Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Never Say Never

39 years ago I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism. My intention was to be an advertising copywriter, but I couldn't find a job within that field in Atlanta and was intimidated by the thought of leaving my hometown. My worldly travels at that point in life hadn't extended much beyond summer vacations to Daytona Beach, FL. Plus Cynthia and I were about to be married, so I took an administrative assistant (translated: gopher) job at Blue Cross Blue Shield where I had worked during holidays and summers.

After rapidly rising through the ranks there I left to start a retail plant shop that grew (pardon the pun) into a super-successful interior landscaping company which we owned for 15 years before selling it. Then I started another business, got tired of owning businesses and became a marketing rep with several companies before saying "Enough!" and moving here.

The point of this brief career resume is I pretty much never did a damn thing with my degree (my major was in advertising) except promote my own companies. Well, that and deciding to spell my name with 2 "d's" to make it more memorable.

So it's with a little bit of pride and a lot of astonishment that I announce starting next Friday I will be writing a weekly column for El Mercurio, the largest daily newspaper in Cuenca. And as far as anyone knows it will be the only column in all of Ecuador published in both English and Spanish.

It would be fair for you to ask, "How in the hell did that happen?." And you wouldn't be surprised if I answered, "It's a long story-------." But it's actually a very short story. Just last week I mentioned to a Cuencano friend of mine who writes a column that it might be nice for the paper to print a monthly spotlight article on a different gringo who is volunteering or assisting the city in some capacity. He expanded on this suggestion by pitching the editor on having a gringo write a weekly column. She loved the idea (it turns out we know each other well because she's the daughter of a family I'm very close to, but she didn't know the gringo was me until today). We had a meeting this morning to finalize the plan, I had my picture taken to accompany my column, and off we go.

What am I going to write about? Whatever I want. There's a great curiosity among the locals about why these people from the US have moved to Cuenca of all places that I want to address. Various charitable efforts we're engaged in might be spotlighted. Asking why the Spanish word for "feminine" is masculine (feminino)is some potential hard-hitting material. Like this blog, I'll write whatever I decide is interesting--and humorous as much as possible.

The great news about all this is it's never too late. So please never stop dreaming. Your intentions, if honorable, may sometimes manifest in unusual ways, unexpected times, and unbelievable places.

PS. I need to come up with a name for this column. Any and all suggestions will be appreciated and considered.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

So How Did "Gringos & Friends" Go?

Incredibly well, I'm happy to report. I met with the owner the day before the event to make sure that there was going to be proper staffing and plentiful food and drink. I estimate around 100 or so people showed up over the course of the evening, which was definitely on the upper end of projected turnout. Many folks enjoyed appetizers and/or dinner while there, which is a radical departure from the established Friday night gathering (where everyone socializes, drinks, and leaves).

Mucho compliments and zero complaints were heard about the facility, the food, and the service. I sent out the original email invitation and encouraged recipients to forward it on to their friends (which was kind of the idea of the whole thing) and that obviously happened, because I had never even seen probably one fourth of the people who showed up. That was extremely encouraging.

Cynthia and I were interviewed that night by a reporter from the local newspaper, and we mentioned how numerous expats are actively engaged in our new hometown and involved in volunteer work. The article showed up in yesterday's edition, and I have received numerous emails regarding worthwhile projects around the city. In fact we already had a wonderful meeting just last night to discuss an upcoming cancer-related event (a subject of obvious personal importance to us).

So who knows where this little idea may take us? I will share with you now there are several exciting possibilities percolating that I hope to present soon. In the meantime, have a fun-filled weekend and see you next Tuesday at Di Bacco!!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Accidental Event Planner

Well, the big news this week is that my bride Cynthia returned to Cuenca after 5 long (for me) weeks in the States. She arrived in Quito Monday night and I flew up and surprised her in the airport holding a sign and roses. We spent the night together and flew back here Tuesday afternoon and have been getting reacquainted since then. It's so wonderful to have her back home!!

Next week I'm starting a new event in Cuenca called "Gringos & Friends." It's going to be at an Italian restaurant and bar called Di Bacco every Tuesday night starting October 19. There will drink, appetizer, and dinner specials each week, and hopefully it will be a big success.

The funny thing is, I never had any plans to create a new Gringo Night. It all started innocently enough a couple of months ago when Cynthia and I were on a bus downtown around lunchtime. I saw a sandwich board outside a restaurant we'd never noticed and I said, "That place looks nice--let's get off and eat there."

We had a wonderful meal (veal marsala in Cuenca? Who knew?) of authentic Italian food without an Ecuadorian "twist." And because the place wasn't very busy, we got to chat extensively with one of the owners. It turns out he and the chef had spent several years in the US, which explained his excellent English. The restaurant had only been open about 6 months at that time and he admitted that he was trying to think of ways to increase his business.

The expat community here is always on the lookout for nice places to eat and for some reason I just threw out an idea, "What do you think about hosting a Gringo Night?." He was very excited about the possibility and I said I'd talk it up a bit and see if there was any interest.

Then Cynthia's situation with her sister happened and the whole thing kind of got put on the back burner. But I was eating with some friends a few weeks ago and thought to bring up the subject. I suggested they go to Di Bacco for lunch and let me know what they thought. The response was extremely affirmative, so I scheduled a dinner at the restaurant with about ten folks to plan the event.

Well, then I invited a few more, and a lot of the original group got excited and also invited a few more, and about 40 hungry people showed up! Plus there was already a group of 20 mid-Easterners complete with their own belly dancer wearing a huge candle-filled candelabra on her head. Plus I later learned one of the chefs had quit the day before and one of the wait staff hadn't shown up that night.


Suffice it to say the evening didn't go exactly as planned. Some of the throng sensed the impending disaster and thankfully left, but the kitchen was overwhelmed and service was sadly but understandably slow. But still, 40+ had almost accidentally come, which indicated potential.

A week or so later I and two buddies quietly convened at the bar there and put the event together. One of them said, "Why don't we make this for everybody--gringos & Cuencanos?." I thought that was a brilliant idea. Four years ago the first Gringo Night was organized when there was only a fraction of expat citizens in Cuenca compared to now. That small group, spread all over the city, truly needed a venue to come together.

Now the size of the expat community has grown to the point where perhaps it is time for us to integrate more into our new home and actively embrace friendships with the local citizenry. I am working with the local Chamber of Commerce on an "expat outreach" program, so I know the business leaders of Cuenca also have a sense of wanting to welcome and assist us.

So a random bus ride and lunch has amazingly evolved into "Gringos & Friends," which will hopefully be a nice new event for the city and a boost for a new restaurant that deserves to be successful. Cross your fingers--I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trip To Cajas

Friday I took a tour of Cajas National Park through my friend Juan Heredia's company Terra Diversa. As I watched chilly, drizzling rain come down while waiting for the van to arrive I was questioning both my wisdom and sanity. This was to be a full day of hiking at high elevations, and we had all been advised to wear warm, waterproof clothing. Trekking around for 8 hours in a frigid rainstorm conjured up no images of an enjoyable outing.

But you never know what the weather is going to do here and thankfully the rain stopped on our way to the park and didn't return until we were in the parking lot of a restaurant after the excursion. Cajas is a massive park covering over 70,000 acres with altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 14,500 feet. Within its area are 235 lakes, two of which we walked around.

The diversity of ecosystems is remarkable. One minute you're out in the open; the next you find yourself in a lush forest bursting with ferns and mosses. Or because of the position of the sun and protection from the wind a sliver of dense, gnarly woods that feels straight out of Lord of the Rings thrives on the side of an otherwise barren mountain.

This hike was quite strenuous, and the high altitude had us all huffing and puffing frequently. The van took us as high as 13,500 feet for a panoramic view. Damn, it was cold up there! Photos really can't capture the sights adequately, but I've included some to give you a taste of what we experienced.

After a late lunch at a trout restaurant we returned to Cuenca, only a 35 minute drive away. There was a noticeable absence of conversation as we were all pooped. Gringo Night didn't happen for me. Some rum and an early bedtime were all I could muster.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


"Sitting on a park bench-----." I couldn't help but think of that song last night as I found myself doing exactly that. And, no, the lyric reference stops right there; I wasn't "eying little girls with bad intent!"

I left quite early for a dinner engagement with the sole purpose of wandering around downtown Cuenca and absorbing the atmosphere on a Friday night. After living here almost six months I realized Gringo Night, going out of town or other activities had always taken precedence over simply "being" here.

Shame on me for even in this faraway place falling prey to behaving like a "human doing" instead of a "human being."

The area outside Milenium Plaza (not a misspelling), the small mall near our home, was teeming with teenagers hanging out, laughing, and flirting. I didn't stop to check out the inside, especially the food court, but I can only imagine how crowded it was.

Then I crossed Madre Park and watched guys playing volleyball (I've got to join in sometime soon. At 6'3" I'll be such a star against these little dudes.) and futball; parents with kids enjoying the playground equipment; young sweethearts curled up under trees smooching; joggers; and tons of other kids heading towards the mall I had just left.

Strolling up Calle Larga the crowd switched to young adults getting an early start on the evening. This street is filled with nightclubs, disco's, hookah bars (who knew?) and restaurants. We lived right in the middle of this for a month and heard all the weekend action until far into the night. These kids LOVE to party.

No matter where I went there were people out and about. The energy was so happy and positive and I kept thinking, "Why have we been hanging out at a damn happy hour almost every week instead of being part of this?."

My last stop before dinner was at Parque Calderon, the main square in the center of the city. It was here that I plopped down on the aforementioned park bench and just took it all in. I'd been out for an hour and hadn't seen a single gringo--guess they were all having drinks at the function I skipped.

Two days earlier the country was gripped with those silly hi-jinks; this evening that foolishness might as well have happened two centuries ago. An upside to political instability is citizens never learn to depend on government and in fact continue to function in spite of it. Nobody has their hand out because in a poor country there's nothing to put in it.

People here simply enjoy life and take care of themselves. What a concept.

Friday, October 1, 2010

It's a Third World After All, It's a------------

Yesterday began just like any other day. No, actually better than usual. I got up, made myself some bacon and eggs, and went to the gym. Afterward the morning was so lovely I decided to walk to my massage appointment instead of taking a taxi. It's a 45 minute hoof but I love walking along Avenidas Solano and Remigio Crespo, and I had plenty of time, enough to stop for an ATM withdrawal along the way.

While on the massage table my therapist got a cell phone call and after hanging up said, "Bad news, Edd." I immediately thought she had a family emergency. She instead said that Correa, the Ecuadorian President, had been removed from office, there were no police, and we all needed to go home---now. Wow, talk about a mood breaker; I was suddenly WAY more tense than before I had arrived.

She insisted on driving me home after we picked up her kids from school. Such is the kindness of the Ecuadorian people. My resume is a little thin in the "Political Insurrection" category, but I did have the presence of mind to remember I had next to no food in the house, so I asked her to swing by the grocery store to see if it was still open. Thankfully it was, so she let me out there only by my promising I would take a cab and not walk the rest of the way.

It was interesting on the drive from her office to school and then the grocery store to see how normal everything appeared. Sure, the banks were now closed (with no police who could blame them?) but people were out cheerfully walking, restaurants had the usual lunchtime crowd. There was no overall sense of panic or fear. Same thing in the grocery--no rushing around grabbing all the bottled water and canned goods; folks were casually pushing their buggies around and chatting.

"Better to be safe than sorry" has never exactly been my motto. Neither has "Be prepared." Guess that's one of many reasons I struck out as a Boy Scout. But prudence dictated at least staying off the streets for a bit. Gringos are stereotyped as "rich" anyway (I wish------) so if anyone were ever to act on the notion of robbing one, this would be the time.

I had friends here calling and emailing left and right--what do you know? What should we do?? I decided the best way to deal with the situation was to bake a batch of oatmeal cookies. Worse case scenario: who would harm a guy that bakes cookies? And they might be a suitable bribe--------.

After that I turned off the phone and computer and took a shower and a long nap. Then I poured a glass of wine and prepared a phenomenal barbeque chicken dinner. After devouring that I took my wine and some cookies downstairs to the neighbors and watched some fascinating TV coverage of the unfolding events.

All the local channels were showing the exact same thing--this is a democracy? H-m-m-m----. The cameraman was literally right in there with a bunch of soldiers and it felt like a B version of "Saving Private Ryan." Flares were flying, guns were shooting, guys were scurrying around. I wasn't sure what exactly was going on, but it was riveting. One guy even got shot and fell off a moving truck and down an embankment. Live TV at its best.

Or was it? Because even though it said "Live TV" in the corner of the screen, we watched Correa apparently being hustled away in a cavalcade from a hospital in which he was supposedly being held hostage by the rebelling police force, then less than five minutes later he's on a balcony at the Presidential Palace amidst a throng of people waving to the crowd and delivering a blistering speech denouncing his opponents. I felt like I was in the audience of a magic show where the magician vanishes from the stage and miraculously reappears in the back of the theater. Both instances leave one to ponder, "How did he do that?."

And honestly, all these shenanigans painfully reminded me of watching two pro wrestlers preening, shouting, exaggerating, and threatening each other. I quietly wonder if, like those matches, this whole thing could have been rigged from the get-go. Hey, in Ecuador, anything es posible--------.

Correa was clearly ecstatic over all the world-wide attention. After the balcony speech he donned his colorful and apparently official President banner (and now our next contestant--Mr. Ecuador!!), perhaps changed his necktie and held a news conference in which he said the exact same stuff he'd been repeating over and over all day. "Hey, as long as the camera's on, I'll keep talkin'--I love this job!!"

Now today, one day later, it's business as usual. Correa's more powerful than ever; the Chief of Police has resigned; the week-long "national emergency" declared just yesterday afternoon is cancelled.

And so it goes. Correa, having occupied the presidency for almost 5 years, is the Methuselah of Ecuadorian politics. For his predecessors they didn't even bother printing business cards. Was I scared? No. Was I concerned? No. Was I interested? Absolutely.

A lot of folks move to places like this and do a lot of pretending about what they're really signing up for. Ecuador is a beautiful country, and Cuenca is a fantastic city in which to live. But--------.

This ain't just a cheap version of the US of A. Everything in life has a risk/reward factor. The bank's here pay like 7-8% for CD's, but there's no FDIC to protect you. Want to take a shot? Go for it knowing you could lose it all. Similarly, history demonstrates over time Ecuador is and will continue to be politically unstable. Willing to take the chance on this lifestyle in return for the possibility things might go sideways? We were; many aren't. And shouldn't.

Yesterday was part of the adventure. And it provided a reality check for all of us living here and especially those considering joining us. This place is chock full of positives but it is not paradise or without risk. It is my observation that, personality differences aside, a certain "let 'er rip" attitude seems a prerequisite to happy and successful life abroad. Does that describe you? If not, proceed with caution.

So, you all know the tune--let's sing it together and with gusto: "It's a Third World After All. It's a Third World After All----------."