Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Escape from the Gas Chamber

Simplifying our lives is an ongoing intention in Casa Staton. Ancient Chinese wisdom states that "the easiest journey has the least baggage," and over the past seven years we've succeeded in tossing a lot of unneeded physical, emotional, and psychological paraphernalia overboard.

A complicated life is often filled with stress, clutter, and endless activities. Been there, done that. We're always on the lookout now for new wrinkles that give us more time to do what we really want to do rather than what we have to do. And sometimes such opportunities unexpectedly fall right into our laps.

Against that philosophical backdrop let me tell you how gas service works around here. Trust me, it'll all come together at the end. We use natural gas for cooking and hot water. Larger apartment/condo buildings often have centralized service with the cost built into the monthly maintenance fee, but in our small building with only five units everyone is individually responsible.

The gas comes in tanks about three times the size of the ones you use with your gas barbeque grill. Their initial cost is about $65 each and replacements are only $2.50 delivered. We have two, one for immediate use and a spare for when that first one is emptied.

Trucks filled with these tanks drive around neighborhoods beep-beep-beeping their horns to alert you to their presence should you need a replacement. As a gesture of "supporting the local economy" for years I've chosen instead to buy mine from a tienda merchant around the corner.

This act of goodwill has often come at a price beyond the $2.50. You see, Santiago is both a good guy and a poster child for the Latin American mañana culture. I've learned the hard way to walk over there and buy a new tank as soon as one runs out because his promises of prompt delivery within a couple of days often stretch into more than a week.

One of his tanks usually lasts us about twelve days, so countless times after a week I've stopped by to "remind" him. My most effective technique is to mention Cynthia's name while pantomiming a knife being drawn across his throat if we totally run out of gas, with beheading occurring if she's in the shower at the time the water suddenly runs cold.

Recently we did run out. Fortunately no showers were in progress and Cynthia wasn't even home. I immediately high-tailed it to his store and said I needed two tanks now. Santiago of course profusely apologized, not only for the delay but also because he was there alone and couldn't leave.

I said, "Then put the tanks on that little delivery cart you sometimes use. I'll take them home myself and bring it back to you."

Let me tell you, these tanks are heavy. Two of them are damn heavy. Here I go huffing and puffing them down the street, drawing stares from both drivers and pedestrians. This is not a job you see an old gringo doing every day--actually, any day--in Cuenca.

We have low humidity here but I'm sweating like a one-armed paper hanger. Then when I finally get to our building I've got to negotiate a downhill incline into the basement with these two beasts. Against all odds the mission is a success.

I wasn't upset or mad about any of this. In fact Santiago and I laughed about the episode when I returned the cart.

Next time I needed gas he announced that his shoulder couldn't take the abuse anymore and he was out of the gas business. OK.

I came home and asked the woman who runs a beauty salon in our building who she uses. She said, "I need a tank right now. Do you need one too? I'll call and place an order for both of us."

"Great," I said. "How long does he take for delivery?"

"Oh, usually about thirty minutes."

"Thirty minutes?!? (I'm expecting an answer measured in days). Are you kidding me?"

At that moment, thirty seconds after she hangs up the phone, the gas tank guy pulls up in front of the building.

"What is happening here?," I gasp. "Is this some kind of magic trick??"

We all have a big laugh, pay for two gas tanks, and I happily come upstairs with a phone number that I instantly treasure.

I subsequently learn several more things. One is that this new guy's tanks last 50% longer than Santiago's. Inferior gas? Partially filled tanks? Who knows? Second, he's a real businessman. I called him late in the afternoon and asked if he could deliver a tank that day. "No," he said. "Eight in the morning." The next day there he was right on time.

Most importantly I learned something about myself. This surprising turn of events made me question why I had put up with Santiago's nonsense for so long. And the only honest answer is I wasn't being present, instead mindlessly repeating behavior that was in no way serving me.

From a minor episode thus comes an important life lesson. Now if I can just figure out how to get someone to carry those heavy groceries up four flights of stairs-------.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

People-ing

We were at lunch recently with good friends we haven't seen for awhile. In response to a question about what she'd been up to the female of the couple replied, "Well, I haven't been people-ing lately."

Her unique phraseology caught me off guard, but I get it.

Our own social calendar purposely has a lot more blank days than it used to. I've been reading through my posts from our earliest days here (an exciting new project is in the works) and I am amazed at the frenetic pace we somehow maintained for years! Once we actually took a long red eye flight back from the States, hauled our suitcases up the stairs, changed clothes and freshened a bit, then zipped off to a big party until the wee hours.

I often found myself saying to Cynthia, "We're acting like we're in our 20's. And we didn't act like this when we were in our 20's!!"

After each trip home we would vow to cut back on our socializing. And we did, but going out five times a week instead of all seven wasn't getting the job done. Finally we settled on no more than three engagements per week (Three a week? In the "old days" it was more like three a year!) and lately it hasn't even been that frequent.

Another change is we rarely go out at night except for dinners in the homes of friends, choosing instead to prepare an early meal and watch a movie or favorite TV show before going to bed at a reasonable hour. Meeting for lunch is our go-to social venue these days and has proven to be a stellar choice--it's usually cheaper, everyone's fresh, and the temptation to overdo the alcohol is less likely. In conversations with other expats who have been here for some time our social downsizing appears to be quite typical.

Sure, we're seven years older than when we arrived, but the main reason for us reverse-metamorphosing from social butterflies into caterpillars is that we now have a life. In the beginning we were trying to figure out what expat life even meant. New culture + new language + well, new everything is highly stimulating. And you're discovering after an adult lifetime of work/chores/errands that meeting lots of new people is really fun!

Now there is at least a semblance of order to our days, and people-ing for us is much more about quality than quantity. Of the hundreds we've met in Cuenca over the years I wouldn't characterize a single human being as evil (maybe "special" but not evil), but being honest there's simply better chemistry, however that is defined, with some folks. Nurturing those relationships is how we choose to invest our social time and energy.

Hey, guess what? We've got friends coming over for dinner in a few hours. I'd better get down to the kitchen and pitch in. See, we aren't completely cocooning.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What's for Dinner?

I woke up Sunday to a rainy morning, the perfect setting to bake those chocolate chip cookies I talked about in my last post. Sunday's are the one quiet day in our neighborhood--no sounds of traffic or construction. Sawing, hammering, and banging somewhere within earshot have been, like the street noise five floors below, an almost constant part of our life here for seven years. So much so that we rarely even notice it any more.

The racket recently has come from two soon-to-open restaurants--one next door and the other right across the street. It's hard to believe that when we moved to this apartment almost seven years ago there were a total of two restaurants on the entire street!

Flash forward to now. Counting the two under construction (and a third a couple of minutes up the street) we now have twelve. A block away are three more, and on the street another block up we can choose from another ten. With full lunches as inexpensive as $2.75 each, no wonder we don't cook very much any more!

This explosion of the culinary scene isn't confined to just our neighborhood. New restaurants are popping up so quickly all over town that we literally can't keep up any more. Friends will ask, "Have you tried so and so?" and we're like, "Tried it? We've never even heard of it."

Are all the new expats in town fueling this movement? Hardly. Given that we represent less than 1% of Cuenca's population, our numbers don't influence much of anything.

With the proliferation of dining options in the States it's probably hard for you to imagine that the whole concept of eating out is relatively new here. When we arrived in 2010 locals often went to a restaurant with their families after Mass on Sunday, and almuerzos (fixed menu lunches) have been a staple of the culture forever. Other than that a special occasion meal in a nice hotel was pretty much all there was.

Since then the downturn in the global economy sent home thousands Cuencanos who were living abroad in the U.S. and Spain. They brought back with them the experience of casual dining, and many of them had in fact worked in all types of different restaurants.

That knowledge plus the money saved after years abroad is the driving force behind the growing food scene in Cuenca. Italian has traditionally dominated the international dining market, but lately Mexican seems to be all the rage. In the "old days" there was one Mexican restaurant downtown and another tucked into a remote neighborhood near the airport. Now we have five within a fifteen minute walk of our home!

Keeping it real, quantity and quality don't go hand in hand. For instance, we've yet to taste food that reminds us of the burritos and enchiladas we enjoyed back in the States. And Cynthia's marinara sauce tops anything we've been served in a restaurant.

But convenience sometimes tops flavor. Case in point--we're about to walk up the street for one of those $2.75 almuerzos. What's on the menu today? No idea. With a glass of fresh-squeezed juice, a big bowl of homemade soup and an entree of beef, chicken, or pork plus a big pile of rice it will be filling and nutritious.

And if I get hungry later there's a tempting platter of cookies waiting for me in the kitchen.

Friday, March 17, 2017

April Forecast: Barren with a Chance of Cookies

We've been here in Cuenca since the middle of January and don't return to the U.S. until the first part of May. That's the longest stretch at home in I don't know how long.

It's been a joy to get reacquainted with our hometown and to catch up with friends. We even miss the inexpensive almuerzos (fixed menu lunches) when we're away, and one of our "re-entry" rituals is to visit our favorite nearby restaurant for a big bowl of soup, glass of fresh-squeezed juice, entree and dessert ($6.50 total) as soon as possible after arrival.

Neither of us are big "shoppers," so our suitcases aren't bulging with new clothing after a trip to see the family. But what I really love to bring back are lots of yummy treats that you just can't buy here. Things like Ghirardelli chocolate chips, pecans and deluxe mixed nuts, interesting crackers, aged cheeses.

Cheese? Yep. Cheeses in Ecuador are perpetrators of identity theft. They go by names with which you are familiar like Gruyere or Cheddar but puzzlingly all taste kind of the same. This trait of sameness also applies to many breads and pastries as well as the wines we can afford. Cabernet? Merlot? All you know is it's red wine for less than $12.

So a trip to Trader Joe's or a local cheese stop is always one of our last errands before heading to the airport. Hard cheeses hold up just fine and cause no problems with those friendly TSA folks.

Sadly I seem to have miscalculated the time we would be home and thus underestimated the amount of goodies I needed to purchase. Plus I have a tendency to hit the treats hard when we first arrive because they were so readily available in the States.

I'm checking out what's left while looking at the calendar and I realize I've got a problem--too much time and too few snacks. Now I'm forced to ration my remaining stash like a castaway adrift in a lifeboat. Four Tuscan crackers and cubes of double cream Havarti. One delicious buttery something-or-other from Switzerland. There are two containers of nuts holding one small serving each that just sit there because to consume the contents means they're gone! Alas!!

My mistake means I'm facing a barren April of counterfeit cheese, anonymous wine, and tasteless treats. Oh, wait--there's a bag of chocolate chips on the top shelf.

Let's see, the cookie recipe makes four dozen so I can have one a day. Hooray! I'm saved!!

Where are those nuts? This calls for a celebration!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

There's a "Yes" Out There Somewhere

A few days ago I absentmindedly dropped our coffee pot on the tile floor in the kitchen. This aggravated me for three reasons: 1) I obviously wasn't fully present in the moment, 2) I'd created a huge mess with shards of glass from large to nearly invisible everywhere, and 3) if I didn't get a replacement we weren't having coffee the next day.

Locating a miscellaneous item in Cuenca is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yes, we have Amazon, but in Ecuador's case it's a huge swath of jungle on our eastern border. No computer searches here--you've got to get off your butt and start looking.

Two instances involving my watch taught me the ropes of this procedure. First the battery died. I head into El Centro, go into the first jewelry store I come upon, hold out my watch and say, "Necesito una batería nueva." The clerk looks at it and says, "No." This is the expected response. Sometimes you strike gold with the first swing of the pick ax but-----.

On to the next one. Fortunately in Cuenca, much like in Europe, similar stores are often grouped very closely together. There's the "fabric block," the "party store block," and so on. The drill is you go into store after store and repeat the same sentence until someone says, "Yes."

While I was in the States one of the little metal posts connecting the links on my watch's wristband broke, and I decided, "No big deal--I'll wait until I got home to get it fixed." Wrong. Whereas replacing the battery took only two or three tries, getting that link repaired approached double figures. Still, a positive response and $5 later I was back in business.

Replacing the coffee pot presented a more nuanced challenge. There was nothing wrong with the coffee maker itself, but could I possibly discover a store that would sell only the carafe? I knew my chances were slim and none, so I waded into the "appliance block" near Parque Calderon fully prepared to return home with a whole new unit.

Stores that sell appliances downtown have a very curious mix of merchandise. Where else in a relatively small space can you buy a stove, a guitar, and TV, or perhaps a motorcycle? And in my case, a coffee pot.

This is Carnaval weekend in Ecuador, and as I approached the central park I heard the unmistakable sounds of a parade. A parade I was going to have to cross to reach my destination.

Oh, boy-----.

Two main ways of celebrating Carnaval here are spraying aerosol foam on and throwing water at each other. As I got closer I saw both activities were in full swing. Parade participants and onlookers were covered with all colors of foam; kids were armed with gigantic water guns.

Here I go. I cross the parade and magically feel like I'm doing one of those Tony Robbins fire walks where your feet don't get burned. It's as if I'm wearing a "cloak of invisibility." At 6'3", bald, and blue-eyed, the most visible person there somehow makes it through without a single drop of foam or water. Hooray!!

I enter store after store, and sure enough it appears I need to be narrowing down which new unit I'll be purchasing, because nobody is selling just a pot.

And then magic happens again.

An employee in maybe the seventh store asks in English, "What are you looking for?" I explain my situation and he says, "Oh, you need only the pot? Let me tell you where to go." He proceeds to draw me a map and write down the name of the shop, which is fortunately a few blocks away.

I thank him profusely and zip right over there, donning my invisibility cloak as I once again miraculously cross the parade unscathed. Sure enough, there on the shelf is exactly the replacement pot I've been seeking. After a $13 transaction I'm happily on my way home. There will be coffee in the morning!

I share this story as an example of how expat life is very different from the United States. The convenience many of you readers take for granted simply doesn't exist here. Levels of patience and persistence you didn't know you had become your strongest allies. For most everything there's a "yes" out there somewhere. You've got to be willing to keep looking until you find it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscar Time!

Tomorrow night is the Academy Awards show, so Cynthia and I have been watching the nominated films like crazy recently. Each year it's a tradition for us to see every movie in the major nominated categories before the "big night." (Disclaimer--this time we skipped Florence Foster Jenkins because it looked horrible and we couldn't do a whole movie with bumbling Hugh Grant, and Nocturnal Animals because everything I read said it was horrible) We've got the time and we love movies (and Cynthia loves the dresses)!!

For 2017 there are nine films nominated for Best Picture and I'm not sure why. In the previous two years there were eight (which still seems like too many) and from my perspective it's certainly not because there were so many awesome flicks and performances to choose from. Too many nights we finished a movie, looked at each other and said, "Well, that was disappointing."

I think last year's "outrage" about the lack of minority nominees is partly to blame. It felt like to make amends studios green-lighted the commercial release of more movies with black actors (films are in production for a long time, and many go straight to DVD), and critics felt compelled to praise them. Before you rush to judgment labeling me a racist for daring to say such a thing, read on.

So in too many cases we endured rather than enjoyed the process this time around. And aren't movies supposed to be on some level enjoyable even if the subject matter is disturbing? With that being said, here's my take on this year's nominations in the order they are listed on Oscar's official website:

Best Picture

Arrival--thought-provoking, and the only movie we actually discussed at length afterwards.

Fences--couldn't decide whether to be a play or a movie. There's something incongruous about an uneducated black garbage man in the 50's riffing street talk with his buddies and then breaking into an introspective Shakespearean monologue. Boring visually and didn't work for me.

Hacksaw Ridge--very moving story and the battle sequences were riveting. A few "Hollywood moments" I could have done without but overall a solid movie.

Hell or High Water--underappreciated film that maybe wasn't marketed properly. Chris Pine is way too handsome to play a poor white trash character, but I liked the story very much.

Hidden Figures--hands down the best of the bunch. A "who knew?" story about the huge contribution of black women to the U.S. space program. If you haven't seen it--see it.

La La Land--the opening production number was SO over the top that I thought, "Wow, this is going to be incredible!" And it wasn't. It was fine--I enjoyed it. But Best Picture? Sorry, no.

Lion--again, an OK movie that went on much too long. I could have figured out on my computer in a day (and I'm no expert, believe me) what it took the main character two years to discover.

Manchester by the Sea--am I not through with this category yet?? Geez. Tough story, very well done. Deserves all the praise. My second favorite.

Moonlight--critics loved it. I hated it. A Hollywood double header--urban street life with a gay main character. I'm not the only one with this sentiment. I just checked and even with all the hype it's done a whopping $22 million at the box office. Zootopia (more on this one later), on the other hand, has grossed over $1 billion!

Best Actor

To keep us all from being bored I'm going to summarize the rest of these categories. Casey Affleck should win for Manchester by the Sea. Andrew Garfield is my second choice for Hacksaw Ridge. Is it possible for an actor to be on the screen too much? That's the way I felt about Denzel Washington (the apparent favorite) in Fences--I wanted him to go away and shut the hell up.

Best Actress

Confession time--like Johnny Depp in his prime, I can't take my eyes off Ryan Gosling in a movie. Emma Stone--uh, not so much. La La Land is a musical (or at least tries to be), so when the actress is fine acting but only average as a singer and dancer, I'm out. Natalie Portman is mesmerizing in Jackie. Dishonorable Mention: Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, is even worse than Moonlight. My four word review--wretched, disturbed people interacting.

Best Supporting Actor

This category baffles me. Mahershala Ali (Remy on House of Cards) is getting all this buzz for his role in Moonlight. Friends, he's in the movie for like 15 minutes in the beginning and his performance is NOT riveting. I kept waiting for him to reappear and justify the accolades. Didn't happen. Jeff Bridges owns his role in Hell or High Water and is a shoo-in to me.

Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis is said to have inserted herself into this category instead of Best Actress. She would have won in either. All the other contenders did good work, especially Nicole Kidman in Lion.

Best Animated Feature Film

Zootopia deserves every penny it has earned. Amazing animation--great story--lots of laughs along with a positive message. I didn't expect to say it was my overall favorite movie of the year. Which speaks volumes about the nine listed above.


So there you have my critique of last year's movies. I don't get enough comments on this blog. Chime in, y'all.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Beware the "Death Cross!"

I keep up with political news in the U.S. I know all about the protesters who, almost four months later, still can't believe that Trump won. I know about Trump constantly lambasting the media for reporting "fake news." I know about the wranglings in Congress over Cabinet appointments, and about Senate Republicans threatening to use the "nuclear option" to confirm Trump's Supreme Court pick. There's a lot of angst going on up there, but I'm here to tell you you're not the only show in town.

We've got our own election shenanigans here in Ecuador. And yesterday our current President, Rafael Correa, evoked a term that makes "nuclear option" sound like ordering the spiciest wings on the menu.

He threatened to use the "Death Cross."

Does that sound ominous or what? THE D-E-E-A-A-T-T-H-H CROSSSSSSS----. But then again the term brings to mind a super-special wrestling submission hold like The Texas Octopus, The Sleeper, or my favorite, The Hangman.

Let me explain what's happening. Correa and the party he created, Alianza Pais, have ruled the country without serious opposition for the last ten years. Since we had seven, count 'em, seven Presidents in the ten years before his ascension to power, his tenure in office has been tremendously stabilizing to say the least.

And he has accomplished miracles over the past decade, catapulting Ecuador from a sleepy third world country to one of Latin America's most admired. Oil is Ecuador's main source of income, and high prices for the commodity allowed him to fund massive improvements in infrastructure, education, medical care. And China stood ready to bankroll whatever else he wanted to do.

But when the price of oil plummeted it was discovered that, like a giddy lottery winner, Correa had spent it all and not maintained adequate reserves. So the country's economy has taken a hit over the past couple of years but to be fair, he's done an admirable job of steering Ecuador through some rocky straits and we already appear to be on the rebound.

The other problem is that President Correa, much like you-know-who currently occupying the Oval Office, has--how to say it??--a polarizing personality. He shoots from the hip, blasts those who disagree with him, and has run the country with a "my way or the highway" attitude.

Sound familiar?

All that was tolerable while the good times were rolling, but the downturn in the economy combined with ten years of abrasive behavior from their leader have made Ecuador's citizens open to a change of direction.

In the past Pais has maintained its stranglehold on political control largely because in Ecuador it seems anybody can run for office, so at election time there would be 7 or 8 opposing candidates with conflicting agendas and minor constituencies to scatter the vote.

Our recent election season (which ended last week and thankfully runs only about a month and a half instead of for-ever in the U.S) was no different regarding the number of candidates, but this time a conservative banker from Guayaquil, Guillermo Lasso, mounted a serious challenge to Correa's hand-picked leftist successor, Lenin Moreno. Reflecting a rightward shift that has taken place not only in the United States and the U.K. but also within South America (both Peru and Argentina have recently chosen conservative leaders), Lasso garnered enough votes to force a runoff.

And in a dramatic shift from the fractured past, all but one of the defeated candidates have pledged their support to Lasso. Since Moreno failed to crack 40% in the initial election it is widely thought that Lasso will prevail in the runoff, signalling another defeat for the "pink wave" of leftist, socialist leaders in South America.

Which brings us to the Death Cross.

In an interview yesterday Correa conceded that a Lasso victory is "very possible," but then suggested said victory could somehow possibly lead to a political crisis. Should that occur he mentioned an obscure constitutional statute called "muerte cruzada"--the dreaded Death Cross--that can be used by a president in extreme situations to dissolve the National Assembly and order new elections, including one for President.

He also dropped a hint that if the Death Cross were employed he might consider running for President again himself. Now that, my friends, would indeed create a political crisis.

So now you know the United States isn't the only country with political drama. Whereas yours seems to be never-ending with President Trump at the helm, ours will hopefully be over after the runoff election on April 2 when Ecuador, like the U.S., may perhaps be embarking on a radically different course.

How fortunate we are to be experiencing this pivotal and most interesting period in world history.