America to Ecuador - Expat Interview With James Mola

Published: 16 Nov at 1 PM
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Filed: Interviews,Ecuador
The dramatic transformation in James Mola's life came at a time when he was contemplating retirement. Jim discovered Cuenca, Ecuador by accident as the number one retirement city in the world, and knew that retirement had to offer more than what he could look forward to in the states. Anyone who has read and followed Jim's blog knows what a love affair he is having with his life in Cuenca. James' blog is called, "Cuenca Perspectives by Jim" (see listing here). The blog provides for the reader a real feel for the beautiful city of Cuenca from Jim's perspective. The site also provides the reader with a plethora of information and sources for settling in Cuenca in the most efficient and effective way possible. Finally, the blog also helps readers to assess whether or not a move to Cuenca is the right move before they uproot themselves from their current residency.

Cuenca Perspectives by Jim

Here's the interview with James...

Where are you originally from?
I am originally from the Chicago metro area, and I have lived most of my life in that area.

In which country/ city are you living now and how long have you lived here and planning to stay?
I have been living in Cuenca, Ecuador for twenty months now. I have my sedula and permanent residency in Ecuador, and for the foreseeable future I anticipate living the rest of my life in Cuenca.

Why did you move and what do you do?
I was ready to retire from a career in education, and I moved up my retirement when I saw Cuenca listed as the number one city in the world for retirement. As I researched Cuneca, I fell increasingly in love with the city, even before I visited it for a month in July/August 2010. My greatest concern was that once I arrived in Cuenca for my visit, that nothing could possibly live up to my expectations. On the contrary, Cuenca went beyond my expectations, and I did not want to leave it when my month was over.

Did you bring family with you?
I am divorced, and I have two adult sons. Chris has just moved from Hawaii with his wife, who is expecting a child in April. I will be a grandfather for the first time. Chris and his, wife, Maria, now live in South Bend, Indiana near Notre Dame University as he completes his last two years in the military. Marc, my eldest son, works for the federal government, and lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. My mother and two brothers and family still live in the Chicago area. I came to Cuenca by myself, and I live as a single in Cuenca.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country; was it easy making friends, meeting people and do you mainly socialise with other expats?
I traveled extensively throughout Asia in the 1970’s. I spent an entire summer in India in 1976, and the summer of the following year in East Asia. I visited the People’s Republic of China when it was still difficult for foreigners to enter the country, immediately following the year of a major, highly destructive earthquake in Beijing, and the death of Chairman Mao. I also spent three weeks in Kyoto, Japan; a week in Bangkok, Thailand; and a sporadic total of three weeks in Hong Kong. I was part of a graduate student group from New York University and eventually earned one of my master degrees in Asian Studies. I absolutely loved all my travels, and especially felt home in India. It was so exotic, and so totally different at that time from the United States. It looked, sounded, and smelled nothing like the states. In visiting India, and for the first time traveling outside the United States, I felt as if I had gone to another planet. I especially found the Indian people to be wonderful, and the summer in India to be life transforming. I also had worked most of my educational career in the inner-city with African-American students, where once again I experienced what it was like to be the minority.

Moving to Ecuador, while it offers cultural differences from the United States was no problem for me at all in transitioning from my home culture to Ecuadorian culture. I had many expat friends, and many bilingual Ecuadorian friends, who had lived for a time in the United States and were a tremendous help to me. I found it extremely easy to make friends in Cuenca. I had read the blogs and gleaned a great deal of useful information from them. When I first attended a gringo night in Cuenca, I immediately knew at least three couples by sight, just from reading their blogs. As one of the lady bloggers said to me, “I feel psychologically nude in front of you. You know so much about us, and we know nothing about you.” Friends were very easy to make. The expat community was very open and helpful. Particularly, with being retired, I also had the time to cultivate new friendships. All of us expats were pretty much in the same boat in 2010 and 2011, while we were in the process of transforming our lives. We shared our excitement, our experiences, or challenges. A real openness made making friends very easy. Some of my closest friends are Cuencanos who have lived in the states and speak English. As I learn more Spanish, I am able to engage with more Cuencanos who have little if any English-speaking skills; and I do not just mean in business transactions, but on a social level as well. After twenty months in Cuenca, I should be competent in Spanish. Unfortunately, I allowed ten months to pass from my first Spanish tutor until I procured a new tutor about five months ago. I still kick myself for allowing my lessons to escape me, and I am definitely someone who needs the structure of a tutor and the assigned homework to make sure I in fact learn the language.

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Cuenca has become a tourist mecca of travelers who include a few days of visit on their itinerary. Many people visit for a time to determine whether Cuenca would be an ideal destination for retirement. There are also many young and older students, who may come for two weeks to two months to study Spanish. Cuenca is also a haven for snow birds who come for a few weeks or months from Canada and Minnesota to either take a break or escape totally from the harsh North American winters. Hotels and hostels are to be found everywhere in El Centro.

The very heart of El Centro is Parque Cauderon, which is a beautiful one block city park of leisurely strolling, reading, sitting, conversing, and enjoying whatever entertainment may be offered on any given day or evening. There are numerous beautiful churches and squares in El Centro. Many museums also exist. What seems like blocks of endless stores, almost all of them operated by individual entrepreneurs are complemented with small family owned craft making industries and craft shops. Other vendors are in an open market atmosphere. El Centro has everything, and does not appear to be harmed financially by the outlying malls in Cuenca.

The restaurant scene in Cuenca would please most pocketbooks as the budget conscious can eat very inexpensively, while a variety of higher-end restaurants can satisfy almost any pallet. Ecuadorian food generally is on the bland side. If you want to taste Ecuadorian food at its absolute finest and where it will be the most flavorful with a lively atmosphere, don’t miss Tiesto’s Restaurant, which is Cuenca’s finest and most popular upper-scale restaurant. The affable Chef Juan Carlos with an international reputation will not only be greeting you at your table, but also offering selection choices as well from the menu to fit your tastes and accommodate accordingly. Don't even consider eating at Tiesto's without a reservation. International cuisine, particularly Italian restaurants are quite common and some are very good. Chinese restaurants are abundant, while their quality varies greatly. Alcohol is expensive in Ecuador due to numerous tax increases as well as a 35% tariff on imported liquors. Dinner prices in the best restaurants are rising, but still at least half of what you would pay in comparable settings in the states. Dinners in the best restaurants can be quite reasonable when no alcoholic beverages are involved.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
What I love most about Cuenca are the Cuencanos. Generally, they are a beautiful people both inside and out. The level of respect Cuencanos show one another and to others is a genuine pleasure to behold, coming from a country where according to the latest Rassmussen poll, 75% of Americans believe their fellow-Americans are becoming increasingly rude, uncouth, and less civilized. Cuencanos present an openness and helpfulness with expats and tourists as well. The still relatively strong family values and the generally high level of respect children demonstrate to their elders are most admirable. The firmness of discipline and yet high rate of affection that parents exhibit with their children, and the still overall importance of the father in the family structure is another major factor that brings stability to Cuencano society. The crime rate is very low. Crimes are usually of a pick-pocket or robbery on the street type of crime committed with a knife and not a gun. People are rarely hurt in these encounters. Gringos are especially targets. However, the vast majority of gringos will never experience crime, and the streets are much safer here even at night then in most places in the states. The very frequently used word by Cuencanos to describe their city is “tranquilo”.

Cuenca is a beautiful city of 500,000—the big city with a small town atmosphere. It is almost impossible for me to walk around Cuenca and not meet someone I know. Along with being a beautiful city, Cuenca enjoys spring-like weather the year round, and it is transverse by four rivers. Walks along Avienda Solano from the Rio Tomebama to the Rio Yanuncay are most enjoyable, as are walks along the Rio Tomebama on Avienda 3rd of Noviembre, or the riverside of Avienda 12th de Abril. This is a walk where visitors definitely should have their cameras ready. There is much variety in the city between tradition and modernity, which makes life interesting to observe and experience.

The city is resplendent with festivals and music. Ecuadorians love their music, and also need little excuse to find something to celebrate. Parades, religious processions, festivals, and fireworks are a way of life in Cuenca. Cultural amenities are numerous, and generally of a high quality, while many venues like the quality Cuenca Orchestra concerts, are free to the public. There are a number of outlying areas as well which radiate around Cuenca that is worth a visit. There really is a ubiquitous number of activities for seniors and non-senior expats alike. If someone is bored in Cuenca, the problem is with them.

What negatives, if any, are there to living in here?
Negatively, auto traffic at times can be heavy since the roads into El Centro are narrow and cannot be widened. A European-style transit train system will begin construction this year. However, the planned network of transit connections possibly will not be completed until approximately 2025. If you come from a city where pedestrians have the right of way, do not chance it in Cuenca. Autos are kings and rule the intersections. On the other hand, driving in Cuenca has become overall safer in the last year due to the imposition of heavy fines, and increased numbers of Cuencano drivers who are becoming more considerate toward pedestrians. Sidewalks in El Centro can also be dangerous and often in spots the walkways are very narrow. City officials, however, are in the process of building twelve miles of new sidewalks in El Centro, and the improvements while not yet completed are already noticeable.

The single greatest problem facing Cuenca’s beautification efforts has been the tagging with spray paint that began a year ago last summer and has only accelerated. Unfortunately, city officials seem to ignore the problem. However, I have had tourists comment to me that they feel the beauty of Cuenca is over-hyped and the tagging over monuments, churches, walls along the river park, and just about everywhere else one looks has become a turnoff to many people. There are still a number of buildings in El Centro whose exteriors are in need of fresh paint and in some cases fresh surface plastering as well.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. If you will not be moving to Cuenca for a year or longer, study all the Spanish you can. Take college courses, evening classes, structured computer classes, or hire a personal tutor. The more Spanish you know when you arrive in Cuenca, the greater it will facilitate your move and transition to life in Cuenca. The more comfortable you will feel in communicating with native Cuecanoes, and the less likely you will settle for just mixing with expats.
  2. Visit Cuenca first before uprooting yourself and making what you think may be a permanent move, and hopefully if time allows visit for at least a month. Come to Cuenca not as a tourist, but as someone who wants to get a real feel for what it would be like to actually live in Cuenca long-term. Cuenca is not for everyone, and the people who leave after two or three years is relatively high, which is estimated to be approximately between thirty and forty percent.
  3. Don’t expect to do everything on your own. Find some experienced bilingual Ecuadorians who can help you through the process of purchasing, opening accounts, completing the labyrinth of government paper work, locating rental property, etc. Their charges are reasonable, and well worth your time and cost in money you will save in purchases, and in headaches you will avoid in making a relatively smooth transition to getting settled.
  4. Do not buy property until you have lived in Cuenca for at least a year, and after a year only if you definitely believe you are sold on Cuenca for a long term commitment.
  5. Do not move to Cuenca, if you are doing it just because Cuenca offers a lower cost-of-living than whatever home country you are leaving behind. Your lack of cultural awareness, and your sense of not really wanting to be in Cuenca except for financial reasons will leave you wretchedly miserable; particularly, if you have never lived or traveled abroad before and experienced the local culture. By traveling abroad and experiencing the local culture, I do not mean a vacation in Cancun or along some coastal beaches in the Caribbean. Remember, you will be the minority in Cuenca. Can you deal with it? Search your soul honestly, if you have an attitude of racial and/or cultural arrogance, please remain in your home culture.

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
I have been writing my blog “Cuenca Perspectives by Jim,” since May of 2010 a couple of months prior to my first arrival in Cuenca. Believe me; in just over two short years since my first visit, the changes in Cuenca are dramatic. My blog is intended to provide the reader with a cornucopia of information that will help to facilitate the reader’s visit or move to Cuenca. Along with information and contacts, I have also attempted to give a feel for Cuenca and its people in my various blog posts, and share as well stories and photos of the many activities Cuenca has to offer.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Contact me for further information at jmola2000{at}yahoo{dot}com. However, first, please take the time to scroll down and read the right hand column of the blog, where it is entitled, “Labels.” You will often find the questions to your answers by clicking on the appropriate alphabetized labels that will take you immediately to the appropriate post.

James blogs at which we recommend a quick visit if you haven't been already. Cuenca Perspectives by Jim has an listing here so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with James, please also drop him a quick comment below.
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Comments » There are 2 comments

Michael Domer wrote 10 years ago:

I really like your Expat interview. I totally agree with your statement about leaving your arrogance at home. If you want to move to another country to Americanize it, then you shouldn't be there in the first place. Thanks for taking the time to write your blog!

Grant wrote 10 years ago:

Hola. I have lived in Ind. close to ill. I now live in lasvegas. I will be in cuenca july & aug. Maybe we could have lunch someday. I hope to rent a 2 bedroom apt in el centro.

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