Saturday, November 14, 2015

Our Bus Trip to the Coast

We just got back to Cuenca today after a long vacation at the beach. I've been meaning to write about our trip over there on the bus but was too busy doing, well, not much of anything. Isn't that the whole idea??

Let's be honest--in the States taking a trip on a bus is one rung up on the ladder from hitchhiking. In this third world country where most people don't own cars and certainly can't afford to fly, buses are the primary way of getting around the country.

We ride buses all the time in the city but hadn't actually traveled on one out of town in years. Not because of any negative previous experiences. Simply that whatever we've been doing and riding a bus to get there haven't coincided.

This time they did, so we took a taxi to the terminal near the airport to buy tickets to Guayaquil. Once there we would switch to a different line for the ride up the coast to our final destination, where friends we were staying with would pick us up.

It's hard for me to convey how different our mindset is after living in Ecuador for so long. I can remember how early on walking into this same bus terminal was extremely intimidating. There are taxis and people everywhere. Inside are many windows where you buy tickets, each line servicing a different part of the country. Sensory overload kicks in, and this is just in Cuenca. The terminal in Guayaquil is HUGE--three stories of apparent chaos and over 100 windows!

Having "survived" innumerable situations of all sorts over the years, we know that by staying calm and centered we will board a bus and be on our way. Sure enough, someone asks us where we going and points us to the window of the company with the next departure. We purchase two tickets on an Executivo--nicer quality and assigned seats--express bus for $12 total (I was so excited by the low price I forgot to ask for my 50% discount!) and head to the proper lane to wait for our chariot to arrive.

What looks like chaos at first glance turns out to be a well-organized operation. There are people at the entryway constantly asking passengers where they are going and pointing them to the correct lane. The buses come and go on time.

After only about a five minute wait our bus arrived.

You give the driver your luggage and he stores it underneath. Since it's an express route there are no worries of someone at an earlier stop walking off with your suitcase, but we still took our computers and smaller bags inside with us. As you can see, the interior is quite nice and there's plenty of legroom.

Since we were the first passengers to purchase tickets (15 minutes before the bus departed) we got the bulkhead seats on the first row which meant even more legroom. Nice! In the ten minutes we sat before leaving we were serenaded by a blind musician,

offered the chance to buy newspapers from another guy, and visited by a candy vendor

who apparently wasn't part of the "system" because he was escorted away by security guys.

As soon as we pulled out of the terminal music started playing from the speakers. I knew it was coming and I brace myself for this because, hey, we're in Ecuador and salsa normally blares in whatever mode of transportation you find yourself. Surprise! The very first song was Wham's "Never Gonna Dance Again," followed by Kansas' "Dust in the Wind." Bee Gees, Eagles, and Billy Joel were also in the mix. Compliments to the DJ!

Although we were on an "express" bus we stopped to pick up a few stray passengers while heading out of town. They were never at what you would call a normal stop, so we figured they were friends or relatives of the driver. Who knows what kind of regular shenanigans take place when you're only riding that one time?

Speaking of the driver, I was glad to see he was a middle aged guy. The young bucks tend to careen through the Cajas mountains, which is an hour of the three and a half hour trip, like they're behind the wheel of a sports car. We've had too many nauseous journeys with van services but this time the ride was smooth and comfortable.

I had paid a dime to use the restroom at the terminal before we left. I thought it was kind of cool that the attendant had his own little convenience store set up inside for last minute purchases. But nature called en route because of too many cups of coffee before leaving the house. Fortunately the bus had a tiny toilet room in the rear.

Hold that thought about "fortunately." We were in the mountains by then and the bus was lurching to and fro, which was going to make taking care of business a challenge. Worse, I couldn't get the damn door closed. I slammed it and slammed it, until with one especially vigorous yank the bottom of the handle broke off the door.

Oh, boy-----.

So picture this. I'm trying to pee in this little bitty space, bracing myself against the wall and holding the door closed with the broken handle. The bus is weaving back and forth which is making it impossible for me to "concentrate." I wedge the door into the frame several times to use two hands but it keeps flying open. I'm pouring sweat, my aim is less than stellar, and this whole ordeal is taking forever. When I finally finish and return to my seat Cynthia says, "My God, what took you so long?!?" Well-----.

After we emerged from the Cajas our resourceful driver stopped along the way to let a guy selling empanadas on board, getting a complimentary lunch for himself. That guy got off in the next town and was replaced by another fellow selling ice cream. You guessed it--free dessert for the driver. What a country!

The remainder of the trip was uneventful. At the Guayaquil terminal we knew which window to buy our next set of tickets from, and according to the schedule I had read online the bus wasn't leaving for half an hour. Great! We would have time for Cynthia to use the restroom and grab some lunch.

Except the lady behind the window said the bus was leaving in five minutes. (Sigh.) When I told Cynthia this she was, shall we say, less than pleased. Keeping it real, she was furious. I said, "Look, go to the bathroom. If the bus leaves before we get there we'll catch the next one." "What about lunch?" "If we make it we'll eat some of the food we brought."

Amazingly the driver somehow knew we were coming and waited for us. We threw the luggage underneath, climbed aboard, and were out of there a minute later. Starving, we tore through an apple like it was put through a wood chipper. Not a lot of conversation took place between us the rest of the way------.

I wanted to share this story because it represents a microcosm of life here. Did the journey go smoothly? No. Does anything go smoothly in Ecuador? Rarely. Bottom line: we got there.

Did we have a fabulous vacation? Absolutely. See--all smiles now.

Friday, November 6, 2015


I sat on the beach this afternoon alone. When I say alone, I mean alone. As in not-a-single-person-in- sight-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see-in-every-direction alone.

The beautiful 24 unit condo building Cynthia and I are staying in has twenty three empty units right now. The pool, the grill, the hammocks, hell, even the beach is all ours.

Is something wrong? Hardly. We're in Punta Blanca, an exclusive enclave on Ecuador's Pacific coast where successful residents of Guayaquil (1 1/2 hours away) have second homes for weekends and holidays. When we arrived on Sunday in the midst of a big national celebration kids were in the pool, cabanas were set up on the beach, and parties went late into the night.

Now everyone but us has gone back to their lives and we've got the joint to ourselves. With IL conferences, a busy social life in Cuenca, and visits with our family in the U.S. we're around other people a lot. So it's been revelatory, renewing, and surprisingly relaxing to just hang out with each other and our thoughts. No agenda, no plans.

Oh, there's plenty to do nearby. Salinas, Ecuador's most developed resort area, is a half an hour south and Montanita, the coast's renowned surfer party town, is the same distance to the north. Since we're here for about ten days we'll undoubtedly get out and about at some point, but so far a trip to the nearby supermarket has been our entire itinerary.

Sitting on the beach with my eyes closed, I felt the wind on my face and the soft sand beneath my feet--smelled the salt air-- listened to the crashing waves and an occasional sea bird overhead. I felt myself enter a meditative state without the need to repeat a mantra.

Being there was enough. Being here now is enough.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Halloween Superheroes

OK, I gave you an advance glimpse of the Halloween costume party we went to last week. Our good friends and hosts Michael & Cheri Edwards had the brilliant idea to challenge us guests to come as superheroes. But nothing easy like Superman or Batman--nope, we had to invent our very own superheroes!

I decided to go as The Incredible Sulk. My superpower was the ability to make everyone miserable by complaining about any and everything "certain" expats love to point out. Example (in a whine-y voice): "I just knew it would rain again today. The weather here sucks. That darn taxi driver tried to rip me off. I wish these people spoke more English!" Of course I didn't stay in character all night or none of the other guests would have come near me!

Cynthia was Supermaxi, in honor of our grocery store as well as those sanitary pads everyone thinks of when they first hear the name. Decked out in red & white, she sported a Supermaxi card earring and a Supermaxi purse filled with coupons. Her dress was adorned with said pads plus flowers ecologically fashioned from the used wrappers. Fishnet stockings, a black wig and tiara completed the ensemble.

Michael and Cheri love to dance, so along with their incredibly inventive video invitation they sent along links of instruction for line dances like The Electric Slide, The Hustle, and even Thriller! I actually practiced awhile before going to the party, with decidedly mixed results.

Their home was filled with cool Halloween decorations, food and alcohol were in abundance, and everyone truly had a blast! Here are some photos from the evening to give you a taste of the fun.

Aren't we silly??

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Cuenca Independence Day Festivities

This weekend our hometown hosts its biggest party of the year celebrating Cuenca Independence Day. All hotels are fully booked as 100,000 visitors have poured into the city to participate in the festivities. Displays, activities, fireworks, and concerts are happening day and night all over town.

We attended an outdoor kickoff performance by the Cuenca Symphony Thursday evening in Parque de la Madre. How awesome it was to enjoy such quality entertainment for free while sipping a nice bottle of wine we brought along. Afterwards we strolled home talking about how great our life is here.

Last night we went to an awesome Halloween party at the home of some of our dearest friends. I'll tell you all about it in my next post. In the meantime here's a preview pic.

Oh, my!!

Today was the first official day of the festival. Since we needed to return the capes we'd rented for the party we decided to wander around and check out the action. Along the way I took a few photos to share.

A small segment of those 100,000 visitors plus 500,000 residents.

Loads of colorful merchandise for sale.

It was damned hot today. Not sure why these candied apples weren't melting.

Artwork tends to be on the colorful side as well.

No more festivities for us as we're off tomorrow morning for a week and a half at the beach. Tough life, huh? Can't wait to tell you about last night's party. Stay tuned------.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Doing What You've Gotta Do

A prerequisite to successful expat life is the ability to be flexible. So many aspects of your daily experiences abroad are different from what you're used to wherever you came from. Your choices in dealing with this truth are: 1) make yourself miserable by finding fault with the culture and the lack of availability of goods and services you previously took for granted, or 2) find joy in being creative and adaptable in your new surroundings.

I can think of no better example of all this than in food preparation. We live at 8400 feet here in Cuenca. At that high altitude it takes water forever to come to a boil because of the thin oxygen. Baking requires lots of adjustments both to the amount of ingredients (more flour, less leavening, less fat) and to the oven temperature. I've never seen french fries get too brown no matter how long I've left them in the oil.

Then there's the matter of what you have to choose from when you go to the grocery store. A restaurant owner may have come in before you and wiped out the whole inventory of broccoli or romaine lettuce. Lots of items you readers in the U.S. routinely purchase, particularly with ethnic foods, are not on our shelves ever at any price.

We arrived in 2010 with naive assumptions about learning to cook local dishes. When we discovered you can get all of the local cuisine you want at lunch around town every day for $3 per person that notion was quickly jettisoned in favor of figuring out how to make what we already know how to make with what's here.

I also love flipping through food magazines and looking at new recipes online. In every case the keepers are those that can prepared as shown or a "work around" can be devised.

I bumped into a knockoff recipe for P.F. Chang's lettuce wraps. Certainly better Chinese food can be found at other restaurants in the States but we really like that dish and Asian food here is, shall we say, a bit sketchy. So I decided to give it a go.

Two challenges. First, we don't have ground chicken or turkey in the supermarket. Betcha didn't know that. No problem--ground pork is a reasonable substitute. Next, those crunchy water chestnuts are MIA as well. What to do, what to do? My solution was finely chopped carrots. Same texture and more nutrition.

The result? Voila! Edd's knockoff-of-a-knockoff P.F. Chang lettuce wraps.

Are they any good? Do you think I would have written this blog if they weren't? Hell yeah, they're fantastic!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A New Travel Wrinkle to Share

Our normal strategy for travels to the States is to keep going. By that I mean scheduling flights with minimal layovers and absolutely NO overnight stays. A short layover is a great excuse to stretch your legs a bit, but there's nothing worse than arriving late, schlepping your luggage to a hotel and falling in bed for a few hours, then reversing the drill early the next morning. You arrive at your destination exhausted and out of sorts.

To accomplish this we generally fly red eye's. We are able to sleep at least a little on the plane, and with a nap the next day we're good to go. Plus overnight flights don't waste a whole travel day.

We follow the same plan returning home when going through Guayaquil, but we avoid that alternative whenever possible because we've stumbled upon a much better idea flying into Quito. Over the years we've developed great friends there who, when in town, graciously open their homes to us whenever we are coming though. One couple lives nearby and kindly transports us back and forth as well.

Resting and relaxing with friends and without responsibilities for a couple of days before flying home has proven to be incredibly rejuvenating. Plus since Quito is 1000 feet higher than Cuenca we find readjusting to the altitude at home is much quicker. It used to take us a week to feel like ourselves again, but doing it this way we feel great almost immediately.

On our most recent trip home we experienced a new wrinkle on this plan that I want to pass along to readers in Cuenca who don't have friends in Quito and others who may be coming to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos or explore the country as a possible retirement destination. We were contacted by friends Jon and Cheryl Byrd who now live in Mindo outside Quito and maintain a residence in the city that they've now listed on airbnb. They asked us to come check it out and we happily accepted their invitation.

Boy, are we glad we did because their place is amazing! Located in a quiet residential neighborhood with easy access to nearby Parque Carolina, this is not some cramped and sparse studio apartment--it's a real house loaded with cool amenities and their personal furnishings. With an open floor plan,

huge fully stocked kitchen,

three, yes, three bedrooms,

a lovely outdoor space with grill and fireplace,

washer and dryer, separate office and sitting area, plus, get this, a steam/shower room that is to die for, what more could you possibly want???

We loved staying at the Byrd's home and highly recommend it to all of you who find yourself in Quito. Check out more details here.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Cheese Stands Alone

I'm sitting here savoring a plate of Parrano and sharp cheddar cheese with fruit and crackers. That may not seem like a big deal because you don't realize that cheese in Ecuador pretty much sucks. Oh, we have plastic packages in the grocery store with names like Gouda, Gruyere, and Swiss, but sadly the contents are all perpetrators of identity theft with the same bland flavor.

We always return from the States with some new clothes and personal care products plus non-perishable food items like nuts, Dijon mustard, horseradish, taco sauce, and peanut butter. When a friend shared that she brings back cheese Cynthia and I were like, "Wow." Since cheese is in the refrigerated section somehow we'd never thought about it, but what the heck, it's aged in caves or something, right? And we wouldn't ever be out of air conditioning.

So we loaded up and---YES!!--it totally worked! Our life continues to improve in little increments like this that are hard for you to appreciate in the "Land of Plenty."

But cheese is supposed to go with wine, and therein lies a bit of a problem. We enjoyed so many fabulous wines at reasonable prices in the U.S. When I was huffing and puffing at the gym a friend commented that during the month away my red blood cell count had lowered, which is true. Since we live at high altitude our bodies naturally produce more red blood cells so we stay properly oxygenated in this thinner atmosphere. I relied to him, "Yeah, and they've been replaced with red wine cells!"

Import taxes have gotten so hateful that even OK wine is now prohibitively expensive. We noticed the prices had gone up even during the short time we were away. As an example, wines we paid $5 for in Argentina and Chile, and maybe $9 in the States, top $20 here now. Yikes!!

So---the cheese stands alone. We've switched over to an excellent dark Caribbean rum for $12/fifth that lasts for days rather than the equivalent of twelve buck Chuck that tastes lousy and is gone in one night.

Speaking of which, my glass is empty. Until next time------.