Culture Sticks

I live in Cuenca, Ecuador. This is where my husband and I have retired as expats. It’s a new and different life, and sometimes I’m asked if there has been an adjustment period. I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

By the way, about one-third of The Plan is set in Ecuador. Susan

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In careful Spanglish, I apologize to Juan. Fred and l are expected for lunch and we’re running twenty minutes late. “We’re only a couple of blocks away,” I promised from my cell phone.

Te veré cuando llegue aquí, our new friend says—he will see us when we get there. He doesn’t sound too concerned.

Why did I make that call, I laughed. Arriving late for lunch won’t set off alarms in Cuenca, Ecuador, where we now live. People here don’t let timeliness or punctuality get in the way of relationships. They are more people-oriented than most other places where I’d lived most of my life.

It’s the culture—the way things are done—that gives meaning wherever you live to behavior like being on time or arriving late. I had learned this in a college class years ago, and now I was getting a life lesson on such etiquite, as my husband and I adjust to South America.

Life’s tardiness rules were different where I grew up in Oregon, and honestly don’t apply very well here.

Being ten minutes early defined being on time in the Pacific Northwest. I remember my mother’s reaction when a dinner guest was ten minutes late. “Should we just go ahead and eat without him, John,” she asked my father, using her most terse voice. The company arrived fifteen minutes past the appointed hour, and I watched her plop the cold mashed potatoes on our plates. My dad had decided to wait for our guest. My mother conceded, but was not her usual, gracious self that evening.

We work hard in our new environment trying to understand different ways of doing some typical things, like paying a light bill “on time,” or collecting a medical insurance reimbursement. We watch, learn and adapt for good reason: Cuenca, Ecuador is filled with agreeable people and the cost of living is low. Healthcare is excellent; the vegetables and fruit are fresh and bountiful. Organic yogurt and range free eggs give breakfast a new life. I want us to stay here forever; my husband and I have worked through the system to become residents. So what’s so hard about following a few, new rules? Or learning how to speak Spanish?

Most “expats” or “gringos,” find these adjustments difficult, and end up going back to where they came from, before getting to the end of their first two years. This has been the pattern for newcomers to this charming colonial city of nearly half a million people, I am told by a student social scientist. He is visiting Cuenca for a week to collect data, while working on his Master’s thesis. Why do they leave? I ask him this question, but I think I know the answer.

They invested money and time, at first, in getting here—packing important stuff into large crates and shipping it all off to Guayaquil. Some brought along a cat or dog on the plane, adding to the costly airfare. It must be disheartening and depressing to pack it all up, when things don’t work out the way they planned.

I hear them blame some say they miss grandchildren. Others blame language problems or something else they can’t conquer. They are not always sure why Ecuador isn’t working out for retirement, and sometimes I see displaced anger.

One newcomer blogs “something must be done about those women doing laundry in the river.” She has never seen people using nature in this functional way, and asks us to pool our money and buy indigenous women washing machines “so they won’t pollute the streams.”

They would need clothes dryers, we respond. And someone would have to pay for the electricity. Bloggers jumped in, trying to explain the rich history and culture behind this tradition. A few expats come off rude, telling her to go home if she objects to how some people here wash their clothes. I wonder if she still lives in Cuenca?

Another man, preparing to move to this South American city, asks online if it is “okay” to pack his loaded crossbow and bring it on the plane’s overhead luggage rack. He gets swift negative response from us. Then a gentleman posting after him wants our opinions about bringing guns with him to Cuenca, and gets the same reaction.

Some expats want their lives to remain the same as it was in the United States. “They have all colors of astro turf available all over the U.S. but I can’t find it anywhere here, except in black,” one newer expat fumes in his post. Wouldn’t ceramic tiles, some natural wood or a woven rug do the trick? He doesn’t think so.

When a tea party expat complains about Communist Obama, I suggest that Ecuador’s government is socialist. “We’ll do something about that!” she reacts. Has she started on her political campaign or will she leave this dacha, too?

At my favorite small restaurant near the central plaza, owned by a native son who lived and worked most of his life in Florida, an “angry bird” expat catches me at lunch. Sitting across the table from us, he admits why he’s departing Cuenca in two days.

“Everyone here should speak English,” he says between bites of Chilean sea bass. “There are lots of Americans here, and we wouldn’t be leaving if local people talked like us. It would be a smart business practice for them, don’t you think?”

I don’t nod my head in agreement, but listen, and eventually suggest that some of Cuenca’s successful entrepreneurs, like realtors, doctors and housekeepers, already speak English to get business from English-speaking expats.

Others lived and worked in the U.S. in a variety of fields, and returned home speaking a second, third or fourth new language. Still more Ecuadorians use English or some of the other 23 pre-colonial and indigenous languages, besides their Spanish. I swear I’ve heard Italian, German, Portuguese and even good French spoken on Cuenca’s streets.

I don’t want to sound cranky.There are plenty of successful expats living here. I’ve learned from these folks what makes a successful expat and here are a few observations.

Learning the native language tops my list, but this can seem impossible for some expats who remain monoglots. “I am too old,” is a frequent reason given; Others say they don’t have enough money to pay for lessons.

Maybe I’ll write a book for them, and call it Learn Spanish in a Cab! Cuencano taxi drivers often teach their mono-lingual customers by engaging in multi-lingual conversations while swerving through traffic. They demonstrate simple words and phrases, at no extra charge, using a slow and steady lyrical version of their mother tongue while feeding the gas.

I listen to this expat’s departing words at lunch as he describes a small Caribbean island catering to U.S. citizens who seek to escape the IRS. “I’ll only have to pay $400,000 and they’ll give me a second passport. They speak English, too.” He blots his tense lips with a brown linen napkin. “I’m tired of this place,” he finally huffs.

I could have been more police. I should have wished him a successful journey. I could have explained that learning a second language is good for a person’s brain, and not so hard to do if you listen to Spanish-speaking television, read outdoor signs and take taxis.

But I quietly thank the universe. I don’t have to come up with almost half a million dollars to find a place of retirement that fits my definition of perfect. I want to stay here, and am prepared to change some of my attitudes or modify behaviors to make this work.

Already I’m not so bad at Spanglish. I can talk to cabdrivers like a chap, and use inside Italian phrases, like cao, cao, as do the more suave Ecuadorians.

I am sure that Juan will help me make this transition. I like our get togethers, and I trust that my new friend won’t hold it against me if I am a little late today for lunch.


Susan Klopfer is an author and expat living in Cuenca, Ecuador. She holds a B.A. degree in Communication from Hanover College and an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University. She is the author of several civil rights books including Who Killed Emmett Till? and The Emmett Till Book. Her new alternative fiction novel, The Plan, is due to be released at the end of September. More information about Susan Klopfer and her books is available at