Thursday, August 27, 2015

A "Typical" Day

When Cynthia and I attend International Living conferences (we'll be at this year's Fast Track Your Retirement Overseas conference in Las Vegas from September 25-27, in fact) the most frequent question we're asked is, "What do you do all day?."

None of our days are "usual," meaning dull and repetitive, although they're not without a whisper of a structure. What routine we have is built around our morning fitness schedules. Cynthia attends yoga classes and I head to the gym three days a week. Everything else is pretty much freelanced.

But to give those interested a glimpse of what a "typical" day is like around here, let me quickly recount today so far. I got out of here around 9 this morning to, yes, go work out. After beating myself up for about an hour with the weights I walked across the river to the ATM to grab some cash. Then I remembered we've got company coming over this evening and nothing to serve except alcohol (which is certainly better than nothing, but-----) so I decided to stroll over to the nearby Supermaxi to pick up some provisions.

Cheese, fruit, and some extra wine (just in case) purchased, I spotted a "wheelbarrow lady" nearby with beautiful strawberries. Maybe you don't know what that means. Indigenous folks load wheelbarrows with fruit and sell their wares all over the city. The main mercado is on the other side of town so I don't even want to know how far these sweet folks push those heavy things, and I'm happy to buy from them whenever I can. I got $2 worth (it's customary to ask for "poquito mas"--a little more) and continued my walk home.

I stopped by to tell Betty, our local florist, how beautiful the roses are that I bought from her a couple of days ago. Two dozen just-off-the-truck-and-still-bundled-in-cardboard from nearby Paute had set me back a whopping four bucks and they are absolutely gorgeous. Betty knows zero English and I speak Tarzan Spanish but we work it out, and she seemed so pleased that I took the few minutes to pop in and thank her.

Not done yet. Next and final stop was the "sandwich guy" near our building to pick up lunch. Good thing too because the bags were getting heavy! Two big roast pork and two roast turkey sandwiches plus this yummy coconut juice drink that seems to always be sold as an accompaniment came to $9.50. And, man, they are good!

Hoofing it again to our building and up the four flights of steps I was back home by 11:30. And tired. After finishing this post it's siesta time, then perhaps I'll finish an article for IL magazine I'm working on later this afternoon before our company arrives for wine and Mexican food at a nearby restaurant.

Or not. There's always tomorrow---.

So there it is. Another day in paradise!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Say "Cheese"!!

I recently started to notice that my teeth were looking kind of tired after a lifetime of consuming grape popsicles, blueberries, red wine, coffee, and whatever else is a staining agent. In the past I've tried those whitening strips you can buy at Target but the results were always short-lived and less than impressive. So, vain guy that I am, I decided to go the professional route and put a sparkle back in my smile.

I'm fortunate to have a really great dentist right up the street from our residence. Dra. Daniela (Danny) Ordonez is thorough and gentle, and she speaks perfect English. She's also a perfectionist, a quality I'm always happy to find in a medical practitioner.

So into the chair I go, not knowing what to expect since I've never had this procedure performed on me. Basically I laid there for about an hour with a contraption in my mouth to keep it open properly while she painted a strong hydrogen peroxide solution on my teeth several times and held a special light over them. It wasn't the most pleasant experience but I figured, what the hell, if my teeth look great for years this is no biggie.

We weren't done. I had to come back the next day to be fitted with mouth guards into which I was to squirt syringes of more peroxide, then wear them for three hours over the course of four days. Cynthia was quite pleased with this development since she would get a short daily vacation from listening to my constant blabbing.

But that still wasn't all. Danny told me the longer I refrained from drinking red wine, coffee, and green or black tea during the next month, the longer the whitening procedure would last. No problem, I thought. After consuming copious amounts of excellent red wine in Chile, Argentina, and the States this year I've pretty much sworn off of the stuff we can afford to drink here anyway. Fortunately white wine and dark rum weren't on the forbidden list. Tea--I didn't really drink that anyway. And coffee? I drink 2-2 1/2 cups each morning so I figured I wouldn't even notice.

Uh, wrong.

God, my head hurt so damned bad the first day that no amount of ibuprofen could make it stop. Trust me, I know--I tested the dosage limits to no avail. My body literally felt like I had the flu. I couldn't believe that cutting off what I thought was moderate coffee intake could have such a devastating effect.

This caused me to reevaluate my whole relationship with this particular beverage. I've been putting something into my body in amounts I thought were benign, but the severe withdrawal symptoms emphatically demonstrated otherwise. I obviously should consume less coffee once I could drink it again, but that was so----later. In the meantime I didn't want to take a chance experiencing another miserable day and I needed a substitute source of caffeine now.

Off to the Supermaxi. Searching the shelves of tea I spotted a box called Runa with some herb from the Amazon that promised natural energy with antioxidants. I turned the box around and, YES!!, that energy came from caffeine, the same amount as a cup of coffee. Now we're talkin'!

I've been drinking a single cup a day since and you know what, I've discovered that's all the caffeine I really need to clear my head and get going in the morning. No, it doesn't have the wonderful aroma and flavor of fresh brewed coffee, but it tastes OK. And I've come to realize I was really too jacked up with the amount I was previously consuming, so I've learned a valuable lesson about myself in a very unexpected way.

And my teeth? I have to say they look terrific, and I'm very glad I decided to have them professionally whitened. If you're a reader in Cuenca, take a good look in the mirror and see if maybe your smile could use an upgrade too. The treatment is quite inexpensive and Danny is a fabulous dentist. Email her at dannymdoi@hotmail.com.




Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse

In my last post I talked about differences between life in Ecuador versus the United States, focusing on shopping at the grocery store. This time I want to mention a trend just beginning here that reflects a behavioral shift already in full swing in the States.

Smartphones.

When we're visiting our daughter in New Jersey we usually find ourselves in Manhattan at some point. Riding the train into the city, walking along the streets, and dining in restaurants it's impossible not to notice how many people are staring at their phones. Or wearing ear buds connected to their phones. On a recent train ride I'm not exaggerating when I report that every single passenger in sight except Cynthia and me was "connected" in some way to a smartphone.

This was of great curiosity to me so I would steal surreptitious glances at the screens of folks nearby to see what they were so interested in. Maybe they were learning a new language--keeping up with current events--taking care of some business during their ride.

Nope. Every single person was either playing a game or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Pinterest or some other form of social media.

On the streets people are transfixed staring at their phones as they shuffle along oblivious to their surroundings. In restaurants almost everyone has their phone perched on the table so they don't "miss anything." At a movie we went to little screens were visible in the dark throughout the theater as fellow attendees were texting away during the previews.

This technology explosion is happening so quickly that I'm honestly having trouble processing it all. On one hand I'm amused and on the other concerned about where we're heading. Here in Ecuador I am the proud owner of a $40 "dumbphone" on which a call is made or received maybe once a week tops. Circumstances occasionally force me to send a text, but in the time it takes me to fumble my way through the process I could have made three calls, gone to the bathroom, and fixed myself a sandwich.

I like to walk around town feeling the sun on my back and the breeze blowing (no, not through my hair). The sights and sounds of my surroundings are always interesting because, well, they are part of my life. But I'm saddened to see what I call the "Zombie Apocalypse," this phenomenon of smartphone addiction already prevalent in the U.S., beginning to take hold in Ecuador as well.

A recent survey in the States revealed that making a phone call is only the sixth most popular use of a smartphone. Surfing the Web, texting, playing games, posting photos and God knows what else all ranked higher. Here you still see most people using their phones for what they were originally intended--talking to someone. But the writing is on the wall.

Walking down the sidewalks I'm starting to encounter folks slowly meandering with that familiar stooped shoulder, downward facing posture. This even happened recently as I came up behind a little indigenous woman in her traditional dress. How mind bending to notice that the phone she was staring at is much nicer than mine! At traffic signals young professionals are hurriedly texting before the light turns green. Ecuador's emerging middle class is eager to own all manner of status possessions, and the latest electronic devices seem to be at the top of the list.

One day I know I'll be forced to either upgrade to a smartphone or risk being left behind and labelled as a hopeless old fogey wallowing in the past. Until then I'll remain blissfully disconnected, fully participating in my life and enjoying face-to-face conversations with interesting people.

So if you need to reach me feel free to call, but be advised I probably won't even have my phone with me. And should you need a quick reply, for God's sake don't send me a text!





Friday, July 24, 2015

Grocery Shopping Here is----Different

We've recently returned from a couple of months in the States visiting family (with a week in Cancun at the International Living Ultimate Event thrown in). When we come home I can't help but notice the differences between life here and in the U.S.

Take going to the grocery store, for instance. Since we had zero food in the house, the first thing I did after unpacking was head to the Supermaxi to restock the refrigerator and pantry. I was, as always, welcomed by a greeter upon entering the store. Does that happen where you shop? I didn't think so. This gentleman also checks any bags (except purses) that you bring in and hands you a number to reclaim your property when you leave. A shoplifting deterrent, I'm sure.

I obviously needed a lot of stuff and grabbed a buggy. But even if I was there to purchase only a few items I would have still needed a buggy because our store has no hand-held baskets. Why? Insider tip--you don't ask "Why?" in Ecuador because the answer, if there is one, is irrelevant. It just is-----. (A corollary anecdote: I was once scolded for taking photos inside the store. See--you want to ask that question again. Don't.)

The first aisle you come to has the dairy products. So where are the milk and eggs? On the shelf in another part of the store. Milk is ultra-pasteurized and in boxes or bags; eggs don't need refrigeration because, unlike in the U.S., they aren't so rigorously cleaned that their protective coating is scrubbed off of the shells.

Next is the deli. We have rotisserie chickens but, contrary to the mantra that Ecuador's low cost of living, the darn things are expensive. The bird you buy for $5 at the Kroger or Publix costs $9 here. I've never understood how a chicken that takes 8-10 weeks from hatching to your table no matter where it hatches, raised in a country with a minimum wage of like $340 per month, can cost almost double. But I buy them anyway because they're s-o-o-o convenient to have around.

You're used to a deli with all kinds of meats and cheeses, and probably a nice selection of prepared foods to go. Ours has lots of ham. Plus cheeses that have names like cheddar and Gruyere but somehow all seem to taste the same. Oh, there are a few other choices but when I say lots of ham, I mean LOTS of ham. I tried many of them but, much like their cheese neighbors, they have different names and prices but all of them have the flavor, or lack of flavor, of that pre-packaged sliced stuff that was stacked between slices of white bread in my brown bag lunches in grammar school.

But here's an example of how learning just one new Spanish word can improve your life. I've always avoided this jamon (ham) ahumado I'd seen for months because I didn't know what "ahumado" meant and the word didn't look too enticing. I recently found out at a restaurant it means "smoked." Well---now I was interested. Lo and behold, jamon ahumado is fabulous! After tasting it I immediately wanted to whip up a bowl of potato salad. This very well may seem silly and trivial to you but little treasures and discoveries mean a lot when you've learned to do without so many things you used to take for granted.

Moving on to the meat section. Poultry, beef, and pork--just like the U.S. The chickens are whole or cut into breasts, thighs, wings, and legs--just like the U.S. The beef and pork---not so much. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of styrofoam trays sealed with plastic that have meat inside. Some you recognize as ground beef or pork (no ground chicken or turkey, by the way), pork chops, or tenderloin. But most of it looks like someone hung a dead animal on a hook and started hacking away with a chain saw. Looking for a nice chuck roast or maybe a pork shoulder? Fuggidabowdit. You just stare at unidentifiable chunks of flesh and think, "What the hell is this???" For that reason we only prepare chicken, hamburger, filet Mignon, pork chops, or pork tenderloin at home because we have no idea what to do with anything else.

Inventorying throughout the store is done with clipboards so you never know from one visit to the next if your favorite cereal will be there. If not it may be back in a week--a month--or never. So hoarding is a common practice when you spot something that's been unavailable for awhile. A friend told me just today that she grabbed a dozen jars of Dijon mustard that hasn't been around for months and quite probably will disappear again.

Here's another reason produce may be unavailable: restaurant owners shop in the grocery stores!! You'll see someone loading all the broccoli or a type of lettuce into his cart and you know what's on his menu today.

I could go on and on, but let's get in the checkout line. Sometimes that's a challenge in itself because the area in front of the lines is often a mish mash of empty carts. Why? This time there is an answer: the damned carts won't fit through the space next to the cashier!

I learned this the hard way my very first trip to Supermaxi five years ago. I'd been in the store f-o-r-e-v-e-r because I didn't know the layout plus, uh, everything was in Spanish----. I happily stepped in front of my cart, unloaded some groceries onto the belt, and pulled the cart forward. And pulled the cart forward. And--why wouldn't the stupid cart move??? The cashier and bag boy were in stitches! How was I to know you unload all of your groceries and just leave the empty cart, along with everyone else's, sitting there in everyone's way until some employee decides to clear them out.

That's only the beginning of interesting occurrences in the checkout line. Your items are totaled and the cashier tells you the final tally. Say it's $40.37. You give her two twenties and a five. She'll actually ask if you have the thirty seven cents! Maybe you do, but the automatic response is always "No." Small change and dollar coins are a precious commodity here. You want to give the bag boy some change for taking your groceries to the taxi; you've gotta pay the taxi driver $1.50 to take you home. Hand him a twenty and you'll quickly be given a lesson in Spanish curse words.

Finally let's focus on that bag boy. If he was given any training at all it most certainly didn't involve the concept of weight distribution. The goal seems to be, "Let me see how many heavy things I can get into one bag. How about this huge jug of laundry detergent with the two bottles of wine and the cartons of milk. Excellent!!" I guess they assume that many of these shoppers have a housekeeper back at the casa waiting to help unload. I've got to haul those bags up four flights of steps!

All of this may sound like I'm complaining but the truth is I like having that guy greet me when I come in and thank me when I leave. I like knowing where everything is (or isn't) and not having so many choices to consider. I don't even mind the fact that I can't get all the products I enjoy because it gives me something to look forward to and really enjoy when we go back to the States.

So, yes, there are many differences between Ecuador and the U.S., even in the grocery store. And I think it's all wonderful. How boring would it be to move abroad and discover that everything is just the same as where you came from?!?


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Have We Made a Big Mistake?

Cynthia and I have been house sitting for our daughter and family this past week here in New Jersey. After enduring months of constant snow in the yard a change of scenery was in order, so they've been relaxing in Cancun--well, as much as you can with an infant and a toddler. Ironically we're off to Cancun ourselves pretty soon to speak at International Living's Ultimate Event.

In the meantime we've enjoyed a lovely springtime vacation. You might be thinking, "Hey, dude, you two are retired. Aren't you always 'on vacation'?" Well, technically yes, but I find it interesting how a change of scene affects your perspective. Even when you're doing pretty much the same things it somehow feels different when you're doing them someplace else. Do you agree?

We've still gone to bed and gotten up whenever we felt like it, and our waking hours haven't involved anything extraordinary. In fact, Cynthia not being at her usual yoga classes and me not going to the gym regularly are the only disruptions to our Cuenca schedule.

But now that I think of it, that's all the schedule that we have. Absolutely nothing else in our lives is planned. How weird that releasing such a small amount of structure seems so liberating. Each day has felt like we have all the time in the world!

For at least our first year in Cuenca every day was exactly like that. Zero schedule. Occasionally one of us would say to the other, "Do you think we should be at least a little bit organized?" Then we'd look at each other, laugh,and say, "Nah."

Somehow over the past five years we've allowed a whole hour a day three times a week of scheduled activity to creep into our world. And I'm sitting here wondering if it's cramping our style. I think maybe we're slipping. Please excuse me. I've gotta go talk to Cynthia about this right now.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cuenca vs. Montevideo and Buenos Aires

Part 2 of Cynthia & I comparing Cuenca to other South American cities we visited on our cruise was published in GringoTree today. Check it out here!

Friday, May 15, 2015

On the Road to Jerusalem

En route from Cuenca to New Jersey I spent the day and night with friends who live outside Quito. We decided that rather than just hang out and visit, an excursion would be a fun way to spend our time together.

An old magazine in their home had an article about some potentially interesting stops within driving distance along with a map that was in truth more of a "suggestion." There was a time when we wouldn't have set out on a day trip with such sketchy information. For starters, we weren't even sure where we were going!

Living abroad for years changes your perception of such "obstacles." No worries, we decided. The worst that can happen is we get lost. We've been lost figuratively and literally lots of times before and survived. What are we waiting for--let's get going!

Off we go in search of Jerusalem National Park. I'm not even sure why that place was chosen. Birds--hummingbirds--something like that. It doesn't matter. We're seeing a beautiful new part of Ecuador. Anything else is a bonus.

Lo and behold, we find it without a hitch. Maybe that really is a map!


The entryway was chained and it appeared no one but us was there, so we parked and started walking. A couple of minutes later we encountered an official-looking guy who told us we needed to buy tickets at a house we had just passed. Who knew? Inside we found a nicely dressed lady and purchased our admission for $1 each (mine should have been fifty cents since I'm over 65 but it wasn't worth bringing up).


What happened next was so weird, almost like a zombie movie. As soon as we got back outside, people started emerging from buildings--the woods--everywhere! Our dollar even got us a private guide. She took us along dirt paths and explained all about the flora and fauna of the park.


The area was quite hot and arid.


Cacti, bromeliads, and yucca were everywhere.




Spanish moss hung from many of the trees.


It was a fascinating tour, although we discovered from our guide the wildlife we had come there to see is active from dawn until around 6 in the morning. Oh well-----.

All of us were quite hungry by this time, so we continued north and decided to stop at the first place that looked decent. A short while later we parked in a small town that had a couple of restaurants. As we walked around stares from the locals, who obviously hadn't seen many gringos, took me back to our earliest days in Cuenca when expats were still a rarity. The first place we went into was apparently out of food. In the other spot the owner was so kind and seemingly honored by our presence. Three full lunches cost us $6 total.

One more stop before heading home--a, what would you call it? A "tangerine-yard" (vineyards imply grapes, right?) producing wine made from, what else, tangerines. Ecuador's season-less climate isn't conducive for growing grapes, and this curiosity was too enticing to not explore. When we got to the correct town we asked the first person we say where the winery was. She immediately gave us detailed instructions, which led us to believe this place must be the real deal.

Not so much. We got there and saw a sign, but the "facility" was just a normal looking house. Could this be it? We got out and saw a lady sitting outside a storage shed with crates of tangerines.



Yep, this was it, and she was the owner's daughter. Confused about why three expat strangers were standing in her front yard, we showed her the magazine. Looking at the first photo she said, "That's my Poppy!" Seeing the next one she exclaimed, "Oh, that's ME!!" Apparently she had never been shown the article, and we were for certain the only gringos who had ever stopped by.

Now filled with pride, she explained that the tangerine juice fermented for two months then aged another nine before being sold. She showed us around the grounds


and was happy to let us purchase a bottle for $8.


On our drive home we encountered a surreal scene. The distant mountains looked like they were from another planet.


This turned out to be a very environmentally unfriendly mining operation producing material used in concrete blocks for housing. Check out the sediment sliding down into the river. Yikes!

What a perfect "Porque no?" (why not?) day this turned out to be. We didn't know exactly what we were doing, or even where we were going. And things turned out even better than we could have imagined. Life is good in Ecuador!