La vida cotidiana cuencana (daily life in Cuenca)

Sunset over the nearby town of Baños, famous for its thermal hot springs

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 romantic verses from coastal Ecuador. Clearly something a non-Ecuadorian would never know.

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 taking watercolor painting classes 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 some trauma release exercises. 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 wonder wistfully 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.

Lightening flash over Cuenca

Most of the gringo expats here are retired—in fact Ecuador is considered a hot spot for North American 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, create 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.

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 visited Chan Chan Hacienda, a dairy farm about 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, where we had the opportunity to milk (and herd) cows, play with newborn piglets, and hike with spectacular views overlooking Cuenca.

Shuar shrunken head at Pumapungo Museum, Cuenca

We also had the unique opportunity to participate in 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 to stay in their favor. 🙂

With Cassandra at plaza San Francisco

Earlier this month we welcomed our first guest, Mark’s sister Cassandra, who spent 10 days with us. 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.