A beautiful morning here at 8,300 ft in the Andes. Brilliant blue skies dotted with pure white marshmallow clouds provide a backdrop to my landlady’s towering and quite laden avocado tree. Large hummingbirds flit between their feeder to the right and the moira bush to the left. And I see no evidence of any shortage of bees here in Cuenca.
Their existence may be in danger in the US, but down here, they seem healthy, happy and loaded with bzzzz.
Margarita, my friend and weekly cleaning lady, arrived just a little bit ago. She came in bearing a small bag of rolls, fresh from the panaderia. She gave me two. David received just one. “Shhhhh, don’t tell,” she communicates, flashing a huge grin as she heads to the kitchen to get her coffee.
A bright yellow/orange tablecloth hangs on the line outside my window. Not handmade, but still beautiful, the fringed cloth has multi-width stripes of vibrant purples, greens, blues and reds. The weaving is a traditional Ecuadorean design. I had wanted to cut the cloth up to use for curtains, but Margarita would have none of that. “No, no, no,” she insisted some weeks ago. She speaks no English, but she looked like she wanted to say, “It’s a tablecloth, dammit!”
One thing I’ve gathered in my limited time here is that most everything and everyone has its place. People have roles. Things have a purpose. And one shouldn’t try to mix them up.
Getting curtains made for our home, for example.
My former landlady, Susana, has taken me to several fabric stores to select curtain material. At one shop, I found a fabric and design I loved and wanted to purchase it for the living room. But they wouldn’t sell it to me because it is not intended for curtain material. It is for muebles. Furniture. Now, I’m a person that uses what I like for decorating. Corrugated cardboard and brass tacks served as wainscoting in my dining room in Arkansas. Brown craft paper has papered many a wall of mine with amazing effects. I had painted concrete floors before it was cool.
So, when I saw this material, I knew it would work. But I couldn’t buy it because Susana and the sales clerk knew I wanted it for cortinas and this was NOT cortina material.
Our windows remain curtainless.
The same for my bright colorful tablecloth. It is fated to serve one purpose and one purpose only–covering our mesa. Do I dare tell Margarita I’m thinking of buying two more tablecloths to sew together for a bedspread?
This single purpose idea isn’t totally consistent, however. The other side of the coin is to make do. Just make things “good enough”, as my friend Jody says.
When we first moved into our current home we had a few plants in the front of the house that proved impossible for our dog to ignore. Within a week or so, the succulents had been unearthed and left for dead. Josefina (our new landlady and next door neighbor) noticed the bald spot in the garden and offered me something to cover up the blight to prevent more digging from our sweet Punky.
Good idea, I thought. “Thanks”, I said.
Josefina brought over a wooden toilet seat lid, with fake-brass fittings. She speaks no English but her look implied, “That should do it.” I plopped it into place in plain view of our front door and every guest who visits and there the toilet lid sat for a few weeks until new potted plants could be arranged. It remains out there somewhere. I think I hid it behind my towering rose bush.
Now, I imagine in this city of anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 (who really knows) there are people who wouldn’t dream of using toilet seat covers in their front lawn to protect their gardens. There are the rich who live in enclaves behind tall pristine walls and iron gates. Their shrub and tree-lined streets absorb the incessant barks of neurotic dogs confined to tiny spaces, block the smells of belching diesel buses as well as the tone down the bombardment of car alarms. These people live in a more perfect world. No bald spots in their lawns. They have full-time gardeners who tend to the gardens and mini-paradises that surround the family estates. Not a potty lid to be found.
Friend Jody and I talked not too long ago about the “good enough” attitude that seems perfectly acceptable in our new city. We got to laughing at the ways we see it around us every day. For me, a visit to my hair salon brought me face to face with “that’ll do.” I went to the bathroom and was met with one of those beauty shots that appear in every salon in the world. A stunning woman, a kick-ass hair style and a body that won’t quit. The pièce de résistance was that my stylist had hung the poster up with what looked like duct tape. Good enough, indeed.
I experience less pretense here. People are people. It’s hard to put on airs when a toilet lid sits in your front yard. Or a poster promising unlimited beauty is held in place by bulky grey tape.
And one more thing. Next to almost every commode in this city stands a covered wastebasket. A silent reminder that everyone has crap in their lives and we just have to deal with it.
Toss, not flush. It’s a great equalizer as far as I’m concerned.
Our six-week road trip across the United States ended on February 28,2016 at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. David, Katherine and I had criss-crossed the country, visiting family and friends from the California coast to Florida. We packed and repacked eight jumbo suitcases and three carry-ons, paid the hefty excess baggage fee and boarded Jet Blue for Quito, Ecuador. We disembarked at 11 pm to a fairly empty airport.We made our way through customs, hassle-free. Amid a crowd of eager drivers, we found our two assigned taxi drivers who took us to the Airport Suites where we spent two nights adjusting to the altitude and our new life.
Not-so-bright and early the second morning, Patricio our driver arrived to transport us across the country to our new home, Cuenca. (The not-so-bright refers to the time, not our driver!) We saw little of the volcanoes we passed through the Avenue of the Volcanes as fog and rain obliterated most of the high peaks.
But what we did see was beautiful.
Deep greens, crystal clear streams and beautiful skies. Dairy cattle grazing precariously on high Andean slopes. Families tending crops squeezed onto steeply-pitched fields. Colorful hats and skirts popping against a crazy-quilt landscape. Pint-sized brown-skinned children walking alone, close to the highway, heading for school without a care in the world.
We pulled up in front of our new home at 5:00 pm (our new landlord said he’d wait no later than 5:30) and unloaded the truck. Carrying even one small bag up 13 steps had me winded. The altitude would take some adjusting for me. David and Katherine moved with apparent ease.
From that first day at our Air B&B rental next to the Tomebamba River,we have moved twice in this year. Not unusual for expats who settle here. Someone said to expect to move 3-4 times before you find the place that totally suits you. We’re lucky. I think we’ve found our casa after numero dos.
Learning to live without a car was difficult for me. I missed jumping behind the wheel and taking off for who knows where. Katherine missed that too. I also longed for greasy Mexican food (my Atlanta friends know what I mean) and Crunchy Peanut Butter. David missed–nothing. He felt immediately at home and settled in without a moment of remorse. His two female companions–not so much.
Tears and despair have been frequent guests in our home here in Ecuador. Despite feeling we made the right move, I’ve questioned our decision because of Katherine’s unhappiness. But we were right. Over the months, she has found her place, made some friends, created a space for herself and now calls Ecuador home. She likes it…she really, really likes it. She’s shot up and thinned down. She’s developed into a young woman full of fun and ideas. She knows more spanish than she lets on. She has begun impersonating her old parents with amazing accuracy. Have I told you how much I love this daughter of ours?
We were planning to visit the US this summer but those plans have been postponed. Maybe next spring. Or summer. Time will tell. It feels too soon to return to the old home.
So what do I love about this place that has won our hearts?
Not in any order of importance, I love…
- no constant bombardment of advertising and marketing of things to buy
- family-oriented culture
- constant spring-like weather–cool in the morning, sunny during the day, cool again in the evening
- stress-free zone. i do not have to face the traffic (it’s horrible) nor do i have to make a commute. i have no work that must be done. some days it is fun to do nothing.
- history around every corner
- rivers running through the city, count them…four
- rubbing shoulders with indigenous men and women who keep their native dress and customs in the 21st century and fit right in
- the woman who started cleaning our house and who has become a dear friend that makes me laugh
- gringo-frequented establishments that satisfy an occasional need for familiar foods and conversation
- a culture of creativity and a cast of characters who make each and every day more interesting
- hummingbirds of all sizes
- gorgeous flowers that bloom in our front yard–no thanks to me
- a day view from our bedroom window on a cloudy morning.
today is ending up the long weekend of Carnaval (not sure of the correct spelling as I’ve seen it so many ways). unlike Rio or New Orleans, Cuenca celebrates not with parades but with spray foam, water balloons and string foam. i haven’t gone out much. but Katherine has had a ball! the city has been “at battle” for days. many people having the time of their lives. quite a few expats complaining about the unrest. such is life. a good dose of a water gun and spray foam from a stranger isn’t such a bad way to celebrate.
all is well for the Thornton-Vander Plaats in Cuenca, Ecuador. it’s been a good year. looking forward to many more. and remember friends and blog readers…our door is always open–except when string foam is being sprayed.
This morning, waiting for her school bus, I overheard Katherine say, “Come on bus, I want to go to school.”
Stunned at what I was hearing, I stopped my reading of the news and looked at her. She must have felt it as she turned to me and said, “Can’t believe I just said that.” Me neither. Our daughter who last year, on more than one occasion, refused to go to school is actually looking forward to it.
Miracles still happen, folks. Amazing. Big smiles all around in the Thornton-Vander Plaats household.
Entering seventh grade, Katherine gives two thumbs up to school. She’s got all the bases covered. If she finds good friends, great. If not, she likes being alone and all will be well. After all, she says, she has her online Minecraft community. I tell her that online communities aren’t really real. Her comment, “They’re nicer than reality, mom.”
Last year was pretty rough. She cried, I cried, David didn’t know what to do.
I had no idea how much one can hurt for someone else until Katherine entered my life. My she-bear comes out often. I’m learning the painful fact that she has to learn how to deal with her own battles. I can support, cheer her on, offer suggestions and pray til my knees are raw, but my daughter has to walk into her spanish-speaking classroom and deal with the unknown for six hours a day. Or endure racist comments and reactions. Or feel like the gringa even though her skin matches that of the children she plays with.
She’s been a trouper this summer– taking 10 hours of spanish a week and making great progress. Her spanish teach has taught Katherine to cook empanadas and a national Ecuadorian dish with hominy that I can’t spell. Blanca has helped Katherine learn to sew, taken her to the park, kept her busy and helped her develop confidence in her speaking ability. Now, so sure of her capabilities, Katherine has taken it upon herself to judge the accuracy of my spanish. Alas, this has caused more than minor irritation–but her intentions are good!
It seems I am now the cause of great embarrassment to her. How I interact with people on the street. How I pronounce (or mispronounce) words. When I ask the taxi driver or person in restaurant how to pronounce something (OH, MOM, I’m so embarrassed!).
So we are settling in to a new routine. Daughter takes the bus at 7 am. I move to the computer to write. David walks out the door to conquer more streets of Cuenca.
Now on our seventh month here, he has already surveyed about 1/4 of the city’s calles!
I’ve decided to seriously rethink about my activities and limit the time I spend outside the house. Writing is what I want to do and feel compelled to do…so my intentions are to carve out the space to do just that.
Life in Cuenca enables expats to be as busy as they choose. If you have an interest, there’s probably a group to do it. From poker to pets, investments to crafts, biking, hiking, cooking, reading, coloring, wining and dining, tennis, writing, spirituality, performing, volunteering. Like something? You’ll find others with similar interests. It’s very easy to get too busy.
I have grown to love this city. I doubt we will ever return to the USA to live permanently. I continue to struggle with walking on crooked, uneven sidewalks. I am looking for a good walking stick. But that is a small price to pay for the lovely vistas, the kind people, the cool air and brilliant blue sky. And now that Katherine is warming up to the place, this will no doubt be the place we continue to call home.
In less than one week we are to be graced with dear friends from the States. This will be our first opportunity to show off our new home and we are excited. I’m discovering all the dust our housekeeper has missed and windows that need washing. Katherine anticipates the arrival of Leon and Lou because they are bringing three bags of candy from the Dollar Store. David just keeps walking!
Life is good friends. We continue to follow the news closely in the US and it grieves us to read so much negativity. The land of plenty looks less and less plentiful from abroad. Except it is home to so many wonderful friends and family. You we miss and long to see again.
I feel I’m rambling. Let’s call this a letter rather than a blog, shall we? Love to all.
Cuenca offers people more than enough opportunities to stay as busy as they like. I am beginning to think I’m too busy. I take Spanish three days a week, am in two writing groups and a contemplative spirituality group. Plus I have a standing appointment every Tuesday. Enough, I say! Enough!
But it is all good.
Katherine has stayed quite busy this summer with inline skating classes every morning along with two different Spanish classes, which occupies a significant part of her Mondays thru Fridays. She collapses on the weekend–says she needs her alone time. We hardly see her Saturday and Sunday. And the great news is, we hardly hear complaints about how miserable she is. I believe she’s found her groove in Ecuador. It also helps that she’s also found a new friend, Jessie. For the time being, all is well at Ricardo Darquea Granda 2-104.
School starts the first week of September and she will be entering 7th grade. She skipped a grade here but will also be going through grade 13. We haven’t told her that yet.
David stays busy hoofing it all over the sprawling city. He returns from his long treks and marks the city map with yellow highlighter. The web of yellow grows by the day. I believe he is seeing more of the city than many native Cuencanos have. Our taxi-driver friend, Miquel, says David ‘s knowledge of our city is pretty impressive.
My morning Spanish class ended last week and, to wrap it up, we took a day trip to a small mountain village, Gonzol, about 3.5 hours north of here. David and Katherine accompanied me, Katherine being the only child among 40 retirees. She was a trooper.
This agricultural community works hard to raise corn, barley, wheat and other crops on the steep slopes of the Andes. They work cooperatively, helping each other plant and bring in the crops. Farmers come together for a minga when crops are ready to be harvested. Once the work is completed, a feast is held to celebrate. People depend on each much more in communities like this. The village coop has even purchased two trucks to carry crops for all its members to market.
As a way of supplementing their income (the average earnings per family in Gonzol is $500 a year), the residents are hoping to create business ventures to benefit the entire town. The first idea in the works is to provide tourists with an opportunity to see Inca ruins, experience life in a small village and enjoy the grandeur of the Andes.
Our class was the “test” run for the villagers. We were greeted with big smiles and a hot traditional fermented drink as we got off the bus. ( I opted for café.) After a brief introduction, four men accompanied us in small groups on the hike up the mountains to the ruins.
Our entourage quickly grew in number as a few children joined in the parade. Then two of three older boys riding horses passed us ear-to-ear grins. A nursing mother with infant appeared. And a wizened cowboy dressed in tiger-trimmed leather jacket regaled us with stories. In español, of course.
We visited the site of very recently discovered Inca ruins. Well, many did. I didn’t quite make. Another woman and I opted to rest on the trail and talk with Katherine about the Kardashians, conspiracy theories and the Illuminati. We met the group on their way down and headed back to town for lunch.
After our almuerzo of chicken soup, queso,maize and habas (fava beans), we were introduced to various activities of the villagers. Three elderly women, wrinkled and bent with gnarled fingers and dusty black bowlers demonstrated crushing barley with stones and spinning wool by hand.
I left this tiny, struggling community with a deep appreciation for the hard work and determination of the Cañari people, along with their warmth and kindness. We all left
being called “sisters and brothers” and “family” by our hosts. What an amazing experience.
A remarkable day. One filled with breathtaking vistas, gentle people, warm smiles, gentle breezes and a warm sun.
I commented to my new friend Anna (whom Katherine really likes) as we were hiking along, high in the Andes on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, “This is my life. This is not a vacation. I am walking towards new Inca ruins with friends from all over the world and this is my life.”
Amazing. Simply amazing.
After reviewing my final grades upon graduating university, my dad handed me a book called, “Bright Child, Poor Grades.”
Samuel Watson Thornton made his point without saying a word. Ouch.
I’ve never been a good student. Not that I haven’t had role models. I’ve been surrounded by siblings and siblings-in-law with PhD’s. Nephews and great nieces who teach and study at some of our nation’s top institutions. Relatives who speak at international conferences and win impressive awards for things scholastic and bright. I have listened in awe at a few of my great nephews (ages 10-13) discuss string theory over a campfire at the Grand Canyon. Why, a nephew of mine even owns a patent on drought-resistant wheat. Smart cookies. Brainiacs. Brightest light bulbs in the box.
And then there’s me. I get a book for graduation that (in essence) says, “Hey kid, why did you screw up in school?”
Dad wasn’t being mean. Not at all. He was telling me, tongue in cheek, that he loved his daughter even though she wasn’t living up to her potential. Sigh. The story of my life.
For me, learning in the classroom has never been easy or interesting or desirable. I daydreamed. Slept. Doodled. Much like I see my 11-year-old doing now.
Over time, I’ve learned I acquire knowledge best when done on my own. When I catch a scent of something interesting and start sniffing out the data.
The late 70’s found me pouring over everything about copywriting. And that became my career. The 80’s was my China period. I read everything I could find on the country, its people, history and politics.
你吃饭了吗 nǐ chīfàn le ma “Have you eaten?”
I learned, for example, that a common greeting among older Chinese is “Have you eaten yet?” Used much like our “How are you?“, the question harks back to the days of food scarcity in China. Just yesterday I read that today, many Chinese are using the greeting, “Have you surfed the Internet today?” High tech wins over hunger. Not in my house.
Spirituality kept my interest during the 90’s and my bookcases swelled with the writings of the early church fathers and mothers, mystics and religious writers of all faiths.
So yes, I have an inquiring mind… but I’m lousy in the classroom.
And honestly, I’ve never really cared about it. Until now.
Here I am at age 64, attempting to learn español. We toted textbooks and Pimsler’s Spanish Lessons on MP3 to South America. But Ana Luisa at Coffee Club Spanish at Plaza Otorongo has lit a fire in me. I love her classroom. Finally, at retirement age, I want to excel.
My dad would be so pleased.
I’m halfway through my third session with her and find I love learning this language with crazy verb tenses more with every passing week. However, my spirit is willing but I’m finding my flesh (er, brain cells) is weak. It’s not so easy to absorb and assimilate new information. My new-found desire to excel is being sorely tested by flabby gray matter.
But try I am. My stack of homemade flash cards grows weekly. I invest a minimum of two hours a day in studying. I attempt to join in the flow of conversation in class. I stumble, fall, go blank, pull my hair and sigh. Ana Luisa smiles and nods and encourages me (as she does each one of us) to practica, practica.
Ana Luisa is one of those teachers who makes students feel comfortable with learning and who don’t mind making a mistake. She’s petite, vivacious, funny and an outstanding speaker of both English and her native tongue.
My chest swells with pride on those occasions she says,”Perfecto, Nancy!” Granted that doesn’t happen often. But it’s often enough to keep me going. Going until I reach my goal of being able to converse with ease and at length with Margarita, our lovely and shy housekeeper.
I measure my progress by how Margarita and I communicate week by week. When we moved in and I first met her, I held my dictionary in hand as I tried to ask her what she’d like for lunch. She looked at me (she’s the same height as Katherine) with total confusion. We’ve since made great strides. Margarita likes helping me with pronunciation using my flash cards. She used to giggle at my mistakes and now she guffaws. We laugh uproariously as we act out the verbs. She nods her head vigorously when we connect. She’s a delight. And I’m as proud as can be. I think she is too.
Progress. I’m making it thanks to two warm-hearted women, hard work and a classroom of ambitious gringos.
Learning is both fun and frustrating. I want to do better in class. In fact, I’d love to be the star. But I’m not. But I am a student who is applying herself and making good strides.
There’s no place I’d rather be than in the classroom with Ana Luisa and at the dining room table with Margarita. These two women are doing a fantastic job teaching an old dog new tricks.
Life is very good. And I think my dad, if he were alive, just might want his book back.
A number of people have requested that I provide photos to record our life here in Cuenca. But it seems every photo I take has my thumb in the foreground. I just don’t have the gift. And, I realize, I don’t want to develop it. Too many other things to do. Spanish to learn. Friends to make. A country to discover.
However, mi esposo, David, is pretty handy with the Nikon or whatever it is we have.
And he has a goal to walk every street in this city and he is well on his way.
He leaves the house with camera around his neck and umbrella in hand (not so much for the daily rain as to fend off annoying street dogs). He returns a little winded and red faced three or four hours later and hightails it to the desk, picks up the city map and commences to mark his most recent trek.
He loves to walk and this city gives him ample opportunity to do just that. I want to share his enthusiasm but at this point I find myself too leery of falling down (as I have already done too many times in the past four months!) Sidewalks here can be treacherous at times. One needs to learn to walk with eyes to the ground. I can’t quit talking and I can’t seem to walk and talk at the same time. Sigh.
He’s documenting some interesting things. Starting with…laundry.
Near our home is a busy laundry spot. Families without access to laundry facilities or those lacking money for machines or maybe those who choose to do it because that’s how they’ve always done it come to wash clothes in the Tomebamba River.
We see both women and men pounding their laundry on rocks in the fast-moving water and laying them out on the grass to dry. I imagine it’s a great way to reduce stress if they have any. People are pretty chill here. Not much high blood pressure medication sold in Cuenca.
Children play along the banks. As shirts, pants and towels dry in the sun they create colorful, playful patterns.
Growing season is year round here and gardens are plentiful. In town, you’ll see raised beds or small plots by the side of the house. Farther out of El Centro, in the burbs, open spaces fill up fast with rows of green, leafy vegetables.
Who knows, we may even join the ranks of food producers once we move to a place with enough green space. The land is rich and fertile. Just stick something in the ground and it takes off. Margarita, the woman who cleans our house every week, took a garlic bulb that was sprouting in our kitchen, stuck it in the dirt and we’re on our way to having our own garlic crop this year! Huge fat juicy carrots. Cauliflower and broccoli for a pittance. Cabbages good enough for kings.
The only thing I really miss is Iowa raised corn-on-the-cob. From what I’ve learned, yellow corn here is fed to the animals. White corn goes to the humans. But it’s not at all like the corn raised on my in-law’s farm in Northwest Iowa. I do miss that. We’ll be back there July 2017 bearing our sticks of butter and hearty appetites. You are forewarned Daryl and Alyda!
Along the sidewalks…
Street art is encouraged in the city. I hear sometimes the city even helps pay for the paint. Everywhere we walk, we see displays that make us smile. Brilliant colors, bold graphics, bizarre murals, happy spaces. I wonder if I can get a block or two of walls to paint?
I won’t say there is a church on every corner, but it is close. Large and small. Hundreds of years old or relatively new. I don’t know that I hear many bells peeling, but I do hear many fireworks going off — very frequently– honoring a saint’s birthday or a patron saints day.
Something old, something new. David and I love seeing all the antique buildings still holding their own in this city of high rise buildings and modern expressways.
My husband has this dream to acquire an abandoned adobe house and fix it up. I like the thought of it, but the actuality is not in my comfort zone. I like this growing modern city that allows room for the old to spend their remaining years in peace. Buildings and people.
I’ll post more. I have a book to read. Friends of ours are returning to the States and are selling off their extensive library. I find myself wandering over there every few weeks and purchasing another load of hardbacks and paperbacks. The house is starting to feel more like home.
We have a good life in Cuenca, Ecuador. And we are muy thankful.