By Christopher Lux
With everything sold but our house back in North Carolina, in September last year my son and I arrived in Cuenca. We came ahead of my wife since she had to wait for cooler weather to bring our two large Catahoula Leopard dogs on the plane.
I had to start my new job, and my son came along. Together we went to meetings, workshops, conferences, and classes. Nobody seemed to mind the four-year-old coloring and reading in the corner of the room.
When we first arrived, we stayed in an Airbnb apartment near El Centro. Dano, the owner of the apartment, drove us to a furniture store to buy beds for our house. He showed us the market where we could by affordable furniture and gave advice about keeping dogs in Ecuador.
Our house was rented for us a month earlier by our extended family who happened to be living in Cuenca. Our first week, they took us to dinner, showed us around town, and helped us get the house ready to move into. We lined up painters and a plumber to make a few changes.
After a week in the Airbnb, we moved into our house. It didn’t feel like home at first. We were in a new country, and we were in a neighborhood far away from El Centro and other gringos.
Learning the bus routes was an adventure.
Soon, as cooler weather arrived in the States, my wife and the dogs arrived in Quito. The dogs were too big to fly from Quito to Cuenca, so we arranged to have them driven down by the famous Journeyman Jack who specializes in relocation. Jack and the dogs drove through the night. My wife stayed in a hotel and flew to Cuenca the next day. She arrived early in the morning and the dogs made it a little later in the morning.
After months of planning, working, and sacrificing, we were all together in our new home. For the first few nights, we all slept in the same room — me, my wife, our son, and the two dogs, crammed into one room of a three-bedroom house. It was tight but it was our new home.
As we faced unfamiliar territory, we continued to stick close together. Over time, though, the dogs moved into the living room and our son moved into his room. We started to meet the neighbors and became familiar with the area. We got comfortable.
Our son was enrolled in school, we figured out how to pay utilities and get gas delivered, and our Spanish started improving. Most of the city, though, was still confusing after a month. Part of the problem was we were relying on taxis to take us everywhere. Not only were we going broke with taxi fares, the often circuitous routes taken by the taxistas meant our geographic knowledge of the city was slow to develop.
One day I asked the lady who owns the tienda near our house how to get to the University of Cuenca by bus. It was the only landmark I knew near my work. She told me to take the #15, then she said something in Spanish. I didn’t understand her, but I knew what “quince” meant so I went searching. I noticed numbers on the buses’ windshields and soon found a #15. I jumped on, put my quarter in, and sat down proud of myself.
The Christmas celebration in Cuenca.
Then, the bus started climbing. I was a little disoriented (lost actually), but I didn’t question the route. I just enjoyed the views. I started seeing farm land, cows in the road, and more and more dogs. My view of the city below got better and better. People kept getting off until the bus stopped completely. I was the only one left. The driver said something I didn’t understand, but I could tell by his tone and the motioning of his hands that he was telling me to get off his bus. It was the end of the line.
Confused, I slowly stepped down the stairs onto the dirt road. A tied-up cow stared at me. Chickens walked around the edge of the road. A dog barked at me. I looked back at the bus driver and he was already sleeping, taking his end-of-the-line break.
I saw a tienda down the road and approached it to inquire about my whereabouts. A man sat inside sleeping in a wooden chair. I said hello. No answer. I banged on the bars with a coin, and he kept sleeping.
I turned around and walked back to the bus. A lady approached. She sat on a metal bench at a bus stop. I asked her about the University of Cuenca. She said something in Spanish. I told her I didn’t understand, and she pointed to the empty space on the bench. I sat next to her and waited and hoped that was what she meant for me to do.
About fifteen minutes passed. Fifteen long minutes. Then, I saw a bus coming up the hill in a cloud of smoke and dust. The lady tapped my shoulder and pointed to it. As we stepped on the bus she told the bus driver something and pointed to me. The only words I understood were “gringo” and “Universidad de Cuenca.” She looked at me and pointed to a seat in the front. I sat down and told her “Gracias” as she went to the back.
Our first Christmas mass in Cuenca.
The bus traveled down the mountains and back toward the city. I took advantage of the free time and admired the views again. We passed my house and the bus stop where I had gotten on the first bus. Only this time we were on the other side of the street. Next, we were getting closer to El Centro.
Later, the bus driver said something loudly. He turned his head and looked at me and pointed outside the bus. I took this as a sign to get off. I was right. I got off the next stop and I finally reached my destination.
I had gotten lost in a new land, but I was happy to know that there are people here that will help me find my way.
After one year, many questions, a lot of pointing of fingers, gesturing, and guessing, my wife and I have become very familiar with the buses and the city. In no time, we were shopping in markets, buying furniture, eating almuerzos, picking out flowers for the house, and enjoying the parks.
In October, we went trick-or-treating. Though it’s not popular here, my son still got a backpack of treats as people pulled out whatever cookies and candies they could find in their house.
In December, we watched the many parades and processions. Our neighborhood had a large Christmas party in the street. It started with a late night Mass–of course–and then the musicians came onto the stage with their guitars. We ate, drank canelazos, listened to the music as we got to know our neighbors.
We welcomed the New Year by swimming in the warm mineral water of Baños (the Cuenca one). We shot off small fireworks as Cuencanos burned años viejos. At midnight we watched as the sky lit up with fireworks all around us.
Our house in the U.S., which was at risk of foreclosing, sold in February. Last month we got our cedulas. Last week we bought a car.
Cuenca has quickly become home.
To read the first part of Christopher Lux’s move to Cuenca series, click here.