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When they travel beyond Ecuador, this expat couple feels like the Beverly Hillbillies

By Kathy Cohen

Edward and Kathy Cohen, now of Vilcabamba, on a trip to Cusco.

Whenever we return to the U.S. after living two years in Cuenca and the last eight on on a mountainside above Vilcabamba — an Ecuadorian pueblo of just 5,000 people — we feel like the Beverly Hillbillies or the Rip Van Winkles. We see unidentifiable products and overhear conversations that make no sense.

Once, in a crowd in Buenos Aires, I saw a woman holding an intimidating two-foot-long pole and asked my friend, “What does she have there, a cattle prod?”

“No, Kathy, that’s a selfie stick.”

Nor do we know how to use Uber, TV remote controls, landline phones, GPS, auto-check-out lines in stores, GoPro, Roombas, Snapchat, Netflix, Shazam, X-Boxes, Fitbits, Alexa, Echo, Fire, Bird scooters, smart watches, or Twitter; and we know little or nothing about Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, or even Seinfeld.

We don’t know why credit cards have to have chips, or which end the chip is on or when to sign the credit card receipt with a pen or when to sign with an index finger or when not to sign. We never know how long to leave the card in the card machine, and Mrs. Van Winkle usually snatches it out too soon and has to start over as the people behind her snort and sigh and shift their weight from one foot to the other.

Kathy, posing with the piglets on the Quilotoa Loop.

We identify now with the hillbilly know-nothings Ellie Mae and Granny Clampett and Jethro Bodine all those times when they called their Beverly Hills swimming pool a cement pond. However, if we take care to refrain from asking questions, usually no one except my family is aware of our backwardness, simply because we have not yet happened to rent a car with gizmos.

That was not the case with our local friends, who flew to Europe several times recently and had to use Uber as well as a very modern rental car. When the wife visited Berlin, her friend living there called Uber, and the driver picked them up and said to the friend, “Hi, Stephanie!”

Our friend was amazed that in a city the size of Berlin, the two of them could be acquainted. “You two know each other?” she asked, astonished. Thankfully, as yet, I have been spared the kind of laughter that ensued.

The car that our friends rented on another trip was keyless, and they had no idea how to start it. They sat in it quite awhile, touching many things on the dashboard and waiting for magic to happen until finally some passing teenagers explained what to do.

Every time they parked somewhere and walked back to double-check that the car had locked, it never had. Not even once. As a result, they spent a week of their vacation lugging their computer and backpacks into every restaurant and grocery and on every walking tour. They even took their laptops to the beach.

“I’ve been living on top of a mountain for the last seven years, and I don’t know how to lock the damn car!” the overwrought husband finally exploded, approaching a timid German couple with very limited English. The German man made a pushing gesture and said, “Away!”

Edward with the girls, Josephine and Jasmine, at Tierra.

Our friends came to understand that their keyless car had been locking automatically as they left and unlocking automatically as they obsessively returned to check it. Thenceforth, their belongings remained in the car during lunch and dinner.

Once, when I was back in LA and shopping in a large, upscale kitchen store, I overheard an outraged woman say to no one in particular, “What’s the DEE-al? Nobody has any RED SPRINKLES! This is so weird!

“What’s a red sprinkle?” I wondered. To inform myself, I glanced over and saw on the shelf what apparently were green, blue, and yellow sprinkles. It seemed strange that the lack of red ones could engender such an overwrought response.

In spite of the times in Vilcabamba that I had fantasized about being able to shop again, to understand pop culture and modern life, at that moment I wanted nothing more than to hightail it back to the Land of Non-Consumption Where There Is Nothing to Consume and No One to Show It Off To.

Our close friends who rented the car with gizmos moved away, onward to Europe, where their humiliations continued to mount up and up. I like to think that that their stories have spared us a few surprises, but we still need them to do reconnaissance. We heard a nasty rumor that self-driving cars were in the pipeline!

On the bright side, considering that we were two retired, somewhat spoiled Americans, we have proved to be relatively adaptable, and after the initial shock of finding that many “necessities” were not to be had, we found workarounds or did without.

Unlike many others, as a general rule, we did not attempt to change the culture or expect it to accommodate us. We worked on our Spanish and never once expected to hear English, unlike some Americans who demanded it, with little luck. We knew not to search for Starbucks or Walmarts or Bed, Bath, and Beyonds. If we needed more all-cotton sheets, we would drive to the city, buy cotton fabric, and take it to a seamstress with measurements of our mattress. But on the plus side, we do not need to file Ecuadorian income tax. Some things are harder and some things are easier.

As of the time of this writing, Edward and I still have no plans to leave Ecuador. We have made friends with the gringos (not a pejorative in Ecuador as it is in Mexico), indigenous neighbors, and with other locals. Here, we are uninformed more often than back in L.A., but our motto now is, when in doubt, ask an Ecuadorian. We rescued two callejeros, or street dogs, and we have two burros, Josephine and Jasmine, who will never carry a load of bricks or cane, only mow the pasture.

Yet despite all that we have learned, the surprises never stop. One of the hardest has been hearing that friend after friend would be moving home or to another foreign country. They have seen they could handle expatriation here, and they are confident enough to try it again.

The older we get, it seems, the more adaptable we have to be.
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Kathy and Edward Cohen are the authors of “Blood Relations.” To find out more about this book, look at their website www.edwardccohen.com and amazon.com. This is an excerpt from Kathy’s memoir-in-progress, Livin’ Large in Vilcabamba.

13 thoughts on “When they travel beyond Ecuador, this expat couple feels like the Beverly Hillbillies

  1. It is a bit of a stretch of the imagination that they have a website and a book on Amazon, but are not able to keep up with the things in the world, even if they are not using them.
    I have been out of the US for 18 years (in Hungary), but I still know what sprinkles are.

  2. I can identify with the keyless car mysteries after having bought a new one on our most recent trip back to the states. It also took us awhile to figure out the locking system, LOL. The other part that’s hard to get used to is that the engine automatically turns off at traffic lights and stop signs. For no real reason this annoys me and I find myself trying to outsmart my own car. The next thing to happen is I’ll get a traffic ticket for rolling stops at the stop sign.

  3. Wow, thank you for proving the long held rumors about the longevity of people living in Vilcabamba. Your stated ignorance of TV remote controls (invented by Zenith in 1950) & landline phones (Bell & AT&T were founded in 1877 & 1880, respectively) provide evidence to back up those suspicious claims about Vilcabamba. Might I add that you guys look terrific for being 150 years old!

    1. Ray, you have nailed it! We are not a day over 140 years old, and thank you for noticing. Yes, you are right, and we DO know landline phones. In fact, we brought both our black rotary-dial telephones from L.A. in our container. True, I promise. We even mastered Princess-level phones back home and later push-button ones. Where I erred was in not specifying that we couldn’t operate cordless landline phones; that is where our progress ceased. But TV remote controls? No way. Our last television broke during the final Bush-Kerry debate, whereupon we kicked it to the curb and swore never again. We were never pop culture mavens in the U.S., and we have doubled down now that we are in the campo. There is lots more that we don’t know about modern life, but it is too embarrassing to share.

  4. I enjoyed the article and have had similar experience when returning to the states, especially with the keyless cars!! Whatever you think of this little article, I highly recommend you read Blood Relations. I read the book on a recommendation from a friend and it is an exciting, can’t-put-it-down murder/thriller. I ordered it through Amazon on my kindle.

    1. Judy, thanks so much for letting us know. We are so happy that you liked our book. And thanks for passing the word along.

  5. I loved the article. We are moving to Cuenca soon but also have an interest in Vilcabamba. I can go a long time without crossing paths with “overwrought”. Imagine being treated to it twice in one article.

    1. Thanks, Rodney. I appreciate it, and am happy to learn that I need a synonym for “overwrought” #2. A writer’s horror, unintentional repetition. Let us know if you get to Vilca.

  6. Your article hit me where it hurts!!
    I go back to States once a year. I too have dealt with the shock of new, unknown gadgets! Last time, I put my purchases through self checkout….scan=bagged, was talking to my friend, and walked out! Young man came running behind to tell me, I did…indeed need to PAY!

    Also sat in a rental car for 10-15 minutes, turning everything on, including the wipers….but didn’t know how to START the damned thing! End of story is….I wrecked it….so that’s the last time I rented a car, after not driving for a year between trips….and traveling alone, decided to use UBER from now on! THEN….having to learn to use a CC for THAT, instead of cash!! It’s NOT easy anymore….and makes me hate traveling!

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