My Final Words on Cuenca

There are many reasons to love Cuenca, but in the end, they are rather prosaic. Where to live and what feels like home to a person is highly personal. I’m moving on, but I can understand why many people stay.

It is a cheap enough place to live, now. But the developers are coming, and have been here for a while, and the cost of living is rising. The cheap little apartments that probably once housed Ecuadorian families, then new-comer immigrants, now are being redeveloped into more expensive “loft’ spaces. As rents go up, so will the cost of things as locals have to adjust their incomes. Cuenca is not cheap today, by Ecuadorian standards, and will become relatively more expensive as time goes on. Even if I were totally convinced to stay in Cuenca, this would convince me otherwise.

That Cuenca appeals to middle-class economic refugees from the developed world is no surprise. It is a very easy and undemanding place to be. There is an excellent symphony, with free performances, as well as dance and other arts, museums, clubs and cafes. The hope for many is, I believe, that you can pick up your “life-style” where it left off where you left from, only at a fraction of the cost. The relative loss of standard of living as one transitions from working income to pension will be absorbed by the difference in cost of living between the home country and Cuenca. This is the hope, of course. And given this ehop, it is easy to see that learning a new language and adjusting to a very different culture are not part of the expectations of the newcomers.

For me, Cuenca lacks a certain edginess that comes with international cities-the clash of cultures and classes that keeps things lively and fresh, and a touch threatening. I think that sort of sums up my personal response to it. It is a pretty place to visit. I’m happy for the displaced foreigners who find a second home here, and a comfortable one. I’m sorry for the fate of the locals, but in truth Cuenca has belonged to foreigners for 500 years. Really since the beginning. It was born a middle class European colonial city, and that is remains.

There is my final hurrah for Cuenca. It will continue to be promoted by the developers and the International Living magazines. As the US becomes increasingly unaffordable for retirees, they will seek out the Cuencas of the world. Meanwhile, I am off to Vilcabamba, a retiree spot of a decidedly different, funkier sort in the far south of Ecuador.

The (White) Elephant in the Room

I’ve spent the last couple of years researching retiring abroad. There are lots of websites and blogs devoted to the topic, but I haven’t seen any yet (they may exist) that deal with the fact that most of us expats from the west retiring in (non-white) developing countries are white. And, obviously, of a certain age. This simple fact deserves a lot of attention and discussion, and definitely, at a minimum, awareness on the part of those of us who are migrating to these countries.

What is it like living as an ethnic minority in Asia? This is where I’ve spent most of the last 13 years. It should be humbling., after all, we stand out, get stared at, and sometimes jeered. But, in most cases, our cultural dominance precedes us via the presence of westerners, especially military, and the media. Developing countries mostly want to develop to be like the west on one hand, and resent it for lots of historically appropriate reasons. Westerners enter a complicated situation when they expatriate.

There’s nothing neutral about arriving where you are a minority. That should be the humbling part. Imagine being an immigrant or refugee arriving in Europe or America, with all of the attendant issues: language, attitudes, culture, etc.. Yet when we arrive as travelers, we’re welcomed.

For the week or two holiday, it can be fairly easy to feel that you’re entirely welcomed. After all, you’re “contributing to the economy” and “respecting the culture”. The airports, hotels, restaurants and cultural events all welcome you and your dollars/Euros. Occasionally a tourist has a bad experience, but in the main the experience is pretty much structured and guaranteed to be welcoming and positive.

When you are going to stay a while. and you pay attention, the complexities should become more apparent. It’s naive to think that everyone likes and welcomes us, and that our presence is an unmitigated positive for the locals. If you are going to live in a new community, there are huge adjustments to make. We think about this in our own country, but with moving to a new country, somehow it seems a different matter.

Historic Impact of Westerners

Westerners have been arriving in non-European countries for hundreds of years. Since the 15th century, most of this has been as colonizing empires. One of the first steps of moving to a developing country should be to gain an understanding of the history, politics, economics and culture. To move to Vietnam, for instances, without knowing your own nation’s history with Vietnam, leaves you unprepared for understanding the country.

We sometimes blithely think that the past is the past and, well, we’re good people and we should be accepted as such. A man who lost his father, his family and his village to the American War in Vietnam is still burdened with his painful past. Now he sees development that isn’t benefiting his country or his community proportionally. War has been replaced by sweatshops, traffic and McDonalds. The thread that binds these is forms of colonialism. The country of Vietnam suffers from generations of birth defects from Agent Orange. The past is not gone, it’s the lived reality.

Yet, in truth, we are mostly welcomed and treated well. That takes character and forgiveness. It also takes the perspective of thousands of years of history and overcoming adversaries and the past. In a way, we aren’t so important, the Chinese loom larger. But we can experience occasional resentments and slights.

It’s good to remember, or learn, that the history we have learned in our schools is partial and culturally biased. This is true everywhere. We may think we are entering places that have received “liberation” or at least the largesse of aid, from our countries. The perceived reality of the locals will be different.

Western Impacts Today

Today when we arrive en mass in a country, such as Thailand or Ecuador, we have our own negative and positive impacts. We contribute to the economy, but in uneven ways; some benefit, a lot, often most, don’t.

Western intervention in economies and governments is ongoing. Whether it is positive or not is up for debate, that the neoliberal global economy has entered the smallest villages and enclaves of the world is not. When we arrive as expats or retirees these days, we are part of a global flux of peoples, no different in some ways than the Latin Americans entering the US, or the Syrians entering Europe. We are leaving a place that doesn’t meet our needs for a place that we believe does.

When we arrive, we cause inflation and housing shortages. When foreign enclaves form in developing countries we create rich ghettos that distort prices and cultures. Locals who live in these areas are soon displaced as McDonalds and Starbucks replace local family restaurants, and supermarkets aimed at western tastes displace small tiendas and markets. Tastes themselves are changed as westernization is to a lot of people considered a good thing, and McDonalds represents that.

Some of this is caused by what we consider largesse.  A good example is local transportation. The cost of a rickshaw in Chittagong around a foreign university is much higher than in more traditional neighborhoods. I couldn’t in good conscience pay the tiny amount a Bangladeshi pays. My rationalization is that if I am making so much more than the locals, I should try to spend it locally. Knowing that I was contributing to a problem, I was also trying to solve a problem. My high wages I paid to my rickshaw driver allowed him to move himself and his family back to the countryside, which is a big improvement for them. But this has unintended consequences that I recognize.

Western culture and values are easily acquired, especially among the young who have been so influenced by the media. In traditional societies this means changes that aren’t always welcome.


This is a dense and contested issue. I look forward to the thoughts of others on it. My conclusion is that we as expats need to be humble, respectful and aware when we move abroad. Often I read people maligning the locals, or condescending to them. Almost all cultures outside of the west are more ancient and developed than our own. They have their own dignity and collective meaning. There is a lot which can be learned by us.

When we do arrive eager to learn the language and local ways and sometimes feel rebuffed, try to remember that we are not just well-intentioned individuals, we are part of a historic movement of peoples that has not always been good for these countries.

We are the elephants in the room, and it is time we talked about it.