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.


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.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Our Trip to Montana

Montana is----different. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit there, especially the remarkable panoramas of Big Sky Country. During our weeklong adventure we stayed at a phenomenal luxury dude ranch called Triple Creek Ranch,

toured Yellowstone National Park (which is actually more in Wyoming than Montana)

and marveled at the jaw-dropping views of Beartooth Pass, one of the most scenic drives in the US.

The state has two distinct regions separated by the continental divide:

in the west where we visited the terrain is mountainous and rugged; the east is more flat prairie and not as scenic. Although Montana is the 4th largest state geographically, its population is less than one million. These are surprising statistics when one considers that Cuenca, which I consider to be a small city, itself has ½ million people.

This means that folks there have plenty of room to spread out and that they most certainly do. The citizenry apparently places much more value on space than the actual physical dwelling. Generally unimpressive houses are dotted throughout the countryside on extremely large tracts of land. Subdivisions were so rarely observed that those few choosing to live in them seemed almost cult-like.

Don’t get me wrong. There are magnificent homes scattered throughout the state. Ted Turner has a half million acre spread and the owner of Triple Creek, Craig Barrett, is the former president of Intel. We along with the other guests enjoyed a 4th of July celebration at Craig’s hacienda and it is H-U-G-E.

But many of these fiefdoms are second (or third or fourth) homes owned by wealthy folks whose primary residences are elsewhere.

We were picked up there and driven about an hour and a half to Triple Creek. On the way we passed a restaurant serving “home cooking.” Cynthia asked our driver what constituted “home cooking” in Montana. He replied, “Oh, things like chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.” She then asked, “What kind of vegetables would they serve?” Long pause. “Um---chicken fried steak---mashed potatoes------.”

Montana is one of 16 states (plus Washington DC) that has legalized medical marijuana. During the first few years of the program only a few thousand people signed up. Then in 2009 the US Attorney issued a statement that the federal government would not prosecute individuals in those states for possession. In the next year enrollment quadrupled! We learned that a nearby small town itself had FOUR marijuana apothecaries. I suggested that the state’s motto should be changed to “Big High Country.”

(A quick aside: in doing some quick research to make sure about the correct number of states I stumbled upon an interesting factoid. Most states allow an average possession of around 2 ounces. Washington and Oregon adopted a “go big or go home” agenda that allows their citizens to have on hand a pound and a half!! What?!?!? Party on, you northwesterners!)

Here’s a quick recap of our trip with some representative photos. We spent four nights at the dude ranch. This wasn’t a hardcore cowboy and cowgirl experience. Yes, we rode horses down old logging trails,

fished for trout,

and hiked in the mountains through spectacular fields of wildflowers.

We also ate gourmet meals,

had in-room massages, and enjoyed a huge hot tub in the woods behind our cabin. No branding cattle or sitting around the campfire eating beans from the chuck wagon for these two.

We then drove east to Yellowstone Park, where we originally intended to spend two days. But a blog fan who was very familiar with Montana strongly suggested that if possible we drive through Beartooth Pass, a scenic route that we learned is rated as one of the best in the country. We’d frankly never heard of it but decided if this was our one and only trip to Montana then----why not?

So we did a kamikaze 14 hour day in Yellowstone, taking our time and seeing all the sights. And my God, what sights there are to see. The park encompasses 2 million acres full of gurgling pits,

spewing geysers,

and scenery to which photos cannot possibly do justice.

Wildlife sightings were dismal, however, and we left a bit disappointed at seeing only an occasional solitary elk or bison.

Driving through the northern portion of the park the following morning on the way to Beartooth, however, critters were everywhere. A bunch of elk were chillin’ in one of the villages;

uncountable bison were spotted in immense herds

and one was strolling down the road only a few feet from our car.

A coyote leisurely dined on road kill while traffic patiently waited.

Beartooth Pass did not disappoint. Even with some internet research we weren’t sure what to expect. We were treated to scenery so spectacular that we felt blessed to even witness it.

Up, up, up we climbed to over 12,000 feet, putting us at eye level with the tops of mountains we had admired from below.

It seemed impossible at times to even believe what we were looking at was real. If you ever have the opportunity to experience this sheer awesomeness do not deny yourself the privilege.

Montana was a destination we’ve wanted to visit for years. We chose it to celebrate our 40th anniversary and create a special memory.

I'm so happy to report that the trip exceeded our expectations. Hooray!!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

So where in the hell have I been for the past few weeks? Not sitting at this computer banging out witty blog posts, that’s for sure! Our trip to the States yielded numerous experiences and observations that I will expound upon now that we are back home. But honestly, during the first part of our month-long visit I wasn’t that busy but just didn’t care about writing anything, and the second half I was in the mood but too damn busy.

Yes, we are back in Cuenca. After a full day of air travel Friday that involved (and as of this moment continues to involve) a missing suitcase followed by the always relaxing van trip through the Cajas we arrived home Saturday afternoon and quickly discovered that 1) our shower that had been repaired while we were away still leaks and 2) we had (once again) no internet connection. A more appropriate homecoming couldn’t have been purposely planned.

I mentioned to Cynthia at dinner tonight that a big part of the admission price to enjoy our lifestyle is not based on dollars as much as simply being willing and able to put up with a lot of crap sometimes. Not always, but sometimes. The shower will eventually quit leaking, and the internet people should have us back in business tomorrow. These inconveniences and delays, though never mentioned in the glowing regurgitations about why you should live here, are what you sign up for when moving to this culture.

On the plus side, we had zero food in the house after a month away. I brought so many bags back from the Supermaxi yesterday that four both-arms-full trips up and down our four flights of stairs were required. Cost: $100.

Only a few hours after getting back Saturday, dragging 50 pound (to the ounce) suitcases up the just mentioned stairs, getting cleaned up in the still-leaky shower and crashing for a quick nap in our dearly missed bed, we went to a big dinner party. Perhaps you think that was a crazy thing to do. You are correct. But we love the hosts and knew a lot of our friends would be there, so it was a great chance to visit with folks we’ve missed seeing. Plus a few guests got fall-down drunk and that’s always a hoot.

Yesterday we slept until 10 and except for my trip to the grocery store didn’t even leave the house. It was supremely enjoyable to be in our place with our stuff, unpack a little, watch some mindless TV (E Weekend News? Lindsay Lohan and Selena Gomez updates? Really???), get a bit tipsy, and crash.

Once we’re settled I’ll share some stories about being a grandparent, visiting the very beautiful and interesting state of Montana, and my unexpected trips (that’s tripS, with an “s” at the end) to friggin’ Trenton, NJ of all places, as well as random thoughts and musings about whatever.

That is, if and when we have internet service. So let’s close by singing that old John Denver ditty together: “Hey, it’s good to be back home again-----.”

It really is.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Return to Pleasure Island

When we left Las Vegas to move to Cuenca I didn't care if we ever returned. Once you see the shows, visit the properties and eat at the restaurants there's not much left except heat, flatness, and a lot of brown.

So how weird it feels, barely over a year later, to be writing this blog post from---Las Vegas. Granted, this is a one day stop on the way to an awesome trip in Montana, but still----------. We immediately got slapped in the face by 111 degree temps. I was told that it felt "good" today; yesterday was 5 degrees hotter! The buried memories of having to move slowly because the air actually hurts your skin on those days were instantly exhumed.

We are doing what for many is the unimaginable--staying at a Doubletree hotel near the airport and off the Strip. Like New Orleans is Bourbon Street for most visitors, and Las Vegas is the Strip. For us, it's been-there-done-that; we're happy just to have a relaxing day to ourselves and skip all the madness. Especially on 4th of July weekend.

People act differently on planes en route to Vegas. Our connecting flight left Memphis at 9:30 AM on a Sunday, but still there's energy and excitement that just aren't present on the way to, say, Portland. And there always seems to be at least a couple of loud "yeah, Vegas, baby!" knuckleheads pounding drinks at 9:30 AM on a Sunday, gearing up to return to their mundane daily lives in a few days with a "Vegas story" ("man, you will not believe what happened to us------"). It's all part of the Pleasure Island mystique that makes Vegas--Vegas.

I guess I didn't notice before how many ATM's there are in this city. All the bakeries, copy stores, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Cuenca combined don't hold a candle to the concentrated ability to have instant cash to spend here. And imagine my surprise when I punched in $300, waited for a fistful of dollars like at home, and got a measly 3 Benjamins. I had an odd feeling of confusion, followed by disappointment.

So now we're off to the Applebee's across the parking lot for dinner. We never ate at Applebee's before. Why am I looking forward to this meal? Honestly? Because when I order whatever I order, I have read a detailed description of the meal and will pretty much know what's going to be on the plate. Mediocrity sometimes trumps surprise.

Tomorrow, horseback riding, trout fishing, hiking, gourmet meals, in-room massage, gorgeous scenery, and memories galore. Giddy-up!!