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.