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.

Cuenca Conclusion, Part 1

After a couple of weeks with a bad cold, which coincided, not coincidentally, with two weeks of really lousy, cold, wet weather, I went out with my friends walking in Cuenca, under a random and resistant sun.I was reminded what a beautiful city it is, and what a sweet temptation.

I’ve now been in Ecuador almost 3 months, and in Cuenca for about 7 weeks. As Cuenca was a destination for me in terms of considering retirement, and I was fortunate enough to gain a couple of friends along the way who also wished to spend time here, I have had the time to check things out and get a feel for the city.

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Cuenca is architecturally and geographically gorgeous. The historic district is a living museum. Each blocks yields to the next in order of magnitude. As it is hilly, and the surrounds are mountainous, there are views from every angle. Oh, and the sky! West Texas would blush in jealousy. Being at 2600 meters, with the coast on one side and the Amazon valley on the other, the sky is a constant collision of wet clouds and sunshine. Yes, the beauty of Cuenca cannot be denied.

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Of course, beauty may be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a place to stay. It is necessary for me. I don’t know if “beauty is truth,” but the truth is, I need beauty where I live, as well as perspective-enough elevation to have a sense of where I am. Having a bit of a perspective and an ever changing horizon matters to me. Even threatening black clouds dropping over the mountain vista has an ominous charm. So I will give Cuenca full marks for inspiration.

I did rouse myself for a turn at the public market on Wednesday, one of the two big market days of the week. My post-cold lethargy made it a slog to get there, but I found my pace when I arrived in the midst of traders and buyers, and stacks of fresh produce and glistening fish. Cuenca has great markets. I realized how good when I was in Riobamba a couple of weeks ago catching my cold and touring the markets (not coincidentally, I suspect) There on Saturday, market day, the markets begged for buyers, and many sellers’ stalls stood empty. The women selling hornado de chancho, a whole roast pig served with mote (c0rn) and llapingacho (potato patties), were a uniform wearing dispirited lot, having squabbles with each other while badgering passers by to eat at their pig.

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Assembly line hornado in Riobamba

By comparison, the marketers in Cuenca smile in their randoms marketing clothes and tease each other and the customers. If you don’t buy, there is nothing more than a smile and a nod, no pushing. The markets here are a joy, even if you aren’t buying. And a photographer’s dream.

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And the markets provide all sorts of possibilities for good cooking. As Cuenca does not really have a culture of eating out in the evenings, and the main meal of the day is mid-day, it helps to cook for yourself or yourselves. The main meal of the day, almuerza, can be a real money saver for people on a budget, but it is generally fairly prosaic and not terrifically inspired.

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Typical $3 almuerzo

There are many kind words for Cuencans; pleasant, gentle, kind, self-effacing and helpful. But full stop at “quiet.” This morning as I write, at 8 AM, the local park is trying out the loud speakers. We are a kilometer away and it is a concert in the front room. Car alarms are a constant. We have come to consider it Cuenca’s theme music. I’ll never hear a car alarm again and not think of the days in Cuenca when 10 a day would be a quiet day. At night the local bar empties and the loud voices carry on as if it were noon, not as if the rest of the neighborhood had been asleep for hours.

Cuenca’s people are probably a very good reason for moving here. I haven’t met a mean one yet, though I am sure they exist, and they seem to me to be tolerant beyond reasonableness with our outsider ways and our big footprint.

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They are also family people before anything else. In most Latin cities the evenings are spent in paseo, strolling with family or friends in the town square, and hanging out at taverns and cafes that ring the square. It is a social time and my favorite time of the day for this reason. In Cuenca people go home in the evening and stay there. There is a rush home, a marienda, or small dinner, and then, of course, I don’t know. It is private. Cuencans are a private bunch, it seems. My Spanish teacher told me that the local big park (home to this morning’s 8 AM concert) used to be a place utilized mainly by drunks and drug users. These days the place bristles with activity and weekends are full of families. She told me this was due to outsider influence, and Cuencans were getting outside more.

But back to my cold and the weather. I know that colds, and swine flu, of which there are 3 confirmed cases in Cuenca at the moment, come from rhino-viruses and not a change in weather. Mine probably has more to do with being in closed spaces such as markets and buses than with the weather. But I have barely been able to keep warm for the last two weeks, which has certainly made me feel more miserable. The spring-like weather of Cuenca seems to be one of its main selling points. But I think we tend to envision spring as a season of sunshine and blossoms, and warm weather broken by a few cool breezes. Here what I have experienced is Seattle spring on a bad day. The mornings are cold and cloudy dismal gray. Any tiny crease in the cloud cover causing reflections of the the sun that is surely out there somewhere is a reason for optimism. The optimism is sometimes rewarded with a full blast of sunshine which is, alas, quickly erased by a cold wind bringing in darker clouds and a freshet of rain. This cycle can continue all day till late afternoon yields to a downpour. And, as the PR agents say, there is no heat in the homes, as it is always springtime. I have had a cold and been cold for two weeks.

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When the weather good it is glorious. Sunny days broken by clouds that wander by as close as your neighbor, ending with sunsets beyond words.

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Cuenca is full of museums and galleries, and musical events. You cannot want for entertainment of that sort. We spent yesterday afternoon in two different museums, one dedicated to hat making and the other to Latino handicrafts from different countries. Both were homed in marvelous buildings. There are more museums to be seen. Art and history, archeology and anthropology are all properly celebrated. Pumapungo Museum itself is worthy of a trip to Cuenca. The Alliance Francaise hosts many events, musical and otherwise. The immigrant community of westerners also sponsor activities and fundraisers.

Cuenca is a pretty extraordinary place. A walk this afternoon took us first to some beautiful stairs up to the historic center, to a bookstore where I could exchange a handful of books for a new one, almuerzo, the post office, a street corner eyeglass repairman/photocopier, coffee and desert in a decidedly gringo little cafe and back via another grand staircase.

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I leave Cuenca tomorrow, and I really don’t envisage returning. Ecuador was a surprise for me, and a gift. But I won’t be settling here. I’ll write about this decision and why later in the week. If you have gotten this far, thanks for your patience with such a long and rambling post.