Thoughts about Cuenca after 15 months “on the ground”

Overlooking Solano Ave from Turi   in Cueca, EC

Overlooking Solano Ave from Turi in Cueca, EC

I’ve been thinking about Cuenca, trying to picture the current impact of this influx of ex-pats from different countries but mostly from the US and Canada.  Well, how does this impact the local economy and what do many Cuencanos think of us?  Let me point out that I am not an expert on economic impact so this is merely my speculation from observations and conversations in the past year or so.

Rio Tomebamba

Numbers vary widely but it seems most likely that there are about 4000 legal expats from the US here in this city of approximately 400,000. Fewer Canadians, fewer still from the UK, Thailand, France, Germany, Japan,  Australia and other parts of the world.  Some people say that the price of groceries and housing are higher, that it is the fault of the ex-pats being here with a higher standard of living in their history. They think that is causing prices of groceries to creep up and to cause housing (both rentals and homes for sale) to increase in value.  Lets do the math for a second.  Even if we go wild and say there are 10,000 expat in Cuenca, the US expats make up less than 3% of the population, if I’m doing the math correctly.

That is a pretty insignificant number.  This means for a second, imagine you are in your community and 3 people out of every 100 people has more money than you do and asks for fancier living arrangements than you are used to and may have very fair skin and silver or blond hair.  Would that drive the cost of houses up?  Would that person’s buying groceries cause food prices to go up across the country?
I realize that in the US, there is a serious drought underway and the failure of many crops will cause prices to soar.  It is very frightening.  So with the above paragraph, I’m saying that I do not think the impact of the ex-pats is a huge one.  Ex-pats are easy to spot because, although many Ecuadorians are very light-skinned, our very fair skin, our apparent age and silver or blonde hair often makes us noticeable – certainly not every ex-pat but a lot of us.  I am  not saying we are a target because I do not believe we are, but I am saying that many ex-pats are noticed by local residents.

Beautiful Santo Domingo church near Gran Columbia and Padre Aguirre

Think of it from the Cuencanos’ perspective: there were no good roads to Cuenca until the late 1950’s-early1960’s.  The airport was new around that time.  So until then, very few visitors from other countries made it to Cuenca.  Therefore, people who do not look as if they are a Cuencano or Latin American are noticed simply because of this change.  There is also the small but nasty problem of “ugly Americans” who talk loudly, do not want to learn about the culture, act superior, do not try to learn Espanol,order people around in a superior way, complain about things that are part of the culture and have other behaviors that are simply not good manners. Frankly, I wish those people would stay in their country of origin until/unless they succeed at a cultural sensitivity training and take it to heart.  But that is my fantasy, not the reality.  Ugly American behaviors attract attention and leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It happens.
But, for the most part, I find the people of Cuenca to be friendly, kind and tranquil.  Not as much road rage, happy to have a holiday, generally lighter of spirit than I was experiencing in Portland or San Francisco, two cities I lived in or near over the past 45 years. Cuencanos are generally interested in where we come from and offer helpful suggestions when asked.  There is a very strong work ethic among the various classes of Cuencanos. They usually do not like to pitch a big fit if there is a disagreement many would shrug and walk away. although the hot Latin temper can flare with some people.  In my experience with the people of Cuenca, some of whom are very dear to me, they are almost always late but that is a cultural difference we need to accept. If you invite people for 6 pm, they are likely to string in about 6:30 – 7:30.  Some of them do not call to say they will be late or they are not coming, something my English ancestors would find to be shockingly bad manners…but it is a cultural difference to accept. Being 1 person out of every 40 Ecuadorians, I’m not going to change the culture and should not expect to.  It is simply different.

Is Cuenca building too much housing?

Housing: well, of course, the economy has been growing in Ecuador so housing would go up.  More apartments and condos are being built to attract foreigners and the middle class of Cuenca.  Personally, I think they are over-building Cuenca like crazy but…time will tell. The good news is that you will not have much trouble finding a house/apartment/condo to buy or rent.  Will housing continue to go up?  If we knew what the economies of the world are going to do, we might have a clue about that answer.

Theft?Yes, it can happen.  Here is one way that ex-pats make themselves a target: if you are wearing flashy jewelry, an expensive watch, carrying a bag that looks as if it holds valuable things AND/OR if you are walking kind of slow/frail/slumped or looking lost or tentative?  Someone may come along and see that as an opportunity to steal all of the items listed in the previous sentence or to grab that IPhone just as you hold it up to take a photo.  Crime happens everywhere.  If you are walking assertively and you are aware of everyone/every thing in your surroundings, you are less likely to be robbed. By the way, this happens to Ecuadorians as well.  I have talked with several people who reported crimes over the past 20 years such as pickpockets,  home invasions, holding up people at night with a knife or gun.  But  these are rare incidents. And remember crime happens all over the world. Being cautious and smart about where you are and what the risks are, while acting confident and assertive, will go a long way toward personal safety.

And here is the MOST IMPORTANT thing to take away from the previous paragraph:  if someone wants your jewelry or IPad or bag, let them have it!.  It is NOT worth getting stabbed or shot or beat up.  It is just stuff!  Your life is invaluable but cosas (stuff) can be replaced.

Hummingbirds – whimsical art in a plaza

So where is this all leading for me?  I love living in Cuenca – mi gusta Cuenca!  Yes, prices are going up, some new government rules make it harder to immigrate to Ecuador but some rules are a bit more clear (at least this week).  Cuenca is a lively, active, gorgeous city with lots to do and see.  There are people to meet and restaurants to explore.  Museums, Inca ruins, the new zoo, galleries, architecture, art fairs all add to the mix of humanity.  The city is a nice size – one can get to know it if you walk a lot.  It is usually sunny during the day and gets cool, sometimes chilly, at night.  There is little humidity, there are no big spiders and very few bugs. The rainfall is half of what Portland, OR gets in a year.  There are luscious, ripe fruits and avocados  to die for.  I’ve been known to tell people that the pina (pineapple) juice at Cafe Austria is reason enough to remain in Cuenca! Hummingbirds show up everywhere in an amazing variety. Lots of flowers bloom all year.  Cuenca is working to improve streets, replace broken sidewalks and assist traffic patterns.  We hear that a light rail will start building in a couple of years and that the very smoggy diesel buses will be banned from roving around parts of  El Centro, the historic part of the city.  There are many things to love about this city. It is not for everyone! But it has a lot to offer people who have a mindset to accept and learn about cultural differences, who speak Espanol or are willing to learn, and who have a curiosity about life in another part of the world.

To summarize my thoughts, life in Cuenca as a minority person is somewhat similar to many cities around the world.  People must face the challenge to accept change and embrace people who do not always look or act like them.  However, many people welcome change, show curiosity about each other and accept that foreigners are moving here.  I had one person in sales thank me for coming to Cuenca.  I asked why and he said “you newcomers have knowledge, skills and wisdom that are all welcome here.  You buy products we have for sale. We need to get along with everyone from other parts of the world so thank you for the opportunity.”    That was a heart warming conversation.

The BRIGHT king size quilt is cheerful any time of day

Hope you are having a terrific week.  To my friends who are on vacation, have a fabulous, relaxing time.

To everyone else, find a way each day to have your own fabulous time, at least for a brief hour or more. Pursue a hobby, get lost in a book, sit in a garden or park.  It does the heart and spirit good. It lowers blood pressure and eases painful joints.  It clears the mind and enriches your daily life. Thank you for reading my blog.




9 responses »

  1. Just had the jugo pina at Cafe Austria. You are so right about it. Probably the best I’ve had in the city. Other folks swear by their jugo mora. But you and I know the real reason to go to Cafe Austria is the hot chocolate. :-`) And, if you are a coffee drinker, the cafe mocha (or moccachino) is a perfect balance of coffee and chocolate. Me gusta Cuenca tambien!

  2. Pingback: Morning Update – Wednesday, August 22, 2012 « South of Zero

  3. Sharon, this is one of the very best posts I’ve read on any of the Ecuador blogs … or others. Very thoughtful and insightful about both the Cuencanos and yourself. Thanks!

  4. I’ll be bringing gluten free stuff with me in November. Let me know if you want some. Also, we will surely have left over xanthan gum and flour when we leave in December.

    • Gosh, Jill. Thank you for that offer. I have xanthan gum but others here do not so that would be good to have. It could be divided into little bottles or baggies by people here. I only used about 6 Tablespoons of xanthan gum the first year I was gluten free and I bake quite a lot. But it is important to have. I will pay you back if you can find a good sized package of it or bring 3-4 small bottles. Thank you for a wonderful offer.

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