Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Seven Year Itch?

The three most frequently asked questions I receive are, in order:

Why Ecuador/Cuenca?

What do you do all day?

Do you think you'll live in Cuenca forever?

Cynthia and I arrived here seven years ago last month, and I think I've done a pretty good job through this blog of answering the first two. Regarding the third one, my standard answer has always been, "I don't really think in absolute terms like 'forever.' But based on my life history (this being the fourth city of residence in the last 20 years), I'd say probably not."

It's been interesting to observe the dynamics of our expat population in Cuenca over the years. We were part of the initial wave of foreigners who arrived in 2010, and for the first few years the flow of expats defied the laws of nature--the tide always came in and never went out. I still remember vividly the shock when one of our first couple friends returned to the States after only about six months. They're leaving already?!? It was unthinkable.

We later learned that the average lifespan of an expat is 2-3 years before going back or moving on. And that is exactly what has happened here. Sure, new folks continue to show up, but their numbers are offset by others who are leaving. Every week in online publications there are posts for moving sales from people we never even got to meet.

There's no way to get an accurate count on Cuenca's expat population anymore. The immigration office knows exactly how many residency visas have been issued, but it is impossible to determine the number who are still here. Gosh, thinking back to the early days I realize that almost everyone we met from the "Class of 2010" is gone.

It also dawns on me that we've lived in this apartment longer than any other dwelling of our soon-to-be 46 years of marriage except the house in Atlanta we built and raised our children in. We were lucky to find it and all of the furniture we shipped fits perfectly, so why move?

Well, two reasons have slowly crept into our consciousness. As you know we travel internationally a lot, and dealing with the scheduling hassle of getting to Guayaquil or, usually, Quito with minimal layover and/or overnight stays has become increasing annoying. Since we plan to travel even more in the next 10-15 years it would be so much more convenient to live in a city with an international airport nearby.

Second, those four flights of steps in our building (plus another flight inside our apartment) weren't that big a deal seven years ago. As we continue to age and often go up and down them multiple times a day, let's just say the thought of having an elevator has crossed our minds. Particularly on grocery shopping day.

Does this mean we're out of here? No, not at all. But it does mean that as opposed to buying a car, which has never been considered, an occasional conversation about the subject now comes up. And I have to admit it's kind of fun to contemplate new possibilities. What besides an airport would be important to us in a new place? What features in a dwelling would we really like to have? Where else in the country, continent, or even world might be a great fit?

We've found this new topic of conversation so stimulating that we've even fantasized about the next "next"--what life could look like for us beyond the years of active travel. What kind of environment would we be looking for? What would we be doing?

Whether or not the details of any of these chats manifest is irrelevant. Something we've known intellectually for a long time has now become an essential aspect of our existence and a key element in all the blessings that have come our way since we stepped off the plane in Cuenca seven years ago.

Rather than obsess about minutia, we focus on a strong, solid general intention and then pay attention in the present moment to everything coming our way that supports that intention--a person--an article--a conversation. At first it took courage to not "be in control." Now we get out of our own way and simply let life unfold. The results have been so much better on every level.

As seasoned expats and travelers we have no trepidation about adjusting to life elsewhere. Since there's no sense of urgency about any of this, enjoyable flights of imagination over a glass of wine will continue. If and when the time feels right, perhaps we'll be motivated to take action.

One way or the other, our life continues to be an excellent expat adventure.








Thursday, June 8, 2017

Happenings in the 'Hood

We returned last night from a month-plus in the States to, as usual, an empty refrigerator and pantry. So my first order of business this morning was a visit to the Supermaxi to replenish our supplies.

I actually enjoy grocery shopping, which in this case is a big plus since there was so much shopping to do. And I love wandering through the neighborhood on my way to the store to report back to Cynthia all the changes since we left. This time I'd like to fill you in as well, followed by a few comments about my discoveries:

The food business next door has been renovating their rear outdoor space for ages. My best guess is a restaurant will be part of the operation eventually. We returned to two half-finished roof tile installations (a job that would take two focused guys one day to do).

The eyesore ladies clothing store up the street is now a bakery. Looking through the window it appears they offer the exact same products as a zillion other bakeries in town. (Sigh)

A pizza place under construction when we left has now opened, bringing the total to three within a few minutes walk.

There has been rapid progress on a new condo building nearby. This is reported solely because of the word "rapid."

Conversely, a condo building that's been under construction forever has still not opened. The pyramids were finished faster.

The fourth incarnation of a tiny doomed restaurant space is closed. You can't turn enough tables for it to work, but people keep trying----.

A cute coffee shop we never made it to has also closed (oops, correction. It has moved a block to a higher traffic area. We're not too late!).

A restaurant took down their sign about two years ago and we thought it had closed, but mysteriously they still seemed to have customers. Well, the sign has been re-installed so I guess they are officially open again.

A home converted into an attractive hostal near nothing-that-visitors-would-stay-overnight-for seems to be closed.

The chocolate shop next door that never had a customer has also closed.

I poked my head into the food court area at Milenium Plaza and noted the following (Disclosure: we don't go there very often so these changes could have occurred earlier than a month ago):

Sweet & Sexy, a children's clothing store (does the name raise eyebrows for you as well?) has expanded into women's clothing and moved to a larger space.

In its former location is yet another women's shoe store. How many can this population possibly support?

There is a new food purveyor called Captain Morgan's that serves absolutely nothing associated with its rum namesake.

Another new place is called Chips London. Fish & chips comprises a total of one thing on the entire menu, and it's not even the featured selection.

Venturing on, another coffee shop has opened near the Supermaxi. And, amazingly, set to open is a huge German-style beer hall right across the street from the grocery store.

Now this may seem to you like a lot of churn in just one month. Honestly, the players change but what I've reported is quite typical in our neighborhood. I've watched countless businesses come and go over the past seven years, which has led me to the following observations:

1) New businesses seem to be vastly under-capitalized. People invest everything they have just to get the doors open and cross their fingers.

2) Fundamental marketing principles are unknown. Owners invite their friends and relatives to the "grand opening" hoping the word will spread. If it does (which rarely happens) they succeed. If not the space is vacant within 3-6 months.

The coffee shop and artisan beer explosion has been totally unexpected. When we arrived in 2010 the preferred coffee was Nescafe--in a country that grows some of the finest coffee on the planet. And the beer choices were our two local options--Pilsener and Club. With these new trends plus the opening of both a food truck park and container park (a grouping of converted shipping containers serving a variety of cuisines) shortly before we left in May, Cuenca is almost becoming hip!

It's great to be back home. We look forward to reconnecting with our wonderful life here.



Friday, May 26, 2017

Ecuador Slim

When Tom challenged me to a game of pool I told him it had been years----.

"No problem," he said. "You break."

"You sure?"

"Yep. Go for it."

"OK-----."

In high school I did well in geometry. But there's quite a difference between solving an equation and determining the angle and speed of your shot. Applying "English" to the ball is perhaps the only time when my Spanish skills are superior.

As I struck the cue ball I discovered a similarity between my pool and golf games--the nagging tendency to take my eye off the ball and raise my head at the moment of impact. This causes you to "top" the ball instead of hitting it dead center.

The result of my vicious thrust of the cue stick was a slow motion curve ball that missed the triangular mass of balls completely and wandered into the right corner pocket.

We both laughed as Tom fished out the errant white "weapon of miss destruction" and told me to do it again.

I steadied myself, zipped the cue stick forward and achieved the exact same result, only this time with impressive velocity.

Now we were both doubled over and howling with laughter. Who knew pool could be this entertaining?

A third time I literally gave it a shot and---success!

Sort of.

My cue ball indeed made contact, but so lightly that the triangular formation of balls appeared to merely exhale. One who was watching this display of ineptitude and knew nothing about the game would have assumed the term "break" had some perversely opposite meaning. Because the object was obviously to treat the other balls as if they were eggs, and one should either miss them entirely or exhibit the superior skill of touching them very gently so that they don't in fact "break."

At this point tears were flowing and our jaws ached from laughing so hard. At least the game was finally underway.

I knew that to make a ball go to the right, for example, I needed to strike it left of center. But how far to the left? And at what speed? I kept guessing wrong, and in short order Tom had only a few balls left while most of mine were still littering the table.

This "strategy" would later work to my advantage, but right now I faced an additional challenge beyond the fact that I couldn't seem to get my balls to go into the holes. My "easiest" shot was right up against the edge of the table, forcing me to stand awkwardly with the back of a sofa right behind me.

I'll admit that alcohol was part of the evening, but the quantity of consumption wasn't sufficient for what happened next. Which was that after my shot (which also didn't go in) I lost my balance and did a back somersault, cue stick in hand, over the couch.

In relating this episode I just stopped to look up synonyms for "laughter," and there simply aren't words to describe the level of intensity our merriment had reached. The hooting and hollering as I lay there sprawled on the floor still holding that damn cue stick were simply epic.

To no one's surprise Tom polished off the game and perhaps out of pity offered to play another (with him breaking this time). I inadvertently unveiled my version of Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope ploy by failing to sink hardly any balls, then by accident leaving the cue ball in a position at the end where he had no shot on the eight ball.

He missed and said, "Well, you won."

My celebratory comment was a confused, "Huh?"

At this point we opted to call the evening a friendly tie and go to bed.

All these antics earned me the nickname Ecuador Slim for the remainder of our visit. It's a moniker I'll treasure along with the lifelong memory of two grown men laughing at a silly game like little kids.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Driving Ms. Cynthia

After mud wrestling with Priceline for days I'd finally secured a reservation on a mid-sized car for only $13 a day. It's not that the regular rate was crazy expensive for the few days we would be needing a vehicle. Nor did I outsmart the system. Like with buying wine in the previous post, I simply persisted.

I didn't have long to celebrate my victory before I received an email from our hosts in Atlanta offering us the use of one of their cars during our stay. Since this freed up funds from the budget to share better-than-CVS wine with them I gratefully accepted and cancelled the rental reservation.

The car we were to use was pretty fancy and Tom carefully explained all of its features, including the push button start in lieu of a key. Afterwards we seemed ready to go, so I pushed the button as instructed.

Nothing.

"What's wrong? It didn't start."

"You've got to put your foot on the brake. That's how you start cars with a button."

"Lighten up, bro. Remember, I don't drive."

I noticed a change in Tom's expression as the reality of what I said, that his expensive vehicle was about to be driven away by, well---me, sunk in.

As I fiddled with adjusting the mirrors, seat, and steering wheel he came to the window and asked, "Is everything OK?"

"Yes, everything's fine. Relax, dude. I'll be extra careful, and I've got my co-pilot along to keep me straight."

As I backed out of the driveway Cynthia and I joked that he was probably calling his insurance company to increase the coverage.

Tom also kindly offered us his phone to use for navigation but this we declined. We've never had smartphones and weren't comfortable depending on unfamiliar technology to get us around. Instead we depended on the old fashioned methodology that had served us in the past.

No, not an unfolded paper road map like we used many times before personal computers. I went to Google Maps and printed out directions to each of our destinations. There's something reassuring to us about seeing the entire journey in black and white. Every turn and even the distance between each change in direction is right there in front of you before the trip even begins, as opposed to depending on some chick you've never met parsing it out one piece at a time. Especially when driving in the dark, "In 900 feet turn right on----" is too suspenseful for us.

The great news is that everything worked out just fine. We arrived at each stop on time without ever getting lost. Except that first night we came back to Tom and Brenda's an hour later than expected. I told him with a wink I had a hard time finding a body shop to repair the damage late on a Saturday.

He smiled but-----.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

You CAN Always Get What You Want

It seemed like a simple enough idea--go pick up a bottle of chardonnay to enjoy in our hotel room and sparkling wine to celebrate the end of the conference. Google Maps showed a liquor store nearby so off I went.

While confirming the directions with the bell captain, he shared that there was another place closer to the hotel in the opposite direction. Sounds good to me. The closer the better.

A block and a half away there it is. Perfect. I'll be back putting that chard on ice in minutes.

The store is small and so is the wine section. The selection is straight from the bottom shelf of a grocery store. We're by no means wine snobs, but while Cynthia prefers a buttery chardonnay, our choices in Ecuador might as well be labeled "lactose-free," so to please her I was aiming a little higher.

I'd noticed a second store a block further down the street so I meandered down there for a look. Amazingly, even worse than the place I just left.

OK, then on to the original location I found on the computer. It was a hike from my current location and the weather was a bit hot but I was not to be deterred. I arrived and walked into the smallest, crummiest excuse for a liquor store I have ever seen. This place was for hard core clientele seeking higher alcohol content and offered maybe five total bottles of wine, none of which were remotely drinkable.

Wow. Only one option left--go all the way back to the first store. This episode reminded me too much of daily life in Ecuador, where finding things often requires visits to multiple stores. But in Atlanta?? Never expected to be wandering the downtown streets in search of such a simple purchase.

Getting a quizzical look from the proprietor upon my re-entry, I grabbed the best bottle I saw and turned it around to check the price. Earlier I'd dissed the choices so quickly I hadn't even bothered, which I suddenly discovered was a big mistake.

$28?!? For at best a $10 bottle???

It's not that I couldn't afford it, but I just couldn't bring myself to voluntarily be ripped off so badly. I left frustrated and defeated, knowing what would be said as soon as I opened the door to our hotel room:

"YOU'VE BEEN GONE THIS LONG AND CAME BACK WITH NOTHING?!?"

Walking back I kept trying to remember something. "Cynthia, we haven't been that many places today. Where did we see wine for sale?"

"At the CVS up the street. Next to the section where we were buying cards. You should have just gone there."

Of course I should have gone there--if I had remembered where there was------.

(Sigh)

Shoes back on. Back out the door to the damn drugstore of all places. Decent chardonnay and better than average prosecco (at prices only slightly above the grocery) a few minutes later, we're finally in business.

Lesson relearned. No matter where you are, sometimes you've gotta keep going to get what you want. And in downtown Atlanta, the best wine shop is CVS----.



Thursday, May 4, 2017

I Don't Speak Starbucks

I enjoy a couple of cups of coffee each morning. Except for an occasional glass of iced tea at lunch I'm done with caffeine for the day. Meeting someone for a coffee? Nah. Coffee with dessert? Never.

And those cups of coffee are just that--cups filled with coffee. No cream or sugar for me, thank you.

I mention this because we're currently at a hotel in Atlanta for a conference, and while our room is equipped with a coffee pot, the coffee that is provided by most hotel chains, including this one, is pretty awful.

This means a mandatory visit to the Starbucks in the lobby. As odd as it may seem, moving to Ecuador where the primary language is of course Spanish has prepared me for this daily event. Why? Because just as I arrived in our new home with minimal Spanish skills, I find whenever I'm in one of these establishments that I speak minimal "Starbucks." Which could potentially signal a problem.

Right off the bat I see that the smallest cup they have is called "Tall." That's like calling me, at 6'3", short. I mean, seriously, where do you go from there?

Downhill is where.

I hear the people in front of me in line barking out orders concerning how many pumps of this. How much foam of that. I just want a damn cup of coffee.

I admit, I used to be intimidated by all this foreign jargon. When I was asked to get orders to go for my daughter and wife I made them write everything down so I wouldn't forget something or mix up the words before I got to the "Welcome to Starbucks---" part of the process.

But as I've gotten into the rhythm of what's actually going on I notice that all these "special order" people are standing around forever waiting for the baristas (Is that really what you call a coffee person? Does that mean that a McDonald's employee is a hamburgerista? Or a BigMacerista? Come on. How far removed is that from a janitor being a "sanitation engineer?) to pump and foam their beverage while I get my unadulterated venti (Really? Who are we kidding here?) cup of java and am outta there.

So now I confidently and fearlessly walk up and say, "I'd like a large cup of coffee to go, please." And you know what? I get a large coffee to go. Quickly. While all those other folks are waiting for their pumped and foamed whatever's.

I often joke that I'm fluent in Spanish when it comes to ordering food and getting home, which are the two main things I need to do when I exit my door. Looks like my Starbucks fluency has progressed to a sufficient level as well.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

It's the End of the World As We Know It

Cynthia and I watched a documentary about the history and future of the Internet last night. There were some fascinating as well as disturbing segments (addicted online gamers in Japan and S. Korea wear diapers so they don't have to be bothered actually getting up to go to the bathroom--gross!!), and a comment by one of the interviewees really got my attention.

Addressing the degree to which the Internet has pervaded society, he stated matter-of-factly that were the Internet to go down, civilization would instantly collapse into chaos. I thought, "What a remarkably ethnocentric thing to say."

As far as Western civilization goes I can agree with him. Communication and linkage via the Internet are key components of vast distribution systems geared to high degrees of efficiency. Last trip back I was continually amazed to find my daughter's Amazon orders at the door a day after purchase. And at the human level, I can imagine legions of the zombie apocalypse rendered helpless without smartphones to stare at all day.

If societal collapse is defined as the inability to provide even the bottom tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs--shelter, clothing, and food--Ecuador would be in fine shape with or without the Internet. Everyone here seems to have a roof over their heads, and no one is wandering around naked. In regards to food, Cynthia and I buy our groceries at the Supermaxi, but the vast majority of the citizenry either grow their own sustenance or shop at mercados, the equivalent of super-sized farmer's markets in the States.

These emporiums, located in virtually every city and town throughout the country, are overflowing with locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and breads plus all kinds of dry goods. This "distribution system" has successfully been in place for hundreds of years before the invention of the Internet or even electricity. Without Internet the grocery store chains would probably fold so we would simply "go local" and join our Ecuadorian brethren at the nearest mercado.

Speaking of electricity, I realize that Cynthia and I could even manage quite well without it as well (at least for a reasonable period of time). Our cook top, oven, and hot water are all powered by gas, so we could prepare food and maintain proper hygiene. Lack of refrigeration would only mean more frequent trips to a mercado. As it is our eggs and milk (ultra-pasteurized) are already bought from the shelf.

There is no heating or air conditioning here, and we have abundant windows on three sides of our apartment. We'd have to buy more candles and shift our schedule to go to bed and get up earlier, but that's not exactly a hardship. Lack of Internet and electricity would mean not knowing what's going on in the world, but honestly that rarely impacts our daily lives anyway.

Although we're not here for these reasons--we're no one's definition of survivalists or conspiracy theorists--considering the "what if" of such worst case scenarios only adds to my happiness that we chose to move to Cuenca, Ecuador. In the best of times it's terrific and even if all hell breaks loose in the world I realize that we would be be much better off than many.