Friday, August 23, 2013

Who's in Charge Here?

Today my daughter said she tried to call on Skype but voice mail never picked up. I checked and all the settings are fine.

Cynthia says she rarely sees anything I put on Facebook. I checked and all her settings are fine.

I'm currently doing a 21 day meditation challenge sent by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. After 2 + weeks, Day 17 went to spam instead of my inbox.

Cynthia told me to come look at her computer the other night. There was an ad for Russian Love Mates on my blog. Huh??

I get the feeling I'm not in charge of my own cyber-life. And I wonder who is.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


To say I'm not a fan of washing dishes would be a gross understatement. "Hate" is a word I try to never use, but it comes close to accurately describing of my feelings towards this activity. Yet there I was Monday morning happily scrubbing away.

Late morning Sunday our water went off. That has happened numerous times before and we proceeded with our day thinking nothing about it. In the past it always came on later so no big deal. Believe it or not, this is the kind of thing you get used to living here.

Cynthia had a lot of cooking planned, so I went next door to our neighborhood tienda and bought four big jugs of water. She proceeded throughout the afternoon to make a huge mess in the kitchen. The sink was full. Dirty pots and pans were everywhere.

No water.

We hadn't even showered yet and were getting a bit anxious. This had never happened before. Evening came.

No water.

Now things were getting gross. We couldn't flush the toilets but once, so even though we have five we were hesitant to do so since we didn't know how long this situation would last. I truly pitied the other folks in our building who have children and only one commode.

We enjoyed the lovely dinner Cynthia had prepared but honestly our mood wasn't very convivial. We weren't clean; the kitchen was a disaster; and we were sitting there creating even more dirty dishes. I had attempted to find a 24/7 emergency number for the utility company but, silly me, of course no such thing existed. We were now resigned to tough it out until the next morning when I could hopefully get something resolved.

The night ended early with Cynthia heating some water on the stove for us to at least wash our faces before bed. The whole day's experience felt so primitive and disgusting. We were glad to bring it to a conclusion.

Next morning, still no water. Cynthia, growing grumpier by the minute, went off to yoga and I headed over to ETAPA (our utility company), a short walk from our apartment. I'm not comfortable with my Spanish in situations like this, so I hoped to speak with someone bilingual.

No such luck. The customer service rep I sat with spoke zero English. I managed, as always, to stumble and bumble my way through explaining the problem. She looked up our address on her computer then explained that, even though each apartment is individually metered, the building itself has a main meter that basically feeds the others.

And that our landlord had a balance of $2.36.

That's right--water for the entire building was shut off, on a Sunday when nothing could be done, because of $2.36. Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime!

I told her to give me the bill and I would go to the window and pay it myself. While waiting I turned around and four people back was my landlord! Apparently one (or more) of the other tenants had called and chewed him out and he had high-tailed it over there. I handed him the bill and left. An hour later the water was back on. And after a l-o-n-g shower there I was in the kitchen merrily washing dishes.

This is not a bitch session. I was of course aggravated but never angry. What good would that do?

I'm sharing this story as an example of the kind of stuff you put up with living in an emerging 3rd world country. Obviously the good far outweighs the bad or we wouldn't stay here. While in many ways we are in truth "living the dream," it's not paradise 24/7 and occasionally life can get downright crummy.

When you're contemplating life abroad these are the kinds of things I think you need to know. How would you react if this story starred you instead of me? Would you be turning into The Hulk and tossing large objects around? Would you be reaching for your blood pressure medicine?

If you don't have, or don't think you can develop, extraordinary levels of patience, you might need to re-think your plans.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Restaurant Riviera (Part 2)

In the spirit of the summer movie season I seem to be churning out sequels these days. I forgot to mention an interesting addition to the neighborhood dining scene. It's on a small side street behind our building. The owner has turned the garage of his home into one of those "pop-up" restaurants I've read about in the States. Very progressive.

The menu is centered around pizza and there are no tables. It's all take out. I honestly doubt that the joint will last more than a few months (I've never seen a customer), but I'm sharing the information because of the establishment's intriguing name.

Pretend with me that you are planning to open a restaurant. You know what you want to serve, but you just can't think of what to call the place. Suddenly one night--inspiration! You blurt out, "Honey, I've got it!"

"You've got what?," she asks.

"The name of the restaurant. It just came to me. Ready? What do you think of this? The Three Stooges!!"

Um--seriously? Why would you name a restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador "The Three Stooges?" Why would you name a restaurant anywhere "The Three Stooges?"

No surprise--the special package deals (like pizza, fries--yes, fries--and a big bottle of soda) are called the Moe, Larry, and Curly.

But this certainly isn't the first time I've seen an oddly named business here. There's a clothing store for small children in our local mall very inappropriately called "Sweet & Sexy."

Kind of makes me feel better about my mangled Spanish.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Spare Change (Part 2)

Are you familiar with the Sacagawea dollar? If you don't live in a major metropolitan area with mass transit, chances are your answer is "No."

The Sacagawea dollar replaced the Susan B. Anthony US coin in 2000. Who/what is Sacagawea? Maybe like me you weren't paying attention that day in history class. Along with her Quebec trapper husband and infant son, she accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition, acting as a guide and interpreter.

See what you can learn reading this blog? It doesn't have to be Cuenca--Cuenca--Cuenca all the time!

So why in the heck am I telling you this? Because the coin that perhaps you've never seen is the primary unit of currency in this country. In researching the info above I just shared, I learned the US mint has one billion Sacagawea dollars in circulation. Nine hundred million of them must be here.

Have you ever been in a supermarket where the cashier asks if you have exact change? Can you imagine giving any proprietor a $20 bill for a small purchase and standing there waiting while he runs out to get your change? Or that same proprietor refusing your business because he can't make change?

Welcome to Ecuador, my friends.

For me one of the more frustrating aspects of living here is getting ready to go some place that requires a taxi ride and discovering you have only 10's (which may be begrudgingly accepted) and 20's (which won't be accepted). Since you most likely drive yourself everywhere that probably doesn't sound like a biggie to you.

Only if you lived here and had no car could you understand what a hassle this is.

I can't tell you how many times I've had to make a last-minute run to the tienda next door to buy something we really didn't need just to have proper change to give a taxi driver. That's so unnecessary, and I finally decided to do something about it.

I mentioned in an earlier blog (click here) about a place downtown where you can get change. Today I set out to find it.

That didn't turn out to be very difficult. A friend told me it was right behind an indigenous market which I knew of on the corner at Mariscal Lamar. Sure enough, there it was--the aptly named Banco de Cambio (Change Bank).

I went into a small space with two windows. Behind each of them was a worker, a change machine, and a wall unit of cubbies stuffed with a shitload of cash. You hand over a copy of either your passport or cedula along with your cash. Information is typed into a computer. Your amount of money is entered into the change machine (in my case, $50) and, Vegas style, dollar coins come pouring out into a bag.

I was in and out of there in less than a minute. And I've been screwing with this spare change aggravation for three years? What a dummy!

Alas, it gets worse. I confess the entire first year we lived here I assumed the Sacagawea dollar was an Ecuadorian coin. In my defense, a) it's copper-colored like a penny on steroids, and the dollar coins with which I am familiar are silver, so who knew? b) we're in a Latin American country and Sacagawea, as an Indian, looks kind of indigenous, and c) for both of those reasons I never really studied at the damn things.

In case I'm not the only gringo in Cuenca who doesn't know where the Banco de Cambio is, it's on the northwest corner of Benigno Malo and Mariscal Lamar. You can't miss it--unless, like me, you walk past it for 3 years without noticing----.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Today Show

We aren't "have-the-TV-on-constantly" people. And for years I read the morning paper religiously. I enjoyed the ritual of retrieving it from the driveway and scanning the pages while drinking a cup of coffee each day.

So I never tuned into the Today Show in the US. But I recently discovered it's aired on DirecTV only five hours after the live broadcasts in the States. This may not seem very timely in our current world of instant communication. When you consider I've watched episodes of Dinner Impossible from five years ago that's pretty darned speedy for around these parts.

Since the show airs at 1 PM I've found it's an entertaining diversion during lunch. Two big pluses are HD and English. The one downside is l-o-n-g commercial breaks which (although I haven't formally timed them) seem to last up to ten minutes. We've discovered this is actually better than the one or two minute intervals we're used to that barely allow time to go to the bathroom. We can refresh our beverages, throw a load of clothes in the washer, and check email before the next segment starts.

Not only do we get to keep up with current news and various entertainment fluff, sometimes the information dispensed unexpectedly comes in handy.

I was recently chatting with our daughter, who lives in Hoboken right across from Manhattan, on Skype. She told me me that she had outdoor plans that afternoon but was worried about rain. I replied, "Oh, don't worry about it. Roker said that front is going to go through the upstate area. You'll be fine."

We both laughed at how in Ecuador I knew more about her current weather than she did.

Well, looks like the commercials are over. Thanks, Al. Keep up the good work.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Just Peachy

Shortly after we moved to Cuenca I was cruising the Supermaxi trying to learn what was available. This was back in the days when I hoped if I stared at labels without pictures long enough they would somehow magically translate themselves from Spanish into English. Needless to say grocery shopping took a while back then.

When I got to the produce section there were several vegetables and a lot of fruits I didn't recognize, but one immediately jumped out at me.


I'm a Southern boy and it was summertime. What more do I need to say? Even though they were small, hard, imported and pricey, I bought several so I could enjoy a little taste of home.

I waited until they seemed sufficiently ripened and anxiously sliced into one. It was dry and mealy. Ugh. Another one. The same. All of them turned out to be nasty and inedible, and had to be thrown away.

Where I come from it's almost a sin to throw away peaches. This incident left such a lasting impression that I've never bought another one here.

Until last week.

I wheeled into the produce section and there they were, gorgeous beauties beckoning me to come over and give them a squeeze. They were bigger and, well, more "peachy" looking than normal. I picked one up, looked at the label. California!

When we lived in Vegas peaches from California were all we could get. They aren't in the same league as ones from Georgia and especially South Carolina but were at least edible. I couldn't resist. But I bought only two in case of further disappointment.

Yesterday morning I peeled, sliced, and macerated those babies in sugar. I set the stage with a bacon, eggs, and grits breakfast. Then with hesitation I tried a slice----.

Yes! Real peaches! Hallelujah!! I savored each bite with undisguised pleasure. The bowl was empty much too soon.

Once they're gone who knows when we'll see them again. I'm heading back to Supermaxi today. There may be a peach cobbler in the Staton's immediate future!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Trip to Olon

Cynthia and I went to Olon, located a few minutes north of Montanita on the coast, last weekend for several days.

Ecuador is a small country, only about the size of Colorado. The major highways are honestly better than many we’ve ridden on in the States.

But getting from here to there, especially when you live in the highlands like we do, is problematic because of geography. The Andes run like a spine from north to south. Going west to the coast requires winding through the Cajas mountains to Guayaquil, then generally heading north (in other words, following both sides of a triangle instead of the shorter hypotenuse).

Traveling north or south is even worse because you are constantly zigzagging through the mountains. How much worse? A flight to Quito takes 45 minutes. The drive takes eight hours. Ouch.

We tried the new express bus service to Guayaquil this morning. In the past we usually used a van service which takes three hours and costs $12/person. But the bus companies and airlines have been complaining for years about these improperly licensed operators, and this time it appears their opposition may finally shut them down.

Police roadblocks have resulted in over 100 impounded vehicles with passengers left on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to fend for themselves. No thanks.

We discovered the “modern” express buses, as they were described, were—not so much. Granted they were clean and comfortable with a bathroom in the back, but no air conditioning? It has been so damned chilly in Cuenca that this didn’t matter on the way over, but Guayaquil’s heat and humidity made the first part of the return trip very uncomfortable. Never thought I’d look forward to reaching the Cajas mountains, but the cooler air was a great relief.

The ride costs only $8 per person and takes about 45 minutes longer than the vans, which was fine because the ride was smooth and we didn’t get slammed around on the many curves. Plus we were treated to free entertainment--a dreadful old Robin Williams movie called Jumanji and straight-to-video “Sniper.” Both were in Spanish, of course (with Spanish subtitles just for spite). I have to admit watching both, and they did make the trip seem shorter.

We made our traditional lunch stop at McDonald’s (going and coming) in the Guayaquil terminal’s food court. I highly recommend the McBacon burger. Hey. If you’re gonna do fast food, why hold back?

The buses run by CLP between Guayaquil and Olon are really nice—super-comfortable seats and, yes, air conditioned. The just-shy-of 3 hour ride costs $6 and goes by quickly, especially when the north route starts running along the coastline about halfway through.

Olon’s beachfront is occupied by a line of about 30 seafood shacks (that all seem to serve exactly the same menu), so accommodations are close by but not right on the ocean. Our modest room less than a minute from the sand set us back a whopping $25 per night.

So let’s add up the cost of transportation and lodging for 4 days and 3 nights:

Transportation: Cuenca to Guayaquil & back (4 tickets @ $8) $32
Guayaquil to Olon & back (4 tickets @ $6) 24

Lodging: Three nights @ $25/night 75

Total $131

Eating abundant seafood and drinking a lot of beer maybe ran $30/day, so throw in another $120 for food and we were all in for around $250. That ain’t bad!

We had been warned the weather at the beach was much the same as Cuenca’s during this time of year. Yes and no. The skies were overcast like here but it was much warmer. I was comfortable walking around in shorts and even went bodysurfing in the renowned waves of this part of the coast. Our getaway was more for business than pleasure so the climate wasn’t a primary concern anyway.

Nearby Montanita is---well, Montanita. What else can you say? A minor league version of New Orleans, Times Square, and Vegas all rolled into one, on the weekends the streets are teeming with people, drinks are flowing, music is blaring, and video screens are flashing.

One of the streets is lined on both sides with around 40 portable bars where your $2.50 Pina Colada is made from a fresh pineapple sliced right in front of you. Street performers share their space with stray dogs that happily wander around but never bother anyone.

It’s a place unlike any other I know of in Ecuador. You either like it or you don’t. I happen to like it very much—in limited doses.

Wouldn’t you know it, thirty minutes before we boarded the bus to return to Guayaquil, the sun burst through and cloud cover gave way to brilliant blue skies. Wow, we came close to staying, but the tickets were paid for and our bags were packed, so we reluctantly took our seats and enjoyed the scenery out the window.

It’s OK. There will be many other times.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Restaurant Riviera

Three years ago Cynthia and I hoped we had made a good decision. The container filled with our possessions was en route to Ecuador and we had no residence in which to unload its contents.


We knew we didn’t want to live downtown or on the west side of the city, and could find nothing suitable in the south/central part of town where we had focused our search. With the clock ticking we finally found and leased a beautiful place in the southeast that we loved and would hold all our stuff. But we’d only been in Cuenca for a month and knew absolutely nothing about our new neighborhood.

Turns out we couldn’t have made a better choice. The surrounding streets are filled with large older homes, big trees and mature landscaping. A Supermaxi, Ecuador’s dominant supermarket chain, is a 10 minute walk away, as is Parque Paraiso, Cuenca’s largest park. El Centro can be reached in 20 minutes.

Our street, Avenida Paucarbamba, has undergone exciting transformations. Neither of us are big shoppers, but two lovely high-end clothing stores have opened plus several new restaurants.

Speaking of which, I’m thrilled to report that this part of town has evolved into what I will call the “Restaurant Riviera!” I thought of this as I was walking to Milenium Mall (yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) this morning. On the way I noticed a gorgeous new Spanish restaurant and two more dining establishments under construction. Roux Bar & Bistro opened right up the street two weeks ago and has enjoyed instant success.

I realized within a five minute stroll from our home we have a choice of six seafood restaurants. And we’re in the Andes--can you imagine? Extend that protractor out fifteen minutes and, counting the food court at Milenium, I’m certain we have over 40 nice places to eat. That doesn’t include the numerous blue-collar cheap lunch joints. Or Cuenca’s very first McDonald’s that will be open soon!

To be honest we usually eat at home. And after all this time we still haven’t tried every dining possibility within walking distance. But it’s awesome to know that, if we’re just not in the mood to cook and clean up (no dishwasher!), a great meal is only a few minutes away!