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The haberdasher’s tale

As you may have noticed, for the past three years I have been writing a weekly love letter to Cuenca. The serendipities that guided me through this year seem no less than the work of angels.

On occasions over this last year, someone would pause as they passed me and offer a compliment, the sweetest piece of candy.

“I like what you are doing. I enjoy the fact that you share your life with us”.

This reassurance is well deserved for many expats and Cuencanos who give of their time and love every day. It is a measure of guidance and inspiration I rely on, and, I am warmed by each and every loving touch.

I feel a deeper warmth, as well. I am infused with the resolute culture that engulfed me.

I am consumed. My heart is on fire.

I recall a time when some folks insisted that, given time, my rose-tinted lenses would dull and I would understand the benefit of their school-of-hard-knocks wisdom, and see Cuenca for what it is: Poor sanitation, discomfort, unsavory elements, a fledgling country with foreign ideas that need Yankee or Canuck know-how.

My favorite was the reader who complained that I was doing a grave disservice to readers by not telling the unvarnished truth about Cuenca. I failed my duty as a columnist by not detailing the horrors of Cuenca  — petty crime, uneven sidewalks, and watermelons with too many seeds.

I was not fair and balanced, it seemed.

I invited him to sit down with me over a cup of coffee and chat face-to-face rather than respond to his diatribes in the comments section. But, he couldn’t join me. He lives in Vermont.

However, in the spirit of giving voice to his concerns, allow me to share with you one of my favorite things about living here that drives this guy bonkers: In Cuenca, the customer comes third, or fourth. Almost always.

God, family, and friends come first. Always. I appreciate that.

I walked by a haberdashery a while ago and saw a style of hat I liked. I went in, chatted a bit with the hat-maker, was measured to guarantee that the hat was properly sized, and was told to return the next day to pick up the finished product.

When I dropped in two days later, the hat-maker again measured me to guarantee that the hat would fit exactly as I wished, and assured me that he would be ready for me when the sun rose in the morning.

A few days later, I breezed into the haberdashery and was warmly greeted by the hat-maker who agreed with me that yes, I really did want the hat, and that he would proudly make one exactly as I wished. Just  come on back in the morrow.

The next morning I entered the store just as a car wreck of thunder plowed through the clouds, spilling water like a broken hydrant. I was again warmly greeted by the hat-maker, only this time I was handed a hat that was perfectly made, exactly what I wanted, and is certain to endure a lifetime of wearing in the rain.


I deeply respect the custom of developing a social bond as an essential component of everyday transactions. It restitches pieces of the community that have become frayed by a perceived slight, or a son and a daughter of neighbors dating, or no longer dating. Through simple communication, the fabric is repaired and the damage assigned to the past.

Like with the haberdasher; the simple conversations we shared were meaningful simply for having had them. The fact that I cheerfully returned again and again established both my number three ranking, and the amount of time the hat-maker would invest in creating my hat. If I was impatient, I would have received a rushed job certain to fray over time.

I learned to respect this too; we must be model citizens to offset those who are insensitive to local customs and have an incurious mind.

Some are here only because they can live well on the cheap, and they care nothing for the people and culture established thousands of years ago. The people of Ecuador know this because they experience humiliation every single day.

They feel it on their skin every time an indifferent gringo casually, and most often ignorantly, offends them, or becomes disrespectful in some profound way — sticking a camera in a woman’s face, as if she was an animal in a zoo — breezing into a church, flip flops slapping in rhythm to lips babbling. Yet they continue to tolerate us and even subsidize our presence.

What patient and kind people they are. How deep their compassion and capacity for unconditional love.

The financial eligibility for an extended Ecuador visa  is about $800 a month, over twice the national  minimum wage. Ecuadorians, many who still struggle under the yoke of a three-year recession, see us everyday, living very well and being subsidized by their government. My heating and cooking gas costs less than $2 a month simply because the people of Ecuador help me pay that bill. And, that is just the beginning.

Sadly, there are those among us who take every opportunity to take, and offer nothing in return. Like clawing back tax money at every single opportunity, or insisting on a $70 health insurance policy without having contributed their fair share into a common fund. It is quite disheartening to witness such selfish exceptionalism and entitlement in Ecuador. We must turn our backs on this corroding disease on very occasion, and move forward by contributing some small part of our day in service to others.

And, as for those who bray of their wealth to justify their greed and indifference, or choose to ignore or belittle those who opened their arms to embrace us and invited us to make ourselves at home?

They deserve the Humiliation Cross, and nothing less.

Reposted from February 2018

38 thoughts on “The haberdasher’s tale

  1. Awhile back, one of my comments was censored on this site because I compared your articles to 10 teaspoons of sugar. Even though I prefer less sugar in my coffee, I continue reading what you have to say because it’s interesting to watch a person new to Ecuador adapting to Ecuadorian (Cuenca) life.
    With this article, I can see that you have arrived! I will no longer consider you a “newbie”. The haberdashery story along with some of your other comments perfectly illustrates the beauty of this culture . I hope that other folks who haven’t yet achieved this understanding pay attention. Thank you.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful reply. However, I am disappointed to read that you were censored.
      In retrospect, what you wrote was very sweet. Thanks.

    2. I won’t even bother responding to the author with my opinion of his article since I know it will censored.

  2. Robert, thank you for this lovely article about some of the things I love best in Cuenca. I have so often bristled at the crass comments of other expats and hope that somehow my respect for these wonderful people and the culture and customs which I am privileged to enjoy and take part in makes up for the insults cast their way by others.

  3. Thank you, Robert. As always, you captured the beauty of the country and its culture, well, beautifully! Sadly, the expats who could most benefit from your tale will be the ones who take offense and act offensively.

  4. Well said. After two and a half years we’re still in love with Cuenca. This is our home and we are so grateful to the whole community for welcoming us and letting us be a part of it. I feel much more a part of a community here than I ever have. So many of our Cuencano friends open their hearts and homes to share their traditions with us and we try to do the same. We need more people like you who come with the positive attitude and sense of wonder; who might be willing to step out of their comfort zone to experience the wonders that our friends offer us.

  5. I have been here for more than 3 years. The things that would have driven me crazy in the US just don’t seem so important here. “Bad” customer service? Different, yes but “bad” is in the eye of the beholder. Why do we love the pace and time for friends and conversation when it applies to us but complain when it applies to others?

  6. I enjoyed, respected and agreed with everything you say in this article, Robert, and I thank you for it. I hasten to admit, though, that I arrived in Cuenca with one major illusion: that I would find here a large, annoying, embarrassing group of North American immigrants who would shame me in front of our hosts. In the nearly six years I’ve lived here, I’ve found that to be not at all true. I’ve encountered such people, and have found them a vociferous bunch, but so rarely that I can count those encounters on one hand with a couple of digits to spare. On the contrary, I have found many more people from my home continent that range from tolerant and adaptable to people like you, who understand that this city and its culture is a huge gift that we may not entirely deserve. So shame on those few that arrive with intolerant eyes and minds, and shame on me for arriving the same way, only about the people with whom I share origin. I stand happily corrected.

    1. I am a firm believer that almost all who made the trek south are linked by a common thread composed of creativity, kindness and heart, now embroidered into the fabric of Cuenca

  7. This expresses my sentiments perfectly. We have been here 8 months and love it. It gets better and better. Perfect-no. Beautiful, charming, delightful-yes. When I hear harsh criticisms I try to review the similar in the US and it usually is just as annoying or much worse. I think when you get away from it you tend to forget. In the US When I waited until 2 days before the end of the month to get my new car tags the line was hours long. If I went at lunch, worse. Don’t get me started on insurance companies there either.
    So far I am still a happy camper.

  8. Having lived in Hong Kong and Japan for 5 years, exactly what you have written is how one becomes accepted in a foreign land. Acting like a bull in a china shop gets you nothing. Embrassing the people , culture, standards, life style, is how one becomes part of that society. Well done.

  9. LOVE… the article. Your writing is – as ever – evocative, whimsical and bright. BUT… most of all we love the portrait close-up of the Ecuadoran face (Saragureño perhaps?)… worth ‘un mil palabras’ and portraying the humor, humility and humanity we encounter without fail EVERY time we walk out our door. Thank you, Robert. And to express our appreciation, we would like celebrate you with the highest Ecuadorian expat honor – a young hen delivered to your door when you least expect … Yes, the ‘Pullet Surprise’! (say it out loud, fast).

    ‘Fan’-atically yours…
    Jeff and Jaffe

    1. Alright you guys, I’m telling you now I will use that tag often. I laughed like a hyena.
      “Every picture tells a story don’t it?”

  10. Robert Bradley you have taken a beautiful story out of my head, and put it on paper. My story, that is a compilation of almost 6 years of living in Cuenca, traveling to the Ecuadorian coasts, and visiting many remote villages. My story continues, as will yours. I hope that your tapestry of experiences in Cuenca will add many more vibrant colors and designs; to make it a master piece, just as it does mine. As my journey started in Indonesia, then to America, 48 years ago, which included 22 years in Hawaii, and currently in Ecuador. It has been summits and valleys, sorrow and joys, learning and growing. All of it the perfect ingredients of a life well lived. Thank you for validating my personal sentiments.

  11. You are already a Giant amongst Expats. As a newbie, I eagerly read your thoughts and expressions of gratitude to live in such a fine place!

  12. Hey what happened to my comment? Censored???? If that is the case, I do want to know why. I thought that it was very positive, and appreciative of the author of the article.. Oh well….. life will go on with or without Cuenca High Life.

    1. Censored? Heavens, no. Ecuador time? Heck yes. This is our lesson to learn, all of us,:..again and again.
      “Patience is a conquering virtue.”
      ― Geoffrey Chaucer
      Thanks again for writing me.

    2. It’s probably the comment above, which is indeed positive and appreciative. I’ve found that the comments don’t always appear immediately; I think they’re reviewed first.

      1. Yes, they are reviewed…but, surely not by me.
        Thanks for checking in. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

  13. Really…you have the eye of a photographer and write this way in seeing the details. The patience in observing the details. Although, I wonder, in the culture of my so called first world country I see much the same in friendliness…expressed differently. In respect and attention in business negotiations and people, This culture which goes back ‘hundreds’ of years actually is a rssponse to organization of society and customs to function in accepted ways. But, honestly are we really being subsidized in respect by the Ecuadorian people ? I might question that. A smile and friendliness perhaps a necessity in society ‘lacking’ strong law enforcement and social institutions to a reliance on church, family and friends – like it or not :). Then I too appreciate the social aspect of business here to or at least recognize its necessity to a better outcome. More often though, having been here for more then 10 years, I see a rougher side to Ecuadorian culture. Bearing in mind that I always question whether I am misinterpreting the situation. Hey gringo !!! I would suppose that new experience in a new culture is exhilarating and breath taking. Ecuador is a place of a photographers dream in its colorfulness in the natural beauty and even the ‘squalor’ and poverty. Take advantage then of this culture you find so endearing to enjoy it. And perhaps see it as perfect as you contrast it to a lifetime of criticism of your own culture, to express your wonder….

    1. On the contrary
      I do prefer the church as a model for society rather than a police state, It is an aspect of the culture I find most appealing.
      I agree that a new experience in a new culture is fun. I’ve seen many. But it is Ecuadorian culture that I love and write of.
      I suggest anyone who is not paying their fair share is being subsidized.
      And finally, when you refer to, “As you contrast it to a lifetime of criticism of your own culture”, I must take exception.
      Really? A lifetime?
      I don’t believe you have ever been privy to my history.

      Having said that, I do appreciate you taking the time to write.

  14. Karma is a burden for many of us. You beautifully put forth your point of view, and it’s valid to me, a resident over four years.
    Thank you for shining a light on the cultural differences, Robert. You’ve given us all a lot to chew on. Illustrative photos as usual; especially, I like the person grabbing for the elusive dollar. It summarizes your theme well.

    1. Thanks, Jeremiah. I gotta tell ya, though, I did a edit and crop on this one. The whole pic is a lot more graphic.

  15. I arrived in Ecuador five years ago today. I’ve spent those five years baking, writing, and studying Spanish. In the Kingdom of Quito. It has never occurred to me to go “home” because home is here. Thank you for a really perceptive article.

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