Monday, December 17, 2012

Something I Hadn't Anticipated

My last post presented what was hopefully some helpful information about navigating the Cajas mountains. And I mentioned that our own upcoming trip wasn't happening at the ideal time.

The good news is none of the factors about the phase of the moon or time of the year adversely affected our journey. But we were still an hour late arriving in Guayaquil.

Flat tire? Engine trouble? Avalanche?

Nope. The police.

As best I can understand, none of the van services are properly licensed for what they do. Why? Faithful readers know by now you don't ask that question in Ecuador because the answer doesn't really matter, but I'm guessing either a) they can't get the correct license or b) it's too expensive.

So they're licensed as tour companies although no actual "tour" occurs. Periodically the bus companies from whom business is being siphoned complain loudly enough that the police temporarily "crack down" and hassle the offenders. We learned they are sometimes stopping the vans en route and making the passengers get out, forcing the van companies to find alternate transportation like taxis to complete the trip.

Not exactly the desired scenario when you've got an international flight awaiting.

We had planned to leave Cuenca at 7 AM and arrive in Guayaquil around 10, allowing plenty of time for our 1 PM departure. After learning at the last minute of these police shenanigans we switched to 6 AM "just to be sure." Plus we figured the police might not be diligent enough to be out hassling illegal vans so early.

Since we rarely arise when it's still dark the 4 AM alarm was in fact alarming, but we got to the van service's office on time and boarded a totally full vehicle. The driver instructed if we got pulled over we were to say we were going to Guayaquil for a city tour.

As we hoped the drive through the Cajas was uneventful and we figured we were in the clear. Nope. Our driver got a call from his counterpart coming from the opposite direction that the cops had a roadblock set up ahead.

Immediately we were off on a side road through the countryside. The guy sitting next to me got on his phone, pulled up some app that plotted our course, and became the navigator. Cynthia and I were having a great time enjoying our impromptu "country tour." We had plenty of time and were fascinated to be in a portion of what I like to call the "real Ecuador" that we knew we'd never see again.

Somehow we eluded the cops and emerged on a highway that took us into Guayaquil from a different direction than usual. This too was a revelation. I knew there was a lot of money in this city, but the vans from Cuenca drive through miles of slums to get to the airport. You thus get the erroneous impression Guayaquil is a huge dump that you want no part of.

I still want no part of it as far as a permanent residence because it's quite hot and humid, and traffic there is LA-like horrible. But we drove past gorgeously landscaped gated neighborhood after neighborhood with huge attractive homes. Beautiful malls. The Guayaquil Tennis Club. Tony Roma's, Goodyear, Chili's.

Who knew?

Although an hour "late," we arrived at the airport when we had originally planned and checked in. Being 6'3", exit row is a blessing for me that rarely occurs in the States (plus the SOB's charge extra for the privilege of sitting there). Since Latin Americans are small they could care less about extra legroom and I always score.

Such was the case on our nonstop LAN flight, perhaps the best flight we've ever taken. We had a ton of room in our 2-seat area next to the window plus the plane wasn't full at all, so I was able to stretch out on the empty 3-seat row next to us for a couple of naps.

For airplane food our lunch was quite tasty and complimentary wine was liberally poured. The flight attendants were pleasant and there was a wide choice of entertainment options on individual screens. The 6 1/2 hours, pardon the pun, flew by and we felt refreshed when we landed in JFK that evening.

We're now in Hoboken with our daughter and enjoying our newest granddaughter for several more days before moving on to our son's home in North Carolina until the end of the year.

Sure hope the police have found someone else to hassle by the time we return to Ecuador.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tips for Traveling through the Cajas

Many of us Cuenca residents have traveled through the Cajas mountains to and from Guayaquil, home to one of the two international airports in Ecuador. This 3 hour van ride (cost $12 per person) can offer spectacular views on a clear day that help you appreciate what a crazy-gorgeous country we live in.

But weather in the Cajas is highly unpredictable, and sometimes you get stuck in rain plus fog so thick you (and more importantly the driver) can barely see past the front of the vehicle. Rain or shine large rocks fall from the mountains onto the road, causing unexpected swerving when they suddenly appear right in the van's path. Also rain or shine your driver often seems intent on maintaining the same schedule, barreling into and blindly passing slower vehicles on the many sharp curves along the route.

We have made this journey so many times that we've gone from outright fear to the understanding that these guys drive this road every single day and really do know what they're doing. Still, many folks who have endured one harrowing ride vow to never repeat the experience, opting instead to take a $150 round trip flight between Cuenca and Guayaquil.

I've recently learned some valuable tips about the best and safest times to go through the Cajas from Juan Munoz, a lifelong Cuenca resident, good friend, and guide with TerraDiversa. I'd like to pass on to you the info he shared.

Time of the year

The period from December through May is known as the "rainy season" in Ecuador. This is somewhat of a misnomer since there are rarely extended periods of rain or drought, so the dry season of June through November really means "less wet." Still, Juan says that from now until June you are much more likely to encounter inclement weather going through the mountains.

Time of the month

We are all aware the phases of the moon affect tides (witness the damage from tide surge in New Jersey when the recent hurricane hit that area during a full moon). Who knew the moon also impacts the cloud cover in the Cajas? Juan advised me that during the period from a half moon to full moon the skies in the mountains are much more likely to be clear.

So the absolute best time to go through the Cajas is during the dry season when the moon is half full to full, and worst is in the wet season from a new moon to half full.

None of this information is foolproof, of course. But I can verify from a recent trip the validity of Juan's advice. In early July Cynthia and I were returning to Cuenca from Guayaquil on the very last van that leaves at 7 PM, and quite frankly we dreaded what was ahead. It's bad enough running into fog during the day. At night you're looking at the possibility of three hours of white-knuckle terror.

To our delight during the entire ride the sky was crystal clear with, yes, a full moon beaming down from above. The views of the mountains were absolutely magical.

We're heading back to the States this Thursday. I just checked the calendar. There's a new moon that night, and it's the beginning of the rainy season. Oof.

At least we'll be on the 7 AM van instead the 7 PM one. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Walk in the Park

I had a lot of freelance writing assignments due today. When I was finished my back was killing me and my eyes felt like they were going to fall out of my head from staring at the computer screen all day so I decided to take a walk through nearby Paradise Park to refresh my body and clear my mind.

The street that we live on, Avenida Paucarbamba, was one of the ritzy streets in Cuenca that was first developed when well-to-do locals first left downtown and fashionably moved to the “suburbs.” I put this word in quotes because our home is a mere 20 minute walk from the center of the historic district.

Today many of the old homes have been torn down and replaced with commercial buildings and mid-rise structures like the one we live in. But a scant two minutes from here lies what I call the “real” Cuenca—mostly modest homes, small businesses, freely roaming mutts (which makes me realize how few stray cats are ever seen), and an occasional crowing rooster. Wandering through such neighborhoods helps keep me in touch with how privileged we are to live a wonderful life here even with our modest, by American standards, monthly budget.

On the weekends Paradise Park is filled with people—soccer matches, families enjoying picnics on the grass, folks riding paddleboats on the lake. On this Wednesday afternoon the park was mostly empty. A few ladies were walking their dogs and several kids were playing on the old school metal swings and slides (heaven forbid—someone might get hurt!) under the watchful eyes of their moms.

But the park today was mainly the turf of sweethearts. Young couples walked hand in hand, sat on rocks by the river, or did homework together.

At the far end of the park, after walking through a towering eucalyptus forest, the Tomebamba and Yununcay rivers converge. The rushing waters crashing together there are a powerful energy center for me, and, as always, I sat for awhile to renew my spirits.

After emerging from the forest on the other side of the park I walked past the “food court,” perhaps eight stalls selling a variety of meals and drinks. On this late afternoon only two were open, and I noticed that the most expensive items on their menus cost a whopping $1.25.

I took a different route home and strolled past a restaurant where Cynthia and I sometimes enjoy an almuerzo (fixed menu lunch of soup, fresh-squeezed juice, and entrĂ©e) for $1.75 each. We never know what we’re going to get but it’s always been tasty and plentiful.

As I approached our building I thought how much this little stroll was a microcosm of our whole life here. I knew I wanted to walk to the park and back but had no thought of exactly how I would get there or return. I simply set out in the general direction and wandered without a care about the specifics, knowing I would eventually reach my destination. And I did, having a wonderful time every step of the way.

How different from my previous over-scheduled, over-planned, and under-enjoyed life.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What Do I Miss Most about the US?

I’ve often been asked what I miss most (after family and friends, of course) about living in the US. This question invariably catches me off guard, and I’m always stumped for a suitable reply. I guess I have lived here long enough that I don’t even think about such things any more.

I believe I now have a definitive answer. Those of you who know me well might guess I’d say Popeye’s fried chicken. Good thinking, but my existence really isn’t that adversely affected by a lack of two-piece-spicy-white-meat-with-red-beans-and-rice-and-a-biscuit-please.

With Cynthia gone for two weeks I’ve been responsible for all the household chores, specifically those food-related—shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. We have a loosely-enforced agreement around here that whoever cooks, the other one cleans up. Well, with one soldier MIA that plan goes out the window.

And herein lies my discovery. I can now state unequivocally that what I miss most about the States is----

A dishwasher.

That’s right. A dishwasher. An appliance that you put the dirty dishes in, close the door, push the button, and the dishes come out clean.

Overall our apartment is wonderful. It’s large and modern with incredible views of the city and surrounding mountains. Our shower looks like it came from the set of a sci-fi movie, and the hot tub has a remote control.

Because the apartment was originally intended for the owner of the building it is designed in the Ecuadorian way with the expectation of live-in help. We have a maid’s bedroom and bath upstairs.

This domestic help would be expected to do everything—clean, wash and dry the clothes, iron, shop, cook---and wash the dishes. Thus no need for a dishwashing appliance.

We have a maid who comes once a week which is enough for our needs. Even if we could afford full-time help we wouldn’t want someone living upstairs—it would be kind of creepy. And we certainly don’t want to eat Ecuadorian food every meal.

So we hand wash all the dishes, pots, and pans every meal. This is by no means my favorite task. But I hate to come into a dirty kitchen first thing in the morning so normally everything is cleaned up the night before.

That routine has been altered during Cynthia’s absence. As I said I don’t like washing dishes in the first place and don’t mess up enough at one time by myself, so my alternate strategy has been to just avert my eyes from the cluttered sink when I come in to make coffee in the morning.

I’ve learned that leftover brie takes on the consistency of super-glued pieces of automobile tires when left overnight. And that I seem to use the same knives and utensils over and over, which requires fishing them out for repeated washing anyway.

While not profound (and maybe even silly-sounding) I do miss having a dishwasher. A lot. Yes, I could opt for paper plates and plasticware. But that seems so picnic-y.

Being here without my sweetheart is definitely no picnic.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween in the NC Suburbs

After visiting our new granddaughter in Hoboken for awhile we headed south to North Carolina (just before Sandy came to town) to be with our son, daughter-in-law, and darling 17 month old granddaughter Addison.

Last night was of course Halloween, and since this neighborhood is filled with young families we stocked up on trick-or-treat candy. Cynthia and I raised our two children in a similar setting so we knew what to expect.

Or so we thought.

The elaborate outside decorations we observed on walks around the community were clues we didn't pick up on. I've never seen so many skeletons, bats, spiders, ghouls, ghosts, and graveyards. And there's now this spider web stuff adorning porches and shrubbery.

When we saw neighbors setting up fire pits and lawn chairs in their driveways we realized this Halloween celebration was going to be on a bigger scale than we'd ever experienced.

At six o'clock the doorbell rang for the first time. We weren't ready. The dogs went nuts as Addison was still being dressed in her costume and I scrambled for the candy bowl. I gave the kids some candy, we got the dogs sequestered, and our little giraffe was ready for her first trick-or-treating.

Cynthia and I manned our own lawn chairs outside as the onslaught began.

The waves of kids came in a decreasingly desirable order. First out were what trick-or-treating is all about-the smallest ones with their cute costumes and shy behavior. Parents reminding them what to say. Sweet angels and little devils and princesses.

Next came a mixture of ages from acceptable to borderline too old. Lots of Dorothy's from the Wizard of Oz, ninjas, and nerds. I enjoyed messing with the middle schoolers. I told them (with tongue in cheek)if I couldn't guess their costumes they got no candy, which threw them all a curveball. Typical exchange with a guy:

"I give up. What are you?"
"I have no idea."
"Neither do I. That's why I asked. Here's some candy. Get out of here."


"You're a nerd, right?"
"Did you even change clothes after school or is this how you always look?"

One girl came up and proudly said, "I bet you didn't know I used to live right next door to you!"
Me: "I bet you didn't know I don't even live here."

And so it went. Then came the posse I detest--the older teenagers who should be home giving out candy, not shamelessly still trick-or-treating. I think they drove themselves here. One guy with a mask was bigger than me, and another one had a beard--growing out of his face, not drawn on. But what do you do--say "no" and take a chance on them egging or otherwise vandalizing your home?

You give them some candy so they'll go away.

But this year in the late crowd I encountered two categories that I guess are a sign of the times. Several actually made requests: "Do you have any Reese's?" Really? I'm giving you something and you're being picky? I'll give you one Reese's for two Hershey's, knucklehead.

Even more surprising was a kid who refused what I gave him, saying, "I can't eat this." What, it's got Red Dye #5? Peanuts? No, the other kid got the Reese's. Then he actually picked through the bowl and grabbed a couple of suitable choices. By this point I was too pooped to even care.

By 7:30 four huge bowls of candy were gone and we were cold anyway (no fire pit--who knew?), so we went inside, turned off the lights, and closed the shutters.

Several plaintive door knocks afterwards went unanswered. We were treating ourselves to much-deserved glasses of wine.

Friday, October 26, 2012

On the Road Again

During the 2 ½ years I’ve lived in Cuenca I’ve traveled back and forth to Guayaquil through the Cajas mountains numerous times. Early trips terrified me. It seemed that the drivers were much too reckless and going way too fast. Now I’ve come to realize that these guys drive this road every day and know every inch of the 3 hour journey.

I’m on my way to meet my new granddaughter in New Jersey, and this time I allow myself to truly relax and enjoy the magnificent topography. At every time of day the mountains show a different personality as the sunlight reveals unnoticed nuances of shade and texture.

Today it is early morning and the sky is bright blue with a smattering of clouds. The depth—the contrast—the vividness—are impossible to describe. Every direction I look there is a stunning canvas begging to be painted.

Weaving through the peaks are irregular stands of trees that are obviously there on purpose. Part of an unusual ecological agreement, the Finnish government actually pays Ecuadorian landowners to plant these trees to increase oxygen on the planet. Their orderly unnaturalness somehow adds visual interest to the landscape.

In what seems like the middle of nowhere I periodically see indigenous folks walking along the side of the highway. Where are they going? How long will it take to get there? What can life be like so high up among these mountains and so far apart from each other?

It is the end of the dry season and we have gotten much-needed rain in the past few weeks. The closest mountains are once again impossibly green, while distant peaks are a deep blue. Ahead is the Sea of Clouds, a blue valley seemingly always covered by a thick, fluffy white blanket.

Thankfully we stop halfway through for a bathroom break (it was an early start with a lot of coffee). Once on the way again I immediately fall asleep.

I briefly awake to see that we are descending the western part of the Cajas. Although I’ve never been to either place the flora here reminds me of Viet Nam or Cambodia. The lush foliage, banana trees, and misty fog are always a welcome sight because they signal the end of the back and forth, up and down part of the trip. The rest of the way the road instantly becomes flat and straight.

I doze off again, my slumber interrupted only by the speed bumps we traverse in several towns along the way. All of these places look identical to me—chickens and pigs being grilled on spits—fruit stands and little stores—open-air joints serving food to customers sitting on white plastic chairs.

Coast people look different. Of course because it’s hotter they often dress in T shirts, shorts, and flip flops, but it’s easy to see these folks have descended from different bloodlines than those in the highlands. They are on the whole fatter and to me generally not as attractive.

Highlanders call coast people “monos,” or monkeys. This is because speech is much faster here, like chattering to the ears of mountain inhabitants. Also they consider people who live on the coast to be lazy and “clever” (translation: not to be trusted).

Past the string of small towns the final leg to Guayaquil is an excellent 4-lane divided highway than spreads to 10 lanes on the outskirts of the city. During Rafael Correa’s years as President all of the major roads in Ecuador have been greatly improved and many new ones built.

Here as throughout Ecuador stand empty homes in various stages of construction. Invariably this means a relative is in the US or Spain working. When money is sent home more work is done until it runs out, then everything stops until more funds arrive.

Coming over the first bridge Guayaquil’s skyline appears on the left. For a city of 3 million+ it is quite uninspiring except for one twisted high rise tower on the water's edge. To the right McDonald’s golden arches declare we have arrived in a metropolis much larger than little Cuenca.

For some reason Guayaquil is much better landscaped than Cuenca. Our parks and common areas, while well-maintained, are haphazardly planted with no design. Another obvious difference is the presence of old school window AC units (Cuenca has no heating or air conditioning because of the temperate climate).

Almost exactly three hours from the time of departure our van arrives at the Guayaquil airport. Time to go meet Miss Eloise!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lights Out!

I tried to watch the Presidential debate last night, but wouldn't you know it, 15 minutes after it started the power went off in our neighborhood. This was followed by a brown-out where the lights dimmed and the television turned on/off/on/off/on/off. And then no electricity again.

If I had asked Mitt what happened he would have immediately blamed the problem on the failed energy policies of the Obama administration. But since I'm in Ecuador, I didn't bother.

By the time power was restored the event was over and I was stuck watching the "talking heads" giving their views on the proceedings. Fortunately this turned out to be like the halftime show of a football game on TV where they show only highlights, so perhaps I didn't really miss much after all.

At this point in the campaign season I'm certain of two things. Obama seems to have "inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression." God, he's been saying that for 4 years! Come on, man, conjure up some new material.

And if elected, Romney will inherit the second worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, but he's got a 5 Point Plan that will fix everything. This number is important because it allows him to hold up only one hand and at the same time use all of his fingers every time he says it.

How awkward would a 6 Point Plan be? So many decisions--hold up 5 & 1? 4 & 2? Or demonstrate bipartisanship and go 3 & 3?

From the little I saw Obama definitely amped up the energy level from the first debate and seemed constantly on the attack. But feisty and effective are not synonyms. I, like probably most Americans, would prefer that he stay positive and tout his first term record. But when your two notable achievements are 1) passing a health care plan the majority of people don't want and 2) running up the biggest deficits of any President in history, maybe going after his opponent is lesser negative choice.

I found two post-debate statistics from polls of undecided voters to be extremely interesting. On the one hand, by a narrow margin Obama was declared the winner. But on the other, these same voters said they trusted Romney more on "pocketbook issues"--the economy, jobs, the deficit, and health care.

So this election may come down to a choice between a superb orator and your wallet. One might think that's an easy decision but, guess what, in the last election the orator won. In three weeks we'll see if he can do it again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Evil Spirits

Awhile back a reader asked me to do a post on the wine situation here in Ecuador. Since I am currently working on International Living's 2013 Retirement Index (a quality-of-life survey of 22 locations around the globe) which includes a monthly budget, this seems like the perfect time to comment on a category that is certainly one of our expense items.

Let's cover the gamut of alcoholic beverages while we're at it, because liquor, wine, and beer all have their own stories to tell.

All imported goods are of course more expensive. I can't remember what a can of tomatoes costs in the States, but the Heinz variety here is over $3. So unless you "eat like a local" you've gotta be prepared to pay the price.

And with recent tax increases on hard spirits you have to drink like one too. A fifth of Bacardi is now over $30. Oh, you're a vodka drinker? Absolut runs around $50. As does Johnny Walker Red. Brutal, right? Fortunately there are drinkable alternatives. Rum made right here in Cuenca is only $8 a fifth, and Sky vodka rings in at a reasonable $20.

Wine prices are no bargain either. Ecuador has no viticulture industry to speak of, so these products are also imported. Bottom shelf domestic stuff in US grocery stores that you can pick up for $4.99 is priced in the teens. Most of our selection not surprisingly comes from Chile and Argentina, and with these countries being so close it's frustrating to see prices perhaps 50% higher than back home.

The go-to wine for many gringos is in a box, not a bottle. Concha y Toro,a mega-winery with high to low end production, has a boxed variety, Clos, currently available for $5.51 in merlot, cabernet, and "white." It's comparable to Trader Joe's 2 Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) but, again, at over twice the price for its US counterpart.

And what the heck is going on with the price increases of locally made beer? There's no import tax on that! When we moved here 2 1/2 years ago a 6 pack of Pilsener was about $3.50. Now it's $4.93. By the bottle Pilsener is 80 cents (which I just realized means buying singles is slightly cheaper) and Budweiser is $1.00--not much of a price difference. But the beer bargain is always the big 20 ouncer's from local convenience stores. They're only $1.00 when you return the bottle.

I often joke that a vegetarian teetotaler can get by in Ecuador on a tiny food budget. We're neither, so be aware that if you eat meat and drink alcohol a disproportionate share of your grocery dollars will go to those two categories.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What about the Grandchildren?

I'm totally proud to present to my blog friends the newest member of TeamStaton, Eloise Grace Walker.

Our second granddaughter and the first child of our daughter Adrian, Eloise today is the ripe old age of two weeks. This little bundle of joy has remarkably long arms and legs and amazingly large hands and feet, so I'm going out on a limb with the early prediction that she will end up as the tallest member of the family.

And I'm 6'3".

With two here and #3 on the way (our first grandson makes his debut in late January) I'm often asked, "So are you thinking about moving back to the States now?" In fact the subject came up just yesterday when I was chatting online with an old friend.

I wrote an article for International Living a couple of months ago that I'd like to share with you here. Hopefully it sheds some light on this emotional topic.

What about the Grandchildren?

One of the major concerns for retirees considering relocation abroad is being separated from their grandchildren.

My wife and I weren’t grandparents when we arrived in Cuenca over two years ago. Now we have a one year old granddaughter and two more grandbabies on the way.

Since we've reached this milestone many friends still living in the States have said to me, “Gosh, it must break your heart living so far from your grandchildren.”

Really?? We visited family for two weeks in March and the whole month of June. And we’re going back in the fall to welcome our newest granddaughter into the world.

It is a completely erroneous impression that because we live abroad we'll be missing out on our grandchildren growing up. The truth is we’ll see them more because we've lowered our monthly expenses and we're no longer tied to jobs.

If we were still working in the US we'd have 3 or 4 weeks vacation a year and hope we had enough money to visit. Plus we want to see the world and selfishly perhaps do not want every day of our available travel time devoted to family visits.

Now to be fair, our two children live in different states, so there’s no way we could live near both of them simultaneously. Therefore some form of travel would always be necessary even if we still lived in the US.

Your feelings towards your grandchildren should be an important part of your thoughts regarding expatriation. And brutal honesty about those emotions must drive your decision.

I know a grandmother who moved to Cuenca and found herself absolutely miserable being separated from her grandchildren. Although they loved the city and made many friends, she and her husband were back in the US in less than six months.

Do you already have grandkids? Do you live close by and see them often? Are they the light of your life? Then listen to your heart. Moving abroad is probably not going to work out well for you.

But if you are comfortable with visiting maybe not as often as you’d like but for longer periods of time, by all means continue to make your plans.

Most locations in the US and Canada can be reached from Ecuador in hours. With Skype video you can stay in touch for free as long as you like and as often as you desire. You don’t have to physically be there every moment to feel like you’re an important part of your family’s life.

Reality check. When we left our little granddaughter after the last visit I bawled my eyes out in the airport. Would I love to hug her every day? You bet. Being apart isn’t easy, but for now it’s doable.

Don’t let the notion of being “so far away” stop you from considering a move abroad. You’re retired now! You can enjoy an exciting new life and still visit those grandchildren as often as your budget allows.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

“There is nothing to fear but fear itself. There is nothing to fear---.” I kept repeating this mantra as I walked to meet Cynthia.

You see, we were going to a clinic together where I was about to get my first shot in over 50 years. There’s a reason for the long time gap. I’m petrified of getting shots, and have sometimes gone to considerable lengths to avoid them.

It all goes back to when I was a wee lad so skinny that my nickname was Eddy Spaghetti—cruel in the way only children can be but nonetheless descriptive of my puny muscularity. I was deathly afraid that if the doctor stabbed me with too much force the needle would go completely through my arm and come out the other side, the medicine squirting into the air.

Thus I tensed up so much that when the hypodermic was removed the tiny hole expanded to the size of a gunshot wound (at least in my imagination). I have painful memories of walking around with my arm in a sling because it was so sore I couldn’t move it.

Once when I was home running a high fever the doctor made a house call (are you old enough to remember those?). He determined I needed a shot and instructed me to roll over. I grabbed the spindles of the headboard on my bed with such strength that both he and my mother could not turn me over. Only when Mom threatened me with a belt did I relinquish my death grip.

The subject of shots reared its ugly head once more when I was a teenager. While on the job I suffered three severe cuts to my hand on a dirty warehouse fan (don’t ask) and had to be rushed to the hospital for treatment.

I was clearly in shock, but mustered sufficient presence of mind to solemnly answer “yes” when asked, “Have you had a tetanus shot recently?” I knew I didn’t want to add insult to injury by having one arm in a sling while the other one was also incapacitated. Scary old memories die hard. Crazy in retrospect, but such was my fear of needles.

Sometimes life requires you to do things for others that you wouldn’t do for yourself. I’m about to become a grandfather again, and my daughter who is carrying her first child read that there is an unprecedented number of whooping cough cases this year in the US. Infants are particularly susceptible to this illness, so I reluctantly agreed to being vaccinated to put her mind at rest.

I had already decided the shot would be administered in my thigh. Even now no one would mistake my physique for Arnold’s, but my scrawny thighs are at least as big as most people’s arms.

We met at a military hospital where our doctor assured us we would be taken care of without any problems.


We found the office and sat in the waiting room for our turn. I noticed that all of our fellow patients were little kids with their moms, which didn’t seem quite right. An old lady soon escorted us back and we showed her the papers the doctor had given us. She read them and frowned.

Here’s an insider tip we’ve learned in our 2+ years in Ecuador. When someone just says “No,” it can sometimes mean “Maybe.” But when the “No” is accompanied by a vigorous backhand thrust of the forefinger it means “Absolutely not.”

She gave us the finger along with an avalanche of Spanish that could only be interpreted as, “Get the hell out of here.”

What could we do but sheepishly retreat? We didn’t understand why we were shown the door, but our Spanish wasn’t proficient enough to effectively argue. I must admit I had mixed emotions about this rejection. I was all psyched up to “face my fears,” but not altogether unhappy that I had been spared.

But Cynthia was bound and determined, as we say in the South, to see this through, so she made an appointment yesterday with our doctor to explain the dilemma. He promptly called a pharmaceutical rep who said she would order the vaccine. Then he told us to go downstairs to the pharmacy to finalize the delivery.

The lady there also made a call and said the vaccine would be delivered tomorrow in the morning (in Spanish this is “manana en la manana”—often two lies in one phrase). We dutifully and skeptically returned at lunchtime today and to our surprise, the order was actually there.

We paid and took the medication downstairs to the emergency room for the shots to be immediately administered. I was sticking with my “in the leg” strategy and had even gone to the trouble to look up “leg” (Hey, how often does that word come up in normal conversation?) so I would properly instruct the nurse.

She said it had to be given in the arm. I said I wanted it in my leg. Perplexed, she scampered out to consult with her colleagues. Meanwhile Cynthia was quietly getting her shot without incident behind the adjacent curtain. I heard conversation, then a guy came in and informed me this shot could only be given in the arm. Not even the butt.

I wasn’t backing down. I said, “A muscle is a muscle. What difference does it make?” Gotta give the guy credit. In classic Ecuadorian fashion, he looked me in the eye and replied, “This is special medicine.” A rebuttal that makes no sense and yet to which there is no response. Perfect.

At the same time Cynthia, who had been listening to all this through the curtain, sternly said, “It doesn’t hurt, Edd. Take the damn shot.”

Well, there it is. I removed my shirt and took the damn shot. And-------

And nothing. I hardly felt the injection and my shoulder is barely sore. Like meals I’ve so looked forward to when returning to the US that weren’t nearly as wonderful as I had imagined, similarly this dreaded incident was basically a non-event. Thus I am now safe from infections, whooping cough, and diphtheria (whatever that is), and my arm is not in a sling.

Is there a moral to this silly story? Perhaps that anticipation often trumps reality, and fear is False Evidence Appearing Real. My little episode does make me question how many truly important opportunities and enriching experiences I might have passed up over the years because of similar unfounded trepidations.

How about you?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

What Do You Do All Day?

I’ve made frequent references in this blog to living in the moment. While yesterday wasn’t exactly “typical,” it does demonstrate what can happen when you just put yourself out there.

The day started with only one thing on the calendar—meeting friends for lunch at 1 o’clock. Good—a quiet day heading into the weekend (yes, we casually note when those roll around).

My friend and partner Juan called to say he could come by at noon and take me to get a replacement phone for the one that was stolen. Kind of tight time-wise with our commitment, but OK—let’s do it.

We went to the phone place and got all the paperwork done, but the phone wouldn’t be ready until 5:30. Could I come back then? Those of you who have followed our adventures and misadventures are aware that coming back is usually part of showing up in Ecuador when any kind of paperwork is involved. Sure, I’ll return then.

Our lunch rendezvous happened right on time and we had a lovely meal during two hours of chitchat. Since we were in El Centro we decided afterwards to drop by TerraDiversa to pick up our monthly shipment from the wine club we joined.

While there we learned that it was one of our employee’s birthday. We also found out that in the evening Mansion Alcazar, perhaps Cuenca’s finest hotel, was hosting a trade-only event to showcase their new spa facilities. That sounded like fun, so we decided to attend. After all, we had no plans, right?

Now we were caught in that in-between time—it was too early to pick up the phone and too much trouble to go home then turn around and leave almost as soon as we got there. When Cynthia learned where the business was located she realized it was close to a clinic where she needed to make a doctor’s appointment for a friend.

So we strolled over there with the thought if the phone wasn’t ready we’d sit and relax until it was. While we were waiting for the receptionist to return we were more than a little surprised to see the female half of the couple we had just eaten lunch with walking around the corner.

She was there for an appointment with another doctor who apparently wasn’t showing up. Our appointment was made and her husband, who was waiting in their car, did a double take upon seeing us all walking out together!

After telling them goodbye—again—we walked to the phone business. It was an hour early, but time is very fluid here, and what do you know, the phone was ready. Outstanding! I remembered seeing what appeared to be a chocolate store on the way, so we doubled back to hopefully pick up a birthday gift for our employee since we would be seeing her later at the hotel.

Except we got our directions mixed up and went the long way around the clinic. Cynthia had just said we’d probably see someone else we knew when we walked around the corner. Guess what---we walked around the corner and immediately saw another couple we knew. Things like this actually happen all the time here.

After chatting with them for a bit we found the store but it didn’t have what we needed. Then Cynthia remembered a kiosk in the shopping center below the Supermaxi that sells chocolates and would be on our way home, so off we trekked. En route we bought a bag of cherries (they’re in season now) from one of those wheelbarrow produce merchants. We also saw Juan again as he was walking from a dental appointment.

All of these places we had walked to are not close to each other and we were getting really pooped, but an obstacle course loomed ahead. Our path took us around the stadium, and we discovered it was game night.

We weaved through ticket hawkers, food vendors, shirt vendors, noise-making vendors, plus lots and lots of excited fans. I think soccer is all that really matters in Latin America.

After emerging from that madhouse and purchasing the chocolates we decided to splurge and take a taxi home (that normally happens only when we’ve got too many groceries to carry). But it was late Friday afternoon, the soccer game was right up the street and roads were blocked, there were about four people waiting and no taxis in sight, so screw it, we kept walking.

Finally back home with an hour to rest up before heading out again, off came the shoes and out came the vino. Sufficiently fortified with a couple of glasses we taxied to the hotel (no more walking, we agreed!) and, as expected, enjoyed a lovely presentation of the new facilities complete with tasty hors d'oeuvres and more wine.

Then the TerraDiversa group plus the folks from another tour operator decided to take the birthday celebration elsewhere, so we piled into vehicles and went to a nearby bar. Thirteen people crammed into table space for at most ten. Here came the food. Here came the beers and more vino. In other words, here came the party!

We didn’t understand much of what was being said, but so what? Everyone was talking, laughing, and having a great time.

A ride home was offered but Calle Larga, the street where the bar is located, is party central and jammed with cars and people on the weekends. It was therefore much quicker to walk (so much for our agreement). Around 11 we arrived at the casa exhausted and inebriated. I barely remember going to bed.

So let’s recap: lunch at 1 was our one thing to do.

Instead it was: phone place+lunch+walking toTerraDiversa+walking to clinic+walking to phone place+visiting friends along the way+dodging the soccer crowd+walking to chocolate kiosk+walking home+home with wine+Mansion Alcazar+bar+walking home.

And sometimes that’s what we do all day in Ecuador.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hummingbird Exhibit

It seems everyone in Cuenca except Cynthia and a survivalist wacko without a computer (just kidding) is writing a blog these days. So perhaps you've already seen photos of the hummingbird exhibit that has been in town this month.

On an absolutely glorious day we finally got around to visiting yesterday and were pretty much the only people there. Sent down to us from Quito, at least 50 sculptures have been painted and decorated in unique ways.

It's a pretty amazing display of creativity. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend heading over to Otorongo Plaza before the end of the month.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Caving to Incompetence?

I was taken to task by a reader after my last post about not assigning values or judgment for caving to "incompetence and ineptitude."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Accepting what is and dealing with it in no way implies acquiescence to sub par behavior or performance. In fact, one of the key aspects of Latin American culture in which I steadfastly refuse to participate is failure to execute as promised.

We went through three attorneys before finding someone who we found to be satisfactory. Craftsmen with great skill who were tardy or didn't show up have been summarily dismissed in spite of their talents. We scold our maid, who has been with us over a year, every time she is late.

This has nothing to do with cultural differences, in my opinion, and everything to do with basic respect. If you tell me you will show up, I wait for you, and you are a no-show, what you're basically saying is, "My time is more important than yours."

That is just not acceptable.

The older I get, the more I realize that time is my most precious, yet diminishing, asset. So if you waste my time on purpose you are showing a disrespect to me that will not be tolerated.

We gringos talk a lot about not trying to force our values on a culture in which we are guests. Sorry, this is one area in which I hope in a tiny way I do make a difference.

Agree or disagree?

Monday, August 20, 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

I've gotten a lot of email feedback to the series of posts about our week in Quito, primarily in response to our quest for cedulas. Almost everyone expressed condolences for the "trouble" and "difficulty" we went through.

While people taking time out of their busy lives to write is always appreciated, this sentiment frankly caught me off guard. Because as that wacky day unfolded we never once thought of anything that happened as a "problem."

This caused me to reflect on the Edd and Cynthia who arrived in Ecuador over two years ago and the people we are today. Part of what we brought with us was the Type A, go-go, make-it-happen personalities that contributed to our success in the States.

We quickly learned that approach is not a winning strategy here.

You know how you can be stuck in slow-moving traffic when you really need to get somewhere? And how frustrated that can make you feel?

This pretty much describes our 24/7/365 life. So you are faced with a choice: stay constantly upset or take a breath and let it go.

A lot is written about life in Ecuador and specifically our hometown of Cuenca. The low cost--the fresh produce--the great weather--the top notch medical care. Perhaps because it's so hard to put into words, you don't read very much about how being in a place like this can completely alter your perspective and approach to life.

I often say that a fish spends its whole life in water and never knows there is air right above. Similarly most people are so caught up in their busyness and future orientation that they are totally unaware there are other options.

Separating ourselves from the hustle/bustle of US culture, the multitasking, the constant mental chatter about what's next and will there be enough time, has transformed us in ways we could have never imagined or anticipated.

There's an old Chinese story about a wise man who lives in a village. Each time something happens the townspeople cry, "That's good," or "That's bad." The wise man always replies, "We'll see."

As an example, at one point the wise man's son falls from a horse and breaks his leg. The townspeople say, "That's bad." Shortly afterwards all the eligible young men are drafted to become soldiers in an unpopular war. The son is left behind and not forced to fight.

This is how we have learned to approach whatever presents itself to us. No judgment, no labeling--just accepting and dealing with it as best we can.

I now completely understand the kind comments from those of you who graciously took the time to write. I once thought the same way you do.

And I'm thankful that is no longer the case.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

One Helluva Week (Final Installment--I Promise!)

So after a morning filled with cedula shenanigans we get ready to go to lunch and discover our attorney's car has been booted. Why? Well, she paid the attendant for 2 hours when we arrived and told him to put a new ticket on the windshield if we hadn't returned by then and she would pay him the additional fee.

Unfortunately there was a shift change and the guy getting off work didn't bother telling the new guy, so a police lady applied the boot as soon as our time ran out (I noticed when it was removed she stored it in the parking guy's hut--surely they weren't in cahoots?!).

Arguing was attempted but of course did no good. The only way to resolve the situation was for the assistant to take our attorney's credit card and go to a specific nearby bank, pay the debt (I think it was over $40!), and return with a receipt. Off he went.

We waited. And waited. And waited. My stomach was rumbling and there was a McDonald's in view. Guilty fast food pleasure increasingly seemed quite desirable so I asked, "Why don't I just go over there and get us some lunch?"

"No. As soon as you leave he'll show up and then we'll have to wait for you," came the rapid reply.

Nuts. The assistant finally returned, explaining that he took so long because the bank was a madhouse during the lunch break. The receipt was displayed, the boot removed, and at long last we were out of there.

Back at the attorney's office, we parted ways for an hour and Cynthia and I went off and found a quick almuerzo (fixed price and menu lunch--only $3.50 each, a bargain in Quito!). Then back in the car, back to the cedula building, and a stern lecture to the parking guy before we entered.

Lo and behold, the kid who screwed up promptly called me over, I signed the pad he had earlier forgotten about, and after a wait in yet another area my name was called and I was handed my cedula.


I forgot to mention that Cynthia's turn after my disaster went flawlessly, and as a result she couldn't get her cedula that day. It seems with foreigners a final check must be done in Immigration that takes a couple of extra days. Because of the error mine apparently was expedited. Our attorney promised to pick hers up on Wednesday and courier it to Cuenca.

Away we went (no boot this time!). A taxi was hailed, our bags transferred to the trunk, and we were off to the airport with time to spare. After an eventless 35 minute flight we were home by dinnertime.

End of story, right? You know better than that.

Cynthia's cellphone rings first thing Wednesday morning. I answer and a lady inundates me with an avalanche of Spanish. I ask if she speaks English, she says "no," so I ask her to please find someone who does. A guy gets on the phone, says he is from the Immigration office in Quito and that Cynthia needs to come to the office because "there is a problem" with her cedula.

(What are we up to now? I think it's super extra loud SIGH---).

I tell the guy, "Cynthia is not in Quito and she's not coming to Quito. Here's what is going to happen. I'm hanging up now and calling my attorney. Then she will call you back and talk to you."

It turns out the "problem" was that Cynthia, unlike Latin American women, does not use her maiden name as part of her last name. This was apparently confusing, but our attorney assured us everything was OK. She would pick up the cedula that afternoon and send it to our other attorney here in Cuenca.

Thursday--Friday--Saturday--Sunday--Monday--no cedula. It was a holiday weekend, so we figured perhaps her vacation had been extended. This turned out to be true and finally we learned that the cedula in fact is here.

Hooray again!!!

Now for sure it's the end of the story. Uh, no.

I went to the gym Thursday morning. Since I had a meeting right afterwards, I rode my bike and took my backpack along with legal pad, pen, an apple, my wallet and cellphone. I locked up my bike outside, put the backpack in a cubby up front and started working out. When I returned from the rear of the gym I saw that the backpack had been stolen.

My wallet contained, along with the usual suspects, my brand new cedula.

As Jimmy Buffet sings in Margaritaville, "Well I know, it's my own damn fault." I should never have left my wallet and phone unguarded like that, and I got burned.

Does this seemingly never-ending saga have a happy ending? Of course. Because it was stolen, the cedula can be replaced right here in town by filling out an incident report. My life is so simple now it took less than half an hour to cancel and request replacement for my one debit and one credit card. A replacement driver's license is on the way, and my new Supermaxi card is already at the grocery store for me to pick up.

Whale watching--IL conference--cedula shenanigans--I'm tired of writing about this crazy week, and I'm sure you're equally tired of reading about it. Thanks for persevering. Hope you enjoyed the story.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

One Helluva Week (Part 1 of Part 3)

This almost-final post (I now realize the saga is too long, forcing me to break it up into episodes) of our ultra-busy week got delayed because I've been waiting for the story of last Monday's events to end. Yesterday it finally did. And then today it didn't. Let me explain.

After the International Living conference we stayed over in Quito an extra night because our long-awaited cedulas (Ecuadorian resident cards) were going to be processed on Monday. This would culminate over a year of delays while Immigration officials were repeatedly fired for corruption (shocker!), each time disrupting the process.

Last summer we decided to switch from business to retirement visas, and were given 6 month tourist visas to "keep us legal" in the interim. Those expired in January with no new visas in sight. Since July when our application was submitted we had to get our passports back from Quito 3 times so we could travel to the States. And we'd left and returned to Ecuador twice with those expired visas this year--no easy task, I assure you.

Now we have the proper visas stamped in our passports, and clearing this one final hurdle would complete the process. So we were pretty excited.

Our attorney picked us up first thing Monday morning and we were off to our destination. We parked, went inside, and---bedlam. There were people everywhere. People with little kids. Lots of little kids. Turns out this wasn't the ideal time to be conducting our business, because school starts soon and all new students need the same cedula cards as us.


But here we were in Quito, damn it, and today was the day, so we took a number and a seat. After waiting awhile it turned out this was just the first stop where somebody verifies that you have all the proper forms and that they are filled out correctly.

We then went downstairs where there were even more people and more kids. After sitting around for a bit we noticed two things: 1) the numbers on the overhead screen showing whose turn it was bore no resemblance to ours, and 2) the numbers weren't changing.


Our attorney's assistant checked with the folks in charge and learned that yes, the screen wasn't working and no, we were in the wrong place. So we moved to the other end of the room where non-Ecuadorian applicants were processed.

And waited some more.

Finally it was my turn. The young man handling my application didn't look old enough to shave, spoke zero English, and nevertheless asked a zillion questions. My lawyer's presence to provide answers made me once again thankful I hadn't tried to fly solo on obtaining residency.

Eventually he was satisfied, my photo and fingerprints were taken, and the file was saved in the computer. Done! Then he made a face and put his hand to his head in a gesture that in every language means, "Oh, shit!"

It seems he forgot to have me sign the pad verifying all that we had just completed.

(Loud sigh)

Ah, but he had a solution---"Please come back Wednesday."

There are times when I'm actually glad my Spanish isn't outstanding, and this was one of them. Because with a literal translation of what I told my attorney to say to the kid I'd probably be writing this blog from a jail cell.

Here's the "family friendly" version: "We're getting on a plane to Cuenca at 5:40 this afternoon and we're not coming back to Quito. He caused the problem. He's trying to make his problem my problem. That's not happening. I want this fixed today."

Well, Ecuadorians are not accustomed to folks balking like this, so with a shocked look he retreated to speak with his superiors. When he returned he proudly announced that if we came back at 3 not only would the problem be resolved, I could take my cedula home that day.

Now that's more like it.

It was lunchtime anyway, so we all decided our attorney and her assistant would return to work, Cynthia and I would grab some lunch, and we'd meet back at her office at 2:30.

We got to her car and discovered it had been booted.

(Extra loud sigh)

To be continued-----------

Friday, August 10, 2012

One Helluva Week (Part 2)

Several months ago Cynthia and I received a surprise request to speak at International Living's Fast Track conference in Quito. While we readily agreed to participate and were honored to be chosen as the expat representatives from Cuenca, we quickly realized there would be two major hurdles to clear:

#1--in 41 years of marriage we had never given a presentation together, and
#2--we'd be making our joint debut in front of 300+ attendees.

We were asked to tell "our story," and we decided to base the talk around the theme of "Keep Dreaming." You see, for many years we envisioned living comfortably abroad in an ideal climate, but never thought specifically of Cuenca, Ecuador (primarily because we'd never heard of it!). So we created our presentation around the idea that when dreams stay alive they sometimes come true in amazing and unexpected ways.

After only one day back from our whale watching trip, early last Thursday morning we boarded a plane and flew to Quito for the conference. The sky was wonderfully clear and en route I took some great shots from the window along the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

The event was held at the luxurious Swissotel.

As soon as we walked into the lobby it felt like we had magically left Ecuador and were---well, somewhere else.

Wonderful restaurants, full service gym and spa, indoor/outdoor pool,

and lush landscaping surrounded us.

Our room wasn't too shabby, either.

Soon after registration

two and a half days of presentations, exhibits,

cocktail parties, VIP events, and networking began that afternoon.

Every subject imaginable was addressed to assist attendees with their plans:

---Destinations throughout Ecuador
---Immigration considerations
---Purchasing and renting property
---Tax and reporting issues
---Spanish schools
---Cultural matters
---Starting a business
---Medical care and health insurance
---Shipping household goods
---Staying in touch with family and friends

And of course there were we expats sharing our personal stories about life in locations large and small, and in the highlands, valleys, and coast of our beautiful country.

This was our first International Living conference and I'd like to share my impressions. Swissotel, while the perfect venue for an event of this size, is an international chain that, as previously mentioned, in no way delivers a true Ecuadorian experience. Fortunately most everyone we spoke with (and a show of hands indicated most were first time visitors) had either arrived earlier or planned to remain afterwards, so hopefully they returned home with a more balanced and realistic impression.

The participants were far more diverse than I anticipated. I expected to look out on a sea of gray, and while the demographic was definitely skewed towards age 50+, a surprising number of young people were interested in exploring new life experiences. And I think everyone was amazed at the number of single folks in attendance.

What about the quality of information? IL is sometimes taken to task for giving unrealistic figures about the true cost of living in Ecuador. I'm pleased to report that absolutely everything presented was correct and up to date. Numerous speakers shared their personal monthly budgets, and in each case the numbers accurately reflected differing lifestyles and locations.

After living here for 2+ years even we learned some valuable and helpful new information!

And how did our presentation go? Considering it was our first time ever using PowerPoint and speaking together I think we did just fine. Most gratifying were the comments made to us afterwards that could be summed up as, "We weren't confident about doing this, but after hearing your story we now think maybe we can."

Overall the conference was well-run and extremely informative. Everyone in attendance left with a much better understanding of both the challenges and opportunities of relocating to Ecuador.

Before closing I want to share that Quito is really growing on me. The first time we passed though several years ago I couldn't wait to leave. It seemed like just another ugly, dirty big city with too many undesirables lurking about.

On subsequent visits I've noticed that particularly in the historic district Quito has really cleaned itself up. Plus I've since been exposed to lovely areas besides the slums you always drive through going to and from the airport.

We left the hotel for lunch several days and found cuisine and al fresco settings not available in our smaller city--Mediterranean tapas and Japanese, for example.

One of our fellow presenters moved from Cotacachi to Quito, and on Sunday after the conference she and her husband showed us around their neighborhood with beautiful buildings, shops, and restaurants along an avenue with a tree-lined pedestrian median. It's too easy to let first impressions become lasting impressions. Quito has taught me a lesson about keeping an open mind.

We stayed an extra night because Monday morning our attorney was accompanying us to get our cedulas, an identification card that represents the final step to becoming an Ecuadorian resident. Since Part 3 of this series is about just that one day, you might correctly assume that shenanigans were involved.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

One Helluva Week (Part 1)

The week from July 29 through August 6 was so extraordinary and packed with so much activity that I can properly describe everything that happened only by breaking it into separate segments. This first entry is about a three day whale watching trip we took through our company TerraDiversa.

From June through October each year humpback whales journey from Antarctica to mate in the warmer Pacific waters of Ecuador's coast. Although they can be spotted from as far north as Esmeraldas all the way south to Salinas, prime viewing of these magnificent creatures is enjoyed near Puerto Lopez on Ecuador's central coast.

Early Sunday morning our group of 15 plus guide and driver set off for that destination. Here's a shot of the "Sea of Clouds" as we went through the Cajas mountains.

The total drive time is 7 hours, so the trip was broken up with a stop at the Guayaquil Historical Park.

Speaking honestly, a lot of "attractions" in Ecuador, while always well-intentioned and sincere, are rather amateurish by American standards.

Not so here. The park, set on 20 lush acres smack in the middle of an extremely prosperous neighborhood, is first class all the way. It's divided into three sections.

The Wildlife Zone is home to indigenous plants and animals.

Young coffee buds grow right out of the bark. Who knew??

I think this ugly looking mammal is a tapir.

The Urban Architecture Zone preserves historical turn-of-the-century buildings that were actually moved from downtown into the park and reassembled.

And the Traditions Zone celebrates the cocoa-producing culture of the Ecuadorian coast. The park was so big we kind of rushed through this part to continue our journey so no pics here. Sorry.

After lunch at a nearby mall we continued up the coast and arrived late afternoon at our lodging in Montanita. We were there several months ago and I already knew my way around, so as soon as we checked in I headed straight for the beach for some body surfing. Then Cynthia and I downed several beers by the pool before heading into town for dinner.

An early start the next morning took us to Puerto Lopez, a fishing village that enjoys a tourism windfall during whale watching season.

We donned life jackets, climbed into the boat, and were on our way.

I'd seen photos of whales quite near the shoreline and thought we would have the same experience. Wrong. We kept going out, out, out, and I was nervously remembering previous deep sea fishing trips where I puked my guts out. Amazingly, although we rode a couple of hours and about 25 miles before the first whales were spotted, I never even got queasy.

Our guide guaranteed we'd see whales. Did we ever!

It was unbelievable we could safely get that close. Maybe in retrospect we weren't all that safe. But we spent about an hour enjoying our good fortune.

Then we continued on to Isla de la Plata, or Silver Island, so named by the Spanish when they first saw it gleaming on the horizon. Words cannot describe the disappointment they must have felt when they discovered upon disembarking that the silver color was due to massive amounts of bird droppings instead of precious metal.

In modern days the island is nicknamed the "Poor Man's Galapagos" because numerous species from that famous archipelago also reside there. Most notably, the blue footed booby,

also named by the Spaniards not for having large breasts but because of their clumsiness on land. And perhaps because they wander around as in this pic clueless to the possibility that they could be dinner in the wrong species' eyes. Fortunately on this island and the Galapagos no such predators exist.

Isla de la Plata has a rugged and wild look that made for some nice photo op's.

After a long and bumpy ride back to Puerto Lopez we returned to Montanita, ate dinner, and crashed. On our last morning we stopped off briefly in nearby Olon to admire the amazing and completely deserted beaches

then stopped at a craft village to shop for some lovely merchandise created by local artisans. We purchased these napkin rings made from tagua, or vegetable ivory, packaged in a cool balsa wood box.

I hadn't seen that material since I was throwing those lightweight airplanes as a kid.

We arrived home totally pooped. But no matter, because the following day we unpacked and repacked for our flight to Quito on Thursday. You see, we were the expat representatives from Cuenca at International Living's Fast Track conference, and we were scheduled to give a 30 minute presentation Friday in front of about 320 attendees.

I'll tell you all about that weekend in Part 2.

Monday, July 23, 2012

In Praise of Yoga

My hips are really, really stiff this morning. Come to think of it, so are my shoulders. Must have gone on another one of those bike rides, right?

Nope. Yesterday I put myself through an intense yoga session, and today I'm really feeling it. Deep muscles I didn't know existed are making their presence known.

I religiously go to the gym three days a week. This has been my routine for years and years. While there I lift the heaviest weights my joints can tolerate. I'm usually a bit sore the following morning, but nothing like this. It's amazing that exercise involving only your own body weight can have such an effect.

Yoga has also been a regular part of my life, and I can't say enough good things about it.

Many people assume chronic pain and limited mobility are unavoidable byproducts of the aging process. This is true if you just let it happen, but yoga is a fun and easy way to fight back.

When I bring up the subject of yoga some folks curiously say, "Oh, I'm too stiff to do that stuff." That's exactly why you should consider giving it a try!

Perhaps when bending forward all you can touch is your knees. Great. Start there. With consistency you'll soon reach your shins, and before you know it you'll be touching those toes.

Cynthia suffered with chronic lower back pain for years. She has been regularly attending yoga classes twice a week plus practicing at home on her own, and I'm thrilled to report (and so is she!) that the pain has completely disappeared.

We all know that classic scenario of an old person falling and breaking a hip. Sometimes this sets off a chain reaction of further complications that forever compromise one's quality of life.

I'm convinced such maladies can be avoided by taking a proactive approach to your health. And there's nothing better than yoga for improving both strength and flexibility.

It's not imperative to make a commitment to attending classes. Some are self-conscious about their lack of fitness and feel exposed in a group setting.

There are tons of books and DVD's that allow you to begin right at home, whenever it's convenient for you.

Start slow and listen to your body. Yoga isn't a competitive sport. It is a wonderful opportunity to quiet your restless mind and improve your overall fitness.

At first you'll find yourself focusing on those stubborn hamstrings that are refusing to cooperate with your diligent efforts to stretch them. As you progress you'll become aware of your entire body as your mind quiets and your consciousness expands.

Doing yoga with a partner brings an additional level of enjoyment. Working together and helping each other can be a meaningful way to deepen your relationship.

Nature is often our greatest teacher. How do you want to feel? Like a supple young sapling that effortlessly bends, or a brittle old twig that easily snaps?

Being a passive bystander of your own life is a sad choice. Regular yoga practice allows you to take some control of your well being. I highly recommend you consider making it a part of your daily routine.