Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Transitioning to Ecuador From the USA

This is a long blog.  Lots of early impressions during our transition.  This blog entry is in response to the many questions and concerns we've received recently.

Articles about Cuenca being the #1 retirement place have hit the airwaves and have gone viral on the internet. Our email and blog traffic have gone way, way up. Several hundred email notes in just the last few weeks. Many questions and concerns, some thoughtful, some thankful...a couple crazy ones, too, that made us smile. 

Some of the notes, with our comments, are below.  Some are embedded later.

One reader thought we were 'brave' for living in a 'Communist Country'. (Ecuador is not a Communist country, but thanks for the note.)  Another note ranted all about the war zones, the upcoming end of the world, the environment, global warming/change and imperialism around the world.  (Ummm...We hope you feel better getting it all off your chest. Thanks for your point-of-view.  Some valid points.)  Another wanted to 'be sure the poor children in Ecuador didn't pick her pockets'.  (We suggest this reader read up on safety  and secure all valuables,  all the time.  Pick-pockets come in all sizes and ages and social stata.  One doesn't have to be 'poor' to be a skilled thief.   Thieves work everywhere, around the world, including the US.)

One of our favorite notes is from a school teacher in NY.  She wrote to say she often uses pics and information from our blog to 'help bridge understanding and learning between her US and Ecuadorian students'.  One student of hers is from Cuenca and having a hard time making the adjustment to the US. She feels that sharing pictures of this child's 'home' with the rest of the class might bring about building the bridge.  She thanks us for 'keeping the info family-friendly'.   We thank this teacher for the lovely comments and we are so delighted! the info and pics are helpful in your classroom.  We had no idea. Thank you for writing.  We have the upmost respect for teachers (Rich's Mom was a teacher and we have several teachers in the family.) Thank you for your dedicated service and guidance for the youngsters.  Your email made our day!!

All of the notes, adding up to our growing email volume, are totally understandable as folks are gathering and validating information.   We're sorry we can't answer all of you personally, just not enough hours in the day, but we hear you. Here's hoping you can find answers to your questions and concerns here. US expats all have stories of adjustment to our new Country.

As we hit our 3 year mark this month here in Cuenca, we've been revisiting our early days of transition to our life in South America. We thought we'd put together a blog for our readers who are wondering about our story. This is a long blog, free-flowing and not too structured.  A walk down memory lane...

We spent most of our first visit to Ecuador in early 2008 on the Coast visiting family, Bob and Roxanne. We were there about 3 weeks.  (Link to their blog is on the right hand side of this page.)

We visited Cuenca for only a day that trip, but it was enough to know that we wanted to move here.  Little did we know then that Cuenca is not a sleepy little town!  Our day was in the midst of Carnaval and shops were closed, not much traffic or noise and many folks were off on vacation. 

But, we could tell that Cuenca is a diverse City!  We could see there are hospitals, universities, services, shopping and museums.  There are bookstores and restaurants, lovely gardens and rivers and some wonderful buildings, old and new.  Cuenca area is almost a half million people, but feels like a small town in some neighborhoods.  Our first day, we were impressed by the compact, historic district, as all visitors are.

We went home, energized and excited, sold the Ranch and most of our worldly goods, got all the paperwork done and packed up. Just about a year after that first visit, we arrived in Quito and then flew on to Cuenca, 2 days later.  All seems so long ago.  Those early days seemed hard and filled with 'opportunities', but what a ride!

We want to start out by saying that we are comfortable and happy now in Cuenca.    Some folks don't make it here for the longer-term for a variety of reasons,  returning to wherever they came from.  Some of our US expat friends have been here for over 15 years!  It's hard for us to imagine the changes they have experienced.

In our opinion, the move to Ecuador is not for the faint-hearted.  You will need every bit of patience  and focus you can muster for the paperwork and organization.  You will need to make some hard choices as you decide to leave the familar faces and 'things' behind.  You'll need to deal with all the emotions, too.  Not easy. 

You'll need to do your research and only you can decide if Ecuador is right for you.  Your reasons for visiting/moving here are personal.  No one living here can answer whether you'll be happy here.  We have found that, in addition to the economics, the discovery of things, large and small, about the culture and the people have been a part of the adventure and equally sustaining.  We were worried, as many of you are, that we might not like Ecuador, and then what?  But, we figured, early on, that if Ecuador didn't work out for us, we could always just go south, east or west.  Returning north, back to the US, wasn't high on our list.  We were ready for the South American adventure, come what may.

In hindsight, we think it's a much better idea to explore your future home for longer than a day, like we did.  If you have more time here, you can check out all the details, like goods and services available (so you know what to bring or ship), different neighborhoods, talk with other expats and residents and make some friends.

If you have plans to obtain longer term residency in Ecuador, you may have to wait awhile.  Depending on the workload, your wait could be many months.  The process is in constant flux.  Impatience is unlikely to speed up the process.  Remember, residency here for you is a privilege, not a right, and certainly not speedy, nor automatically stamped and approved. 

As you wait in frustration, remember this flip-side story:  We have Ecuadorian friends who have been trying for legal residency in the US for YEARS.  The amount of requirements, interviews and paperwork they are going through takes our breath away.   Their extraordinary costs with all the legal fees almost gave us heart attacks!

In comparison, the residency process in Ecuador is faster, simpler and relatively less expensive (even with all the delays and travel).  Your type of visa could also dictate the time frame.  We obtained our residency about 4 months after we arrived and it was fairly straight-forward.  We came in with 6 month visas.  But, laws change all the time, so you will want to hire a good attorney who can help with current requirements and procedures.  We hired Grace and Nelson here in Cuenca.  We absolutely recommend this very capable Team. There are other good attorneys here, but we have little or no experience with them, so can't recommend.

The approval for Ecuadorian residency is not for 'forever', you'll see an expiration date on your cedula/censo/passport.  Don't come here thinking you can game the system; it's disrespectful to Ecuador and doesn't work out well for those trying.  If attorney/facilitator fees or services sound too good to be true, it probably is.
If the terms change for your initial approval, you will want to take care to keep your records current and your papers in order.  You won't want to be here illegally, could result in fines (we've heard unconfimed stories of some being detained), or you could be expelled from the Country with restrictions on your return.  A good attorney can help.  Worth every effort and every penny, in our opinion.

We are not world travelers (yet!).  Both of us spent some time in other countries, but not alot.  Most of our travel was for business within the US, with a few short vacations abroad. Nancy lived, worked and went to school in the UK for a spell, but that was many moons ago.  Rich had a few business interests that took him outside the US.   If you haven't seen much of the world, some of the transition period here could be more difficult for you.  A vacation or business trip is totally different from moving your life to a foreign Country.   If you're in the stages of getting your very first passport for your very first trip out of the US, you could be especially stunned, depending on where you are coming from.  We can't help you get your passport.  You'll have to contact US officials and websites for any passport info.

Ecuador is not the USA!  Be prepared to adjust.  It's not just getting used to the little things, like: trouble finding big size clothing or shoes for big feet, or learning enough Spanish so you know what you're eating or where you are going, or avoiding stinky traffic and avoiding injuries on old cobblestone streets  Or, learning that pedestrians have no right of way.  Even if you speak fluent Spanish, like some expats we know, you could have a tough time adjusting to all the different ways.

Please don't plan to move here thinking you can change the culture or live just like you did in the US.  It'll just make you crazy.  Instead, be prepared to change your expectations.  You can't change Ecuador, it is what it is.   Yes, some locals say they live on  $600/mo., but you may not want to live in the same fashion.  Many things you take for granted in the US are non-existent, good and bad, or at least different with a unique twist.  Believe all the blogs about culture shock!  Laws are different (and change all the time), food is different, shoot, even the weather is different.  Now, we usually just roll with it all.  We are guests in this Country and so happy and grateful we are legal residents of this beautiful Ecuador.

So, here is our transition story, good, bad, ugly, back to good.  We hope it helps as you make those difficult decisions to begin the journey and the adventure.  Our blog goes back to 2007, as Ecuador got on our radar (South America was on our radar as early as 2004-2005), and you can read more on various topics by doing a search on this blog.  There are over 400 blog entries since the beginning and countless pictures.
We are stunned that, since January 1, 2012, readers from 80 different countries have read our blog!  Our largest readership is from the US, well over half. 

Most of our blog is pretty Cuenca-centric, with a few short trips outside. Some of the information is now dated, and only our perspective, but you can get an idea...and be sure to validate and update the info if it's an important topic for you. Sometimes a picture is worth a 1000 words, so blow up those pics and check out the details in the background, too.

We are flattered that some of you have asked if we had plans to write and sell an ebook on Cuenca.  No, we have no plans.  We are not professional writers, nor photographers.  We are not 'experts' on Cuenca, despite being here for 3+ years.  We still learn from our friends and other blogs. We offer our info and pics for free, still primarily to stay in touch with friends and family.  We do ask that, if you use our info or pics on your online sites, add the link, with our names, to the blog entry.  We like the credit.  Please do not cut/paste the info or copy pics and claim them as your own.  Since we share freely, please don't use the info or pics to make money.  We've seen some of our info, verbatim (even with our spelling errors!), with someone's name, on the Net.  Please don't do that.  We can't recommend other ebooks out there, even though we've bought a couple and they are pretty good and good value.  Only you can decide if you'd like to buy.

Some have asked if they can send money to, please don't.  If you'd like to 'repay us' for the information, please 'pay forward' instead.  Do something kind today for someone who could use a nice gesture, a helping hand or a hug in these hard and troubling times. 

Over-riding all our perceived hurdles when we arrived, were the kindness, acceptance and civility of the Ecuadorian people.  It was heart-warming when, maybe, 2 dozen people a day would say 'good morning' or 'good evening' as a simple recognition.  Yes, we got used to all the hugs and kisses, too.

You will find most expats friendly, helpful and kind.  Not all, but most.  There are more and more gringos moving here, so you will have lots of choices finding the folks with whom you are compatable.  As you learn your Spanish, you'll have even more choices for friends.

We don't know the number of North American expats living in Cuenca.  Some say there are 800-1500 or more, but we guess it depends on how you count and the source (and the motivation).  We do know there are lots more foreigners here than when we first arrived. 


We can draw comparisons to both our Oregon rural life and our San Francisco city life.  We've lived in both areas, first in SF and the Bay Area, then in rural, southern Oregon.  It took us awhile to switch back to a noisy, busy city after the quiet and peace of the country.  Cuenca is more like our days in San Francisco. The areas around the rivers and in the parks are more peaceful than the crazy-busy areas in town.  The smaller towns outside of Cuenca tend to be more quiet and rural, but there is still no guarantee of quiet there.  Ecuador can be noisy everywhere.  (You can buy earplugs here, if you need.)  We still hear the roosters at all hours and sometimes the barking dogs and construction round the clock (in our building and outside), church bells, traffic, weedwhackers, car alarms, fireworks and loud music....all sounds of our City. Now, we take it all in stride.

4 Rivers run through Cuenca (the Tomebamba River sometimes reminds us of the Applegate River at our Ranch).  We compare the foggy, overcast and chilly days to SF.  At some point each day here, we could wear wool for warmth, just like we did in San Francisco. Cuenca is not tropical beach weather.  It is rarely humid, except somtimes during the rains.  It is true that you could experience all 4 seasons in 1 day, but no snow.

Temps can range from the 30's-40's at night, up to mid 70's during the day, but can feel hotter in the sun.  You will be more comfortable if you wear layers, so you can peel off or add, as needed. There doesn't seem to be much of a weather pattern here to plan for.  Our local friends say that the weather has been different, compared to earlier years.  When we first arrived, it seemed to rain like clockwork, about 2pm or so each day, and we sort of planned our day around it.  But, since then, we've experienced a drought one year, more than usual rainfall at all times of the day and seasons. No guarantee for lots of clear skies most days.  If we're out and about and the skies open up, we usually find a cafe to duck into, have a cup of coffee and wait it out.  Hard to find a taxi in the rain. 

Here, we feel safe, safer than in some US cities.  We love our walks exploring this fascinating Cuenca!  But, we are careful, just as we were in the US.  (You can read more on safety by searching this blog and others.)  Another safety issue is the dreaded 'suicide shower'.  You can read accounts on other blogs, as we haven't had the 'joy' of experiencing them. Depending on the wiring, you could get shocked or worse, if you're not careful.  Faulty electric showers have killed or injured some of the US troops in the war zones (you can google for more info).  We think theft is on the rise, too.  Be sure to secure your belongings, wherever you are. 

When we first moved to Cuenca, Ecuador just seemed 'exotic'.  As we walked around town or zipped by in taxis, we focused on all the little things that make Cuenca so different from anywhere we've ever lived.  Things like:  llamas and other livestock tethered by the river, workers with not much sense for safety or power tools (no OSHA here!), huge people's markets filled with the most beautiful and tasty produce (and some hanging meat and seafood unprotected from the environment and the sun). 

And, there was Spanish everything!  Language, street signs, food/menus, services, you name it.   A little daunting as our Spanish was way, way-bad then.  It was always a relief when we found an English speaker. We still kick ourselves about not studying Spanish more before we arrived, at least enough to comfortably get around.  There are good Spanish language schools and private tutors here, too.

We gawked at the very short (compared to us), lovely native women in gorgeous clothing and heavy loads on their backs.  Was that man really milking his goat into small plastic cups for sale to the passersby on the street?  (Yes.)  Was that pig being roasted with a propane flame thrower?  (Yes.)

We focused on the broken glass atop the fences and the roll-down security doors at the shops, the armed guards and military.  We were paralysed at the markets, constantly flipping through the Spanish dictionary to find potatoes, chicken and ice cream, bacon and chocolate and coffee, for peet's sake!  We were so turned off by ALL the parts of the animals displayed for sale. 

We had left Oregon in the dead of winter during a snow storm, so we really enjoyed all the flowers in bloom...those little bright spots.  The beautiful, almost other-worldly sunrises and sunsets, especially after the rains, are even more breath-taking than the pictures.  We still marvel at the mystical mists rolling over the majestic Andes mountains early mornings. 

All the dizzying swirls of colors, all the new noises, the intense sun (rarely over 80F degrees but can feel much hotter) and extreme thunder/lightening storms, the diesel fumes, all the 'foreign' ways and words, all just exhausted us.  Not to mention the high altitude adjustment and the fact we couldn't breathe easily. Forget the stairs and walking much in those days.  

Some readers have asked about transportation within Ecuador.  We fly most everywhere we can, as Rich gets terrible motion sickness (ginger and those sea-band bracelets help Rich.)   Where we can't fly, we hire a careful driver or go with careful friends who have a car.  We never recommend traveling by ground at night over the Andes.  Just too dangerous.  Buses and van drivers can be too sleepy or careless.  Some buses and vans are not licensed, which can mean the vehicles are in poor shape and not safe.  Heavy fog and rain can complicate the trip, sometimes causing mudslides, washed out roads and white-out conditions, day or night. Flights from either Guayaquil or Quito into and out of Cuenca are about a half hour.  More flights available on weekdays than weekends and holidays. LAN, Aerogal and TAME are the in-country airlines.  You can book flights online, usually in English.

With the greater numbers of US Americans coming, it seems we see more examples of folks who approach any strange and new situation with loud hostility and rudeness in public places, whether it's in a restaurant, hardware store or markets.  It's sad that this small number of folks can tarnish the entire expat community in their self-absorption, in the minds of the local Ecuadorians.  You will likely find that the most useful tool you pack to make your transition is your patience.

Some of our early impressions were that most places smelled of heavy perfume. Products, shops, offices, the streets and the homes we visited. Didn't help our allergies at all. Now you can find fragrance-free items, but not as wide a selection as the US. Our allergies are much better now, but it was really bad when we first arrived. Some shops still use heavy air fresheners and we spend as little time in the soap/detergent and candle areas of the stores, as we can. Outside, we smell all the grass and plants and flowers and some still give us trouble, but we're used to most now. Some pollens, diesel fumes and construction dust are our biggest problems for watery eyes and runny noses.  (There are allergy meds and doctors here, if you need.)  We try to do the simple things first to help with allergy attacks:  avoid the culprits, close the windows, damp mop the floors and surfaces, take some vitamin C, drink some water or juice, change clothes and shower after the walks, etc.

Our older skin suffered from the dry mountain air, but we found coconut oil and some familiar brands of skin cream.  Everything dries quickly at this altitude, especially skin.  Don't forget to drink your water!  You can get dehydrated quickly.  We don't miss the mold of winter or the biting horse flies, mosquitoes and yellow jackets in the summers, like we used to battle in the US.  When black witch moths or jumping spiders occasionally come into the apt, we gently help them back outside. 

Sometimes we have ants in the kitchen, but they are probably looking for water.  They don't stay long.  We haven't had to use ant/bug sprays or call an exterminator.  We just wipe the ants up with a sponge and vinegar until the next time.  We leave our windows open all the time for the fresh air, we have found no need for screens.  We've seen an occasional mosquito here and aphids in the plants on the porch, a few house and fruit flies, some flying beetles.  They all seem to find us, even though we're 10 stories up.  The hummingbirds find us, too.  There are more bugs in other areas of Ecuador.  Generally, the lower the altitude, the warmer the temps and more bugs.

Before we arrived, we had read that we shouldn't flush toilet paper, just as some of you have. Old pipes and systems can't take it. We have since learned that many newer buildings can handle it.  Sometimes there is a sign in the bathrooms to warn you not to flush the paper if there is a problem. But, if you're in an older building or neighborhood, when in doubt, don't. You could flood the place or do some damage. You'll usually find wastebaskets next to the toilets for the paper.  Yes, some folks still pee and poop in public, but we see (and smell) less of that today. Also, some of the public restrooms don't have toilet paper or paper towels, so it's wise to always have some with you. Some public bathrooms don't have hot water (or any water) or soap, so we carry a small bottle of hand wash gel.  There are some signs to 'curb your dog' or clean up after them, but we haven't seen the laws enforced.  Yes, there are many roaming dogs.  Unfortunately, the clean up is left to the street cleaners. 

We arrived not in the best of shape and way too chubby.  Happy to report, between the 2 of us, we're about 65 pounds lighter now.  Better food, more walking, less stress.  Could be the weather, too.  No long, snowy winters to sit by the fire with Mr Boots the kitty and knit/crochet or read and watch movies all day, enjoying our Cheetos and Snickers... we remember those days, fondly...

We didn't care for the typical food much when we first got here.  We were put off by the heavy starch and salted fare that was presented.  It seems many Ecuadorians feel they haven't really eaten unless at least half their plate is covered with white rice at each meal.  So not good for the South Beach diet!  We speculate that the origin of the heavy starch diet was with a society that depended upon daily physical labor.  The high salt could be the tradition of preservation of food, not sure.  We've also heard that a starchy, salty diet is needed at altitude, but we just don't know.  Your doctor is the best source of info for you.

Those first weeks, we wondered: where was our favorite junk food and real peanut butter and was that really goat or horse or guinea pig we were eating?  Yes, there have been rumors that hamburger includes horsemeat, but that's unconfirmed.  Remember, food here is NOT Mexican!  Nor, all US-American, it's Ecuadorian.  Different.  Ecuadorian food tends to be more bland than Mexican, but there is hot sauce here.  Almost each table has a bowl of aji, at various levels of spice and hot.  There is Burger King and KFC and hot dog stands, if you need a US fast food fix.  Pizza, too.  We now like alot of the local food and can find most things we need in the markets and we cook.  There's always chicken and chicken/cow feet for broth and plentiful and inexpensive vegetables.  We love the hearty soups!

(By the way, we don't fret about finding those Cheetos anymore...We have found them, but they no longer taste like they used to.  Could it be we've 'evolved'?  Snickers are here, too, but we now eat the excellent Ecuadorian chocolate.   Local peanut butter is just fine for us, but we do splurge for the JIF when we can find it.)

Then there were the cultural things:  the new concept of manana (which could mean 'tomorrow', but also could mean 'never'), the new ways to bank, pay bills, buy goods, see the doctor, get our meds, get stuff done.  Many of the shops closed mid-day for lunch, just as we thought we needed them.  Sometimes folks will tell you what they think you want to hear out of politeness, not necessarily the 'real story'.  Rather than just saying they don't know the answer, again out of politeness, you may get a made-up answer.  Takes time, but just keep asking around to validate and double-check.

There is a blend of religion and State, so yes, you will see Christian crosses and statues in all the government buildings, taxis, hotels, shops, restaurants, hospitals, schools, homes, everywhere. We haven't seen anything Jewish, Muslim or Wicca, just Christian.  Ecuador is primarily a Roman Catholic nation, but there are non-Catholic churches and other Christian religions here.

Ecuador is a young Democracy in action.  Yes, you will see protests and demonstations when the people want to be heard.  Most are noisy, colorful, passionate and peaceful.  Voting is mandatory for all Ecuadorian Citizens, with few exceptions.  Voting Day is a National Holiday. 

Some other topics we've been asked about are here:  We don't have opinions for publication about the 'oil thing' or the 'mining thing' or whether folks here should 'fix' their pets, whether abortion is or should be legal or whether gambling should be legal again (casinos have been recently closed)...  It's all for the voting public to decide.  We didn't ship or bring pets, so we don't have any recommendations for you.  We don't have pets here, so we cannot recommend good vets or good pet food.  We don't know much about shipping goods in crates or containers and clearing Customs, as we arrived with suitcases only. Some folks seems to have good luck with shipping, some not so much.  Other blogs can help.
We don't know about guns and gun laws, but there seems to be less civilian guns on the streets here than in the US.  We don't own a car and can't help you with driver's license or car info.  We don't know where you can buy recreational drugs or find a wife or where 'all the pretty girls hang out'.  You'll have to do your own homework on these topics.

Some of our early questions were these here, just like you have asked:  Was there a trick for getting hot water and good water pressure?  (Sometimes.  Check with your landlord or other locals in your neighborhood.)  Why didn't the internet, TV and cell phones work 'right'?  (Always a challenge, but vendors and techs can help.)  Where are the mail boxes?  (There aren't any, but there is a post office, as well as FEDEX and UPS.)  Is the tap water safe to drink?  (Yes, for most people.  But, not safe in other parts of Ecuador.  Drink only bottled water outside Cuenca.)

Another point about the usually works just fine for us. But, service providers are adding more and more users and growing the public access. As they are balancing the loads and performing maintenance, the system could be down for hours, at all hours, with no warning. Not transparent, not convenient. If you are worried about total uptime and fast speed all the time like you might be used to in the US, you'll want to pack your patience. Eventually, the systems will stabilize. (There are good techs here, if you need.)

Two familiar items...  For domestic use, Ecuador's electricity is primarily 110-120, ac, 60 cycles, same as the US.  220 is available, but not universal. 
Ecuador's currency is the same, too, USD.  No need to convert money.  (Bring small bills, hard to make change here.)

During our first visit to Cuenca, the water at our so-called 5 star hotel went out, mid-shower.  Could have been related to the nearby construction.  But, water and electrical outages happen all the time, depending on the neighborhood, road and building construction, a worker's mistake, the drought a few years back, the excessive rain....  Yes, it's inconvenient.   We lost power and water at the Ranch, too.  It can happen anywhere.  Cuenca is a City in transition with growing pains. Yelling, demanding and loud complaining won't restore the service any faster.  Screaming at the vendors will only delay them from helping you.  Eventually, everything returns and it's back to normal.  If you have no patience for this, you will always be frustrated and unhappy here, better to keep looking for your perfect place to live.

One of our early experiences was especially unnerving.  We witnessed a crowd of angry citizens beating the heck out of a suspected thief. Swift justice.  When the police arrived, a couple of them also landed some kicks and blows before the bloodied young man was thrown into the police car.  We have no idea what happened to him later.   But after the event was over, all the citizens just went on back to their routines of the day.  We haven't seen anything like that here since.

Another event that flattened us up against the wall was when the military, with helicoptors, armored troop carriers and humvees, many soldiers with automatic weapons drawn (some on rooftops), closed down the streets for several blocks.  Ended up that the Bank was moving pallets of money, but it did make us pause...

There are a few American Disabilities Act-type laws related to employment here. The VP of Ecuador is championing this effort and making good, steady progress. We applaud the government's work in this area. Officials are also working on other disabled-friendly features throughout the Country...better sidewalks, better access, more services. Ecuador is still in the beginning stages of recognizing how to better accommodate all citizens. It will take awhile before Cuenca is truly handicapped-accessable.

Here's our shameless plug:  Two of our rentals, the Fragata Studio Suite and the Fragata Penthouse are designed with the disabled in mind, using the ADA guidelines. ("Universal Design').  This was a brand new concept for our workers here, just 2.5 years ago.

We remember our first dinner with an Ecuadorian family during the first days of arrival.  It was almost surreal.  The house and gardens were so lovely and the table gleamed with fancy china and silver, flowers and candles.  Everyone was so welcoming and kind. The English (and German)-speaking children served the delicious food, there was a prayer said, and then there were rapid-fire questions!  Everything from religion, salaries, family names and history, what cars we drove and what music we liked, are all US Americans overweight!?, why didn't we speak Spanish??, did we have guns and did we ever shoot anyone out West!!! Yikes!

Looking back, we think they were all just curious about us and the US. Could be they watched a little too much US TV, too.  But, many Ecuadorians can be super direct, could be the language/culture differences.  We are glad we had this dining experience, no other dinner party here has been quite like this one. 

We filled the early days here with viewing property with our realtor and worried that we'd never find our perfect place to live.  Apts with porches for some outside living were in short supply.  We looked at City and rural properties, old and new.  We learned about building techniques and laws.  We learned to ask if properties had running water and electricity, back-up power generators and cisterns, internet, cell phone and TV access, condo fees, clear title and security.  And, we learned to validate the answers.  We also learned about inheritance laws and wills.  Our attorney's advice and counsel were gold.  Your attorney can also advise on landlord/tenant laws and workers' rights and benefits. 

We live in the west part of Cuenca.  When we moved here, there were fewer highrises than there are today. Our first impression of the neighborhood was that we out in the country, a long way from downtown.  Our building was built in 2004-05. Now there is the nearby, huge Terrazza apt complex and the new Amazonas across the street.  There is also a few new highrises going up nearly.  We still wonder if this neighborhood has become Gringolandia.  We do see more expats moving in, but we also see Ecuadorians buying and renting, too.  We are about a 40 minute walk to downtown.  The Oro Verde hotel is a couple blocks away further west and the Palarmo building, probably the tallest building in Cuenca at 20 or so stories, is across the street from the hotel.  The big round-about road construction is a couple blocks away.  SuperMaxi, the Co-op and the Feria Libre people's market are close-by.  It's a great neighborhood close to the river and we like living here.  We bought this apt because we fell in love with the porch, the beautiful views of the Andes, the river and the tanquil neighborhood, 3 years ago.  But, there are also other good neighborhoods in Cuenca.  You'll just have to check it all out when you arrive to make the decision where to live.

We learned more about living at high altitude.  How to cook, how our bodies changed.  Doctors here know all about altitude, they deal with it everyday.  You may need to give your body time to adjust as it makes more red blood cells to carry oxygen.  Your blood test results could be different here, along with the normal ranges you're used to at sea level.  Your blood pressure could be high, too.  Most folks feel better at altitude after a couple of weeks, but it took us longer.  Some folks never do adjust and move on to lower altitude, where they feel better.  Mate de Coca Tea may help.  Also, many folks get sick when they first arrive.  Could be new germs, new food, new water or the altitude or total exhaustion just getting here.  Be kind to yourself and take it easy those first few days.  See a doctor if you need, good doctors here.

We remember being sometimes overwhelmed, frustrated and wondering if we'd made the right choice to move here.  We were definitely out of our comfort zone.  We had to re-think just about everything, it seemed.  Hard to not take stuff for granted and rely on what we used to know:  whether it be real estate, construction, banking, or cuts of meat, hailing a taxi, what time the sun came up.  The Ecuadorian flags were unfamiliar at first, but reminded us where we were.   We didn't see a US American flag for months.  Now we see them occasionally in parades or on t-shirts.

Time passed as it always does, and little by little we got used to our new life.  We started to feel better.  We found friends, both expats and locals, we learned more Spanish, we don't get lost all the time.  We learned the 'Chola Cuencana' song, so we can sing along at parties and festivals.  We found Fabian!  We found sour cream!  We also found good linens, cookware and appliances.  We found furniture (that wasn't rock hard).  Everything we needed in those first few months.  Each day we moved forward, we celebrated the small successes.  We settled in, a little rocky at first, but we did it!  We're still amazed and we're still here! 

We live in the Andes!!

Now, looking back, we wonder if we'd have the same reactions if we returned to the US. 
Some of the things that were our life there seems foreign to us now...  the crazy, over-the-top, ugly politics, the endless choices of goods and services, the loud, in-your-face urgency, rudeness and road rage (complete with the finger and cussing), the disrespect for women and elders, the high costs of utilities, medicine and food.  The endless forms and waiting weeks just to see the doctor for 5 minutes.  The seasons:  the early daffodils and that special shade of green in Spring, the glorious, knock-your-socks-off colors of autumn, the lazy hot summers (with our feet in the irrigation ditches),  the first dusting of snow in the winters...

Even the US weather reports are startling!  Snow and high/low temperature extremes seem so long ago.  We still miss friends and family in the US and we are grateful for all the technologies that keep us in touch.  We all have foodie memories that we associate with places in the States. We still miss a good prime rib, SF crab salads and SF-style, extra-sour french bread!  Good, familiar cuts of meat were less expensive than vegetables in Oregon.  Cable cars, the hay season, WalMart and Target are distant memories...

Everyone's story of adjusting here is different.  Everyone's backgrounds and points of reference and what they've learned and still miss are different, too.  Be sure to read their stories on their blogs,  especially if you're planning to move here.  Might help smooth your transition.  Just in the last 3-4 years, there has been an explosion of blogs and forums coming online.  Mary, blogger of South of Zero, publishes a daily summary of blogs about Ecuador.  Wish we had had all that good info as we packed and planned!  We arrived before Cuenca was declared the #1 place for retirement.

When we began the journey, there were, maybe, 2 blogs and alot of hype.  There is still hype out there.  We want to thank Nancy Watson, an early blogger we followed from the Ranch, for paving the way.  It always made our day when she updated with another story and more pics.
We also want to thank Bob and Rox again for their invaluable info as we got our 'Ecuador legs' those first days.  They were a year ahead of us. Both were a wealth of information and we are still grateful for all the help. 'Knowing stuff' made it easier to get our bearings.  Another item that helped us alot in those early days were the expat gatherings.  We made new friends, asked questions and got answers. (Check the blogs and forums for meeting places and schedules.)
Lee and Carol at the Carolina Bookstore and Rebecca and Mark were generous and kind as they provided their long-term perspective on many subjects, thanks again so much. 

We are amazed by all the changes in Cuenca in the last 3+ years.  Cuenca is a City in Transition!  Now, more modern construction (more new apts have porches and terraces and other US expat-friendly amenities), more old historic buildings are being all fixed up, more services available, more imported items, more cars, more people.  More gringos have arrived, both travelers and future residents.  More Ecuadorians are coming home from the US, Spain and elsewhere.  We're happy we're seeing more hard hats and protection at construction sites.  We're not so happy about the proliferation of tagging and yucky graffiti, but the City promises to get it under control 'soon'.

We've heard of more violent crime and scams, but still not the levels as some places in the US.  The historic areas are expanding, which means more neighborhoods will be protected and preserved.  Changes in laws for just about everything happens fast with little warning.  Taxes, real estate, rents, utilities, food and building materials are going up, some other costs are also creeping upward.  Lots of improved sidewalks and streets, too. 

Sometimes you just need a good burger or a delicious, strong cup of coffee.  When we first arrived, we couldn't find neither, unless we made our own.  Since then, we've found the best US-style burgers at the California Kitchen and the Inca Lounge.  We enjoy the best cup of coffee at the Kookaburra Cafe.  Yes, you can find good wine here, most imported from Chile and Argentina. 


We thought it'd be fun if we shared some of what we don't think you will see in the US, making Cuenca special and unique for us. Sometimes we still see and experience stuff that is that gentle reminder we're here and not there. You know, those little delightful moments that make you pause and smile...

The US is a huge country and we haven't had the pleasure of seeing it all, so these are just some of the things you won't find in the US places we've been. 

*Llama for kiddie rides and photos.
Hand-woven wool llama blanket.

*VERY clean streets!

*The sweetness of the people.  The real priority of family.

You will often see both parents or grandparents taking the kids to school or a parade.  Siblings take good care of each other, too. 

(We don't know anything about schools, but other bloggers do.)

*Street vendors.  The right to work.

Coconuts and some cut up watermelon.
The vender will hack up the coconuts with a very sharp machete.

You can see the sweet treat and ice cream cones...not ice cream, but more of a cool whip or whipped egg whites.  Kids love it.

We haven't tasted it.  Our stomachs aren't ready for raw eggs (if that's what it is) that have been sitting in the sun.

Perfect cherries in a wheelbarrow for sale.
(Be sure to wash all produce before eating.)

Just one of the many varieties of potatoes.

Selling banana chips and limes.  Moms often take their children to work with them.

We didn't see baby buggies or strollers when we first got here, but now we see more.  Yes, Moms breastfeed their babies in public here.

*Gas delivery downtown.

*Beautiful, fresh produce in the markets.  Lots of it!

*Fun street parades, all the time.  Usually with horses!

 *Different construction techniques.

An old adobe under renovation. 
Depending on the location, permits and laws could dictate that you use old building techniques and materials to repair these historic structures.  There are expert workers who are approved to do that.

*Spanish is the language of Ecuador.

You will find some English speakers and English signs, but overall it's Spanish.
(We've learned a little Quechua, too).

Hair/nail salon.  Quality is US-good, without the high prices.  Sure beats Bibbo's in SF!  Yes, you can buy hair color to do you own, many familiar brands.  No roots-touch-up kits, we haven't seen any, anyway.

More Spanish.  Laundry soap and washer.  Yes, you can buy Woolite here.  It's expensive with import tax.  We think the Ecuadorian equiv. is just as good.  You can find it at SuperMaxi (like Safeway).

Tea for high altitude symptoms.
(We're at 8300 ft.)
Our study books (which should have been a much bigger part of our life in the US).

*Ecuadorian dancing and music.

*Racks, so you can place your garbage up high. The street dogs, rats and other animals from the river will make a mess if you leave the trash on the sidewalks.  Garbage is picked up regularly.  (Blue bags are for recycled items.)

Other versions of the racks.  Some have hinges so you can fold them up flat against the building when not in use.

Most condo buildings have dumpsters or common garbage cans, check with your building administrator.

*UNESCO areas with wonderful old architecture.

The famous blue domes of Cuenca.

Totos Santos Church, one of the oldest churches in Cuenca. 
Major renovation almost completed.

*Unique art and textiles (and stories to go with them).

Wool textile from Otavalo.

An E. Vega ceramic plate.
Frigata birds!

Origen de la Guacamaya

The story of Guacamaya, the bird woman who birthed the Canari Nation.

Mosaic created by our friend, Liza Wheeler.

Street art.

Nice old style furniture and colorful paintings.
*Hand-weaving Panama hats.

*Those wonderful, beautiful, traditional clothes!

Velvet skirts for sale.

*Hot water heater.

*Pay phone!


Nope, we're not in the US anymore.  As one friend says, we're not in Kansas, Toto. 
One wise blogger once wrote that they don't do labels or comparisons of 'here' and 'there' they just live their lives here in Cuenca.  They have lived here a couple years.  Our 'new normal' is here, too, good and bad, but almost never ugly.  (Mostly good!)

Cuenca is 'home'. 

It's where our hearts are. 
It's where we are, together.