Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Alarming news!

Local Gringo joke:  What's the Cuencano definition of a "nanosecond?"  The amount of time after a traffic light turns green before a taxi driver blows his horn.

But not on Sunday.  This isn't because folks are nicer then because of the sabbath.  No, Sunday is "family day" here and people generally stay home.  Stores and even most restaurants are closed; there is very little traffic, so there's nothing to honk at.

The weather lately has been quite Seattle-esque (cloudy, cool, and rainy).  Today, however, abundant sunshine and warm temps returned, so Cynthia and I took to the rooftop terrace books in hand to replenish our Vitamin D and enjoy a leisurely morning.

I couldn't help noticing how much quieter the city is.  Even those damned roosters mentioned in an earlier blog seemed to be taking the day off.  But there's one sound that, like our previous hometown of Las Vegas--like  The Waffle House in our previous-previous hometowns of Charleston and Atlanta, never takes a day off.  24/7/365 you will hear car alarms going off.

Notice I said "alarms," not "alarm."  While on the roof four times in 30 minutes (yes, I was curious and checked my watch).  It appears the alarms here are set so sensitively that they go off if you even notice the car as you walk past it. 

I have a theory that perhaps the vehicles here are possessed.  Last weekend in the country the alarm of one person's car went off 5 times during the night (yes, I counted).  Why did it do that?  Why did it stop doing that?  H-m-m-m-m--------.

There is apparently a monopoly on this product in Cuenca because EVERY alarm makes the exact same series of noises.  OK, so here's my question:  when an alarm is activated, wouldn't everyone in earshot think, "Oh, crap, someone's stealing my car!"

This doesn't appear to be the case, because I've yet to witness hordes of people rushing outside in response to the potential theft of their vehicle.  More often than not no one does anything and the damn noise goes on and on and on.  If an alarm is silenced quickly, you'll usually find the driver has somehow accidentally triggered it while starting his car.  I've driven for 45 years and never done that--have you? 

Our container has finally arrived and we'll be moving into our permanent apartment Tuesday.  Well, that's not exactly true.  Our apartment's not ready, so our stuff will be piled into the middle of it while we'll be camping out in another space in the same building temporarily with our bed and a couple of chairs.  

It's complicated.  It's Cuenca.  It's OK.  I'm sure there will be stories-----------.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Sometimes you start something for one reason, usually a simple and benign one, such as jogging to "get in shape," or conversely, lighting that first cigarette in a purely social setting.  If you stick with whatever it is you started and as your involvement increases--through the passage of time, level of intensity, or perhaps both--entirely new dimensions you could have never anticipated beforehand reveal themselves to you.

In the case of our jogger, the release of endorphins or "runner's high" can provide untold enhancement to the activity far beyond the original expectation.  And our smoker in all likelihood wasn't thinking, "I'm planning to get hopelessly addicted to this known carcinogen" when taking that first puff.  In both examples there is extensive knowledge about these subjects that one can research, but that would be akin to reading about Napa Valley instead of actually driving through the countryside and tasting the wine.  There is no substitute in many cases for direct experience.

We arrived in Cuenca for simple straightforward reasons (excellent weather, low cost of living------) that I have described in previous entries.  Yet after only one month here I'm beginning to get a sense that life is going to be different than I could have ever imagined.  Not simply the misadventures of a gringo living in an Hispanic country with different foods, language challenges, and cultural peculiarities--kind of a "Lost in Translation Part II," if you will.  Those are coarse, broad brushstroke issues that one would be remiss NOT to anticipate.

No, I'm referring to something more nuanced, more delicate.  It would never have occurred to me prior to our arrival, but I'm beginning to get a sense it is possible to fundamentally change the way life itself is experienced.  And not just temporarily, as would be the case after the ingestion of mind-altering chemicals.

A fish spends its whole life unaware that there is air just beyond the surface of the water.  So too it appears that we humans can become so focused on thrashing about in the swiftly moving current of our daily existence that we forget about the possibility of relaxing and allowing that same current we have been fighting to effortlessly carry us downstream.

Specifically I am developing a entirely new relationship with time.  Time is something we take for granted as the so-called 4th dimension, and we assume that it is as rigidly measurable as its height, width, and depth brethren.  Yet we've all experienced stifling boredom in which time seems to drag as well as engaging activities when hours have passed in what felt like minutes.  So there is an awareness that time is more fluid than it might appear when we're watching seconds tick by on a watch.

In the life we left behind clocks and calendars were the hub of our existence---time to get up---need to leave now to beat that traffic---time for lunch---time to go home--when will dinner be ready---is it time for that TV show to start---time for bed---I never have enough time to get everything done.

Here (and this isn't at all a Cuenca thing, simply the way each day unfolds) life itself is becoming that hub and time is merely one of the spokes, a tool instead of the toolbox.  As impossible as I know it seems to weary Western eyes reading this, unless there is an appointment or social engagement it really doesn't matter what time or even what day it is.

I'm learning that when life is just allowed to be, moment by moment, freed from the shackles imposed by schedules and deadlines, it dons a cloak of texture and beauty beyond the confines of language.  Each day is so rich, so full of, of-------life.

So, yes, we came for the weather, low cost of living, and probably a desire to have more adventure in our lives.  Again, we've only been here a month.  The polls have just closed and it's too early to predict the results.  But early indications are we've stumbled upon an opportunity to unexpectedly have more life in our lives as well.

And for this we are extremely blessed. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hello Kitty!

"Don't let Cynthia come in!  We're not ready yet!"

We were at the farm of our Cuencano friends again, this time for a whole weekend sleepover.  Since our last visit three weeks ago the trucha (trout) had gotten noticeably bigger, the pregnant sheep now had a two day old lamb by her side and three black puppies had shown up from somewhere. Also at the house there were probably 15 relatives and neighbors--a relative term when in some cases the casa of said "neighbor" looked no bigger than a fingernail as you viewed it on the side of a mountain across the valley. 

After a huge and delicious barbeque pork-a-thon lunch (pig served every way you can imagine) it was suggested that Cynthia and I join several of the attendees for a walk to see the sulfur pools at a nearby home.  This turned out to be a bit of a disappointment unless you're a big fan of the smell of boiled egg flatulence, but as we soon learned this was merely a diversion in preparation for the main event.

Cynthia had a birthday earlier in the week and we appropriately recognized the occasion with a card I purchased before leaving the States (I'm thinking big brownie points since the ones here are---oh, yeah---in Spanish) roses, champagne, a massage, & a nice dinner.  But how could such "by-the-numbers" celebratory gestures compare with what was on the other side of the door when we returned?  The music began and Cynthia was beckoned inside to-------

A Hello Kitty birthday party!

Yep.  Our friends had decorated the place with balloons, streamers, and a "Feliz Cumpleanos" (Happy Birthday) banner.  The table was decorated with a cake and Hello Kitty trays filled with cookies and candies.  Cynthia was given a Hello Kitty hat to wear.  There was even a Hello Kitty pinata.

All the guests, most of whom we had only met hours earlier, sang "the birthday song" to her in Spanish.  Everyone earnestly hugged and kissed her like we were all lifelong friends.  Cynthia successfully blew out the candles (which were interestingly quite thin but 6 inches tall) in one blow to much cheering.  She was instructed that the candles must be kept until the next birthday for her wish to come true.  Our friends even had a lovely necklace wrapped as a gift.

The celebration ended with busting open the pinata, which thankfully didn't involve the put-on-the-blindfold-and-swing-wildly-with-a-stick drill with which we were accustomed.  No, this was much more civilized and restrained.  After the count-up?? of "uno--dos--tres!!!!," with the children all gathered underneath, Cynthia pulled a string on the bottom of the pinata to release the treats inside to more cheering.

Now the point of recounting all this is not to fill you in on "what we did this weekend" but to try to help you understand how damn nice folks are here.  Think about it.  Our hosts had most likely never attended an American birthday party in their lives.  They've only known us for a few weeks.  And yet-------------. 

And yet they went to the trouble to plan a party for a new American friend with a theme that was as American as they knew how for the pleasure and benefit of their guest.  Cynthia was understandably overwhelmed (as was I) with the gesture and every heartfelt hug she received.  She later realized that this was probably her first true "birthday party" since she was maybe 6 years old.

Hello Kitty! 

Hello Cuenca!     


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Watchewtalkinbout, Pedro?

(Shout-out to the late, gre--------------well, late Gary Coleman.)

Three of my pet peeves back in the States came in one convenient package.  They begin when you call a business.

1)  A human never answers the phone.  When did personal interaction become so passe?
2)  The recorded voice says, "Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed."  This is obviously a lame attempt to get you to actually listen to the options instead of immediately pressing "0," which I invariably try.  But couldn't whoever came up with that idea have been a bit more creative?  Did they actually think anyone would really be sitting there thinking, "Dang it.  I just finished memorizing that other menu."
3)  But before that happens, you get the (for me) fingernails-on-the-blackboard "For English press "1;" for Spanish press "2."  It's always aggravated me that Hispanics would come to America and not bother to learn the language, and even more so that America would say, "That's OK.  Just press 2."

Well, here we are in Ecuador, where we just got around to getting a cell phone and wouldn't think of calling a business because we'd have no idea what they'd be saying beyond "Buenos dias."  Yes, the zapato (shoe) is now clearly on the other pie (foot).  

I looked up those two words up in my Spanish dictionary.  I do that a lot because at this point I'd be lost trying to have a decent conversation in a Cuencano nursery school.  Ah, and the intention to be further along was so noble.  Back in Nevada I was diligently listening to my CD's every day preparing to chat it up with the locals immediately upon arrival.

But then that last month of preparing, packing, planning, and other-words-that-start-with-a-p-that-I-can't-think-of-right-now hit with hurricane force and the Spanish lessons went from the front burner to completely off the stove.

"Use it or lose it" definitely applies to foreign language, as I discovered my initial attempts at conversation had degenerated to primitive Tarzan-like "Me Edd--you Juanita" utterances.  So it's been back to CD #1---Good morning--good afternoon--good night------Good grief!!

In the meantime we're on the streets of Cuenca boldly attempting to make it through each day with a few words, exaggerated gestures, and sometimes crude drawings.  It's a good thing folks here apparently enjoy playing Charades and Hangman.

It was actually better when we couldn't say much of anything in Spanish.  When you know a little bit you're more emboldened to give it a go.  Sometimes I've even gone to the trouble of preparing and memorizing a couple of coherent sentences to really demonstrate my newfound prowess.

The problem with this strategy is that invariably you receive back a barrage of unintelligible syllables delivered at warp speed for which you weren't prepared.   Standing there open-mouthed and staring like Beavis & Butthead is not the favorable impression I was shooting for.

Eating out is always an adventure.  We sit in restaurants studying the menu with the appearance of deciding what to order.  And we are, except we're not actually reading the menu.  Our eyes are instead scanning for just a word or two we recognize that might reveal at least a clue of what will emerge from the kitchen.  

A good example of how much of an idiot you can make of yourself happened to me at a paint store yesterday.  Yes, a paint store.  With communication skills somewhere between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, Cynthia and I have been roaming around town like Moses in the wilderness trying to pick out granite and paint colors for the apartment we're moving into soon.

Looking at a beige color I confidently ask the clerk in Spanish if he thinks it has too much yellow.  He considers my question, thinks, then shakes his head "no," but something about his expression tells me to consult the ever-present dictionary.  H-m-m---he's right.  It doesn't have too much blue in it.  Oops.

Although it's somewhat draining we're getting by for now, having a blast and determined to become fluent in the language of our new home.  You just can't take this stuff too seriously.  In the meantime me wish you many happy pineapples.  Have a notched dog!!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why Not?

I've been thinking a lot about our visit  to a restaurant last week.  Not so much about the meal itself, although it was memorable.  We were at a parradilla spot with a friend and ordered the dinner that was billed as serving 2-3.  What came out of the kitchen was a bowl of salad that really served one (they're not too into salads here), a bowl of potatoes I'd say for four, and a HUGE platter of grilled every-kind-of-meat-you-can-think-of that would serve 2-3------lions.  Wow.

What really stuck with me wasn't the restaurant or the meal--it was the proprietor of the placeHe spoke very little English, but there was one phrase he absolutely loved to repeat.  And it was not just what he said but how he said it--with a huge smile on his face--with animated body language that transcends verbal communication--with-----with gusto.

WHY NOT?!?!?

I'd like to humbly suggest you take a few quiet moments and contemplate the power of such a simple question. 

Instead of:

"Why?," ask "Why not?."

Instead of:

"Why are you going?," ask "Why are you staying?."

Instead of:

What if _______ goes wrong?," ask "What if it doesn't?."

Then perhaps you'll be moved to:

Do something new.

Do something interesting.

Do something fun.

Do something.


What have you really got to lose except another safe, predictable, dare I say, boring day?

We all live an endless succession of "now."  Each of our moments is our unique capital, our individual treasure, while on this earth.  Your capital cannot be saved or hoarded.   It is constantly being used up, one moment at a time, either by you or someone else.  Choose to spend it wisely. 

Why not?!?!?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Day in the Life

I'm sitting here this morning enjoying a Moramosa.  You've never heard of this drink because I just made it up.  The Mora berry is kind of a cross between blackberries and raspberries.  Juicing is HUGE here, so I bought some at the mercado (market) and Cynthia whipped up a blender full.  Champagne + Mora juice = my new Ecuadorian equivalent to the Mimosa, the Moramosa.  Cheers!

I hate blog diaries.  If you've spent any time investigating the blogiverse you know it's primarily populated by boring people who manage to yammer on about their uninteresting lives while simultaneously butchering the English language.  These blogs are unabridged versions of the insipid Facebook status updates which inform the whole world that one is "off to work!," "s-o-o-o tired," or "making lasagna tonight."

And yet I'm aware from conversations with friends back in the States that people are curious about what the hell we're doing with ourselves down here in little Cuenca, Ecuador.  So this one time I'm going to deviate from my normal thematic postings and share a recap of this past week,  hoping you'll find the writing at least mildly entertaining and informative (and grammatically correct).

Monday---Memorial Day and looking forward to grilling some burgers.  Looked at rental property all morning:  a huge old house downtown & two disappointing condos.  Walked our asses off looking for an organic coop we'd heard about (and never found it).  No lunch, exhausted, & no burgers happening because it started raining.  Bummer.  So we splurged & treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner at a new spot to at least finish our worst day here on a happy note.

Tuesday--Bumped into some friends on the way back from the grocery store and accepted an impromptu lunch invitation at a great new place called California's, whose owners we'd met at breakfast Sunday. Ate with them & some real estate people and set an appointment for Thursday to see another rental house.  Chatted with some guys from Atlanta we keep seeing around town.  Got invited  the next night for drinks,  hors d'oeuvres, and a visit to a new art exhibit.  We're beginning to feel like Jim Carrey in "The Yes Man."  Stopped by to see our buddy Alberto at Casa Ordonez and bumped into folks who had just arrived that we'd met here last year.  Cooked the hamburgers for dinner; they pretty much sucked--the meat's too lean here.

Wednesday--Firedrill!  Got an instant message around 10:15 that an agent wanted to show us a house at 11.  Of course we said "yes" and hustled over there.  Beginning to see a pattern--the old houses are huge but need serious updating; the apartments are more modern but boring and too small.  Hope we can locate a suitable compromise soon because our stuff is somewhere in the Pacific and heading this way!  Had a lovely time at our friends' home this evening and walked to the exhibit in the rain.  Expected a poor turnout because of the weather, but it seemed every expat in town was there.  Spoke with acquaintances and met a bunch of new ones.

Thursday--Looked at the rental house--this one needed updating AND was too small.  Went house-hunting with our Cuencano friend whose farm we visited last weekend.  We told her to pick out a restaurant for lunch serving typical food.  My God, she ordered a HUGE meal for us that demanded a siesta but none was forthcoming because we were on a mission to find a place to live.  Then a miracle happened.  We were just driving around looking for "for rent" signs, saw one, and discovered an incredible unfinished penthouse apartment.  We loved it and will sign papers early next week.  We even get to pick out the paint and granite.  TeamStaton does not settle and we had faith if we kept the intention strong the perfect place would reveal itself. Hooray!!  We celebrated with wine on balcony watching fireworks and these eerie glowing UFO-looking objects that were floating one after the other into the sky.  There is apparently some big Corpus Christi celebration happening in Parque Calderon for the next 8 days.  Our Internet server Googles results in Espanol, so if anyone out there can fill me in on what's happening here please let me know!

Friday-- Our friend is having a birthday this weekend.  We're taking her and her husband out to dinner tonight, but we want to do something else special.  I decide to make guacamole using avocados she gave us from a tree on her farm plus give her some flowers.  The nearby florist has beautiful exotic flowers but no vases--go figure.  So I head to the mercado.  There is no way to describe what an adventure this always is.  Nobody there speaks a word of English; you have no idea what a lot of the produce is or what it costs; the area around the market is pure sensory overload of noise, activity, & merchandise.  I eventually locate the ingredients and a vase, head back to the florist, then return to the apartment to pull it all together.  After walking our gifts over to her office we take a siesta, have a brilliant dinner together, then stroll over to the park to check out the festivities.  Wow.  The square is packed, huge fireworks are being launched literally 10 feet from where the crowd is mingling.  US safety standards do not apply here.  There are rows of booths the length of a football field selling all imaginable sweets--pastries, candies, candied pastries, pastried candies.  The "Jolly White Giant of Cuenca" sticks out in this crowd like an alien invader, of course, drawing curious and constant stares from the locals.  We purchase an assorted stash and call it a night.

Saturday--We're supposed to go pick out the paint & granite.  Against all odds we actually find the stores but they're both closed.  Well, at least we know where we're going Monday.  We decide we might do a better job with this assignment if we have tile & wood samples from the apartment so we wander over there with a script I've written down to show the security guy.  A great idea but we can't figure out how to alert him of our presence.  Against all odds Part II a Caucasian sticks his head out the 2nd floor window & asks (in English!) if we need help.  He lets us in the gate & chats a bit, then we go upstairs to measure the space and find some flooring remnants.  Bless his heart--our new friend comes up to offer me a year old Time magazine in case I'd like something to read.  I was so touched by his kindness.  Stopped by the Super Maxi, ran into another guy we met last year who we discovered in chatting lives about a minute from our new place.  Saw a heavy metal concert in progress (who knew??) walking back here with the groceries.  Made a spaghetti dinner, drank too much wine and crashed.

Today--The Moramosas are flowing; a ham/cheese/onion/mushroom/tomato omelet has been prepared and consumed.  Life is good.  Ciao