I’ve been corresponding with a friend who is moving to Cuenca in less than a week; he is dragging three suitcases behind him. I arrived here “Bedouin-style,” as well, carrying what I considered to be only the essential items certain to be of use and irreplaceable. Now that I am in my eighteenth month, I can look back on how well I planned, knowing a little bit better what’s needed and what one can do without when they arrive here.
There are some things that I should have ejected soon after my arrival — like those shoes that are just a little too large. I bought them because they looked sturdy and stylish, and they will be great for someone who wears a men’s size 14. Me, I wear a size 13. What was I thinking? And, then there was my favorite shawl collar cardigan sweater that I left behind — I’d had it for 25 years. I miss it still.
Cookware is the single set of items I am happiest to have and feel it is essential for you to pack with you. The familiar heft of a pot, a knife sharpened just so, and a handful of gadgets collected over many years are of great comfort when cooking in a new kitchen. New foods in a new land are much more fun when the tools you are using are tuned to your particular style and feel.
My antique wooden spoon from Africa and my custom-made knife from Japan are used with the same reverence that I have for the places where they were made and remain among my most treasured tools since the day I brought them home.
I packed a few art pieces to remind me of times and places now far away in my daily considerations and imagination. I would pack them again. I often look upon them with a mixture of appreciation for their artistic merit but, more importantly, as a portal to my younger self and the dreams they carry for me until I am gone from this world.
I was wisely advised to bring two cell phones and two laptops — thankfully, I complied. I’ve needed them all. I also brought with me two sets of prescription glasses, something you cannot do without. I had new lenses made a few months ago for my everyday glasses and depended on my old bifocals for almost a week.
Clothing seems to be the most common issue for gringos new to Cuenca. I have yet to find a single shirt, pair of pants, socks, skivvies, or athletic wear that fit a man over six feet tall. I don’t even bother to look for shoes in a store anymore and have been advised — if you are over-sized — to have them made to order by a local cobbler.
How cool is that? People make stuff here.
I wear a beret or fedora on sunny days due to the intensity of UV rays. Rather than lug around an unnecessary and too hot raincoat, I have a Gor-tex vest that fits nicely beside my umbrella that is stashed in the waterproof messenger bag that I carry nearly everywhere, and nearly every day.
My friend, Michael, brought with her a Neiman-Marcus ankle-length snow white trench coat made of fine merino wool. It hangs in the hallway closet directly above her collection of exceptional quality, leather sole, stiletto heel shoes, standing at attention and gathering dust. She knows better than to ever wear them on cobblestone even if many Ecuadorian women wear them daily.
She keeps them none the less.
Again, a good hat repels the rain, offers shade from the sun, and protects your eyes from glare in an environment where awareness of your surroundings is critical.
Two words: sensible shoes.
Fortunately, apartments, homes, and hostels throughout Cuenca hold captive entire wardrobes of Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts, and oversize Air Jordan sneakers that will never see the light of day, and for that we can all be thankful.
My takeaway, after chatting with many gringos who moved here only with what they could carry, is that they all share a recognition that what was once thought of as essential can become an accessory no longer important — and that what was once considered the smallest trifle can take on unexpected value It does not matter that you wear the same sweater again and again. What matters is usefulness.
This includes ourselves as well as our clothes.
There is one item I consider essential to bring with you when you move to or visit Cuenca. If you read on social media that someone needs an item from North America and you have room, offer to help — without charge. We do not have to monetize simple kindness. Besides, this act will allow you to meet someone living in your new home town, and will often include lunch in a nice restaurant, as a gesture of thankfulness. You will have performed your first task dedicated to community service, and you may well even make a friend. I did.
Of course, when you leave your old home behind you will also leave a lot of unnecessary baggage as well, a cause for unrelenting joy.
As the miles are plowed below you, know that your most precious possession is your own true self and that your faith, whatever it is, can be shared here with folks who will embrace you. Bring an open mind; you will be a stranger in a strange land and will need to learn the language, customs, and ways of life in a culture likely to be far older and more deeply entrenched than where you were before you arrived here.
Pack a boatload of patience, two containers of understanding, and lifeboats full of love. You will need all three and they will all serve you well.
Oh, one more thing, if you need a pair of size 14 shoes that are sturdy and stylish, there is no reason to pack them down here. I have them waiting for you already.