Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Welcome Freshman Class!

A little over a year ago I started a Gringo Night on Tuesdays at Di Bacco, an Italian restaurant in the historic district. Cynthia and I were riding the bus downtown one day and it was time to eat lunch. I noticed this place out the window that we had never seen before so we decided to get off at the next stop and dine there. Our meal was delicious and reasonably priced, but we couldn't help but notice that the place was practically deserted.

As usual I started chatting up the proprietor, Lauro, and he shared with us that the restaurant had been open for awhile and was struggling to gain a foothold. Out of nowhere I blurted, "What would you think about having a Gringo Night here to attract more expats?." Trust me, it's not like this idea had been percolating around in my overactive brain. I was at least as surprised by the spontaneous suggestion as Lauro was.

He agreed to give it a try. I invited a group of people for a quiet dinner there to hash out the plan. They invited friends who invited friends, and about 40 folks showed up. Yikes! The kitchen was overwhelmed and quite frankly the evening was a disaster, but the experience demonstrated there was a pent up demand for something.

I regrouped with just a couple of buddies over drinks. Since there was another Gringo Night in town on Fridays we decided this one should be on Tuesday. The first night was planned and promoted, and probably close to 100 people showed up. From then on the event has become a permanent part of the social landscape in Cuenca.

Even though I originated this idea I never thought of it as “mine.” Cynthia and I invited people and showed up religiously for awhile to help get things going, but except for our fitness we don’t enjoy doing much of anything on a set schedule (maybe that’s why I’ve never joined a bowling league), so over time our attendance has been erratic.

A visit last week was an eye opener to say the least. The bar area was busy, and the once-empty dining room was packed—so much so that some folks had even migrated upstairs to dine. As I stood looking out at the room I realized that although I recognized a few faces I didn’t really know a single person sitting at the tables. A year ago I knew everyone there because I had invited them. Now I felt like a virtual stranger at an event I had created.

Some of our very best friends are native Cuencanos and gringos who have lived here a long time, but in sheer numbers the vast majority of our acquaintances are folks who moved to Cuenca around the same time we did. We were all rookies anxious to meet people and share experiences getting settled in our new hometown, thus we naturally gravitated towards each other.

And apparently so it goes. I’m guessing most of those folks I didn’t recognize at Di Bacco are newbies similarly forming relationships with other recent arrivals—sharing stories about their misadventures, asking who did you use for this, where can you find that.

This whole expat experience reveals itself gradually over time. It appears I and my “group” have officially become the sophomore class of gringos. We’ve made friends and successfully integrated into the fabric of daily life. Now it’s time to welcome the new freshman class to town. Cynthia and I always look forward to meeting new people and providing assistance and guidance through the adjustment period. We never forget how lost we sometimes felt in the beginning and how much help we needed.

I hope all of you new folks enjoy your life here in Cuenca as much as we do, and that you always appreciate what a wonderful city you have chosen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Having a Great Time--Glad You're not Here

An online article about leaving the US before “the collapse” has generated considerable buzz on Ecuador forums, since the writer claims to have lived in our country for two years. The guy is a survivalist who lives in a trailer and drives a pickup so he won’t “stand out.” He hoards food and supplies, and practices suturing wounds on chicken meat.

The gist of his message is that the grass isn’t necessarily greener, which is a perfectly valid personal conclusion, but several of his judgments about Latin American culture, and that of Ecuador in particular, deserve rebuttal.

First we should frame the author’s point of reference. He begins by stating that “one of the most common questions I'm asked today from people who are aware of what's really going on is, ‘Should I leave the USA to get away from the coming police state?’.” It’s safe to surmise this cat hangs with a very different crowd from most of us.

There is no mention of why the author lived in Ecuador or why he left, but the tone of his writing indicates that for whatever reason perhaps things didn’t work out for him here. Often people in this position choose to find fault with their former residence rather than examine their own flawed motives for going there in the first place.

The title of the article promises “words of wisdom,” yet the author exhibits a shallow understanding of and condescending attitude towards the local culture. For example, he cites as an example of the lack of “long-term preparedness thinking” that the “idea of buying large quantities of facial tissue at a Costco or Sam's Club is completely foreign to most South American cultures (more so in rural areas than urban).” Maybe for starters that’s because we don’t have Costco and Sam’s Club.

He ridicules the locals for purchasing one prescription pill at a time, or buying a few screws for a project when it’s obvious they will need more. The minimum wage in Ecuador is $260 per month. In many cases a small quantity is all a person can afford at one time.

Driving through the countryside you see homes everywhere in various stages of completion. Is this due to lack of planning? Absolutely not. A member of the family is most likely employed in the US. Each time extra money is sent home work is done on the new house until funds run out. These homes sit unfinished, sometimes for years, while a husband is far away trying to create a better life for his family.

And what about the people still farming the land by hand instead of buying a John Deere tractor? The author correctly points out that one such machine can do the work of 12 men. He fails to appreciate that in a country of high unemployment this strategy puts 11 men out of work.

Our large families come under attack, again for lack of planning. The author forgets that in an agrarian society more children equate to more help growing the crops needed for survival. And while having multiple children is blamed on the “cultural devaluing of the female,” no mention is made that Catholicism, which eschews birth control, is practiced by around 98% of the population.

Ecuador is a beautiful country filled with kind and loving people. We have an abundance of fresh food and water. Perhaps we are not as prepared as the author would like for a “collapse.” Perhaps we don’t need to be.

Is our country perfect? Of course not. There are political, social, and financial problems to solve here just like most every other place. But I’m damned proud to call Ecuador my home, so don’t pick on my fellow citizens to justify your extremist position, mister.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To Buy or not to Buy

I was recently in the company of some folks who had attended the latest Ecuador International Living conference. Since we made the decision to move here without the benefit of such gatherings I was curious to learn if they thought the experience was worthwhile.

Each of them in fact did enjoy themselves and felt that they had received a great deal of valuable information about the regions of the country, cultural differences, and many other topics. Regarding the subject of real estate they all shared that the sentiment expressed at the conference was, “Buy now. Prices are going up. You don’t want to miss out.”

During our year and a half here prices have indeed gone up, and one always hates to lose possible investment appreciation. So I’d like to share some thoughts that should perhaps be considered once the decision has been made to relocate to Ecuador.

A disclaimer is in order. Although we have historically been home owners, Cynthia and I rent an apartment here in Cuenca and plan to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Our desire is to keep maximum working capital available for investment vehicles in Ecuador that don’t involve the roof over our heads. So far this strategy has paid off, as rents are inexpensive and through perseverance and patience we have uncovered some excellent opportunities.

Like the decision of whether to ship one’s belongings or show up with suitcases, buying versus renting is a highly individual decision. Many people are here to retire, period, and are quite happy to have the security of knowing that they own their dwelling and are free to enjoy their lives.

But it is a mistake to assume that the process of purchasing real estate in any foreign country is the same as in the United States. We know too many people who paid cash (there are no mortgages for brand new expats) for their dwellings yet for a myriad of reasons cannot secure deeds for their properties. If this purchase is the intended instrument for obtaining one’s permanent visa, and there are definite time limits for doing so, life can suddenly become chaotic.

After buying their condominium one couple had to ante up $25,000 they weren’t intending to use to purchase a CD (another method for satisfying visa requirements) before the clock ran out. Another ownership couple without a deed confided to us that they are still here on their last tourist visa extension and don’t know at this point what’s going to happen next. They very well may “own” a place here and have to leave the country.

Purchasing during pre-construction is a familiar strategy for getting the best price and realizing maximum potential appreciation. But what if occupancy is delayed for over a year past the promised delivery date, as has happened with another couple we know? Or how about the folks who bought a beautiful place with a lovely view of the nearby Cajas mountains, only to learn that another high rise is going up right beside their building and they will soon be looking at bricks and windows?

Let’s visit this whole notion of the “appreciation” we don’t want to miss out on. I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” You buy a place for $100,000. In two years you can sell it for $120,000. Great—your property has appreciated $20,000. But guess what? Proportionally, so has everyone else’s. This means if you sell for $120,000 you can purchase an identical property now for---$120,000. Your true appreciation, the money you can now put in the bank, is zero.

There are only two ways one can really enjoy the benefits of appreciation: 1) by buying “back of book” (below true market value) and selling for retail, or 2) selling and moving to a place with less appreciation.

Now, many expats in Cuenca have had totally positive home buying experiences. Please don’t take these stories as any indication that real estate purchases in Ecuador are an automatic ticket into the Gates of Hell. The point is that one should proceed cautiously and be aware that possible obstacles exist to which you are not accustomed. Take nothing for granted, perform extra due diligence, and personally stay on top of every detail .

A great choice is to rent before you buy. Whether it’s for 3 months, 6 months, or a year, being “on the ground” for awhile allows you, without missing any significant amount of appreciation, to really get to know the city and make an intelligent decision about where specifically you want to establish your permanent residence. Even more importantly, before making a major financial commitment you get to make sure Cuenca is everything you hoped it would be once the “honeymoon” is over.

“Missing the boat” might not be so bad if you’re not certain of the destination. Remember that 3 hour tour the Minnow took on Gilligan’s Island? Instead of finding yourself marooned on an island of financial uncertainty, be responsible for making sure your expat journey gets off to a great start.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Montanita

"Oh, yeah, the hippie surfer beach."

That's the universal answer about this beach town from almost anyone you ask in Ecuador, even if the person you're asking has never actually been there. So is the description valid?

Well, yes and no.

Cynthia and I decided it was time for an ocean getaway, and since I'm an avid body surfer Montanita had been on my radar for some time. Based on TripAdvisor recommendations I booked an oceanfront room at Hostal Kundalini, a short five minute walk down the beach to town. Our four night stay, including breakfast, plenty of hot water, and daily maid service set us back $120.

We took a van through the foggy Cajas to Guayaquil,





walked a couple of blocks to the bus terminal/mall, bought our tickets, and for the first time in years ate Big Mac's and fries from McDonald's in the food court (Why? Because we're on vacation, dammit!), then rode a very clean and comfortable bus 2 1/2 hours to our destination. We had no idea where our lodging was, but Montanita's really small so the first person we asked promptly directed us to our location just a couple of blocks away.

Kundalini is exactly as described (thanks, TripAdvisors!)--lovely landscaped green space,



large enough rooms with a big bathroom, huge balcony with two hammocks overlooking the ocean,



and juice, coffee/tea, fruit, eggs and toast each morning. But just as important is that five minute distance from what is a real party town. There are numerous night clubs, some of them huge,



and we're told the noise goes on into the wee hours. All we heard each night were the waves outside our room.

Speaking of which, I must comment that it's delightful to wake up each morning to the sounds of songbirds and crashing waves instead of car alarms, buses, and roosters. Cuenca, you know I love you, but I'm just sayin'------------.

Yes, there are certainly a bunch of interesting looking characters wandering the streets in Montanita.






It sometimes surrealistically feels like 1969 again. But then you see families with little kids, clean cut looking exchange students (someone had the excellent idea to open a Spanish school here), baby boomers like us--and dogs. Lots of dogs, so many strolling and lying around that it almost seems like they run the joint and put up with the humans so they can be fed.



The food in Montanita is amazingly great. We kind of expected to find only cheap hippie/surfer grub, but instead we enjoyed excellent shrimp dishes from Peru and Chile, super fresh grilled fish, chicken with pineapple and coconut sauce, kick-ass chicken fajitas, and the best pizza + salad we've had in Ecuador. With cheap beer and 2 for 1 cocktails to wash it all down.

The weather was overcast the first couple of days but consistently warm enough for shorts, a forgotten article of clothing never worn in Cuenca because it’s rarely hot enough to do so plus it’s just not how they roll here. We took long walks on the wide beach (a brown sugar color that reminded us of South Carolina) and I rode waves to the point of exhaustion. Montanita has the best surf in Ecuador with waves that are big, bigger, and biggest.

A bit north of town a spot called The Point is where you find most of the hard core surfers.



There are many inexpensive hostals catering to this crowd there as well as several surfing schools.



I’ve never tried getting up on a board and this is probably not the point in my life where I’m going to attempt such a strenuous activity, but it’s great fun to watch kids whipping through the waves.



On our third day the sun finally broke through and we enjoyed a glorious afternoon and sunset.





At one point we were surprised when some unexpected sun worshippers wandered onto the beach for a visit.





Overall I found Montanita to be the best beach town we’ve visited in Ecuador. Salinas’ beach is too narrow with zero surf, and Bahia, while beautiful, is borderline too far from Cuenca for a quick getaway. Not only is Montanita reasonably close (and certainly affordable), we really enjoyed the youthful energy and happy spirit we found there. We plan to eventually visit all the coastal areas in the country, but Montanita definitely rates a return trip when I need a beach fix.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

International Food Fair

I don’t usually do public service announcements on this blog, but I’m making an exception for something important. The 17th annual International Food Fair will be held at Mall del Rio on November 13 from noon until 4. Cynthia and I volunteered there last year without knowing a lot about it, and we were amazed at the size and excellence of the event and the thousands of people who showed up. Cuenca readers, mark your calendars now and be sure to attend.

The Food Fair is a major fundraiser for FASEC, a non-profit facility that for the past 30 years has provided hospice care for nearly 15,000 cancer patients from all over Ecuador.

FASEC needs money to purchase materials and supplies for the USA booth, and they are reaching out to the expat community for help. Donation bowls will be placed at California Kitchen, Carolina Bookstore, Di Bacco, Inca Lounge, and Kookaburra Café for the next two weeks.

Please support these businesses and give generously to this worthy cause.
The USA booth will once again be serving our highly acclaimed barbeque spare ribs (we sold out in less than an hour last year) along with sides of potato salad and baked beans. It doesn’t get much more American than that!

If you’re a baker please consider donating your favorite cake or pie to the Dessert Booth. It’s no surprise that this is the most popular spot at the event. Contact Patricia Vintamilla at patriciavintamilla@gmail.com.

The 17 ladies who selflessly give their time and energy to make FASEC such a success appreciate your support. This is an excellent opportunity for each of us to contribute to our wonderful hometown of Cuenca and have a great time as well.

See you there!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Home Alone Part 2

You know how when you drive to a new destination it seems to take forever to get there, but then because you’re now familiar with the journey the trip home seems shorter?

I haven’t belabored the point like I probably did this time last year when she was gone for a month (sorry everybody), but Cynthia’s been in the States for the past four weeks. She finally returns home this Saturday.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that last year she went back to be with her sister in her final days. This trip has been on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum as she got to spend a fun week with our daughter in Hoboken and since has been the nanny for our new granddaughter in Durham. Because of these two absences she has never been in Cuenca during October.

My experience this go-round has been very much like that return car trip. I already did (and survived) a similar separation so it hasn’t been as hard as the first one. Of course we’ve chatted on Skype frequently. The topics of conversation haven’t been nearly as important as simply hearing each other’s voices.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been a bed of roses either. The first week, to take my mind off my aloneness, I was a social maniac—meeting people for lunch, dinner, drinks, bridge, whatever. By Sunday I was fried. I slept my brains out and stayed home in my pajamas all day.

(Taking Hugh Hefner out of it, is there anything more decadent than staying in your PJ’s all day when you’re not even sick? I don’t think so.)

Realizing begrudgingly, once again, that I’m no longer in my twenties and can’t maintain that pace (I think when you totally accept this notion you immediately start to die), I decelerated gradually over these remaining weeks.

Slowed down, yes, but stopped? No way. We’ve become partners in a business here in Cuenca that is very exciting news. I’ll be telling more about it shortly. I’m heavily involved in the International Food Fair to benefit FASEC, a non-profit facility providing hospice care for cancer patients throughout Ecuador. And there have still been plenty of meals, parties, meetings, and excursions along the way. Thanks to my many friends for all the lovely invitations.

Despite all the activity there are two times each day when I cannot ignore my solitude—going to bed each night and waking up each morning. Alone.

Nobody to spoon with on the chilly evenings. No head on my shoulder to quietly welcome each day. These usual best of times have been by far the worst.

Saturday will be a very good day.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Party On!

I attended a business cocktail party a few nights ago. It was held at a beautiful special events facility that I didn’t even know existed. I learned that many weddings are held there, which when I returned home and got my bearings helped explain where many of the fireworks displays we see out our bedroom window originate. My, how the locals love their fireworks!

The format of the shindig ran quite differently from similar functions I’ve attended in the States. My first clue was when my Cuencano friend and I arrived and no cocktails were being served at the cocktail party. H-m-m-m----.

A good number of people were milling around chatting, but even more were sitting in rows of chairs on the back side of the cavernous room. “I wonder what’s going on over there?” I asked. “There’s going to be a presentation,” I was told. “You mean there are two different groups here?” I naively inquired.

No, those of us standing were beckoned to join the other already seated guests as the principals of the firm mounted a stage to give a 30 minute or so power point presentation about their company. The four of them passed a microphone around and shared with us, mostly in Spanish, what appeared to be a summation of how the firm started, what it does, and where it is headed.

My still limited language skills prevented me from understanding a lot of what was being said, but I think it could be summed up as, “We’re a swell company that appreciates your business and we’ll continue to work hard for you in the future.”

Towards the end of the presentation servers came down the aisles passing out flutes of champagne. Just as when I attended a Catholic mass as a boy and closely watched the faithful to know when to kneel, I paid attention to the Cuencanos to see what was next.

They were all sitting there holding their champagne and not drinking, which brought up another religious memory from the old days of the deacons in my church distributing the little glasses of unsweetened grape juice during communion. Thankfully none of those bland little wafers followed this time.

As I suspected, we were waiting to share a toast together. Some of the other gringos in attendance weren't as observant and were seen prematurely sipping away. Oops. After the toast the real party started. The servers carrying the ever-present silver trays came around with various tasty morsels throughout the rest of the evening. There was no “open bar;” after a second round of champagne the servers delivered a choice of either rum and coke or scotch and something clear—water or soda. I’m not a scotch guy so I didn’t find out which.

I asked my friend if this format of a formal presentation followed by the party was typical of business functions in Ecuador. He said, “Of course. How else would the company be able to present itself?” I responded that all the 200+ guests were already clients of the company and the presentation seemed to be geared more to prospective customers than existing ones. He was surprised that in the States the company’s members would simply mingle and socialize to promote goodwill.

Like the recent elevator story, another example of cultural differences. No right or wrong to either approach. Just different. OK. Elevator etiquette. Check. Business cocktail party. Check. God knows how many to go???

Friday, October 14, 2011

Taxi Driver

Last week I went to a very nice party with our neighbors. We walked out to the sidewalk, hailed a cab, told the driver where we were going, and away we went.

Sort of.

Everything started out well enough. Our driver was taking the regular route to our destination, but then he exited a traffic circle prematurely and headed in pretty much the opposite, and therefore wrong, direction.

H-m-m-m---. Maybe he knows about some congestion and is avoiding it.
We got to the next traffic circle and I’m thinking, “OK, he’s gonna swing around here and get back on track.”

Nope. He drives up the hill into downtown El Centro, when we’re supposed to be going to the other side of town.

That’s it. I ask him in my best Spanish, “Where in the hell are we going?” He is visibly agitated by this outburst and his eyes start darting around.

Here’s a little tip from me to you: when your cab driver stops, rolls down the window, and asks a perfect stranger how to get where you’re going, you’ve got a problem.

Now I ask him, “What’s up, senor?” Understand, Cuencanos are loath to admit they have screwed up. No weak “the dog ate my homework” or “my grandmother died” here. These folks are pros in the excuse making department, probably because they get a lot of practice.

But this young man broke the mold. He freely admitted he was new to Cuenca and didn’t know his way around very well.

I appreciated his honesty and in this case no problem, because at least I knew the directions. With me navigating we quickly regrouped and got there a few minutes later. I didn’t ask for a discount for my assistance, but I did tell him how much to charge for the fare. And, yes, the fare was fair.

When I was telling this story to a friend last night he also had one for me. He related that once he and his wife were in a taxi when the driver suddenly stopped and told them to get out.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know where this place is.”

Oops.

There’s that honesty again, and he didn’t charge them anything for the aborted ride either. Fortunately they discovered they were only a few blocks from their destination and the story had a happy ending.

So, Cuenca readers, any amusing tales to share? There have got to be some other doozies out there.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Weather Report

When we lived in Vegas I used to joke that the weatherman should just bring several changes of clothes to work , say, “Clear skies, hot, and dry!” seven times, then go home.

In Cuenca it’s the polar opposite. The meteorologist here trying to predict the weather should qualify for hazardous duty pay.

For the second day in a row the wind is blowing like a son of a bitch. And even though the sky is fairly clear I just heard thunder somewhere. Or maybe that was yet another person shooting off fireworks for no apparent reason. (Sigh----)

A couple of days ago it was balmy and beautiful during the morning hours. Then in the afternoon we had a drenching thunderstorm, followed by a hailstorm combined with the thunderstorm, concluding with sunshine again.

An umbrella here is as essential a part of your wardrobe as your underwear. Like the old American Express commercials, you “don’t leave home without it.”

Still, the temps are now consistently warmer. Hopefully our heated mattress pad can go into hibernation for a long while, and I won’t have to walk around here with a bathrobe on top of my clothes.

For a place that supposedly “has no seasons” Cuenca’s certainly been doing an excellent job lately of pretending otherwise. Our “winter” was, minus the bone chilling cold associated with the season in many places, downright wintry. Chilly, wet, and gloomy.

Now it’s springtime, the weather’s warming up, plants and trees are blooming, and we’re blessed with glorious sunsets once again.

Living here contains so many surprises that it wouldn’t even be appropriate for the weather to be predictable, now would it? All part of the fun, I say.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Backs Against the Wall

Cultural differences come in all sizes. There are the big ones like languages and foods, and the less obvious such as expecting the waiter to bring your check versus having to ask for it.

Small, obscure cultural peculiarities can sometimes be hidden in plain view. Occupying an elevator, for example. In the States we get in and all face the front until the doors open on our floor. We don’t think about this practice and probably no one gave us lessons on proper elevator positioning. It’s just what we do.

And it’s what I’ve continued to do here in Ecuador for the past year and a half. Until last week, that is, when a friend I can’t recall asked for reasons I don’t remember, “Did you know you’re supposed to stand facing each other in elevators here?.”

No, actually I didn’t know that. So the next time I entered one I watched and, sure enough, everyone had their backs to the walls---except me. I quickly found an empty slot and joined the others and will always do so in the future.

This small revelation makes me wonder about three things:

1) How much are we missing (I say “we” because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one) as we walk around listening to the endless chatter between our ears and oblivious of our surroundings?
2) How many Ecuadorians have I unwittingly offended?
3) What else do I not know? Was this elevator etiquette part of a short list or the tip of an iceberg? I’m guessing the latter.

Yesterday I went to a Cuencano birthday party in Paute. There were 30-40 people there. I was the only gringo. The guest of honor was a beautiful 88 year old woman, seated in a corner with a few lady friends. My group was among the first to arrive, and as more folks showed up guess what happened?

People started taking chairs from the tables that had already been set up and began placing them around the wall. When there was no more space the line of chairs then formed a “J” and we were working on a “U” when the last attendees sat down. It was like we all were sitting in a super-sized elevator!

I have no idea where this “don’t have your back to anyone” notion originated. Was it for protection like the Mafia bosses who always sit facing the front of the restaurant so a hit man can’t shoot them in the back? Or is it simply a matter of politeness?

A couple of other observations from the party. All afternoon a gentleman wandered around serving drinks from a tray. This is very typical and charming. Often appetizers are served the same way. We would reserve this level of service for “fancy” events, usually opting for a bartender and a table loaded with “serve yourself” goodies. I’m certain Ecuadorians don’t consider tray service special. It’s just what they do.

When the bowls of food were delivered to our table the attractive young woman next to me offered the nearest one to me. I asked her to please go ahead and she said, “But you’re our special guest.” I replied, “We’re all guests here and the only thing special about me is the color of my eyes and skin. Where I come from it’s polite for the lady to be served first.”

She smiled and dished her plate. It’s comforting to know basic things like good manners are appropriate in any culture.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Social Network

After the recent death of my second oldest friend I was moved to follow my own advice and call the one guy I’ve known literally my whole life. We grew up two houses apart and are blessed with a closer friendship now than any time since we were kids.

We talked for over an hour, bringing each other up to date, often to raucous laughter, on the wives, kids, grandkids, and ourselves. At some point in the conversation he asked, “Are you two in Ecuador for the long haul?”

I told him if he meant “forever” then my answer was, “I have absolutely no idea.” Never could I have predicted our moves from Atlanta to Charleston to Las Vegas and certainly not to Ecuador. But for the foreseeable future, whatever that means, we have every intention of remaining here. Furthermore, I told him, if this doesn’t work out we still don’t see ourselves returning to the States to live again.

“Because it’s too expensive here?” he wondered. There’s no doubt that’s why almost all gringos, including us, are no longer in the US whether they admit it or not. But as I was replying affirmatively to his question a new thought came to me.

I said, “You know what? Even if money wasn’t an issue, even if I could live the same retired lifestyle there I still don’t think I’d go back permanently.”

Here’s why. I went to a party last week with at least 40 people in attendance. A couple of days later I went to another gathering of about 20. There was only one other person besides me at both events. I knew most everyone, and that’s not nearly all the folks I know.

Even better I like these people, and many of them at least pretend to like me. We’re from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. We’ve got beliefs in everything from Jesus to shape-shifting reptilians. But the more diverse the better, I say, because it makes personal interaction so much more interesting.

Is it not the height of boredom to have a long conversation which someone who agrees with everything you say? Wouldn’t it be a lot more efficient to just cut out the other person and talk to yourself?

I asked my friend if he could envision any way, short of moving to a Del Webb community or joining one of those nondenominational megachurches, to duplicate the vibrant social network we enjoy here. He and I were both stumped for an answer.

Cynthia and I weren’t exactly social butterflies in our previous life. “Social caterpillars” would have better described us. While raising the kids our friends, with many of whom we remain close, were seat mates in the bleachers for games and auditoriums for performances. Then dual careers left us too spent, even if we had the desire, to devote the time and energy to many deep friendships.

We get to Cuenca and, surprise, people have the time and the interest. Maybe we always really wanted to enjoy the company of more people but never gave ourselves permission. Whatever the reason, we cherish so much getting to spend quality time and really knowing our friends way beyond the thin veneer of the old “So, what do you do, Edd?” cocktail party patter.

You can study all the guide books, websites, and blogs, saturating yourself with information about Cuenca’s weather (it still sucks, by the way), housing, medical care, and cost of living. The rich social fabric of this place is something you have to experience firsthand, and it reveals itself to you slowly as you relax into the rhythm of life here. It has been our biggest surprise and has added a valued new dimension to our lives.

The positive takeaway from my friend’s death is a renewed appreciation of how important our relationships truly are. And a thankful heart to be living in a place that has filled our world with so many wonderful people. Thank you, Jack. And thank you, Cuenca.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Help

I recently finished reading an excellent first novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. In an early 1960’s Mississippi setting, the book deals with the complicated relationships between domestic help (yes, maids) and the families who employed them.

I grew up in the South during these years but my family didn’t have the money to employ a maid. We were doing good to keep a roof over our heads and food in the refrigerator. And Atlanta largely avoided a lot of the racial tension of those eventful times so I read the book as a stranger and enjoyed it immensely.

Maids are actively employed here and since we now have one the subject matter was of particular interest. For months we cleaned the apartment ourselves, but one day the vacuum cleaner boy abruptly quit. That would be me.

In Vegas, because of the extreme weather, our home was so hermetically sealed that it stayed pretty clean. But here? Well, I’ve mentioned the “casual” construction standards in Cuenca before. Let’s just say our place enjoys excellent ventilation without opening the windows.

With that air circulation comes a lot of dust. Weekly cleaning is essential and it was taking too much of our valuable time away from important things like naps and enjoying long lunches with friends. This expat life is so busy!

Sonia comes every Thursday and cleans this place, literally, from top to bottom. She has her routine and knowing what it is we maneuver accordingly throughout the day to stay out of her way. At first we weren’t comfortable leaving the house while she was here. Although she was referred to us by a trusted Cuencano friend, we wondered, “What if she steals something while we’re gone.”

That attitude lasted two weeks. I said, “If we don’t trust her now, when exactly is the week going to come that we do? And how will we know when it gets here?” Since then we come and go without worry, and nothing will ever be missing.

Many of our friends also have maids, but a number of them observe political correctness and are uncomfortable using that term. Just like the book they say “I have help two days a week” or “I have a woman come every Tuesday.”

There’s an undeniable class system in Ecuador that, sometimes like other cultural standards here, seems rather quaint and old fashioned. Before hiring Sonia we were warned of certain “rules.” At the top of the list was “Do NOT overpay her.” This elicited no argument from us. Gringos are infamous for being either sincere do-gooder’s or simply clueless folks who pay too much for everything, but this practice eventually can create gentrification and higher prices overall which ends up hurting the most economically vulnerable. So we pay about 1/10 what our son coughs up for a maid service in North Carolina.

Another important rule was “Don’t ever be too friendly with your help or they’ll take advantage of you.” This one’s a little trickier. What exactly is “too friendly?” We’re not having Sonia and her family over for dinner anytime soon, but if it’s time for all of us to eat we invite her to sit down and have lunch with us. That’s probably a “no-no.” We don’t care. Plus it gives us a chance to work on our Spanish in a casual setting.

It’s fascinating to time travel like we sometimes get to do living in Cuenca. Individual maids went out of fashion and were replaced with slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am crews years ago in the US, yet here they are as common as a chicken and rice lunch.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall and observe how Ecuadorians treat their maids. I’m guessing the portrayal in The Help wouldn’t be that far off even though it’s now 50 years later. I’m pretty certain we gringos bring a more relaxed, informal attitude to the relationship.

We had a maid for a year or two when the kids were little but aside from that we’ve done our own cleaning the entire forty years of our marriage. But now that we’ve had help for several months we never want to have to clean our house again.

H-m-m-m---. I wonder if that attitude could have broader implications. You receive assistance. You get used to it. You don’t want to work anymore. Sounds eerily like all the welfare and entitlement programs in the US------.

Disclaimer!! Settle down, Social Security recipients (a group to which I proudly belong). We’re just collecting on what we paid in for years. I’m referring to all the good-for-nothing’s sitting on their asses and living off the rest of us.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Food for Thought

Eating a leftover Sloppy Joe for lunch got me to thinking. About microwaves. You see, I heated my sandwich up in the microwave, which triggered the awareness that several of our friends don’t even own one. In fact, a couple of them have said, quoting directly, that they “don’t believe in microwaves.”

While totally respecting the rights of all to say, do, and believe whatever they desire as long as others aren’t negatively affected, that phraseology puts a small household appliance on the same level with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and capital punishment, which is a bit extreme for me.

I’m not overly concerned that occasionally heating a cold cup of coffee, a pastry, or a Sloppy Joe places me in imminent danger. My cell phone, which often sits unused for days at a time, is probably causing more damage to my defenseless left ear. However, if your grocery shopping finds you perusing the frozen food aisles for most of your meals I can see where there could be a concern.

And if you live in Cuenca trying to do this you’d have the even bigger problem of possibly starving to death trying to survive on the choices from that section of the supermarket. Our frozen food department is one row of glass cases about 30 feet long. Two whole portions are devoted to ice cream and other such treats. The bottom of two sections holds bags of ice. A dozen brands of pizza? A zillion choices of Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, and Healthy Choice complete dinners? Fuhgeddaboudit------.

So living here we’ve gotten back to our roots, cooking everything we eat from scratch. Well, we don’t bother baking our own bread with bakeries every few blocks. But even our butter is homemade (by me, of all people! Who’d have thunk it?) which surely must qualify for extra credit. I assure you that batch of ground beef goodness I consumed earlier wasn’t created with a bag of seasonings or a can of Manwich.

Eating fresh, locally grown products with no additives appears to contribute to an impressive payoff. I had a complete physical last week—weight, blood pressure, EKG, chest X ray, and blood work (all of this was completed in a single day, by the way). It is with great pleasure that I report my weight is currently less than when I graduated from high school, blood pressure is 120/80, and everything else is basically perfect. “Magnificent!” my doctor said. A wonderful and entirely underused word, I truly enjoyed hearing it applied to me.

Granted, diet alone doesn’t produce that kind of result. Exercise, genetics, and mental attitude all contribute as well. And, sure, Cynthia and I don’t have commutes, jobs, or kids to raise any more, so we can take the time to shop for and prepare more labor intensive food.

The point of this post isn’t to debate whether microwave ovens belong to the Jedi or the Dark Side, or to hold myself up as some kind of poster child for healthy living. But the epidemic explosion of obesity in the western world, particularly the US, concerns me greatly.

When I was a kid hardly anyone, adult or child, was fat. How could such a radical change happen in only one generation? I think the answer is crystal clear. Too many people are making consistently lousy choices about what they put in their mouths and how often they do it.

The health “experts” cry, “Obesity is a disease! We need more education! We need more programs!”

Hogwash. There’s already enough information out there to choke a horse. The solution to obesity isn’t the latest-and-greatest diet, and there is no pill that will permanently melt fat away. As long as people search for solutions outside themselves they are doomed to failure.

Because there is a “magic bullet,” a simple term that unfortunately seems on the verge of disappearing from our language.

Maybe you've heard it--personal responsibility.

Let’s face it, each of us is ultimately in charge of what, how much, and how often we eat. Somehow the collective consciousness of our culture now chooses to ignore this most basic fact. Perhaps it’s because the health experts wouldn’t have jobs, all the diet gurus wouldn’t sell books and products, and the media wouldn’t have titillating new information to report if people actually took charge of their own health instead of depending on the advice of total strangers.

“But I’m so busy!” you might say. Really? We all get to choose how to spend the same 24 hours each day. So we have to ask ourselves, “Busy doing exactly what?” The average American watches three hours of television a day and spends an hour on the computer. What if that total of four hours was cut to three and the hour gained was used to prepare a healthy, wholesome meal instead of hastily sticking a Lean Cuisine in the microwave so you don’t miss Modern Family? Or if that time was cut in half so a brisk walk could be taken as well?

“But for some people food is more than just food. It gives them comfort. They have a relationship with what they eat.” We’ve come to accept such notions as fact without much questioning as to why this has happened. You know, it wasn’t that long ago the main “issue” folks had with food was simply having enough of it. Perhaps it all started after World War II as more women began working outside the home and convenience foods were invented. Formula was deemed healthier for infants than breast milk. Those “modern” (and horrific) TV dinners were consumed while watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonanza.

Food production exploded with agricultural innovations, the fast food revolution began, and suddenly the public enjoyed a plethora of choices and with dual incomes extra money to spend. Somehow the shining future of increased leisure and happiness hasn’t worked out as predicted. People instead feel stressed and unhappy. What better and more basic way to ease the gnawing hunger of an empty life than to put something pleasurable in your mouth. Lots of it. Over and over.

But—but—but. Enough. Please, let’s stop BS’ing ourselves and get serious. Decide once and for all that your health is your responsibility. For God’s sake quit saying you “need to lose weight” and do it. Eat less and exercise more. Cut out prepared foods with high fructose corn syrup (the most prolific poison in modern diets) and excess sodium. For sure eliminate diet sodas containing aspartame (truly frightening stuff). None of this is rocket surgery, amigos. All it takes is an ironclad commitment to yourself.

Some of us are born with beautiful singing voices. Others can paint, cook, or work on cars. Each person, however, has a body, the “meat suit” which carries us through this life. If we are negligent in nurturing and caring for this most basic element of our existence, are we really worthy of our other blessings?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I read the news today, oh boy--------

A couple of weeks ago Jack called and we talked for a long time. Cynthia and I needed to eat dinner, but something told me to not cut this one short. Sometime during the conversation he mentioned that he had an appointment to see his heart doctor this month and that he hadn’t been feeling too well. I made him promise to let me know when he found out the results.

I got an email this afternoon that my friend Jack Tolan died of heart failure. The day before his appointment.

My family moved across town in Atlanta when I was 10 years old. It was the middle of the school year. I still remember the traumatic experience of showing up in a new classroom and being introduced to a group of strangers who eyed me suspiciously. Or so it seemed.

Jack was the first kid who made me feel welcome. Thus began a special friendship that has endured for 52 years.

His mother often picked us up after school and took us to Northeast Plaza Lanes, where we would bowl three games for a dollar. In high school we were both Beatlemaniacs. We got guitars, spent countless hours listening to records and doing our best to learn the chords. We even briefly belonged to a band that I think played two forgettable gigs.

After high school we were in and more often out of touch, but at some point I bought a really nice acoustic guitar from Jack that I have since given to my son. That is now a special treasure of our friendship that I couldn’t have foreseen when I acquired it.

We stayed in close contact over the past five years or so and I’m incredibly thankful for the couple of occasions we made time to hook up when I was in Atlanta. During our last communication we spoke of looking forward to attending our 50th high school reunion together.

Here’s something amazing. In all those 52 years I cannot remember a single time that Jack and I exchanged cross words. We always had fun together, whether bowling, going to movies, playing Beatles songs, or just talking. Jack laughed a lot, robustly, and he never took himself too seriously. All who were privileged to know him are blessed with the memory of his love of life and of his family and friends.

Whether you knew Jack or not, here’s a simple thing I ask you to do to honor his memory and enrich both your life and others. Pick up the phone and call the people you care about. Or better yet go see them. No email, instant message, or Facebook. We tell ourselves we’re so busy, but we all get the same 24 hours each day, don’t we? Make the time to create memories, and to nurture and cherish your relationships.

Jack Tolan, I can hardly remember my life when you weren’t a part of it. You were a good man and an irreplaceable friend. I love you, I miss you, and I thank you for so many happy memories.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonder-when-it's-going-to-be-over Land

It appears the malaise that has been our weather for the past few weeks is showing signs of moving on, so I now feel more comfortable writing about this subject. We’re still getting unexpected daily showers but at least they are interspersed with some sunshine, and the temps are definitely warmer.

You see, I really do hate complaining about the weather. I generally think that people who focus on that particular subject just don’t have enough to occupy their mind. That being said, our weather has been so rainy, chilly, cloudy and gloomy for so long that I found myself growing increasingly miserable to the point that I considered joining the ranks of the serial whiners.

Speaking of which, I just finished watching an annoying YouTube video of a new family in Cuenca sitting around their dining room table bitching about things they don’t like here. The comments ranged from ridiculous (“People stare at me too much.” Whatever.) to questionable (“You can’t watch videos with the lousy internet.” Really? I watched that bunch of sourpusses for 13 straight minutes without interruption.) to valid (“Electronics are more expensive.” Everything imported is more expensive, amigos).

But the truest complaint was about all the internet sites that trumpet Cuenca’s perfect year-round “springlike weather.”

First let’s put things in perspective. Winter in Cuenca isn’t really like “winter” as you might imagine where you live. This season it’s been unusually rainy and cold, but the lowest temp was 41 degrees. That may not seem too awful, but remember we don’t have or usually need HVAC systems. So when it never warms up you can sometimes feel colder in your own home than walking around outside. The temps in our apartment consistently ranged from 65 to as low as 55 degrees some nights. As we say in the South, “That’s just not right!” Thank God some wonderful friends recently brought us a heated mattress pad from the States. It has been a lifesaver.

During the “dark days” I often sat here at the computer dressed in jeans and a sweater. On top of that was my bathrobe. And on my head was this weird tall pointy elf hat my daughter brought me from Germany. Going barefoot around the house was out of the question, and I even took to sometimes wearing socks on my hands because I can’t seem to find any gloves around here. Did I look ridiculous? Absolutely. Did I care? Absolutely not.

It is ironic that someone who no longer even lives on this continent but for some reason continues to report on life in Cuenca recently posted an article about the wonderful weather we supposedly always enjoy. The timing couldn’t have been worse, because no one who actually lives here would have ever thought to mention this sore subject.

Locals swear they’ve never seen anything like the nonstop, overcast, nippy weather and are sick of it too. How strange to read that the US has just suffered through the hottest summer in the last 75 years. Down here it seems Al Gore got it backwards—“global cooling” seems to be the problem.

Several days ago we got a peek of sunshine in the early afternoon. This was followed by a horrible hail storm blowing sideways that had Cynthia and me running all over the house with beach towels trying to stay ahead of the leaky windows. Construction standards in Cuenca are somewhat “casual;” our windows aren’t perfectly sealed and depending on the direction of the storm, water can sometimes be seeping in under six windows at once during downpours.

The first time the sun actually came out for a few hours I hurriedly pulled my lawn chair out of the basement to get horizontal and replenish my decreasing levels of Vitamin D. I cannot tell you how good that heat felt on my body. Staying inside can keep you dry but not warm.

I read that our dismal weather has been caused by La Nina, which pulls cold air up through Peru. Thankfully this condition occurs only two or three times a decade. Many have feared we’re experiencing a “new normal” that none of us signed up for.

Right now it’s once again raining but we’re enjoying a balmy 67 degrees inside and I’m staying in front of the TV all afternoon watching the NFL with some buddies, so all is well. Spring will soon be upon us with awesome weather until March. It will be welcomed “warmly.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Health Care that Works

Last Saturday I visited my dermatologist to have a few troublesome spots frozen on my head. Such is the downside of my grooming choice. If you've never had this done it's a simple procedure with liquid nitrogen in an aerosol container that removes possible pre-cancerous areas before they have a chance to become problematic.

There was no charge for this service. Why? Because I had paid for my office visit earlier in the week at his other facility and this was included. Let me explain how the medical system for normal situations works here, and as I do compare/contrast with your personal experiences.

When we want to visit a doctor we call him on his cell phone to find out when he will be in his office. That's right, his personal cell phone. You can already guess this story is going to be interesting.

The doctor says he will be in the office after 3 this afternoon and asks you to come then. Come today? This afternoon? Really? You never have an actual "appointment." You just show up and wait your turn (if you want to be first you can always get there before the doctor arrives, which is often sometime after when he told you to come).

There's a lady at a desk who coordinates the traffic flow of patients for all the doctors on the floor. You tell her who you're there to see, she writes your name down and asks you if you're there for a consultation or followup. If it's a consultation, the fee is $25; if a followup, it's free. Then she either gives you a piece of paper with a number on it signifying your turn or she periodically takes the list to the doctor.

Cynthia didn't know any of this her first time out. When she happily located the correct building and office she bypassed the people curiously sitting in chairs along the hallway and burst through the door. Oops. A classic, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" moment. Right inside said door the doctor was at his desk interviewing a patient. You see, here the doctor's office is truly an "office"--no waiting area (it's the hallway with the chairs), no receptionist (that was the lady when you got off the elevator), and no staff. Just a desk and chairs with an examining room in the rear.

Embarrassed, she closed the door and took a seat in the hallway with the others. But wait a minute--where was the dreaded clipboard? You never go to a doctor without filling out sheet after sheet of personal information and medical history, do you? No clipboards, amigos. The physician simply wants to know why you are there and what he can do for you. If he needs other information he asks.

You have your visit. If you need medication he writes it out for you. Not because you actually need a prescription--almost any drug can be bought over the counter. Cheaply. For instance, a statin drug I take costs me $6.40 per month OTC. No, as a courtesy he writes everything down just so you have all the information to show the pharmacist. And you keep the paper for next time.

Once Cynthia didn't have enough money to pay for something she needed. No problem. The pharmacist just opened the box and cut off the number of pills she could pay for then. I've seen people purchase a single tablet from a full box.

Should it be necessary for you to visit a lab he'll write up the test required and tell you where to go. You show up there, get your test done immediately, pay (a nominal amount), and return to your doctor with the results that same day. In this case you get to go to the front of the line since you've already seen him once.

As I mentioned earlier, followup's for the same condition are free. That's why my second trip last weekend cost nothing. My dermatologist does consultations in one place and procedures in another. Why? Remember, regular readers, you don't ask why. What difference does it make?

Oh, and if you're really sick and can't come to the office many doctors here still make house calls. We fortunately haven't needed this service, but I think it costs $35 instead of $25. An outrage!

Overall the system, if it can even be called that, works really well. Instead of the reams of paperwork, bloated staff to handle the paperwork, delays,and exorbitant prices, health care in Cuenca, at least, is focused on good service, low costs, and simplicity.

What a concept!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dream On

About my life in Cuenca I’m often asked, “So what do you do all day?” I’ve come to understand that this is code for, “So what would I do all day?” I am now a few months into my second full year of retirement and would like to share some thoughts on the subject.

Retirement can be tricky. A lot of people work, work, work, saying they can’t wait to quit but having absolutely no idea what they’re going to do afterwards. So they continue to work, work, work because something, even if it’s spending most of your waking hours getting ready for, going to, doing, and returning from a job you find completely unstimulating, seems better than nothing.

But is it? Many of us fear the unknown, and it doesn’t get much scarier than staring into a void. Viewed from a different perspective, though, nothingness is a joyous place from which all creativity is born and all things are possible without restriction.

Remember when you were a kid? Anything you imagined could come true. Then you grew up, life happened to you, and perhaps you forgot how to dream. Or maybe you had dreams but they didn’t work out. Or did you just give up on them too quickly?

Retirement offers the opportunity to become childlike again, to see the world as new and exciting. Are you old enough to have memories of your mother telling you to “Go outside and play!”? That’s what Cynthia and I do many days. We have the slimmest notion of a plan or schedule and just “go out there.” People, events, and circumstances almost inevitably appear that add such richness and texture to our lives, but would most likely go unnoticed were we plowing ahead trying to maintain some frantic schedule.

I feel fortunate that I entered this period of life anxious to pursue interests both new and dormant. My degree is in journalism but my career went in a different direction entirely. Now at least I’m writing this blog and it gives me great satisfaction. Your support makes keeping it up all the more worthwhile.

I’m thankful to spend all the time I want on my health and fitness because as I’m getting older I find much more time is needed! It’s great to just sit and read for as long as I like. To only rarely be awakened by an alarm. To plan, shop for, prepare, and enjoy eating fun meals. And spending quality time with friends and really getting to know them is a special blessing.

I want to travel more. To paint and sculpt. To become fluent in Spanish. To improve my yoga practice. To learn to play the cello. Maybe even write a book.

So I suggest that the key to a successful retirement revolves around the answer to this question: are you running away from or towards something? A variation of the half empty/half full idea, one’s response sets both the tone and direction of the journey. If you’re hanging it up because you just don’t want to work anymore, then that’s the only motivation and it doesn’t much matter what’s next. Or so you think until you’re quickly bored to death (perhaps literally).

Maybe a quiet, simple existence is all you’ve ever wanted--great! But if so far your life has in fact “happened” with little or none of your conscious intention, and if there are some things you’d like to finally do, I encourage you to be that kid and dream again. Imagine the life you’d love to live. Then start living it. Today. Now.

Retirement can be our best or worst years. And each of us gets to choose. Even not choosing is a choice. It’s your life, after all, so make it count.

Have fun and be happy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weekend at Juan's

Juan's request caught me by surprise. Our good friend had invited us to spend the long holiday weekend (Quito Independence Day) with him at his inlaws' hacienda in the countryside. His own family was at the coast, so we jumped at the chance to enjoy some horseback riding and relaxation in beautiful surroundings.

He was calling to tell me that he and a friend wanted to ride their bikes out there and wondered if I would mind driving his truck and meeting them. Well, let's see. I've never driven in Ecuador--I can't remember when I've driven a stick shift truck--the hacienda is about 45 minutes away, much of it over winding, hilly, and incredibly bumpy dirt roads. Why not?!?

When he brought the truck by and drew me a map my enthusiasm wavered. Several of the roads had no names and were identified by "you'll see a small bridge going over a tiny creek" or "turn left at the sign that has writing on the side that you can't see." Still, we soldiered on, loading up with our luggage and provisions and, against all odds, arriving without a hitch.

These two knuckleheads were biking pretty much the same route we had just driven and we knew they were going to be exhausted and famished, so we immediately set to work preparing lunch. Good plan, because they arrived shortly thereafter--exhausted and famished.

We were under the impression that just the three of us would be staying there, but after eating a friend showed up to visit, then Juan's brother and his wife arrived to spend the weekend as well. Later in the evening a friend of his dropped by for dinner (the other two guys had departed). The next day Juan's mom & dad called to say they were coming to spend Saturday night with us, and they surprised us all by showing up with her sister. And Sunday the sister's daughter and her dog arrived unannounced to hang out for awhile. None of this was a problem--the damn house is so big it can sleep 25 or more. It was yet another interesting and entertaining view of Ecuadorian life.

Friday afternoon was warm and gorgeous, so we enjoyed being outside surrounded by beautiful vistas.







That night we enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal of filet mignon (lomo fino to the locals), then went on a full moon horseback ride. Very unique and memorable. Saturday Juan and two friends went on a full day ride deemed too advanced for the rest of us, so we lounged around and went on a hike through the gorgeous countryside.







Along the way we encountered various cows



and two young horses and their "nanny."



We weren't aware that the end of our journey involved a "Stairway to Hell."



Mom, Dad, and Aunt Louisa showed up, and later Cynthia & I enjoyed making "gringo food" for them-spaghetti with homemade marinara, salad, and garlic bread. They must have liked it because not a scrap remained.

Sunday we went on another ride--this one much more vigorous and in broad daylight.



For two hours on dirt roads--across pastures--up (steep) hills--down (steep) hills--walking, cantering, and galloping. What an experience!! We were exhilarated and exhausted at the same time.





Now we're back in Cuenca, sore beyond belief and ready to do it all again. What a great adventure!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Forecast: Partly Crappy with a Chance of Diarrhea

I hate a messy kitchen. So a few nights ago after enjoying a delicious dinner of chicken marsala, oven roasted potatoes, and asparagus, a meal that was fun to prepare but dirtied a lot of pots, pans, dishes, silver and glassware, it was particularly aggravating when the water went off for the second night in a row. And didn't come back on until after we were in bed and almost asleep. And I hate waking up to a messy kitchen even more-------.

But such has been our fate since returning from the States only two weeks ago. The lost bag--internet off--retrieving the lost bag--visa problems--water going off twice--it has seemed like we've been caught in a shit storm that won't disperse.

And day before yesterday threw another log on the fire. I needed to pull some cash from an ATM. The machine I normally use was out of order, so I went up the street to another one that I intensely dislike for reasons I'll soon reveal. I put in my card and requested $300. The screen puttered around then said "Transaction Incomplete." H-m-m-m----. I went inside and asked an employee what was going on. He said ATM's all over the city were down but should be operational in just a few minutes. He asked me to wait, then accompanied me to the machine for another try. Same message, no money, no receipt. Oh, well-------.

But you know how sometimes you just have a feeling? I went home and checked my balance online. As I suspected---two $300 deductions, no money. And I always thought that people robbed banks, not vice versa. Silly me.

The reason for my negativity towards this particular machine is that I had already been a robbery victim there a few months ago. Again withdrawing money, some of the bills (worth $60) got stuck in the hole and when after the allotted time I could not for the life of me get a proper grip on them the SOB sucked them in like a spoonful of jello. I reported the incident immediately and the employee, in true Latin American fashion, said it wasn't the bank's fault because they didn't own the machine. He suggested a convoluted solution that was along the lines of solving a Rubik's cube. Plus this account was with one of the US behemoths. I decided I was going to spend $600 (or maybe $6000) worth of effort trying to be reimbursed the 60 bucks, so in the end I succumbed and didn't pursue it.

Now we were talking about $600, but this time good fortune was on my side of the pigskin. You probably thought this blog was going to be another chapter in Poor Edd's Almanac. Nope, this time I get to live happily ever after.

You see, I don't use that giant bank anymore. Nope, after that previous incident I decided to run our financial transactions through a small credit union in South Carolina where we've had a relationship for years. This is the kind of institution where when I call on Skype I can say, "Hey. This is Edd Staton. Can I speak to-----?"

And that's exactly what I did. After talking to my friend there and following up with an email to make everything official, the money was back in my account the next day. No labyrinth of "For _______ press ___," no "I need to transfer you to ____," no unanswered voicemail, no "We need you to fill out this form, provide a stool specimen, and ______." Not even, "What's your account number, sir?" They know my account number because they know me.

This incident made me think about why I ever decided to use that big bank in the first place. Then I remembered that when we first moved here they charged no "foreign transaction fee" to withdraw money. Their policy subsequently changed and a small fee was applied but my behavior didn't until the cash-gobbling event caused me to reevaluate.

Only then did I realize, "OK, this place has begun charging me money to have my own money, which sucks, and now I don't even want to call them about losing money because I know it will be a waste of time. Why in the hell am I using these guys?" Only then did I finally do some research, make some phone calls, and end up in a much simpler, better place.

Moral of this little story? Have the diligence to constantly examine the components of your life big and small and ask yourself, "Is this serving me?"

If so, continue full speed ahead. If not, change. Now.

I'm happy to report the "storm clouds" appear to have moved on for now. We've enjoyed a particularly social weekend, even by Staton standards: attending a dinner party Friday night and visits with two different couple friends exploring Cuenca, interestingly, from two different parts of North Carolina on Saturday and today. Hoping for a quiet, event-less week ahead (with the knowledge in all probability that ain't gonna happen).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Tale of Two MORE Cities

Regular readers of this blog will recall that in my last post I had gone back and forth to Trenton, NJ twice to successfully fetch documents necessary for processing my retirement visa. And there were rumblings that I might need an apostiled police report as part of the package.

First the brief good news. That additional document wasn't required after all. However, when we visited our attorney and proudly displayed all the documents we had gathered we were told that, sadly, there was not enough time to apply for the new visa before the old one expired. The recommended solution was to go back to the United States, from which we had just returned, and obtain a new 12-IX tourist visa that would allow us to remain in Ecuador while the new one was being completed.

We were stunned--shocked--dumbfounded. Go back to the US? A quick check of Kayak told us last-minute tickets, even to nearby Miami, were over $1500 each. Plus food, transportation and accommodations? Impossible. There HAD to be another way.

Seeking another opinion we reached out to our friend Juan Heredia, who suggested his attorney might be able to come up with a better solution. I contacted her immediately and went straight to her office. At this point there were only three days until our visa expired, so time, as they say, was of the essence.

After reviewing our situation she thought that our best bet was to take a bus to neighboring Peru, spend the night, so that in coming back across the border into Ecuador our 12-IX visas would automatically commence. Other friends had successfully utilized this strategy in the past, and while we weren't keen to take a l-o-n-g bus trip to Peru and back that wasn't to have fun, it sure beat the original idea by a long shot.

First, however, she wanted to send our information to and consult with another attorney associate in Quito where all visas are now processed. This person, who we learned has vast experience in immigration law, assured her that if we flew to Quito she could not only fix our problem immediately, she would also apply for our retirement visa while we were there.

Wow, what a turnaround! In 24 hours we had gone from spending a fortune to hightail it back to the States to going to Peru on a bus to simply getting on a plane and flying 30 minutes to Quito. Perhaps anything is possible in Ecuador!

But first a trip to the local police office was necessary to obtain a document about our travels in and out of Ecuador during the preceding year of our existing visa. When the attorney and I got there a little before noon (the office closes from 12:30 to 3) there were a bunch of people sitting in chairs arranged in a big U around the room. I didn't see a place to take a number and asked how everybody knew whose turn it was.

"Just watch," she said. Sure enough, when the person being helped got up to leave, the last folks at the end of the U rose for their turn and everybody else dutifully got up all around the room and moved down two seats to fill the gap, leaving us to take our place on the other end.

We inched around the room, getting up and sitting down over and over until a little before 12:30 an officer passed out numbers to those of us who would have to come back, assuring our place in line when they reopened at 3. Why had it not occurred to anyone to have a similar procedure when you first arrived to eliminate the Musical Chairs we had been playing? Remember, best not to ask "why" here; you just do it.

Returning at 3 we were promptly helped but told to go get copies of some of the documents. I could have sworn my new attorney friend said something about a car but was certain I had misunderstood. No, we actually went outside to a car where, I swear, a woman was sitting in the back seat with a copy machine. We handed her the papers through the window, she copied them, I paid her 75 cents, we went back inside and handed them to the police officer and were on our way. The fact that the Musical Chairs and the back seat copy store shenanigans seemed somehow normal were clear indications that I am successfully assimilating into this culture.

All this happened on Monday. Early Tuesday morning we got up, went to the airport, and bought two one-way tickets on the first flight to Quito. Surprise, US readers--walk-up tickets within the country are the same price as ones purchased in advance. In this case about $60 each.

Arriving at the attorney's office there, she looked over all our documents and declared everything was in order. "Tomorrow we can get it all done," she declared. What? Tomorrow? We thought this was going to be a come and go the same day trip and brought absolutely nothing but the clothes on our back. Yikes! Well, it is what it is.

We found an inexpensive hotel nearby, then went to a drugstore and bought some emergency supplies. After signing some papers, going back to the office and signing more papers, we ate, collapsed in our room and awaited D-day. Everything was on the line; tomorrow was our last legal day in Ecuador.

After waiting four hours at the Immigration Office our number was finally called (they actually use a number system there). We all sat down with the official, he carefully looked over our paperwork, and then a miracle happened. We were approved!!

Through our experience we had uncovered a dirty little secret never revealed by Cuenca attorneys (And who can blame them? They don't want to lose business.). It appears the thirty-day-in-advance rule is only for visa applications submitted remotely. If you show up at the Immigration Office with proper representation and your ducks in a row your approval is immediate.

Moral of the story: use a tag team of qualified attorneys in both cities. Since visas are no longer processed in Cuenca it makes no sense to rely solely on a local attorney unless you're prepared to endure the stress of waiting forever for your approval. Anyone interested in a referral please email me at eddsaid@gmail.com.

Cynthia and I celebrated our victory with a delicious meal at a Chinese restaurant (a definite advantage of being in a big city--only scary hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints exist in Cuenca), went back to the airport, bought tickets and flew home elated at our good fortune. We discovered the water was off in our building when we got home and all we could do was laugh. After what we'd just been through this was nothing. Guess what--it came back on within the hour. Another ripple in the stream.

This concludes the latest chapter in our never-ending saga of going with the flow while living in a foreign land. Was all this stressful? You betcha. Last night I turned off my bedroom light at 9:47 and was dead asleep at---9:47. But did we get angry or upset about what could have been a dire situation? Such thoughts and feelings would have contributed nothing to a positive outcome. Without labeling our circumstance as "good" or "bad" we simply acted on what presented itself.

Today the sun is shining and the crisis has passed. Life is good. And the ATM system in the city seems to have crashed. Ah, Ecuador---------.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

This is a story for all of you who are under the misguided impression that everything about living abroad is a piece of cake. Actually the first part of the tale takes place in the US of A, so let’s get started there.

I’m in the process of changing the type of visa under which we reside in Ecuador. Part of the drill is to obtain apostiled documents relating to your particular visa. In my case it is the award letter from Social Security.

Unless you are involved with these shenanigans you are forgiven for not knowing the word “apostile.” It is a special seal applied by an office of the Secretary of State from whatever state your document applies. What exactly this seal implies is unknown to me but I’m guessing it makes your piece of paper “official” in some way.

I called the office in Trenton, New Jersey (my state of residence) to make sure I knew and understood everything required, created a cover letter exactly as instructed and mailed the information to them long before leaving for the States. This was because when we were visiting my daughter in Hoboken I needed to take this official document to the Ecuadorian consulate to have them do some unspecified mumbo jumbo before returning to Cuenca.

I was excited when my envelope arrived the day after we arrived in Hoboken. I was not so excited when I learned my application had been rejected. Why? Because the rejection stated that I was supposed to have specified in my cover letter what country needed the apostiled document.

It would have been wonderful if the person with whom I had spoken had mentioned this little tidbit in her instructions because I would have been more than happy to comply, but that obviously didn’t happen. No Plan B existed so it was time to create one.

Actually the plan created itself because there was no alternative. Because of time restraints I had to go to Trenton, NJ and get this handled personally and quickly.

Now Trenton has never been on my “bucket list” of places to visit. After arriving there on the train from Hoboken (actually a pleasant ride through some lovely countryside and within spitting distance of Princeton) I understood why.

This is a really drab city with no architectural interest that I observed. And the people. Without going too much into detail let’s just say it was a rough crowd-----.

I was chatting it up with an Hispanic lady on the train and lamenting how hard it has been to learn Spanish in Cuenca because so many Cuencanos and the gringos (of course) speak English. I found it amusing that she said, “Well, if you want to learn Spanish you should move to Trenton.”

Anyway, I made it to the Secretary of State’s office without problem and presented my award and rejection letters to the receptionist. I had called the day before and was told, “Sure, bring it in and we can take care of it for you.”

She looked at the documents and said, “OK, no problem. Come back tomorrow around this same time and it will be ready.” Wait a minute, the guy on the phone didn’t tell me that!

I explained that I had come all the way from Hoboken, a 90 minute train ride each way. I explained that I was heading back to Ecuador soon and still had to visit the consulate after I was done there. When I was finished she explained that yes, there was an expedited 2 hour service---for an additional $500!!

Gulp. I wasn’t prepared to or interested in ponying up that kind of cash, leaving me with one choice----come back tomorrow.

(Sigh)

Understand I was visiting my daughter for the first time in months. I intended to visit some museums in New York, maybe wander around Greenwich Village or something. Instead I was going to Trenton, New Jersey two days in a row. Plus, if all went well, Newark (the location of the consulate on Day 2).

Now you’re probably sitting there thinking, “Boy, Edd, I bet you were really pissed!” That is a valid assumption and I will answer you honestly. No, I was not.

You see, there’s something about living here awhile that changes your attitude. You experience so many minor (and sometimes major) frustrations that you learn getting worked up about them improves nothing and just makes you feel lousy. Why would you choose to do that to yourself? (This sage knowledge would serve me well in the next part of our story—remember, this is about two cities. We’re just getting warmed up.)

So, guess what, I got back on the same train at the same time the next morning and headed to the Promised Land, Trenton, New Jersey. It was weird how on only the second day everything felt so familiar. I was a “regular” like all these other folks who board trains, light rails, and subways as part of their daily routine.

I knew immediately I was not in Ecuador when the apostiled award letter was ready as promised. I jumped on a bus, rode back to the train station, and was on my way to Newark. The finish line was in sight!

I woke up feeling like this was going to be a good day and I was right. I walked out of the Newark train station and there the Ecuadorian consulate was just a block down the street. I took a number, went next door to a dive of a sandwich shop and enjoyed the most amazing and enormous sub sandwich (“hoagie” to my northern brethren) that has ever touched my taste buds.

I came back, soon sat down with a woman who-spoke-zero-English-but-it’s-OK-I’ve-done-this-many-times-before and in a matter of minutes I’ve got a document that I-can’t-read-with-some-seals-on-it-that-I-paid-$40-for-and-I-don’t-care-because-I-have-it and I’m outta there!

Done! Finished! Well, until the day before we leave for Ecuador when I get an email from my lawyer saying the rules have changed and the Immigration Office is now requiring an apostiled police report and can you get that before you return? Uh---no----------. We’ll deal with that later.

Let’s move on to the second city, Guayaquil. The plane on which we departed from La Guardia was an old-school number with hardwood floors in the bathrooms, ashtrays in the bathroom doors, and limited overhead storage. The gate agent announced that we were on a totally full flight and normal roll-on-boards were not going to fit in the overhead compartments, so anyone with those type carry-on’s could gate-check them for free. We were, like, why not?

I’ll tell you why not. None of the gate-checked bags arrived in Guayaquil. We were all scammed into giving up our bags when airline personnel knew full well that there was not room for them on the plane. How do I know that? Because we sat on the damn plane for half an hour when it was discovered there wasn’t enough fuel to get us to Atlanta. Could bags sitting in plain view at the bottom of the ramp have been overlooked for that long? I don’t think so.

It’s midnight in Guayaquil and an angry mob is swarming this one poor girl who looked all of twenty years of age, shouting and waving pieces of paper at her. To say she was overwhelmed is a gross understatement. Considering the circumstances I guess she did the best she could, and I walked away with a form that she assured me would get our missing bag to Cuenca.

And that would have possibly been true if she had filled that form out correctly. Or if she had entered my, and probably everyone else’s, claim in the system. But unfortunately neither of those things happened, so when I went online to track my bag it of course wasn’t there.

Over the next three days, speaking to 4? 5? 6? people at the airline I learned 1) the bag had been forwarded to Guayaquil, 2) the airline and I both knew the bag was in Guayaquil, and 3) if the bag wasn’t processed five days after arrival it would be forwarded to the Tomb of the Unknown Suitcase.

No problem, right? It’s there; we all know it’s there; just forward it, right? Well, no.

The last (and only honest) person I spoke with informed me that no matter what, the airline’s procedure is the bag would not, could not be released for delivery without a tag reference number, which had not been created because the claim had never been entered. She said the only way we were ever going to see that f&+#@g (no, she didn’t say f&+#@g, I did) bag again was for me to personally go to Guayaquil and retrieve it.

(Extra-long Sigh)

Wow, so you’re thinking, “This time you had to be jacked, right, Edd?” No. Once again, there were no more options, so literally five minutes later I was out the door. Fifteen minutes after that I was on a van for the 3 hour ride through the Cajas to Guayaquil. Fifteen minutes after arriving at the airport I was walking out with our bag, and a few minutes after that I was returning on another 3 hour ride to Cuenca. Don’t get me wrong—it was a VERY bad day. But we now have the missing bag back, which most importantly contained a multi-year travel journal in which I’ve been chronicling our adventures for about the past decade.

This long, sordid tale isn’t about my heroic deeds or heightened state of enlightenment. It’s to demonstrate that doo-doo happens in this foreign world and when it does you decide it’s all worth it and deal with whatever comes up or you don’t.

Sometimes your patience can be pushed to the limit, but for the Staton’s so far it’s well worth it.