By Robert Bradley and David Morrill
Editor’s note: Pandemic Profiles is an ongoing series that looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the lives of Cuencanos and Cuenca expats.
The story Eduardo Gonzalez tells is this; “I was strung out, overfed on processed foods, drank like I was on fire and smoked like I was, too. My life was caught in a vortex draining me of everything I held dear. ”
Life in his home country of Venezuela was spinning out of control and taking him with it.
One day, one of his daughters asked to be driven to a friend’s house. Gonzalez dutifully agreed but was in a hurry. When he turned to give his daughter a quick goodbye kiss, the girlfriend’s dad invited him to sit down for a moment; he had a small gift for him, a single red thread he tied around his neck. Gonzalez had met his first Buddhist monk. It was about time.
His life turned around at that very moment although he didn’t recognize it at the time — that simple act of kindness and an even simpler ribbon led him to Cuenca and a life bursting with joy and fulfillment.
Gonzalez speaks glowingly of his son in Panama and of his love for his daughter living in Germany. But, he was bouncing with pride chatting up his daughter, Mariana, and son-in-law, Kelbert and their success with a new enterprise, Artesana Family Bakery in Cuenca (https://artesanafamilybakery.com). Gonzalez and his wife are always available to help whenever and wherever they can since the business fulfills a longstanding dream shared by the whole family.
You may have seen Gonzalez in a park near you teaching tai-chi. He practices and teaches in parks across town, five days a week. Although he had major surgery on his right knee in March he is rehabbing and rapidly coming back with renewed vigor.
“Change opens doors,” he said. “My life would not be as meaningful without the moments of reflection my surgery and the pandemic offered. My awareness of acceptance is renewed, so is my desire to do my best.”
Gonzalez has made good use of his time. He developed a series of classes on tai-chi and meditation, “Tools for Life”, that is now being offered to students at the University of Azuay and his online classes are gaining respect and enthusiastic interest across Ecuador and beyond.
Eduardo Gonzalez possesses one of the rare qualities of focus where all else blurs, the power of his conversation and riveting eyes hold sway; I was held captive by the sincerity of his message and calm persona in ways that were stimulating and memorable. He repeated his mantra a third time before leaving to confer with a student on the dynamics of the ‘moving meditation’ that is tai-chi. It is a mantra he repeats often.
“Our single greatest challenge is to come to an understanding of acceptance. Acceptance requires one to be their best,” he says. (Robert Bradley)
Escaping the fear and loathing of the USA
“I was finally able to exhale,” is how Alex Rossi describes the feeling when he stepped off the airplane at the Cuenca airport in late October. He was returning from a five-week trip to the U.S. where he visited family and concluded a real estate sale.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast of cultures and attitudes between Ecuador and the U.S. but when I got home from this trip the difference was really extreme,” says Rossi, a retired psychology professor who moved to Cuenca in 2013. “Everywhere I visited up there, in Ohio, Michigan and California, it was like a freaking pressure cooker. Everyone was angry and scared, totally obsessed with the election and the pandemic.”
He adds: “Cuencanos are pissed off about things too — the Covid restrictions, corruption, the kids partying down the street, and a lot of them are suffering economically — but the level of the anger is no where near the intensity level in Columbus or Berkeley.”
Rossi says he is surprised how many U.S. expats “download” the anger from the U.S. and don’t take advantage of what he calls the “Ecuador Escape.”
“An awful lot of my gringo friends spend most of their time online and watching television from back home and, even from 4,000 miles away, you feel the madness. Besides all the scary, suspicious, scandalous stuff about the pandemic and the election, there’s the god-awful tv advertisements. One after the other, they’re about diseases that will kill you if you don’t buy the latest drug or about how you need to buy more insurance so you don’t leave your loved-ones destitute or how you’re entitled to a lot of money from companies and people who’ve screwed you over if you only call an attorney.”
In both his trip to the U.S. and back in Cuenca, Rossi says he tells his friends that it will have little direct impact on their lives whether Trump or Biden wins the election or how the pandemic is managed. “But most people seem totally bought into some kind of doom-and-gloom narrative. They get their bowels in an uproar and simply refuse to consider the alternatives and they aren’t able to just walk away,” he says.
“To my expat friends, I say get away from the screen, let go of the disease. Take a hike in the mountains, sit in the park, watch the birds on the Paraiso Greenway. You’re in a place where you can relax. Take advantage of it.” (David Morrill)
He trades Australian for Ecuadorian challenges
Tyrone Grigor traded the blistering sunshine of Australia for the occasional soggy landscape of Azuay Province a little over three years ago. He loved it enough that he decided to stay and begin the arduous process of planning a business modeled after his sales experience in his home country. Late last year he partnered with Felix at the very successful grocery, King’s Smokehouse, (Talbot and Simon Bolivar). His contribution is stocking a variety of premium liquors, condiments of every sort, and gadgets for the accomplished home cook. Happily, he has garnered a solid fan base of ‘foodies’ looking for specialty items, knowing that finding the ‘hard to find’ is his forte.
I dropped in to chat for a bit and asked him how the pandemic has affected his life. His answer was surprisingly common among seasoned expats. “Not too much, really. I’ve traveled enough to expect the unexpected and learned long ago that in every situation you have two stark choices: actively thrive, or merely survive. I always choose the first option.”
However, the pandemic has also been a sobering experience for him a way I often hear; he is very concerned about the welfare of others. “I am in the liquor business, but it gives me no pleasure to see the same tired-looking gringo, or Ecuadorian, buying another bottle knowing it is not for celebration; it is for survival.” He quietly spoke of the failed marriages, lonely lives, and desperation he occasionally sees in the eyes of a few of his customers – and refers to them as if each was a dear friend deserving uninterrupted attention and empathy. He said, “I had to re-think my business plan and focus on the specific wants and needs of my steady customers rather than simply stock my shelves for the convenience shopper”
When he is away from King’s Smokehouse, and not ferreting out some obscure tool, or ingredient, he spends his time at home with his wife and her parents on their property between Cuenca and Azouges.
“We greatly expanded our vegetable garden last March, and are just beginning the process choosing and planting fruit-bearing trees. Surprisingly, I developed a fondness for orchids and have been giving that a bit of a go.” He doesn’t hear much traffic at home; he wakes up to gossiping chickens and lonely cows mooing for their friends.
As I walked to the door he added a last thought, “Tell your readers not to procrastinate. If you think you can, or think you cannot, you are probably right.” (Robert Bradley)