365 days on Cuenca time

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.

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Katherine finds a seaside friend at Ayampe, Ecuador

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

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  • gorgeous flowers that bloom in our front yard–no thanks to me
  • a day view from our bedroom window on a cloudy morning.

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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.

 

High on the Inca Trail

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.

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Helmet, knee pads & elbow pads keep this speed demon relatively safe on the curves.

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.

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David’s found his favorite house so far in Cuenca. A refurbished adobe.

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.

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David made it to the top.This view from the ruins shows Gonzol at the bottom left. 

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.

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Katherine amid poppies

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

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A view of the other side from the Inca ruins. All along the steep slopes farmers grow crops. The amount of work put into one small plot of ground is mind-boggling. 

being called “sisters and brothers” and “family” by our hosts.  What an amazing experience.

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This young man showed up during our hike. In the background, note the plots of land that are used for planing. Odd shapes, crammed into every possible arable acre, are separated by walls made of cleared rocks. No machinery, all work is done by hand.

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.

 

the pick of the litter in pickpockets

David loves to shop at Feria Libre.  Katherine (and friends when they visit) walk over there once or twice an afternoon to stock up on snacks, candies and frozen treats.

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Prices are low.  Muchas cosas to buy at the largest indigenous market in Cuenca.

Fruits and veggies (the freshest in town) are in abundance. From produce to meat, tailored jeans to sandals, electronics to spices, hair salons, underwear and fresh seafood.  All on display. Beautiful to look at. Bartering expected.

I very much dislike going there.

The combination of crowds, odors and expert pickpockets–especially on very busy Wednesdays and Saturdays–is a big deterrent to finding the best prices in town. I’ll pay more if you give me space and fresh air!

Keeping up with Katherine

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 13.22.17“I want my kids to grow up speaking Spanish,” Katherine said last night. “It will help them in life.”

That’s quite a change of heart from a girl that one day last week refused to go to school because she couldn’t understand the language and felt the other students were calling her stupid.

David and I had to smile at her about-face thinking.

Our daughter doesn’t say much about her life (and for that matter, her likes and dislikes) here in Cuenca.  She keeps tightlipped with her thoughts concerning being uprooted and replanted in Ecuador. She gets teary-eyed every now and then, but not for long.  She’s a trooper. And I’ve very proud of how she has made the transition.

But it takes its toll and she spends a lot of time alone, sequestered in her room. “I need alone time,” she reminds us. “I get tired of people.”

I imagine she gets tired of hearing Spanish non-stop throughout the day, and understanding very little of it. Yet.  She’s bright. She’ll get it. And then she’ll have the help she needs for a better life.  Just like she wants for her kids.

I admire her. She is definitely her own person. This niña whom God has entrusted to us is certainly one amazing person.

And, may I add, she is often quite maddening. Like this afternoon.

All the grief I gave my parents is coming back to me tenfold.

So I guess parenting doesn’t automatically get easier when you change continents.

Sad. I was hoping it would.

Introspection

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View from our bathroom

I love to connect with people through words.  The act of pulling together phrases, ideas, experiences and thoughts, then placing them in the precise order on the page, delights me to no end.

When the composition is right, I sense that rightness. During the process my mind whirls and synapses start synapsing and words fit together and settle into a rhythm that reads well.

Something deep inside me recognizes words that are genuine and real and truthful and that they are to go just so. I get a pleasant taste in my mouth as I’m composing. My cells feel more alive. My entire body is on alert.

I pay no attention to commas or semi-colons. Periods appear when they feel like it. I aspire to correct spelling but don’t beat myself up over it. To me the editing of stuff falls way behind the coming together of the words.

Others have said it and I completely concur.  Writing takes on a life of its own. Even in my advertising days, when my energy was spent on mundane acts of promoting a product or service that would or wouldn’t benefit humankind, I enjoyed the act of composition. The pulling together of facts and data into something readable, even enjoyable. Something that worked.

When I sit down to write and stumble over words and hit blank walls, I stop.

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View from my writing desk

And listen. Then start again. Maybe right then. Or an hour later or a week or so down the road.  The words that need to be written will come in their own time.

It just hit me.  Our move here to Ecuador has been much like that.

Sitting in a booth at the Del Rio buffet in Dacula,Georgia one Sunday in October 2015, we decided that I would quit my job and we would make a change.  Too many tears and far too much stress.

Two and a half months later we were homeless and on the road to a new life. Our house sold, two cars disposed of, 97% of our worldly possessions distributed far and wide and the remains packed into a 5×5 storage unite. With eight suitcases in tow, we were headed for South America.

One thing after another fell into place.  At just the right time. In just the right order. No brick walls. No horror stories. No frayed nerves or teary days.  Just a deep seated feeling that this was right. All is fitting into its proper place.

Here we are six months later about to move into our new home. Our temporary residence though nice has been somewhat dark and confining.  Our new home offers plenty of room, light, greenspace and warmth.  I anticipate many dinners with new friends, times of laughter, days of quiet and plenty of visits from loved ones back home.

I woke up blue this morning.  Depression does that to me. Hits me with dampened spirits and a grey outlook on life.  Then I sat down to do my day-late blogging challenge.  After a few false starts, I walked away and did the laundry. I returned and these words flowed. They are correct.  They are true.  They are good. They resonate deep within me.

Like my life here with David and Katherine.

h is for homesick

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 17.01.25I’m happy in Cuenca.

Don’t want to go anywhere else.

But yesterday and today, I’ve been surprisingly homesick.

I miss what is familiar. I miss picking up the phone and calling a sister or a friend. I miss walking out into the garage, turning on the car and driving somewhere for the smallest thing. I miss opening the refrigerator and seeing groceries packaged the way I’m used to.

And I really miss walking down the street and understanding almost everything that is being said.

The mother of one of Katherine’s new friends told me this morning that it’s about the right amount of time for me to get homesick.

It’s a common malady and easily treated by living through it.

Luckily for me, it hit the day I needed an “H”for the blog.

 

 

 

 

from greenfield to gringa

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 16.19.11Living in the city of Cuenca in 2016 feels a lot like growing up in midwestern USA in the 1950s: family oriented, conservative, friendly, safe, strong church ties, homecooking and big celebrations.

Think Leave it to Beaver with a Spanish accent.

Cuenca, much like Greenfield, Illinois (population 1,100) has a pavilion smack in the center of downtown.

El Centro, just like the old Greenfield Square, provides shortcuts through the park, connecting restaurants, shops, banks, and churches. Park benches scattered throughout the park offer relatively comfortable places to sit in the shade, allowing occupants to observe both car and foot traffic.

In Cuenca, as was the custom some 50 years ago my hometown, stores and restaurants are, for the most part, closed on Sunday. This day is reserved for rest, for church and for families to be together.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 16.33.54Families are topdog here. Life revolves around the nucleus of parents and children, tios and tias (uncles and aunts) and of course the abuelos (grandparents.) It’s not uncommon for three generations to live, eat, play and stay together.

I cherish the quiet way of life I had as a child living on South Main and then Sycamore Street. That same existence is alive today in this modern-day city. Fathers and mothers keep kids in tow as they walk to the parks on weekends. The swings and slides are full of youngsters squealing with delight as moms and dads push and pull and watch with amusement and pride.

Kids don’t seem to be afraid of  strangers. I don’t see many parents hoving over their kids to protect them from unknown dangers. It’s ok for youngsters to get dirty. Children race freely up and down the streets on bikes or foot without a care in the world.

Women and men take care to look very respectable in public. In going to the city buildings, I have been informed adults are expected to be better dressed. No super casual wear for an appointment. Not too long ago, I hear people were aghast  to see a gringo attempt to walk into one of the city buildings in what looked like boxer shorts.The guard denied him entry. An ugly American strikes again.

In my experience, despite Cuenca being a metropolis with 400,000+ people, it maintains the feel of a very inviting and friendly small town.

I left Greenfield in 1969 to see the world. In 2016, I  moved across the world to settle down in a city that reminds me very much of the place I left.Oh the circle of life.