Becoming Cuenca

The Andean Worldview

Dec 1, 2023

“The Andean worldview differs from that of Western civilization in various ways. Once you become familiar with their worldview, it’s a little easier to understand why Andean peoples think the way they do.” ~David Sasaki, American Expat

David Sasaki is an expat, who lives in Cotacachi (Imbabura province, in northern Ecuador).  He was a news producer for various television stations across the United States, including Detroit, New Haven, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C.

Sasaki is highly respected in the Ecuadorian expat community as he is the administrator of the Facebook group, Ecuador Expats. It is a private group with over 36,000 members.

The other day, he posted on his Facebook page what he considers the four elements of Ecuadorian society: Collectivity, Essence, Reciprocity, and Transformation.

As someone who is looking at Cuenca and Ecuador, it is important to know what the people are like as well as its society. Because some Americans did not look at the whole picture, they became disillusioned living in Cuenca and ended up moving back to the United States.

That includes a couple who lived in our modern building. Though they seemed to like the cultural scene in the city, such as the Saturday Jazz Brunch at LaGuarida, they excitedly moved back to Atlanta, Georgia with their dog in June. They were so ready to leave that the wife flagged us down on the street to give us the news.

“Collectivity means the group is more important than the individual. It is the understanding that things must be done for the good of the people, not the person. Modern Western culture, on the other hand, extols the individual.” ~David Sasaki

This may be the most important aspect of Ecuadorian society. I say this as Ecuador is greatly different than the United States when it comes to collectivity.

Individualism is a defining feature of American public life. The U.S. repeatedly ranks as the most individualistic country in the world.

It became part of the core American ideology in the 19th century, incorporating the influences of New England Puritanism, Jeffersonianism, and the philosophy of natural rights.

For many Americans, to need to rely on someone else, especially the government, for help is seen as a sign of weakness, something to be embarrassed of.

Richard Weissbourd, a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, wrote about individualism for Time in April.

Weissbourd said, “In America today, far too many of us are disconnected from each other, lonely, self-protective, or at each other’s throats. Sacrifice for the common good feels anachronistic. Everything not nailed down has been commoditized or turned into a source of personal enrichment.”

When the Covid pandemic was racing out of control in the U.S. in 2020, the University of Virginia conducted a study that was the first to quantify the cultural influence in fighting the Covid pandemic.

The authors reported, “After state lockdown orders went into effect, enforcing shelter-at-home and closing non-essential businesses, our study finds that highly individualistic counties complied less with lockdown orders and donated less to COVID-related charitable campaigns, creating a divergence in collective actions among counties with different levels of individualism.”

A huge percentage of the population refused to wear face masks despite the highly contagious virus.

And many Americans bemoaned having their rights restricted. They ranted and raved about not having mass gatherings and business activity being limited.

Then there was the stay-at-home order. This meant at least 316 million people in at least 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico were urged to stay home. The keyword is: Urged.

Joanna and I saw this individualism firsthand when we went to the U.S. in November 2021. Our first stop was St. Augustine, Florida.

From mid-November through January every year, downtown St. Augustine glows with millions of tiny white lights. “Nights of Lights” is one of the biggest holiday lights displays in the country. National Geographic named it one of the ten most dazzling lighting displays in the world in 2011 and 2012.

Hesitantly, we went out to view the Christmas lights. Wearing face masks, we walked through downtown for less than an hour. We cut the walking tour short because of individualism.

There were easily 5,000 people walking through downtown St. Augustine. I am not exaggerating when I say that Joanna and I were the only two people wearing face masks despite the crowds being shoulder-to-shoulder in places and Covid cases rising rapidly in Florida.

What was sad and laughable at the same time were people, who were expressing their individualism by not wearing face masks, avoided us like the plague. And obviously, there was no social distancing.

We were wearing masks for their benefit. Both of us believe in collectivity, something that was definitely happening at that time in Cuenca.

In Ecuador, things were being done for the good of the people, not the individual person. The country had a daily curfew. I am talking about we had to be in our homes and not on the streets.

At the beginning, we were only allowed out between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. We had eight hours to get everything done. Eventually, the curfew was extended to 9 p.m.

No one in Cuenca moaned or whined. And that included the expats in the city. We were in this together. Our goal was to defeat the coronavirus for everyone’s good.

Face masks and social distancing were mandatory. For over two years, almost everyone wore face masks for the good of the community.

I am not kidding when I state the compliance rate for wearing masks out in public was 99 percent (It was at best 60 percent in the U.S.). The only people I ever saw not wearing face masks were foreigners.

As for social distancing, businesses marked off between 1.5 and two meters for people to stand. Businesses were only allowed to have so many people inside their premises.

And no one complained.

Well… I take that back. There was one protest with about a dozen Americans at Parque Calderón, in El Centro. As far as I know, they only did it once as their voices fell on deaf ears.

Then there was the vaccine. At the beginning of June 2020, when the U.S. had the vaccine and Ecuador basically did not, just over 40 percent of Americans were vaccinated. The 60 percent were individualists, who stated it was their right to not get it. Meanwhile, Ecuador was below 10 percent.

The President of Ecuador was able to negotiate to get the vaccine from China. Collectivity took over as long lines formed to get the Covid vaccine.

In just three months, Ecuador had surpassed the U.S. for the percentage of its population that was vaccinated. By early-2022, about 91 percent of Azuay province (where Cuenca is) was vaccinated.

To compare, Mississippi only had 53.5 percent of its citizens vaccinated, followed by Louisiana (54.8 percent), Tennessee (56.1 percent), and Idaho (56.2 percent).

By having collectivity, Cuenca was able to open its hospitals in May 2022 for any type of surgery. Meanwhile, hospitals in the U.S. were bursting at the seams. Some hospitals were putting patients in the hallways. Other hospitals were sending patients to other cities and states.

“Essence: This concept is often seen in art. It doesn’t matter what something looks like. It is the inner meaning that matters. Essence over outward appearance.” ~David Sasaki

Art is extremely important in Cuenca. A city with a university is usually a big cultural arts center for the region. When there are four universities in a city, it becomes an arts capital.

That is what Cuenca is as it has been called by native Ecuadorians and expats, “The Arts Capital of Ecuador.”

It has been said that Cuenca is the “Rising Arts Capital of Latin America.” A good reason could be the incredibly talented ceramic artists in the city. Maybe the most celebrated is Eduardo Segovia.

He is a master at his craft. Working with clay comes naturally to this man. Even at an old age, Segovia is full of energy and excitement, and shows no signs of slowing down. It is apparent that ceramics are not only his profession, but also his passion.

Famous painters live in Cuenca, including Boris Ordoñez. The visual artist’s works are “strong formats” with explosions of light and color. The paintings evoke the Andean community and the Andean peoples. He says his works are “a sample of the connection between the material and the spiritual.”

It is modern art that has been immensely popular. His paintings have been exhibited alongside the works of Eduardo Segovia. And they have been shown overseas, including Regensburg, Germany.

In April 2022, Ordoñez opened OFF Arte Contemporáneo. On the three floors of his art gallery, there are approximately 160 works of art for all to enjoy. Ordoñez says his art gallery is the largest in Ecuador.

When you make it to Cuenca, you will be blown away by the amount of wall art in the city. Cuenca embraces the arts, especially public art. Any walking tour of the city will have you going by artwork adorning walls and buildings. A good portion honors the rich history and culture of the region.

Hummingbirds (Colibrí or Picaflor) are an exceedingly popular subject matter for wall art. There are no limitations to the size of the artwork as there is a five-story building at Av. 12 de Abril and Av. Fray Vicente Solano with a gorgeous mural that takes up most of the northern face of the building.

“Reciprocity: Groups in different areas help one another, especially through agricultural exchanges. In Imbabura Province, for example, there is food bartering (trueque) involving mestizos, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians.” ~David Sasaki

I would call it selflessness – a concern more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own. That is especially true in Cuenca.

Ask any expat about Cuencanos and their kindness, generosity, and compassion, and you will only get superlatives.

And stories.

A dear friend of mine, who was in his early eighties, told me about the time he was walking and fell. He fell onto a busy street. Before he knew it, a Cuencano grabbed my friend from the street before he was hit by a vehicle. My friend called the Cuencano his “guardian angel.”

Somehow or another, unbeknownst to me, my cellphone fell out of my pants pocket as I was riding in a taxi in El Centro. I just knew I would never see it again.

But that was silly on my part. Using a friend’s phone, I called my phone. An Ecuadorian answered it and told me he would return it to me the next day. And lo and behold, he did. We are now friends because of this happenstance meeting and reciprocity.

The people of Cuenca are truly one huge reason expats love living here. The “Me, Myself, and I” mentality you find everywhere in the U.S. basically does not exist in this city.

“Transformation: The constant state of change in the world including movement from life to the afterlife. The indigenous believe death is not the end. There is a spiritual world as well. During “Day of the Deceased” (Día de los Difuntos), families visit cemeteries. They bring food to share with loved ones who are now in the next world and try to communicate with them.” ~David Sasaki

It has been said that love, compassion, and kindness are the foundation of a happy life. It may sound schmaltzy, but I feel happiness every time I go out.

Cuencanos are always smiling.

They are enjoying life.

Life is shared with everyone.

They are welcoming.

I truly have to say that the friendliest people I have ever met in my travels around the world are Cuencanos. It is well known in Ecuador that Cuencanos are the most congenial, cordial, and warm people in the country.

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.

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

Joanna and I have known Diana for three years as she is our facilitator. Her attitude and upbringing are typical of Cuencanos.

“We are very family oriented,” Diana told me. “We are very friendly and welcoming. There are only two or three crazy ones here, but that’s it.”

No doubt a lot different than the United States.

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 amigo.


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.