Four years in Cuenca: An expat looks back on his decision to leave the U.S. and sizes up his new home, its people, its pace, and the joys he discovers every day

Jul 16, 2015 | 16 comments

Editor’s note: CuencaHighLife’s newest columnist, Dave Nelson, spent 30 years growing up and getting educated in Oregon before moving to the Oakland, California and the East Bay area, where he practiced worker’s compensation law, representing injured workers, for 40 years. When he retired from his legal practice, he worked another nine years as a part-time gardener before moving to Cuenca.

By Dave Nelson

Four years ago today I arrived in Cuenca with three suitcases and a carry on, having sold or given away all my other worldly goods, intending to live here and become a part of the chl david nelson logoculture. After 50 years in and around Oakland, California, I was fully retired but realized that at some point economic necessity would force me to move.

In January, 2011, I was at a going away party of a friend where I met a woman who had just returned from six months in Cuenca and was very happy to spend half an hour telling me all about it. Latin culture had always interested me, an overly serious introvert of Northern European heritage who always felt he “should” be more lively. I can’t explain or name the mechanism but something within me (or at least that’s my sense of it) decided that night that I was moving to Cuenca. Fortunately my brain concurred and six months later, I was here.

Cuenca's historic district, across the Rio Tomebamba

Cuenca’s historic district, across the Rio Tomebamba

Today, Cuenca is home and I intend to live out my life here. I just had my 86th birthday, have never felt better, getting old is great, I am comfortable with myself, at ease with life and the world, am amazed, humbled and so grateful at how things are for me. I am cautious about using labels but they can be helpful so the caption for my life today is that I am living a life of quiet joy.

Cuenca has had a lot to do with it. There is a calmness in the air, a feeling that things are ok, that frenetic rushing to get things done is not necessary. That shows up in people being late; having a timetable to finish a project is nearly impossible; if you show up at 6 for dinner the lady of the house may be just getting out of the shower; only the symphony starts at the scheduled time. So you pay attention, relax, and adjust to this new world.

There are a half million people in Cuenca but for us gringos it feels like a small town. The small Spanish town built in the 1500’s that we call El Centro, is where most of us spend a lot of time, and where we are constantly running into people, both locals and gringos, that we know.

When I am asked what I like about Cuenca my first answer is “the people”, who are almost always smiling, friendly and helpful. On the trail beside the Tomebamba River where I walk a lot, I can stop and say hello to a family, usually by paying attention to their small child, and end up with smiles and laughter as we try to understand each other. Nearly every conversation with a local includes a small lesson in Spanish as they correct my pronunciation or give me the correct word. They accept me as I am. One cannot ask for any more than that from a fellow human being.

Cuenca's new cathedral at daybreak.

Cuenca’s new cathedral at daybreak.

I have made a good number of friends, mostly gringos, with an easy, back and forth relationship where we accept each other and deal mostly in the present, with past accomplishments and status only coming up as an aside, or to make our understanding of each other a bit fuller. I see everyone as my friend, not acting differently with Sara, who does my laundry, or Martha, who cuts my hair, than I do with those who would be seen as “higher class”. I do have some close friends with whom I can share the deeper and more private stuff that one needs to talk to someone else about. The friend with whom I am most candid and free is my young Spanish teacher, Maria Elena, from whom I am slowly learning Spanish (the slowness is all on me) and learning Ecuadorian and Cuencano ways and history. She is one who listens well, will give me a jab, laugh at my foolishness with a “you think too much” or have a thoughtful and useful response to a stressful situation.

So, although Cuenca has played its part in helping me along the path it is not a magic elixir that by itself works wonders. I have continued to read (there are 300 books on my Kindle), finding that insights about how to live my life can come from anywhere – poetry, fiction, particle physics, how the brain works, current events, history, humor, biography, psychology. And on top of that, the books are interesting and informative.

I continue to think a lot about life, which leads to a better understanding of it, and therefore leads to changes in my beliefs. And change is inevitable, so generally I am able to accept it, though at times with reluctance. I am doing my best to more fully experience life, rather than defining it, thinking about it, and judging it. I understand that I need to just jump in and live it.

My experience is that the more loving, open and vulnerable I am, the better my day-to-day life goes. I try my best to follow Jesus in being loving, compassionate and forgiving to myself and all others. The more of us that do that, whatever the source of inspiration, the better off the world will be.


Dave Nelson

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