Thursday, May 20, 2010

Our 'New Normal'

Some folks in the USA like to say that the 'New Normal' relates to 9/11...but, our 'New Normal' relates to our life here in Cuenca, Ecuador.

The computer counter tells us we've been in Ecuador now for 443 days, so it's probably safe to say we've made that important transition from tourist to resident.  What seemed 'exotic' then is now 'everyday'.  Not that we are totally used to everything, but we are better at taking it all in stride.  There is a certain peace as you make the know where to find stuff, you know where the bargains are, and you know more 'words'...You get more comfortable.  You don't get lost all the time.  You make new friends.

The transition from US to Ecuador is easier for some than for others.  Time helps.  Exposure to new things and new situations help, too.  We also made that transition from rural life to City life...not easy (Cities are loud!), and we're not missing that hay season and all that hard ranch work at all!
There is still a hole in the heart from leaving our extra-special Mr Boots the kitty... The hole will always be there, but we know Art and Ruth are spoiling him rotten!  We're comforted by that (and so thankful!) and we know Boots is so much happier in the country. City life is just not for him.

Time passes. Memories stay forever.

Some folks have asked us about our 'typical day'.......and, we're happy to report there is no such thing for us!  Yes, we do have our schedules with vendors and friends, but the most 'typical' we can report is that we begin and end each day on our porch.  We still marvel at the beauty of each sunrise and sunset...the hummingbirds who visit our window boxes...and we can set our clocks by the construction work across the way and the church bells nearby.  We love hearing the little children sing and play at the day care center, too.

Here are some other things that we have adjusted to.  We list them as folks begin their journey here, in hopes that, by sharing, we can ease the transition/s...

Remember how we worried we wouldn't find clothes and shoes that fit, or food we like, or furniture, appliances, or meds, or a place to live?  Or, friends?  Well, happy to report we found them all. 

SuperMaxi has just about all we need, and most brands we're used to are there.  You'll pay more for US brands, but many of the local brands are just as good (and cheaper).  There are 3 SuperMaxi's in Cuenca; if you don't find what you need at one, try another as the inventory can be different, store to store.  You can find fresh bread and produce in the markets, too.  We like the flower markets for big bouquets of the freshest flowers, for practically a song.  We still are delighted when we stumble upon a tiny (new to us) bakery or are able to find just-the-right-thing at a store (when before we thought it could only be found in the US).  We know the best, sweetest strawberries are sold by the wheelburrow vendors downtown...

Shoes in big-lady sizes are at some shops...  you can have big-man shoes made to order.  Nancy (finally!)found her clothing size at a couple of stores, too!  The ETA Fashion store at the Mall de Rio carries bigger (than Ecuadorian) sizes, as well as the clothing store at the main Square (Facing the New Cathedral, go to the right side of the square...go upstairs, main floor is for baby/children's clothes).  Nancy also found a tailor...we'll report back with quality and details as soon as the clothes are ready for pick-up.

Leslie, our cooking teacher, gave us information on where to find some ingredients, too.  There is a spice store near the Totems on R. Crespo (also carries filo dough!) and there IS sour cream here!  (At SuperMaxi, look for 'agria' near the butter).  Leslie suggests you make a list, in Spanish, for the spice store...some items are not displayed.

We have found furniture and appliances we like at local shops, too, and we've had some furniture made to order when we couldn't find what we needed.  All good quality and delivered in a reasonable time frame.  We've also found a couple places that will custom-make shower curtains and window treatments. 
In our 'New Normal', we've gotten used to some shops closing for a couple hours mid day for lunch (used to be so frustrating!)...  and we've gotten used to vendors who prefer to deliver in the evenings after the work day is over. 

We know where the good food is...lots of good restaurants here in Cuenca!  Mexican and Colombian restaurants have good hot sauce, too.  Set lunches are usually good, about $2 or so for lots of food.  Look for menu of the day usually posted at the door.  At the Good Affinity restaurant, it's vegetarian; and we're learning the Spanish words so we know what to longer 'mystery meat' to us.
The best, biggest burgers are at the Inca Lounge!  And, we think the best steaks are at the Terrace.
Tiestos remains a favorite, too, with very tasty, spicy condiments, really fun presentations, a party atmosphere and a most friendly and accommodating chef and staff.  For a cup of the best coffee, we go to Kookaburra Cafe...You will find your favorites, too.

*No longer 'exotic'
Our 'New Normal'  includes those sights and sounds we used to think were 'different' or even 'exotic', and 'other worldly'...  We still appreciate the Chola Cuencanas (indigenous women) in their colorful dress, the families doing laundry in the rivers, the old colonial buildings preserved by UNESCO status, livestock tethered at the side of the busy roads to graze... but we don't stop and stare any more. We barely notice the roasting cuy (guinea pig),  the huge, whole roasted pigs  and the animals being butchered in the markets.  We're used to finding ALL the parts  (head, feet, etc) when we buy whole chickens...we no longer cringe when we see ALL the animal parts in the shops.  We don't take as many 'tourist' pictures...One day, we didn't even bother to reach for a camera as a parade went by.  We knew there would always be another parade and photo opportunity. We basked in the joyful moment instead.

We have made wonderful friends.  Gringos and Ecuadorians, both.  We cherish and treasure these friendships.  Most are here for the long-term, as we are.  Some have decided that Ecuador is not for them, and they have moved on.  Some have made the visits back to the US to visit, shop and take care of will find that people come and go here.  Most return.  Many who have made the journey here are happy to call it *home*.  We do now, too.

Some newcomers are still stuck in their constant TV mode...we've made that transition to...Not us!
We might turn the TV on every now and then for news, but after awhile, it just makes us nuts!  So, off it goes and we get on with the day.  We watch more movies than news.  It's distressing to see what the news folks think is really news.  Violence, intolerance, pollution, bad, hateful behavior...all that.  Who needs it?  We prefer normal blood pressure and peace.  We do have our opinions, of course, but we really try to avoid all those controversies.  Didn't our Mom's say that discussions of religion and politics should be avoided?  For good reason..Newcomers will find that other newcomers like to talk about all that...but, in our 'New Normal', we've transitioned...The only thing we want to say on the topic is this:  The politicians here seem to listen to and want to take care of the people...a good thing. 

*Security and Safety
Some folks who have been here awhile have gotten careless about their personal safety.  Easy to do, as the people are generally friendly and trustworthy.  But, be mindful...  we're in a big City, and some folks (both Gringos and locals) will take advantage of an opportunity...  pickpockets (some children are really good at this!), business deals, snatch/run of jewelry, cameras, cell phones, laptops, purses, shopping bags, etc.  We've seen and heard of several incidents.  Nancy still doesn't carry a purse ...and our pockets still have zippers or velcro or safety pins to slow down the opportunity.  Why tempt fate?  But, if you're City-savvy, you'll do just fine here.  We compare Cuenca to our life in San Francisco...but a comparison to any big city works...If there are precautions you'd take, say in Chicago or NYC, take those same precautions here ...take a taxi at night,  lock your doors, etc...)

We recently put in a peephole on our apt door...we'd had several incidents of incessant doorbell ringing, at all times of the day and night. Even with security in our building, we don't just answer the door...
 We didn't open the door without knowing who was there in San Francisco either.  And, we had a gate/entry system at the ranch in Oregon.

When we first arrived (and when we first visited), we were stunned by the number of armed guards.  Seemed that every store, no matter how small, had a guard (or several) posted at the doors with weapons.  Now, we barely notice. We did see an incident of a military-style, well-trained and very serious security precaution when we were out and about near the Central Bank.  Convoys of several military trucks...many soldiers with drawn machine guns fanned out over a block or more.  Traffic stopped.  Helicopters overhead.  Turns out the Bank was moving money...(We stayed glued to the nearest wall until it was over.)

Another incident to share... we witnessed an example of swift justice.  A shop guard took off on foot after a robber.  Police arrived and beat the heck out of the robber before taking him in..  The crowd cheered.  We've seen several guards take off after thieves and  members of the public don't hesitate to join in the pursuit.

Our 'New Normal'  includes watching where you're can trip/fall so easily on the uneven cobblestone streets.  And, since pedestrians have NO right of way, we are mindful of that, too.  Drivers are crazy here!  One speed:  Fast!  We are known to walk several blocks out of the way of a busy street so we don't have to try to cross it on foot.  If there is a traffic accident (we haven't seen many, surprisingly),  and if there is an injury or death involved, the drivers will most likely end up in jail while it gets all sorted out.  We hear that jail is NOT a good can be held for a long, long time. 

*Adjusting to Altitude and health issues
Some newcomers will suffer with our high altitude.  (Cuenca is at 8300 ft.)  One minute you'll feel fine, the next minute you won't.  That's normal, as your body adjusts.  To ease the symptoms, drink your water and rest and eat good food.  A tea, found in the markets, called 'mate de coca' helps, too.  Some folks find that a Sinutab or a Clariton pill help with the ears, if they are stuffed up.  Most folks adjust within a couple of weeks or so.  It took us longer, but our health wasn't the best when we arrived.  One may also suffer from new plants, diesel fumes, perfumed products.  We did, but we're mostly fine now. (Either our bodies adjusted or we've learned to substitute products and/or avoid the plants and pollution...)
Remember, too, that excellent doctors, who speak perfect English, are here.

*Back to the '50's
Sometimes we think we've gone back in time here.  There is still the frustration of slow technology (but there are lots of options for faster speed..there are good techs here, too, that can help).  What we like the best is a slower pace and the family values... we love the babes-in-arms tradition, as well as the creative ways babies are carried on the backs of both Moms and Dads. Prams, baby buggies and strollers are not common here... Toddlers are either carried or they walk fast to stay up. We don't see temper tantrums (if we do, the kids are usually from somewhere else.)  At nap time, the babies just go to sleep wherever they are, in their parent's arms or tied to their backs.

We're still getting used to the lack of power tools and machines -- just the other day we saw some workers, with hand tools only, tearing up some cobblestone streets for replacement.  Mostly hand tools at the new construction, too.

We like the friendliness of the people.  Most people greet you on the street and in the markets with a smile and a 'buenos'. Some women-friends greet with a hug and kiss on the cheek. (Some men do, too.)  Some small businesses remember your name and your last purchases.  Shop-keepers will ask about your family and your health.  One of our workers offered to light a candle and say a prayer before Nancy had some dental work done! (Very sweet!) 
Cuenca is a big city with big city services, but it still has a small-town feel, a friendliness, openness and graciousness of the past.

The work ethic is strong here.  It's a matter of pride for folks to have a job.  We don't see Homeless Vets with pan-handling signs or desperate parents asking for money for food for their families, as we did in the US.  Streets are clean.  Garbage is recycled. School kids wear modest uniforms.  Many businesses (banks, insurance firms, etc) require uniforms for their workers, too.  Dress code for most Cuencanos is conservative, neat, clean and stylish.  It's a rarity to see a raggedy, unkempt person. 

*We still love a party and all the music and fireworks!
Ecuadorians sure know how to do it right!  At all hours!  We don't listen as much to our favorite CD's we brought with us.  Instead, we have found a good radio station, 97.3 FM............The station plays a little bit of everything, a little jazz, a little hip hop, a little rock and roll, even some US Country, opera and classical.  Works for us.

 We're enjoying our 'New Normal'.  A new rhythm...a new life that now seems perfectly normal to us.
We hope that those who arrive here and plan to stay can make the transition easily, with not too much homesickness and yearning for a previous life.   Ecuador is NOT the USA (good and bad)...but it's pretty wonderful! We love it here, and hope newcomers do, too.

So, here's our advice for new arrivals...Assimilate, adjust and smile!  Keep learning your Spanish, breathe, relax and move forward... you'll do just fine. 

Don't forget to pack your patience!

Love and peace to all.


  1. Wow...excellent advice, Nancy. I can almost feel your new normal, laid-back vibes over the internet. I'm remembering that delicious place where time is a gift to be savored. Can't wait to reclaim that place again. Thanks for the gems!


  2. Kathy and I so enjoyed reading your blog today. It was very informative and so well written. Thank you so much for sharing with us and everyone your experiences in Cuenca. Kathy and I are both very sure we will love it there and have no problems assimilating. Keep posting the great info, it helps us all.

  3. Wow, that is one of the nicest and most informative posts on any blog. We have been reading your brother's blog for eons and follow alot of the ones you do to.

    We are Canadians living where Brian and Shelley used to, we plan to visit Ecuador in September for 3 months to hopefully find a new lifestyle that involves a different pace.

    it is thanks to many posters that we know the good and the bad. We just have to get out there and finally do it.

    Yes "the patience" must be packed.

    Shelagh and Peter

  4. WOW! What a great post. Good job, Rich and Nancy. We love you both and concur with your entire post.

    Larry and Linda