Monday, March 29, 2010

So What's Cuenca REALLY Like?

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You know the old saying that when something seems too good to be true---it probably is.  All the websites touting Cuenca's virtues make it sound so darned perfect---year-round springlike weather, couples living on $600 per month, enjoying fresh fruit on the balcony overlooking the beautiful colonial architecture.  These sites are selling something--real estate, tours, books--so it's easy to be skeptical about such idealized descriptions.

We wanted to discover the real Cuenca, so here we finally were after the misadventures described in the previous post.  Our initial impression was somewhat jarring.  The cobblestone streets are narrow and one-way.  The main ones are crowded and noisy.  Buses spew noxious black exhaust clouds.  Uh-oh.

Then after getting settled in our room we went out exploring a bit and came back disappointed because the area we walked around in seemed rundown and dingy.  We found no suitable goods and services, only small shops selling stuff like bootleg DVD's and Chinese tennis shoes.  Yikes, what had we gotten ourselves into?

Well, I'm happy to report that I've pretty much gotten all the negative news out of the way early.  First, our hotel.  The Casa Ordonez is delightful.  It's an old family home converted into what's called a hostel there.  That translates to "flophouse" in America, but we would more accurately label it a B&B--clean, comfortable rooms and a full breakfast.

Alberto Ordonez, his sister Inez, and their mom go absolutely out of their way to make sure you are happy.  And the way these homes are designed with a gate, heavy doors, and open central courtyard blocks out all the street noise.  We highly recommend this hotel as your base camp.

We quickly learned that initial impressions can be deceiving.  When everything's different it's paradoxically all the same.  Subsequent walks (and we walked a LOT) demonstrated  that while, yeah, the buildings and people may appear similar, a few blocks in one direction or the other or even one street over sometimes revealed pleasant surprises.

The weather is exactly as described:  mid-70's during the day, mid-50's at night.  Low humidity.  No bugs (apparently they're not happy at 8000').  The sun rises and sets at 6:02 every day.

The food is plentiful and inexpensive.  The markets have many fruits we've never seen before.  The meat and produce aren't jacked up with hormones and bioengineering (a chicken actually looks like a chicken, not a small turkey).  We had lunches for $2 total (including tax & tip) with juice, soup, meat, 2 starches--always 2 starches--and dessert.  I took Cynthia out to the finest restaurant in the city, Villa Rosa, for our anniversary dinner.  Wow, it was a gorgeous restored mansion with an enclosed courtyard for the dining area.  A fabulous meal with wine set us back $40.  I mentioned to Cynthia on the walk back to the hotel that we've probably dropped more than that at Olive Garden!

In addition to little corner markets throughout the city there are 2 full-on supermarkets that have practically everything you would want.  Except we never saw celery or, oddly enough since Ecuador produces over 200 varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes anywhere.  I kept looking for milk in the dairy section and finally realized they have the boxed kind on the shelf like in Europe.  That might take some getting used to.

We found a small outdoor mall with high-end shops, food court, and multiplex across the river from the historic area.  And a short distance out of town is a typical large enclosed mall with typical mall-looking stores.  But what's amazing there is this HUGE place called the Super Mercado that's like a combination Home Depot and Super WalMart carrying everything from clothing to food to bathtubs.  If you can't find what you need there, you don't really need it.

The mall food courts are, thankfully, the only spots in town with fast food.  But the prices are the same as here, so you'd pay the same for a Whopper, fries, and soft drink as a filet mignon dinner at a great restaurant.  You'd think the choice between KFC and Chilean sea bass would be obvious, but folks outside our country seem to love all things American. 

We were told the movies are in English with Spanish sub-titles.  Hope that's true--then we can enjoy the flick and practice our Spanish at the same time!  What else?  Museums,  universities, modern hospitals--all here; clothing, housewares, dry cleaners--ditto; need for a car--not here if you live downtown.  Everything is in walking distance, and cabs are $1-2 if you get tired or don't want to bother.

But the best thing we discovered about Cuenca, something you can never learn from tour books and websites, is the graciousness of its citizens.  So kind, so helpful, so----happy.  We walked around alone on foggy nights and never felt the least bit uneasy.  There was a free outdoor symphony concert we attended.  You know what?  It didn't sound like the London Philharmonic, but the beaming faces and civic pride was truly touching.

So that's it--a lot of good, a little bit of bad, and no ugly.  We arrived in Cuenca looking for reasons to talk ourselves out of this improbable adventure and left ready to take the plunge.  Do we have everything figured out?  Heck no.  Are we certain we're going to be happy in Ecuador?  Absolutely not.  When you do something extreme you should expect an extreme result, one way or the other.  So we're forging ahead anticipating a wonderful new life abroad and mindful that it may suck.  If so---we'll do something else.

Next time----OK, we're going.  Now what?


Cynthia said...

Well, I have to say you got it right Edd. Looking forward to our adventure!

Clarke said...

Hey Edd....Clarke Green here.
So you are in the process of "keep it or dump it" too. I am thinking "stressful, liberating and d*mn hard work". What a process. This is supposed to be the kids job after I die. Instead, it is Brennie's and my process so that we can start to really live. Gotta go ....throw some memories away. The "Big Garage Sale " is tomorrow morning. Long way to go in the next 22 hours.

Andy said...

I love that your embarking on this huge adventure with an open mind and a sense of realism! I am even more impressed that you don't speak spanish!! I can't wait to see how long it takes before you are fluent. though you could fool me at any time you please since i don't speak spanish myself! ;)

Edd Staton said...

One of my many pet peeves is "For English press 1, Spanish press 2." So it would be the height of hypocrisy to go over there and expect everyone to communicate on our terms. We WILL learn the language!