360 West 360 West May 2017 : Page 34

Wanderings A BALANCING ACT Tackling steep mountains, overcoming a language barrier and adjusting to a slower pace, this former Fort Worth attorney is gaining a foothold on life in Ecuador. Linda Todd Murphy with Ginger, her best friend and hiking partner 34 May 2017 360westmagazine.com


Linda Todd Murphy

Tackling steep mountains, overcoming a language barrier and adjusting to a slower pace, this former Fort Worth attorney is gaining a foothold on life in Ecuador.

Linda Todd Murphy with Ginger, her best friend and hiking partner

The Colonial center of Cuenca as seen from the banks of the Tomebamba River

Photos by Al Bourassa/Souvenir Photo Studio

“Lean back,” he called out. “You need to be perpendicular to the mountain. You’ll lose your balance if you lean into the mountain.” Brian was helping our hiking group of aging boomers rappel down a mountain we’d just hiked up. I wasn’t very successful that day, but I managed to make my way down the muddy trail, planning to try again later. I have tackled plenty of challenges during the five years I’ve been living in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.

Before arriving in Ecuador, I spent my adult life in Fort Worth, practicing law and raising kids and volunteering. When my youngest child was about to leave for college, I knew I needed a new challenge outside my familiar orbit. I had always dreamed of living in a foreign country. Why not now? I researched Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico but wanted more of a change than those countries offered. I needed to rupture the way I thought, moved and consumed.

An indigenous woman weaves a toquilla straw hat, popularly known as Panama hats.

Around that time, I happened upon a friend’s blog about her travels in Ecuador and her volunteer work in Cuenca in particular. My interest was piqued. Roughly the size of Colorado, the country includes four climate zones: the Andes, the Pacific coast, the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands. Cuenca, a Spanish colonial city with a population of roughly 450,000, is 8,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by the Andes. Four rivers run through it, and the temperature ranges from 50 to 75 degrees all year. Cuenca’s climate got my attention, but its history captured me.

The original settlement, founded around 500 A.D. by the Cañari, was occupied by the Incas in the years preceding the Spanish conquest. The Incas transformed the town into a regional capital, and it now bears a UNESCO World Heritage designation.

I arranged a visit. Have I mentioned I couldn’t speak Spanish?

I arrived in October 2011 and quickly realized that an influx of U.S. and Canadian expatriates began in 2009, when Cuenca was named the world’s top retirement destination by International Living magazine. Social gatherings for incoming expats were popular. There were women’s lunches and Spanish classes. Meeting dozens of new people felt like my freshman year at college, only back then it was easier to remember names.

Many expats came because they lost their savings in the 2008 crash and figured a developing country would be more affordable. Some were sick of their homeland’s climate or politics. Some arrived in search of cultural and historical insights. We all shared one thing: an adventurous spirit.

The one friend I had in Cuenca I brought with me: Ginger, my border collie/Aussie mix. I cannot imagine spending that first anxious month without her. Ginger took to exploring the long parks bordering the rivers as enthusiastically as I did.

Field labor is hands-on, and women and men toil equally hard, often tilling with oxen. Below, Linda poses with a group of her students while on a field trip to Parque de la Madre in the town of Cuenca.

Photo by Bob Horowitz

“My children don’t worry too much about me these days. They know I am off driving a rented car on a muddy back road, swerving and steering so as not to fall off a cliff, not knowing exactly where I am, yet secure in the certainty that I’m not lost.”

Life is simple in Ecuador, but it isn’t easy. When I first moved here, I would spend hours at the grocery store confounded that milk and eggs weren’t refrigerated and wondering which part of what animal was shrink-wrapped for sale in the meat section. The public markets were even more of a happening: goat’s milk delivered fresh out of the goat standing next to you and skinned guinea pigs awaiting a skewer. Roast guinea pig is a delicacy, although the creatures are treated as pets right up until they’re eaten. It was an exciting new culinary world. Good coffee and some of the finest chocolate on earth eased the pain of discovery that there was no authentic Mexican food in Ecuador.

I appreciate the absence of consumerism. “More, newer and better” is not trending here, and that’s helpful for me, a recovering consumer. People buy what they need and can afford. If something breaks, they are resourceful in making repairs. In rural communities, if a house burns down or a village needs a soccer field, neighbors hold a “minga” — an Inca tradition — collaborating to complete the project, then sharing copious amounts of food and drink.

Few Cuencanos speak English, so learning Spanish is a must to integrate into the culture. At 57, it was no cakewalk. Thankfully, Cuencanos are patient. I, too, learned patience. I learned that mañana doesn’t mean tomorrow. It merely means not today.

Linda and pals take a break on a hike to the pre-Incan ruin called Cojitambo, near Cuenca.

Early on, the most difficult times for me were when the internet went down. I was cut off from everyone, not only by distance but by language. Then I would remember: firstworld problems.

What compensates for challenges and frustration is the warmth of the people. I learn the names of shop owners and their wives, and everyone greets me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Neighbors seem invested in whether I am settling in comfortably. In my experience, kindness is more prevalent where the pace of life is slower.

I don’t own a car, and only a few friends do, so we walk everywhere. It is an old-fashioned yet enlightened way of living, to have shops and cafes intermingled with housing. I never again want to live in a place with a low walkability rating.

My fifth-floor penthouse apartment offers a view of the iconic blue domes of Cuenca’s old town. It’s grand by Ecuadorean standards, and I’m surrounded by my books, artwork from my travels and photos of my children. The greatest luxury is an upstairs guest suite for family or friends.

There are myriad activities for retired people in Cuenca that aren’t available in other cities I researched. There are orchestras, choirs and acting troupes of which expats are members. There is always something exotic to see, as colorful festivals and parades pop up unexpectedly. I taught English at a school in the countryside for a couple of years and am beginning a new volunteer teaching position at a public school here in the city. The kids are shy and polite, even when they laugh at my erratic Spanish. I take my students fishing or to the movies. I volunteer as a videographer for an array of gatherings. I hike.

I joined a hiking group following double knee replacement surgery, and it’s been great for my balance and strength. Going up a mountain is difficult. Coming back down can be frightening. Sometimes, when it’s really slippery, I’ll sit down and slide for a bit. (My compliments to the makers of Royal Robbins trekking pants.)

Occasionally, I’ll rent a car for a road trip with a friend. Our adventures can be of the unexpected variety, like the time my friend and I stopped to ask directions from what turned out to be the best little whorehouse in Riobamba. Another time we took a thrilling drive where the mountains yield to the Amazon jungle. The sights are breathtaking as the vegetation changes from pine trees to palms. It was in that jungle that we hiked for hours in a pouring rain and came upon a 3-foot-long earthworm escaping its flooded burrow. Our guide snatched up the worm and hooked it to a line in the river to catch a 132-pound catfish, which we and the other campers ate. (I know. I didn’t believe it either.)

These wanderings have become my most enriching experiences, the payoff for the initial discomfort and disorientation and for missing my children as they go about their own lives. My goal was to discover more about the world and about myself. I had wondered — after growing up on a farm, then becoming a lawyer, then a socialite with an enviable wardrobe and jewelry collection — if I had the capacity to return to a simpler life. Apparently I did. I have discarded possessions and acquired an understanding of an American culture that few of us have the opportunity to know. I converse in Spanish well enough to joke with the locals now, and I can adapt to staying in a $15 hote l in a pueblo with a name I cannot pronounce. I have gained a group of expat and Ecuadorean friends who share my embrace of adventure — and a family that recognizes the importance of pursuing one’s dreams.

My children don’t worry too much about me these days. They know I am of driving a rented car on a muddy back road, swerving and steering so as not to fall of a cliff, not knowing exactly where I am, yet secure in the certainty that I’m not lost. The Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, once wrote, “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”

Read the full article at http://digital.360westmagazine.com/article/Wanderings/2770592/403752/article.html.

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