By Liam Higgins
Cuenca resident Kathy McClary recalls the day, a year ago, when she suffered what she calls an “expat panic attack.”
“I was having my morning coffee in Café Austria, in the historic district, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the question: what am I doing here? Why in the world would I leave my home, my relatives and friends and everything I’m familiar with in the U.S., to move to a country thousands of miles away, where I know almost no one and don´t understand the language?”
At the time, McClary says, she had been in Cuenca for only three months and was struggling to reconstruct a daily routine. “I needed a dentist, a seamstress, vitamins and supplements, a veterinarian, cooking spices – you name it. I was even having trouble ordering gas for my stove and hot water heater. I felt like a child who had been thrown out the house with no idea of how to survive on her own.”
Although McClary, who is originally from Ohio, says the philosophical question of why she left her native culture remains, her anxiety over coffee at Café Austria proved to be a turning point in her life as an expat. “I realized that I had to take charge of my own destiny if I was going to be happy. I also realized that this would require enormous effort on my part.”
What McClary discovered over the following weeks was the existence of an extensive support network that helps expats transition to life in Cuenca. “I started making friends, joined a cooking club, took at painting class and started volunteering at an orphanage. I found out that almost everything I needed was out there and there were people willing to help me.”
McClary says she knew about the opportunities before moving to Cuenca. “I was reading CuencaHighLife and GringoPost and some of the forums but but actually making the connections and getting involved takes personal initiative. It doesn’t just drop in your lap,” she says.
Part-time Cuenca resident and journalist Sylvan Hardy says that the adjustment to expat life is not easy for most people but agrees with McClary that there is an impressive support network that can make the transition easier.
“When I came to Cuenca 14 years ago none of this existed. There were maybe 200 North Americans here then, a lot of them married into Ecuadorian families, and the rest of us fended for ourselves.” Hardy says he doesn’t mind being a “stranger in a strange land,” having lived among local populations in Southeast Asia before moving to Cuenca, but says he understands this doesn’t work for most expats.
“Today, you have almost every service a small town in the U.S. or Europe has, maybe more,” Hardy says. “There are people who will hold your hand through the visa process, who will help set up your utilities and bank account, who will take you shopping and set up appointments with the doctor, the dentist, the hair dresser. The big problem is choosing the right facilitator, as they are called these days. Most of them are pretty good but there are some quacks and scammers out there too.”
Cuenca’s expat network has not gone unnoticed. Recently, a Wall Street Journal blogger said it was one of the best in world, “definitely the best in Latin America.”
Tom Espy, who has been in Cuenca for 10 years, calls the number of self-help and hobby groups available today “mind-boggling.” None of them existed in 2005, he says. “You’ve got AA groups, drug recovery groups, weight loss groups, theater groups, organizations for veterans, hikers, quilters, artists, investors, dancers, bikers, iPad users, creative writers, fishermen. There’s an art studio, cooking classes, dog obedience classes, singing classes, you name it,” he says.
Hardy says it’s still up to expats to decide to what extent they want to “hook into the establishment. You pick the level of connectedness that you need and are comfortable with,” he says. “All the new options are an outgrowth of a community that has grown from 200 to 6,000 in a few years.”
For McClary, most of the options are good: “They’re really great for folks who are new in town and those thinking about moving here. It makes things so much easier. I’m in an arts and crafts group, go to an English-language church, and help out with an animal rescue program. To be honest, I’m much more involved in the community than I was in Ohio.”