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What´s a Cuenca?

By Rick Cameron

During the summer of 2019, after more than 20 years living in Woodstock, NY, the American political landscape and a desire for a totally different lifestyle persuaded me to sell my home and move out of the United States. Other than my ex-wife, who is perhaps my closest friend, I had no family tying me to any particular place.

As I thought about where I might go, ideas ranged from Bali to Thailand to Panama to Mexico to Costa Rica. All ar

e places where I know a few people, but with the exception of Mexico, I had never been. As I began discussing my ideas with a good friend, she asked if I had thought about Cuenca. “What’s a Cuenca?” said I. She proceeded to rave about this relatively small historic city with four beautiful rivers running through it, 8600 feet up in the Ecuador

ian Andes. Conversations with a dozen or so other friends elicited similar sentiments, “You should go to Cuenca. You’ll love it.”

Although none of them had ever spent more than a week there on vacation, they were thoroughly captivated by Cuenca’s beauty, history, architecture, and friendliness; a buddy in Santa Monica had actually lived in Cuenca…in 1968 with the Peace Corps, not exactly a source of current information, though his obvious love of the place and his affection and respect for Cuencanos were impressive. So encouraged, I devoted quite a bit of time studying Ecuador in general and Cuenca in particular.

Since, except for Mexico, I had not been to any of the countries on my list of possible destinations, Cuenca moved to the top of that list. Not being a sun-worshiping fan of heat and humidity (nor of snow and cold, for that matter), eliminating Bali, Thailand, and Panama was a no-brainer. That left Mexico and Costa Rica competing with Cuenca, and Cuenca, by and large, had almost everything I considered desirable: multiple universities – which give a city a youthful vibe, lots of cultural activity and history, a friendly and welcoming population, a very reasonable cost of living by U.S. standards, and a climate described as ‘spring all year round.’ Truth be told, it’s really ‘autumn all year round’. Anyway, warm enough for me, and cool enough for the great loves of my life, Siberian Huskies. (Hey, that’s really important!)

I have never been one to ‘dip my toe’ before diving in, and my move to Cuenca was no exception. I applied for and was granted a Temporary Residency Visa (for retirees in my case; different types of visas have different requirements). With the guidance of a very helpful and accommodating staff at the Consulate of Ecuador in Manhattan, I navigated the visa process without the need for any legal assistance. The process is, however, time consuming, exacting, and sometimes confusing and frustrating, but is definitely manageable on one’s own, if you have the time. Ecuador, as with most countries to which you might relocate, requires a variety of official documents, ‘official’ being the operative word. The most important of these will be proof of income documents. One or more documents to prove that you have a guaranteed monthly income that meets or exceeds [Ecuador’s] income requirement, which amount varies with the type of visa you are applying for, along with an FBI Good Conduct Letter (to prove that your aka isn’t Al Capone or Willie Sutton).

Documents must, by international convention, be ‘apostilled’, or certified as accurate and true by the highest relevant governmental authority, which so certifies this by affixing its seal to the document. This is where the confusion and frustration sets in. In my case, for example, my official government issued Social Security Benefits Letter had to be taken by me to a Social Security Administration office (an hour’s drive away) and authenticated with the signature of a titled officer of the SSA. This, with an application form to request apostille downloaded from the U.S. Dept. of State’s website, along with a fee, had to be sent to the State Department. As to the Good Conduct Letter, the FBI is only allowed to use fingerprints to identify someone for a background check. I had my fingerprints taken by a company recommended by the FBI and sent the hardcopy, along with application form and fee, to the FBI (in West Virginia). A week or so later, I received a rejection email, informing me that my prints were unreadable and needed to be taken again. I spoke with the FBI in West Virginia, and it was suggested that just before being re-fingerprinted, I soak my fingers in Mexican hot sauce! Well, that didn’t work. The FBI rejected my prints a second time. As a fallback, I got a “no criminal record” letter from the Woodstock, NY Police Department - proving, at least, that I was smart enough not to pee in my own backyard. This had to be notarized, taken to the County Clerk to certify that the notary’s signature was authentic, and then sent to the NY Dept. of State to be apostilled.

I brought these documents, along with the two FBI rejection letters/emails, as well as high school, college, and graduate school diplomas, to the Consulate. Within hours, Dec. 30, 2019, I had my visa. (Proof of education is needed if you want to drive a car in Ecuador. I have now been here long enough to believe that, while proof of education may be needed for a driver’s license, desire to drive in Cuenca is proof of insanity. Which, in and of itself, should disqualify any of us gringos from being allowed to drive. My first week here someone said “If you aren’t quick on your feet, don’t cross the street.” Some advice should be heeded!)

Unfortunately, the pandemic delayed my arrival until November 2020, when I came to Cuenca for the first time. I spoke no more than a few words of Spanish, and moved here without friends or family. Brash as that might seem, I knew two things: that I did not intend to live in the United States again and, if not happy with Cuenca, I could always pack my bags and go someplace else. My ex-wife came with me for a few weeks to ‘keep me out of trouble’ (how well our exes know us!). We shared a two bedroom duplex apartment in El Centro, the historic heart of Cuenca, and when she left, my expat experience really began: rarely had I felt so alone and depressed. In fact, when the car taking her back to Guayaquil for her flight to NY pulled away, my immediate thought was “Oh sh*t, what have I done? This doesn’t feel anything like what I was expecting.” I got lost walking around El Centro – this from a former geologist. I couldn’t tell a cab driver where I wanted to go even if I knew where I wanted to go.

Without the help of iTranslate, I couldn’t read the labels in Supermaxi - the ‘A&P’ for gringos who are terrified of the local mercados. I kept thinking “I don’t have to stay here. I can always go to San Miguel…or Timbuktu.”

Well, I’m now 18 months into the adventure of a lifetime. I’m sure that there are many places that I could have relocated to where I would have eventually felt at home, as I now do in Ecuador. But I’m here, and I am only sorry that I didn’t do this a decade ago. I’m writing this sitting at my desk on the tenth floor of the 11 story building I live in; other than the Cathedrals, very few buildings in Cuenca are more than 12 stories high, and 90% are no more than three stories. As I look up from the computer, I’m looking at mountains in Cajas, part of the Andes, at eucalyptus trees outside my building whose tops are above my eye level, and to my left, less than two hundred feet from the building, the magnificent Tomebamba River, bordered on both sides by beautiful greenways for walking, jogging, cycling, sun-bathing, or exercising with or without the outdoor equipment dotting one side of the river. It doesn’t get much better. Do you know that Ecuador was the first country in the world to enshrine the Rights of Nature in its Constitution? Wow! And you can drink the water right out of the tap in Cuenca!

Moving to another country, with a different language and culture, I doubt is ever easy. To make the experience work, you need the determination to make it work, patience, flexibility...and frankly, a really really laid back sense of humor. Absent any of these qualities, you’re not going to be happy. If you come expecting locals to adjust to your way of thinking and doing, it ain’t gonna happen. I have found Ecuadorians to be warm, friendly and generally very patient. Although loneliness was for me the biggest single hurdle* (being a “stranger in a strange land”), that has greatly diminished as I’ve acquired both U.S and Ecuadorian friends. I study Spanish every day, and absolutely love it. I never knew how fun and rewarding it would be to learn to write and speak in a second language. (I do, however, say “Sí” quite a lot in conversations with native Spanish speakers. Of course, sometimes “sí” is not the right answer. But what the heck, I’m a gringo).

*Obviously, if you relocate as a couple or family, as most expats do, the emotional support that that provides should make the transition a lot easier and less scary.

Rick Cameron

May 5, 2022


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