An expat’s intro: Joys of walking, affordability, questions about tipping, and speaking Spanish

Aug 27, 2017 | 0 comments

By Ray Horsley

I’d like to share some Cuenca highlights, especially after my first post which was kind of negative about phone and internet problems.

Others have written on the subject, but there are so many joys about this place for new arrivals I can’t help being drawn to share a few of my own before I take them for granted. For starters, in addition to agreeable climate, safety, clean water, year-round organics, and many cultural offerings, we have the opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasure of walking.

Walking everywhere we go is such a welcome change in lifestyle.

After spending a year in Spain in 2004, walking everywhere all the time, other than in winter when we’d freeze our tapas off, my wife and I tried time and again to find towns in the U.S. which were walkable. Asheville, North Carolina came close but it was still a distant second to Cuenca, the place to be if you like to walk.

CuencaHighLife’s recent re-post of Sylvan Hardy’s “A Walker’s Guide to Old Cuenca” was a fun and useful compliment to this life style. Walking leads to spontaneously discovering new things in addition to what you set out to do. It also seems to bring out the best in people. We ask storekeepers for directions and they often accompany us, walking four or five blocks with us all the way to our destination. That’s really nice. We’re tempted to say people here are friendlier than in the U.S., but I’m not sure that’s fair. It’s not that we’re less friendly in the U.S., it’s just that the car-is-king lifestyle seems to bring out other kinds of behaviors, like aggressive lane changing, and the all-too-common finger gestures we learned in grade school.

Walking in Cuenca is a journey of discover.

Yep, walking is better. It brings out the best in us. We inevitably run into somebody we know, discover some new place, or slip into some event we were unaware of.

Another simple beauty here is the impressive views found in abundance around town. It seems everywhere we go we’re surrounded by picture postcard scenes. Returning to the same places we find them colored differently depending on the time of day, or the weather. It’s something we don’t want to neglect. Passing up the views in Cuenca would be like visiting Buenos Aires and not taking tango lessons, touring Europe without entering a castle, or moving to Texas without buying a gun. OK, sorry about that last one. Just joking. But simply put, the majestic views to be found walking around Cuenca are a sight to behold.

Any discussion of the joys of Cuenca wouldn’t be complete without mentioning affordability. We all love prices which take us back to the 1980’s, giving us full value for the dollars some of us may have been saving since the 1980’s. And on a related note, I love the honesty in how goods are tagged. What you see is what you’ll pay. I know taxes are built into some prices, but it’s nice to be rid of the additional sales tax added on just before checking out. I like seeing exactly what I’ll pay and making an informed decision.

To tip or not to tip is the question.

Finally, and this one’s a little controversial, it’s nice to get some relief from the ubiquitous practice of obligatory tipping. The U.S. seems to lead when it comes this. Restaurants and cab rides are the most prominent examples. Cruise ships really get into it too.

I’ve never liked compulsory tipping. It takes the true meaning out of tipping when I really want to, and it seems to be a zero-sum game. Management, keenly aware of how much employees are earning in tips, simply lowers wages accordingly to increase the bottom line. By the time we left the U..S there were big cups labeled “Tips” everywhere. If I pour my own coffee, fix it up myself with cream and sugar, and then bus my own table when finished, who am I tipping?

When my wife and I relocate, our goal is to negatively impact our new home as little as possible, so we asked around about tipping. We inquired about servers, cab drivers, and the guy who helps carry your groceries. We spoke with a middle aged woman and her teenage son, a couple of security guards in their twenties, a man in his seventies, two thirteen year old girls, and the manager of a restaurant on the Parque Calderón. It’s not a huge sampling, but they all responded about the same. The consensus was that the grocery store worker is the only one who should always be tipped, “but twenty-five to fifty cents, no more”.

Neither cab drivers nor restaurant servers regularly receive, nor expect, tips. The Parque Calderón restaurant manager conceded he sometimes sees one or two dollar tips, but mostly from “extranjeros” which I’m sure he sees a lot of at that location.

It’s a challenge since any discussion of tipping can easily turn into one pitting generosity against stinginess. I think the more important issue is the cultural impact foreigners have for introducing new ways. That is, it would be a shame if cab drivers began passing up Cuencanos for an extranjero up the street, or servers began showing preferential treatment to foreigners more likely to tip heavily. This doesn’t seem to be the case right now, but it’s an interesting observation that the majority of restaurants where we’ve seen U.S.-style “Tips” cups and donation boxes are in establishments frequented by expats. I hope we don’t bring the over-tipping game to Cuenca.

The list of what we love about Cuenca goes on, but none compares to speaking Spanish.

Of all the day-to-day joys we experience in Cuenca, the one at the top of our list is speaking Spanish. This fun and phonetic language can be found in many countries, but many of those places are dangerous, expensive, and you get sick from contaminated water. Speaking Spanish in Cuenca is a case of having your cake, eating it, and having a glass of clean water too. A subject all it’s own, it still deserves mentioning here. Some Cuencanos speak English, but not too many. In major urban hubs like Santiago and Buenos Aires so many people speak English, or want to, that it’s often hard to find somebody who’ll speak Spanish with you.

That’s not the case here. This opens the door for us to learn and practice a new language at our level and pace. And the Cuencanos inevitably help. It’s a real joy!

Ray Horsley

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