Friday, October 14, 2011

Expat Etiquette

We have a unique place along the river with a window on the world—literally! Every room in our condo has a view of the Tomebamba and we enjoy the comings and goings of folks. We see some interesting things: car crashes, international soccer teams coming to stay at the Hotel Oro Verde next door, walkers/joggers/runners on the trail (just like clockwork) and an occasional “newbie” expat who is “fighting” the culture.

Yesterday while I was washing dishes, I saw a new gringo in town cursing out a taxi driver—shouting, screaming, waving his hands and making obscene gestures with his hands. Uh-oh, I guess no one told him that pedestrians don’t have the right away! He was crossing the street and expected the taxi driver to stop for him. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen taxi drivers brake for dogs, but not for humans which still babbles me.  Anyway, no one was injured!

Many expats come to Cuenca and expect things to run just like they did in America and when those two worlds clash there is often a visible sign of disgust or worse yet—a horrible scene (like yesterday).

Some of us have the ability to adapt more easily to a new culture than others. After living in Sicily for six years—where drivers have a death wish—this is truly paradise. Ecuadorians are mild mannered (except when they drive), soft-spoken and polite. What’s not to like? 

Expat etiquette is pretty simple:  treat others the way you would like to be treated.  Read some books on Ecuadorian culture and know what to expect in certain situations. Also, it’s important to integrate and not isolate. We’ve noticed that there are basically two groups of expats: those who just hang around with other expats and those who integrate. They develop a healthy respect for the Ecuadorian culture and involve themselves with events outside the expat community: volunteering their time at orphanages, teaching English or adopting an Ecuadorian family!

The language is a barrier for some and therefore they don’t even bother to learn Spanish, but the more time you spend time in immersing yourself, the greater the reward. Language learning is hard work. After the basics, it’s just plain memorization! Spanish has a lot of irregular verbs and “yes” they do use the subjunctive a lot, so that means getting out the 3x5 cards and doing your homework. In our Spanish class we have PhD professors, doctors and lawyers (highly intelligent people), but learning a new language has nothing to do with your IQ. Some folks just plain give up too early; it takes constant, continued work to get to the next level.

One recent visitor to Cuenca made an interesting observation:  “We have to be careful not to create our own ‘ghetto’ (meaning:  an isolated group). Involve yourself in activities other than just expat events, teach, volunteer and continue with language learning.

Expat etiquette is more than just “minding your manners,” it goes much deeper than that. Thankfully, the isolated events like the one I mentioned above is the exception and not the norm.

Until next time…hasta luego!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Price of Paradise

One of the most common questions I receive has to do with the cost of living in Cuenca and is it increasing?!?

The answer is “yes” and “no.”

For us, the bottom line hasn’t changed: our rent is the same, utilities, transportation (the bus is still 25 cents) and groceries are relatively inexpensive (except Jif Peanut Butter!).  However, the services and products that expats require are gradually inching up.

One of my barometers is the place where I go to write (Wunderbar) and it’s been interesting to watch the “almuerzo” menu change over the past year from $1.75 to $2.00, $2.50, $2.75, $3.50, $4.00, $4.50 and now it’s $5.50! My first response was, “En serio” (Are you kidding?). Around Cuenca—especially in some of the finer restaurants—you will see the menu has been tampered with (meaning: stickers have been placed over the old prices to reflect the higher ones).

The Wunderbar Café is a real touristy place, right off Calle Larga and in the newly renovated building “La Casa de la Escalinata,” so I’m going to chock it up to the cost of building renovations!  The same type of meal can be had all over the city for $2.00 (or less). But I love the “courtyard” area and I’ve written some of my best stories there, so it will still be one of my favorite places.

Just like the States, variations in prices exist. Coffee Tree is another one of my writing hangouts, but the cappuccino is not that great and it’s comparable to Starbucks prices. However, right down the street at “Indigo” I can get a “bowl” of café latte for 50 cents which is far superior.

It’s interesting that Mark received a cost of living raise at CEDEI and it’s only been a month! The reason for the raise is they feel that prices are going up in the city, so they gave all the teachers a raise.

Of course, when you factor in that our health insurance is so reasonable and medical costs are one-tenth of what they are in the States, it makes some of the other minor price elevations seem almost laughable.

We have asked our Ecuadorian friends what they think of all the changes that are occurring in Cuenca and for the most part they are favorable, but some have expressed concern.  Many Ecuadorians are starting up their own businesses that cater to expats (translation services, language lessons, transportation, etc.).  Some are charging ridiculous rates ($12-$20 an hour). And all of this is “untaxed” money (or under the table). There is no “factura” and no invoice.  When you consider that the average breadwinner makes about $436 per month (or less) and they have to pay taxes on what they earn, you can understand their concern.  

Times are changing in Cuenca and I’m sure next year—this time—the landscape of Cuenca will again reflect the changes. But they will be gradual and hopefully won’t change the “core” of “el centro.” At least there are no McDonald’s yet and I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon. 

Cuenca reminds me a lot of “Taormina” in Sicily, Italy where we lived for six years and it was a real tourist town, but didn’t waver when it came to planning and projecting for the future. Today it still remains a quaint town with cobblestone streets that time has forgotten.  I hope that Cuenca can remain that way as well.

Paradise has a price, but for now we’re enjoying the Cuenca we have come to love!

Until next time…hasta luego!

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