La vida cotidiana cuencana (Daily life in Cuenca)

While we haven’t exactly “broken busy” entirely, over three months into our Ecuadorian sabbatical, life is humming along as sweetly as the birds chirping outside our bedroom window every morning. We have, however, gotten into the Ecuadorian rhythm, which is slow and relaxed. With the exception of our fast stride when we’re out walking which undoubtedly gives us away as gringos, Talia is thrilled when people take her for a Latina and insists that we only speak either French or Spanish when we’re walking down the street.

Our adjustment to life here has been surprisingly easy compared to other experiences living abroad, although it has taken a bit of time to understand some of the nuanced aspects of Ecuadorian society. It has been especially challenging for Talia who spends her days listening to Spanish in school and is spending hours each evening doing her homework, which has often lead to much adolescent frustration. She continues to get positive reinforcement from her teachers and classmates, many of whom are more than happy to help her. Yet, difficulties persist, such as last week when we spent half an hour unsuccessfully researching what “amorfinos” were so she could do her Spanish homework, only to find out from her friend’s mom that they are popular verses from coastal Ecuador.

While Talia’s in school or doing tutoring lessons with her school’s director, Mark and Julia continue to stay active. We’ve both gotten into a regular morning exercise routine, something that has not always been as easy at home. Mark takes Spanish classes and goes to Spanish conversations a few times a week so is steadily progressing (although he frequently confuses the pronunciation with Portuguese) and has been preparing for a certification program he has just started at the California Institute for Integral Studies which will help pivot his career (and potentially the field of psychology in general) into a different direction.

Julia is loving the watercolor painting classes that she takes twice a week. Lately, she has also been getting a lot of consulting work, which has been welcome, particularly since she can do it from home and doesn’t have to get on a plane.  We have also been doing quite a bit of volunteer work for Mujeres con Exito (Successful Women), a non-profit that supports women and their children who have been victims of domestic abuse. While Ecuador overall seems like a peaceful country (even the dogs which roam randomly in the streets untethered are calm and rarely even bark), there is a surprisingly high rate of domestic abuse. In Cuenca, it is estimated that 7 out of 10 women and children are abused. It’s been extremely humbling working with the women and children, particularly after hearing some of their stories of unimaginable hardship. We have been going out to the shelter where Julia teaches yoga to the kids. She is also developing a series of training workshops to help the women develop skills and confidence to be self-sustainable when they eventually leave the shelter and Mark will be helping with trauma release. We’re also pleased that Talia has been a part of this, hopefully providing her some perspective and gratitude for the privileges she has in her own life.

Living in Cuenca is very comfortable and the Ecuadorian government makes immigrating here extremely easy. For example, many expats have “investment visas,” which automatically allow them to live here indefinitely while making a whopping 9% interest on the CDs that they invest in the country. After two years living in Ecuador, you can establish residency which gives you the same rights as an Ecuadorian citizen. This includes mandatory voting. Two weeks ago, the country held local and regional elections, so for weeks the country has been abuzz with political rallies. We can only wishfully wonder how American politics may be shaped differently if voting in the U.S. were also mandatory…

We’ve also developed a nice social life here, thanks in great part to our friends Kristin and Matt, who were invaluable as we were planning our move here. Their daughter, Lila, and Talia have also become good friends and since they live a five minute walk from our apartment, we see them often. We’ve met a number of Ecuadorians and some very interesting expats as well. As can be expected, it’s more challenging to develop friendships with the locals, at least initially. We’ve connected with several through chance meetings or through some of our activities, but their social lives tend to revolve around their families. Cuencanos are also notoriously conservative and religious, although there are many who are more internationally-minded. We’ve been fortunate to connect with the parents of Talia’s BFF at school and have gotten together socially with them on a number of occasions.

Most of the gringo expats here are retired—in fact Ecuador is considered a hot spot for retirees —but there are more and more families moving here as well—many of whom are “political” refugees escaping the current toxicity in the U.S. The common challenge for many people seems to be professional, unless they are fortunate enough to be consultants or telework. To give some perspective, the minimum wage in Ecuador is $385/month so living on the local economy is economically challenging for many working families, while expats can live like kings, even on small pensions. Many people have cobbled together work using their various expertise. There are expats who offer yoga or body work, make art, and run coffeeshops and restaurants, etc. that cater to both the expat and Ecuadorian communities. Our favorite dining spot is a la casa de Yasu.  A Japanese chef, trained in NYC and now married to an Ecuadorian woman, Yasu develops eclectic menus each week that are a fusion of Japanese and Ecuadorian cuisine. He operates a small, reservation-only restaurant out of his house about a one minute walk from our apartment. His creative six-course meals (costing an exhorbitant $22) serve some of the most delicious food we’ve eaten (which is saying a lot since Julia worked for Michelin in Paris for many years where she frequently ate at Michelin star restaurants).

Although our weekends tend to be busy with different activities in town, we’ve also had the chance to travel quite a bit. A couple of weekends ago, we took at 4.5 hour drive along windy mountain roads to visit Vilcabamba, close to the Peruvian border. This small town (pop. 6,000) is also a hot spot for expats (mostly hippies) but has absolutely stunning scenery with the surrounding mountains. We stayed in the Hosteria Izcayluma, a German-run spa that offered free yoga classes every morning with spectacular mountain views and reasonably-price spa treatments. We also hiked to an isolated waterfall where we were the only people within miles. This past weekend we went to Chan Chan Hacienda, a dairy farm about 45 minutes from Cuenca, where we got to helping milking (and herding) cows, playing to one month old pigs, and hiking with spectacular views overlooking Cuenca.

We also had the unique opportunity to attend an indigenous ceremony (which we’ll talk about in a future blog). While 65% of Ecuadorians are mestizo (half Spanish, half indigenous) which is reflective of much of Latin American population, about 25% are indigenous, belonging to numerous ethnic groups (Otavalans, Caranqui, Pichincha, Tungurahua, Saraguro, Shuar, etc.), many of whom speak the Kichwa language. Each group has its distinctive language and cultural practices (such as the Shuar tribe in the Oriente region (Amazon) which notoriously shrink the heads of slain victims to contain the soul of the person which is found in the head). Interesting practices to say the least, and a good reminder not to get on their bad side…:-)

A few weeks ago, we welcomed our first guest, Mark’s sister Cassandra, who stayed with us 10 days. We will also be playing host to a rotating door of family and friends starting this week, and are looking forward to sharing our lives here and to discovering new places that we have been waiting to visit with our guests. With only a couple of months left here there is still so much to explore in this beautiful and fascinating country. 



The Galapagos: A Natural Treasure

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

Despite everyone raving about how great the Galapagos Islands would be, our expectations were far exceeded by the proximity to unique flora and fauna and appreciation for the efforts to preserve and share this incredible ecosystem.  Truly a one-of-a-kind experience! Located about 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coastline, the Galapagos was originally discovered in 1535 by the Panamanian Archbishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga. In the 16th century, pirates hid out on the islands and took advantage of the many caves to hide their looted stash. Their international fame, however, only occurred after Charles Darwin’s five years researching the animal life, which eventually led to his Theory of Evolution. With only 3% of the islands touched by humans (and a total population of about 25,000 based on the five inhabited islands), there are extremely strict protocols to protect the fragile eco-system and no more than 150,000 tourists can visit each year.

Aerial view of the Galapagos and its emerald green waters
Map of the main islands, including seahorse-shaped Isabela, the largest island, where we spent several days
One of the many sea lions loitering around town

We arrived on the flat, barren island of Baltra, once home to a U.S. Air Force base during WWII. Of the 20 volcanic islands in the archipelago, Baltra’s name to fame is the arrival point of the millions of tourists who have visited the islands, along with a few Galapagos cacti and various species of lizards.

We were told the best way to benefit from the Galapagos’ amazing eco-system would be to take a cruise. However, after searching, unsuccessfully, for an affordable cruise that would take us to some of the more remote islands, we opted to be DIY travelers. Given our preference for independent travel and exploration, this ended up suiting our needs and our budget much better. We were able to kayak, bike, hike, snorkel and swim on our own timeframe and in most instances without large groups of other people. We also took a number of day tours to reach some of the hard to get to places for snorkeling and saw some of the most fascinating marine and land animal life.

The ubiquitous marine iguanas found throughout all the islands
One of the many lava tunnels found on these volcanic islands
The popular snorkeling spot of Las Grietas with its volcanic cliffs
One of 12 species of turtles found in the islands, many of which are 150+ years old

The largest town in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, is a bustling blend of locals and tourists as nearly everyone who visits the islands has a stop-over there. We found a slightly off-the-beaten path hotel, Casa Eden, that was close enough to walk to town and offered a more bucolic setting with lovely gardens with hammocks. During our stay, we were able to snorkel with sand sharks at Tortuga Bay, walk the rim of Los Gemelos volcano crater, listening to the twitter and fleeting visits of Darwin finches, and then bike the 30+ km (18 miles) downhill back to Puerto Ayora, stopping en route at Rancho Primicias to see giant tortoises as old as 150 years and walk through a 400 meter long lava tunnel. We also snorkeled in the narrow emerald green waters of Las Grietas, with dark volcanic cliffs raising up on either side and we also rented kayaks from Garrapatero beach where we saw sea lions bathing on lava rock, flying manta rays, and many pelicans, but alas no sharks.

Enjoy the landscape–it’s unique in the world
Lava flow at Sierra Negra, the most active volcano in the Galapagos and one of 6 volcanos on Isabela island
Near the summit of Sierra Negra volcano

After a couple of days in Santa Cruz, we took the bumpy 2+ hour boat ride to seahorse-shaped Isabela island. Although the largest island in the archipelago, Isabela is also one of the newest (a mere one million years old). With six volcanos, the majority of the island has never been explored with the only navigable route leading from the only town, Puerto Villamil, to the closest volcano, Sierra Negra, which we summitted and had the opportunity to walk along amazing black and red lava flow. It’s also one of the Galapagos’ most active volcanos; its last major eruption was in 2006 but it also erupted in one small part in June 2018. From a distance we were able to see sulfuric smoke but were gratefully saved any activity on the day of our hike.

Lava rock formations at Los Tuneles
Snorkeling in Las Tintoreras

Puerto Villamil feels like an outpost—a sleepy, small town with many unpaved streets and a relaxed vibe, it is littered with restaurants and tour agencies offering day trips to scuba dive or visit Los Tuneles.  

Sleeping sea lions lie leisurely on the beach benches in Isabela
Stunning sunset on Isabela island

There were sea lions swimming in the harbor around the small landing for commercial boats and other sea lions lying on the park benches and under the mangrove trees on the small community beach.  We also noted a fair amount of development in progress, which likely indicates the growing popularity of travel to this island and associated tourist industry. Highlights of our stay on Isabela included viewing the famous blue-footed boobies and tiny Galapagos penguins and snorkeling with sea lions and giant sea turtles after kayaking to nearby Los Tintoreras (where Julia unfortunately also fractured a rib while trying to get back into her kayak), a day tour to los Tuneles where we saw stunning marine life, including the elusive seahorse and walked across lava outcroppings, and biking past stunning beaches to visit the Wall of Tears, built by prisoners when Isabela was a penal colony mid-20th century. The sunset from Isabela was one of the most spectacular we have ever seen. 

The elusive seahorse near Los Tuneles
Talia walking on the beach during the sunset

Our naturalist guides were very informative and clearly passionate about sharing the uniqueness of Galapagos natural treasures.  For example, time takes on a different meaning when considering that the islands are relatively new landmasses (the majority of the islands formed less than one million years ago), yet relatives of the Galapagos green sea turtle likely swam the ocean and walked the beaches along with dinosaurs (65 million years ago) and sharks pre-dated them.  Nearly 20 percent of the marine life around the islands is native and restricted to the area, including the marine iguanas, which are only lizards in the world that are able to swim and feed almost entirely on seaweed (algae).  In addition, it is the only natural habitat in the northern hemisphere, on the equator no less, where a species of penguin lives. 

As with any travels, things don’t always work out as planned and communications sometimes gets lost in translation (despite speaking Spanish), which was amplified by the laid-back island culture in comparison with our North American time and detail oriented expectations. The tour agency failed to send the promised car to take us to the port and after waiting for 15 minutes for a taxi we nearly missed our twice-daily boat back to Santa Cruz. When we arrived at the port, our boat had already left, but fortunately we were able to get on another boat last minute (while of course having to pay a second time). Then, when we returned to Casa Eden, we discovered that our room, for one of the two nights we had reserved on our return, was occupied so we had to find another hotel at the last minute for our final night. Additionally, we had to be flexible on two occasions when boat engines broke down and passengers had to divide into the different boats that stopped to help us.  Fortunately, none of these were major issues and didn’t dampen our enthusiasm, although did create a bit more stress and take up extra time. 

Sharks have inhabited the islands for millions years
One of the many iridescent fish swimming beneath us
Sea turtle and rainbow fish competing for algae

Our last day in the Galapagos was the grand finale of our trip. We booked a day trip to Pinzón, a small island about 1.5 hours off the coast of Santa Cruz. We hit the jackpot with three different snorkels in some of the clearest waters we’d seen, vacillating between marine blue to emerald and jade green, allowing us to see several species of starfish over fifty below us. Absolutely stunning. We were able to swim within feet of many varieties of iridescent fish, white-tipped sharks, Galapagos penguins, baby sea lions being carefully monitored by their mothers, and giant sea turtles. A family of dolphins also joined us and swam along our boat for a while. We had to keep Talia from jumping in and swimming with them. Observing the often-territorial interactions of some of the animals was fascinating and you could definitely see how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution. For example, we were fascinated one day observing a large red/yellow Sally lightfoot crab chasing some of the smaller crabs. It was like a cat and mouse game but the smaller crabs kept their distance. Another time we observed a small school of striped rainbow fish swimming under a giant turtle snacking on the same algae as the turtle. And while sea lions are innocuous and friendly for the most part—often found sprawled on benches in the middle of towns, beware of the alpha male who is extremely territorial.

School of Damsel fish

As Darwin’s quote above aptly describes—life in the Galapagos is constantly adapting. New species are formed in part thanks to conservationists’ efforts, while others become extinct (as with the death of Lonesome George in 2012, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise who died despite international efforts to save the species from extinction). Tourism has played a further role in eroding the fragile eco-system and we were happy that at least our guides were extremely mindful of preservation.  The government and other agencies have also taken remarkable steps to protect the ecosystem including prohibiting commercial fishing (sharks are plentiful because they are not hunted and generally not dangerous because they have plenty of fish to eat), monitoring and managing invasive species like blackberries, and protecting endemic species by setting up breeding areas and imposing heavy fines (in 2016, an airport shuttle drive was fined over $15,000 for running over a land iguana). 

While we were happy to return to the cooler temperatures of Cuenca, we could have happily stayed longer to see what other mysteries unfolded in these fascinating islands.

The Journey Begins

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust  

Inca woodcarvings in Parque de la Madre

Over a month into our stay, we are finally getting around to writing our first blog about temporarily relocating to the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, high in the Andes mountains.  One of our main passions for travel has been to expand the paradigm in which we view the world. One says that you have a choice between being a tourist, a traveler, or to plunge more deeply into another culture to explore those unknown parts of yourself and to learn skills that enable you to see the world through different lenses. We have had the good fortune to spend much of our lives doing the latter two and look forward to seeing how our lenses are reconstructed during the next few months, not only as we delve into a previously unfamiliar culture, but also as we retrieve those former parts of ourselves that have been buried in our hectic middle-aged lives. A quote Julia frequently uses in her training workshops by Anaïs Nin is “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” That is exactly what we are hoping to change during the next few months as a family as we slow down and decompress from the busy lives we lead in the U.S. and open to the mysteries of Ecuadorian culture on our own journey of discovery. 

One of Cuenca’s hidden courtyards

Street scene

We have been trying to find ways to break the busyness of our lives for a while. A first step was Mark’s decision to leave his demanding government job last summer, which freed space for exploring more fulfilling and balanced professional and personal goals. One project he has started is the “The Busy Project”, which explores the impact of busyness on mental health and well-being. Stepping away from our daily lives in Washington DC also seemed integral to the process of re-establishing a sense of more alignment with our values and balance. Ironically, leading up to our departure was probably one of the busiest times for us, with Julia traveling nearly weekly for work and navigating all the big and small details in preparation for our move. We barely made our flight as we were literally still rushing to get our house ready for our tenants. A special thanks to friends in the community who stopped by to say goodbye and generously offered to help us in our final hours as well as the continued support from many family and friends while we are abroad.

One of Cuenca’s 52 churches

The main goals for moving to Cuenca were threefold: 1) we could slow down, reboot and have more quality family time to do things we really enjoy, 2) to give Talia the chance to spend more in-depth time abroad and learn another language, and 3) to immerse ourselves in a new country and culture with which none of us were familiar to broaden our perspectives on living well.   

Girlfriends at the Chorro de Giron

One of the aspects we have really enjoyed about living here is getting to know our new community, including expats and Cuencanos (as the locals are called).  We have been fortunate to have expat friends take us under their wing even before we arrived and host us upon arrival.  Talia has formed friendships with our expat friends’ daughter and classmates at her Ecuadorian school.  We especially appreciate the warmth that Ecuadorians exude, their politeness and patience.  Typical transactions start with greetings that imply the human relationship is just as important as the transaction.  As Alejandro, a Chilean who lead a recent retreat that Julia attended, observed, “North Americans and Europeans live in their heads, in Latin America people are much more connected to the heart.”  Indeed, there is a different way of engaging, from giving everyone you meet a light beso (kiss) on the cheek when you greet them to taking the time to talk, even though Cuencanos also lead very busy lives, many working 10+ hours a day.   

Another enjoyable aspect of living here is the opportunity to simplify our daily activities, even though they may take longer. Our days start early as Mark walks Talia the mile to school, passing the free daily Zumba classes offered by the City along the Tomebamba river, a block from our house, where Julia takes classes.  Without cars, we walk most places, logging 20km (12 miles) or more daily on our Fitbits. An excursion to the Feria Libre market, where Quechua women in colorful skirts and top hats sell us exotic fruits and vegetables for a fraction of what we would pay in the U.S., takes much longer than dashing to the supermarket. Walking the two miles distance to the colonial center of Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is much more pleasant as we can stroll along the Tomebamba, bordered by sweet smelling groves of eucalyptus trees.   

So, as we enter our second month here, we continue to adjust not only to the high altitude (we’re at 8,300 ft above sea level) and more laid-back lifestyle, we are also beginning to break the busy patterns and learning more about the art of being.