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.



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 maƱana 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.