Where’s my Trader Joe’s? The challenge of adapting to a new life

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 12-2Capture karla7) 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.

Looking for Trader Joe's in Cuenca? You won't find it.
Looking for Trader Joe’s in Cuenca? You won’t find it.

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.

Hikers in the Cajas Mountains.
Hikers in the Cajas 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.


  • Karla – Thanks for this. Two tips I find helpful are 1) prefacing any request for help (like a street, drugstore, or whatever) is to preface the “ask” with “Disculpe me, puede aydarme de….” and 2) addressing a a pharmacist, lawyer or anyone in a suit as “Doctor” or “Doctora”, rather than “Do you have…?” or “where is the…?”.

    Also, if your Spanish isn’t up to functioning under stress, carry a piece of paper with your destination written down on it. Tip #1 has more than once led to someone personally guiding me to whatever I was looking for and tip #2 often takes me to the head of the scrum at a counter or office.

  • I frequently ask my myself in Cuenca: Who ami I without Taco Bell?

  • Bill

    I have to really laugh at this attitude of wanting to have everything like it was back in the home country, why did you move ? if its just to save money that is a big mistake from the get go. When I am in Cuenca I miss nothing about the states, nothing, not my stuff, shopping, places to eat, nothing. (ok I miss my chickens) I am not engaged with Cuenca to bring my background there, but to embrace new culture.

  • Norma

    Karla, I enjoyed reading your article . You hit the nail on the head! Attitude! I would love to meet you!

  • Kayce

    Karla, Thank you for your article. After moving here alone and living in Cuenca for over 18 months, doing all the immigration stuff without an attorney (took me ten months to get my Cedula, Ha!), finally learning where the TVCable office is, loving the climate and these incredible Ecuadorian people, there are things I miss about my former country, the USA. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in a beautiful country. Afforded all the American Dream opportunities, pledged allegiance to my country’s flag, had some interesting career opportunities and thrived. Probably this sounds familiar? I had it all even a dream of foreign explorations, so when I heard about Cuenca, I launched in rocket-mode to get here. In this current transition of being an Expat, I believe there is a ‘grieving process’ no one seems to talk about, a letting go of the American Dream accomplished or not is a process. Being a ‘permanent guest’ in Ecuador or anywhere other than the US, keeps me in better balance when I want to say what I think which sometimes isn’t kind. I’ve been afforded the opportunity as a Guest to live here. On any given day, I could say, ‘What have I done!?’ OMG!! I’ve been up one day and down the next. It isn’t Black or White, there’s some Grey. It hasn’t been, one day I was living in the USA and now I’m living in Cuenca and everything’s ‘fine’. It’s been a process. I’m in the flow here ever changing, growing. Looking for gratitude in what I do have here, instead of what’s missing has helped me establish a stronger footing in Cuenca. Having just returned from my first trip back to the US which was more of an eyeopener than I was expecting, I shopped for little things like spices at Trader Joe’s, Hellmann’s mayonnaise at Walmart and a few Ikea shopping bags to haul groceries up lots of stairs. Overall this is one heck of a ride and I really do prefer living in Cuenca with its slow, interesting tempo. Life seems richer here, more heart. Shops are closed over the weekends so people can spend time with their families. Each day’s an adventure when walking El Centro. I’m feeling a soulfulness and happy to have returned to Cuenca, my newest Home Sweet Home.

  • Thank you, Karla, for expressing so well the challenges and rewards of expat life in Cuenca.
    Belinda and I enjoyed your forthrightness and humor.

  • Karla, I enjoyed your article for 2 reasons, 1..I am moving to Cuenca from Vegas in 2 months and 2…I am looking for a writer in Cuenca to help write my book.
    It is about the 18 years I was in the entertainment business. It is an unbelievable funny tory in 3 parts.
    I am looking forward to hopefully meeting in Cuenca.