Becoming Cuenca

Who Is Writing This Blog?

May 23, 2022

As Major Wolfgang Hochstetter used to say quite often to Colonel Wilhelm Klink, “Who is this man?”

Like the television show German major, you should be asking who is writing this blog.

And I shall give you a better answer than Klink ever could.

For the first six years of my life, my father bounced from university job to university job. I was born in Lansing, Michigan (Want to guess where my parents went to school?). From there, we moved to Lexington, Kentucky and then all the way to Honolulu, Hawaii.

Just before my seventh birthday, my father moved to Seattle, getting a job at The Boeing Company. He ended up with a really cool job: Plane Salesman. Selling planes took my father to the far reaches of the world from Tokyo (JAL) to Moscow (Aeroflot) to Stockholm (SAS) to Paris (Air France) to Rio de Janeiro (Varig). He always came home with intriguing stories.

Maybe it was my father’s travels that got me interested in seeing the rest of the world. It could have been that Seattle was (and still is) an international city. Or it could be that my soccer team played a game every year just up the road in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Whatever it was, I had a thirst for travel. I yearned to experience other cultures. That is why I took French in junior high. I knew France would be visited by me several times as an adult. And it worked out well for me as my father retired in Brive-la-Gaillarde (a four-hour train ride south of Paris).

This thirst and yearning are probably why I went to the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. It is considered the best school for television news in the western half of the United States.

To get in and move up in the television world, one usually starts in a small market. That is why I started shooting news in 1981 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Market #92 at that time). I quickly jumped to Little Rock, Arkansas (Market #53). A live van mishap on my part had me sliding to Lexington, Kentucky (Market #76).

The fall was short-lived as I jumped to the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina market. During my 17 years at WTVD as a photojournalist, I took my camera to faraway places such as Italy, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UK. In 1997, I was sent to London, England to cover the death of Princess Diana. Two years later, I was based on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Roosevelt, covering Operation Allied Force.

I was the back-up sports photographer, so I was courtside for Michael Jordan’s final year at UNC Chapel Hill. For four years, I felt fortunate to witness Grant Hill with my camera at Duke. Of course, I shot numerous games involving Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Valvano. Those two famous college basketball coaches took me to several Final Fours. Thank you, gentlemen.

My photography and editing were recognized several times including, an Associated Press Best Special, UPI Photographer of the Year, and winning several awards from the prestigious National Press Photographers Association.

After hanging up the camera in 2000, I became the Senior Assignment Editor. My research skills were considered the best at the station, and reporters and producers leaned heavily on me to provide the best up-to-date and accurate information.

This journalist enjoys contributing to his community. While living in North Carolina for 37 years, I donated my time to help with the publicity for two private K-6 schools as well as a local Cub Scouts Pack. For several years, I assisted a Durham Jewish congregation to get the word out.

My proudest public relations moment was researching and thoroughly documenting an application to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to get a N.C. Highway Historical Marker for the old White Furniture Company, in Mebane. Approved and erected in 2016, it was the first-of-its-kind for the state, honoring a former important Tar Heel business. Town leaders had me as one of the keynote speakers.

In 2010, Cuenca, Ecuador became the focus of International Living, one of the biggest resources for those considering moving overseas. Bloggers were on the same page, espousing what a great place Cuenca was to live.

As I stated in my first post, more than one source should be used before moving somewhere else. Confirmation is one of the most important rules of journalism. Because International Living had something to sell, I knew it was not without bias.

I contacted a few bloggers in Cuenca and got their input via emails. Not satisfied with just the written word, I flew to Cuenca for a week. I toured the city, not as a tourist, but as a prospective resident. Being a tourist is a lot different than scouting out a city for a new home.

During my week there, I met with two couples. One ended up writing for International Living for a while before moving on last year. The other couple (Gil and Deborah) are now very good friends of my wife, Joanna, and me.

Cuenca has been in my heart since that visit in 2011. I was only 53 years old, but something told me I would be returning.

Joanna made it a reality for me. In 2019, she saw that my job was eating me up. It was not because I had the most stressful job in the business (I was too experienced to have that affect me). The television news business had completely changed from journalism to a focus on social media and hits for the station’s website. It was not what I signed up for in 1983.

Add an unchecked news director who made life miserable for most in the newsroom, and my physical and mental health started declining.

We tried various ways to move to what was supposed to be our retirement home in West Jefferson, North Carolina. That included applying to several jobs at a nearby state university. Unfortunately, it appears age discrimination came into play for all of my applications as nary a person from the university called me to screen this highly qualified person for the job openings.

Their loss.

My gain.

I can thank my wonderful wife of six years for making Cuenca a reality. Though Joanna had never been to three degrees south, she encouraged me to pursue my love.

Because she had heard me talk so much about Cuenca, Joanna became very excited. So, we made the plunge in September 2019 by purchasing our departamento (condo) on the south side of the city. It was Joanna’s first trip to three degrees south.

As soon as we got back to North Carolina, we began the process of moving to Ecuador. It was more than just packing and loading a container. What it entailed will have to be an entire post.

Along with our Miniature Australian Shepherd, Peanut, we made the move in January 2020. It was not easy, but no move really is. Our move involved us driving all the way to Miami, Florida so our furry family member could have the shortest time possible in the cargo hold of an airplane.

Settling in was rather unusual. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, Ecuador went into lockdown less than seven weeks after we arrived. Long curfews followed, making it difficult for me to reach out to the community to provide my services.

In July 2020, I became the Asistente de Información Pública for Orquesta Sinfónica de Cuenca. It is an unpaid position for this excellent symphony. This was the beginning of me giving back to my community.

I think it is very important to help my fellow man. It is why I am writing this blog. My goal is to provide insight and information to you in a short form. A more thorough medium is my book that was just released at Amazon: “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” I spent a year writing this 488-page book. Numerous people were interviewed and lots of sources were used to what I think will become the authoritative source for moving to Cuenca.

My writing goes beyond this blog and my book. I am writing online articles for the English-speaking newspaper CuencaHighLife concerning the “Artists of Cuenca.” The goal is to get the word out to the expat community in Cuenca about the talented people in our hometown.

Not one to slow down, I am now assisting Andrés Zambrano to put forth storytelling sessions at his highly ranked El Centro restaurant, La Guarida. Though there are about 10,000 expats in Cuenca, Andrés turned to me for help. He knew my four decades of experience in the news world and my love for the city would be perfect for his program.

This post is to show you can trust me with what I post. Edward R. Murrow said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”

I will always be honest and truthful with you. As I have told my family, friends, and associates, I have to look at myself in the mirror every day.

Along with facts, I will interject my humor. Hopefully, it will bring a smile to your face. That has always been a mantra of mine: Make people happy that I interact with.

And of course, I will always have stimulating photos of mine to supplement what I am writing about. Throughout my years as a photojournalist and my time in Cuenca, I have always strived to find unique angles of my subject matters that no one else has seen. I try to be original, not a copycat.

Now that you know you are dealing with a straight shooter, we can move on together to discover and enjoy this fantastic mountain city at three degrees south. My goal is to have at least one post a week to experience the joys of Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca (the official name of my hometown).

Good night, and good luck.

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.