2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage

2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage


My mission in publishing this blog is first to provide a living history of my settlement and life in Cuenca, and to provide myself and the reader with a journal account delineating my reasons for why I have chosen to settle in Cuenca. Second, the posts are my way of staying in contact with family and friends back in the states, and to provide them with an understanding of a country and culture that most North Americans have little knowledge and awareness. Third, the blog is open to one and all who wish to compare and contrast the experiences of expat bloggers living in Cuenca, so that you can determine whether or not from your perspective Cuenca is an appropriate move for you. Fourth, my blog provides another example of how expats view and interpret life in Cuenca. Ecuadorians and Cuencanos who may read this blog are especially invited to post comments that may enhance all expats understanding and appreciation of Cuneca and its people, or to correct any misinterpretations in my assumptions and perceptions of Cuencano culture. Finally, I hope I can convey the feeling of love and appreciation that grows within me each passing day for this heavenly city nestled in the Andes and its very special people.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blessing and Curses, Curses and Blessings: Part III

I have had serious problems with my computer, and Nancy Watson had recommended a gentleman to me who she believed could repair it. (Nancy, if you are reading this, the problems went way beyond a browser button that wouldn't click by the time I sought help.) Jose Cortez (09-556-1077)came to my place, took a look at my new laptop, which was bought specifically for my trip to Cuenca. To make a long story short, Jose took the computer with him, made all the corrections necessary, which included cleaning up viruses. Before Jose brought the computer back the next day, he needed a couple of extra hours to complete his repairs. Since I did not have a phone, Jose sent a friend by, so I could talk with Jose on the phone to verify that he would be a couple of hours late from the time that he thought he would drop off my computer.

When Jose returned the computer; he sat for two hours with me and showed me everything that he had cleaned-up and corrected, new programs he had downloaded on my computer and how they worked, and how to download photos from my camera to the blog site. A miracle may happen, and who knows, you just may see some photos yet before I leave Cuenca--no promises though. Jose's prices were very reasonable, and yes, this is an advertisement. If you need a computer repair hombre in Cuenca, Jose Cortez is your man--high quality, excellent service, and reasonable pricing.

Of course, that wasn't the end of my computer problems. After the computer was returned, parts of text were jumping around while I was typing emails, posts, and Office Word. Jose immediately identified the problem. I needed a mouse. The built-in device used to navigate in these laptops was too sensitive to my wrist and finger motions, so for less than ten dollars, I was able to purchase a cordless mouse--problem more than solved. Well no, not quite yet. No more than all my computer problems were rectified, then the cable connection stopped working for the better part of two days. For reasons beyond my understanding--maybe less traffic on the weekend--but by Friday evening and all day today the cable has just been working fine. Go figure! So when I couldn't use my computer, it has given me more time to study my Spanish. Oh, learning all these conjunctions and word orders is going to be so much fun.

City Bus Cruise and Local Fest

The last two days have been sunny and restful. I missed getting out to Zoe's Friday evening due to illness from something I most likely ate at a local fest, and should have known better than to eat. Today, Saturday, has been a day of rest as well. So hopefully, I will feel well enough to get out and about tomorrow morning to Parque Calderon, where on Sunday mornings concert programs may be presented, and a number of expats come to meet, touch bases, and possibly have breakfast or lunch together.

Jose Cortez, the computer technician and I got to talking, and I told him about how I wanted to ride the double-decker bus on a city tour of Cuenca. How my first attempt had failed, and how I heard that the tour was only in Spanish. Jose had not taken the tour himself, so he went along and he translated for me. The current price of the tour is five dollars, and takes about two hours. As it turns out part of the tour is in English. An attractive young blond, American from Seattle who was doing her internship in Cuenca did the honors in English. However, most of the tour is presented in Espanol. My camera is also new, so I have been learning how to use it. This is the first time I have purchased a camera since my 35mm died in the 90's. The city tour was my first effort at using the video, and I have not transferred it yet from my camera to my laptop to maybe the blog--oh this really is going to prove interesting! We went up to Camino a Turi, the pinnacle of Cuenca, where I was able to snap panoramic photos and videos of the city. I also had my first ear of white corn cooked over the charcoal grill. It's a definite winner. I was surprised for kernels as large as these and prepared in the manner that they were, that they came out so tender and flavorful.

The tour gave me a good perspective of the layout of the city, and an opportunity to experience the city from above instead of always at street level. What was fun for everyone on the upper-deck was that the cables running across the street are low enough that a number of them barely clear the bus. When passengers are standing and taking photos or video-taping on the upper-deck, the crowd shouts at them to get down before they are decapitated or electrocuted. We truly did have to duck sometimes lower than the back of the seats to avoid contact with cables. That's a city excursion one will never experience in Chicago. The insurance companies haven't destroyed Cuenca yet.

While touring the city, we saw a square where people were preparing for a local fest that evening, and decided we would attend later. We had dinner at the up-scaled, Vino Olivo, which was near the square where the fest was taking place. The restaurant's lights were out, so we ate on the patio. The kitchen did have power. Eventually, power was restored throughout the entire establishment. We actually had a great location for seeing the fireworks, and the burning lights which slowly ascended into the sky like hot-air balloons, and stayed lit and afloat for as long as half-an-hour. I have not been to a fireworks display in the states for at least six or seven years now, so these lights were something new to me. The dinner was disappointing. We ordered a seafood paella. Both the rice and the seafood were too dry, which is exactly how I have had paella back home in Valparaiso on several occasions. Only once, have I had paella, which melted in my mouth; which was in a Spanish restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin about ten years ago. Possibly other fare on the menu may be quite good, but I would not recommended the paella.

After dinner, we went over to the concert. The performance was an Ecuadorian contemporary rock group, and the theme was "Cuenca Lives". Makeshift eateries were everywhere. I forgot what Jose said they were called, but I pointed out to him the trays of cones sticking up in what looks like mounds of ice cream. I knew this colorful concoction wasn't ice cream, because it doesn't melt. Before I could say anything more, Jose pulled out some coins and bought me a cone. I had refused to purchase this dessert in the past, because I was concerned about contamination. The purchase had been made, throwing precaution to the wind, and not wanting to offend Jose; I ate it. It had the texture of Cool Whip, and I understand that it is made from fruit juices. It is served with a very little spoon, which is actually a tiny plastic utensil with a flat square surface extending from the handle were the spoon should be. From the number of adults and kids I see eating these cones, they seem quite popular. The cones and their vividly colored concoctions are not very large, and are obviously intended to be eaten in small bites. I myself would prefer ice cream or soft-serve. Of course, there was hell to be paid the next morning as my health issues arose, and I stayed near the facilities in the condo all day and night Friday. Sunday, I went to a pharmacy to get medication for stopping the runs. No one needs a prescription to use the pharmacies in Ecuador. Just stop in, and tell them what you need or want, and it's yours.

It was about 10:30 p.m. Thursday night, and maybe 500 to 1,000 people were on hand at the fest. According to Jose, the band was now playing nationalistic music, which was a clue that the concert was soon to end. We both grabbed cabs going in opposite directions to our homes ahead of the mob of people, a number of whom may have tied traffic up for quite awhile attempting to cross streets in a duel with the autos and attempting to signal taxis all at the same time. My taxi had to come to the end of a median and make a place to turn around and take me in the opposite direction. Believe me, he made a place. It truly is whoever gets the space first in this competition. Except for the taxis, there were no amusement rides like one would find at neighborhood and church fests back home. There was a hill were kids had mats that had green glo-lites on them, which they used to ride down a natural hill that was only six-eight feet high. The kids remind me of my generation when we were kids, when we didn't have so much and had to often make our own fun.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cuenca Foods

I've had major computer problems, but I'm in no mood to go into that today. Last week we had five absolutely beautiful days of gorgeous weather--clear skies, sunshine, and no rain. Most of this week has been rainy, although the sun did come out later Wednesday afternoon; and today, Friday, has been quite sunny. It's really difficult to believe a ten day weather forecast for Cuenca on the Internet. The forecasts are bizarre. Two sites--like MSN--predicted the chances for precipitation, which depended on the day of the week, to range from 70-90%, well into late next week. Meanwhile, two other sites gave a forecast for the same time period which ranged from 15% to 30% chances of rain. In other words, we will know the chances for precipitation on any given day, only when that given day arrives.

I braved the drizzle and the on-and-off showers determined to walk to the indigenous market for an assortment of fresh fruits. I was told that on Wednesdays, the market expands to three to four times its daily size. I went hog-wild on a variety of fruits. The prices by American standards are so low. The women were selling, and I was buying! I bought eight gigantic bananas today for 25 cents total. I picked the really green ones, so they would take awhile to ripen. Strawberries of a large size, and globe-type grapes were a dollar a pound. I know I overpaid for these. Mangoes were 50 cents a piece. Mangoes and strawberries are difficult to find in the market at this time, so I paid for these products without any real haggling. The ladies were not willing to budge one iota with me on these particular fruits. I know when I left the states, mangoes were selling for 50 cents each. However, those mangoes were half the size of the ones I purchased here in Cuenca. These larger mangoes, during this time of the year when they are plentiful, sell four for five dollars or sometimes a dollar each in places like Super WalMart or Meijers back home. I don't know why mangoes are so rare at this time in Cuenca. Still, I know I paid too much. I thought I got a good deal on kiwis, which was ten for a dollar.

Communication in translation can at times go awry, and in one situation I gave three women a good laugh when I could not comprehend exactly how many grapes I was getting for a dollar. Knowing I was being ridiculous in a reaction to our mutual lack of clear communication I said, "What! One grape for one dollar." After the ladies had their laugh and chuckles at my expense, the one woman weighed the grapes out and showed me exactly what a dollar would get me. The old saying once again held true, "A picture is worth a thousand words." One thing expats say after they have been in Cuenca awhile is that they no longer compare prices with American prices, but instead compare them within the Cuenca market of competition. When expats return to visit in the states, the sticker shock is abhorrent.

I purchased five Ecuadorian fruits that were extremely inexpensive by my expectations. I was able to purchase the equivalent quanities of eight to ten of these fruits for a dollar. The best of these is granadilla--gold to orange in color and about the size of a tennis ball. Crack them open with your fingers and eat the sweet-tasting liquid pulp and seeds as if drinking from a dipper. The narajillan is much larger than the granadilla and is green in color. It has a citrus taste that is like a cross between rhubarb and lime, and often it is used in making many fruit juices. Fruit juices are found everywhere in almost every restaurant and made fresh. The narajillan is another favorite of mine as well. Another version of the narajillan is the naranjilla (naran xiya), which means the "little orange". I have no idea why it is referred to as a "little orange", since it is a little larger than a ping-pong ball and actually looks more like a small not yet ripened tomato. But like these other fruits discussed in this paragraph they have a skin which is like a solid shell that is broken open with the fingers, and like the narajillan, the naranjilla has a green liquified content for consumption, but with a stronger citrus taste.

Guayaba is yellowish green in color, and about 1/4th the size of a granadilla, but larger in size than a naranjilla. The guayaba is an Ecuadorian breed of the guava family. I don't recall ever eating guava. Unlike the other fruits discussed in the previous paragraph, the guayaba is not filled with a liquid type of pulp. The texture and taste reminds me of avacado. Avacados are also consumed widely in Ecuador.

The(toma te de arbo'l) looks like an oval-shaped tomato, only with a tougher skin. It is considered a fruit, but then so is the tomato. I must give credit to the building security guys. They identified the fruits for me, and wrote out each of the fruit's names. A lady, who lives in the building and who also speaks English, was entering the building as we were working on our fruit identification project. She explained to me that (toma te de arbo'l) is like a tomato only sweeter, and is not used in salads. She said my particular picks were not yet ripe, and I should wait a few more days before eating them.

These tropical fruits are used not only for fruit drinks, or just simply eaten as picked, but also are used in the making of jellies, jams, marmalade's, ice creams and gelatos. They are also used in many recipes for the flavoring of dishes, the mixing of tropical alcoholic drinks, and the making of liquors--some of which would be unique to Norte Americanos. These fruits are loaded with many natural vitamins and minerals. The staples of plentiful fruits and vegetables in Ecuador make for a very healthy diet.

Ecuador is the banana capital of the world. It exports more bananas than any other country, and 1/3rd of its banana production is exported to the United States. More importantly, Ecuadorians still control their banana production, as opposed to the big three conglomerates of Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte.

As I said, I went hog-wild on fruits. I bought a colorful, striped, reusable shopping bag for 50c to carry my treasures back to the condo. Common sense would have dictated that I take a taxi back, but I was insistent that I would walk back despite the heftiness of the bag. I really needed the exercise. It was chilly when I left the condo, but the rain had stopped. Off came my jacket, and my long-sleeved, over-the-head, light-weight sweater-like garment. I took on the challenge in my blue tee-shirt, and made it all the way home in a sweat. The walk made for a good work-out, especially the last block up the steep incline to Cuadro Dos. Only if it would have rained heavily would I have surrendered to the use of a taxi.

Chicken in Ecuador, like Chicken back home, is said to be produced with the use of hormones. Cattle supposedly is still free of hormones, and most cattle is grange-raised on grass. There are health professionals who theorize that grange-raised cattle is much healthier than corn-fed cattle. The theory is that corn-fed beef may be a major dietary contributor for a great deal of the coronary problems among the modern American population in United States; while our ancestors avoided such coronary problems by eating grass-fed cattle. Usually restaurants make a distinction between "pollo" (chicken) dishes, and carne (meat) dishes. However, the meat is frequently not identified. Sometimes when I ask, I find out-sometimes not. For all I know, I may have already had cuy (guinea pig on one of the sticks laden with meat that is charbroiled over an open flame pit so common in the squares, carnivals, and by-ways of Cuenca).

Wednesday evening, I ate at a local neighborhood eatery. The vast majority of these restaurants are family-run. The husband ran the operation, his wife did the cooking, and his daughter of about eleven was there to help as well. Generally, in these neighborhood restaurants they don't frequently have gringo customers. I have found that the family will prepare a meal and want very much to please you with their preparation. The meal was quite good. A typical Ecuadorian meal served with rice, potatoes, beans, carne (in this case beef). There seems to be no end to how Ecuadorians can prepare their endless variety of potatoes, and they are always good. I need to find what these beans are called. I normally don't like beans of any kind, other than pork and beans, and the red kidney beans my mother used when she made her excellent chili. These beans are larger than the kidney beans, and very tasty the two times I've had them. Unfortunately, guys have a more difficult time digesting plant protein than women, so the after-effects of lower intestinal distress had to be tolerated.

The family just beamed when I complimented them on a delicioso meal. The young girl was always smiling the way children so often do in Cuenca. I gave her a fifty cent piece after I paid the bill. She thanked me, and excitedly bolted off her stool to immediately run to the kitchen to show her mother what I had given her. The price for the meal was a total of $4.00, and that included a grande beer. The bottle of beer was much larger than a large draft back home. I took half of the beer home with me, so I could finish it later. Another favorite of mine is the fried plantain, which looks like a very large green banana, and is served with many dishes in Ecuador, and can be prepared in many different ways.

What I have shared with you to date about the foods of Ecuador is barely skimming the surface, not only in foods that are unique to Ecuador, but also in the way in which they are prepared.

Retirement:: Part II

I now have my blog links in place, so readers of this site can read other perspectives and experiences of expats in Cuenca. Concerning retirement, I would like to link you to "Edd Says--Come to Quenca", Edd has a take on retirement in Cuenca that is more expansive than what I presented in my July 23rd post . Why recreate the wheel, when Edd already did such a fine job of expressing shared thoughts on retirement in Cuenca. Seek out Edd's post, Friday, July 16, 2010, entitled "Social Security".


Friday, July 23, 2010

What Retirement Can Be Like

What a busy, and fun-filled Thursday and Friday it has been for me. I had the opportunity to meet with fellow bloggers, Brian and Shelley, of "Planet Irony." We met for lunch at Raymipampa Restaurant, which is a favorite with Ecuadorians and expats alike. I had the chance to meet Freddi, who is the most adorable Shitsu, and lives just to be contentedly petted. Brian explained that Shitsu dogs over the centuries had been bred to have the aggressiveness taken out of them. A shitsu then served as a lap dog, who obediently sat on the Chinese empress' lap without causing a disturbance. A shitsu has hair instead of fur, and so does not shed. Freddi felt just like a ball of soft, fluffy fur; even though it was hair. It was so nice to be around a small dog that always wasn't yapping.

Later in the afternoon, Brian and Shelley invited me to their beautiful apartment. The wood throughout the home was done in laurel wood, which has a luxurious look to it, and appears to be the same color and hew of the wood I mentioned in a previous post seeing at an upscale pizza restaurante by the SuperMaxi. I had never heard of laurel trees before, so I learn something new everyday. Shelley assisted me with my blog. She gave me a lot of good pointers, and I very much appreciated her help. Shelley promised that when I return to Cuenca, I should be ready for her "graduate course" of statistical disaggregation analysis of blog viewers from around the world to my site, etc. With a course title like that I may have to pay university prices.

Brian, Shelley, and I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of buying, or of renting a furnished or an unfurnished apartment. This a major point of discussion that comes up frequently with expats and visitors like myself, with whom I meet and socialize in Cuenca. I will focus on this point specifically in a later post. We ended the early evening hours with a Ecuadorian beer, and what for me was an interesting afternoon of conversation.

Friday I had dinner with Lourdes, who had recently returned from Pennsylvania. Lourdes was born in Ecuador, but left at an early age with her family and grew up in the United States. She is at least for a period of time returning to her roots, although she does have a love affair with the "Big Apple" as well. We ate at the El Cantaro, which was the first visit for both of us. Lourdes had a pasta dish. There are quite a few pastas in Ecuador, but Lourdes told me that in the preparation of the sauces they generally are quite different from Italian pasta dishes. I had a steamed-trout dish prepared with a mustard-based sauce that I had found to be very good. Ecuador is also known for its fresh seafood dishes, both fish and shell fish. I intend to return to El Cantaro to try their sea bass. I understand that if I do not want to deal with the bones to be sure I order fish fillet. It seems fish that has not been filleted is more oftentimes served in Ecuador than in the states. Both dinners including our drinks and the two coffees following dinner came to about $16. Not a buy price for one of Cuenca's more upscale restaurants.

Lourdes is very busy refurbishing an apartment that she has just moved into since she returned from the states. She chose to rent an unfurnished apartment. Apartments in Ecuador do not come with light fixtures. The electrical is in place, but the fixtures around the bulbs must be purchased by the renter, and are taken by the renter when vacating the apartment. I met Lourdes through a blog link of expats in Cuenca long before I came to Cuenca. The blogs are a great way of not only learning about Cuenca, but also making contacts with people once you arrive. You will be able to link to Lourdes blog, "Looloo in Ecuador" as well as many others, right from my blog as soon as I get my blog links inserted. (Thank you, Shelley.)

Lourdes speaks Spanish very fluently, which I greatly envy. The advantage to being with someone who speaks fluent Spanish is that I can get so much more from a conversation with a Spanish-only speaking person, as Lourdes can quickly translate for me. On the other hand, having a translator is the type of "easy" which I do not want to take advantage of too often. It is only through my struggle with the language that I will improve in my use of it. I use the word "struggle", only because I wish I could communicate more with Ecuadorians using their language, since to date I have not met many who speak more than a modicum of English. Otherwise, the urgency of being in Cuenca pushes me forward to learn, and to make a game out of it. When I'm not listening and practicing "Spanish for Dummies", or practicing the elementary basics to procure a taxi ride or make a purchase; I can always practice or try a new sentence or two of Spanish on Jose', one of the security men here at the condo. Jose' makes me write down every new sentence I want to say to him, so he can see exactly what I am trying to say. Then he can correct my grammatical mistakes, pronunciation, or sentence structure order. I usually have to spend time first looking up the words in the dictionary, and stringing them together in sentences trying to apply as best I can what I remember about conjugations and so on. Jose does a good job with me, particularly considering that he hardly speaks a word of English.

Friday, it must be an evening at Zoe's for expats. What a great place to meet other expats and visitors like myself. There are so many fascinating people, who have done interesting things with their lives. These evenings at Zoe's are not only good for making social contacts, but also sharing information and being helpful to one another. These Friday evenings give expats who are interested the opportunity to meet and make an endless number of contacts and friends; which are always being replenished as new visitors come to vacation, study, or settle in Cuenca. It is generally impossible to meet with everybody in attendance over the course of a two hour social period. While many conversations are cursory, there are both old acquaintances and new to offer anyone in attendance some time for in-depth conversations. This evening alone I met with Larry, an investor from Los Angeles; talked with Doug, an entrepreneur from Atlanta; and conversed with George and Lillian of Houston, Texas, who have just settled in Cuenca, and who were the first couple I met my first day in Cuenca. I had time to touch bases with Ali and with Regina, who I met the previous week at Zoe's, and with whom I have spent some time since. Besides a quick hello to some people I met from the previous week at Zoe's, I also met Gil and Deborah from San Francisco; and I met Martin, who is about to take a college position teaching English in Kuwait, and has taught in a multiplicity of countries. People who meet at Zoe's will often break into smaller groups and head out for some evening activity. This Friday, Martin, Gil, Deborah, and I had dinner at a Columbian restaurant that Martin frequents. The meal was good, and the conversation was scintillating when talking with people who have such wide experiences of travel and study to bring to the table. All and all--a very good day!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Poverty in Cuenca

I had been told by friends that there was an open market close by about a mile from where I am staying at La Caudra Dos, about five blocks south of SuperMaxi. Therefore, I decided to explore that part of town yesterday and see if I could find the market. I had a choice of two directions to follow at one juncture. I decided not to follow the "straight line is the shortest distance between two points" philosophy, and instead took an around-a-bout path that looked like it would allow me to explore more of what seemed like a business district. This was probably the least affluent area of Cuenca I had encountered thus far. The population appeared to be primarily indigenous. My round-a-bout walking pattern surprisingly led me directly to the market. The market was more impressive than the one I had visited in El Centro, because it more reminded me of the open-markets I visited in India, Bangkok,and Hong Kong back in the 70's. However, even this market was not like the open-street bazaars where vendors were stationed under canopies of canvas like years ago.

This market was semi-housed in a building with the meats and all of the other manufactured items on the inside of the building that had only partial walls, while all the vendors of fruits and vegetables ringed around about half of the exterior of the market, sheltered in the open air only by a roof . The market vendors also appeared to be a totally indigenous people. The sounds of language, the haggling over prices, the smells and odors of every fruit and vegetable imaginable, the olfactory onslaught of freshly slaughtered meats of every kind, the aromas of newly picked flowers mixing with that of variously cooked meats, combined further with the smell of live-stock and pets, and finally the garbage and sewer odors--all effusively swirling in a mixture of sights, sounds, and smells rarely experienced in the states.

There were live chickens, roosters, geese, rabbits, and guinea pigs. All of which would be purchased, fattened up, and eventually eaten. Yes, guinea pigs are considered a national delicacy in Ecuador, and they are served under the name of cuy. No, not yet, and yes, maybe. As long as its not served to me with its feet and head still intact.

Of further interest were the large variety of dogs that could be purchased. I assume for pets. There was a multiplicity of breeds, all placed together (numbering six to twelve) in make-shift cages of wood frames and chicken wire, while resting on areas of straw waiting to be adopted. Obviously, there is nothing I have described to you that remotely would ever meet the standards of any Board of Health back home. The closest I can recall to an open market experience anything like this in the United States beckons back from my experience as a child and a very young man during the last of the hey-days of the old Maxwell Street market in Chicago, which was also known as "Jew Town" back in the 50's and 60's. I have memories of that time period that remind me of a familiarity of what I described to you above, except that on Maxwell Street every ethnic group imaginable was represented among the vendors and customers of a by-gone era.

I was amazed at how healthy the dogs in the market looked, and how well they seem to get along with one another. Dogs are numerous in Cuenca. They appear to me to have homes, and pretty much a free "come-and-go as you like" attitude by their owners. What I love about Cuencano dogs is that thus far not one has barked at me, and I have walked past many dogs. In fact, there was an enormous dog yesterday. He was just lying on the walk on his side. I, of course, am looking up and I don't spot the dog until the very last second. I almost fell full-body over him. Damn, the dog didn't even react. I must say, however, that there are times when I will hear what sounds like a large number of dogs barking. Sometimes it sounds as if two dogs or two packs of dogs are snarling and barking at one another, which is always quick and short-lived. Other times it's just dogs barking for a period of time. This serenade generally happens at night, and last night was the first evening were the dogs were howling and barking in unison for a period of time. I saw an almost full moon rising early today, so we must be in a full moon period. Hopefully, there are no vampires in Cuenca.

Cuenca, by world standards has what one may call "genteel poverty." The city has proportionately the largest middle-class of any large city in Ecuador. From what I have read, and from what I have heard from visitors, and from what I have observed to date; unlike Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador's two largest cities, there is no begging on the streets in Cuenca. Unlike from my own experiences in India, Cuenca does not have a homeless population. I have not to date found people sleeping on the sidewalks, nor sleeping on the stairs and in the hallways of tenements and high rises, nor sleeping in public buildings like the railway stations as was and is the case in India. Nor have I seen make-shift homes of refrigerator crates or tin roofs simply providing the semblance of a shelter as is still so common in India. If any of these activities are happening in Cuenca, they are very rare and not prevalent as these activities are in numerous cities in the world like a Mumbai.

Additionally in response to another one of your questions from back home. The Ecuadorian people for the most part are quite warm and friendly, as were the Indian people. I did have the advantage in India of being able to communicate more easily with more Indians, because more of them spoke at least some English, and the Indian middle-class spoke English quite well. However, I find people have been quite patient in trying to understand me in order to provide me with information or a service. Ecuadorians who approach me to possibly practice their English or just to help me out when they speak a little English, are quick to say not so fast, speak slower please. So yes, if someone has some understanding of English it does make sense to speak the language slowly enough for the other person to comprehend it. People who only have some familiarity with another language are still frequently translating in their heads. They have not reached the point yet, where they think automatically in the second language.

Blessings and Curses, Curses and Blessings: Part II

Well, on Tuesday, Nancy Watson of the awarding winning blog, "Nancy and Chuck in Ecuador" graciously stopped by to show me how to download photos from my camera to the blog. Things were going smoothly, until we came to the part where we had to click on "browse". The "browse" would not click into action, and that's as far as we got. So some of you who have been emailing me to see some photos of Cuenca, as I said in my earlier post, consider yourself lucky if I just get the blog posts up on a regular basis. I lucked out by renting an apartment with broadband connection. Who knows how this would have gone with my unfamiliarity with WIFI combined with my first use of a laptop. Nancy recommended a computer gentleman to me. If he responds, and is able to fix my new laptop; or more likely, show me what I'm doing or failing to do, to do what I want the computer to do, when I want it to do it; then I will be up and running and be able to do what you and I both want it to do, which is display some photos of Cuenca. Oh, the insanity of it all!

I like my new camera, which is a Fuji. Nancy managed to get what was currently on my camera displayed on a site, and from the quick glimpse I managed to take, the quality of the color and clarity from the photos looked good. Nonetheless, I was spoiled by my old 35mm Nikon, with telephoto and wide-angled lenses. I don't miss carting around all the equipment, but that telephoto allowed me to take photos of portions of buildings, close-ups of statues, and close-ups of people. I discretely could from a distance, for example, snap photos of people in native dress. Now, I would have to be very close to them, or ask their permission to take close-up photos. The close-ups can oftentimes be the most telling and intriguing.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

My First Weekend in Cuenca

Yesterday, Saturday, was a down day for me. By Friday night I was tired, but insisted that I was going to get my blog posted before I went to bed. When I am tired and spend too much time on the computer, I suffer from eye strain. I awakened Saturday to an excruciating head ache, and with all of the tension which surrounds my eyes when they are strained. Unfortunately, I only had aspirin, which I knew from experience was going to do no good. I hoped if I just stayed in bed and rested my eyes, the tension would finally let up. It was a perfect day to be under the weather. It was cloudy all day, and it also rained on and off throughout the day. Finally, I ventured out into the rain about 4:00 p.m. I needed food, and I needed something like a Tylenol.

Did I mention to you that since I have arrived in Cuenca I am always hungry? I have eaten more carbs in the past week than in the last two months. Some may argue that my increased carb intake is causing greater hunger cravings by playing havoc with my sugar levels, and they probably are right. Nevertheless, I find that fruits, yogurt, and meat without carbs just doesn't cut it for me in the Andes. I may be kidding myself, but my clothes to date don't feel any tighter. Friends here in Cuenca say the high altitude will require more carbs to keep up one's energy level, and the amount of walking we do also burns calories. Many a blogger has reported that they eat more, but still lose weight. Time will tell. If true, wouldn't that be the icing on the cake?

I arrived at the SuperMaxi, which is not only a supermarket, but anchors about a dozen other upscale boutiques and shops in an enclosed mall environment. I decided to try the pizza in one of the restaurants. Remember I only paid a $1.50 for a personalized delicioso pizza on my first day of arrival. At this restaurant, I paid $6.00 for the Pizza which included tax, but did not include the coke. The pizza was decent--nothing really to write home about. So why the greater expense for mediocre pizza? I was paying for higher rental in an upscale shopping center, and for ambiance. The restaurant had elegant wood counters of a two-tone hue. If I were building a house, I would definitely want my kitchen cabinets and any other woodwork done in that particular wood and tone. Sorry, I didn't ask about the wood. I had all I could do with my level of Spanish just to order the pizza.

In yesterday's blog I had described for you the condo I rented. However, I wanted to save for today what I consider to be the outstanding feature of this very fine condo, and that is the balcony, which runs across the entire length of the south side of the condo. Balconies are rare in much of the new construction in Cuenca, and when available are oftentimes small. I am on the seventh floor, which is the top floor of the condo building. Only the top floor condos have balconies in this complex. The master bedroom, middle bedroom, and living room are all glass-enclosed along the exterior wall, with sliding doors that open to the balcony. I don't need to concern myself with remembering to slide the door shut behind me, because there are no pesky flies nor mosquitoes. While Cuenca does have spiders, insects are rare. The kitchen exterior wall above the sink is also entire window with a view out into the the neighborhood.

I have a grand view of the neighborhood before me. How do I describe the neighborhood? I think back home we might call it gentrification. The high-rise condos align one side of the neighborhood before there is a steep drop off on the north side to a lower elevation of land. I assume that these high-rise condos (four to eight stories) recently replaced older housing structures. As I look to the south, the homes below me are a combination of new townhouses, older appearing buildings that look maintained, and others than are in need of repairs. About three or four short blocks southward, (maybe the length of a football field) the land begins to rise and there are blocks of homes built along the incline up the side of the mountain that extend upward to eye level with me on the seventh floor. Above these homes is a thick layer of Eucalyptus trees.

The view is always entertaining, whether observing people, pets, and chickens on their roof-top terraces; or watching the younger kids and later in the day the older adolescents playing fotbal and volley ball on the court directly below the condo balcony. There are four basketball hoops which are setup as well, but I never see anyone playing basketball. What I noticed for the first time yesterday is that on the incline are two adjoining vacant lots, each about 25-30 feet wide and possibly 60 feet long. These two lots are green pasture land, and there were about eight cows out there yesterday munching on the grass along the steep slope of the land. Some gringos complain about the slow pace of bureaucracy in Ecuador when it comes to getting things done. Well, I can't address that issue, because I haven't had to deal with it yet. However, there certainly isn't any bureaucratic red tape when it comes to zoning ordinance restrictions, which of course, is part of the charm of Cuenca, and which sadly over time will most likely disappear.

What really makes the view captivating is the mountains to the west. The clouds and light are invariably changing the landscape. Today when I arose from my slumber, the day was very sunny and warm, and the clouds slung over the mountains. I feel such a spiritual connection with these mountains. I could not help but think of Moses and Mount Sinai. Only unlike Moses, who could only look upon the Promised Land, but could not enter it; I felt I was in the Promise Land and the wilderness was on the other side of the mountains. I know that sounds absolutely corny, but I have found something special in Cuenca.

Today is Sunday. Everything is at a standstill, and except for the two major malls almost all the businesses and restaurants are close. Today is family day, and Cuecanos spend a day of leisure at home with their families. The city is very quiet. Few people are seen about, and there is little traffic. I hiked down to El Centro in the afternoon of what has been a perfectly sunny day. I by chance met up with Regina, who has recently resettled to Cuenca from Mexico. We first met last Friday evening at the gathering of expats at Zoe's. We spent the rest of the day together. I learned more about finding my way around Quenca, saw for the first time the Rio Tomebama which runs through the heart of Cuenca, and I had a wonderfully tasting Ecuadorian meal of chicken in a sauce that included lime and hinted of some Thai dishes I've eaten. The meal was served with potatoes and rice, the two major carb staples in Ecuadorian diets. Regina had potato soup. Ecuadorians are famous for their soups, and potato soup is a favorite of Regina's.

What makes the colonial section so rewarding is the historic beauty of the building facades with their cobble stone streets and sidewalks. Except for possibly the French Quarters in New Orleans there are not too many authentic historical preservations in the United States as extensive as this part of Cuneca. It has an old world charm that is authentic, and isn't a manufactured Disneyesque, squeaky-clean type of re-creation. El Centro is the living, vibrant center of Cuneca--a twenty-first century city, which continues to enhance itself with modern technology, while still having a respect for the traditions, designs, and craftsmanship of the past.

Amigos y Amigos

Friday was people day. I was scheduled to have an Ecuadorian breakfast at Kookaburra Cafe with Rich and Nancy, who are two expats here in Cuenca from the states, who I met and interacted with through their blog. I was pleasantly surprised to meet Rich's brother, Bob and his wife, Roxanne as well. They are the folks from whom I am renting the condo. They also have a home on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, and rent out their condo when they are living on the coast. They were in town for a few days on business and staying with Rich and Nancy. Bob and Roxanne also have a blog. Both couples' blogs are linked on "Cuenca High Life", a web site for expats and travelers to Cuenca. I strongly recommend "Cuenca High Life' to people who plan on visiting here.

I can not begin to tell you how beautiful Bob and Roxanne's condo is, and how nicely furnished. There are so many amenities in terms of fully ceramic bathrooms from ceiling to floor and encompassing the bath tubs as well, to beautifully ceramic floors throughout the kitchen, living room, and hallway which adjoins the three bedrooms and two baths. Hardwood floors in all three bedrooms. Quality wood doors with a simple carved trim etched into the doors to set them off from just being plain looking doors. Wood framing around all the doors. Numerous inset and spotlighting throughout every room of the house. I'm no expert on home designs, so forgive me if I'm not using the proper carpentry descriptives. The walls and ceilings are set off from one another by wood cornices, and every ceiling in the house is then further enhanced by a higher inset that is also set off by wood cornices. It's an elegant home perfect for my tastes, and my understanding is that such a condo in our area would cost twice as much as the cost in Cuenca. I am not talking about the city of Chicago or North Shore market, then you could triple or quadruple the market value.

Roxanne, and I assume Bob, have some great tastes in art. There is a haunting painting of this young couple's faces above my desk where I type out these posts that I find absolutely mesmerizing. There is a sketch in the hallway of the faces of a young couple that is also very expressive. Lucky for Bob and Roxanne, I am such a good, decent, and honest guy. I don't recall them including all their paintings on an inventory of the furnishings that I have to account for when I vacate the premises.

At any rate, the five of us had an Ecuadorian breakfast with another couple, Mike and Patty, who were heading back to the states while their home was being built in Cuenca. Also present for breakfast was Steve, who also has his own blog. Steve was very helpful in the advice he gave me concerning the procurement of permanent residency in Ecuador. Please refer to his blog for further details. I could not have asked to start my visit with a nicer set of folks than Steve and these three couples. We had a very good breakfast, and good conversation. Ecuadorian seasoning is flavorful without generally being red-chilly-hot spicy, as commonly associated with Mexican cooking. The garlic-roasted potatoes were perfecto. I had the chance immediately after breakfast to meet with Steve's wife, Linda, as well, who had not been able to join the group for breakfast.

Friday evening many of the expats and newcomers gather at Zoe's a popular restaurant and lounge in El Centro or the Colonial Quarters. Imagine walking into a room filled with people you have never met before, and you look around and there are people you immediately recognize from their photos in their blogs. None of these people know a thing about me, because I've just started blogging, and I'm still working my way through the machinations of the site and my use of my first laptop. Some of the bloggers feel psychologically naked, "Oh you know so much about us, and we know nothing about you." was a comment I heard more than once.

Well, it didn't take anytime at all to break the ice, as the room filled and people congregated about sharing their stories and why they came to or are thinking of moving to Cuenca. It was a fascinating evening. I'll long remember standing out on the balcony and talking with various couples, while engaging in the feast for the eyes of the colonial facades and the cobble stone streets running down the block, and the way the evening sky seem to set off the facades of the buildings. In my first post, I stated that I had fallen in love with Cuenca from our first acquaintance, and I wanted to discover if our contact was simply a long-distance romance that could not withstand the test of reality. Unlike some cyberspace romances that went so well while we emailed, but not so well once we met, Cuenca has romanced me beyond belief. The question now is will our romance stand the test of time? We will see.

My only disappointment to date has been with myself. Karma has a way of catching up with us. I regret that I had not applied myself better in learning Spanish when I was in high school. Although over time, people will forget what they learn when they don't use it, that knowledge is still filed away in the old noggin somewhere waiting to be resurrected. Education truly is wasted on the young.

I left Zoe's with a lady from Santa Barbara, who like me was exploring Cuenca as a possible relocation. She had been visiting the square each evening of the week as the Catholic Church was celebrating some kind of religious feast day. Abi spoke more Spanish than I, but I soon learned she could get off a plethora of questions in Spanish, but understanding the responses--not so well. We did the best we could.

I first walked into the church. A mass was taking place. There were no pews. Everyone was standing. The interior of the church was ornate, and in the traditional Spanish style. There were streamers of pastel-colored drapery that ran down from the statue of Mary outwards, which had the effect of further emphasizing the already front-centerd focus of Mary in the church. Although the music was more lively than what I associate with Anglo Catholic services, the reverence of the people in the church reminded me of the Catholicism of old when I was a child.

On the square outside the church, Abi and I mingled with the people, and communicated as best we could. The people are so open and friendly. Abi said the program was advertised to begin at 8:00, which meant in Ecuadorian "whenever it happens". "The happening" did not begin until 9:30. We spoke with one couple who may have been about our age. The husband spoke some English, so between his English and Abi's Spanish we were able to patch together a conversation. The couple have three sons and a daughter--all living in Minneapolis. I asked the father how his children like Minneapolis. He diplomatically said, "They like Minneapolis, because they all have jobs." There are 14 million Ecuadorians, something like 3 0r 4 million are living in the United States--primarily in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

It was the neatest thing in the world to watch the people--their close proximity to one another, the indulgence of the youngsters, not in a spoiled way, but just in terms of time and affection showered upon the kids. The children I see everywhere are always smiling and of good cheer. No one is in a rush. It doesn't matter when the program starts. It will start when it starts. Just being here with family and friends and relaxing is reason enough. It is the end in itself. The program was incidental.

Poor Abi--she had been bragging all evening about the wonderful dancers, singers, flute players, etc that had performed the previous evenings. Unfortunately, once the program began, it began with a very slow-moving, surreal, possibly political statement that reminded me of a mime out of Cirque Du Soleil--minus the rest of the cast and acts to hold ones attention. Not knowing if this solo dance dramatization may go on for an hour, the fact that I was tired, and the fact that my left eye was really irritated possibly from incense that may have been used during the mass, or from the vendors cooking various meats for the people in the square; I begged off and decided to head home.

I took the first taxi I saw. My faced lit up when the driver spoke English. I had an amigo with whom to converse on the way back to the condo. Better yet, he had just returned from Chicago on April 30th, where he had worked in a restaurant kitchen for thirteen years. With English and the Chicago connection, we began immediately to commiserate. He has a thirteen year old and a twelve year old son, and his home was about ten minutes beyond my condo. He invited me to his home to meet his wife, Marianna, and his two sons. As we arrived at our destination, he warned me that I should not get into a taxi without first asking the driver to show his identification. He proceeded to show me his I.D., and the two I'D's that he had from Madison, Wisconsin. I asked him if he had lived in Madison. He said no, that his cousin lived in Madison and was able to get him the Wisconsin licenses, which he said were good enough for Illinois. We may get together yet. I would like to meet with an Ecuadorian family in their home. Of all the taxis in Cuenca, that we should meet up. How's that for fate, and for six degrees of separation. Hasta luego!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cuenca: Delightful and Enchanting

I have received emails from friends and family back home, who wonder what are my overall impressions of Cuenca, and do I like it here. Granted I've only been here in the city for four days now, but I have already done quite a bit of exploring. Therefore,I will share my initial impressions with you.

No doubt the weather is grand, and even more so when placed in the context that July in Cuenca would be the equivalency of the middle of January back home in Chicago. Yesterday was quite warm. Today began raining and cloudy. It was the first time I had to wear my jacket, which was over a short sleeve shirt and I was quite comfortable. Cuenca, much like we have back home, has its share of rain showers, scattered showers, or showers that are brief or prolonged. To date, I have not experienced any thunder and lightning storms. I will need to ask someone if Cuenca has such storms. However, I understand that all day drizzle and rain is seldom. Although it remained cloudy all day, it had not rained anymore after the early morning hours. What was also surprising was that it felt warmer in the evening than it did during the day.

Just as the rains in Chicago make everything very green, and contribute to keeping much of the haze out of the air when we get those rains. The rains in Cuenca produce the same refreshing effect. The vegetation is vividly green, the showers cleanse the city, and everything just stands out to ones sight in Cuenca. It truly is a city where a cloudy day or not, unless the mountains tops are enveloped in fog, you can see forever. The cars undergo strict emissions standards. Unfortunately, the public buses do not, and there are many buses in Cuenca. If the buses were required to follow strict emission standards, I would not be surprised if Cuenca would have the best large city air quality in the world. Cuenca is the cultural center of Ecuador, so there is little industrial pollution. Possibly, being high in the Andes is another contributing factor for its clean air. Some people take a few days to adjust to the higher altitude in Cuenca, but that was not a problem for me. I find myself naturally taking in deep breaths of air, because the air has such a clean quality to it. My lungs behave as if I have given them a great gift, and my entire body feels invigorated.

Cuenca is also the only place in Ecuador where the water is not polluted to any measurable degree, and where gringos can drink the water directly from the tap. I have always liked Lake Michigan water, and from my experiences found it to be among the best tasting tap water in the United States. Some people I am told have problems adjusting to the water in Cuenca, because of its high mineral content. I did not experience that problem, and find the water to be the best I've ever had. There is no fluoride placed in the water. I have read a number of medical accounts that attribute fluoride as a contributor to plaque build up in coronary arteries, as well as contributing to alzheimer disease. I don't need either. Cuenca water is pure tasting, and free of any kind of aftertaste.

Cuenca sits in a basin and is surrounded by elevated land and mountains, which provides a beautiful setting. In some ways, Cuenca reminds me of the main island of Hawaii minus the oceans, Waikiki, and central Honolulu with it gleaming glass shrouded high rises. As one moves away from the ocean side, and eventually over to the least settle side of the island opposite Waikiki one gets a real feel for the typical homes of Honolulu and the natural beauty of the hills and sandy beaches. This is the part of Honolulu, minus the beaches, that reminds me of Cuenca. The tallest buildings in Cuenca are only eight to ten stories tall, and that is a relatively new construction phenomena.

The mountains, the low lying nebulous clouds that almost form a dome over the city; I can almost feel as if I can reach out and touch any one of these flawless acts of creation. The light of the equatorial sun, which can be masked behind the large dark clouds when it is about to rain, can enhance the light reflected on the city's buildings at different times of the day--a reflection that gives an entirely new mood and atmosphere to the city. From the vantage point of my condo balcony,the houses and buildings under these atmospheric conditions appear like little dioramas. The city does not follow a simple grid pattern, and parts of it is hilly. Streets oftentimes curve and meander. As evening approaches, and dusk sets in, the street lights appear to flicker as if they were lanterns which gives an enchanting feeling to the night time city

The mountains are most inspiring, and continuously changing as the lighting of different times of the day give an entirely new look and feel to what I see. From greens, to reflected streaks of sun light, to bold black hills that are sometimes blended with grays. Each moment speaks to the ever changing perspectives of the mountain views. As I snap photos with my camera, I fear that my lens is not capturing all the subtle shadings and moods of the mountains that I see with my naked eye. I guess you will just have to come to Cuenca to capture the experience of which words can only hint. There is also much more to what makes Cuenca so exceptional besides its biosphere, but that will be for another day.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Walking on the Wild Side and Riding the Bulls in Cuenca

There is a wild side to Cuenca while walking its streets. It's called "taking on the bulls", which this pedestrian and every other pedestrian matador unfurls every time anyone crosses its streets. There are few traffic lights, and not many stop signs—not that either of them matter. Whether I wish to cross at the intersection or in the middle of the block, the goal is to cross the street without being gored by the mechanical bulls. Rarely anyone in Cuenca simply walks across the street, even at the intersection. It is you or the bull. Scurry at a minimum, but better yet just run across the street. The bulls are the masters of the roadway, and our fate is in their hands, and if not careful our hides can become permanent hood ornaments along the roadway of life.

It is amazing how autos just ignore stop signs with regularity and at best just slow down to a roll through the intersections. As soon as a traffic light changes, it is like New York City, everyone is on their horn. Coming from Chicago, where the pedestrian has the right of way; stepping off the curb, and crossing against the lights are common. That kind of mindset will get you killed in Cuenca. Many of the streets are narrow, since they were built before the days of automobiles. Yet parking may be allowed along one side of the street, while the other lane is used for traffic. Therefore, space is a precious commodity, and the drivers like the bulls of Pamplona, grasp for whatever inch of pavement they can get as they meander through the narrow passageways of Cuenca.

I took a taxi ride yesterday to the Del Rio Mall. It was just after a shower and the streets were slick. Cars were constantly bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic for the advantage. In that respect, it was like riding on the Dan Ryan in Chicago. Although even I was surprised at the number of drivers who ride two lanes simultaneously, as if deciding which lane will give them the advantage before relinquishing the other lane. At one point, I thought my own driver was going to skid into the back of a truck on the slick pavement, when he miraculously maneuvered around the truck as if it was nothing. Of course, it’s always more nerve wracking in these situations when you are the passenger and left to be dependent upon the skills and foresight of the driver. Being known for my own heavy pedal to the metal driving style, I think I could hold my own on the streets of Cuenca. I much prefer Cuencano driving styles to the slow motion driving in Honolulu. A driver behind the wheel could be dead for years, before anyone in Honolulu would ever notice that the driver was no longer viable. But being a pedestrian in Cuenca, not so good.

Street Walking in Cuenca

As my plane arrived in Cuenca, I had my jacket out in preparation for the 60 degree weather I was anticipating. Folks, keep in mind that I am in the Southern Hemisphere near the Equator. We are in the middle of winter here. Well, I certainly did not need my coat. It felt like 85-90 degrees outside, without the humidity we experience in Chicago. The temperatures may have been in the 70's from what I can ascertain from the weather links, which would be unusually warm for this time of year. The average temperature in Cuenca in July is in the upper 50's, the average high temperature is about 63 and the average low is in the upper 40's. The temperature averages throughout the year do not vary more than five degrees warmer than the winter averages for July and August.

I have heard Cuenca weather referred to as perpetually spring-like. However, with the intensity of the sun, when it is not being hidden by clouds; temperatures in the 60's feel a great deal warmer than what we are accustomed to back home. The 60's feel more like back home when it is raining here. Temperatures vary widely throughout the day. Today was not as warm as yesterday and more cloudy, but still a nice day. I have not worn my jacket either day, although by evening a jacket is needed. If this is winter Cuenca-style, I'm lovin it!

Yesterday was very busy for me. I was picked up at the airport by Pablo, who works for Cuenca Real Estate through whom I am renting a condo in what is referred to as a new part of the city, as opposed to the colonial part of the city, which is in walking distance of my residence. Pablo was very helpful. I had no problem finding my way to the Maxi-store about four blocks from where I am residing. People refer to it as a Walmart-like store, but I find it more the size of a large supermarket back home, with about the same offerings one would find in a supermarket.

After I delivered my groceries back to the condo, I headed in the opposite direction toward the downtown and colonial section, which was about a mile walk. I had no problems finding the Information Center and procuring a map of Quenca. I then walked over to Cuenca Real Estate where I met Chela, who handled my transaction for rental through email and PayPal. Despite some early misunderstandings in communication in our use of PayPal, we were able to clear that problem up and eventually finalize the rental transaction. If anyone is planning on coming to Cuenca for an extended stay, I would recommend them to you. I know anxiety levels can arise, when transmitting funds to a foreign country to businesses of which we know little. The people at Cuenca Real Estate can be trusted, and they are well established in Cuenca.

On my way back from town, I stopped at a pizza restaurant to order a personal pizza. The restaurant was of neighborhood vintage, one that we would refer to back home as "a hole in the wall" type of eatery. The couple working there may have been husband and wife. She was obviously very pregnant and well into her final month or two. Neither spoke English. I sat at the counter, although there were tables to the back of the restaurant, where one young couple enjoyed their pizza and each others company. From my vantage point, I watched the lady take the flour out of a vat the size of a barrel and run it through some dough processor, which she turned by hand. The oven was located right next to her. Luckily, for me I can read Spanish much better than I can speak it. I was able to point to the individualized pizza from the menu on the wall, and the selection of toppings I wanted. For only $1.50, I had an individualized pizza that was delicioso. The crust was between a deep-dish and a thin crust. It was light and flaky. The toppings of pepperoni, salami, a vegetable I couldn't identify, and queso cheese made for a very tantalizing feast. It was surprising how good pizza can be with queso cheese. You can bet I will be visiting their eatery frequently. I don't know its name, but I will have no problem finding it. Believe me, their pizza would have no problem competing with Chicago's finest.

The sidewalks along the streets are quite narrow as are most of the streets. Sometimes the walks are so narrow only one person can walk by, while the other must step into the street. The walkways can be cobble-stone or just concrete that needs fixing. While I definitely have to watch where I am walking, it becomes difficult for me. I am always looking around absorbing everything in sight. As I walk along I see old homes, new homes, nicely painted homes, and structures not so nicely painted and in need of work. All of these structures side by side in the same neighborhood.

It is interesting to be in a city of 600,000, that bustles and yet has a small town feeling to it. A bus goes down the street, and along the way there are chickens and roosters--large chickens and roosters. In fact, at one spot along the walkway, the roosters greatly outnumbered the chickens. I imagined those roosters must make for a rather noisy time in the neighborhood,which goes beyond the simply early sunrise crowing. I pass every kind of business--some that seem to operate out of the front of their homes to serve the needs of the local neighborhood population, some are restaurants, some are small businesses that employ a craft of one kind or another. Then there are the shops where you can enter and select your own coffin, as the very colorful coffins are stacked vertically in racks along the wall. Then there will be goats. Yes generally in small front yards. Live lawn ornaments. The modern and the traditional--the urban and the rural--coming together to make the present. This is Cuenca.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

From Chicago to Cuenca

My arrival in Ecuador was uneventful and leisurely, which was a good thing. I stayed overnight in Guayaquil, which is the largest city in Ecuador—about a million and a half people. My stay was at a Hampton Inn near the airport. It was a very nice room, particularly for the money. My brother, Leo, would have been proud of me, since my usual travel fare is more of the Day’s Inn variety. The gentleman who took my bags up to the room and got me situated (I don’t know if calling him a bell-hop would be appropriate, since he was in a uniform blazer, dress shirt,and tie.) did not accept my tip. I knew that tipping was not generally done in Ecuador. However, under the circumstances and being an American-owned hotel, I thought offering a tip might be the modus operandi. Instead, he said, “No sir, that is not necessary.” He took my hand in both of his and shaking it said. “I hope you have an enjoyable stay when you arrive in Cuenca. Welcome again to Ecuador.”

I received little sleep on Sunday evening, but was amazed how rested I felt on Monday. Even when we arrived in Guayaquil and had the two hour ordeal of waiting in line to complete everything through customs and procure our luggage, I was amazed how the entire day seemed to go by quickly. Lucky for me I did not have the usual type of restlessness, when trips are four hours and longer. The jets were small, so there was no hanging out near the restrooms like in my United flights to Hawaii, where one could stand, stretch, and talk to other passengers.

I already know from all my research that one has to be patient in Ecuador. Once I made up my mind that this processing through customs was not going to be quick, and despite the fact I was tired; it was easy to alternate between zoning-out and discretely studying people around me. Just as it was about to be my turn to place my carry-on baggage on the conveyor belt for its x-ray. I saw a line of wheel chair disabled begin to align along side of us. I knew we were in for a prolonged wait, but how could I begrudge people who were handicapped? Then an unusual thing happened. A hombre brings a long line of travelers and their baggage, and they are allowed to go ahead of us. The one man appeared to be responsible for both the luggage of the handicapped passengers, and their wheel chair movement forward as he lugged their luggage on the conveyor belt. Whenever he put luggage on the belt and then moved a wheel chair forward, the other man would begin to throw baggage on the belt from his new line of people. When the one man had finished with about ten or twelve wheel chair travelers, then we had to wait for the other man to finish with his group.

I could tell that the guard who supervised our placement of baggage on the belt, initially from his hand motions and body language seem to question this new group proceeding ahead of us. However, he soon told me and the others we would have to wait. I was waiting for the reaction of the young and feisty Ecuadorian woman standing behind me in line. She had been quite impatient, and was quick to ask me to move up more rapidly in line, whenever I left more than four feet between me and the person in front of me. As the people proceeded to place their luggage on the belt while we watched, I turned to grab a glance at the woman behind me. All she did was shrug in resignation. I may have perceived this entire situation wrongly. I assume, however, that from what I read of how business is frequently conducted in Ecuador; someone was given a financial incentive to move certain clients along more rapidly and conveniently at the expense of others.

Needless to say, Monday evening, I slept solidly. I arrived at the airport in Guayaquil Tuesday morning to learn that our flight to Cuenca had been delayed for two hours, because of technical problems. I got some more shut-eye while at the terminal, after I talked for awhile to an Hispanic man from the states and his Cuencano wife, who were traveling to Cuenca with their two young children. Their trip aboard Delta was a nightmare. I had problems with Delta as well when I flew out to Atlanta a couple of years ago. Delta was terrible at keeping us informed as to what was happening, and how long and when delays would be addressed. I traveled American Airlines into Guayaquil, and it was a pleasant experience. Lan Air was responsible for the two hour delay. It was funny, because the trip to Quenca by air was only twenty-five minutes, almost the time it took the flight attendants to explain to us what to do in an emergency.

The Ecuadorians have an interesting custom, when we flew in from Miami and landed in Guayaquil, and then landed in Cuenca; as soon as the jet’s wheels touched the landing strip, they would break out into applause. I don’t know. Maybe, they were holding their breaths the entire trip.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blessings and Curses, Curses and Blessings!

I had such an easy time (well, easy time for me) formatting my blog that I deluded myself into thinking this blog posting is going to be a piece of cake. Wrong! I never learn. Nothing new for me on a computer ever comes easy. While some of you have wondered; "Jim, where's the blog you promised?" "Jim, did you forget to email me with the link to your post site?" I just wasn't ready to post beyond the first posting, until I learned how to download photos. I hear you snickering, "Oh that's easy." It's always some simple step I fail to see, or when I apply someone's written directions they just don't work the same way for me. After spending three hours Monday evening, another two hours Wednesday evening after my son, Marc, demonstrated to me what to do, and another hour Thursday afternoon attempting to follow my son's email instructions; I still can't download the photos from Photobucket to my blog.

I finally had lunch with Marc today before he travels to Maryland, so we could go over my transferring photos from my camera to my laptop, and so we could see what my problem is with downloading photos from the computer. Well, as you can see, I managed to get two photos posted. Neither of them is the same size. But this is the closest I'm going to come to a victory. I lost a third photo into cyberspace, which is probably lost forever. I ran out of time to post the fourth photo of Marc. Unless another miracle happens, maybe I'll get a photo of you, Marc, posted as well when I'm in Cuenca. I've worked on those photos for six hours today, since Marc and I parted. I guess I'm stubborn as a mule, because I should have been packing for Monday's trip.

Quite frankly, I have little experience with wifi and laptops. If I have connectivity problems in Cuenca, this may be the last post you'll see until I return. If this obstacle infuriates me beyond my breaking point, I may also steam-roll the computer into a permanent part of the road pavement.

I have little patience with all this technology, but a great deal of perseverance. It never fails that after I struggle with some software, someone will then come along and lickity-split, "That's all you had to do, Jim." I love computers when they function as they should, which means not expecting me to do anything more than what I already know how to do. Marc soothingly says, "Dad, the computer is not your enemy, it is your friend." "Don't let it get to you." Yea sure, coming from the computer whiz kid. I know growth often requires trials and tribulation. However, it gets frustrating when there is no gain for the pain, until someone instantaneously shows me what to do. Blessings and curses, curses and blessings.

Whither To and Fro

Last summer on my return trip from Hawaii, I spent a few days in Monterey, California visiting with my eldest son, Marc, who was residing there. There is no doubt that the Pacific coast is awesomely beautiful. The colored-hew of the jagged rocks lapped by the ocean waves, the beauty of the trees and forests, the sandy beaches--all like scenes I remember from "Play Misty for Me", and from a previous travel along the Pacific coast. Of course there were towns like Monterey and Carmel to experience and enjoy. (Sorry, folks, didn't see Clint Eastwood anywhere.) My son and I had a very good meal at an Italian restaurant. Italian pasta is not something one would recommend for lite eating. I think most people would agree that a plate of pasta is a meal in itself, although you can not tell that to an Italian. The meal was particularly memorable for its dessert. I was brought a slice of carrot cake that was at least a quarter of the entire cake, complemented with huge double mounds of vanilla ice cream. As the waitress approached our table the site of that cake was obscene. I saw the owner smile and look approvingly as the dessert made its way down the aisle like a bride at her wedding, and captured the attention of every eye in the restaurant. I humorously, publicly offered to share "the slice" with everyone present. I can be a real sucker for desserts, so I generally stay away from them. Like an alcoholic, it's all or nothing with me. In this case, it was all; and yes, I did eat every last bite of that sumptuously delicious cake. The two women sitting next to us smiled when the cake first arrived, but upon my completion of dessert gave me the most disgusting sneers, which screamed "glutton!" Guilty as charged, with no iota of guilt feelings. If given the chance, I'd do it all again!

In September, Marc had made his way for a month of travel and study in Egypt, where he was able to see all of the historic sites and immerse himself in the culture and history. Needless to say, Marc enjoyed the experience immensely, and had the opportunity to make new American friends who accompanied him on the trip as well.

By January, Marcus was saying goodbye to Monterey and traveling by car to his new assignment in Texas. His brother, Chris, was doing desert training in the Death Valley area, and Marc stopped by the isolated base, and by chance actually caught Chris at a time when he wasn't doing a mission simulation. No one can contact the soldiers while they're training, and Marc if he had not been military himself never would have gotten beyond the gate. The two had about an hour to visit at the base's Burger King. Chris was totally surprised, wearily tired from the little sleep he gets in training, and found their meeting to be totally surreal. What were the odds of pulling off such a meeting in the desert of California, while one brother was on his way to Texas and the other would soon be returning to Hawaii.

Marc recently completed his assignment with the Air Force in Texas, and is now at home before he leaves this Saturday for his new assignment in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. Since he was seven and took a Saturday class in French, it was obvious Marc had an ear for languages and sound discrimination. At seven, he had already sounded like a little Frenchman. It was no surprise that this highly verbal kid would later choose to be a college English major, study Spanish in high school and in college (If only his dad had done the same--welcome gringo to Cuenca.) Now as Marc heads out East, and looks forward to everything the East Coast has to offer, I'll head southeasterly this Monday for Cuenca. What an age in which we live; where life, space, and time are all compacted into a one big swoosh. In turn, my sons have truly been raised to live in a global world.

Monday, July 5, 2010

E KOMA MAI (Welcome)

This has been a year of extraordinary change for me and my sons. Last summer I had visited Hawaii for the first time. How do I describe the beauty of O'hau without sounding cliched. I can't. If it isn't paradise, then it is truly a wonderful imitation of the real thing. The month of May brought me back to this land of enchantment for my son, Chris' wedding. Chris had been stationed in Honolulu after completing his first tour of duty in Iraq. Like a story out of a fairy tale, he met the girl of his dreams, and she the boy of hers. From the first time they laid eyes on one another--they knew. On May 22nd, the were united in Holy Matrimony and began their lives as Chris and Maria Mola.

People find it amusing that the couple who married in "The Land of Enchantment" honeymooned in Las Vegas. But that they did, and now Maria will face another year of college in Honolulu, while her Chris has returned to Iraq for his second tour of duty. The Yin and the Yang of life. It's tough on newlyweds to be away from each other after such a short time together. Hopefully, the longing for one another will strengthen both their love and their bonds.

My parents were apart for two years during World War II. My dad departed only a week after the wedding to serve on the Pacific Front. What beautiful love letters my mom and dad wrote to one another during his absence. As a kid I would sneak into the old military trunk in the basement, see and touch my mother's wedding gown and veil, cock my dad's old army hat to the side of my head,and read the letters my mom and my dad had exchanged. One of my greatest disappointments was to learn from my father before he died in 1996,that he destroyed the letters in the belief that "these expressed devotions of love" were my mom and dad's own private conversation, and that no one else would be interested in "some old love letters". While I can respect my dad's first point, how wrong he was about the second.