Ecuador Expat Profile – Lisa Cho, Cuenca Ecuador
The Expat: Lisa Cho
Where are your currently living?
I have been living in Cuenca, Ecuador for 11 months.
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What’s Your Story?
I’m originally from a 8,000 person town in the south of California – Ojai – a haven for hippies in the hills north of Los Angeles. I spent 17 years in Ojai, 4 years in San Diego, and another 7 years in the San Francisco bay area (moving between 6 cities total! – Menlo Park, San Jose, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, and finally downtown San Francisco). My grandparents and great-grandparents are from China and Japan, places I have visited but never lived.
I’m currently in limbo – I used to work as a product manager in biotech and medical devices. This past year in Cuenca, I just worked a couple hours a week teaching salsa dancing, and devoting some time to learning other skills like ballet (does that count as a skill?) web development and SEO.
When and where did you get the idea of living in Ecuador?
I think I’d always wanted to live in another country. I lost my job at a startup last year, and I was actually interviewing at a bunch of other companies when I took a day at the hippie hotsprings resort.
Somewhere between yoga class and the thermal pools I suddenly realized it was time. The timing was perfect – being young, without a mortgage, without a boyfriend, and without a job.
For maximum adventure, I picked one of the three continents I’d never set foot on (the others being too cold – Antarctica – or too much like the US – Australia). Within South America, I talked to friends who had traveled, read travel blogs, and did research online. I was looking for a mid-sized city with a nice climate, lots of cultural activities, somewhat cosmopolitan but not San Francisco again, low cost of living, reasonably safe, accessible to a beach, where I could speak Spanish.
I arrived in Cuenca by buseta with a single suitcase. A good friend of mine jokes that I met her after a week in Cuenca, and I told her I was thinking of staying a month. After a month, we went out to coffee again and I told her I was thinking of staying a couple months. Here I am 10 months later with a residency visa and no plane ticket home (though no definite plans to stay in Ecuador the rest of my life either).
How’s your Spanish?
My Spanish was pretty good when I got to Cuenca. I had studied 4 years in high-school, taken Spanish literature in undergrad, Spanish cooking classes in grad school, and done a month-long intensive in Spain. I found some Mexican roommates to live with in Emeryville for a while, and I purposely told them not to speak to me in English.
Read more about the best way to learn Spanish.
I thought the language really made it easier to adapt. I was able to make friends with the locals and expats from Spain, Chile, and Argentina (not just the US and Canada). When I first arrived in Cuenca, I avoided other gringos like the plague, because I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and become fully bilingual. Now that I’ve been here for a while, I have some gringo friends, and I even went to “gringo night” once. Everyone who lives in Cuenca should learn Spanish – it has helped me so much, and I can’t imagine speaking in English and expecting the locals to understand all the time.
What Do You Do?
I teach salsa classes, but that is spectacularly unprofitable when the local going rate for classes is pretty cheap and studio overhead is not. This year, the stock market went up and I lived frugally like a hippie, and so I didn’t need to work a 40-hr normal job. Ask me again when the stock market crashes, haha.
Plan B is to do website dev/SEO either preferably for myself (oh no! not another wannabe pro-blogger!!!). Or…Plan C, to do website dev/SEO on a contract basis.
How’s The Cost of Living in Ecuador?
The cost of living is about what I expected because I’m a huge nerd for internet research.
I still find myself shocked when I get a fresh carrot/alfalfa/papaya juice from the market for $1. Or people are shocked when I tell them my rent is $100 all inclusive (just for a room, not an apartment).
But then I go to Cafe Eucalyptus, pay $3 for a cup of tea, and I might as well be back in the US.
What do you love about Ecuador?
Ecuador is really relaxed. I like that people’s grand ambitions here usually involve opening a chill new restaurant or bar where they can hang out with their friends, listen to live music, and share their culture. In contrast, in San Francisco, everyone’s grand ambitions involves creating an iPhone app, starting a website or web 2.0 company, getting venture capital funding, working 100+ hours a week until some big future payday when the company that they are now CEO/founder/president goes public.
The colonial center of Cuenca, Ecuador is beautiful – all the old architecture – but parts are certainly run-down, with big holes in the sidewalks and graffiti. The river is absolutely amazing, and Cuenca is full of cultural activities, clubs, classes, and music.
I feel pretty safe, but I’m careful. I take taxis when it’s late at night, and I don’t carry much cash on me. Although once I was in an internet cafe, and I turned around and someone had stolen the bag of groceries I put on the floor next to my chair (i.e. eggs, cheese, and apples)!!! And another time, this dude tried to “hold up” my friends and I with a black cell phone that sorta looked like a gun, but not really, because the antenna was sticking out. And then when we pointed out that the “gun” was just a black cell phone, he asked if we could give him a ride home.
There are some beautiful houses and apartments. At the budget end (where you cite people saving a lot of money) you have to have somewhat low expectations – sometimes the floors tilt on one side, some have exposed pipes or old plumbing, low water pressure, really ugly tiling, low ceilings, loud street noise, no insulation from the cold, leak stains on the ceilings, you name it.
Any questions for Lisa? Want to learn what it’s like for a single woman in Cuenca? Ask your questions in the comments below…