LEARNING TO LIVE IN CUENCA, ECUADOR

Despite the worries of some well-meaning people back in the States, Cuenca is not much different from our former home. Yes, we have trouble understanding a lot of conversation, we stick out like a sore thumb, and we occasionally get slightly lost, but that’s another day in the park for us. We did some research before we came to Ecuador, and while information was pretty sparse, the crotchety white expats that have been slowly streaming down here have left their two cents scattered across the internet. There are some cringe-worthy videos of bloated gringos decrying the graffiti, the street dogs, and even recommending bringing your own bun to restaurants serving hamburgers (we don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior and so will not link to them here). They’re part of the larger problem in the world today, and a major inspiration to become fluent ASAP. The culture shock is understandable, the expectation that an entire country kowtows to your demands is neocolonialism.

Much like our old home, Pittsburgh, Cuenca has just over 300,000 residents, 3 rivers, and a surplus of bridges. Most of the similarities are what you would expect from any city of comparable size, and most of the differences are negligible. We can work on the language issue, and we’re pretty okay with being taller than most people. Our best stories happen when we’re off the map, and getting lost continues to be part of the fun. After a few months in Cuenca, we’ve created a list of some of the more notable differences between here and your average US city.

The market stalls in Feria Libre
Feria Libre, the largest public market in Cuenca, Ecuador

Clothing and Fashion

It’s hard not to feel out of place in a new country, but clothing, in particular, can either help you to blend in or be a beacon of your foreignness. The people of Ecuador tend to be conservative and understated in their dress. While young adults subscribe to the same uniform of black leather jackets, hooded sweatshirts, and even cropped shirts prevalent the world over, this style is in the minority. Men dress in long slacks or jeans, and keep their shirts nonfussy and traditional in style. Women wear t-shirts, often with cardigans over them, and slim-fitting jeans. Shoulders are covered, makeup is subtle, jewelry nonexistent. Hailing from a country which appreciates a rhinestone embellishment, the lack of adornment was arresting. We haven’t yet learned how to ask if Vajazzling ever made its way down here.

Public art depicting native women's traditional garb in Cuenca, Ecuador
Public art depicting the native women’s traditional garb in Cuenca, Ecuador

Though the men and children of the region’s Native Ecuadorian woman dress in discrete, modern fashions, this rule does not apply to Cuenca’s indigenous women. Embellished velvet, pleated skirts are worn with plaited, long hair, brimmed hats, and shawls held closed by elaborate metal pins. A wardrobe incorporating sequins may not be historically accurate, but it has certainly become customary among the older women here.

Women Washing Clothes in the Rio Tomebamba, Cuenca, Ecuador
Laundry day at Rio Tomebamba

Housework

Housework is similarly disparate between indigenous, modern, and foreign cultures. Much like in the United States, how one does their laundry denotes class. Many of Cuenca’s populace own their own washers (though clotheslines are often used for drying) and a few laundromats exist for those without. However, it is not uncommon to see less wealthy (often indigenous) families washing clothes along the Rio Tomebamba, doing their best to enjoy the communal nature of the diversion. Grocery stores carry all the processed comforts of modern living, but at a price commiserate to trekking goods 9,000 feet in altitude. Open air markets hawking pasta, rice, and organic tomatoes at $1 for 3 pounds are still the established providers of the city’s grocery needs. Eating out is largely reserved for tourists and the city’s wealthy, clearly demonstrated by the command of the English language exhibited in all of the waitstaff we encountered. That said, citizens of any class benefit from the many inexpensive bakeries and local, farm-fresh eggs.

Baskets of Potatoes and Legumes at Market in Cuenca, Ecuador
Grains, legumes, and pasta can all be found in large baskets throughout market, sold by weight.

Trash and Recycling

Recycling in Ecuador is on par with what one might expect from a country home to both the Galapagos Islands and a portion of the Amazon Rainforest. In 2012 Ecuador began a large-scale plastic recycling program. In an effort to gain national support, children were enlisted to gather bottles, setting a Guinness World Record for the collection of 1.5 million bottles in fifteen days. Beer and soda are still widely available in large glass bottles. These are returned to the store for a considerable reimbursement and recycled by the store owners. Efforts are made to repurpose everything from plastic bags to furniture to razor blades, and transgressions against this mission carry a hefty penalty. The streets themselves are kept incredibly clean, as workers in baby blue utility suits slowly canvas the city, but this same zeal stops at the banks of the rivers, which are biologically dead and sometimes peppered with loose debris, not unlike many watersheds in the United States.

Rio Yanuncay, Cuenca, Ecuador
Rio Yanuncay is pretty but devoid of life.

Technology

Smartphones have infiltrated every pocket of humanity, and Ecuador is no exception. However, technology plays a lesser role in the lives of the people here. Wi-Fi is available, though not as ubiquitous as it is would be in a city in the United States. While it is not uncommon to see a student distracting themselves at a bus stop, typically, people refrain from using their phones publicly. Digitally documenting the mundane, especially when done by someone fair in complexion, is usually evidence the perpetrator is a collector or lawyer. This behavior is grossly imprudent, and we have been approached by rightfully suspicious (though never combative) locals when photographing architecture, livestock, or gardens.

A vegetable garden in Cuenca, Ecuador
We’re sorry, Cuencanos. Your gardens are beautiful.

Grafitti and Street Art

Though rules that are sacrosanct up North are at times wholly ignored, the street art here is amazing. Unfortunately, there are scads of beautiful pieces with some really shitty tags over top of them. Some traditions are not universal, apparently. There’s clearly a massive gulf in ability between the local bonafide artists, some of which have full-on murals around the city, and some punks with spray cans who are clearly jealous. It’s actually fairly rare to see a piece left alone, but it’s always a treat.

The Dogs of Cuenca

The dogs. There’s a lot of them. They are incredibly opinionated, some have homes, some clearly do not, they’re all friends, and almost none of them are fixed. Most of them roam the streets freely. There’s a great article that digs a little deeper on this subject, and we look forward to further exploring the topic personally with the locals as our Spanish improves. These animals are absolutely fearless. Even the dogs who have owners present are generally dragging their leashes behind them as they cavort around plazas and parks. After traffic dies down, the neighborhood comes alive again with canines roving in gangs or conversing over long-distance for hours and hours. They provide a lot of entertainment, and there’s a strangely symbiotic relationship occurring.

Two street dogs in Cuenca, Ecuador
They were not happy with Y for some reason, and this was five seconds before they let her know.

We haven’t seen any animals suffering, and most are cleaner than a Bushwick hipster. I grew up in Cleveland when there were still packs of dogs running wild around Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but having watched that happen every night from my front window, it’s kind of silly and telling how scandalized folk from my part of Cleveland were. We’re not condoning it, but as a developing country, there’s not a lot of money in Ecuador to throw at a large-scale neuter and spay program.

A good dog in Cuenca, Ecuador. 10/10
Who’s a good dog?! 10/10

The only thing that interrupts the canine diatribes every evening is the car alarms. Cars are prohibitively expensive here, and maintenance is known to be borderline interminable, although there are a lot of repair shops. It’s little wonder that every car is outfitted with an alarm. Unfortunately, these seem to all be models from the mid-90s, which would go off if you looked at them. Additionally, the noise never seems to bother anyone, so when a truck zips by the hatchback and triggers its alarm, it just goes. And goes.

Car on Street in Cuenca, Ecuador
Cars are expensive in Ecuador, and as a result, Cuencanos can often be seen driving decades-old models.

Traffic, Police, and Pedestrians

City busses barrel by, perilously hugging sidewalks and trailing belched diesel fumes. Headlights are sometimes seen as optional, more so than at dusk in the US, and while the driving isn’t as silly as a National Lampoon traffic circle sequence, we do not especially enjoy crossing the streets here. There are crosswalks/signals, especially downtown, which is fantastic to walk around, but outside of the city center, they’re clearly part of a slowly implemented infrastructure package, and they act more as a suggestion, not wholly unlike the US. It’s generally dangerous to be a pedestrian everywhere, it seems.

With the lack of traffic signals comes a large presence of traffic cops. In general, the presence of police is highly visible, which makes sense, as there’s 20% more here than the United States. Whether they’re artfully directing the chaotic traffic or just cooly observing the comings and goings of the open markets, they’re out there. It’s something I wish was still an occurrence in the states. Being present in the neighborhood both humanizes the police officer as well as the people they have sworn to protect. While Ecuador has some issues to be sure, it’s not especially known for gunning down unarmed black children, or any children for that matter. The gun violence the United States has numbly and lazily accepted as a weekly occurrence with the simpering platitudes of thoughts and prayers is nearly nonexistent here, as it is in the rest of the world.

A bus barrelling down Calle General Escandón.
A bus barrelling down Calle General Escandón.

No Local Dive Bars

Where most people in North American cities grew up, having a bar down the street was a given. In Pittsburgh, as a young and cranky bartender, J learned the importance of the neighborhood dive. Both of us made careers out of hospitality, and continue to be in love with the allure and stories that swirl around a bar stool. Bars have always been a large part of our lives, for better or worse. That said, the drinking culture in Ecuador is noticeably different. There’s plenty of booze to be had, and it’s fairly common to see at least one person listing slightly, sometimes while emerging from a car with a beer in hand, but the neighborhood bar is decidedly not an entity here. The young professionals drink Heinekens in the parking lot of the liquor store, like malcontent teenagers. There are many small bars (capacity of 25) and clubs clustered downtown, but the cozy, dim and smokey hideaways we spent our 20s in are exchanged for free-wheeling volleyball and soccer games in public arenas and the shared inner courts of neighborhoods. When the weather is this lovely, there’s not much to hide from.

Two large bottles of Pilsener Beer in the foreground of the Andes Mountains
Enjoying a couple of Pilseners, Ecuador’s favorite local brew, with a view of the Andes Mountains.

Time is Relative

The idea of Ecuadorian time, not completely without basis, is largely a concept exaggerated by fussy (white) retirees. The grocery store has all of the comforts of a major supermarket in the states, with none of the efficiency. Ringing up at the liquor store takes longer than selecting a bottle. Even seemingly simple exchanges at the markets can be stretched out, though I’m sure it’s partially due in equal part to our perpetual lack of small bills and fumbling abilities with the language. Our dryer in our Air BnB broke, and the replacement came a day or two later in the morning, despite a promise of a next day remedy. Hours later, after the new unit had been installed by two men J had never seen before, the main handyman for the building came to look at the unit, and J was thankfully able to explain that it was a “nuevo secadora y lavadora, y no es roto, es nuevo hace este manana”. The conversation ended with both parties equally confused as to why he was there, but we’ve seen the same sort of thing happen at places we’ve lived in the States. Bad communication is universal.

Rooftop Sunset In Cuenca, Ecuador
Rooftop Sunset In Cuenca, Ecuador

Politics

Lenín Moreno is the president and has the unique distinction of being a head of state who requires a wheelchair as a means of conveyance. His popularity doesn’t seem to be as strong as his predecessor, Correa, and to be fair, Correa was in power for a long time, during which he pulled the country out of financial crisis, shepherding the nation into a new age of growth and relative prosperity. As a bonus, he led the charge to create UNASUR, the South American equivalent to the EU. I’ve seen the phrase “wheelie-boy” used in reference to Moreno more than once on social media channels here, as well as anti-Lenin slogans either spraypainted or wheatpasted around town. A large complaint Ecuadorians have with him is his emphasis on attracting tourism, and within that, his emphasis on accessibility. The sloped ramps of the cities of the United States are not a thing here. Traffic laws and signals are present but very relaxed. The curbs are over a foot high in some places. Sidewalks are not always there, especially when buildings jut into the street. While we understand and support the ADA, which allows people in the United States to explore places like White Sands, we can also understand why Ecuadorians may see the focus on tourism as putting the cart before the horse. With the growing international distaste for the tourism industry, it’s more than understandable that Ecuadorians view some of Moreno’s policies as a distraction to the larger issues of creating jobs, infrastructure, and economic growth.

This sidewalk, not recommended for those afraid of heights, is bifurcated by a telephone pole and drops off steeply on one side.
This sidewalk, not recommended for those afraid of heights, is bifurcated by a telephone pole and drops off steeply on one side.

We’re Chill, You Should Be Too

As much as people tend to be worried for our safety here, it’s more than a little misplaced. We’re both well traveled and tend to value street smarts over the hand-wringing wisdom of those working 9 to 5 jobs. While there are some differences in Ecuador from the United States, by and large, they are mostly the kind of differences you would find going from a large city to a small one. Cuenca’s larger than Pittsburgh, but the idea of biking here makes flying down Baum Boulevard look like a jolly lark rather than the apocalyptic nightmare it truly is. The largest difference is the language, and we’d likely be better understood in Mexico, because that’s the pronunciation and verbiage we’re studying. Unraveling the turns of phrase and slang here will take a long time. We’re looking forward to that challenge, delighting in the subtle differences in cultures while we learn.

A rainbow over a quiet, cobblestone street
The rough streets of Cuenca

How About You?

If you’re an expatriate, or simply staying in a foreign country for an extended period, we’d love to hear about your discoveries and experiences in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “LEARNING TO LIVE IN CUENCA, ECUADOR

    1. The city is incredibly walkable, so it’s easy to explore. There’s also a large national park nearby. A long weekend, 3-5 days, would give you plenty of time to get a really good taste for the city. Thanks for reading!

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    1. While the culture is very similar to the US (pokemon and the avengers are huge over here), a lot of things we take for granted, like the newest phones, aren’t as prevalent. Ecuadorians are very practical and direct- things like instagram don’t have nearly the traction they do in the states. It’s not so much a problem, it’s a respect issue. Only a few years ago in the US, someone with their phone out would be looked at the same way. It’s just something to be mindful of- I would feel very weird if someone strange were taking photos of my old neighborhood. We totally get it. It does require some adjustment, but that’s what travel is all about! Thanks for reading!

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    1. It’s a great place. Smack dab in the middle of the Andes, conveniences of a city, comforts of the country. It’s a very beautiful place, and the people are incredibly friendly. We highly recommend it. Thanks for reading!

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