Thursday, November 25, 2010

Totally Thankful!

Being in both Ecuador and US airports only hours apart provides an quick, interesting lesson in cultural differences. Domestic security in Ecuador is SO much more user friendly. Take off my shoes? Nah. This water bottle--do I need to throw it away? No, it's fine. What about my computer--remove it from its case? No--why would you do that?

On the other hand, we stood in line over an hour just to check our bags and get our boarding passes. The airline seemed to have plenty of employees, but somehow anything involving paperwork (and Ecuadorians love their paperwork) takes for--ev--er. Plus, beyond that I seriously think we had to show our passports at five different check points on the way to our gate. And after all that we were required to flash our boarding pass right before boarding the plane, as if----well, never mind-----------.

Conversely, while US security borders on fascist, American efficiency immediately welcomes you back and reminds you of what a pain in the ass the simplest things often are in your new hometown. We blew through Customs and security in time to enjoy breakfast at Popeye's (yes!) in Atlanta before heading on to Newark.

After dropping our bags at our daughter & hubby's home I found myself almost immediately on a train to Union Square as an appointment wingman. I enjoyed excellent farmer's and holiday markets in the square, then returned to flop on the couch for a much-needed nap.

Too quickly the front door opened, and through half-opened eyes I was bewildered to see----my son? And then his wife?? What was happening? Brandon had just returned from 5 weeks in India that day. I knew his layover was in Newark early this morning, but he was supposed to be in Durham by now. I was confused.

And thrilled. Thanksgiving is of course a classic "Norman Rockwell" American family holiday, and TeamStaton is a very close family unit, but for too many years and too many reasons we have not all been able to gather around the dining table on this special day.

So our kids had conspired to finally make it happen. But it turns out there was a bigger reason for this surprise. As we all stood in the kitchen Brandon and Jennie shouted, "We're pregnant!!"

What? You're what??

It's true. Cynthia and I will be grandparents next June. How odd that after the initial shock this all seems so natural and perfect. It's the right time; they'll be terrific parents; we're ready to do our thing. Let's have a baby!!

Our son-in-law's parents also came to New Jersey from England for the holiday (not a big one for Brits, but we were thrilled to see them for the first time in 3 years since they normally live on a boat in Greece.) Because their flight back home left Thanksgiving afternoon our dinner took place on Wednesday. With other friends who joined us eleven folks gathered together for a wonderful evening of food and fellowship.

We've all had "special events"--Christmas's, birthdays, Valentine's--that you would struggle to recall anything that happened even two years later. I'm certain that we will remember Thanksgiving 2010 forever.

And I'm thankful to each of you who find this little blog about Ecuador worth reading. Let's all be mindful and grateful for our many blessings every day!

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Thought This Might Happen-------

When we moved here in May mayhem, pratfalls, absurdities, and general craziness broke loose. Such is the life of strangers in a strange land, and it made for some interesting stories. But after six months you've either thrown your hands up and moved back home (we know several folks who have done just that) or you somehow manage to settle in and begin creating a life.

We have chosen Door #2. Our Spanish still sucks, we still often have no idea why many things are the way they are (we quit asking--it makes things SO much easier), and yet---here we are, happy as can be.

The trips to the supermarket no longer involve intense stare-down's hoping the Spanish labels will somehow reveal their English translations. There are no more arguments with cab drivers about whether the fare is $1.50 or $2.00. We don't know all the street names yet but we don't get lost any more. Have we become boring? Hardly. We've simply become more comfortable.

But I'm a bit sad to admit that as a result this blog is becoming too "bloggy" even for me. I hate online diaries, and thank God I'm not yet reporting where we ate for dinner and, since we don't own a pet, what color nail polish Poochie got at the salon. But still, I and you expect more than a photo gallery with a few clever comments.

So what to do? I have no clue. I'm now writing for two publications, La Tarde and Cuenca High Life; there are several business deals cooking; our social life is totally off the hook; we are becoming a magnet for social causes. But all this isn't wildly entertaining--it's just us---today.

Perhaps all this should be reassuring and comforting to those of you considering a life abroad. We are poster children for a normal (debatable) suburban couple who parachuted into a different culture with zero friends and through positive intention have very successfully created a rich, vibrant new life.

We're returning to the States this Sunday for a 5 week stay to visit family and friends during the holiday season. Maybe plunging back into the world we left behind will generate some craziness. We're excited to see everyone, and I'm pumped about diving into the food (it's gonna get ugly)that's just not available here.

But even though we're going "home," I'm certain we'll be ready to get back to the beauty and peace of our real home here in Ecuador. For us Estados Unidos is now a "nice place to visit, but wouldn't want to live there."

Strange but true. Let's see what happens next.

Monday, November 15, 2010

International Food Festival

The barbecue sauce of course did get made, and we showed up at Mall del Rio yesterday morning ready to rock and roll. We had no idea what to expect, and in fact didn't know that the convention center at the mall even existed. We were happy to see a big sign announcing the event.

We were the first to arrive at our booth, so Cynthia posed for a pic in front of our sign.

Then the rest of the crew arrived and we set up shop and got organized.

I got a chance to wander around a bit before everything got started. I was amazed both at the size of the venue and the number of cuisines represented.

There was a large open area with all the booths and two enormous dining rooms with flowers on the tables and wait staff ready to serve.

Then the crowd started arriving.

And we quickly got busy. How busy? See the rib tray? The 20 racks of ribs we prepared sold out in less than an hour.

In no time the whole place was packed.

Even ghosts were showing up.

$25,000 to $30,000 was raised for FASEC (Foundation for the Assistance of Cancer Patients) in about 4 hours. We were incredibly impressed with how smoothly everything ran and the helpful attitude of every volunteer. It was fantastic to be around so many happy people having a wonderful afternoon. We look forward in the coming year to continuing to give our time to this awesome organization.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Great Day

There's rarely a "bad" day here in Cuenca, but yesterday was an exceptionally outstanding one. I had a morning meeting with an attorney friend to review detailed plans of the proposed parking lot at Madre Park. For those of you living here who have been relying on gossip and Internet hysteria about this project, here's my assessment: overall this appears to be a well thought out concept. There are several unanswered questions that we are presenting to the city for clarification, but the finished product will be more attractive and useful than the current hodgepodge. And no, they're not going to cut down all the trees. I'll keep you informed on this one.

In the afternoon Cynthia & I, along with our good friends Will & Val Lacy, had the opportunity to visit two rural schools outside Cuenca to plan some Christmas festivities for the children there. We met the young lady and her mother who had requested our help, jumped on a bus, and headed off for an adventure.

A limousine was waiting to whisk us to the schools.

The scenery was fantastic as we bounced along dirt roads for miles.

The kids were a bit shy upon our arrival.

But no one could resist Will's charm.

After touring the school we all lined up for a picture (and some of us actually looked at the camera).

Then it was time to distribute the candy we brought along.

We made a brief stop at another school, then it was back to Cuenca (there's Will "working the room" again).

We went straight to a special Gringos & Friends night. This weekend Cynthia and I are blessed with the chance to help raise funds for FASEC (Foundation for Assistance of Cancer Patients). FASEC provides temporary assistance and lodging to patients from outside Cuenca and hospice care to those who need a caring place to die with dignity. These patients come from all over Ecuador for treatment at SOLCA, Cuenca’s outstanding cancer specialty hospital which is adjacent to FASEC’s facilities.

We got involved with this event and the schools because of an article that appeared in the newspaper about the first G&F event. My email was included, and I cringed when I saw it, but several worthwhile inquiries such as these resulted so it turned out to be a good thing.

Understand that all this crazy stuff I share with you that we're doing lately is totally unplanned. We arrived in Cuenca in May with zero agenda except to make a new life here, but one thing has led to another has led to another has led to another, and 6 months later I've started a Gringo night, am writing a column in the newspaper, and have become a "lightning rod" for charities here. And just today I've been invited to write for another publication and to appear on a radio program. This has been a wild, unpredictable, and incredibly fun ride.

Anyway, Di Bacco, the host restaurant, generously offered to donate 10% of last night's proceeds to the FASEC, and there was a large and supportive crowd in attendance. Several hours later we stumbled in the door dog-tired.

Tomorrow we pick up the ingredients to make barbeque sauce for 20 racks of ribs. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that our involvement includes helping man the USA booth Sunday for the 16th Annual International Food Festival to benefit FASEC. We're also having people over for lunch and other folks for cocktails Friday, doing prep work for the Festival Saturday afternoon, and going to a party Saturday night. When was I going to make that sauce? Right now I have no idea, but it will be made.

It's kinda funny. I actually thought we came here to retire. Silly me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

First Column

A number of you have asked me to post here the column (which I named "All Things Gringo")I wrote for the newspaper. As you'll see, because it's published in English and Spanish each piece will have to be pretty short.


Over the past few years you’ve seen more and more foreigners around the city and you may be wondering, “Why have all these gringos left their countries to come to Cuenca, Ecuador?” I will be writing a column each Friday to help us all get to know each other better.

My wife and I came here from Las Vegas six months ago. I’m happy to report that so far being in Cuenca has far exceeded our expectations. Every gringo (we call ourselves that too!) has a unique life story, but I think it is fair to say that most of us are here for a combination of these reasons: 1) wonderful weather, 2) low cost of living, and 3) proximity to the US.

This is information that can be obtained through research on the Internet. There is, however, a special hidden treasure in Cuenca that can only be discovered by living here on a daily basis---the kindness and generosity of this beautiful city’s citizens. It is difficult and stressful to relocate to a different country and culture where you know no one and perhaps don’t speak the language well. We are very grateful for the special blessing of feeling so welcomed in our new hometown.

And many of us want to do more than just reside here. In upcoming columns I will sometimes spotlight gringos who are doing important volunteer work or opening new businesses. Our city’s recent growth creates many opportunities, and by working together Cuencanos and gringos will guide Cuenca to an exciting future.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cuenca Independence Day

Correction: my weekly column did start in the newspaper today, but it was in La Tarde, the afternoon paper, instead of El Mercurio, the morning paper. Sorry for the confusion.

So last Saturday through this Wednesday marked the celebration of Cuenca Independence Day. It's deliciously fitting and symbolic that we spent 5 days celebrating one "Day," since it sometimes takes that much time for workers to finish a one day job (or to show up for that job).

Most of the businesses, banks included, were closed the whole time. Can you imagine that happening in the US? Sure, we've sort of turned Thanksgiving into a four day weekend (sorry about that, all of you involved in retail) and Christmas into a 3 1/2 day event if it aligns properly with a weekend, but 5 days??? Impossible. Many Americans don't even use all of their vacation days.

Oh, by the way, note that this is Cuenca's celebration of independence from Spain, not the whole country of Ecuador's. You readers from afar might ask, "Why is that?" We citizens here have so many opportunities to ask that question about any and everything that after awhile we grow weary, get beat down and just go with the flow. Unless you're hardwired to be a factoid hunter/gatherer, does it really matter?

Here's what was going on. Merchants from all over South America were here peddling their wares. Some of it was of course crap (I even found some "artisan" clothing with labels from China--oops!), but a lot of it was super-high quality handmade textiles at embarrassingly low prices. After a bit of haggling.

One of the main areas for this was in Madre Park, which happily is quite close to our home.

Here's Cynthia in front of one of the many vendors' stands.

Food was plentiful as well. Candied apples, of course, but do you see the candied grapes??

I especially liked the Ecuadorian version of gingerbread men

And the "gettin' down to basics" hand-churned ice cream

But for some reason we weren't comfortable trying the food here

There was lots of entertainment too. Some conventional

And some curiously unexpected

But you don't know entertainment until you've seen a full blown Ecuadorian fireworks display. Understand, knuckleheads shoot off fireworks all the time here. Sometimes at 6 in the morning. Why? Remember-----------.

This is a whole different level of pyrotechnics and, frankly, danger. In the States an unthinkable number of laws and regulations would be broken by what I'm going to show you. Which makes participation as a spectator kind of---naughty? Thrilling? Liberating? I'm not quite sure how to describe it.

This tower is loaded with explosives. And note the proximity of the crowd.

The "Mad Bull" starts the action

by becoming a mini-fireworks display and then igniting the bottom of the tower

The crowd looks wary of what's about to happen

And for good reason because suddenly all hell breaks loose!

But after all that the crowd notices the top of the tower somehow didn't explode

So party on!!

Exciting, huh? Guess what--there was another tower on the other side of the park.

But see the sign on the top. This one was sponsored by the local government, so it was surely much safer, right? Uh, not so much-----

After all the walking, shopping, eating, drinking, and fireworking our tongues were hanging out.

So we're resting up now and getting ready for not 5 days but 5 WEEKS of shenanigans in the US soon. God help us!!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Springtime in Cuenca!

The locals like to claim that there are no seasons in Cuenca. The flora disagrees--it's springtime here, folks! Hard for you on the other side of the equator to imagine, I'm sure, as the weather is getting colder. These are some pics I took walking through our neighborhood on the way to the grocery store.

Is this place beautiful or what???