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.
Seven days on the coast of Ecuador had us relaxed, well-fed and ready to return to our home in Cuenca. Our week-long holiday in the pueblo de Ayampe was delightful, despite
the fact that I fell down a flight of rough wooden stairs, slamming my back onto the edge of the concrete landing. OUCH! A bruise, roughly the size of Rhode Island, and a bruised tail bone doth make for difficult sitting and walking. Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt more.
Our stay at La Nirvana allowed us to meet some very interesting people. The family in the rooms next to us said goodbye to their kith and kin in Moscow 18 months ago. Alex, Dena and four-year old Krishna began their trip when Dena was 32 weeks pregnant. She gave birth to Rama in Malta where they remained for four months. Then they visited the United States (Arkansas and Texas), on to Mexico and now Ecuador. Next stops, Peru, Argentina and Chile. In a year or so they will end up in India where they plan to live permanently. Alex is an avid student of Sanskrit and is working on translating ancient texts. I marvel at Dena’s stamina –to give birth on the road and keep on traveling.
Two new guests arrived a couple of nights prior to our leaving, a 20-something couple from the Netherlands. On our last night David and I went to the Italian restaurant next door (Katherine was exhausted from swimming all day) and listened to three local musicians while we dined on delicious pasta with fresh camarones from the sea. Dessert? I believe the best cheesecake I’ve had in my life.
We, along with 25 or so folks hailing from Germany, Argentina, North America, Ecuador (of course) and a number of other countries enjoyed a concert of classic rock and blues. The bass guitarist is an orthopedist in the US who said, “Enough!” and moved his wife and two sons to Ayampe a few months ago. Jerry, the lead singer, is a 62-year old expat who has lived all over the world. Think Eric Clapton with salt and pepper pony tail dressed in faded jeans and baseball cap. The third member of the group arrived 45 minutes after the concert began. It’s something he’s known for. This young Ecuadorian architect-turned-full time surfer doesn’t live by the clock. Apologies were made, jokes cracked, he graced the room with a smile and the concert resumed with a fuller, richer sound.
Ocean breezes made their way through the bamboo-constructed, open-air restaurant. Great food, excellent music, lovely weather and a very relaxed, congenial crowd. An evening doesn’t get any better than that. It seems everyone can get along when politics aren’t involved.
David and I felt a strong pull to this remote village and the supremely tranquil life the residents enjoy. Even Katherine had said earlier in the day, “I want to live here.” We wondered.
Jerry sat and talked with us between sets. David and he were old pals–having visited for an hour or so that afternoon. David had gone to inspect the house that trash built. Jerry was just finishing up his home constructed of bottles and other materials he had picked up along 53 miles of highway. Glass bottles filled with sand formed the walls of his home. Thatched roof and airy bamboo upstairs made the eco-friendly house fit right into the landscape. Unique, creative, environmentally friendly and spacious. And the ground floor would soon be for rent. Very appealing, we thought… until he told us he’s killed a few deadly vipers around his home. His bottle house overlooks the beach but also backs up to the jungle. Our interest faded.
Ayampe sits just off the Route of the Sun, or Ruta del Sol, with the Pacific Ocean on the west and rain-forested mountains on the east. The fishing village rests in the middle of a micro-climate where the rainforest comes down to the ocean. (Thus, Jerry who lives just outside the village proper is frequented by various types of snakes and occasional puma.)
The climate found here is unique to the southern Ecuador beach coast. It no doubt contributes to making Ayampe home to some of the best surfing in Ecuador.
And there is a lot of surfing. The deeply tanned bodies, sun-bleached hair, bare feet and surf boards are everywhere.
Our hosts, a young couple from southeastern US, moved to Ayampe specifically for the waves. The woman’s love for cooking and her husband’s passion for surfing has resulted in Nirvana, a welcoming place for travelers. A small hotel just getting its feet wet offers barebone facilities for wave-addicted travelers. Soon Christine will soon be offering southern food three hours a day (11-1 only) just a few feet off the beach.
A number of establishments have set their hours to accommodate peak surfing hours. Priorities are, it seems, catching waves first, earning a living second.
We left early on a drizzly Sunday morning, fully relaxed and eager to see our home again in the city. We arrived just before dark to the ubiquitous car alarms going off, diesel-belching buses, an occasional street dog barking and cheers from the crowd at the weekly volleyball games a few doors from our home. Ah, the noise of Cuenca. We missed you.
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.
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.
the major cultural differences between North and South America became obvious the moment we landed in Quito the last of February. and when david, katherine and i arrived in Cuenca on March 1, our eyes opened wide to this new world of ours.
truly a right-in-your-face kind of experience.
we left affluent atlanta, georgia with its heat and humidity, fast-paced, multi-laned expressways, bmws and blonde hair, and very familiar, southern-drawled english.
we settled into a slower-paced cuenca, a not-so-rich, old-old-old city with its mix of dirt, cobblestone and paved roads, towering cathedrals, brilliant sun and cool temperatures, black hair and fast-spoken, lilting spanish. (i’ve read that Ecuadorians sing when they talk and it’s true. listening to Susana, our landlady is like listening to a soothing song.)
we’re creating a home at 2-104 Calle Ricardo Darquea Granda.
the first couple of months consisted of adjusting to the altitude and the many steps in the city. the ubiquitous buses and yellow taxis. we visited restaurants and settled on our favorites. david began his quest to walk down every street in the city. (he uses a yellow highlighter to mark off the conquered calles on a huge city map.) i’ve enrolled in spanish classes. and katherine continues to struggle to find her place in this new world. oh how she misses “home.”
the newness has begun to wear off although i still find myself looking up into the sky and whispering “what a beautiful day!” as if it is a rarity rather than commonplace. probably in time i’ll start taking it for granted.
i have, however, developed a strong dislike for the buses despite the amazingly low fares. 25 cents takes you anywhere in the city but that value doesn’t prevent me from feeling tense and on-guard at the bustops. residual from my encounter with a robber, i know. i find the bus interiors are often too crowded. too hot. getting on and off the bus feels dangerous to me and i move maybe too carefully to avoid falling of the higher than usual landing. aggressive bus drivers wait for no man or woman to get to their seats or off the bus. native cuencanos take it in stride. me, not so much. i’m becoming a taxi girl.
open holes in the sidewalks, broken up cobblestones, washed out sections and poorly maintained streets pose a threat to walking safety. i’ve fallen several times, twisted my ankles, bruised my bum, wounded my pride. but no bones are broken so i am thankful. other expats have not been so lucky. i walk in awe as i see many local women (young and old alike) stroll with such ease in their 3″ heels, up the steps and down steep hills. i gawk in amazement.
now, with a few months under my belt, i start to see the subtle differences. there will be many more to discover, i’m sure. but for right now here’s what i’ve observed:
1.in the states, i was guilty of tossing and replacing. here it is a make do, reuse, re-purpose mentality. repair shops are visible everywhere. construction and home repair often seems to me to be patchwork. adequate but not craftsmanship. function rather than form.
our landlady is having a flurry of activity around the house, getting ready for her daughter’s visit in two weeks. mucho renovation. to cover a large, non-functioning window in our kitchen she has plywood inserted into the area and covers it with old, partly faded curtains she found in her closet. they don’t match the other curtains hung to disguise a door that separates her kitchen from ours, nor do they fully hide the patchwork plywood, but it is sufficient. i let my compulsive need for things to match, fit and look just so, go. it does the job.
2.napkins in restaurants. in the US we had unlimited access to paper napkins and i would use them liberally. here, one or,at the most, two very small, not-so-absorbent napkins arrive in a basket with silverware for your meal. one dab and you’re done napkins. i am determined to bring my own handwipes.
3.the smallest serving dishes for salsa and chips i’ve ever seen. one sunday a group of us dined at the new el jalopeno for lunch. a wee, small bowl was placed in the center of the table holding at most six chips. not even enough for one per person at the table. the salsa bowl held, at most, a quarter of a cup.
4. i was at my hair salon the other day and visited the women’s room. a finely-retouched poster hung above the sink showcasing a strikingly beautiful woman with a stylish do. this “yes-you-can-look-like-this-with-the-right-cut” poster was attached to the wall with painters tape. i smiled. again, function beats form. use what you’ve got to make things work.
i see very little lot of pretense here. i’m sure there are in certain areas, but those are not the neighborhoods we have frequented nor probably will. i find it very easy to relax here.
5. fast food. yes we have it here. a mcdonald’s, burger king, KFC, pizza hut, dominos and papa john’s. the thing is, it’s not fast. not fast at all. while we have chosen not to frequent these US-based franchises much, we do occasionally for katherine’s sake. preparation is extremely slow. one must ask for ice (this is not freely given nor, in some establishments, is it easily found). and the largest drink offered is the size of a kid’s meal in the USA. no giant gulps to be found in Ecuador.
6. and salt? i’ve been to a few establishments that have had the server scrounging in the kitchen to find a container for just a wee bit of salt for this sodium-loving expat. flavor is not the most important thing in ecuador–but you’ll find many who disagree with that statement, i’m sure.
7. we took katherine to a hair salon in el centro a few months ago. i did a double take to see the stylist dipping water out of bucket to wash katherine’s hair. the only plumbing in the salon was in the bathroom. so they make do. another customer, a young male tourist from Germany, looked at me and smiled when he saw the set up. when in Ecuador, do….
everyday i see little things that set this place apart from the place we left. and for the most part, these differences feel so very comfortable. they are almost imperceptible yet they say to me looks aren’t everything here. things are valued, used and serve a purpose. there’s not a lot of waste. beauty is appreciated but it needn’t be flawless. comfort, common sense, practicality and frugality help make this a great place be. i feel freer in Ecuador.
maybe that should be the new motto to promote tourism here: Feel freer in Ecuador.