Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 24, 2015

Grocery Shopping Here is----Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Have We Made a Big Mistake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cuenca vs. Montevideo and Buenos Aires

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

Friday, May 15, 2015

On the Road to Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The area was quite hot and arid.

Cacti, bromeliads, and yucca were everywhere.

Spanish moss hung from many of the trees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Food for Thought

Leading a life of simplicity has reached new heights for me this week I've spent alone, especially when it comes to food. Our stove has gotten a rare vacation as its burners have been turned on a total of zero times. On the counter next to the stove a bunch of cilantro has been sitting in a glass of water so long it's blooming. Hey, beats buying roses.

If this single life was a full time gig I'm sure I'd be more creative but it's interesting how my values can be compromised when we're only talking about a few days. For instance I'm generally not a fan of eating the same thing over and over. How appealing a dinner of salad topped with rotisserie chicken can become three times in a row when the alternative is pulling out pots and pans, prepping a bunch of stuff, and cleaning up the kitchen when you're finished eating.

Speaking of which, neither Cynthia or I likes a sink full of dirty dishes so they usually continue to be washed around here. When the normal pile is reduced to only a small mound it's amazing how easily I can look the other way until it seems worthwhile to turn on the hot water and soap up the sponge. I'm proud to report I haven't gone the ultimate route of paper plates--but the thought has crossed my mind-----.

Tiring of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and another damn salad for dinner I decided to venture out yesterday to a couple of my favorite local restaurants. This served the two-fold purpose of enjoying cooked meals prepared by someone else and getting my butt out of the house for a bit of camaraderie. Mission accomplished. The food was delicious at both Salvia and Roux and I got to socialize a bit with the owners while dining.

It's nearing countdown to takeoff next Tuesday and I'm in "eat whatever is in the refrigerator" mode since we won't return until July. Let's see what's in there. Bacon and eggs--outta here. A little fruit--no problem. More chicken and salad stuff--ugh--all right, I can bite the bullet one more time. Some cheese--that plus the fruit will be served at the remaining Happy Hours. Looks like I'm in pretty good shape.

Well, I can't put it off any longer. Time for me to tackle my most dreaded task--washing clothes. I know it's sad and pathetic that a man my age hasn't mastered such a basic task but this has always been Cynthia's job and I avoid anything involving machines whenever possible. I see there's a "Power" button. Oh, excellent, when I pushed it the choice of "Normal" lit up. Sounds good to me. And there's a "Start" button as well. I've got this! Unless I put in too much soap-----.

May the Force be with me.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Man vs. Machine

I'm pleased to report I didn't blow up the washer (or dryer--thank goodness it had "Power," "Normal," and "Start" buttons as well!) the other day. You see, I've always had an adversarial relationship with machines of every kind. Well, that's not exactly true. Machines really don't care, do they? The real problem lies with me.

My brain has never been able to process how machines work. The instruction manuals that accompany them might as well be written in Swahili-for the life of me I can't understand what they're trying to communicate.

With cars all I've ever known is where to put the key, where to pump the gas, and how to write a check. It was years before I realized that little arrow on the dashboard told you what side the gas tank was on.

You want to know how bad this gets? I've never mastered what to do with those "M" keys on the simplest calculator you can buy. I think they have something to do with remembering something, but once I've gotten the answer to what 12 x 35 equals I don't know what I'm supposed to remember.

My brother-in-law has not one but several of those tool chest of drawer things that stand five feet tall in his garage. Plus all these other contraptions that look to me like characters in a Transformers movie. Somehow I've managed to survive for 66 years with a little red tackle box containing such basic tools that one might guess I purchased them at Fred Flintstone's yard sale.

My absolute worst nightmare is when something goes haywire with my computer. Which seems to happen quite often. Suddenly out of nowhere some rogue predator is released from the bowels of Hell that changes my search engine or starts bombarding me with pop-up ads.

Most recently Skype quit working and Mozilla was crashing like twenty times a day. Restarting the computer (my go-to solution for everything) didn't work, nor did the power of prayer. What to do? After Googling my problems (between crashes) and finding answers that either didn't help or were beyond my comprehension I decided to throw shit against the wall and see what stuck.

I downloaded anti-malware programs, system cleaners, and anything else I could think of to exorcise these demons. Guess what? After giving my computer a super-sized software enema it works just fine again! Which of the many weapons I hurled did the trick? Do you think I care?

It's inevitable the day will come when I have to discard the cheap piece of crap cell phone I now use for a smart phone. Or smart watch. Or maybe some stylish smart sunglasses. I'm open to the cool possibilities these gizmos offer, but understand I starting from the position of regarding an app as something you order before the main course.

In the meantime I'll keep plodding along one load of clothes, computer crisis, and phone call at a time. To tell you the truth, all of that suits me just fine.