Saturday, October 31, 2015

Cuenca Independence Day Festivities

This weekend our hometown hosts its biggest party of the year celebrating Cuenca Independence Day. All hotels are fully booked as 100,000 visitors have poured into the city to participate in the festivities. Displays, activities, fireworks, and concerts are happening day and night all over town.

We attended an outdoor kickoff performance by the Cuenca Symphony Thursday evening in Parque de la Madre. How awesome it was to enjoy such quality entertainment for free while sipping a nice bottle of wine we brought along. Afterwards we strolled home talking about how great our life is here.

Last night we went to an awesome Halloween party at the home of some of our dearest friends. I'll tell you all about it in my next post. In the meantime here's a preview pic.

Oh, my!!

Today was the first official day of the festival. Since we needed to return the capes we'd rented for the party we decided to wander around and check out the action. Along the way I took a few photos to share.

A small segment of those 100,000 visitors plus 500,000 residents.

Loads of colorful merchandise for sale.

It was damned hot today. Not sure why these candied apples weren't melting.

Artwork tends to be on the colorful side as well.

No more festivities for us as we're off tomorrow morning for a week and a half at the beach. Tough life, huh? Can't wait to tell you about last night's party. Stay tuned------.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Doing What You've Gotta Do

A prerequisite to successful expat life is the ability to be flexible. So many aspects of your daily experiences abroad are different from what you're used to wherever you came from. Your choices in dealing with this truth are: 1) make yourself miserable by finding fault with the culture and the lack of availability of goods and services you previously took for granted, or 2) find joy in being creative and adaptable in your new surroundings.

I can think of no better example of all this than in food preparation. We live at 8400 feet here in Cuenca. At that high altitude it takes water forever to come to a boil because of the thin oxygen. Baking requires lots of adjustments both to the amount of ingredients (more flour, less leavening, less fat) and to the oven temperature. I've never seen french fries get too brown no matter how long I've left them in the oil.

Then there's the matter of what you have to choose from when you go to the grocery store. A restaurant owner may have come in before you and wiped out the whole inventory of broccoli or romaine lettuce. Lots of items you readers in the U.S. routinely purchase, particularly with ethnic foods, are not on our shelves ever at any price.

We arrived in 2010 with naive assumptions about learning to cook local dishes. When we discovered you can get all of the local cuisine you want at lunch around town every day for $3 per person that notion was quickly jettisoned in favor of figuring out how to make what we already know how to make with what's here.

I also love flipping through food magazines and looking at new recipes online. In every case the keepers are those that can prepared as shown or a "work around" can be devised.

I bumped into a knockoff recipe for P.F. Chang's lettuce wraps. Certainly better Chinese food can be found at other restaurants in the States but we really like that dish and Asian food here is, shall we say, a bit sketchy. So I decided to give it a go.

Two challenges. First, we don't have ground chicken or turkey in the supermarket. Betcha didn't know that. No problem--ground pork is a reasonable substitute. Next, those crunchy water chestnuts are MIA as well. What to do, what to do? My solution was finely chopped carrots. Same texture and more nutrition.

The result? Voila! Edd's knockoff-of-a-knockoff P.F. Chang lettuce wraps.

Are they any good? Do you think I would have written this blog if they weren't? Hell yeah, they're fantastic!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A New Travel Wrinkle to Share

Our normal strategy for travels to the States is to keep going. By that I mean scheduling flights with minimal layovers and absolutely NO overnight stays. A short layover is a great excuse to stretch your legs a bit, but there's nothing worse than arriving late, schlepping your luggage to a hotel and falling in bed for a few hours, then reversing the drill early the next morning. You arrive at your destination exhausted and out of sorts.

To accomplish this we generally fly red eye's. We are able to sleep at least a little on the plane, and with a nap the next day we're good to go. Plus overnight flights don't waste a whole travel day.

We follow the same plan returning home when going through Guayaquil, but we avoid that alternative whenever possible because we've stumbled upon a much better idea flying into Quito. Over the years we've developed great friends there who, when in town, graciously open their homes to us whenever we are coming though. One couple lives nearby and kindly transports us back and forth as well.

Resting and relaxing with friends and without responsibilities for a couple of days before flying home has proven to be incredibly rejuvenating. Plus since Quito is 1000 feet higher than Cuenca we find readjusting to the altitude at home is much quicker. It used to take us a week to feel like ourselves again, but doing it this way we feel great almost immediately.

On our most recent trip home we experienced a new wrinkle on this plan that I want to pass along to readers in Cuenca who don't have friends in Quito and others who may be coming to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos or explore the country as a possible retirement destination. We were contacted by friends Jon and Cheryl Byrd who now live in Mindo outside Quito and maintain a residence in the city that they've now listed on airbnb. They asked us to come check it out and we happily accepted their invitation.

Boy, are we glad we did because their place is amazing! Located in a quiet residential neighborhood with easy access to nearby Parque Carolina, this is not some cramped and sparse studio apartment--it's a real house loaded with cool amenities and their personal furnishings. With an open floor plan,

huge fully stocked kitchen,

three, yes, three bedrooms,

a lovely outdoor space with grill and fireplace,

washer and dryer, separate office and sitting area, plus, get this, a steam/shower room that is to die for, what more could you possibly want???

We loved staying at the Byrd's home and highly recommend it to all of you who find yourself in Quito. Check out more details here.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Cheese Stands Alone

I'm sitting here savoring a plate of Parrano and sharp cheddar cheese with fruit and crackers. That may not seem like a big deal because you don't realize that cheese in Ecuador pretty much sucks. Oh, we have plastic packages in the grocery store with names like Gouda, Gruyere, and Swiss, but sadly the contents are all perpetrators of identity theft with the same bland flavor.

We always return from the States with some new clothes and personal care products plus non-perishable food items like nuts, Dijon mustard, horseradish, taco sauce, and peanut butter. When a friend shared that she brings back cheese Cynthia and I were like, "Wow." Since cheese is in the refrigerated section somehow we'd never thought about it, but what the heck, it's aged in caves or something, right? And we wouldn't ever be out of air conditioning.

So we loaded up and---YES!!--it totally worked! Our life continues to improve in little increments like this that are hard for you to appreciate in the "Land of Plenty."

But cheese is supposed to go with wine, and therein lies a bit of a problem. We enjoyed so many fabulous wines at reasonable prices in the U.S. When I was huffing and puffing at the gym a friend commented that during the month away my red blood cell count had lowered, which is true. Since we live at high altitude our bodies naturally produce more red blood cells so we stay properly oxygenated in this thinner atmosphere. I relied to him, "Yeah, and they've been replaced with red wine cells!"

Import taxes have gotten so hateful that even OK wine is now prohibitively expensive. We noticed the prices had gone up even during the short time we were away. As an example, wines we paid $5 for in Argentina and Chile, and maybe $9 in the States, top $20 here now. Yikes!!

So---the cheese stands alone. We've switched over to an excellent dark Caribbean rum for $12/fifth that lasts for days rather than the equivalent of twelve buck Chuck that tastes lousy and is gone in one night.

Speaking of which, my glass is empty. Until next time------.

Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On

We were abruptly awakened at 5:08 AM by---a car alarm? A house alarm? Barking dogs? All excellent guesses but, no, this time it was by an----EARTHQUAKE!!!

This was I think the fifth one we've experienced since living in Ecuador and by far the most "vigorous," lasting maybe eight-ish seconds and giving the whole building a good shake. Cynthia put a pillow on her head and I said, "Don't get up!" Is that what you're supposed to do? I don't have a clue; I just said the first thing that came into my half-asleep mind. But thinking about it now, if the building collapsed at least we'd have had a California King-sized cushion under us.

Earthquakes here seem to happen around this same time of the early morning and always wake us up, but we've gotten so used to them that when the last one hit we simultaneously mumbled, "Earthquake---" and went back to sleep, never even bothering to open our eyes.

A couple of years ago we were in Quito for an International Living conference and our room was on a high floor of the Swissotel. We were talking to our son on Skype when he said, "Um, why is the picture moving back and forth?" Cynthia replied, "Because we're HAVING AN EARTHQUAKE! BYE!" Since the internal structure of taller buildings is designed to have more "give" in these situations, we were really swaying for a few seconds.

Ecuador doesn't have weather extremes like wide-ranging temperature swings, tornadoes, and hurricanes. But shifting plates beneath the surface do create occasional minor earthquakes and potentially extreme volcanic activity. You may have read that Cotapaxi volcano near Quito has rumbled to life and could erupt any day now. No one can predict the severity if it does, but over 300,000 citizens are in harm's way and the government has evacuation plans in place.

Then there's the coming El NiƱo. You probably know that the predicted heavy rains may thankfully relieve some of California's drought. Over here in South America Peru and Ecuador are expected to get hammered as well, and if storm activity is as severe as expected a lot of residences built too close to the ocean are expected to be destroyed. Sad, but that's the chance you take when building codes are ignored.

If you've never felt an earthquake I've gotta tell you it's really freaky. You're in the "safety of your own home" yet don't feel safe at all when the whole damn building is moving. We rode out a hurricane in Charleston years ago and, similarly, experiencing the raw power of Mother Nature when she gets riled up is absolutely amazing and at the same time incredibly humbling.

Well, time for bed, people. Getting rocked to sleep when you're a baby is lovely. Getting rocked awake---not so much. Wish us sweet dreams!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Time to Go Home!

In a scene that's repeated every time we travel, I'm done packing (like in 15 minutes) and Cynthia is still hard at it. Is that our private scenario or do you other couples go through the same drill?

When we were young our elder relatives warned how time would fly when we were their age. Just the opposite has turned out to be true for us. Our lives are so busy that we often look back on recent events and say to each other, "My God, it seems like that happened forever ago!"

Such has been the case with this trip to the States. We've been gone only about a month but it feels like a much longer period of time. We started in New Jersey, then to Las Vegas, back to New Jersey, then to North Carolina. We leave in the morning to fly back to Newark before a layover in Atlanta and arrival in Quito tomorrow night. Two nights there then back to our home late Saturday night. It truly feels like we've been gone for months and I can't even say how many.

What a whirlwind of experiences--awesome malls--the Bronx Zoo--all kinds of food and wine--Las Vegas--grandkids--Trader Joe's--driving. I drove more in the last week than in the previous five years. And it wasn't an overall pleasant activity. We're used to walking almost everywhere. If we're a bit turned around we stop, look, talk about it, then proceed. When you're driving, you have to make immediate decisions that are so stressful. Oh, shit, the entrance ramp is on the right and we're in the left lane! Why can't they be consistent?? Where am I supposed to turn? Great, we just missed it. Sigh---.

And while your perimeter is exponentially expanded by having a car, sitting behind the wheel on roads and freeways feels like such a colossal waste of time and so sterile. I miss being outside and walking through my neighborhood, feeling the sun on my face, smelling and hearing, what? Life I guess.

It's weird how I don't really feel like I belong anywhere here any more. Northern people are so harsh. The sound of their conversations are grating on my ears. Southern people are so---Southern. Cynthia overheard a grandmama talking to her grandson in Toys "R' Us today and could barely understand what she was saying through the drawl.

Don't get me wrong, I love this country, and I love my family. But I don't think I could be happy living here full time again. I've been away from this culture too long and I also love the life we've created in Ecuador--the unhurried flow of life, the friendships we treasure, the happier, relaxed person I've become.

I think it's time to go home.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Random Thoughts from the U. S.

1. We lived in Las Vegas for 4 years before moving to Ecuador, right? So you think we'd be used to the heat, but my God, during our week there for the IL conference we were constantly asking ourselves, "How in the hell did we do this?!?" When you're used to our highs of mid-70's and a low of mid-50's in Cuenca every day, 100+ temps are a shock to your system. We stayed with friends for a day after the conference and I walked across the street to explore the new LINQ retail area. As soon as I returned I threw on my bathing suit and jumped in the pool. Oof--in every way you can imagine, Las Vegas is a great place to visit--can't believe we actually lived there!

2. A new mall has opened right behind the Red Rock Casino where the conference was held. We wandered over there for dinner one night and decided to eat at a restaurant called the Lazy Dog. In spite of the grueling daytime temps Vegas is actually quite pleasant in the evening so we asked to eat outside. But since we had entered through the al fresco area and noticed a number of dogs we asked to be seated where they weren't. Well, it turns out the name of the restaurant was chosen specifically because they cater to dog owners. H-m-m-m---being non-pet people this wasn't ideal, but we were hungry and the music was too loud inside so we said OK, just as far from the canines as possible. Good decision--my ribs were fall-off-the-bone amazing and Cynthia's salmon was outstanding as well. (And thankfully no one's dog came to the table begging for one of my bones.)

3. Speaking of food, we've developed a new formula for eating out in the States: 1 serving = at least 2 meals. No wonder the U.S. has an obesity problem. The meals are enormous! Talking about this over ridiculously huge platters of food one night, we couldn't remember ever pushing back a plate in Ecuador and saying, "Wow, I'm stuffed--I can't eat another bite!"

4. And speaking of Ecuador, there aren't many rules for daily living in our country. Personal responsibility is king, and people are generally left alone to live life as they choose. In the States we've discovered it's quite different. Take our daughter's hometown in New Jersey. I try to be helpful when I'm here and one night I volunteered to take out the yard trash and recycling since pickup was scheduled for the next morning. I went out the following day and saw it all still sitting there. Why? Because I hadn't put the trash on the correct side of the sidewalk. Really? The sidewalk is like two feet wide. But those are the rules, of which I've since learned there are many in this part of the world. So I took everything out tonight and was reflecting on how I now am concerned about my "presentation" of the f---ing trash to please the garbage men enough to remove it all. Sigh----

Tomorrow we head to North Carolina to visit the other half of the family. Who knows what adventures await there?