Saying Goodbye to Cuenca

Two Who Trek share some lessons learned (and not just Spanish ones)

It’s a gray morning in Cuenca – one of the few we have had.  It’s also a sad morning, as our program host will be coming with a taxi about 7 to take us to the airport to start the journey home.  As we share our last breakfast in the apartment (our favorite – a fresh fruit medley, pastry, milk and coffee, today made even more special by sharing a piece of tres leche cake left from the day before), we discuss how profoundly sad we are.  But we knew this day had to come.  Staying in Cuenca wouldn’t be the same – after all, the apartment has been sold, our fellow travelers (now friends) are heading back home, and even one of our teachers has been laid off from the school.  So it was time to leave.

But why were we so sad?  While there is usually a twinge of remorse about a vacation ending, this was a much deeper sadness.  We concluded this trip was the best travel experience we have had to date, one we wanted to continue.  Many questions were answered for us, such as:

Could we live in a foreign country?

Yes.  While we did have some structured experiences throughout the trip, much of the time we were on our own.  We negotiated in stores, found addresses, tried new restaurants, and saw amazing sites.  The more time we spent in the country, the easier it was to navigate daily life.  With more time, practice, and improved language skills, we would have a great living experience.

We only had one time when we had to ask our program host for interpretive help.  Sherri had arranged to have a lovely blazer made to her specifications – two button, hip length, pockets – like one she purchased years ago and has worn out.  When she went back for the fitting, a different seamstress waited on her and we couldn’t understand what she was saying.  Program Hostess Christine came to our rescue, and found the seamstress was saying her associate had only measured for the fabric and didn’t take specific jacket measurements.  After some quick measurements, we were done.  By the way, the blazer is amazing and professionally done, all for $25 for the fabric and $45 for the labor.

Would we want to live in a foreign country?

Not at this time.  We both realized we are closely connected to our family and friends.  Sherri still has a job to go to daily, too.

This point was reinforced quickly when we returned home.  A couple of hours after we returned to mid-Michigan homes, Joe learned his favorite aunt was dying and might not last the night.  Two Who Trek were with her and the family in Indiana when she passed away the next day.  The day after the funeral, Joe’s first (and probably only) granddaughter was born!  After six grandsons, her birth is a true joy!  Many other events have happened since our return that show we need to be in Michigan for a while.

Should we learn the language of a foreign country if we want to live there?

Absolutely yes.  Our month-long stay proved we get more out of a trip when we communicate with the local residents.  We learned many things by just being able to talk (like a two year old, at times) with someone.

Joe’s Spanish skills are still abysmal.  However, he quickly realized the importance of learning Spanish.  Because of holidays, classes did not start until we were in Cuenca for a few days.  During that time, Joe would try to communicate.  His fevered brain knew a foreign word was needed, so it started plucking out words from his high school French days.  Joe now knows many more words and can do basic sentences such as Sherri’s favorite: “Me gustira la cuenta, por favor.” (I would like the check, please.), but has a long way to go.

Sherri has much better language skills, thanks to college-level Spanish.  Usually, when we got into a taxi, Sherri would give the directions to our next destination.  Whenever Joe tried giving directions, the driver usually had a “deer in the headlights” look.  At the end of one trip, Joe tried to describe where to stop.  After the customary deer look from the driver, Sherri repeated Joe’s words for the big building on the left or “El edificio grande, en izquierda”. The driver then turned to Sherri and said, in English, “Your pronunciation is excellent.”

Not everyone in Cuenca feels learning Spanish is necessary..  Due to the low cost of living, Cuenca is the adopted home of many American and Canadian ex-pats.  Some of these transplants remain cloistered in English-speaking neighborhoods and refuse to learn the language.  Some are rude with the native residents and try to force English on them.  Others even get annoyed at store clerks who are unable to speak English[1].  We also found some taxi drivers avoid picking up gringos who may want to argue over the fare.

Two incidents help illustrate this point.  We attended the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra concert where Americans were sitting in the row behind the main cross aisle, about a dozen seats left of us.  They were loud and obnoxious before the concert.  One wanted a photo, so he stood in the middle of the cross aisle and loudly commanded his troops to “Say Shit!”   Obviously, that photo came out poorly, because he wanted another and issued the same verbal command.  Earlier, other Americans standing in line had grumbled loudly in English about waiting for the doors to open ½ hour before the concert.  TWT was delighted such a wonderful concert had seats available and was free!

The last evening in Cuenca, our group gathered at an excellent restaurant for a last meal together.  Sherri excused herself to use the restroom.  While there, she struck up a conversation with another lady. The woman said she and her husband had been in Cuenca for a month and had decided to stay another month.  When Sherri mentioned we had taken Spanish lessons, the woman replied, “Oh, I could never do that.  That’s too hard.”  Hmmm.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  We discovered basic conversational Spanish is surprisingly easy to learn.  Perhaps that is because we both had prior foreign language experience.  Now, we don’t know much Spanish grammar and we definitely couldn’t do this blog in Spanish[2].  However, we know about a thousand Spanish words and can communicate adequately most of the time.

Would we do this experience again?

Definitely!  In a way, the experience has spoiled us.  We don’t think we could do something like a normal cruise again.  We are already discussing our next experience.

Unfortunately, we learned our group was the last one through Alumni Holidays International (AHI).  AHI would prefer participants stay in residence hotels instead of apartments.  Such lodging is not available in Cuenca.  So, AHI is trying to figure out some alternatives.

The Cuenca program was the brainchild of our hosts, Kent and Christine Zimmerman.  They had developed and implemented the program before AHI began participating.  Kent and Christine are developing two similar programs, one in Sucre, Bolivia and one in Argentina.  We are thinking the Bolivia program will work for a mid-winter break.[3]

Would we blog on another trip?

Yes, if we knew we had a lot of free time.  On this trip we decided to enjoy the Ecuadorian experience while we could.  That’s why we did several posts after we returned.  We wanted to share some experiences with our friends and family but found quick posts on Facebook were sufficient.

Would we return to Cuenca?

Cuenca is on our short list of places we really enjoy.  Others include the islands of St. Croix and Barbados, and Cape Town, South Africa.  However, the world is big and beautiful.  There is a lot more to see and do, both domestically and internationally.  Two Who Trek plan to continue their wanderlust for a while.  We keep searching for something that Jimmy Buffett describes in “One Particular Harbor”:

I know I don’t get there often enough
But God knows I surely try
It’s a magic kind of medicine
That no doctor could prescribe

I used to rule my world from a pay phone
And ships out on the sea
But now times are rough
And I got too much stuff
Can’t explain the likes of me

But there’s this one particular harbor
So far but yet so near
Where I see the days as they fade away
And finally disappear

Is this blog going to disappear?

Not for a while.  In the midst of our Ecuador adventure, we took a vacation within a vacation.  The Galápagos series of posts is coming up next, featuring plenty of pictures.  We also intend to post about future travels, including domestic trips.

And so, the adventure continues.

[1] This may change in the future, as more schools are adding mandatory “English as a second language” courses to their curriculum, according to Joe’s teacher.

[2] But with Google Translate, that may not be necessary.

[3] If you are interested in such a program, drop an email to and they will keep you updated on future adventures.

Categories: background, blog, Cuenca, ecuador, Journals, lessons, photos, preparation, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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