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.