By Karla Freeman
When I arrived in Cuenca and began scouting grocery stores, I walked around wondering, “Where is my Trader Joe’s? I miss getting everything I need in one familiar place.”
These days, I go to my friends’ Yanni’s and Tonya’s and Ken’s take out, called Tienda Nectar (Bengino Malo 12-27) and get fresh, organic vegetables, delicious sauces, and other take-out foods and supplements. New items on their shelves and helpful information keep me coming back. Or, I order milk that comes from a cow I know. Well, at least I know Fannie, the cow’s owner and a local farmer who brings milk, eggs and veggies to Nectar on Tuesdays.
The other day I ran into my friend Dorothy from Kansas. She was frustrated because she couldn’t find the “right” ketchup. Whatever we are used to we want, si? We like shopping in “our” places, getting “our” food and napkins, and whatever else we are familiar with from our old lives.
But we are in Cuenca, so it begs the question: Who am I without Trader Joe’s?
I think a more useful question might be: Who do I want to be?
Well, since we live in a new culture –or are considering relocating to one– I think one answer is: I am learning to be an expat and building a new life. If we have trouble living without Trader Joe’s and find ourselves wanting to keep things the way they were back home, maybe we should look at other options.
My first months, and even the first years, as an expat have been a mixture of exciting and scary experiences, and sometimes I felt overwhelmed. The good news is that I’ve discovered a new sense of freedom.
You, me, and all the Dorothys out there, arrive in a new culture with opportunities galore. How exciting to experience new places, new people, new foods, new streets and buildings, fiestas, flowers birds, living in the Andes mountains.
In Cuenca, you can walk for ½ hour and go from busy El Centro to the countryside. Walking towards Turi recently, I was surprised to come upon a bull decorated with colorful ribbons. What’s this all about, I wondered? In this mountain city of 500,000 people, the adventures are limitless.
Go to our nearby Cajas Park and in one day’s hike you can experience the wonders of a multitude of ecosystems among hundreds of lakes. And, if you like, on the way there, you can stop at an indigenous village!
Cuenca has its own pace and ways of doing things. The people here act less harried and they have values that are different than those of most of North America; they put family before work, for example.
Learning their ways can be scary. Sometimes we are not courteous enough and local people look at us critically. Yes, I had to learn to slow down and say: “Hola, buenas dias, como estas?” before lunging into a conversation. Now, I appreciate the slower pace and reduced stress level that comes when I let go of rushing around and having a big agenda.
I am surprised that it seems okay here to drop in, unannounced, at my Ecuadorian friends’ homes for a cup of coffee. It was unsettling and strange at first, adjusting to a new way of living, but now I am accustomed to it and appreciate its healthy, honest simplicity. I can get used to this!
I made many mistakes on the road to becoming an expat. For example, I thought, “Why should I follow the rules of immigration?” Such a privileged attitude led me to overstay my 90-day visa, which led to an impromptu visit to Peru to get an extension, a visa-extending maneuver that I understand no longer works. That was pretty scary, even though I had help. I learned quickly that I needed to adjust my attitude and learn new rules, which, by the way, keep changing.
There are so many things to do to start a new life. Finding a place to live, dealing with immigration (drat!), discovering where to shop for things, finding good doctors and dentists, dealing with banks and money, finding friends, finding new activities, exploring work or hobbies, learning the language — oh, my!
So how do you adjust to your new life in a new culture? First we need to be open-minded. The change in priorities can feel daunting. Writing down what was important in our old lives and comparing to what is important now can help.
After I wrote my book, Creating Magic in Midlife, I realized I wanted to move overseas and live an expat life. As I planned my move, I discovered that one change seemed to lead to another. Now, well into my life as an expat, I understand that change is a constant and the willingness to grow is essential so long as you stay light hearted and try to focus on the things most important to you.
Finally, a sense of freedom can come when we realize we are choosing to grow in new ways. What can feel better than rediscovering you youthful spirit and enjoying new adventures?
Being an expat can feel a lot like being a traveler without a road map or a high-wire artist without a safety net. Are we up to the challenge? Let’s talk about it the next time we meet in the park.
Karla Freeman, expat, traveler, tango dancer, writer, currently lives in Cuenca and is the author of Creating Magic in Midlife: 101 Questions and Answers to Reinvent Your Work, Relationships and Life! Available on Amazon Kindle and at Carolina bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel in Cuenca.