Sunday, October 2, 2011

How does one adjust to life in Cuenca?

 Getting to know Cuenca is exciting.
                           The flower market near Nuevo Catedral and Parque Calderon.

My husband and I both love many things about life in Cuenca.  After 5 months here, we know a lot more than the day we arrived at the airport but we also know we have much to learn.  We approach this adventure of living in Ecuador very differently.... but we each respect the other's process.

Len, since day one, has been the poster boy for how to enter a new culture.  He goes out every morning to walk around the old parts of the city.  He drops off laundry to be done at a lavanderia 2 blocks from our home. Len usually has a camera with him so he can catch some amazing shots. He meets shopkeepers and practices his Espanol.  He bargains with someone selling vegetables, of course in Espanol. He chats with ex-pats he bumps into on his walk - that exchange is invariably in English. He notices street entertainers, including who gets the busiest street corners on which to perform  He smiles as he follows a small herd of goats going to market with their owner to sell fresh milk and nimbly steps around metal rods protruding from the sidewalk and steps over broken cobblestones.

On a bus ride to the Coopera, Len watches older indigenous women board the bus bent over by heavy bags of produce to sell at the markets. Len often chats up a video store owner he frequents, where the owner's 9 mo old daughter makes Lenny's day by breaking into a huge smile when he walks in.

He stops by the local bakery and talks, between patrons, with the owner in Espanol.  He asks after the owner's daughter who is 2 weeks from delivering her first child. Before he circles back home, Len observes where the herd of Holstein cows is grazing along Rio Yanuncay and makes a note to tell me Violetta, our name for our favorite cow, is grazing just a block away.

He returns home with some fresh pan de yuca, a gluten-free local bread made from yuca starch instead of wheat flour.  These tiny delicious rolls have a bit of cheese in the center and are best eaten warm. Lenny usually enters our home with a bag of fresh produce.  He loves trying new produce so he often brings home some vegetable or fruit I cannot identify. Then we ask around, search the internet and show a photo on this blog to ask for help in identifying said produce.  Then, once he has completed that 5-6 mile walk, he makes a fantastic fresh smoothie, layering in the tastes of tropical fruits he has selected.

I, on the other hand, am approaching the new culture at a different pace in a different style. My initial need in this new adventure is to explore slowly.  To me, it feels like there is plenty of time to see places, visit people and get acquainted with life in Ecuador. It is very fortunate that I have hobbies and interests I love that keep me happily occupied much of the time at home.

When we were still working full time and living in Portland, OR, I knew that once we arrived in Ecuador, part of my job would be to relax from the frenetic pace I had lived for the past 10 years.  It was time to change the "climate" of my daily life.  Getting used to retirement is a process and for us, it is mixed in with adjusting to a new life here.

Each day, I luxuriate in the fact that I can elect to sew, if I want, or to look up new recipes that have ingredients I can find in Cuenca, or go out for a walk or a shopping venture.  Then I plan some meals for the next few days because we eat at home most of the time. At times, I read a great book at times of the day when I used to be so busy at my job.  Cool!

I check email, FB and Cuenca Chronicles. I listen to a variety of favorite music all day long. I give the cat a good brushing and hold still long enough for her to take a nap on my lap at some point each day. I look at pictures of my grandchildren and imagine where they are in their development right now. I may make a long skype call with one of my kids, my parents or a friend.

The family Lenny and I created when we married is a blended family.  The 2 sons were virtually out of the home but my daughter Tenley was 14 when we married.  She very much needed a male advocate in her life. Len was very involved in her high school and college years.  He taught her to drive a stick shift and coached her about the driving exam. He went with me to confront the high school when the math teacher was refusing to allow female students any tutoring time with him yet was offering it freely to male students. Yes, that really happened in the mid-1990's!

Tenley is in her early 30's now. She is an excellent mother, very patient and consistent with her 3 year old son.  She works part time but loves her work and takes it very seriously. Her husband is a city engineer for The Dalles, OR. He is very family-oriented, shy at first but very funny once you get to know him. He LOVES to golf but lives along the windy shores of the Columbia River where golf is nearly impossible.  Not much farther east of The Dalles, the Columbia River Gorge is banked on both sides by huge wind mill farms creating electricity for Oregon and Washington.Yes, LOTS of wind.

My son Tyler is 5 years older than Tenley. He has been a high tech guy since he was 3, experimenting with a desk top computer. His life work is all computer-centric but he has excellent managerial and social skills. He is a natural leader but is somewhat self-effacing about his accomplishments and talents.  He and his wife Kathy are raising 2 wonderful kids in San Diego. Kathy just completed a PhD in organizational leadership from Pepperdine. The children attend school close to their home and are busy learning sports and crafts.

Lenny's son Robb is a year older than Tyler, in fact he is turning 39 in a few days.  Robb recently married so we have a new daughter-in-law in southern Oregon. It will be wonderful to meet Connie in person when we visit the US. They are excited to be newlyweds and look forward to shared goals and family life.

A big part of my job right now is to learn to speak Espanol.  So I spend some time working toward that goal every day. I have lessons three times a week.  I plan outings alone to practice speaking to strangers in this new language.  As I do these outings, I am less self-conscious about my poor grasp of the language and less anxious about getting lost in a city where I do not communicate well enough to find my way out of a paper bag!  I still have moments where I forget words when asked in Espanol - go completely blank and speechless - but more often, I am able to move with increasing ease through my outings.

I have some goals of things I plan to do.  In 2012, I plan to take a weaving class.  I also plan to have a trip to the beach and a trip to Otavalo, north of Quito. More immediately, Len and I plan a trip to the US, as soon as we have our cedula  - or residency papers allowing us to come and go from Ecuador. It is a frustration that it is taking so long but it will happen at some point.

I want to note for people thinking of moving here: the ex-pats I've met have been great about asking after me, checking with me to see if I am isolating or if it is a planned "slow ramp up" to more participation outside of home. People who leave one culture to plop into a new one seem to know that depression and avoidance are common traps that can cause a person to stumble. Having been a mental health counselor for 30 years, I am very familiar with the issues of depression, anxiety, denial and avoidance. I monitor myself for these feelings.

I suspect that most people have brief times of being down, discouraged, and feeling alienated in a new continent.  If the feelings continue or expand or a person stays in bed much of the day or avoids all outside contact, those are signs of concern.  So I think I'm doing ok along those lines...but it touches my heart that people who are relative strangers here ask after each other and check in with new arrivals.I had been told by a couple of friends that ex-pat communities tend to be friendly, caring people who welcome new arrivals.  It seems to be very true. 

To balance all of the new things to explore and learn here, I am dreaming of a new quilt.  I want to try a new block, to stretch my skills by working with curves.  Its called "the melon block" because of the shape. If you are curious, go to  look under patterns

           Here is a shot of part of the dreaming stage, playing with colors, contrast and design. What did people do without the internet?

Now its time to study Espanol!

Happy new week to you
Hasta luego,


  1. Hello Sharon;
    I have been cooking Thai for some years and with fish balls, most people don't let the oil get hot enough. If you can find peanut oil, it's the best. It doesn't burn easily, but any oil needs to be 340º for frying. If the oil is hot enough, the food won't be greasy. If you have a way to spray oil on the outside, you could try baking them.

    Several years ago, watched a cooking show with Wolgang Puck, who was making steamed red snapper with Jasmine rice and I have been making it ever since. It's delicious with any meaty fish like sea bass, but you need a bamboo steamer and a pot big enough for it fit in. I have a large wok that I use and it works great. Here is the link to the recipe:

    ¡Buen provecho--that's bon appetite in Spanish

  2. Gracias for your comments, Michael, and for the recipe link. I love it!
    What i was told about making your own coconut milk was this: break open the coconut, catch the coconut water and save. separate the white meat and chunk it up. Put it all in a blender or juicer (I cannot recall if she said a juicer) adding the coconut water back in, and pulverize it until it is creamy for delicious fresh coconut milk. I have not tried it but was told it was way more than twice as delicious as canned.

  3. Thanks for sharing so much about how you and Len each deal with this new experience. (Sounds like a classic case of "opposites attract," Len the extrovert, Sharon the introvert.)

    I love reading all about Ecuador on the many blogs, as I hope to travel down there and check it out with retirement in mind (although at this point hubby's not buying into the whole 'retire abroad' scenario!). But it was fun getting to know you and Len a little better on a "personal" level.

  4. Sharon,
    Thanks for sharing pieces of your daily Ecuadorian life with us. I just started reading your blog and enjoy it immensely.