Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What is it like for me after 6 months of life in Cuenca?

In Portland, OR  4/2011  with my daughter Tenley who lives in Oregon with her husband and 3 yr old son.

 A few months before I moved to Ecuador, like...oh, last January, for instance, I was full of excitement and apprehension about moving to Ecuador.  How foreign would it be? How much would my husband and I stand out? How difficult would it feel to live in another continent, another country, another culture? Would there be hostility toward someone from the United States? Would there be a lot of crime? I had lot of excitement about having an overseas living experience, at last, something I'd dreamed about throughout my life.  And I had a LOT of anxiety about what was ahead in this adventure.

Well, life is made up of each plodding day we experience as we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night.  The journey we each create is what is important. That is made up of how we face each day.

My husband and I have been here 6 months now.  We each find Cuenca to be amazing in so many ways. We both love it here. It is beautiful, calm, friendly, interesting, just to name a few things we cherish.  The tropical fruits and vegetables are to die for. An avocado a day costing about 30 cents is not a bad habit to cultivate.  The intrigue of learning to blend in with a new culture is very challenging in a good way.  Every day, Lenny makes a delicious smoothie from different healthy fruits, many we had never heard of before. Babaco, guyanaba, taxo, and pitajaya to name a few.

Of course  there are things I still need to adjust to:  improve my ability to speak Espanol, increase my level of patience when things take much much MUCH longer here -  to name 2.  But generally it has been an easier transition than I had expected. I still feel excitement and an eagerness to greet each new day but my anxiety about many issues has dropped significantly.

Mi esposo, Lenny, has flourished here.  He grew up in Brooklyn so he loves going to little shops each day and speaking Espanol with the shop keepers.  He says it reminds him of the New York City of his childhood. So after living for 20 years in the suburbs in Oregon, he is in a city again, shopping each day for that day's needs, exploring new streets and tiny shops around each corner, meeting people everywhere he goes. By practicing his rudimentary Espanol daily and asking others to teach him a word, he is now able to communicate basics in his new language.
Lenny formed an IPad/IPod/IPhone Users Group which is flourishing

 Here is my take on the subject of Espanol, btw: Question: does one need to speak the language in order to thrive here?  Answer: Absolutely!  Even a little Espanol gains kinder, gentler encounters.  People light up when they hear you try to speak their language.  It seems only fair since we are in their country. We came as guests and elected to live in a Spanish-speaking culture so learning the language is a basic building block to having an enriched life experience. And you will feel more comfortable because you can communicate and understand what is going on around you. These are my opinions.  Yours may be different.

By walking every day 3-5 miles, Lenny has lost weight and trimmed down to a "fighting weight".

 By speaking to shop keepers whenever he can, he has improved/expanded/increased his knowledge of Espanol by a TON!  We take lessons 3 times per week. We delight in our Espanol teacher, Rebeca, who is a bundle of non-stop energy. She praises progress, encourages, nudges and we learn!

Len also enjoys meeting expats and touristas as he moves around the city.  Frequently people ask him for directions. In all of the days he has been here, he has only encountered a couple of negative comments and those were minor.

I also have met wonderful ex-pats, visitors and Cuencanas. The community of ex-pats is generally friendly and helpful, keeping an eye out for each other in times of personal duress. In this city, people are generally friendly, kind, courteous and love to hear that we are enthused about Cuenca and Ecuador in general. I mean exceptionally friendly and courteous.  In my first 61 years, I lived in Idaho, Washington, California, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Oregon.  I am an outgoing, friendly person.  I have met many people throughout my life who are interesting, helpful and kind.  I also have met my share of rude, self-centered, mean people.  Both types of people live all over the world, of course.  Yet, here in Cuenca I have experienced such an unusually high percentage of friendly, helpful people that it stands out for me.

So Lenny is adapting very well.  What about me?

Well, before we came I knew the hardest thing for me would be missing our 3 young grandchildren, our grown kids, extended family and friends.  And indeed, that IS the hardest thing.  Skype calls help tremendously.  Hearing a loved one's voice is reassuring but seeing your loved one right in their living room going about everyday life is a wonderful boost and feels more like an actual visit. I can see how each of the 3 young grandchild has grown. Each child can interact with me at their own level.

I retired early a short time before we moved here so adjusting to retirement is also new.  I LOVE it!  I have time to walk by the river, focus on a quilt for an entire day, meet up with people for lunch or hunt for a shop that sells tumeric. Many days Len and I head out to explore a slice of the city.  It is a terrific life.

I gave myself 6 mo to a year to become brave about going out in a foreign city alone without knowing the language or the territory.  I'm doing pretty well with that.  I go out alone 2 or 3 days each week just to test my Espanol with people I encounter and to do a little exploring and a bit of shopping.  At first, I went out with Lenny who knew enough Espanol to ask for needed items and ask the cost of things.  Now I can do that by myself. It is even starting to feel kind of normal.  I do not get so anxious when I'm surprised by a phrase.  I rarely feel like a deer frozen in the headlights if someone asks me a question. I know that continual study is required to master even basics of a new language.

Last week end, Len and I walked into Diez de Augosto, a large market in El Centro (the central part of the city) where local people are selling vegetables, meats, eggs, etc., in little open stalls.  I like to go there but this was the first time I shopped by myself, negotiating both language and charges while Len chatted with our friend Bill on another floor and tried not to be concerned. I did great!  Ecuador uses the US dollar so that part is easy.  Understanding how much each item is when I'm told in Espanol is a bit more challenging.  But I had fun. And I'll take longer next week.  I really like interacting with the indigenous people who work so hard (and live on so little).  Talk about a work ethic - WOW!

Another thing that strikes me is how much value is placed on family here.  It cannot be said enough when contrasted with how remote many US families tend to be: geographically, emotionally and even physically - not giving frequent hugs, for example.  Ecuadorians cannot understand why anyone would move here away from their family.  It simply would not be done by most Ecuadorians.  Each day, many many citizens close down shops midday and head home to have lunch with family.  Almuerzo (lunch time) is the main meal of the day and is about a 2 hour break - roughly 1-3 pm or so.

Another thing that takes some getting used to is that most stores do not open until 9:30 am.  Can you imagine Safeway or Kroeger's not opening until 9:30 each day?  It seems to be part of a more relaxed or tranquilo way of life Ecuadorian's enjoy. Yes, some people are up early rushing to work but many people begin their work day a little later than a lot of US citizens do. There is not the same push here to make every possible penny and quickly spend every penny to consume ever more "stuff" or cosas.

I have a time line in my head - a casual one- of when I plan to begin different tasks or mark some milestones on my way to being fully acclimated to this new culture.  So far, this gentle approach with myself is paying off in several ways.  Less pressure, less anxiety, enjoying things unfolding as I am ready to face each new challenge.

I have not learned my way around this "very easy to navigate" city.  Why?  Well, not driving is part of it. Street names that seem difficult to pronounce and hard to recall - both a language and a memory issue - factor in.  But learning this city is just about next on my agenda.  Street names are sticking in my head better and I can now pronounce Juan Jaramillo and Remegio Crespo well enough that taxi drivers understand me - progress!

Another challenge here for me has been that I am allergic to wheat (and barley and rye) so I eat gluten free.  It is not hard to do these days in the US.  Many convenient gluten free products and an increased understanding of celiac disease have made it an easier task in the US.  Here, although several non-gluten grains are grown & exported here (red quinoa, milo), it has been a struggle to find restaurants and merchants who understand the issues.  Consequently, we eat most meals at home, which is ok but a little limiting.  Locating items I need to bake breads made from other grains and cook gluten free meals has been a bit like hunting for a needle in a haystack. But I've been determined to succeed for my health. The positive side of this is that I am gathering resources for others who have similar needs.

And good news today: a new restaurant has opened that has gluten free items.  It is named Nectar and is located on Beningo Malo near Gran Columbia  It is vegetarian. Lunch costs $2.50 and includes fresh made juice, a main course with rice and vegetables and a tiny dessert. The owners are Greek and Ecuadorian and are showing all the signs of being great "inn keepers". I am SO excited there is another restaurant that understands the gluten free concept.  It joins El Maize, in my book, as a place to seek out.

 If others know of different Cuenca restaurants where the staff understand  "sin trigo" needs, please let me know.

So there is my 6 month update.  I love being here.  I have homesickness for family and friends. I miss some conveniences but all is outweighed by living this incredible "excellent life adventure".

Have a terrific week!


  1. Hi Sharon, what a nice essay! I'm glad you are having an "excellent life adventure" and look forward to seeing you & Lenny when you come to Oregon in 2012. Please save an evening for us.

  2. Muy chevere mi cariño. Fantastic post. I especially enjoyed your take on the journey. "Well, life is made up of each plodding day we experience as we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night. The journey we each create is what is important. That is made up of how we face each day"

  3. Sharon,

    Beautiful post. You said it all. Glad you and Lenny are enjoying Cuenca so much and acclimating to the changes so well. It's a beautiful place to live in every sense, and expat couples like you make living here that much more beautiful.

  4. I was surprised to read that you use American currency in Ecuador. (So this is where the U.S. Dollar has been vanishing.) Such an adventure you are having. And it helps greatly that the Internet can lessen the anxiety of being away from people you have known.

  5. i really loved reading this, and i'm so happy that everything is going so well, it really does seem like a wonderful adventure and you guys are both just approach everything wish so much grace!

  6. Hi Sharon... thanks for the 6 mo. milestone post! Sounds like you are doing really well...

    I wrote you several months ago when I was still exploring EC as an option for relocation, and you said something that really changed my life...so I want to thank you!

    I said that It would be 8 yrs before I could retire... (going by the traditional 65 yo SS standard)... and you said "Gee, I hope it doesn't take you 8 yrs to retire."

    And I thought "well, silly I won't be 65 til then..." AS IF I have to let the govt tell me when to retire! Well, my mom passed earlier this year and I am buying my brother out of his half of her house... so I will be getting regular rental income from it... and, very suddenly and unexpectedly, the Fed lab I worked at re-organized and all subcontractors, myself included, are out... as of 3 wks ago!

    So.... your comment got me thinking! And altho I have decided to move to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico rather than Ecuador... I AM moving!

    I am also an artist and SMA has a lot of contemporary art... also it's much closer to the US and I can drive my doggies back and forth much easier than flying them back and forth... which will also be cheaper.

    Anyway... just wanted to say Thanks for your statement that really made me question... well, pretty much everything! And I am so excited about my move to an international location... which, like you, is something I've wanted to do for a very long time.

    Cheers Sharon... sorry so long...

  7. Sharon,
    It was a beautiful and inspiring blog. I plan to retire early as well, and reading your blog convinces me even more.
    Keep writing!

  8. Hi Sharon(Sheron)
    I just found your blog and am enjoying reading it. I know that I could never relocate away from my grandchildren so I will live vicariously through you. You write a very honest and heartfelt summary of your liIfe in Ecuador. The Baltimore paper recently listed it as one of the top places to retire. It sounds lovely.
    I wonder about Raja and Tango and your beautiful dog. Are you able to keep track of how they are doing? Have a wonderful holiday.

    Nancy from Havre de Grace, MD

  9. Hola;

    Love your blog Sharon. I retired for the third time in 2009 to take care of my ailing wife. I cared for her 24/7 for 4 years and now I find myself missing the intensity of the day to day struggle. Now it's just me and my two small critters looking forward to the move to Cuenca. I visited twice; once last year and early in December. So now I have to decide what to bring and what to sell or donate. Connie Pombo's book was very helpful and I broke bread with them on my last trip. Hope to meet you and your big guy soon.

    Hasta Luego

  10. What a wonderful look at your 1st six months. I read many Cuenca blogs, as hubby and I will be moving to Cuenca April of this year. I retired December 23rd and now spend all my times disposing of all the stuff we have gathered over the years. I am both excited and scared.

    I am a beginning quilter. Did you take your sewing machine to Cuenca or purchase one there?