Seven Years In Ecuador
It was 7 years ago that a Boeing 767 touched down smoothly in Guayaquil, Ecuador at 5:30 am. My BIG South American adventure had begun. My wife Sharon and I were moving to Cuenca, Ecuador with our 16-year-old cat. We were supposed to be greeted by a prearranged driver who never showed up. I was left to negotiate a taxi to drive us the roughly 4 hours through the Cajas, part of the Andes Mountains, to the historic city and world heritage site of Cuenca. My beginning Spanish was quite inadequate. This was our first time riding through the mountains to Cuenca. As I found out during the ride it was the drivers’s first time too. He took outrageous risks on blind corners, balanced on the edge of a cliff with big trucks rushing toward us through rain and fog. Both Sharon and I kissed the sidewalk when we broke all speed records to arrive in Cuenca with all our worldly possessions in 4 big suitcases and an exhausted kitty.
First, I want to thank the people of Ecuador for making these past 7 years a wonderful life experience. Specifically, the folks of Cuenca are welcoming to foreigners and have aided us as we obtained legal residency and adapted to their country. For example, we moved into a lovely rental house on a rainy July night that first year. There is neither built-in heat nor air-conditioning in homes here where it is rumored to be “eternal Spring”. The night we moved into the our new home, the temperature was 44 degrees F. Our new landlords observed that we were shivering, wrapped tight against the chill and not used to the weather high in the Andes. They rushed home and brought back a gas heater to loan us while we shopped for our own.
Although I lived in Oregon for 21 years prior to moving to Ecuador, I’m, a native New Yorker with a Type A mindset. I learned to slow down. Today, I would describe Cuenca in one word: the Spanish term “tranquilo” or “calm”. In Ecuador as elsewhere in the Latin world “mañana” could be “tomorrow” but often means “some undesignated time soon”.
The population of metropolitan Cuenca is 600,000. I have seen geometric changes in 7 years. To my reckoning Cuenca was a culinary wasteland according to most US tastes. Now you can find cuisines from all over the world. The Internet used to be very expensive, unreliable and painfully slow. Now, one can have 50 meg fiber optic right to your home. The aging bus system is super cheap to ride and you rarely wait more than 10 minutes for a bus. If you are over 65 you qualify as a “tecera edad” “a senior citizen” to ride for half fare. You also may be given preference if there is a long line at the bank.
The other day a taxi driver was asking me if I ever eat cuy – guinea pig which is a delicacy in Ecuador. I told him that cuy was a “mascota” or “pet” to every school child in the US. However, “mi encanta” “I love” the wonderful organic fruits and vegetables you can buy all year long in Cuenca. My favorites are pitahaya, cherimoya, and papayas. In peak season you can buy 4 papayas for a dollar if you can communicate in Spanish at the local “ferias” or “markets”.
My Spanish has grown from “Caveman” status to “functional conversationalist” I do best if I speak mostly in the present tense and limit the interaction to my approved list of 300 verbs. Then I am “todo bien” or “completely fine”.
The expat community has grown from 800 in 2011 to well over 5000 now. This community of foreign-born citizens of the world is one of the reasons Sharon and I thrive in Cuenca. Before we retired, we rarely entertained. Weekdays were comprised of work while week ends were filled with care of home and pets. Now, we each have hobbies and know people who share similar tastes. Cuenca ex-pats offer events every day of the week, from ancient Andean cooking to playing mahjong. Young foreign couples with children are moving to Cuenca in greater numbers. I meet newcomers who are working online while taking advantage of the lower cost of living in Cuenca. Still, the bulk of the expat community is made up mostly of people aged 55-85. These folks have time to explore interests as never before.
One should never get bored in Cuenca. New hiking trails parallel the major rivers winding through the city, free Zumba classes are offered in local parks 6 days a week, and there is fast, reliable Internet. A strong community of writers of all genres thrives here. In fact, Cuenca hosts the Third International Writer’s Conference May 28 – June 1.
In addition to finding a poker game every day of the week, there is duplicate bridge club as well as an active thespian group. If you are a hiker, you will be in Nirvana. with shivering ghost forests populated by unusual birds.
Three years ago, I wrote my monthly living costs on my blog. It developed into a polemic on the local Facebook groups. There were individuals who said, “ I can live $500 a month less”. They are probably right. The cost of living has everything to do with your lifestyle. Still, no one can argue that rent, utilities and organic fruits and vegetables are cheaper than the U.S.
Why have Sharon and I remained in Cuenca for 7 years while some expats have left? First of all, I don’t think of leaving Cuenca to return to your country of origin as a failure. It may require a mindset of not letting the difficulty of Spanish or the government bureaucracy bog you down. Sharon and I call these moments T.I.E – This Is Ecuador. Spanish is the official language. It is our responsibility as newcomers to learn enough of the language to interact with the local community. One T.I.E moment that at times tries my patience is that banks often ask you to sign documents in a way that perfectly matches the penmanship on your ID card. You know, like a forger would need to do? But now, when I am asked, as often happens, to rewrite my signature my blood pressure remains almost normal.
We will shortly be retuning to the U.S. for our annual family reunion. I will enjoy Peet’s Coffee, purchasing cheaper high tech devices, great Thai and hugging each grandchild . I will especially enjoy communicating without translating in my head. But at the end of 3 weeks I will be very content to return to the tranquility and pace of life that is retirement in Cuenca, Ecuador.