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Cuenca, Ecuador

Given that End Point uses a distributed office structure and that I do almost all of my work online, in theory I should be able to work just about anywhere there's a good Internet connection. That sounds neat, but is it in fact true? Well, earlier this year I put the theory to a serious test. By nature I'm not all that adventurous a traveller, but my wife is, and she's fluent in Spanish. Our teenage sons are going to be grown men all too soon, so if we were ever to take the plunge into living abroad as a family, I realized it was now or never.

In looking for a place to go we had some criteria:

  • a safe place in Latin America without an excess of walls
  • good or at least reasonable Internet connectivity
  • soccer training for our 15-year-old
  • high school in Spanish for our 16-year-old.

We are very lucky that my friend Tovias suggested his home town (more or less) and volunteered his family to look after us there!

So, in February I picked up and relocated with my family to Cuenca, Ecuador, for just over three months. I worked. My wife, Gina, homeschooled one of our sons, and generally kept us all going in this beautiful and historical city.

Here's a Gigapan I took of Cuenca from Turi above the city:

Some scattershot facts, impressions and comments on Cuenca:

  • Cuenca's the third largest city in Ecuador. The population is about 475,000.
  • The elevation of the city is about 8,300 feet.
  • The city has a temperate climate, even though it is close to the equator, at a latitude of 2° 53' 0" S. The altitude has a lot to do with this, of course.
  • The people are nice!
  • I found the standard of living to be "decent"—in the full sense of the word. Certainly incomes are well below those in the US, but prices are too, and I saw almost no abject poverty.
  • Ecuador uses the US dollar as its national currency and the dollar goes a surprisingly long way. (I hope the US doesn't let Ecuador and End Point down by defaulting on its debt.)
  • There are a lot of Ecuadorians from Cuenca and the nearby region who are living in the New York Metro Area. You can see the impact of their sending money home. I met a surprising number of people at random who had spent time either living in or visiting New York or New Jersey.
  • I found myself well above average in height for the first time in my life, but the novelty wore off quickly.
  • The public services are good!
    • Buses are just 25 cents!--although some belch too much smoke.
    • Taxi fares run from $1.50 for shorter rides to $2.00 for longer rides. A very long trip will cost $3.00. (Okay, the city is much smaller than NYC, but still the fares per distance are much much less. (Gasoline is more than $1.25/gallon cheaper than in the US and wages much lower too. The cabs are smaller than US cabs, but that's just fine by me.)
    • I liked the cleanliness of the city.
    • There are some nice parks and they're reasonably well maintained.
  • It's a pleasure to walk about in the city! There's an old city within the city and it is especially nice to walk about in. There are four fast flowing little rivers running through the city and I kept thinking how they should put in some waterwheels or turbines and tap a portion of all that ferocious energy.
  • There's not much English spoken in the shops, which is good if you are trying to learn Spanish.
  • There are lots of free cultural events.
  • The city felt safe and crime is low. I was told that Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, is dangerous, and that Quito, the capital, also has a noticable crime problem. Perhaps being number three in size or a better standard of living accounts for Cuenca's relative safety.
  • Cuenca's a university town. It's great to see so many students.
  • There are a lot of Americans who are retiring to Cuenca. They know a good deal when they see one.
  • People are required to vote in elections.

This gets its own special bullet:

  • There are plenty of nice restaurants in Cuenca and the prices are especially easy on an American's wallet. Our friends, the Ramons, have a small restaurant serving comidas tipicas where we enjoyed many excellent meals. The food is wholesome, tasty, and served with a family's care; plus, soup, main course and beverage: $1.50. My son Cris got regular cooking lessons there, and I got a couple lessons in making pasteles, too. (I'll need a bunch more lessons to get it right.) My appreciation for how hard some people work in good cheer to make ends meet, counting and making their blessings as they go, was reinforced by our every meal there. By all means, stop by our friends' restaurant and tell Damian or Nube that you read about their restaurant in this blog article and that I sent you! (Broken Spanish is welcome!) It's called "El Truquito del Sabor" and is on Cacique Dumar, an extension of Calle Larga across Avenida Huaina Capac. It's catacorner to Museo del Banco Central. The museum has very well done exhibits and there's an Inca ruin behind it. It is one of the must-see places to visit in the city.

So what about working from Cuenca? (That's what I thought this article was going to be about.)

While we were in Cuenca I worked a lot. In fact, I worked more than usual on a consistent basis. Part of this was that I didn't spend time on driving my son back and forth to soccer training twice a week (he was able to take a bus to and from training five days a week) or play much soccer myself (although I did place a few pickup games on Saturday in the park, which was a blast) or on weeknight social engagements, or on home maintenance tasks (not that I'm much on those to begin with, but in Cuenca I had none at all to handle); but also, my exceptionally long work hours while I was in Cuenca probably had something to do with my feeling guilty for getting away on such a great trip, but not wanting it to be mistaken for a vacation. For me, part of the adventure of this trip was expanding my work environment to a global dimension.

Still, we did get out most every weekend to explore some great areas within easy drives of the city thanks to the Ramon family which couldn't have been more hospitable. Here's a Gigapan I took with them in el Parque Nacional de Cajas which borders Cuenca.

The Continental Divide runs through Cajas, and this panorama was taken there at about 13,000 feet.

The great furnished apartment we rented was wired for cable, and included Internet service. I had the apartment's management agent, Michael Berger of Cuenca Condos, an American who is responsible, good to deal with, and computer-knowledgeable, upgrade to a plan that was the "CM 1800" plan, which boasted 1800 Mbps down and 400 Kbps up. Here's a rate sheet for the Cable Internet service. I found the connection generally reliable, the speed mostly as advertised, and good enough for supporting my IP voice conversations with good quality. I noticed a nightly outage of about ten to fifteen minutes around midnight regularly.

I recall having three outages of between one and five hours at our apartment during working hours over the fifteen weeks I was in Cuenca. Also, one day there were several hours of seriously degraded performance, which corresponded with some very stormy weather. Of course outages of this level are a problem in business and can be very stressful. A corollary of Murphy's Law dictates that service disruptions will always happen at the worst times. I realized going in that it would be prudent to have a backup connection. In my home office in the US I have service from multiple providers, so to have less than this in Ecuador would have been silly. Michael showed me the ropes on how to use the cell phone data service on demand. It was decidedly cool. To charge a USB dongle that can be used for Internet service you remove the SIM card from the dongle, insert it into a cell phone, and do a handshake following instructions on a scatch-off card with a secret code that you can buy at stores throughout the city. This gets the SIM card charged up with however much service you've paid for, after which you reinsert the SIM card into the dongle. Since I used it as a backup service just charging it up for one day at a time for $3 was perfect. (It would have been better if I'd done a couple of trial runs before having to use the service under pressure, but that's another story.) I didn't expect that I would be able to have Skype calls over this type of Internet connection, but eventually I did give that a try, and, lo and behold, to my surprise the connection was just fine.

Personally, I've been slow to move to an IP telephone. At End Point until somewhat recently we required everybody to have an old-fashioned land-line telephone. Most of us still have them—along with whatever other phone-types we may have. For the longest time, as far I was concerned the quality and reliability of IP telephone connections and cell phones just didn't cut it for professional conversations. But of course IP telephony has greatly improved and this was going to be the only way I could reasonably do business in the US and around the world from Ecuador. I used Skype (for which I had a Skype-In number, which I am now still using), Google Talk, and we also got a "Magic Jack". The Magic Jack is a USB gizmo for Windows and Mac machines that you plug a regular old phone into. It is simple to install, you get a US phone number with it, and it's cheap. We used this as our family phone. We didn't find the quality of the calls up to the quality of Skype and Google Talk connections, but it was useful at times.

Before we went to Cuenca my wife made various friendly contacts there through Couch Surfing and one, Juan Fernando Granda of Consultores Gramer, was kind enough to advise me on Internet connections and more in Cuenca. (Juan Fernando suggested the Magic Jack.) Consultores Gramer is an agile development company specializing in GeneXus development that Juan Fernando and his partner Alex Merchan founded. It was interesting to hear about IT and web development in Ecuador and business practices there. I was surprised to learn that there aren't any ecommerce websites where card transactions can be finalized online in Ecuador because of banking regulations. Also, Juan Fernando pointed out that because of the low labor costs in Ecuador there is less incentive to automate some things. Nevertheless, IT is inevitably advancing and I saw plenty of enthusiastic laptop, cell phone and Internet use. Alex gave me a good demo of Consultores Gramer's system which is built with GeneXus and which they further customize with it. He's masterful with GeneXus. Being a proprietary Windows-based system, End Point won't be doing development with GeneXus, but if you need some good GeneXus developers I have a fine group to recommend.

With a couple of months behind me since my return from Ecuador I have some other points to share about our "test" of carrying on my work with End Point while living abroad:

  • It took a lot of preparation to do what we did, including getting our house closed up and arrangements made in advance for housing, school and soccer on the other end. I'm incredibly lucky that my wife took care of the vast bulk of this and that we had the extraordinary support from our friends that we got.
  • The reset in location and routine for me actually increased my productivity.
  • It was an wonderful and special experience for our family.
  • We would have been hard pressed to have done any better for our sons' educations.
  • Working long days in English (typically 12+ hours/day) slowed down my learning Spanish, but my Spanish sure improved more than it would have if I were just taking a course or two at home.
  • There's a risk in going someplace great like Cuenca: you may fall in love with it and want to move there permanently.

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