Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Get Out of Town!

The weather here in Cuenca has been consistently lousy for weeks--cool, overcast, and rainy. So when friends invited us to join them on a 5-day getaway trip to the coast we jumped at the chance for a change of scenery.

Our destination was Punta Blanca, an area midway between Salinas and Montanita. None of us had ever been there, so we were thrilled that after an early morning departure we were ordering a seafood lunch right on the beach only a 4 1/2 hours later.

The condo we rented turned out to have a terrific view of the pool and ocean.


And the climate exceeded expectations--beautiful blue skies, perfect temps, and surprisingly low humidity. We got acquainted with our new "home" with a stroll along the lovely uncrowded beach.


After a supply run to a nearby grocery store we proceeded to do a whole lot of nothing for the next few days. Well, I guess beach walks, body surfing, eating, drinking, reading, and napping are something, but you get the idea-----.

We did venture up to Montanita on Saturday for lunch. Wow, what a difference! The place was absolutely packed.


Of course, that didn't stop us from a pit stop on "Cocktail Alley,"


strolling along the newly constructed walkway along the ocean,


or checking out all the trinkets for sale.


We said goodbye to Punta Blanca on Monday and headed back to this same dreary weather.


I'll keep this image in mind until sunny days return.




Saturday, March 15, 2014

The New Normal

I often think that there's not a whole lot to write about after almost four years of living here in Cuenca. Seems like we live a "normal" life--going to the store, preparing food, washing dishes, doing laundry-all the regular activities of folks everywhere.

But when considering the activities of just the last few days, I realized that what we have come to consider "normal" is actually pretty special.

Thursday night we attended the private launch of a new restaurant, Salvia. Owner Gavin Quinn formerly ran the kitchen for St. Paul's Cathedral in London and has cooked for the likes of the Royal Family and the Dalai Lama. He and his wife Karen are bringing what they call "Modern European" cuisine to our city, and based on the delicious and remarkably inventive dishes they served I can say with confidence that a new standard of excellence in dining is about to be established here.

I was going to see a band afterwards doing cover tunes of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Rolling Stones. The late hour plus too much wine consumption made me reconsider the wisdom of that plan.

Yesterday morning we went to a "Breakfast & Bingo" event at California Kitchen sponsored by my health insurance company. We're normally ease-into-the day peeps who don't go out for breakfast, but the 9:30 start time was doable and we decided to trot out the "por que no" (why not?) philosophy that has served us so well.

I know--I know. Bingo? First thing in the morning?? Turns out we made a good decision. The food and camaraderie were great, and by winning the final game Cynthia put about $25 in her purse. She's going to "pay it forward" and spend the money next week at a local charity event.

We were taking an afternoon nap when I awoke and felt the bed move. "Huh, Cynthia must be dreaming," I thought. Then it really moved. Her eyes popped open and we both said, "Earthquake!"

It only lasted about 5 seconds. I got up, checked the computer and, sure enough, a 4.8 quake hit over near the coast. Ho-hum--another day in Ecuador.

Last night we met friends at a gallery for an exhibition of British art put on by another couple we know. I've been walking past that gallery three times a week for over a year on the way to the gym and had never "seen" it before. Afterwards we went to a Spanish tapas restaurant downtown I found online that all four of us admitted we'd passed dozens of times and also never "seen."

Great discovery and great food. A pitcher of sangria, bowl of gazpacho, another bowl of a tomato/eggplant/zucchini mixture, garlic shrimp, chorizo in white wine, rice pudding, and flan set us back about $36.

We polished off the evening by strolling across the river to a large park for a free performance by a Pink Floyd tribute band. My God, there had to have been at least 5000 people there (4996 + 4 gringos)! The guys honestly did a super job. It was interesting to hear so many kids in the audience singing along. Cynthia's hairdresser does the same thing at her salon, admitting she has no idea what the words mean.

This afternoon we're rounding out the weekend with a potluck party honoring the daughter of friends who has come for her first visit. Tomorrow the front door will most likely remained locked all day. We'll probably sleep in, stay in our PJ's all day, cook a nice meal, and maybe watch a couple of episodes of House of Cards.

The specific events change, but come to think of it, most weeks are some version of this one. Damn, our "normal" life is pretty awesome!





Monday, February 17, 2014

Facebook Movie

There have been a rash of Facebook movies released recently, and my management team was anxious to not miss the wave. We quickly got our movie green-lighted and rushed into production. A frantic shooting schedule was thrown together so the movie could open during the holidays in time for Oscar consideration.

Alas, the project was plagued with problems from the outset. Location troubles--inclement weather--equipment failures--creative differences over the script. It seemed everything that could go wrong did.

Then Danny DeVito, who was playing me, decided to hold out for more money. The little shit. He hasn't worked in years, and you would have thought he'd be grateful for a paycheck.

So I'm sorry to announce that my Facebook movie has been scrapped and will never be seen.

Actually, I'm not that sorry. I never cared for my casting choice to begin with. I wanted that Thor dude.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Happy New Year!

When you've been on the planet as long as us you sometimes don't get around to celebrating events on the exact date they occur. You may recall my last post recounted our anniversary (which happened in July) celebration taking place at a nearby spa--in November.

So in that spirit Cynthia and I officially welcomed in the New Year yesterday, February 10. In this case dawdling wasn't the reason for the delay. Since December 6 until then the events of our lives have been dictated by outside forces, so it is only now that we feel like we really own our calendar again.

In early December we headed to the States for a five week holiday visit with our family. We're used to kind of "easing" into our days, so the early wake up calls centered around three babies aged 2 1/2 and less were, let's say, jarring.

We're also accustomed to sort of gliding through our days. No such luck in households with babies, dogs, and careers. Please don't misunderstand--we love our family fiercely and enjoyed every single second with them, but weeks of immersion in such an accelerated energy level left us physically and emotionally drained.

We returned to Cuenca in mid-January with plans to leisurely revise and rehearse our two presentations for the International Living Fast Track conference in Quito. Held each February, this event was hosting 410+ attendees from the US and Canada so we wanted to be ready to do our best.

There was one obstacle to overcome though. I had cancelled our Internet before leaving with plans to hook up a different carrier immediately upon our return. I went there early the first morning back and scheduled an appointment for two days later.

No big deal, right? Well-----.

The installation guys showed up right on time, looked around the apartment, and announced that we had a problem. Uh-oh. Ecuadorians usually say there's "no problem" when there really is one, so this had to be serious.

It seemed that our fourth floor apartment was too far from the connection for us to get a strong signal. Then came the "no problem"--the cable jacks already in our wall would probably work just fine, but a supervisor had to come by to be certain.

OK, when's he coming? This afternoon for sure.

Of course that didn't happen. So I went back to the office the next morning to stir up some action. The lady there was very kind but couldn't get the supervisor to answer his cell phone. She looked in the computer and verified that he would be at the apartment that day.

That didn't happen either. This was a Friday, so that meant our whole first week back was without Internet. Friends nearby generously told us to come by and use their signal, but schlepping computers around and not wanting to inconvenience our amigos didn't allow us to do much more than check emails.

I went back a third time Monday morning and finally learned the truth--the supervisor had talked with the installers and they decided that in fact service could not be delivered at all. But did they bother to share that valuable information with me? Nope. Guess they didn't want to "disappoint." Trust me, I was very disappointed.

I immediately go to the third and last provider and explain my situation to the representative, suggesting that perhaps someone should come by for a preliminary inspection before going down that same slippery slope again. She agreed and asked when I would be there. I replied, "When can you be there?"

She said 2 o'clock, and sure enough a guy arrived promptly on time, indicated all systems were "go," and scheduled the installation team for Thursday afternoon. I pleaded for an earlier date to no avail.

Based on my experience with the other company I called on Thursday a couple of hours before my appointment to reconfirm. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Mr. Staton. The installers are behind because of the rain yesterday so it will have to be in the morning."

Sigh.

I called first thing Friday morning with nerves on edge and patience thin. "I hate to give you this news, Mr. Staton. There was a miscommunication in the office and we cannot come until Monday."

This had gone on long enough. My eyes got a weird color--my skin started to turn green--my shirt started to rip-- it was Hulk time!

"No," I replied as calmly as I could. "Your guys are working today, and another customer is going to have to wait until Monday. I want someone over here immediately, and if you can't make that happen I need to talk to your boss."

Silence.

You see, most of the time life here in Ecuador flows beautifully. But when something goes wrong, it can quickly go very wrong. Locals are used to waiting in line--waiting for service--waiting for everything. They are also accustomed to being told "no" and sheepishly going away. I've learned that it's respectful to go along with such customs because I'm a guest in this country and usually a delay doesn't really matter.

But sometimes you've gotta judiciously play the old Gringo trump card and refuse to go along.

She said, "Please hold on while I go talk to my boss." A couple of minutes later: "They will be at your house in 30 minutes."

And indeed they were. A couple of hours later we once again had Internet service, but we were now two weeks behind on our preparation for our presentations.

We of course bit the bullet and got everything ready on time. We arrived in Quito Thursday morning, our presentations were well-received, and we flopped into our own bed Sunday night. Yesterday's "New Year's day" was rung in with long periods of time in a horizontal position with closed eyes.

So here we are with a clean calendar for the rest of 2014! Except for the "ladies' lunch" Cynthia is at right now. And my dental appointment in the morning. And the dinner date with friends tomorrow night. Oh, and a salsa fiesta we're attending on Saturday.

But after that, I swear we have nothing planned. Except, oops, just got another email invitation-------.



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Happy Anniversary!

In July Cynthia and I celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary. Well, actually that's not true. On the big day we said "Happy Anniversary" to each other at the airport as she left for a solo trip to the States--a surprise birthday gift from our daughter.

Once she returned one thing led to another, so we finally got around to formally celebrating this week with a trip to Piedra de Agua, a beautiful spa just outside Cuenca.





For no reason I can conjure up except "WE'RE SO BUSY!!" this was our first visit after living here 3 1/2 years. I can assure you it will not be that long before we return because we had a blast!

There are hot springs running through the surrounding mountains at Piedra de Agua, and they along with special muds extracted from the waters are the highlights of one's visit. Several of the treatment rooms are built right into the side of a mountain, in fact. After showering and sitting in a group steam room for awhile we were led to the first pool containing what the spa calls "blue mud." What do you think? Looks pretty green to me-----.


Yikes! I look like an extra from a sci fi movie. After we showered off all the blue mud it was time for a red mud treatment. No question this time--that stuff is quite red.


I'm thinking about selling this photo for a public service ad reminding people of what can happen when you don't use sunscreen.

Shower #3, then into individual steam boxes for more detoxification.


The final step involved underground plunge pools--one hot, the other absolutely freezing. The idea here was to hang out in the hot one for 15 minutes, then the cold one for 2 minutes, then repeat the cycle. Cynthia must have misunderstood the instructions because she lasted in the cold pool for 2 seconds. I thought her eyes were literally going to pop out of their sockets. Sorry, no photo--she wouldn't let me post it if there was one.

Shower #4 (not sure about the detox but we certainly were clean!), then a lovely lunch before massages.


After emerging from the massage cave we opened a special bottle of pinot noir we had been saving from a wine dinner we attended in NC for our last anniversary (thanks Brandon & Jennie!).


We think being happily married for this long is pretty darned special so we like to commemorate the occasion by doing something memorable. This time we definitely succeeded.

Cheers!




Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cuenca Independence Day Festivities

We celebrate a lot of holidays in Ecuador, and by far the biggest one here is Cuenca Independence Day (to give you a perspective, cities celebrate each other's independence days as well). For three days each November the place is abuzz with parades, fireworks, concerts, vendors out the wazoo, and parties galore. Visitors pour in from all over the place and every hotel room is filled.

This year marked Anniversary #193, and with the mayoral election just months away city government pulled out all the stops to make the event a doozy. I must confess, this was our fourth go-round and these events get a bit repetitious, so as the holiday approached we had a bit of a "whatever" attitude. I'm quite happy to report that throughout the weekend we were pleasantly surprised.

Friday afternoon we visited an orchid and bonsai exhibition at the mall.



That evening we walked over to Paradise Park for a special outdoor symphony performance. The program began with a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, complete with booming cannons and spectacular fireworks right over the bandstand. For the final portion a 12 piece mariachi band came out and had everyone on their feet dancing.

The festival is so big and spread out that we couldn't take everything in, but we sure walked our legs off Saturday and Sunday. The weather was glorious all weekend and there was a lot going on.

Caricature artists


Artwork


Sculpture



To say the crowds were massive is an understatement


An indigenous tribe from the Amazon had an exhibit


As did a maker of our famous Panama hats


It's amazing that a light rail system will soon be running through the historic district. One of the cars was on display


And of course vendors selling leather goods


Textiles


Yes, Panama hats


Plus musical instruments, native jewelry, and loads of other trinkets




Parque de la Madre had a special surprise for the kids---dinosaurs!




At the rear of the park a new planetarium just opened. We'll check it out later--the line was too long.


Speaking of long lines, Marc Anthony was performing at the stadium Saturday night. Our walk home went in that general direction, and we were shocked at 3 PM to see people "lined up" all over the place. That description is in quotes because lines were going in every direction with no discernible beginning or end. We could still hear the concert blasting away when we went to bed around midnight. And to think that the day before we almost bought tickets!

The celebration was a huge success and my congratulations to the organizers. You made us proud to live in Cuenca!!


Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Leisurely Sunday Breakfast

I rarely come home from the grocery store with everything on my shopping list. Not because I change my mind or forget something. Invariably either an item is simply not there (my favorite cereal was AWOL for three weeks) or a restaurant owner comes in and cleans out, say, all the asparagus.

On the flip side, it's always fun to discover a brand new item on the shelf--the store is so small that you notice these things. Worcestershire sauce, French's mustard, Heinz pickles are now available, for instance. Yeah, they are more expensive, but if you saw the color and consistency of the alternative local relish you'd gladly fork over the difference in price.

And even the produce section has improved. We now have several interesting greens like baby arugula, baby spinach, and Thai salad. This week, for the first time ever, I spotted containers of blueberries and immediately put one in my buggy.

Now these weren't the plump berries we're accustomed to. They were quite small, to be truthful,


but Cynthia loves blueberries (it's one of the few food items she asks me to buy at the grocery when we're in the States) so I thought I'd surprise her.

Turns out the surprise was also on me. When I rinsed them in the colander last night I discovered that hidden among all the tiny berries were a lot of sticks and little leaves. Worse--much worse--out of the 2000 or so tiny berries about 1980 of them had tiny stems still attached. They looked like little blue bombs from Roadrunner or Yosemite Sam cartoons.


I could have pretended they weren't there and proceeded to toss them into the blueberry muffin batter I planned to make this morning. But I just knew we'd both be feeling around with our tongues for tiny stems in every bite, so I stood there and sorted through the pile for what seemed like eternity plucking them off.

While doing so I thought of two things: 1) these teeny berries would have been left on the bushes for birds to eat back in the States, and 2) how in the heck do U.S. farmers get those damn stems off before packaging the berries?

I imagined (I told you this took a long time) the berry pickers here saying to the boss, and everybody up the line all the way to the grocery store saying to their boss, "I'm OK with these stems. You OK with them?" But did I get a vote? N-o-o-o-o----.

So I got up bright and early today ready to prepare a scrumptious breakfast. I have to admit up front that, while I consider myself a pretty darned good cook, baking is not my strong suit. And our South American oven is most definitely not of stellar quality, always struggling to reach and maintain the correct temperature.

I had downloaded a "Double Blueberry Muffin" recipe that had lots of stars and positive reviews. The "double" part meant there were crushed berries mixed into the batter as well as whole ones folded in right before baking. The now stemless tiny berries proved to be remarkably resistant to my attempt to mash them, as the recipe called for, with the back of a fork. By the time I was finished I had almost broken a sweat and my forearm looked like Roger Federer's from the effort expended.

After creaming, measuring, crushing, beating, and spooning, the muffins finally went into the oven. When I went into Cynthia's office she asked, "What was all that racket?"

"I was beating the batter for the muffins," I replied.

"Oh, I was afraid you'd say that. Don't you know you're supposed to barely combine the ingredients for muffins so they'll be light and fluffy?"

"Uh---huh--huh--huh----no----," said ButtEdd.

I'm now envisioning that I've created a new bakery item--the Tuffin.

What the hell, they're in the oven and it's time to move on. I'm preparing bacon, scrambled eggs, Double Blueberry Muffins, and half a grapefruit this morning, and that grapefruit needs to be cut.

The grapefruits here have seeds.


A LOT of seeds-----


I was reminded while I was plucking out all those bastards why we don't have this particular fruit very often. Vitamin C is much more easily attainable elsewhere. I'm no expert on GMO or cross-breeding, but to whoever created the seedless grapefruit I say, "Right on, brother."

The timer rings, the muffins come out, and Cynthia says, "Those look----interesting." That's code around here for, "I don't want to be judgmental so I'll just say those look-----."


Turns out they tasted fine and the breakfast was lovely.


Will I buy those blueberries again?

Oh, hell, no! We'll be back in the States for the holidays soon enough. Trust me, I can wait a few weeks.

NOTE: An Ecuadorian friend and restaurant owner read this & wrote to inform me that what I thought were blueberries are actually called "mortiƱos." They are a wild berry from the northern Andes of Ecuador that are only found in markets this time of year, and are used to make a typical drink called "colada morada" enjoyed only during the upcoming "Day of the Dead" celebration. She laughed at what she called a "new approach" to using Ecuadorian ingredients. That's a kind way of saying, "What a dummy!"