Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cuenca: A Home For America's Economic Refugees?

Americans visiting Cuenca used to talk about the climate, the culture, and the opportunities for new businesses in the city. Increasingly, they are talking about economics. Not local economics, but American economics. The idea is that they want to get out while the getting's good, and want to know if Cuenca's the right place to ride out America's imminent financial doom.

I've had a surprising number of conversations lately that focus on getting out of the US dollar and escaping the US economy. Many of the people quizzing me about my international life aren't planning to join me in the Freelance Kingdom - they are really just running. Running from the idea of retiring in debt, running from the idea of long-term unemployment, and running from the idea of losing it all, once and for all.

To be honest, these people inspire two emotions in me: Fear and Pity. The fear is rather contagious - the latest crew of American arrivals in Cuenca seem to be genuinely afraid of just about everything. Talk to them for a while and you, too, will start to wonder if tomorrow you will wake up to the wreckage of a midnight Armageddon. On the other hand, I really pity some of these people, because in their fearful mindset, they are shortening their lives by stressing themselves out something ridiculous.

It's not to say that all of their fears are groundless, or that Cuenca is necessarily a poor choice for waiting out the Greater Depression. Last time I checked, yes, the US economy still stank, and yes, the cost of living in Cuenca is significantly lower than a similar US lifestyle. However, cheaper does not always mean better for every situation, and cost of living isn't the only metric to use.

Cuenca's culture is very different from that of the United States. It can be warm and welcoming, but it can also seem very closed off due to a strong emphasis on family ties and last names. You need to speak Spanish or you will be stuck in the gringo community. The gringo community is okay, but it can seem to be very us vs. them for new arrivals vs. old Cuenca hands. Expect to make acquaintances readily and friends more slowly.

Many of the systems that people are used to in the US don't exist here. Yes, many economic refugees want to "leave America behind" in theory, but in practice they still expect there to be functional administrative systems that respond to their needs and complaints. Not so in Cuenca - most people here fend for themselves, and the complaints department is permanently closed. Noise complaints can be directed straight to your neighbor, thank you very much, and if you don't like your cable service, join the club. This "we don't care" attitude in service areas is a sharp departure from the US where sales clerks and phone agents jump to serve "the customer who is always right". After all, if you don't like it, you'll blog, tweet, and post youtube videos about it.

Only not in Cuenca. The technology barrier is high - only about 28% of Ecuadorians regularly access the web (meaning once a week or more) and high speed connections like those in the States just haven't arrived yet. Facebook has caught on pretty strongly, but blogs and Twitter are still marginal. Websites for businesses vary in quality. If you want information, word of mouth, newspaper, and radio are the top choices. Or picking up the phone and calling directly, something many Americans consider archaic.

So there are some pretty significant adjustments, and the economics aren't all fabulous. Most Americans in Cuenca aren't making a local income - it's all dependent on what they have going for them from the States. English teaching might net $250 - $500 per month as supplemental income, and there are a few restaurants owned by gringos, but other economic opportunities are limited. People who think they will come down and work for a local are sadly misguided - there are plenty of unemployed locals for local jobs!

And that's my two cents on the matter for the moment. Yes, Cuenca can be wonderful, and if you know what you're getting into, it might work for you as a new home or economic refuge. However, it's not mini-America, nor is it Mexico, and economic refugees looking for either had better look somewhere else!

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