Tag Archives: Spanish language

Starting A Business Abroad

“Hi I enjoy your blogs, I am African-American from the States and would like some information about your experiences in Cuenca and if it is a big challenge for blacks to start a business over there. You stated your experience and I thought that was great. I want to experience the life of Ecuadorians and especially Cuenca, what must my expectations be? Is it really true that $300.00 can get you a nice place to live?  Your help will be greatly appreciated.”


I am one of those people who does not know how to take a true vacation. Laying around beaches or passing the days completely self-indulged is an absolute challenge for me (which is one of a number of reasons why I hate cruises).  While my travel may seem random to an outsider, those in the know, know that there must be a specific interest I have in that country or city and that it is in some way tied to a business idea.

So when I travel to a new place, be it in the United States or anywhere else, I always have an eye out for the business environment and opportunities for entrepreneurship.  I also have a personal principle of not wanting to work for anyone other than myself and my clients, so I definitely try to consider all the possibilities.

That said, over the years I have realized some universal truths for doing business abroad:

  • Take your time. Doing business abroad can be a slow process and you want to make sure not to sink everything you have into a business proposition that is unteste;
  • Travel with an open mind and have no preconceived notions, because they are probably wrong;
  • Get to know a place before you start thinking of business there because what may work where you currently are, may not be feasible in another environment (this requires time);
  • Get to know the people before you put plans in place because their needs and desires may be completely different based on culture, religion, region, etc. (this requires time);
  • Keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth closed (regarding business plans).

On this last point, the minute you voice that you are interested in doing business in a place, everyone will (1) immediately know that you are not from there i.e. you are a “gringo” and (2) everyone will present you with a “great” business proposition.

On the challenge of being black and starting a business in Cuenca –  No one cares what color you are…black, brown, purple, neon blue. As a North American foreigner your money is green (yes, you too Canadians), and that is all that matters.  Anyone who runs a business has to hustle and take care not to be hustled, especially when working in developing countries.   You could be in the blackest country in Africa, surrounded by folks you think look like you…but they know you are a “gringo”, “toubab”, “pumoy” foreigner from the West, and trust that they will be first in line to take advantage of any naiveté.  Now that I think of it, that sounds just like New York.

So are there any particular challenges with being a black, North American, person, starting a business in Ecuador? Not particularly because you are essentially a black gringa/o.  What will present a challenge is language.  You will always fare better if you know the language enough to get around and to ensure surrogates are not leading you by the nose. The second challenge is finding trustworthy surrogates, which takes time because everyone has their own agenda.

Next, travel with no expectations, just go… you will never be disappointed and will almost always find something joyful.  Okay, correction. I had no expectations when I went on that cruise and I was still thoroughly disappointed…actually revolted.  So maybe “never” is too absolute, please substitute, “almost never”.

Finally, yes it is possible to find a place in Cuenca that I think is nice for $300.  The operative phrase being “I think”.  I like to be comfortable  but I have simple tastes, I appreciate zen decor and I like living with locals, like a local.  Yes, I have been known to hand wash the family laundry, but  I also require things to be clean, secure and welcoming.    Normal Cuenca apartment pricing means not living in the expat buildings or neighborhoods, negotiating stated prices, and having the ability to speak just a wee little bit of Spanish (you’ll have more leverage).

In the immortal words of Jay-Z and Pharrel (yes..I am going there)

“I’m a hustla baby, I  just want you to know –
It ain’t where I been, but where I’m about to go…”

Cuenca Day 4 – In the land of Spanish


How do you travel?  Do you plan every moment, determine all the things you want to see and then ensure that you see them?  Do you focus on the items of touristic interest and ensure you carry back the souvenirs with you?  It so, then my travel experience thus far must seem pretty random….which is how I like it.

The only thing I plan in advance is accommodation, in all other ways, I go with the follow.  What does that mean “go with the flow”?  It means I just let things happen organically.  While I love places of historical significance, beautiful colonial architecture, and beautiful landscapes, I prefer getting to know what it is like to live in a place, day-to-day (at least as much as is possible in a short visit). This means that I focus on the shops and markets, the people in the streets and the small plazas and parks.  It means I always say yes when invited for dinner or lunch (we learned that in India), and I never turn down an opportunity to just stroll, get lost and discover hidden gems.  I travel with the sole intention of accumulating as many souvenirs as possible, based on the literal French translation of the word, meaning memories.

However, today I put all of that aside and actually set out on a pre-planned, and rather specific, mission.  Today was about answering the question, “Are CD rates really that high in Ecuador?” From 9am this morning until about 4:00pm, we stopped at every single bank (banco) and cooperative (cooperativa) we could find and I spoke to the investment officers at each location. [For detailed information about what we discovered, look under the Investments category in the right-hand menu.] Today was actually a work day, sprinkled in with real souvenir (trinket) shopping , ice cream eating, park sitting, and saying hello to friends.

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My Spanish schpil (elevator pitch) regarding the banking information I wanted, “ Hello, where is the Investments section, I would like to speak to someone about CD rates ,” got pretty good after the first 6 times I said it and the bankers were very nice and patient in explaining all of the necessary items, which took me a while to understand.

Of course, with us the day never turns out the way we thought it would…it usually gets better.  Cuenca really is an amazing city and we now have some local friends, so I asked one of them for his assistance in finding a place to rent.  Boy, talk about coming through in a flash.  He made a call, his sister and brother in law picked us up and we saw two places, a small 2-bedroom apartment and one of the most amazing (fully furnished) homes I have ever been in. It was really spectacular.  We will see what happens, but in 2 days I may be the proud renter of a really outstanding house. [I will post housing details soon].

Our hosts then invited us to their home where we met all of their children, got a tour of their amazing home, had arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and tea with sweet tamales for dinner.  One of the Americans we met in passing today asked us which restaurants we had visited in Cuenca and I told her, quite happily, that almost all of our meals are home-cooked  and eaten with friends. She looked disappointed, but for us, home cooked meals with friends are like slices of heaven.

Cuenca Day 4 – In the land of English


Today, outside of speaking to ourselves in English, saying hello to our neighbors, and spotting someone we had met on the plane ride over, our entire day was spent in Spanish.   That said, I did spend some amount of time speaking with Cuencanos about the growing community of English speakers and visitors.

Two of these conversations centered around the frustration that it is sometimes  difficult and frustrating to provide Americans with the highest level of service because of language barriers.  While welcoming everyone, the lack of communication seems to have frayed some nerves. However, people here are so patient and nice that being able to  attempt some Spanish (even if you completely butcher it) it makes all the difference in the world.  It makes people feel like you have a stake in them personally, as well as in Cuenca.  Some words to learn –

  • Buenos Dias- good morning, Buenas Tardes-good afternoon, Buenos Noches – good evening
  • Perdonna-me – excuse me, muchas gracias -thanks very much, por favor – please
  • Cuanto cuesta – how much is it
  • Perdonna me por favor mi espanol no es bueno – please excuse me, my Spanish sucks.
  • Donde esta el bano – where is the restroom

Another conversation centered on not understanding how a person can move to a new country but (in essence) refuse to learn/speak the language.  This was different from the first set of conversations because it had nothing to do with wanting to provide better service to the expat community.  It had to do with a distaste for the imagery of complete buildings filled with expats who want nothing to do with the larger Cuencano community (except as domestic workers, taxi drivers or other service providers).

This certainly does not mean that these conversations mirror a brewing resentment in the local community; rather, it displays the need for expats to be more sensitive to the language situation. Everyone I speak to is happy with the increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans here because the city as a whole benefits.  I just think that people wish the Americans would be more social with Ecuadorians.

Americans complain about people not learning English and not integrating with the larger community when they live in our country. Then we move to their countries, refuse to speak their language and we stay in our own communities. Ironic, isn’t it.

Cuenca Day 3 – In the land of Spanish


Today was our shortest Spanish day yet because all we did in Spanish was go grocery shopping for items on today’s lunch menu.  Given that we would have such a large number of guests, we decided to go where the prices are best, El Mercado Feria Libre.

Now this Mercado has a very specific reputation as a dangerous place to visit, so the warning from every corner was to beware.  This warning came from our friends; Aisha, who wanted to accompany us to the market; Carlos, who was concerned with us going alone; and random ladies at a random bus stop where we asked for directions to the market (they told me to take my earings and rings off immediately before going any further).   Feria Libre is a great and big market with almost everything you need to cook; however, if you plan on visiting, please heed the following  warnings:

  1. Do not wear any fancy (or not) jewelry as this will draw attention to you
  2. Do not carry a bag with you – keep money (only what you need) in your front pockets
  3. Do not use twenty-dollar bills (ones and fives only)
  4. Pay attention to your surroundings.

These warnings now covered, Feria Libre was great.  There were tons for fresh fruits and vegetables.  We purchased fish for $1.00/lbs, grapes $1/lbs, parsley/cilantro was $0.25 for a bushel, lettuce as $0.50 per head, rice was $0.45/lbs, fresh cheese (like Mexican queso fresco) was $1.65/lbs, a bag of 10 tomatoes was $0.55, a stack of 6 red onions was $0.75, and a stack of 9 plantains was $1.00.  The going rate for cherries, in case you wanted to know , is $1.25-$1.50/lbs.

Our hotel is within walking distance of the market, but with groceries in hand, we decided the $1.50 taxi was the better option. Also, given all of the warnings, I decided against taking any pictures here.  The vendors were definitely friendly though.

Cuenca Day 1 – In the Land of Spanish


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Our first day in Cuenca began at 10:30 am when we left the Cuenca airport and took a taxi ($3) to our hotel/apartment.  The aviation and transport systems in Ecuador are so efficient that we were at our hotel within 20 minutes of landing.

Once we unpacked and relaxed for a bit (about an hour), we decided that there was no time like the present to begin exploring and getting our feet wet…and we were hungry.  With directions from the front office, we went in search of an inexpensive lunch, which was not as easy as it seemed.  I could find almost no street signs in the neighborhood and the streets curve, diverge, and flow back into one another, so walking in a straight line and then turning right is not an option. [I have subsequently learned that street signs are posted directly on buildings/homes at the level of the first floor ceiling]

Being hungry and tired, with weather that was noticeably chilly, we decided to cut our exploration short.  We got to a major road, found a seafood restaurant and had lunch at La Cueva Del Cangrejo.  Now this was an “expensive” place according to my expectations for Cuenca.  A large plate of fried fish fillet pieces, a side salad and a piece of fried potato was $6.  This feed the both of us (myself and an 8 year-old) but I am in search of the $1.50 lunch, which I know is out there.

Given the weather, we decided to get our jackets and venture into downtown.  We came across a festival celebrating Youth in Christ, complete with a concert band.

We then climbed the stairs in the background of the above picture.  We were completely lost, so we decided to ask the first person we saw (Carlos Antonio) for directions to get downtown.  Not only did he escort us along the road, we had wonderful conversation (in Spanish), and he assisted us in trying to get a temporary cell phone and gave us tips on the markets and the city in general, while we kept company in his store.

Carlos Antonio was so nice and really represented the friendliness and kindness of the Ecuadorians we met on our first day in town.  We left Carlos in search of ice cream and a cup of coffee and on the way met another really nice young man, Jose Miguel.   Jose Miguel is Ecuadorian (yes there are black people in Ecuador), from a region called Esmeraldas, which produces a disproportionate number of this nation’s star football/soccer players.

He was super.  I knew a little bit about the history of the Esmeraldas region, but he was so proud to be able to share the story of his home and his African heritage.  He has been in Cuenca for 3 years and we spoke (in Spanish) about his view of the city and life here.  One of the perks of being able to speak Spanish are the limitless conversations had and friends made with a friendly smile and a “Buenos Dias”.  He then escorted us around the corner to an expat heavy cafe with the best vanilla ice cream ever ($0.85 per cup).

Finally we began to make our way home and saw the most wonderful sight, that we just had to stop her.

Aisha, an Ecuadorian hijabi (a Muslim woman who wears a head covering for religious reasons)!  She and her family were so happy to meet us that they invited us for dinner that night with other family friends.   It ends up that she is the only Muslim woman in the entire city (of 500,000) that wears an Islamic head covering.   She was so moved that we stopped and greeted her that she started tearing up.  God has a plan for all of us in this world and His intention was for us that day, was to meet Aisha and her family.   So we exchanged information and promised to meet up in the evening for dinner.

My travel partner and I resumed our walk back to our hotel/apartment but first stopped to buy some flowers for a table top decoration in our apartment. We paid $1 for 4 long-stem roses, but we really should have paid $0.50-$0.75…just so you know.  A full bouquet (22-24) of long-stems normally costs $3.00-$4.00.

From there we continued further down the street to Mercado 10 de Augusto.  There is a penchant in Cuenca and Ecuador in general, for streets to be named after important historical dates.  The day when the Spanish were expelled, when Ecuador defeated Peru in war, national independence  day, etc.   The Mercado or market is a local market in downtown.  The first floor has fruits, seafood, meats and  prepared foods for sale.  The second floor is full of vegetables and prepared foods.  We bought a pound of cherries, 4 apples,  and 4 bananas for less than $2.00.   Thus with our market and flowers in tow, we proceed to our next destination…our apartment.

We arrived after an hour…which is what happens when you get totally lost, do not pay attention to details and landmarks, and constantly seek “perceived” shortcuts. This was a not so great idea, but given that it was our first day here, we did get a good sense of where downtown is in relation to our hotel and we found some cool artsy boutiques.

When we finally got home, we had just enough time to sit for 20 minutes before we had to leave for dinner.  We took a quick taxi ($1.50 is the minimum you pay for a taxi  no matter how close the destination) and arrived just in time to savor banana filled empanadas and enjoy lively conversation.  The other guests were a gentleman from Montreal, Canada and his Ecuadorian wife, Ismael and Soledad. We had a great trilingual conversation in Spanish, French and English.

Finally, our day ended with Ismael and Soledad giving us a night tour of the city (by car) and then dropping us off at our apartment.  This was day 1 in Cuenca – spent speaking Spanish. Now onto the English language experience in Cuenca.