The holidays arrived in Cuenca quickly it seemed. We hadn’t figured out the problem with our ovens by Thanksgiving so we bought a countertop oven to cook the turkey. It filled the entire oven but cooked it perfectly and we had a fairly traditional Thanksgiving after all.
We had been there long enough to find our way around and to begin to meet people. Being an expat means suddenly you are the outsider. It puts you in a different role altogether. Whatever network of friends you may have had back home are a long way away.
Making friends with the people who live nearby happens naturally. Our nearest neighbor was a couple that had lived all over the world and both spoke English fairly well. They had only moved to Cuenca a few weeks before us and we figured a lot of things out together.
He was a TV producer and would order things online and have them sent to my office in Atlanta. He’d call me up on Skype and say, “Do you mind bringing something back for me?” One time it was a camera, once it was a helicopter that would fly around by remote control with the camera attached. Sometimes I had to buy extra luggage to bring his toys back home. Of course, I didn’t mind. It was fun to see what he was up to.
Christmas brought with it lots of Ecuadorian traditions. There were parades and fireworks and for weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve, effigies were sold all over town. The point was to burn these dolls who would carry the bad spirits from the past year along with them.
Marcia had left on Christmas Day for the States to visit her Mom and I stayed at home with the dogs, the fireworks and our effigy.
I was already asleep when Ben and Maluchi (our neighbors) called to see if I would drive them to a party – there were no cabs to be found and they didn’t have a car. Half the roads were closed and there was traffic everywhere, but I got them to their party. They were just getting home again the next day around 10am. Holidays in Ecuador were quite the event.
It was easy to meet other expats. Local restaurants hosted “Gringo Nights” where we’d all get together and share our experiences of living in Cuenca over dinner. These nights were fun, almost essential at first. It gave you a chance to hear English, ask questions and talk to people that were going through the same sort of things. A year and a half earlier we had met our friends Edd and Cynthia at the 4th of July gringo outing. Most gringos would say the friends you meet as expats are as long lasting as any of your life. We would agree with this.
Nat, his wife and kids were expats from Maine that lived further down the road from our house. He was about 6’3” with gray hair in a ponytail, and a braided beard and mustache that went halfway down his chest. To say Nat looked intimidating was an understatement.
Unlike us, they moved to Cuenca with only their suitcases. They started from scratch furnishing their home and getting their girls into the local schools. He was mean as grit on the outside and simple and warm on the inside. He’s the kind of friend that comes about for the strangest reason, but a friend that makes your life bigger and better by being there.
We were all there for different reasons yet being there gave us all something in common. In some cases, that alone was enough to forge a lifelong friendship.
For weeks we muddled through the chore of buying things: firewood, groceries, lunch, water. The price almost never stayed the same. We went to the market and bought fresh flowers once a week. We were amazed and delighted to buy a large bouquet for only $3. Two bunches gave us flowers for every room of the house.
I began to realize our price was different from everybody else – it was more of a suspicion than proof but I suspected we paid double, sometimes triple the regular price. One day the nice lady handed me the flowers and I handed her one gold dollar coin. She said gracias and so did I. This changed my approach forever.
The neighbor that walked his Great Dane by our house when we first moved there didn’t speak a word of English but his wife was fluent. Sandra was a beautiful, proper lady….quiet spoken, respected. Don Alfredo was fun loving, his eyes sparkled when he talked.
It was Sandra that helped us coördinate work around the house. When we needed a wood shed, she sent the guys over to build it and she scolded us when we paid them on Friday and they didn’t show up again for a whole week.
Sometimes they stopped by at night to check on me. I’d pour wine and we would talk – me in English, Alfredo in Spanish and Sandra both.
We enjoyed trying out new restaurants. The chef of one of the more popular restaurants agreed to a pilot TV show our neighbor wanted to produce. He and his girlfriend installed an outdoor kitchen at their house. She set up a long table with a white tablecloth and fresh flowers. We were invited to be the audience and eat the food he prepared. It was the day of my 52nd birthday.
It was one of those rare, sunny days. If it rained, it was cold. If it didn’t rain, the sun was so hot you couldn’t bear it. We waited for hours for them to get the scene just right, to cook the food, for the chef to take a break. He was a nice guy actually.
The problem was I was still homesick. I was very homesick.
The next day the dogs had an appointment with the groomer. We were running late and literally ran out the door, shoved the dogs in the car, slammed the door to the house and rushed out the drive. It wasn’t that long before we were home again. My husband went to the back of the house and I headed toward our bedroom. The dogs were anxious and I remember saying to them, “Come on guys, give me some space.” I hadn’t remembered closing the bedroom door.
Clothes were all over the bedroom – like they had been thrown. The drawers from the nightstand were on the floor – some were half empty, others upside down. My husband’s briefcase was emptied onto the bed, papers littered the floor. His wallet was on the ottoman at the end of the bed.
Not long ago, I heard on the military channel that it takes 5 seconds for a person to realize they are being attacked. It must have taken at least twice that long for my brain to comprehend what my eyes were seeing. We had been robbed.