The Little Things of Cuenca

What makes a location, let’s say a city, special? Sometimes it’s very obvious, well-known characteristics (I’m thinking: Eiffel tower, pastries, art, history, mimes, etc.)  But I think it’s often the multitude of little, seeming inconsequential quirks, that breathe distinct life into a place. Subtleties that may even go unrecognized but create a unique feel and flavor, both for residents and visitors. And I think that sometimes these qualities are so subtle that they hard to appreciate unless you’re a visitor, or if you’ve been absent and returned.

Cuenca, Ecuador is a well-loved city, by many people, for many reasons. Tourists and resident expats feel welcome and safe here. The colonial architecture of the historic district distinguishes Cuenca from other Ecuadorian cities. It’s a very walkable city, with the best drinking water in the country (or so we’ve heard). Cuenca is supposedly more “laid back” than other cities in Ecuador, and while I haven’t actually visited any other cities in Ecuador yet, Cuenca definitely seems to fit the “laid back” designation.

As a new arrival, I have a lot to learn about Cuenca, her people, and what makes this city special to so many. And yet, there are qualities that Rodney and I noticed right away and have appreciated from day one. Other characteristics took me longer to realize, and I’m sure there are many other little things that make life in Cuenca pleasant or different, but I just haven’t recognized their presence or absence yet. I’ll try to add to this list as my thick skull allows- and feel free to comment if you’re a local or have visited Cuenca and would like to add in your thoughts!

I will note that this list is purely from our experience, and others may have different opinions/realities. Also, some of these characteristics might be valid for all of Ecuador, or even all of South America, as I have yet to visit any other areas of the continent. These are just some of our impressions; the little things that make Cuenca special, welcoming, and pleasant to us.

  • this may not be particular to Cuenca, but it’s something I noticed in the last week: older children holding hands with their parents as they walk down the sidewalk. My heart feels a little fuller every time I see it, and I feel like I didn’t see it as much at home. But maybe that’s just because, at home, we drive everywhere? In Alaska, would I see adolescent boys and girls holding their parent’s hand on the way to school or to the store if they were walking instead of driving?
  • locals seem to be very patient and low-key in their (at least public) demeanor
    • folks do not ever seem to be in a hurry nor seem to get worked up/impatient when there is a line or inconvenience
    • in the almost-month we’ve been here, I’ve yet to hear yelling, screaming, or even an argument with raised voices. Actually, I don’t think I’ve witnessed a recognizable argument yet.
  • I feel like, in general, the epidemic of “self-importance” has not hit Cuenca.
    • I was just realizing how much I appreciate the lack of persons with the “holier than thou art,” “I’ve got places to be and people to see,” “don’t inconvenience me,” mentality. I wonder if it’s because there isn’t much of a wealth/class disparity? It may well exist, but I haven’t recognized it yet … I don’t see well-dressed folks avoiding or snubbing those with less.
  • sidewalks and parks are kept very clean from litter and dog waste
    • Rod discovered that there is a pretty steep fine for not picking up your dog waste- I love that!! I wish that littering fines were enforced in the USA … even (or maybe especially) for cigarette butts. It’s mind-boggling to me that people think throwing a butt on the ground is acceptable.
    • there are folks regularly sweeping the sidewalks (not to mention that many shop owners scrub the sidewalk in front of their business most morning)
    • park vegetation appears to be cared for well and regularly (no long grass or overgrown landscaping)
  • we were really surprised about this one: cigarette smoking is uncommon
    • the majority of smoking I see is by foreigners
    • when I asked a local about why there isn’t more smoking, she didn’t really have an answer; she didn’t seem to realize that there isn’t as much smoking here as in other places. She did say that you’ll see more smoking at bars and discos, but we have yet to visit such an establishment to verify this 🙂
    • all the restaurants we’ve visited have been smoke-free, and have only experienced smoking annoyances at an outdoor seating area of a cafe
  • locals do not approach us (obvious foreigners) to sell things/ask for money
  • taxis have working meters and drivers charge only what the meter reads
  • grocers and shopkeepers appear to charge foreigners and locals the same prices for goods
  • very, very, very few insects/arachnids/creepy-crawlers (this is super remarkable to us, coming from the land of incessant mosquitoes, plentiful no-see-ums and other flying and crawling pests)
  • we’ve rarely seen folks who appear to be homeless or that blatantly struggle with substance abuse
  • it feels like a very family-friendly city. The parks are well used and families seem to spend a lot of time together. Kids seem to go everywhere with their parents and to really be members of the family, i.e. helpful, given responsibility, and acknowledged as a person, rather than simply doted on or excluded from “real life.”
  • I think this last one is a difference between the USA and the rest of the world … maybe? I appreciate, what appears to be, the honest representation of self here. The lack of disingenuous friendliness, particularly in customer service. I think so many interpersonal interactions in the US are plagued by social facades that mask true feelings and over-emphasize cheeriness and interest until we don’t even know what is “real” and “honest” in a relationship anymore. I suppose it’s because I’m an introvert, who appreciates candid and honest social interactions, that I appreciate that folks here just seem to be who they are, whatever mood they are in … and are generally neither super-friendly, nor frustratingly rude.

Maybe these aren’t even things that are unique to Cuenca and maybe folks would argue that they aren’t things that make the city special. Maybe these are just some things that I’ve noticed and wanted to recognize. I don’t know. But now there’s a list.

And Now We Live In Cuenca

One and a half weeks in Cuenca, already?!

I should’ve written prior to this, but I was too wrapped up/overwhelmed/tired/overstimulated with the move and figuring things out to settle my brain enough to write. But, now I’m ready!

I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot, but at the same time it’s been so relaxing and low key. Most days are spent reading, going to the market or out to eat (especially if a World Cup match is on!), various tasks related to moving logistics and getting settled, finding desserts for Rodney (OK, for me too), and doing a lot, a lot, a lot of walking.

Elevation

We both have noticed some effects from the elevation (2,500m/8,200ft) but luckily, we haven’t felt sick. Mostly we’ve noticed our heart rates and blood pressure are a bit higher and that we get winded more easily. We’re hoping to adjust quickly and figure that walking a lot should help. We’ve also wondered how a few months of development and being born at this altitude will affect Pyra (our bun in the oven!!), if very much at all- I suppose no lasting affects. Another elevation-related realization is just how intense the sun is!! While most days have had cloud-cover, as soon as the sun hits your skin the temperature seems to climb 10-20F! We finally got some sunscreen as we noticed that we seem to get a lot of sun even though its overcast most of the day.

Housing

We have an apartment that we plan to stay in until November, and we’re really liking it- both the location and the apartment itself. We feel pretty fortunate; we found it just a couple days after arriving, and it has a ton of great features: heart of the city; double-paned windows to dim the street noise (this appears to be very uncommon and we’re extremely grateful for them!); furnished tastefully and thoroughly (good beds, many kitchen appliances- they even installed an oven for us!!!); all utilities paid (thankful we don’t need to deal with local utility companies); 2 bedrooms and 1.5 bath (welcome, guests!!); family-owned building (very sweet and accommodating people); and … walking distance to most everything!!! The son of the family speaks excellent English which helped us feel comfortable negotiating for the apartment ourselves. The son owns/manages a really nice gym downstairs and the parents invited us for coffee and rolls the day we signed our contract. 🙂

Language

We took the plunge and signed up for Spanish lessons today at a local language school. We knew we wanted to sign Rod up for an intensive course to get him going (I’m so proud of his efforts already!) but they gave us a deal for me to take lessons too. I’m really excited- I’m such a sucker for languages 🙂  Rod will likely continue with the intensive course for longer, but I’ll go for a week and then switch to some conversation practice sessions or less-frequent tutoring. We attended one English-Spanish language conversation exchange last Friday, and we’ll probably continue to go; it’s good for me to practice in a more conversational context than just market transactions. We’re not sure what to do when Nixin gets here, but I think a little bit of the intensive course would be good to help her re-discover her basics (she was in an immersion school for K-2) and build up some confidence quickly.

I have to say, it’s been awesome with Spanish so far. I’m getting tons of practice!! I was really surprised (and pleased) to find that locals don’t switch over to English, even when confronted with my very rudimentary Spanish skills. It’s going to be so great for Rod and Nixin! I still grasp for words from my limited vocabulary, and I only use present tense verbs (and probably incorrectly, at that), but we’re able to do what we need to! We’ve successfully taken taxis, purchased bus and local SIM cards, and kept ourselves well-fed. OK, so maybe we haven’t need language skills to do much of anything aside from order food and understand prices at the markets … but it feels pretty good. I think it has helped to feel more settled, faster.

Other Stuff

We’re also getting to know the streets and way around “el centro,” where we live.  In fact, today I was able to point out to the taxi driver a better way to get us home! Many of the streets are one-way and he just wasn’t familiar with our neighborhood … but if felt good that I was familiar enough to point out the right way! We’re starting to navigate from memory and feel rather than relying completely on a map, which is awesome. It’s incredible to think that we’re going to be at this location for at least 5 more months and then how “at home” will we feel?!

OK, my eyes are asking to be done with the computer, so I’m going to oblige them. I was going to tell about our first pre-natal appointment (which was great!), but I’ll get to that soon.

I hope that you, dear reader who apparently got through this whole sloppy post, are feeling good in your life and that you have a wonderful rest of your day!!

Oh! and I did get around to posting photos here on this site, and also setting up an Instagram account. If you might like keeping up on our adventures via images, I encourage you to follow us on Instagram … I’m finding its a really easy and convenient way to share what we’re up to.

Until next time- make a choice (that you usually would not) that makes your heart swell with joy!!! Life is short, love yourself!