Thursday, February 24, 2011


[Note: Full credit for all the previous blog entries at Castlea in Cuenca belongs to Deborah. The following entry was written by Gil, who also took the photographs.]

For the benefit of friends, family, and interested strangers who have been following Deborah’s and my progress via this blog, as well as for the sheer fun of it, I decided to delineate the facets of living in Cuenca that so far I’ve loved the most. Thus, herewith, “let me count the ways”…

(A quick disclaimer: Cuenca – and/or the expat life generally – isn’t for everyone. A fair number of Americans who move here return to the U.S. after a month or two, or sometimes even after more than a year. We, however, intend to stay!)

[1] Lots and Lots of Children – All Truly Adorable!

Living in downtown San Francisco, Deborah and I didn’t see all that many children. In Ecuador children are everywhere, indeed appearing to constitute a good one-fourth of the population. Somehow having lots of children around is gratifying, even reassuring, and certainly they are fun to watch. All the better, the people of Ecuador generally and the children specifically are remarkably attractive – all to varying degrees mostly a mixture of Indigenous (Cañari, Inca) and Spanish heritage, with a few hundred thousand blacks. The photos were taken during various parades prior to Christmas:

[2] Mercados and New Foods

As serious foodies, in San Francisco Deborah and I bought most of our fruits, vegetables and meats at the organic farmers market at the Ferry Building. Though paying $3 for a tomato was ridiculous, the flavor, et al. of organic produce was worth it to us, and the shopping experience was fun – much like the outdoor street markets in Europe.

Imagine our delight at exploring Cuenca’s several mercados -- city block size buildings containing innumerable vendors selling local fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, etc. As you’ll see in the photos below, the diversity is astounding, including many types of fruits, vegetables, and potatoes we never heard of previously but certainly enjoy now! (Ecuador has the highest biological diversity in the world, as measured by the number of unique flora and fauna species found in a square kilometer.) Unusual, colorful spices abound, as do whole cooked pigs, which are very popular. For true organic produce, the best bet is a cooperative for local farmers named appropriately enough Coopera. The final two photos were taken there; the Coopera is where we buy our cuy, a.k.a. Guinea Pig. (Cuenca also has three Supermaxis and two Corals, which are indistinguishable from a large Safeway and/or small Walmart for everything else we need.)

[3] Strolling Through History

The Inca city of Turnipamba was conquered by the Spanish (led by Gil Ramírez Dávalos, no relation) more than half a millennium ago and renamed Santa Anade los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca (Saint Ann of the Four Rivers of Cuenca). Cuenca was relatively isolated until the mid-1960s, when the first paved road finally connected the city to the outside world. Not surprisingly, Cuenca’s historic center city (El Centro) is very much a pedestrian-friendly, intact Spanish colonial empire city, well deserving of its World Cultural Heritage designation. Every street is architecturally distinctive and delightful to explore, from the outside facades to the interior courtyards.

[4] Amazing Clouds and Storms

Cuenca is located about 300 miles south of the equator at an altitude of 8,200 feet. Accordingly, the city enjoys a unique and wondrous combination of tropical and mountain weather. Perpetual springtime temperatures (average daily high of 70 degrees and low of 55 degrees year round) are one resulting benefit. Another is an amazing, rapidly changing aerial panorama of sunshine, clouds, and rain storms. The photos below are typical of almost any day in Cuenca. Brilliant blue skies commingle with huge white clouds which in turn coexist with the type of black thunderheads that Dorothy and Toto may well have seen just before the tornado hit. As is typical of mountainous areas, afternoon rainfalls are both predictable and refreshing – and sometimes excitingly monsoon-like! The sunsets are much like those that vacationers anticipate when escaping to Hawaii, the Caribbean, or other exotic tropical resorts.

[5] Magnificent Mountains and Rivers

Cuenca is high in the Andes Mountains. A short bus ride to the west (18 miles) lies Cajas National Park, encompassing 100 square miles, 235 mountain lakes, the best rock climbing in Ecuador, and innumerable peaks – at least one of which is higher than Mount Whitney in California (the highest elevation in the continental United States). The furthest mountains in the first “Clouds” photo above, taken from our dining room window, are in Cajas National Park; the first two photos below were taken in a recent excursion of ours to a nearby lake and excellent trout restaurant in the Park. Cuenca is in a bowl completely surrounded by mountains, like the Lake Tahoe basin. As Cuenca’s official name implies, four mountain rivers run through Cuenca. All four have beautiful, well maintained, tree-lined parks along both sides of their entire lengths. In the third photo below the tall trees lining one of the rivers are clearly visible. Rio Tomebamba is the river closest to the historic center of the city, and also about two hundred yards from our apartment. As shown in the final two photos below, after a heavy rain the rivers can be raging torrents. (The yellow arrow points to our home, Edificio Palermo, which at 18 stories might be the tallest residential building in Cuenca. Note the archery range – a hobby of mine since high school – on the other side of the river in the last photo, about half a mile from Edificio Palermo.)

6] Year-Round Dancing in the Streets

If a week has gone by when Deborah and I did not see at least one parade, festival, dancing exhibit, or other demonstration of pure joy of life, I can’t remember when. The weeks before and after Christmas are certainly a highlight of the religious cum cultural calendar, but only one. (As I write this we’re coming up on Carnival, characterized by several days of everyone throwing water balloons – or entire buckets of water – at anyone else within range.) I’m very much reminded of India, with its uncountable holidays, celebrations, and other events more joyful than any I can recall in the States. In the photos below, almost all taken at events we just happened to stumble upon, you’ll get a glimmer of Ecuador’s cultural diversity and of the grassroots-centric, no-holds-barred commitment to parade float building.

[7] Old and New, Side By Side

“Old and New” refers to both to lifestyles and corresponding apparel.In any random sample of Cuenca pedestrians one sees centuries-old clothing styles intermixed with blue jeans and Grateful Dead T-shirts, often in the same family! Of course, one also sees men in suits, ladies in tailored dresses, and other fashionable clothes popular worldwide. A wide variety of Panama Hats –actually invented in Ecuador and a major industry in Cuenca – are common on Indigenous women and Gringos, but not on the rest of the population. (Incidentally, “Gringos” is the widely used term for North Americans and Europeans, including by all us expats; unlike in other parts of Latin America, it is not pejorative.)

[8] Wonderfully Warm, Friendly People

A mother is trying to lift her two toddlers up the high steps of a public bus, and instantly complete strangers help her out. Whenever even mere acquaintances meet on the street, kisses on the check are inevitable – a tradition gladly, even eagerly adopted by us Gringos with each other as well as with our Ecuadorian friends! Even the Gringos on average seem friendlier here than in the U.S., quickly adopting newcomers into our tribe. The photos below show: Thanksgiving at California Kitchen (a popular restaurant for expats, run by a family from Fresno); our very good buddy Fabian, who has helped us – and a good many of the other Gringos in Cuenca – with everything from buying appliances to touring Cajas; Fabian’s sister-in-law Ruth, one of Deborah’s best amigas, here instructing Deborah on how to make cuy in our kitchen; and a not uncommon experience, an Ecuadorian engineer with whom we struck up a delightful conversation while we were hanging out at Parque Caldron (Cuenca’s exceedingly pleasant, historic central plaza in El Centro).

[9] Different, Distinctive Cultural Traditions

So much to learn! Again reminiscent of India, religion is of daily, fundamental importance here – mostly Catholicism, with Indigenous embellishments. Politics cum socioeconomic and ethnic rivalries is an essential characteristic of all human communities, but at least here is far less a blood sport than elsewhere in the world. Deborah and I are only beginning to scratch the surface of Ecuador’s fascinating linguistic, musical, and artistic expressions. We obviously need to immerse ourselves more in futbol, which is far more than a national pastime! With all due respect to animal rights, unexpectedly we both have become mesmerized by the symbolism, athletic artistry, and astounding animal and human bravado of what many regard as a “ballet of death defiance,”a.k.a. bullfighting. (We watch the televised bullfights from the main stadium in Mexico City; bullfights are relatively rare in Ecuador, and here the bulls are not killed.)

[10] And a Bunch of Other Reasons!

Cuenca is very clean, much more so than San Francisco and other U.S. cities, thanks to an army of street cleaners.

Health care in Cuenca is genuinely world class, at a fraction of the cost of U.S. prices. For example, when I needed an MRI of my lower back, the total cost was $250. As a result most expats self-insure. Deborah and I are very impressed with the doctors we’ve met, especially our English speaking internist who practices at Hospital Monte Sinái (below).

When I was growing up, I was happy being one of the tallest people in my class. Then the world (literally) grew up around me. How gratifying that in Cuenca I’m quite tall again! For reference, here’s Deborah (who is a few inches shorter than I am) with typical Ecuadorians at our first cuy restaurant.

We’re discovering new, fun customs everyday. One of my favorites are the “globos”. A series of small, plastic or paper hot air balloons in geometric or animal shapes are launched one after another at (roughly) three minute intervals. The rising, drifting ballons look something like a pearl necklace extending thousands of feet upward and downwind in the darkness. After awhile they use up their fuel and blink out, or somehow catch fire and go out in a quick blaze of glory.

Except for the roughly one mile square, historic El Centro, farm animals can be seen – certainly heard – pretty much everywhere else in Cuenca. Within a several hundred yards radius of our high-rise home live a dozen cows, sheep, goats, chickens, etc. Having farm critters for neighbors is not only novel and attention grabbing, but also strangely calming, like watching waves on a beach…something in our DNA no doubt. The photos below were taken from our fifth floor apartment windows, albeit using a zoom lens for the chickens and horses.

Unfortunately, few Gringos become fluent in Spanish and a fair number don’t even try. Declining learning ability is a consideration, since most Gringos are or soon will be senior citizens, but a lack in motivation is probably a larger factor. More’s the pity, because life would certainly be easier and richer for both Gringos and Ecuadorians if communication barriers were minimal. Deborah and I are committed to being fluent ASAP, enjoy studying the language, and have fun talking as best we can with all the Ecuadorians we encounter. They in turn are clearly appreciative and supportive of our fledgling efforts. Stay tuned to see how successful we are – with the immense help of our delightful Spanish teacher, Sonia (below).

So many experiences still pending, so many future additions to “let me count the ways!” For example, per the first two photos below, Deborah and I haven’t yet been able even to figure out what all the food vendors are offering, much less conduct comprehensive taste tests. Further, Cuenca is known as a shopping mecca because it has a zillion small shops, and exploring even a fraction of them will take a fair amount of time. In the final photo, a typical street scene (along Calle Larga for the map minded), each of the open doorways is a different shop – a bakery, video store, grocery, furniture shop, hardware store, pharmacy, attorney’s office, etc. Capitalism and entrepreneurship are alive and well in Ecuador!

Last but certainly not least, pretty much every day at some point Deborah blurts out “I love it here!” So do I, all the more knowing that she’s so happy (in this instance eating ice cream from a bowl-shaped cone in Parque Calderon)..

The Bottom Line

When asked why she became a humorist, Erma Bombeck told this story: One day she was going about her daily routine as a middle-aged suburban housewife when her daughter asked “Mommy, what will you be doing in 20 years?” She thought to herself, “This is Tuesday, laundry day, so I suppose that’s what I’ll be doing.” It was an Ah-Ha Moment, because then and there she decided she wanted to do more with her life than just the laundry.

Likewise, our coming to Cuenca!