By R.S. Gompertz
Of all the places we have lived and traveled, when it comes to possible places to settle I like Cuenca the best. On the list of attributes I look for, Cuenca scores high on every one except proximity. Getting in and out of here from the West Coast is a pain in the asiento.
Cuenca is a delightful mid-sized university town with a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial core, situated in a river valley in the Andes mountains. It is overflowing with arts and cultural events, many of them free.
But beyond the aesthetic, cultural and financial considerations the real beauty of Cuenca is the people, both Ecuadorian and expat. The two populations mix comfortably and we have found both to be warm, open and inviting.
Within a couple of weeks of our arrival in Cuenca, my wife and I felt more potential for connection than we have in the many other places we’ve lived. It’s not that we haven’t connected elsewhere, it just required more time and effort.
Part of this is our fault. Simply put, we are like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit.
Our polyglot marriage is a mix of Jewish, Muslim, Californian, North African, Arab, French and refugee German. This might seem like a stewpot full of opposing ingredients until you consider the Semitic broth that binds us.
To make friendships more challenging, we tend to change cities (and occasionally countries) every five or six years.
In theory we’re easy to communicate with: My wife speaks four languages, I speak two and a half. But most of the common touch points that people tend to connect and organize around (church, Rotary, sports, kids) miss us completely.
Whenever we change towns we look for musicians, multilingual groups, book clubs, volunteer organizations, and artists. Eventually, a social scene comes together, usually around the same time wanderlust whispers.
In Cuenca the puzzle came together with surprising speed. When we arrived here for our six week visit, we spent the first week looking for groups and activities where we might connect. Within two weeks we had participated in four different weekly language exchanges, a mind-boggling panama hat making class, a soup kitchen for refugees, two open mic jam sessions, and multiple (mostly free) concerts. There seems to be no limit to the things we could get involved with.
If there is such a thing as national character, Ecuadorians are friendly, curious and welcoming. Cuenca even has a city-wide goal of becoming bi-lingual, English/Spanish. The ex-pats we have met are civic-minded and inclusive. This combination of local and imported warmth is unlike anything we have found elsewhere.
Cuenca is where we connect.
R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here.