Expat Life

A U.S. teenager looks back on her dread of relocating to Cuenca from Virginia and explains why today she counts her blessings that she did

By Melina Marks

I believe in many things, but one of my highest beliefs is in the value of change. I believe that we cannot grow, we cannot learn, and we cannot become who we are meant to be without change.

Melina Marks at work at Popacuchu
Melina Marks at work at Popacuchu

I used to believe the opposite of this. Change was something I feared, something I loathed, and something I was never willing to accept. Just a year ago, I lived in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. I went to a high school that I loved that was walking distance from my home. I thought Norfolk was great. It was all I had ever known. The seasons, the weather, the smell of fall and winter that rolled around every year, it was my home. I was popular in school, always surrounded by my group. “Queen Bee” they use to call me. My grades were good, I had a social life, a boyfriend, and everything a 15-year-old girl could want.

But, as my first year in high school progressed, my mother grew more and more unhappy. Unlike me, she has craved change since she was a child. Our little house in our city of Norfolk was no longer enough. She started searching, looking for that “paradise on earth” she had always dreamt about. This of course made me upset, because this meant an inevitable change. Quickly, she discovered a place on the Internet at work after countless Google searches. It was a faraway paradise, away from all the evils that surrounded our world, Cuenca, Ecuador. What an unexpected place, right? Everyone she told gave her “the look,” and said that was great, but she hid their true feelings with a smile.

The typical American teenager response is what I got from my friends when I complained and delivered the “devastating” news that I was to leave in the coming summer. As time progressed and the house was put on the market, my mother’s and my relationship worsened. Her happiness was my pain, and my fear of leaving home, my fear of being different, and above all, my fear of change grew. The cruelty I unknowingly inflicted on my mother was breaking her heart, “Ecuador will never be my home,” I said to her one night. That stuck with her for many months to come. My refusal to attend a real school in Ecuador is what lead me to online schooling when I was to arrived, convinced that I did not speak enough Spanish. I vowed I would never accept my mother’s new home, and I would only have to endure it until I was 18, then I could run away back to my cocoon of safety where I had always been so comfortable. The house was sold, the container was filled with our household belongings, and I was off to Arkansas to see my father, baby brother, and stepmother for the summer while my mother and stepfather made the journey to Ecuador to set up a new life.

The longer that I was in Arkansas, the more time I spent away from the place I called home, my devoted attachment started to weaken. My friends and I kept in touch, my boyfriend and I broke up, and the idea of seeing my mother happy in this place gave me a sense of joy that I had not yet experienced associated with Cuenca. The idea of adventure began to excite me more and more. I was changing. The summer went by quickly, as always. And leaving Arkansas was suddenly a week away. Saying goodbye to Arkansas after such a long time wasn’t as hard as previous endeavors, except for the goodbye to my 2 and ½ year old brother, Jaxson. He’s an adorable, intelligent little monster, and he lights up my world. But as one trip was ending, a new one was beginning. I had no idea the magnitude of the change I was about to experience, and how surprisingly wonderful it was going to be.

I left Arkansas and the United States behind to discover what lay ahead. I arrived in Cuenca only to meet a happier, literally brighter, and more uplifted woman than I had seen in a long time: my mother. This place had changed her for the better with its beauty. I began to explore my new life, and realized that I was actually happy. I was mistaken when I made the decision not to attend a traditional school here because I can speak and understand the language better than I ever have before. My fears of rejection deteriorated the moment I began to make friends which was soon after I arrived. The people are kind, social, and everyone wants to know everyone. Cuenca is truly the city that never sleeps. Everyone parties, because everyone only wants one thing, to live life to the fullest.

It’s an amazing thing really, to eat food and taste all of the wonderful flavors and colors without pesticides and enhancement hormones that we are so use to eating in the United States. The city center is always thriving with people, selling kebabs and other delicious foods. The absence of tall high-rise buildings gives the vibe of a small-town feel, yet it still contains all the aspects of a normal, growing city. It’s almost contradictory to have four clean rivers rushing by outside my apartment complex. And it’s a beautiful spectacle to watch the sun disappear behind mountains and light up the sky with brilliant colors that could only exist in paintings.

This is a place that could only exist in fairy tales — some even believed that it was the great lost city of gold, El Dorado, that the Spaniards so desperately wanted to find and never did. I believe that very few things can truly change a person, and this place has changed me. My plans to return back to my comfortable little box of Norfolk, Virginia have faded away. My fear of change is non-existent, and the resentment I held for my mother for a year is gone. I could never express the thanks I feel for her willingness to make me believe in her dream. I thought this would be my mother’s home and nothing more, but I am now proud to call Cuenca my home. I was enlightened by the light that is life here, and the life I’m living now is what influenced my ability to accept the change, and enjoy the dream. I now understand the craving for adventure and the need for true culture. I no longer withhold a fear of change, because without change, I would not be who I am now. I would still be stuck in Norfolk, along with my false sense of true happiness, and what it means to live.

Melina Marks is a 17-year-old high school student working at her mother’s and stepfather’s café and pasteleria, Popacuchu, located at Edificio Cuatro Rios, Primero de Mayo y Ave. de las Americas in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Popacuchu’s Location:

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  • angel

    Congratulations Melina, and best of luck to you in your new home. I hope to visit Cuenca someday soon.

  • This young lady is growing and maturing with an open mind that will endure her entire life.

  • Dear Melina,

    I commend you and your parents . First your parents,for having the vision of leaving the status quo and going after the dream of living a life that parralells their belief system,their values and principals.They knew what is coming to where they were then. They wanted something better for you and them. God bless them for their action.
    Second, To you Melina, I commend you for your acknowledgement of your earlier feelings to moving and adjusting to what was making your mom happy and taking it off of your own personal feelings of self. Young people like yourself give us older folks (I’m 70) a lot of hope knowing that there young people like you paving the way for the future.You and your folks are living My dream.Thank you for writing such an inspiring article.
    The future holds nothing but success and happiness for all of you.

    David Short
    Ocala Florida

  • Maria

    I have visited Cuenca and this city surrounded by mountains with perfect weather is beautiful. The health care, organic food and cost of living also make this an ideal place to live.

  • Melina Marks

    Thank you for the positive feed back! I’m looking forward to writing more for everyone to enjoy!

  • Marian

    I enjoyed reading your article and very happy that Cuenca is a great fit for you all! Hope to come visit your café someday from Quito (originally from Phoenix AZ).

  • Ke

    Outstanding piece of writing. I really enjoyed it!

  • Francisco Vega

    Congratiulations! its great that tou have a very open mind and
    good attitude that makes adaptation easy. Enjoy our city