Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cuenca, Ecuador: Perceptions, Misconceptions and Living Here

I wrote this post just as we were leaving Cuenca last May and thought I'd review it and make a few notes as to how it differs from actually living here. This is a LOOOOOOOG post....LOL!

As it turns out, many of our preconceptions (based upon reading online and books), turned out to be misconceptions (at least for us). Here are our current feelings about Cuenca, Ecuador.
  1. Noise, pollution and traffic
    For us thus far, the noise level has been tolerable. But this is entirely based upon where we are staying. There are many places noisier as well as quieter. The pollution hasn't been an issue unless caught in a trail of black diesel exhaust from a bus. The good news is that they are working on converting to propane powered buses in the next few years. There is also a light rail being built and a percentage of El Centro will become pedestrian malls. Traffic? No worse than any city and surprisingly not as chaotic as we thought it would be.

    Jan 2014: When we visited in April-May 2013, we were walking distance from El Centro. Now we are about two miles away, eventually it will be walking distance! While we are still on the bus line, there is only one bus that passes here whereas on 12 de Abril, there was a bus every 5 minutes! Another advantage to our new place is being set way back from the road. There are ten or so little houses/apts in our mini-complex and we are set at the back, far from the road. This means much less road noise for us. In fact in the early mornings, the only sounds are the birds.

    Of course there are evenings of celebration, same as closer to El Centro, but in the first six weeks nothing has lasted much after midnight. Not even on New Year's where we got to view fireworks all around us, but it all stopped by 12:30. We do have the neighborhood dog that barks a lot but we find that most of the time we tune it out. Car alarms haven't been an issue, the few times they have gone off, someone has reset them quickly. Phew!

    Traffic is about the same - crazy! But we are walking as much as we can, taking buses when our arms aren't full (you need both hands to safely get off & on the bus as well as stand, as happens most afternoons), and using taxis the rest of the time.

    Pollution is mostly a problem where the traffic is heavy. Diesel fumes from buses and exhaust fumes from un-tuned carbureted vehicles. There are parts of Cuenca that still have dirt roads, we have a dirt street behind us but a high wall keeps it out of site and the dust blows the other way.

    So all in all, not much has changed except our location. It's very quiet and we love having the river right across the street!
  2. Conservative dress
    I think we were a little mislead on this one. While business professionals wear conservative dress, we also see a lot of casual dress on all ages (locals and expats). Bright colors abound and not just on the indigenous people. The one item we only see on the young are imprinted t-shirts. Surprisingly I've only seen skirts on professional business women and the indigenous women/girls. It is true that you don't see a lot of shorts. The exception are a few (very few) expats, bicyclists (a growing group), University students (of all nationalities) and tourists (yes, we can easily spot most of them). Anyway, for the most part business casual plus jeans is all that is needed.

    Jan 2014: No real changes here, we picked our wardrobe accordingly and feel we blend in, at least clothing-wise. LOL! Physically, not so much. We brought more business casual dress clothes along with our jeans and fewer t-shirts this time. The weather has been a little warmer and drier than on our earlier visit but I've still worn my lightweight turtlenecks on a couple of cloudy, cooler days.
  3. Bad Coffee
    Every thing we read led us to believe that we weren't going to be able to find good coffee here. After trying two restaurants, we came to the conclusion that these folks must like weak coffee because the coffee we had was nice and strong (the way we like it). We haven't had a bad cup yet and recently found out about a shop where we can get the beans ourselves (the grocery store stuff isn't really up to par).

    Jan 2014: No change here...still loving the coffee! We now have three French Press coffee makers, a single cup (that we bought here in Cuenca), a six cup given to us by friends and a six cup with a stainless steel carafe that we brought with us. We also ended up with two coffee grinders, one we picked out to bring with us and a HUGE professional one gifted to us by the same friends (who were returning to the US as we arrived).
  4. Weather
    We both have really enjoyed the weather and the fact that it changes rapidly throughout the day has been fun, surprisingly. I do remember the first few days that were very gray and I wished for a little more sun. Well, I got it...we had five days in a row of sunny days without rain. Lifted my spirits and the rest of our stay has been wonderful.

    Jan 2014: Overall, since this is summer here, we have had more daily sunshine than I remember from last time. We have lots of windows as well as skylights in our apartment, it never feels overly dark during the day. I have worn shorts a couple of days, once even on a walk (gringa that I am) along the river. We also have had a couple of really cool days, no sun to warm the apartment so we put the electric blanket on the bed and used our oil-filled electric heater we bought another expat in the office. We still LOVE the weather here! 
  5. Stray Dogs
    Unfortunately this is an issue but it's a cultural one. Dogs aren't pets as we are used to them being. They are utilitarian if they have owners - they are alarms. We noticed a lot of behavioral differences in the street dogs as compared to our beloved pets in the US. Many owners let their dogs roam so just because they are on the street, doesn't mean they don't have a home. We rarely saw a skinny or sick looking dog but know that they haven't been vaccinated and do carry disease. It's sad to us but it's a way of life here. There are organizations doing rescue and spay but they are privately run and no telling how long they will having the funding needed to continue. There is one other downside - dog poop everywhere. Sigh...

    Jan 2014: This will always be an issue but at least in Cuenca we find the dogs appear to be eating well. We have seen them scavenging but also have seen and heard of business owners giving them food. The big thing is spaying and there are several organizations are working on that, quite successfully - at least with the females. Society here still isn't into fixing the males.

    One organization, Happy Dogs, recently put out a plea for donations to get new surgical equipment. We helped out and were the recipients of a batch of homemade cinnamon buns from a new friend (she bakes for a local cafe). We were glad to help!

  6. Finding our way around
    This was a bigger challenge than anticipated, mainly due to the Spanish names. By week three another expat (thank you, Mike L.) introduced us to citymaps2go. Works on both iPhone and Android and the free version allows the download of two maps. NO internet required once it's downloaded. LOVE IT!

    Jan 2014: Now that we understand the address conventions, it is much easier to locate things. We remember a lot of things from our visit but for the most part we still write addresses on cards and hand them to taxi drivers. We have had one interesting bus ride...all bus routes are circles and at some point out in the hinterlands the drivers stop and take a break. If you happen to be on that bus, you exit and go to the front of the line to the first bus and wait for him to leave. We are learning the importance of WHERE we get on the bus, not just the route number.

  7. Language Barrier
    This, needless to say, has been our biggest issue. We have learned several key phrases and we appreciate every local who has helped us learn more (the maids here at Apartmentos Otorongo, the waiter at Magnolia Caffe and others). Another thank you to Mike L. for introducing us to the app, Jibbigo. Also good for both platforms and doesn't require the Internet. My iPhone has an old OS so I couldn't download either app but Stu put both on his iPhone 4S and they have been a HUGE help. Wish we had them earlier....

    Jan 2014: Due to our hectic fall schedule, we never spent much time on learning Spanish. Well, it's been so hectic getting settled that we still haven't spent much time on this. We hope to make it more of a priority soon but we still find the locals are extremely understanding and helpful.

    My first proud moment was remembering our address and telling the taxi driver where to take us rather than handing him an index card. Next major accomplishment was being able to give our cell phone number in Spanish. Hey, it's the little things!

  8. Safety/Security One foreign gentleman said he couldn't stay here and live in a cage. We don't look at it that way but we can see how he interpreted the culture and surroundings. If you think traditional Spanish architecture, the house was built with an inside courtyard and all the rooms looked inward. Whether for safety/security in those days or not, the culture has continued. All buildings are well protected with walls, electric alarms, barbed wire or broken glass at the top of the walls, etc. Dogs are the secondary alarm system. From the exterior a house or apartment building may look less than reliable but inside is a different story. Being built in this fashion not only makes it safer but it provides a barrier against the street noise in many areas. We have grown very accustomed to seeing people reach inside a fence to unlock a padlock, search multiple keys to unlock a heavy door or buzz so the resident can come down to let you in.

  9. Jan 2014:
    Our little mini-subdivision is behind gated doors and completely secure. There are two gates, a large gate for vehicles that we open with a remote and a small, keyed walking gate. The walls behind each house are topped with broken glass or electric wires. We still keep our door locked but that' more to keep the little kids from wandering in.
  10. Graffiti vs Street Murals
    No misconceptions here - graffiti is alive and well in Cuenca. The sad thing is that a lot of the graffiti is painted on top of some very interesting murals. The good thing is that the town has instituted a program to change this. We are hopeful that it will help.

    Jan 2014: We've seen a few new murals, some old ones we recognize but less of the graffiti. I think that is in part due to the program that was instituted last summer to give blank wall space to young artists and have older street artists mentor them.

  11. Street/Road Condition & Pedestrians (Walking)
    We had seen photos of the sidewalks with metal sticking up, potholes and obstructions so we were prepared. We had been warned that streets might not be up to par and we've seen those as well as dirt roads. We'd been warned that pedestrians are targets and don't have the right of way. We have managed it all, gotten very good at crossing streets (even the ones without crossing lights as well as the ones with traffic coming from multiple directions), haven't fallen, have walked huge stairs (up and down) and still are amazed at the women here who gracefully navigate all this in stiletto heels. Phew! I do have to mention one last thing about walking. There are those times when you run into the smell of stale urine. Regardless of laws, some men/boys just can't wait and use various corners. No worse than a truck stop/rest area in the US though. Hasn't slowed our walking at all - we've been averaging 3-6 hours a day of meandering around El Centro.

    Jan 2014: No changes...LOL!
What we've come to love about Ecuador...
  1. The People
    They are always willing to help, always willing to share a smile, hard workers with a love of life. Of course it's like anywhere else, there is always that ONE...but in general all our experiences have been wonderful. We look forward to learning more conversational Spanish so we can better chat with the locals.

    Jan 2014: We still love interacting with the locals and look forward to the day when we can hold an actual conversation. They are warm and welcoming and never shy!
  2. The Greenery
    The wonderful climate is responsible for the wealth of growing plants, bushes, trees and crops. There is something blooming all the time and the nighttime smells are amazing. In addition there is the added bonus of the hummingbirds that are much larger than we are used to in the US. That means they fly slower and they actually perch on branches. A great treat to see, even in the darkening light at dusk.

    Jan 2014: Living across the river we have greenery galore! Our bedroom also overlooks our downstairs neighbors patio which she keeps full of plants and we have a nice little greenery garden at the end of the subdivision, just outside our door!
  3. The Climate
    While there isn't much change from day to day, you can experience several seasons in one day. It is normally cool in the morning, warming as the sun arises, at some point it usually rains a bit, then it cools again in the evening. Oh, and thanks to the constantly moving clouds, the view is always different. [avg nights are in the 40-50 range, avg days are in the 60-70 range, but at this altitude it always feels warmer in the sun] Homes typically do not have heat or air conditioning as neither is needed most of the time. Some folks have little space heaters for the extra cool am/pm time. Another bonus of the climate and altitude is the lack of flying insects. There are no screens on the windows, you just open and enjoy the fresh air.

    Jan 2014: We LOVE the weather, what can I say....
  4. The Fresh Fruits & Vegetables
    What can we say but OH MY!!! Eating good food, inexpensively, without a lot of additives. How can that not be good.

    Jan 2014: We're are trying out different mercados (markets) but still end up buying at the local grocery stores, Supermaxi & Coral, from time to time. We have one little mercado within walking distance but haven't checked that out yet. We are learning the names of the fruits and vegetables and are finding out what is in season when. Right now the peaches are amazing and the Bing style cherries are everywhere. We pass wheelbarrows full of them every day!
  5. The Lack of Stress
    Regardless of the traffic and city bustle, it's hard to let yourself get stressed here. We both noticed it, the mañana attitude. It will get done, maybe not today, but that's okay!

    Jan 2014: We both are totally relaxed...things just don't upset us. Even the long waits for our paperwork haven't been stressful - partially because we expected them and partially because we're retired!
  6. The Little Shops & Markets
    No matter what you need, there is someplace to get it. We're talking the day to day things, not the big ones like major appliances (you can get them, too, just be prepared to pay - dearly for American or well known brands). The mercados (open markets) are where you can get the best deals on food as well as other goods and there are several. It's so fun to be within walking distance of your daily grocery shopping.

    Jan 2014: We have noticed that Saturday is a great day to go into El Centro. Why? Because it's the big shopping day for the locals and almost ALL the little shops (Tiendas) are open. We find things we never see on other trips. One thing we've discovered is the shops here are open when they're open and closed when they're closed. No rhyme or reason to it for many businesses. LOL!
  7. The Artisans
    Panama hats, embroidered blouses and shawls, wonderful Alpaca sweaters, handmade sterling silver jewelry, carvings, painting, and so much more!

    Jan 2014: We've enjoyed finding these gems and choosing some preferred vendors. We've bought several wall hangings, paintings, hats, knick-knacks, baskets and more. The list of choices is endless and we enjoy checking them all.
  8. The Family
    It's all about the family and we love that, watching the interactions, how they interrelate and how they take others into their family, la familia.

    Jan 2014: We noticed in the government offices where we were filing for our Visa and cedula (national ID card) that families go everywhere together. We had already seen this at the malls and other shopping spots. La familia!
  9. The Country
    Ecuador is a small country, compared to the US, about the size of Nevada. But it is very diverse and we so look forward to traveling to other parts and visiting. The rain forest, the coast, the ruins, the rural towns with artisan specialties. And then there is the rest of South America!

    Jan 2014: We will have two queen and one single (LARGE single) bed for guests. Come visit! A US passport gives you 90 days entry per year....we'd love to have you!
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