Tuesday, December 3, 2013

You're Moving Where...? What's a Cuenca?

When my mother-in-law informed us she was moving to Cuenca, Ecuador, my wife said something along the lines of, "Okay, Bear, you're the former geography teacher. Where in the world is that?" Where, indeed. As we began to explore this bold proposition, we quickly fell love with the idea, if not the reality, of a place reportedly similar to the United States two or three generations ago, but with high speed internet.

Postcard shot of the central part of downtown Cuenca.
The blue skies are a bit of a rarity (not much different than Portland, Oregon). On sunny days,
everyone comes out of doors to enjoy the sunshine.
The first thing we had to figure out was how to pronounce the place: Quanka with the first a being long will work. Kwaanka might also help. The second was to figure out where it was and why it was, according to many authorities, the place for North Americans to retire. The third thing was to figure out why American retirees, spoiled by HD TV and all the infrastructure a well-oiled society can provide, would trade any of that in to live in a developing country. 

If you are familiar with the positioning of Estes Park in Colorado, you will have a very workable picture of where and how Cuenca sits in the Andes Mountains. Like Estes Park, it sits in a valley surrounded by mountains along the Continental Divide. Highly developed ancient civilizations called the place home long before the United States was ever considered.

Unlike the quaint Estes Park, Cuenca has a population of somewhere around 340,000 people. The central part of the city, which sits on a plateau overlooking the newer sections of town, had been a center for politics, religion, economics, and culture for hundreds of years when it was captured by the Spanish in 1557.

Many women still wash clothes in the river. The upper and middle classes tend to do it the old fashioned way: a washing machine.

Ecuador is on the western side of South America, below Colombia and above Peru. Not surprisingly, the predominant language is Spanish. Very surprisingly, the legal tender of the nation is the American dollar. The president of the country was educated in the United States and has the prerequisit disdain for us that you would expect from all Latin American leaders. His political running buddies come from Venezuela and Iran, which doesn't make him many friends in the U.S. government.

The word Ecudaor means equator, but that fact has fooled many people. If you assume "equator" equals hot and you plan to spend much time in Cuenca (or Quito, the capital), you are in for a rude suprise. It rains a lot in Cuenca and reports that high temperatures hit the 70s (Farenheit) each day are misleading. It may peak out in the 70s, but most of the time it is cloudy and extremely cool. Think San Francisco.

So why do so many Americans move to Cuenca? While individual motives vary, the two things I heard over and over were low cost of living and lack of government intervention in daily life. The first is true, if you choose to use the local markets and live the lifestyle of the average working class Ecuadorian. (Most people who can afford to move to South America want more than that.) Regarding the lack of government intrusion in daily life, that's probably true, unless you're a member of the media.

Journalists in Ecuador are on the government's naughty list. Most newspapers that really reported the news have been legislated or sued out of business by the government. Reporters are regularly jailed for reporting things the government would just as soon you not know.

And the lack of government imposition in the lives of the Average American or Candian retiree comes at a price. All those taxes and fees and surcharges you pay in the United States and Canada underwrite the infrastructure we have come to take for granted. Take away the taxes and you take away many of the items those taxes went to provide. The roads in Ecuador can be interesting. When a truck turns over and blocks a highway, it's generally up to the citizenry to figure out how to right the situation. If you need an ambulance, you are advised to take a taxi to the hospital. (The wait for an ambulance might be measured with a calendar instead of a clock.) Most houses are made of cinderblock or stone. That's a good thing. You don't want to rely on the fire department to save you. And schools? Those are for the ones who can afford it. Love it or hate it, that's how it is.

If it sounds like I'm down on Cuenca or Ecuador, nothing could be farther from the truth. But if you are going to change hemispheres, you need to know what you're getting into. And that is the purpose of this blog. To start the conversation on Ecuador in general and Cuenca in particular. Feel free to respond, to disagree (agreeably), ask questions, and throw in your two cents worth.

When you first arrive in Cuenca, you will probably locate in a hotel in the central part of the city. We stayed at La Posada del Angel. Lovely, but no box springs. You left those when you left the U.S. of A. It will remind you of the beds you slept on at summer camp.

Oh, and there is one other motive...I loved Ecuador so much, and it spoke to me so loudly, that it produced a novel, my first work of fiction. It's a mystery/suspense novel entitled The Ecudorian Deception. It is available from amazon.com in Kindle and softback editions.

If you live in Ecuador, are thinking about Ecuador, have ever heard of Ecuador, want to learn more about Ecuador, or never heard of Ecuador but enjoy a good bit of whodunnit, I believe you will love this book. And this blog takes you behind the scenes of the fictional novel into the real places and people that inspired it.


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