Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Party

We invited the neighbors in our building up for an Oscar party Sunday night. An informal movie exchange often takes place among us with the $1.25 DVD's we pick up around town. As a result, living in Ecuador we had actually seen more of the nominated films this year than we ever did in the States. Go figure.

Our dinner began with a salad featuring Zesty Italian dressing made from those little packets of dried herbs that are always on the top shelf in the grocery store. Well, in the States that's where they are. Here they are nonexistent. That's one of those easy-to-put-in-the-suitcase items we're so thankful we packed (yeah we brought the special bottle with the oil/vinegar/water lines too), because our bottled dressings in the Supermaxi are less than great.

The main course was pizza from the new Papa John's. I wrote optimistically about this franchise's sudden appearance on the scene here, but when I went to check the place out their prices were astronomical! A large pizza with 3 ingredients was over $17, an amount that would buy Cynthia & me two filet mignon dinners.

But PJ's has introduced an almost unheard of concept in Cuenca--the coupon. In the States they're everywhere--in the mid-week food section of the newspaper--in the special sections of the Sunday paper--in the mail--in those Entertainer books kids are always selling for their schools. I'll admit we were coupon clippers and ate our share of 2 for 1 dinners over the years.

Here coupons are nonexistent. Oh, the grocery store has percentage discounts on certain categories of merchandise on certain days--I bought a dozen roses last week for $1.65--and some clothing stores similarly have % off signs in their windows occasionally. So the 3 medium 1 topping pizzas for $21 coupon was a pleasant surprise that we were happy to take advantage of.

The next issue was delivery. Knowing the "timeliness" track record, we were bracing ourselves for an interminable wait. Amazingly, it didn't happen. We were shocked when 30 minutes or so after placing the order our buzzer rang, we looked out the window, and I'll be damned, there was a guy on a motor scooter holding 3 pizzas.

Finally, the taste test. We ordered a pepperoni, a sausage, and a bacon pizza. Would they taste the same as in the US? The consensus of our group was: #1 they were bigger than a small and smaller than a medium, and #2 while not identical they were by far the best pizza any of us had consumed in Cuenca. PJ's even included the pepper and the little container of garlic butter! Nice touch.

Enough about the food. What about the show? I thought it was horrible. The producers were apparently attempting to reach out to a younger audience by having James Franco and Anne Hathaway co-host. That didn't work out too well, did it? James kind of stood there not even looking at the camera with a goofy, stoned expression plastered on his face and Anne felt like she was just trying too damn hard. When Billy Crystal came out you could feel the audience thinking, "PLEASE stay up there & keep talking!"

There were no major surprises (minor one for Best Director); most of the dresses were an abomination; even the songs sucked, especially that Randy Newman "tune" that won. What? This is strictly my opinion (but it's my blog, so what the hell)--when a British film wins Best Picture, it was a bad year at the movies. "Chariots of Fire?" Yawn. "My Left Foot?" Double yawn. Now "The King's Speech?" Hey, it was well done and marginally interesting, but the best of the whole year? God help us--and God save the Queen.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Here We Go Again-------

There was a time when it was believed that the entire universe revolved around the earth. Oops. Once people thought that the earth was flat. Sorry about that. More recently and on an obviously lesser scale it was common knowledge that we should all drink eight glasses of water a day. Turns out this, like the previous examples, is totally bogus. Yet in each of these cases misinformation was repeated often enough that falsehoods, for a time. became truth.

So what's this got to do with a blog about Cuenca, Ecuador? Well-------------.

Too many times this week I read from various sources that "it is estimated that 20,000 people are going to move here in the next 5 years." Folks, for every year that my age has increased my TFB (Tolerance for Bullshit) has decreased. So I have two questions for any and everybody who is recklessly throwing this statistic around like it's been inscribed on Moses' stone tablets by the hand of God.

#1 Sez who? No one names a source for this remarkable number. And even if the source is somehow reputable, on what could such a prediction possibly be based? News networks can reliably predict winners in political races after 2% of the vote is counted, but I somehow doubt that proportional resources and research have been devoted to little Cuenca to be able to prognosticate our gringo population growth with similar precision.

So since we're all pulling numbers out of our yin-yang I will go on record as predicting that our gringo population will actually decrease in the next 5 years as more and more arriving expats are discouraged by the fact that Spanish continues to be the language of choice and there are still no plans for a WalMart. And I bolster my soothsayer status by predicting a win by Pittsburgh in this year's Super bowl.

#2 Why? Correct or not, what is to be gleaned from this statistic? 20,000 people are moving here. Is that good news? Is it bad news? Should I move to Cuenca? Should I move from Cuenca? Just like the $1 cab ride (a driver tried to charge me $3 today, btw---not!!) and the $600/month groovy lifestyle, I always read into such suspicious statistics this question: What are you selling?

God, I hate to seem like such a curmudgeon--I really do. We had a cool afternoon with friends at a new Mexican restaurant and stopped by an outdoor concert in the park. I even took photos! I could and maybe will write a feel-good blog about all that soon, but in the meantime I feel an obligation to point out BS when I see it. I sincerely invite any and everyone to bust me when I'm guilty of similar infractions.

And it's not just this lazy Cuenca statistic that's riling me up. I get so many emails from "fringe people" (you know who you are) claiming such-and-such happened and so-and-so said this-that-and-the-other. One Google click confirms the story to be a total fabrication. Yet many people don't make that click, preferring instead to irrationally click the "forward" button and pass poison along to everyone in their contact list.

Are 20,000 gringos going to move here in the next 5 years? Who knows--including whoever said it to begin with? If that prediction somehow turns out to be true, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Again, who knows? There are maybe 1000 of us here now. 19,000 more might produce a WalMart.

No question---that would be a bad thing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful-----

Cuenca is the Land of Eternal Spring! Every website describes the weather here as---"spring-like!" Well, temperature wise that's true, but the imagery this description conveys of endless idyllic sunny days is far from reality.

This afternoon, for instance, the wind was howling like a sonofabitch. We've hardly seen the sun in a week. There was a torrential downpour on Tuesday that revealed leaks in many people's homes they previously didn't know they had. And it's so nippy tonight I'm wearing sweatpants to stay warm (remember---no HVAC here). In short Cuenca is not the Latin American Garden of Eden.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not complaining. We came from Las Vegas, the Groundhog Day weather capitol of the universe, where I was always suspicious the TV meteorologists brought 7 changes of clothes and did the whole week's forecast in one shot. I actually enjoy the weather diversity in Cuenca, even if the ever-present collapsible umbrella in my back pocket is sometimes cumbersome. And my sincere advice for anyone who complains about anything here is, "Then leave!"

But just like the $1 taxi rides, the $600 a month living expense, and all the other unrealistic BS about this place that inexplicably is floating around out there in cyberspace, the "eternal spring" silliness needs to be put in perspective. I say this because in my short 9 months of residence I've already spoken to far too many disappointed visitors lured here by all the hype and disillusioned by the reality that while wonderful, Cuenca ain't perfect.

So to those of you who are considering a "look-see" trip, please be aware that you may not see the sun the whole time you're here. Or the weather may change 5 times in a day. Or you could enjoy constant glorious sunshine. If that kind of unpredictability is not your cup of coffee, hopefully your Paradise is a Google search away.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Horsing Around





Our dear friend Juan Heredia, owner of TerraDiversa tour company, invited Cynthia and I to go horseback riding at his family's hacienda in Tarqui. Followers of this blog already know my response: Por que no?!

As we drove to Tarqui, a short 40 minutes from Cuenca, the breathtaking beauty of the countryside made me realize that all of us who live in the city should make ourselves regularly take excursions like this. It's perhaps hard for readers still in their homeland to understand, but when we're caught up in our daily life it's easy to forget we actually live in South America. Yeah, everybody speaks Spanish and there's no Wal-Mart and all that, but when you're just doing your thing those seemingly glaring differences somehow fade from consciousness perhaps like living next to a railroad track or an airport. And what's left is you doing your thing.

Juan's place is pretty darned spectacular.



We took a tour of the property, learning that in addition to being a wonderful weekend getaway for the family, Hacienda Totorilla produces milk for local dairies and true free range eggs for individual families.




The property also serves as the base for his company's getaway trips in the 2 bedroom guest house



and for his horseback riding excursions.

On "official" trips the horses are saddled up and ready to ride, but since ours was somewhat of an impromptu visit we drove to another part of the property to begin our outing. We expected to end up at a stable, but, no, Juan's nine horses are "free range" like his chickens, so we had to round up our three steeds from a pasture before setting out.




He explained that stabled horses counter-intuitively are often more difficult to train for trail riding because they are confined so much. And sure enough, once saddled each horse stood patiently right in place until all were saddled and ready to go.



Even the best photos can't properly capture the incredible scenery we enjoyed.




Sometimes along the trails we were surrounded by lush forests teeming with wild orchids and bromeliads; then we would emerge into impossibly green pastureland. Always the horses were very accommodating of their somewhat inexperienced passengers.

Our ride was cut a bit short by another of the frequent afternoon storms we have been experiencing here lately.






To avoid getting soaked we took a shortcut back to the hacienda and prepared omelets for lunch from the freshest eggs ever! After some wine on the porch we reluctantly headed home, but are already discussing plans to return for a longer stay to soak up the total tranquility we experienced there.



I highly recommend anyone visiting Cuenca, and especially those of us living here, to contact Juan (juan@terradiversa.com) about his horseback riding excursions--no riding skill needed, just the desire to enjoy the countryside in a very unique way and to have a great time!--and any of his other tours. I have been on several and each has exceeded my expectations.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gringo Beware!!

You strike up a conversation with a cabbie in a city you’re visiting on the way from the airport. He mentions he knows of a great investment property you really should take a look at-------------.

On the way to your car the bag boy at the grocery store mentions he got a hot stock tip he wants to tell you about------------.

You’re getting your nails done and the manicurist whispers that her boyfriend is starting a business that’s a total home run---------------.

In your daily life, would you act on any of these scenarios? “Act” is defined here as actually following up and putting your hard-earned money in play. I’m thinking the answer is a resounding, unqualified N-O-O-O-O!!!!!

Well, guess what? On a frighteningly regular basis, people just like you are doing the equivalent of that right here in Cuenca. They’ve read all the Internet hype---they get off the plane excited to arrive in The Promised Land---they’re desperate to be in The Promised Land---they’ve got money burning a hole in their pocket---they down a big drink of “The Kool Aid” at a Gringo Night, hook up with a Cuencano who speaks good English, and the next thing you know within days they’ve rented or bought a place and are giddily on their way back to Estados Unidos.

Paradise, here we come!!!

Except, oops, those damned details. It turns out that being bilingual is the only marketable skill the Cuencano had. Real estate license—uh, no, but I have a business card. Does that count?

I know gringos “renting” apartments who have no lease. Why? Because their “representative” doesn’t have a clue about anything beyond showing apartments and collecting a commission. I know gringos who supposedly “own” properties but can’t get a deed. Why? Read the previous “why,” except substitute “condo/home” for “apartment.”

Enough is enough. I really don’t blame the Cuencanos who could easily be labeled as “predatory” for taking advantage of knucklehead gringos. This is a poor country, and if you have a marketable skill, like speaking good English, I say,” Work it, baby. You earned it.” Mastering a foreign language is difficult. I know-------.

Nope, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of my US compatriots for being, well-----knuckleheads. At home you’re not gonna put maybe $100,000+ on the “good advice” of your taxi driver/bag boy/ nail chick. Why in the hell are you going to get on a plane, lose your mind, and behave like an idiot in Cuenca-friggin’-Ecuador? You can do that a lot cheaper in Vegas. Trust me---I lived there.

So, my unsolicited, uncompensated (keeping the “un”-thing going---- unfortunately) advice is this---BEWARE. There are more and more unqualified, unlicensed (wow--“un” is again alive!) individuals here who want to separate you from your money. Not by picking your pocket. Not by snatching your purse. No, by being your “friend.”

I knew someone once who lived in Germany. She was magnetically attracted to anyone who spoke English. He could have been a serial killer but, hey---he spoke English when everyone else was speaking, uh---something else.

Amigos, that’s not enough. Be smart. Be safe. Be conservative.

There truly are qualified individuals in Cuenca who can help you every step of the way on your journey. Take the initiative to find and use them.

You’ve worked hard for a long time to earn that money. Treat it, and yourself, with the respect you both deserve.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Speechless

You may be aware that I've been writing a weekly column the past few months for La Tarde, the afternoon paper here in Cuenca. A couple of weeks ago the folks who own both El Mercurio, the much larger and more widely circulated morning newspaper, and La Tarde contacted me with a request to start writing a column for each Sunday edition of El Mercurio.

Of course I agreed. I am quite happy to now reach a bigger audience and honored the "powers that be" think enough of my work to give me this opportunity. Plus the editor of La Tarde asked me to continue writing for her whenever possible, as has the owner of Cuenca High Life, a local online publication.

With this blog and all these other venues I hope I don't run out of things to say. My wife assures me that has never been a problem in the past---------.

Here's what was in Sunday's edition:

HELLO EL MERCURIO READERS!!

I have been writing a weekly column in La Tarde for the past few months, and now it is my honor to write for this newspaper each Sunday. Since more and more gringos (yes, we call ourselves that too!) are arriving in Cuenca it is important that we get to know each other.

Please understand from the beginning that I am only one man and do not pretend to speak for every foreigner in the city. So I will share with you my personal experiences and observations about adapting to life in a new city and country with a different language.

I would very much like for this column to become a conversation between you and me. My email address will always be included at the bottom and I encourage you to send me questions or comments. There are certainly many things I want to know about my new culture and surroundings, and I’ll bet you too are curious about all these new people you see around town.

The main thing I’m guessing you wonder about is, “Why are you here?” The opportunity to live in the United States is perhaps a dream for some of you, and yet here are all these gringos leaving their native country and coming to little Cuenca, Ecuador. This must seem very strange.

Several years ago my wife and I saw the value of our savings plunge just as we were nearing retirement age. Rather than remain in the States and continue to work for too many more years trying to correct this problem we made the decision to relocate so we could retire and enjoy the rest of our lives.

Why Cuenca? For us a lower cost of living—beautiful weather all year—proximity to the US and our children—kind and gracious citizens, both Cuencano and gringo. We love living here so much. Thank you all for making us feel so welcome.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Would You Have Done Differently?

Several thoughtful blog readers and visitors here have asked me that question recently, so let me share with you all what I've told them. Cynthia and I are quite fortunate that through good planning and sheer luck we seem to have gotten all the big things right. We found a great apartment--our container arrived on time with minimal content damage--our visas were processed within the 90 day period. We know all these gears haven't meshed so smoothly for others and we are thankful for our good fortune.

But there are minor things that you just can't plan for, or even know about, until you're "on the ground." Specifically, we wish we had brought some items that we are now depending on friends (and in some cases strangers) to put in their suitcases or containers for us.

For instance, many of us enjoy making a yummy pot of chili, right? Well, guess what. Cuencanos don't like spicy food and there is no chili powder to be found in this city as far as we know. Local blog readers, I would love to be corrected on this one.

Horseradish? Nope, only an Arby's-style "sauce." Worchestershire sauce? Nada. We have a lame substitute called Salsa Inglesa. Dijon mustard? Grainy mustard? None that you'd be satisfied with. So if you're a "foodie" plan on bringing along your special spices and condiments.

If you're particular about personal care products load up on those as well. Even if you find them here they'll be more expensive because of import taxes. Ironically, we've located a Neutrogena night cream in our local pharmacy we're partial to that had disappeared off the shelves in the US. That's proven to be a rare exception.

Our washing machine is one of those HE (high efficiency) gizmos that requires a special detergent. During our exploratory trip we did have the foresight to see if these were even sold in Ecuador, and were pleased to find them in several appliance stores. We were even smart enough to buy and bring along a few extra bottles of ALL FREE in our container. Now we're finally running out and have discovered that the grocery store only carries one type, Tide scented, and it costs over $20/bottle. YIKES!! Many thanks to our friends from South Carolina who also have this type machine and are bailing us out when their container arrives.

Finally, let me tell you about a product everyone in Cuenca would benefit from that we didn't even know existed until our trip back to the States. It gets kind of nippy here a lot of nights. None of us have central heating or air conditioning and I've gotta tell you, those sheets are sometimes frigid when you jump in the bed. I pull the covers over my head, assume a fetal positon (or "tuck" if you're a diver--I often shout a word that rhymes while all this is going on).

But not for too much longer. Because that same container with the extra detergent is going to be carrying a brand new California King dual-control heated mattress pad! What?? Who knew?? Maybe we've lived a sheltered life. We had a crappy electric blanket once when we were first married, but somehow this marvelous product has flown under our radar for 40 years.

You crank that bad boy up a few minutes before "lights out" and ease into toasty heaven. Brilliant!! When we got into bed in our friends' guest room it was an OMG moment, I'm tellin' ya.

I hope you find these suggestions to be helpful. I'm sure other MIA's will pop up over time that I'll pass along. Hey, anybody here know where to get frozen puff pastry?