Published on October 19th, 20146
6 Month Update on Life in Cuenca (Part 2)
(um… more like 8 months now!)
(To start from the beginning – read Part 1 HERE)
Continuing on with updating you all on my new home here Ecuador – let’s get right to it:
In a word: horrible. BUT – happily far less horrible than it was when I arrived 8 months ago. So there’s THAT, si? But seriously, I HAVE improved quite a lot, and amaze even myself that I can get along quite well now, and get most anything I need done – totally in Spanish. Heck, I’ve even been out shopping for a new laptop (a dicey techno-babble chore even in ENGLISH) and was able to understand and ask all the vital questions all in Spanish.
That said though… every time I think maybe, just maaaaybe, I might be getting a handle on this Spanish thing, my tutor will bring up some wholly nonsensical idom or irregular conjugation, and… I feel like a 2 yr. old drooling doofus again. ;(
Oh yes, I have a tutor. An excellent maestro that speaks quite good English and conveniently comes right to my apartment twice a week for $6/hour. A tough task master I might add, that gives me plenty of homework, and sternly corrects my every blunder in grammar and pronunciation. But really, he’s a dear, and a very good teacher.
I also continue to study online with Duolingo, et al – but where I REALLY make great progress is… simply by stepping out my door, and SPEAKING SPANISH at every opportunity. And of course verily every moment amid the cobbled lanes of El Centro is chock full of such opportunities. Anymore, I pretty much speak Spanish all day long, the moment I leave my front door. The locals here are most patient and helpful, as I struggle to cough up what I’m trying to say. Indeed, I remain convinced that all the books in the world, all the nifty online language interactives, the pricey Rosetta Stone DVDs, the dictionaries, all the classes in the world – and even the most brilliant private tutors in the world… None of them will help you learn a foreign language as swiftly – as simply going out there in the trenches everyday and SPEAKING it.
The Gringo Scene
|First, a Neon Disclaimer:|
|There absolutely ARE a good many wonderful gringos and gringas scattered about this lovely Andean mountain-top expat haven. Lots ‘n LOTS that I’ve been blessed to meet personally, and no doubt hundreds more that I’ll sadly never bump into as we all wander amid these ancient cobbled streets or stroll along the fairytale scenes beside Cuenca’s ever gurgling rivers.|
But… I have to be honest. After all, this is my private blog that I’ve been pecking for more than 4 years now, and if I can’t share my honest feelings here, what’s the point?
The point is… my biggest challenge in adapting to my new home here on a whole new continent, with a vastly different culture (arguably opposite to the cultures I’d grown accustomed to in Asia), with different foods, a wholly different climate, and yet another new language, is…
None of the above.
Strangely enough, the toughest challenge for me here in Cuenca has been adjusting to an expat population so markedly different from what I experienced in both Vietnam and Thailand. You see, there the expats I worked with and/or bumped into and/or occasionally shared a happy-hour with – were a most eclectic mix of many nations. Lots of Brits of course teaching EFL, but also many Aussies, and Kiwis, and Germans, Irish, French, Dutch, South African, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Indian, a stray Israeli or two – and a good many Canadians. Yes, a few fellow Americans too, but we were most definitely in the minority.
And I LOVED it. Loved the heterogeneous mix. All fellow expats, but each with our unique cultural differences. And most strikingly – no silly competition nor one-upmanship and/or dramatic political ranting whatsoever. Instead, just fantastic discussions sharing our candid (and blessedly more objective from afar) thoughts on our own, and each other’s native lands.
Sure, there were some that got on my nerves. And in Chiang Mai, Thailand (the “expat darling” of Asia, much like Cuenca presently is to Latin America) I balked seriously against the boundless expats that seemed so thick as to be overtaking the Thai culture entirely. At a ratio of farangs (foreigners) to Thai locals of nearly 1:5, the disturbingly high density of expats was the primary reason I fled the astonishingly cheap sleeps, fabulous Thai food, and exceedingly lovely Thais that I sought out and befriended on the side streets of Chiang Mai.
And yes, yes – I’d done my research on Cuenca, and knew full well that it was a magnet for expats and thus likely not my cuppa tea. Indeed, as my plane from Guyaquil touched down in Cuenca, I was 85% convinced that the expat scene here would be much like Chiang Mai and thus, not for me. I was fully prepared and seriously expecting that I’d take one look around Cuenca, and move swiftly on to Loja, or Cotacatchi, where the expat population was less dense, and more to my liking.
Ah but the good news: Not only did I INSTANTLY fall in love with the cobbled streets and spectacular architecture of El Centro, but happily, compared to the pervasive density of expats in Chiang Mai, the ratio of expats to Cuencanos is minuscule – but 1 in 100 at most. Even better, it didn’t take me too very long to learn that the expats here tend to huddle in some very predictable places – mainly gringo restaurants and bars – thus it’s fairly easy to avoid the whole gringo scene unless, and until I feel like mingling with “folks just like me”.
Don’t get me wrong, I seriously enjoy hanging out with a fellow expat here on occasion – for lunch, a class or some special gringo event. The truth is, I’ve been at this expat thing long enough to know that I NEED the camaraderie of my fellow Yanks once in awhile – for we share the same history, the same mores, the same culture after all. And sometimes a solo lass needs a dose of good ol’ American Apple Pie.
Still… while I tend to avoid large clusters of expats wherever I roam, stumbling upon a roomful of fellow Americans is the most difficult for me to handle. Perhaps I’ve just been out of the U.S. for too long now, but it just seems that when I find myself among more than a few of my fellow American compatriots, all the subtle negative characteristics that the rest of the globe (imho, rightly) assigns to we Yanks (e.g. “loud”, “arrogant”, “demanding”, “impatient”, “competitive”) become magnified, and I find myself shrinking from the stereotype.
The truth is, stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason, and I agree that as a group, we Americans do indeed tend to exude such annoying attributes far more than those of other nations. Quick to add though, in defense of my fellow countrymen – that is not to say, the French, Brits, Germans, etc. don’t likewise have each their own remarkably accurate stereotypes, so it’s not like only Americans can be annoying, especially in groups.
Not sure what it all means, but just significant to me that, quite honestly – the only (slight) downside that I’ve found to living in this outrageously charming and comfy setting here in Cuenca, is that there’s just too darn many OF MY OWN KIND (Americans). And I sorely miss the stimulating camaraderie of the broad ethnic mix of expats that I’ve enjoyed in Asia and elsewhere that I’ve traveled.
• Handicrafts and Trinkets: Though I am by no means a “shopper” (tough to buy anything bigger than a scarf or a pair of earrings when you’re traveling with carry-on only), I must say – since I’ve been in Cuenca, I’m a tad underwhelmed with the crafts and trinkets I’ve seen in the markets here in El Centro. Compared to the luscious markets of Asia (Luang Prabang, Laos, Sapa in Vietnam, the night markets in Chiang Mai, and oh the luscious woolen nubblys in Kathmandu – just to name a few) the crafts here seem a bit dull and kitschy.
Oh Panama hats abound of course, and many are truly stylish. And some of the vivid weavings are most remarkable (though personally, I’m not a fan of the ubiquitous cheaper “hairy” alpaca woolens). There’s also some truly fine art at the high-end galleries, as well as unique treasures in Cuenca’s antique shops. But for economical, delicately made handicrafts like those that are strewn all over Asia? Sadly, not so much.
To be fair though, perhaps I just need to go further afield – to Otavalo and/or seek out the various handicrafts at the source – in bitty villages that specialize in silver jewelry, etc. Still… let’s just say, I halfway wish I could go back to Asia and snatch up boatloads of the exquisitely intricate (and cheap!) treasures you can find there at every turn.
• Personal Greetings: The custom of greeting in Latin America compared to Asia couldn’t be more different. Greeting the friends I made in Vietnam with a hug (dear Hang in Ho Chi Minh City, and my Vietnamese “sister” Mai in Dalat, and more) was accepted (if hesitantly at first), but seemed only tolerated because of our friendships, as such simply isn’t the norm there. And in Thailand of course it was ever the formal “wai” (hands clasped in prayer formation, accompanied by a subtle bow and a sincere “sa wa dee ku”). Both elegant and beautiful, but not exactly a warm, fuzzy bear hug. Not so here in Ecuador. No matter how casual the connection, greeting most any Cuencano (both male and female) is ever initiated by the customary side cheek peck/embrace, along with a most exuberant “Como esta?” I like that.
• The Food, the Food, the FOOD!: Strangely enough, many of the expats here claim that Ecuadorian food is uniformly bland and tasteless. Furthermore, one lad that I spoke with in Thailand (that once lived here for a year), also said that Cuenca has no street food. Strange. All I can say is – what are they eating? How do they not see the wheelbarrows of succulent strawberries (not to mention the lad that sells kababs of them dipped in chocolate for less that a dollar)? The tangy grilled bananas stuffed with the local white cheese? The heavenly light empenadas dusted with sugar (deep fried hollow pillows of pastry stuffed with a smidge of cheese – just .20 on every street corner)? Then there’s the delectably tender morsels of “hornado” (pulled pork) with puffy dumplings of mashed potatoes swaddled in the roast pork juices.
I’ve written several foodie posts on the ubiquitous “almuerzos” here in El Centro, but I could feature a new one every week and never run out of the wide variety of tasty treats here. Indeed, though I’m truly enjoying having my own kitchen and being able to cook at home again, I must say – I’ve now accumulated an assortment of El Centro “favorites” like…
The wondrous “Pernil pork” sandwiches for little more than a buck each at a tiny nearby kiosk; “Rellenos Pizza” (deep dish, filled with all manner of beef, salami and cheese); miniature tacos (made by a lovely lass from Guadalajara – who taught me how to make my own corn tortillas) filled with sauteed green peppers and mushrooms, with a slice of mozzarella tucked into each, along with a spoonful of thick fresh cream for good measure. Indeed, enough deliciously different chow, to eat dinner out every night for weeks on end without repetition. And each for as little as $3!
Then there’s the fresh, homemade spinach ravioli (27 patties, enough for 3 meals for $4) sold just around the corner, along with sweet treats like thick, Greek-style yogurt topped with “vino tinto” (sweet red wine syrup), and incredible “Tiramisu” ice cream (at one of the plentiful “helado” shops around Parque Calderon) – ALL of these, just a short stroll from my apartment here in El Centro.
In short, though the food of Vietnam is surely to-die-for, and there are moments when I’d give my first born for a steaming hot bowl of Phở. And g-knows Thailand is legendary for great eats. Still, I have to say… The variety of new foods I’m enjoying here in Cuenca is truly outstanding. All of it fresh, homemade, and within steps of my front door. So stay tuned for plenty more foodie posts here on TravelnLass.
• Clockwise? Or Counterclockwise?: Just for fun among these “Strays”, a bit of trivia, complements of those of us who live shortly to the south of the Equator. A definitive answer to the seemingly endless debate regarding the “chorleas effect” (i.e. water draining clockwise vs. counterclockwise – north vs. south of that imaginary line running ’round the tummy of the globe):
And finally – the news you’ve all been kindly wading through all this blather for…
Itchin’ to Explore
So like… geez Dyanne, it’s been near 8 months now. You all (and likewise I, myself) are probably asking: So what Dyanne – are your feet GLUED to those cobbled streets? When are you going to resume your heretofore seemingly insatiable quest for ever new horizons? When are you going to HOP ON A PLANE for heaven’s sake?
It’s true. Even I was beginning to wonder if my wanderlust gene had finally gone kaput. Soooo utterly content am I in this (arguably heavenly in every way) Andean town, that hopping on even a bus, much less a plane – just seems like (OMG, nomad blasphemy!) a CHORE. Seriously. In retrospect, I do believe I wore myself out, bouncing to nearly a dozen different countries in little more than 24 months (some would call that nomadic child’s play, but as a “slow traveler” by choice, I call it bordering on “rapid-transit”). Clearly I needed a rest (not to mention my own k.i.t.c.h.en. for a change). And thus I’ve been near-drunkenly reveling in just simply STANDING STILL.
Ah but the inert hiatus is ebbing now. I’m definitely beginning to get the “itch” again. Starting to dream of new places to explore and masochistical rickety double-digit-hour bus rides. Now that I have my permanent residency here in Ecuador, it will serve as an excellent base from which to explore the entire South American continent. Machu Picchu of course, and neighboring Columbia. And I’ve also been hearing great things about Bolivia, so it’s now on my radar as well. Ah but first…
The BIG NEWS! Nope, not a new country – though arguably, far enough away and unique enough to qualify:
The TravelnLass is headed for… THE GALAPAGOS!
That’s right. My (and many other folk’s) travel bucket-list dream-come-true. Indeed, I once thought I’d never make it to the Galapagos as they’re just too far out of the way, and (seemingly) waaay too far out of my budget. Ah but now that I live here in Ecuador, and more importantly, now that I have permanent residency and a cedula, plus am technically dodderin’ (65+ yrs)… It’s actually very doable. The cedula and the dodderin’ years qualify me for – not only HALF PRICE air on all flights originating in Ecuador, but also, a whopping 90% discount on the $100 park entry fee that foreigners must pay simply to enter the archipelago. In short…
LAN Airline recently had a special on air to the Galapagos, and with my cedula and “tercera edad” (“third age” i.e. Senior citizen) – the fare from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz Island (regularly $400- $500) was just $198! 😉
So (naturally) I booked myself a goodly 10 day stay in early January. And furthermore, as I’ve since learned of far more economical alternatives to those (breathtakingly pricey, it has to be said) Galapagos cruises, I’m determined (and confident) that I can “do” the Galapagos for little more than $1,500 total. So stayed tuned for the TravelnLass’ version of “GALAPAGOS ON THE CHEAP!”.
Whew! So that wraps up a long over-due update on my life here in Ecuador. There’s tons more tales I could share of course (stray anecdotes happening near HOURLY it seems!) But near 5,000 words (!) would seem plenty for now. Trust that I’ll try my best to keep things up to date here as I head back into teaching EFL once again, as well as begin exploring this new (HUGE!) continent I’ve chosen to hang out on.
Now then – what about you? Got any questions about this particular corner of the globe that I might shed light on?
While I’m still wet-behind-the-ears here myself, I’m happy to share what little I’ve picked up while living here Cuenca.