.

“Woke up this morning with sunlight streaming through the window of my home in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains and I thought to myself… You’ve made it.”

An older friend of mine in Cuenca posted that the other day on Facebook. Robert was referring to the respect older people get in Ecuador. It is a rather foreign concept in the United States. In Ecuador, it is more than just saying there is respect for one’s elders. It is practiced here.

Everywhere.

There are special lines at banks, governmental agencies, airports, etc. for people 65 years and older. One time at the Cuenca airport, a LATAM airlines agent came up to Joanna, and told her to get into the special line to board our plane. My wife tried to explain she was not 65, but the airline agent was adamant about Joanna getting into it.

Respect.

Another time, we went to our financial institution to make a deposit. Lines at banks in Cuenca can be rather long. We have seen as many as 40 people in line at our financial institution as cash is king in Ecuador. The two of us were at the end of the line when the security guard came up to Joanna and told her to get into the special line. There was no arguing about it, so we followed his orders.

It is not just special lines for the older people. There are discounts for public transportation. It is half off for city buses (which are already a fantastic deal at full fare), interprovincial buses, as well as the airlines. That includes all of the American and Canadian air carriers.

If you are 65 years or older, you can get half-off a full fare ticket. There are restrictions and special rules for that. It is only half off the fare. Any governmental charges and taxes applied to the ticket have to be paid in full. This means that airline ticket is not really half off.

The airline ticket has to be roundtrip and originate in Ecuador. Multi-stop tickets will not get the senior discount. Because you cannot get the discount online, one has to go to a travel agency or to an airline’s ticketing office in Cuenca to receive half off.

Once you are 65 years old, your taxes go down 50 percent. Who has heard of that in the United States? As a journalist, I did numerous stories about an older person being forced out of their home of many decades due to skyrocketing property taxes.

These senior discounts are all done out of respect. Ecuador knows that most older people will have a fixed income or little money. That includes Robert who said online, “After a fairly lackluster career, living paycheck to paycheck, I’ve never been certain of retirement. Ecuador has made it possible for a gringo like me to enjoy the few remaining years of my life in relative security. I feel sad when I think of those millions of seniors who struggle to make it day to day, in a nation which is indifferent to its elders. Muchas gracias a Ecuador.”

Most Americans see their country’s political discourse being disrespectful. Politics too often consists of demeaning individuals. As the Brookings Institution said, “The danger is that this trickles down into general attitudes.”

Because of the lack of respect in the United States, the last several years have seen discrimination, hate, and White supremacist ideology shift from the fringes of society to mainstream social media and politics. Many say the August 2017 tiki torches incident in Charlottesville, Virginia was the green light for this behavior to be out in the open.

It is difficult to find that hatred in Cuenca. One thing you will notice immediately in Cuenca is the lack of hatred, anger, hostility, and discrimination towards minorities, including the LGBTQ community. If you are a white person, you will definitely be in the minority in Ecuador.

Paul is a Cuencano, who deals with potential expats on a daily basis, and has great insight into what I am saying. He wants everyone to know that despite Cuenca being a traditionally conservative city, it welcomes everyone.

“Because of our culture and traditions, you will never hear derogatory comments about gays nor one’s skin color,” Paul told me. “Everyone here is a good person. Everyone is nice.”

Cuencanos are very welcoming and are always smiling. Out of respect, when passing someone on the sidewalk, you greet them. You acknowledge them. Depending on the time of day, you say, “Buenos Días” or “Buenos Tardes” or “Buenos Noches.” Think of it as how the American South used to be four decades ago.

Paul wants everyone to know that people in Cuenca are very friendly. “Cuencanos are used to Gringos due to the high number of foreign tourists. Most of the people who come to our city are nice people. All of us try to be friendly and helpful. We are proud of our community. We want you to become part of our community. We want you to become part of our nice community,” said Paul.

Martin concurs. This Cuencano grew up in New York City but moved back to his homeland in 1997. His job as a tour guide has him interacting with foreigners quite often.

“People here are happy, friendly, and helpful. It is not surprising to see a Cuencano help someone. I have gone up to people who looked lost or were needing some help in their journey through our city. When I spoke to them in English, they were surprised. Maybe more surprising for them was that someone was helping them,” Martin told me.

Renata and Vivi are sisters in their late twenties. The parents of these young Cuencanos lived in New York City for nine years. They say that the reputation of the natives of Cuenca is known throughout the country. “In other cities in Ecuador, they say Cuencanos are the most friendly,” says Vivi. “They tell us that they always feel welcomed in Cuenca.”

Family is the single most important unit in the Latin American culture. And that includes Ecuador. It’s a close-knit group. This attitude influences the perception and behavior of its members. Family relationships are often dictated by a definite authority structure of age, gender, and role: Elder over Younger; Men over Women (Patriarchal Society); Father over Family.

Joselin is a Millennial and teaches economics at the University of Cuenca. The Cuencano told me, “People are very welcoming. We are always saying ‘Hello’ and will help you. I think it is a Latin American culture. Relationships are very important to us. Friends and family are number-one. Because of this, people will support you in times of need.”

Families often gather together to celebrate holidays, birthdays, baptisms, graduations, and weddings. Because we are considered family, Renata and Vivi have invited Joanna and me to their niece’s baptism this spring.

Cuencano families instill in their children the importance of honor, good manners, and respect for authority and the elderly. That is why respect is such a huge part of life in Cuenca. It is community.

That is why many Americans have chosen to live at three degrees south.

Muchas gracias, Cuenca.

Salud, everyone.

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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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.