Will it be Canada or Cuenca? I have to admit, this is a post I’ve been working on since shortly after I arrived in Ecuador – more than a year and a half ago – well before Trump announced his intentions. But I figured this was a good time to publish this. US citizens have been on a roller coaster ride this fall, and spate of nervous jokes (on both sides of the political spectrum) about fleeing the country if Trump became president has not abated. (And I know there are some out there who will flee a Clinton presidency.) So, would it be Canada or Cuenca? I’m not going to say much about Canada – although, I do realize it’s hard to resist a country run by a prime minister who cuddles panda bears.
This post is about what life is like for North Americans who have already fled to Ecuador. If you arrived at this page because you’re considering retiring – or perhaps, fleeing – to Cuenca, maybe it’ll give you a bit of perspective about life as a North American in Ecuador.
If you google ‘top ten countries to retire in’, Ecuador is usually listed as #1 or #2 on most sites. Cuenca, specifically, is the favorite hub of ‘estadounidense’ expats. (I need to be specific – I don’t think there are too many Canadians or Mexicans moving to Ecuador – and they are also North Americans). The North American invasion is most apparent in the sting of high rise condos lining the busy road to the west of the city of Cuenca. This is Gringolandia (see box below for definition of ‘gringo’).
Current estimates place the total North American population in Cuenca at around 8000. I’ve heard estimates above and below, but that’s the average.
Why do people move to Cuenca? Many of these people were driven here by economic pressures back home. Since my return from Ecuador, I am reminded daily of why people leave for Ecuador in the first place. Take a trip to any US farmer’s market, and you can easily drop $30 on organic fruits and veggies. I could purchase the same amount of food for $8-10 at Cuenca’s Mercado Agroecológica. Every trip to the grocery story in the US runs $40-70. This is just to feed myself. And dinner for two at an average-priced restaurant runs $30-40 or more. You can get a nice dinner for two in Cuenca for $15. I won’t even start on the cost of housing and health care in the U.S.
But the economy isn’t the only reason. Some people left because they were tired of driving in snowstorms every winter. Some fled the ‘Obama regime’ (BTW – if Trump were elected, maybe some of those people might want to go home – there could be some condos on the market for hipster Democrat-types.) Some people are simply there to find out how to live their lives as fully as they can – in a colorful, friendly place.
What’s a ‘gringo’?
Growing up in central California, in a community with a large population of Latinos where I received a bilingual elementary education, I was often called a ‘gringo’. It was always used in a friendly context, but I didn’t really understand what it meant, other than that I was somehow different.
Definition: Gringo (from http://www.urbandictionary.com) – If you know any Mexican people then you’ll know this is a non-derogatory term used to refer to US citizens. Mostly because the term “American” does not make sense to the rest of the Americans (all those people who live in the continent named “America”, which is every body from Alaska to Argentina), and the word “Estadounidense” (UnitedStatesean) is too long.
Folklore says it was generated when the US invaded Mexico, wearing green uniforms, and the people shouted at them “Green Go Home”.
With time it lost all derogatory status and was turned into the most common word to refer to any US citizen.
(n.b. Apparently, the term is also used in Spain to refer to non-Spanish speakers, and supposedly has the origin ‘griego‘ or ‘Greek’. Also, while it’s used to refer to US citizens, I never hear it used to refer to US citizens of Latino heritage.)
Many expats in Cuenca live in high-rise condos with round-the-clock security. Some live in gated communities that would give you the impression you’re back in Kansas. The Gringos are a close-knit community, and very happy to welcome more North Americans. They generally frequent the same restaurants, attend the free symphonies that are featured every few weeks at various churches, and have well organized community activities: yoga classes, cooking classes, knitting and quilting classes – all in English.
Some gringos own restaurants and cafés. There is one restaurant that only opens on weekends, and each week features another North American specialty – hundreds of gringos flock to this place every week for food and socializing. One gringo told me that despite the fact that Cuenca has 300,000 people, it’s like living in a small town – every gringo knows every other gringo. I have to admit, I went to the gringo restaurants every few weeks. It was like taking a little retreat back into the coziness of my own culture. A respite from fast cars and rapid-fire Spanish. When I went to these places, I would actually see the same gringos every time. It did feel like a small town.
So, life can be pretty sweet for a lot of people. It’s possible to live somewhat luxuriously on a modest pension or retirement savings.
What do the Gringos think about Ecuadorians and Ecuadorian culture?
The expat society and infrastructure is large enough that many gringos don’t interact much or integrate with Ecuadorian culture and society. Although, they truly like the Ecuadorians and consider them very friendly. But I also got the impression that many in the expat community think that most Ecuadorians speaks English – so, learning Spanish is optional.
That’s right. There many expats in Ecuador (and probably most Latin American countries) who don’t speak Spanish. It amazes me that you can live permanently in a Spanish-speaking country and not speak Spanish.
That would drive me crazy.
I would certainly not say that most Ecuadorians that you encounter as an expat, or even as a tourist, speak English. The service people at Gringo restaurants and high-rises all speak English. And if you go to a Gringo restaurant or a tourist bar, the waiter may indeed speak some English to you – even if you speak clear Spanish to them.
But a few words of English does not mean someone can understand everything you say. As an Spanish-Second-Language learner, myself, I can say for certain, there were many times when I did NOT understand what others were saying to me. It was one of my biggest challenges. My Spanish is ok – I get by pretty well. But sometimes Spanish speakers who didn’t know me well would assume I understood everything they said because I could occasionally speak with a clear accent and use correct grammar. Not True! As I wrote in a previous post, when you’re listening to someone speak another language, it’s very easy to nod politely and give the impression that you understand everything.
There is SO MUCH that you miss by not speaking the local language. So many undercurrents – in politics, the economy, society. So many miscommunications that you are not even aware of. And the Ecuadorians will get the impression you are somewhat simple-minded, a bit crazy, and just weird. But you’ll never know they think that because they’re saying it in Spanish.
During my time in Ecuador, I heard many Ecuadorians express frustration with the Gringos who don’t try to integrate into society and don’t try to learn Spanish. They were also irritated because the North Americans drive up the price of real-estate, and don’t know how to drive ‘Ecuadorian-style’ on the roads (admittedly, I wouldn’t try driving there). Don’t get me wrong – they love North Americans – and when you speak Spanish, they’ll let you in on their confidences, their fears, and their ideas about what’s going on in the world. This is how you make friends anywhere.
But Cuenca isn’t Disneyland. Ecuador is not as stable as most North Americans think it is. Just look at the string of presidents before Correa came to power in 2007. And the drop in oil prices has had a big impact. People are worried for the stability of the country. Especially when North Americans move there, spend two days sightseeing, and put down $200k on a luxury condo that the Ecuadorians believe should cost $80k.
I don’t mean to generalize in this post. My comments are based on my experiences, conversations, and impressions. I met Gringos who do not live in Gringolandia, who are trying to learn Spanish and integrate with the culture. But there are always challenges to integrating in a culture that is not your own. I think about my own ancestors who, upon arrival as immigrants in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, moved into the growing German-Russian communities to be with friends and like-minded people. Integration can take generations.
Cuenca is a beautiful city – and the low cost of living is certainly attractive (I do miss the days when I didn’t have to pay $1 for an apple, or $2.50 for a decent avocado.) It’s also a fairly safe city and a good option for someone wanting to start a new life in a place with a strong community (whether that be among other Gringos, or among Cuencanos, or both), lots or art, music, good food and clean water, and things to do. I feel really lucky to have been able to spend 6 months living and working there.
But if you’re planning to move there, please, try to learn some Spanish – and use it frequently!
I just want to end this post by saying how amazingly privileged we are in the US to be able to think about fleeing this country in the first place. We are gifted with the freedom to leave, if we choose, many have the money to do it, and a passport that is welcomed almost anywhere in the world. We don’t have to cross the ocean on a small raft, spend years in what amounts to as a concentration camp to gain access to other parts of the world, or climb any walls designed to keep us out. And, if we want, we can come back.
This is, in part, a reciprocity in response to the good will that we have shown others over the past two centuries. We have welcomed, with open arms, people seeking shelter from oppressive governments, religious persecution, and famine. If it weren’t for this, I might have been born in the Ukraine. Or my ancestors would have died in the Irish potato famine, or in some Russian Gulag, or on a European battlefield.
I know, things are not perfect in the United States. Democracy is a big experiment, and it’s very clear that we are still in the midst of this experiment. As a scientist, I know that experiments can go awry. I can only think this is what must be happening when our country has become so divided that an openly racist, misogynist bigot can become the nominee for a major political party and still have the support of a large percentage of the populace, no matter what horrid, anti-American, hateful things spew from his mouth.
But I’m not ready to give up on this country. Education is the foundation of a successful democracy. As an educator, I know this is my role, small as it is, to keep nudging things back on track. To keep teaching people, when and where I can, how to think critically, how to evaluate an argument, how to dig to find the truth. The future of not only the US, but the world, depends on our ability to learn to be thoughtful, educated global citizens. We are not an isolated nation. The repercussions of what happens in this country ripple around the world – and you cannot flee that. (Unless, I suppose, you find a place to live off the grid somewhere in the Canadian Rockies.)
So, God bless the USA. And Ecuador. And, hey, how about the rest of the world, too?