Monday, March 29, 2010

So What's Cuenca REALLY Like?

You know the old saying that when something seems too good to be true---it probably is.  All the websites touting Cuenca's virtues make it sound so darned perfect---year-round springlike weather, couples living on $600 per month, enjoying fresh fruit on the balcony overlooking the beautiful colonial architecture.  These sites are selling something--real estate, tours, books--so it's easy to be skeptical about such idealized descriptions.

We wanted to discover the real Cuenca, so here we finally were after the misadventures described in the previous post.  Our initial impression was somewhat jarring.  The cobblestone streets are narrow and one-way.  The main ones are crowded and noisy.  Buses spew noxious black exhaust clouds.  Uh-oh.

Then after getting settled in our room we went out exploring a bit and came back disappointed because the area we walked around in seemed rundown and dingy.  We found no suitable goods and services, only small shops selling stuff like bootleg DVD's and Chinese tennis shoes.  Yikes, what had we gotten ourselves into?

Well, I'm happy to report that I've pretty much gotten all the negative news out of the way early.  First, our hotel.  The Casa Ordonez is delightful.  It's an old family home converted into what's called a hostel there.  That translates to "flophouse" in America, but we would more accurately label it a B&B--clean, comfortable rooms and a full breakfast.

Alberto Ordonez, his sister Inez, and their mom go absolutely out of their way to make sure you are happy.  And the way these homes are designed with a gate, heavy doors, and open central courtyard blocks out all the street noise.  We highly recommend this hotel as your base camp.

We quickly learned that initial impressions can be deceiving.  When everything's different it's paradoxically all the same.  Subsequent walks (and we walked a LOT) demonstrated  that while, yeah, the buildings and people may appear similar, a few blocks in one direction or the other or even one street over sometimes revealed pleasant surprises.

The weather is exactly as described:  mid-70's during the day, mid-50's at night.  Low humidity.  No bugs (apparently they're not happy at 8000').  The sun rises and sets at 6:02 every day.

The food is plentiful and inexpensive.  The markets have many fruits we've never seen before.  The meat and produce aren't jacked up with hormones and bioengineering (a chicken actually looks like a chicken, not a small turkey).  We had lunches for $2 total (including tax & tip) with juice, soup, meat, 2 starches--always 2 starches--and dessert.  I took Cynthia out to the finest restaurant in the city, Villa Rosa, for our anniversary dinner.  Wow, it was a gorgeous restored mansion with an enclosed courtyard for the dining area.  A fabulous meal with wine set us back $40.  I mentioned to Cynthia on the walk back to the hotel that we've probably dropped more than that at Olive Garden!

In addition to little corner markets throughout the city there are 2 full-on supermarkets that have practically everything you would want.  Except we never saw celery or, oddly enough since Ecuador produces over 200 varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes anywhere.  I kept looking for milk in the dairy section and finally realized they have the boxed kind on the shelf like in Europe.  That might take some getting used to.

We found a small outdoor mall with high-end shops, food court, and multiplex across the river from the historic area.  And a short distance out of town is a typical large enclosed mall with typical mall-looking stores.  But what's amazing there is this HUGE place called the Super Mercado that's like a combination Home Depot and Super WalMart carrying everything from clothing to food to bathtubs.  If you can't find what you need there, you don't really need it.

The mall food courts are, thankfully, the only spots in town with fast food.  But the prices are the same as here, so you'd pay the same for a Whopper, fries, and soft drink as a filet mignon dinner at a great restaurant.  You'd think the choice between KFC and Chilean sea bass would be obvious, but folks outside our country seem to love all things American. 

We were told the movies are in English with Spanish sub-titles.  Hope that's true--then we can enjoy the flick and practice our Spanish at the same time!  What else?  Museums,  universities, modern hospitals--all here; clothing, housewares, dry cleaners--ditto; need for a car--not here if you live downtown.  Everything is in walking distance, and cabs are $1-2 if you get tired or don't want to bother.

But the best thing we discovered about Cuenca, something you can never learn from tour books and websites, is the graciousness of its citizens.  So kind, so helpful, so----happy.  We walked around alone on foggy nights and never felt the least bit uneasy.  There was a free outdoor symphony concert we attended.  You know what?  It didn't sound like the London Philharmonic, but the beaming faces and civic pride was truly touching.

So that's it--a lot of good, a little bit of bad, and no ugly.  We arrived in Cuenca looking for reasons to talk ourselves out of this improbable adventure and left ready to take the plunge.  Do we have everything figured out?  Heck no.  Are we certain we're going to be happy in Ecuador?  Absolutely not.  When you do something extreme you should expect an extreme result, one way or the other.  So we're forging ahead anticipating a wonderful new life abroad and mindful that it may suck.  If so---we'll do something else.

Next time----OK, we're going.  Now what?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 0

Before we get to what's going on now in preparation for our move I want to first recap our exploratory trip to Cuenca last summer.  Day 1 was special because it didn't happen.  Well, of course it did happen, but what happened isn't what was supposed to happen.  But we're glad it happened anyway.  Let me explain.

I spent a great deal of time on several search engines putting our flights together.  I guess I have a Baby Bear (from Goldilocks and the-----) fetish about layovers---I don't like them too long, of course they can't be too short, so I want them "just right."

After exhaustive effort I patched together, with 3 different airlines, what appeared to be the perfect schedule.  My daughter, a much more seasoned traveler than me, warned that I was playing with fire not booking through a single site or, most preferably, a single airline.  "Don't worry about it, " I said with confidence.  "This is going to work out great!"

Well, guess what.  For a change I was right--sort of.  But the beginning of our trip went totally haywire anyway.

We first flew to LAX to board an Avianca airlines flight to Quito, Ecuador.  No problemo (see, I've been working on my Spanish).  Except that flight ended up leaving 3 1/2 hours late, creating the start of a very unusual day.

When I booked this flight it showed a somewhat mysterious "technical stop" at an undisclosed location.  I assumed this meant a quick refueling stop, maybe in Panama, where we stay on the plane, some folks would get off, some other folks would get on, and we'd be on our way to Quito.  I was sure I'd scheduled plenty of time in spite of our late departure to catch our connecting flight to Cuenca.  Silly me.

You know how we find it amusing when people who speak a different language than ours kind of mess up the translation? Well, it turns out our "technical stop" was a full-fledged layover in Bogata, Columbia, which would have still been fine except the flight to Quito had already left.  The next flight didn't leave until 4-something in the afternoon.  Before anyone could whine and complain the airline immediately shuttled us and some other travelers to a nice nearby hotel for the day.  Wow!  We got to shower, eat, and relax a bit before returning to the airport.

Security is a little different in Columbia than we're used to.  Instead of folks with white shirts and dark pants we  had to negotiate a phalanx of soldiers with scary-looking rifles.  Yikes!  Guys in one line, ladies in the other.  FULL patdown.  But, hey, we did get to keep our shoes on.

Guess what--the next flight was late leaving too and it was the last one to Cuenca (sigh).  I somehow managed to persuade the Avianca people to take care of us and not leave us stranded given the circumstances (quite a feat considering their limited English and my nonexistent Spanish).  They put us up for the night at a really nice Hilton, and we were given free meals and transportation back and forth.  Plus the young woman who assisted us was SO helpful; she was sick as a dog but insisted on standing with us outside the airport on a chilly night until our ride arrived. 

After a good night's sleep we caught an AM flight (also late---geez, welcome to Latin America, huh?) and finally made it to our planned hotel by noon.  We lost a day, but we gained so much by managing to stay calm and centered throughout the experience (in earlier times I would have totally Hulked ).  In this "is what it is" frame of mind we were open to receiving the kindness of so many total strangers who made a somewhat harrowing journey unexpectedly enjoyable.  It felt like the universe was truly supporting our direction.

Friday, March 19, 2010

America---Love It AND Leave It! (Part 2)

First, the response to this blog's reappearance has been phenomenal.  I'm honored that there appears to be considerable interest in our adventure and will attempt to reciprocate by keeping each post interesting.

Second, a quick disclaimer is in order.  Cynthia took issue with my liberal use of the word "we" in the previous entry, so for the record this blog reflects my views and observations only, and I will be more diligent in correct pronoun usage from this point forward.  Translation:  OOPS!!

In our previous episode we had decided to leave the US but didn't know where we wanted to go.  Early research revealed that a lot of places are as or more expensive to live than here.  Then for us there was the factor of weather.  Coming from the South we've never been fans of extreme cold.  After the first summer here in Vegas we quickly learned that scorching heat isn't our thing either.  Dry heat feels better?  True, but wet, dry, or in between 115 degrees is damned HOT!

Oh, there was also the distance factor--as in distance from our two Eastern time zone children.  Being an extremely close family we didn't want to reside so far from them that we'd rarely see each other, especially with grandchildren at least being talked about.

OK, inexpensive, great weather, and not too far away.  That pretty much narrowed the search to Latin America.  Cost-wise Costa Rica would have been a great choice 15 years ago; for Panama it seemed we were about 5 years too late.  Buenos Aires was really impressive until I looked it up on a map--must have been sleeping when I studied Argentina in geography.  Yikes, it's WAY down the coast of a really long country!

Then somehow, and I don't even remember how because this all happened so fast---somehow we looked at Ecuador.  And then we found Cuneca.  Or maybe Cuenca found us.

Low cost of living---definitely; spring-like weather year round---wow!; Eastern time zone and only a 6 hour non-stop flight to NY---perfect.  Plus Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage city with colonial buildings & cobblestone streets that reminded us of our previous home town of Charleston, SC.  About the same population (1/2 million) too.

So before we were even sure how to pronounce it (KOO-WANE'-KA) we booked flights to check it out.  Our plan was to schedule as little as possible so we could experience just being there.  Hopefully within 10 days anything glaringly wrong would reveal itself.

That didn't happen.  No amount of online investigation (of which I had done PLENTY) can reveal the spirit of a place and its citizens.  We found Cuenca to be even more charming than we expected, in large part because the people there are so incredibly kind and sweet-natured.

A lot of couples probably sit around with a glass of wine and dream together about---maybe---someday---just chucking it all and heading off to some faraway place.  Others, like several couples we met in Ecuador, actually take the next step, visiting and performing "due diligence."  But when it comes down to finally, irrevocably saying, "Yes, we're going to do this," very few pull the trigger.

We returned from Ecuador and said "yes."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

America---Love It AND Leave It! (Part 1)

Except for lack of money there is much to enjoy about unemployment, including the free time to write.  Since I started a new job about a year ago this blog has "gone dark."

Everyone close to us knows that Cynthia and I are moving to Ecuador soon.  We are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received, yet I'm certain there are lingering questions about why two semi-reasonable people would do such a "crazy" thing.

So to allay fears that we've lost our minds and to perhaps help others who are contemplating a move abroad I want to officially declare this blog "open for business" again.  I'll begin by sharing the background of our decision; in future posts you'll follow the process (and believe me, it is a process) from that initial decision to packing and getting on the plane, which should happen in the next couple of months.

Last Memorial Day weekend, shortly after Cynthia had been "downsized" for the second time in 6 months, we were forced to take a hard look at our financial situation.  We quickly realized that the economic downturn had really knocked off course the excellent plans we had put in place several years earlier.

Have you ever watched "Let's Make a Deal?"  Like a contestant on that TV show we felt we had a choice of three doors:

DOOR #1 was to resign ourselves to severely scaled back "golden years."  ZONK!!!  Uh---no.

DOOR #2--work our butts off for--how long??--to hopefully achieve the retirement lifestyle we had envisioned.  That had always been our standard operating procedure in life--when knocked down, get up and brush yourself off; if bleeding, put a band-aid on it--whatever it takes.

This time, that word "hopefully" made us pause and reconsider.  Keeping it real, we aren't getting any younger, and one's health only holds up for so long.  What if, say, 10 years from now our finances still weren't where they needed to be and we'd urinated away perhaps the best decade we had left?  This was a risk we simply weren't willing to take.

That left us with DOOR #3---THINK OF SOMETHING ELSE!!!  How could we retire or at least semi-retire as soon as possible with the assets we still had?  Honestly, we'd been in the workforce for 40 years and the fire just wasn't in our bellies to keep chasing a dollar all day every day.  It's not that we wanted to do--nothing; we're at a point where we'd prefer to spend our time doing what we want to do instead of what we have to do.  Who doesn't feel that way, right?  Now we were ready to create that reality instead of continuing to wish, hope and dream.

Several friends have speculated that our imminent departure was some sort of anti-America statement.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We love this country, but staying in the US isn't our best option financially, and there's really no place here where we have a burning desire to reside anyway.  So let's see, that leaves---the rest of the world!!

In Part 2 I'll share how and why we decided on, of all places, Cuenca, Ecuador??  Until then-----