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 16, 2011

The Other Side of Cuenca

On April 3rd, I had posted “The Remembrances of Another Time Found in Cuenca”. The post was a reflection of how so many things in Cuenca were a reminder of what life was like growing up in the United States in the 1950’s. I continue to be astonished at the way things are done in Cuenca that harkens back to an earlier time in the United States.

My intent was to type a follow-up post the following week, but I became side-tracked with life’s demands and the writing of other post topics that served a greater sense of immediacy for me at the time. Therefore, the germination of that follow-up post has come to fruition today, and is entitled, “The Other Side of Cuenca”, which deals with a Cuencano society in which both tradition and modernity are currently coexisting side by side. I did not want to leave in the minds of Norte Americanos that Cuenca is simply some throw back to an earlier era. Much of Cuenca is as contemporary as anything that is found in the United States and Canada.

While El Centro is the historic district recognized and protected by UNESCO, and where outside alterations to the Spanish Renaissance architecture must be in keeping with that style; outside of many parts of El Centro is a very modern Cuenca of new homes generally done in both traditional and contemporary Spanish architectural styles. There is no doubt that this city of 500,000 people who have lived in low-lying structures in which the tallest buildings were generally no more than four floors in height, have seen the Cuenca landscape particularly over the last five years experience an enormous explosion in new high-rise condos and commercial office buildings. Even with this growth in high rise construction, there is little chance of Cuenca becoming a densely populated city of high rises. The tallest building is seventeen stories, and for the foreseeable future no building will be allowed to rise above fourteen stories. Along with the high rises, many townhouses are beginning to make their appearance on the housing scene as well

Even as high rise condos parallel near the Rio Tomebama and stretch westward along Calle Lasso and similar streets in the area. The high rises are either scattered among one and two story housing, or surrounded by low rising housing divisions. There are no blocks after blocks of high rises being built as can be found in cities like Chicago and New York City.

Like the urban sprawl in the United States over the last half a century, new housing tracks continue to spring up across the Cuenca valley with newer homes extending into the lower mountain sides. The South side of Cuenca is one of the most elegant areas of Cuenca, with a combination of low rise apartment buildings and attractive neighborhoods of homes most reminiscent of upper-middle class neighborhoods found in areas around Los Angeles or San Diego, or a Scottsdale, Arizona; where handsome homes are walled off in gated communities. Avenida Solano is the heart of the south side. It is a perfect example of a beautiful four lane street divided by a wide median green belt with bountiful trees which line the median as well as align along the curbsides of the avenue which extend for two to three miles until the street comes to a T when Solano reaches the Rio Yanuncay. Radiating from Solano are a myriad of gated communities of elegant homes nestled behind the walls. Solano is graced with wide sidewalks that are set-off from the curb by the grassy areas and trees that align the avenue. The walk along the shady tree boulevard of Solano can be a leisurely stroll that introduces one to a Cuenca quite different from El Centro. I met an expat lady who has lived with her husband in Cuenca for thirty years, and remembers when the south side of Cuenca was all farmland when they first arrived.

The new construction is found everywhere in the city, and so are the nice neighborhoods. Yet even in these areas one can find a herd of cows eating grass along a parkway, and the areas are further enhanced by the beauty of the rivers that run through many areas of Cuenca and the walkways along the banks of the rivers, only to be further enhanced by vaster green areas like Parke Madre, which lies across the Rio Tomebama and just below El Centro on the south side of the city, or on the east side of Cuenca where the very large, beautiful, and greatly appreciated Parke de El Paraiso is enjoyed by Cuencanos particularly on the weekends.

There is little industry in Cuenca, and that includes the eyesores that generally are concomitant with an industrial sector. Except for bus fumes, there is little in the way of pollution. Even the airport and the terminal bus station are located on the outskirts of Cuneca’s northeast side, thereby causing little infringement upon the city as a whole. As the cultural center of Ecuador, Cuenca is blessed with two major universities, which grace the central south sides of the city. Further to the east is Azuay University, a private institution; and more toward the central part of Cuenca, south of the Rio Tomebama lies Cuenca University, the public university. Both campuses are modern institutions of higher learning occupying traditional brick and mortar buildings in park-like settings.

I don’t wish to leave in your minds the impression that El Centro is old and everything outside of the historic district is new. In El Centro while there is a continual refurbishing of exterior structures in keeping with its historical context, there are also many interior renovations taking place that are very contemporary in replaced infrastructure like plumbing, electrical wiring, as well as in interior designs. Some of these homes and condos have been renovated while keeping the traditional layout of the interiors intact, while other renovations have taken the dramatic step of removing interior walls from smaller enclosed rooms to provide space with a modern open-concept and loft-style arrangements.

In turn, outside the historic district, one will find neighborhoods that have existed for long times. Indigenous neighborhoods range from more antiquated homes in semi-rural areas to areas that have a more densely populated feeling like in El Centro. Generally speaking, class lines in housing sub-divisions are not as well defined as in the states. It is not unusual to find an upscale new home constructed next to a Spartan older home, or next to a building much in need of repairs, or even next to an abandoned old wood and adobe building probably constructed in the 1800’s.

Intermingled among the various communities is the very large, enclosed, and attractive Mal del Rio, which can hold its own with the best designed malls in the states. Like malls back home, it features an endless variety of specialty shops, kiosks, cinemas, major play areas for children, video arcades are still prominently featured as well, and there is a massive food court with many Ecuadorian cuisine twists that cannot be found in food courts back home. What is missing from the mall are the large department stores that anchor most enclosed malls in the states. The one store that approximates a department store in Mal del Rio and which is the largest single store in the mall is the two storied, Corral, which would be a store more on the level of a “Target” back home.

Other smaller enclosed malls also exist, usually with few stores. One such mall is the Milenium Plaza on the southside with its stadium seated cinema complex, and a food court that dwarfs the handful of stores in the mall. There are also three malls that are anchored by Supermaxi, a modern upscale supermarket of which these malls are found one on the south side and the other on the west side of town. On the east side of town the third SuperMaxi occupies a mall space that includes Kiwi, which is the Ecuadorian equivalent of Home Depot in the states. The west side mall has the closest thing to a department store in Cuenca, which is called Sukasa, and while not as large as what one normally thinks in department store sizes in the states, it carries a merchandise line similar to Macy’s in price and quality. These smaller malls also have some unique specialty shops, once again these malls reflect upper-scale shopping that manifests the greater growth of affluence in Cuenca in recent years, and the fact that proportionately in population-size Cuenca has the largest middle class of any large city in Ecuador. The malls prove to be a great attraction, especially on the weekends. The food courts are jammed, and like in the states, the malls attract teens as a place to hang-out and be seen.

Automobiles continue to become a bigger problem with congestion. One taxi driver told me that one out of every three Cuencanos now have a car. Assuming that figure is accurate, there is no doubt that congestion during certain times of the day can make a ten minute ride from where I live about three miles from Parke Calderon into a slow crawl. There are no expressways in Cuenca, and I hope there never will be. There are a number of circles which make for interesting driving patterns, and with no traffic lights, pedestrians truly take their lives in their own hands in attempting to cross the streets in these areas. The most dangerous and challenging by far in my opinion is the Circle at Grand Columbia and Avenida de Americas. Supposedly an underpass is to be constructed at this site, but to date no construction work has begun.

Cuenca is rapidly developing an excellent reputation for health care, with a number of very fine up to date hospital facilities, and well trained doctors. Medical care is provided at a fraction of the cost in the United States. Nevertheless, there are still Cuencanos particularly among the indigenous population as well as some expats who prefer to frequent shamans for their medical care.

Finally, there are two strips in Cuenca. One strip is Calle Remigio Crespo, which runs east-west through the south side of town and is blessed with stores and numerous restaurants and up-scale bars. Chinese restaurants in particular are plentiful along Crespo. It is an area for evening and weekend leisure.

The other strip is Calle Larga on the south edge of El Centro with many restaurants, and a munificent bounty of bars--many of which seat only one dozen to two dozen patrons. A disco is also available, as well as an Indian restaurant karaoke bar. Music and large screen videos of futbal, rock-type concerts, or just luscious ladies in music videos on large screens are the form of entertainment in most bars used as distractions when people are caught in intermittent conversation.

Calle Larga has a large number of shawarma restaurants as a Pakistani area exists among the bars and restaurants. The Hookah is popular in the Pakistani bars and restaurants, with many young people who come to smoke more than to eat at these hangouts, as I am sure these young folks feel they are doing something risky and edgy.

Many young people can be found on Calle Larga in the evenings especially Thursday through the weekends, which includes many young gringos, since the area is filled with inexpensive hostels that cater to youth. There are always Norte Americanos, Europeans, and Australian youth who are just traveling through Cuenca, or most likely studying Spanish in one of the foreign language schools. While many people warn of personal safety concerns along the area at night; despite the occasional drunk on the street left over from the night before, who is usually an older guy, the area is relatively tame compared to comparable areas in other countries. Very young people can be found drinking in the bars. I have been told the drinking age is eighteen, while others have told me it is sixteen. I have the feeling from my observations that who gets served may be left more to the discretion of the bartenders. I have not witness young people abuse alcohol in these bars, the way they do in the states. Maybe the price of alcohol is too expensive for their wallets, but the binge drinking which has become quite a phenomenon across the United States does not appear from what I’ve observed to be anywhere near as prevalent here in Cuenca.

Ecuadorians I have talked to personally about drug abuse in Cuenca may not know the true situation. However, I am usually told there is illicit drug use, but it is not prevalent. That after what Columbia has gone through with its drug wars, Ecuadorians frown on drug use. On the other hand, I am told by some young people that they can get their hands on any drug they desire. The difference in drug abuse between Americans in the states and Ecuadorians may be more in degree than in kind. I would venture to further speculate that drug use may be proportionately somewhat less in Cuenca than in Guayaguil and Quito, due to the still lingering conservatism of Cuencano culture in contrast to the coastal cultures.

The traditional and the modern— I suggest as you read my April 3rd post and this post you may think I am describing parallel universes of reality. In my next post, I will consider the sociological implications of a culture in transition. That is if I don't get sidetracked again.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Telephoning in Ecuador: An Experience in Itself

Last summer when I spent a month in Cuenca, I chose not to purchase a telephone. After all I was only going to be in Cuenca for a month. I had email access from my rental, and there were always the cabinas on practically every block which allowed me to make calls and pay for them by the minute. However, I found not buying a phone was a mistake, because arrangements with new-found friends, and last minute rearrangements were difficult to accomplish when I was not in possession of a cell phone.

This year I bought a cell phone with the intent of using it for local calls, and I would depend upon Skype for International calls. I, to the best of my knowledge, can not recall any of the bloggers posting about the wonders (read that as horrors) of using telephones in Cuenca.

First, I am mystified at the number of telephone cabinas that dot almost every block of Cuenca. Why do they exist!? Why does anyone in Cuenca have a need for their use? I have never been in a city so ubiquitous with cell phone entiendas (stores), kiosks, or side-lines of cell phones than what I have seen in Cuenca. One would think by now that every Cuencano has at least a dozen cell phones each. I mean, who is buying all these phones, and for what are they using them?

I have a sneaky suspicion that there may be some religious significance to the purchase of all these cell phones. Maybe, Cuencanos buy phones in honor of their patron saint, and other saints with intercessory missions to fulfill. For example, "this is the cell phone I use when I'm taking a test in school, in honor of the saint who intercedes on my behalf when I am taking a test". Come to think of it, as a former teacher, that must be a popular saint in the U.S. as well, considering all the cell phones sneaks that would take place during test times.

There are two major telephone companies in Cuenca, which share most of the market of these multitudinous phones. Claro is the largest company,and MovieStar is a distant second. If you are not purchasing a land line in Cuenca, you purchase a mobile phone with minutes. As those minutes are used, you then need to find a business which can charge whatever amount you choose to place on your phone. You are then back in business, until your credits are consumed again. The minutes you buy are only good for a month. If they and the bonus minutes are not used by the end of the month, then you lose them. Unused minutes do not rollover to the next month like most American plans.

Second,interestingly enough I discovered that many expats were clueless about details of the telephone usage, or gave me conflicting information. Many expats were not sure about many of the features and how they are utilized on the phone. One expat, said, "Don't worry about it, if someone wants to get hold of you, they will." Others had no idea how to retrieve messages. One expat was surprised to learn from me that she had a calendar on her phone. Some expats claimed unused minutes rolled-over, while others disagreed. Other expats claimed if you run out of minutes you can not make calls, but you can receive calls. Not so, when I ran out of minutes, callers told me they had called me numerous times, but I did not respond. I was totally unaware of any calls. Some expats said, "The problem's with your phone. Go buy a new one."

Third, for most of us who speak little Spanish, the problem is further complicated by computerized voice messages that leave me in a daze. Usually the message in Espanol suddenly ends with Claro ending the call, and I have absolutely no idea what was said. Nada! Other times the message may be a lead-up to leaving a message to the intended recipient of the call. The message in Espanol ends, and I haven't been cutoff, not yet. There's a long pause; then maybe a human voice, possibly first in Spanish then in English if it's a bilingual Ecuadorian who deals with both Spanish and English speakers--the essence of which is "Leave a message"; then another long pause, a tone, and then my chance to leave a message. It took weeks for me to figure out how all this works, and to figure out how to retrieve messages.

The frustration is further aggravated by the fact that if I check more than ten times in a month to see how many minutes I have left in the month, I can no longer check without paying an extra fee each time I attempt to monitor my minutes. The worst is when I run out of minutes. Last week I had to wait twenty-four hours before I was in a position to access a store where I could recharge my phone. I simply go up to a cashier where phones can have additional minutes added, pay whatever amount I want added, and the minutes are automatically added to my phone number. The problem is as the month approaches its end, just how many minutes should I buy? If I buy too many, I lose the extra coinage at the end of the month. If I don't buy a sufficient amount of minutes, I'm forced to do so with the month almost over and the coinage is wiped clean again into Claro's pockets as a new month begins.

Interestingly enough, are the calls I receive particularly from my Ecuadorian friends, who are very vigilant about their allotment of available minutes. Their calls go something like this. "Jim, its (insert name), I will meet with you at 10:00 a.m." Me, I try to ask a question. Caller, "I can't answer that now, I'm almost out of minutes. See you at 10:00" Or, a text message, "Jim, where are you?", which means call me back at your expense.

Fourth, then of course, there is the holy corporate war between Claro and MovieStar. To call a MovieStar recipient while you are a Claro customer will cost you and arm and a leg. There are times when the calls just are not placed, with whatever explanation is given in Spanish. Some expats claim that if you buy bonus points, for example, on Claro when such offers are being made, the bonus points can not be used to call a MovieStar customer. Oh joy! Nobody explains any of these intricacies to you when you first buy a phone. You really are on your own to work through the labyrinth of Ecuadorian phone surrealism.

Two days in a roll I went solo to the Claro office, which thank God someone spoke English. I wanted to know why I have time left on my phone, but every time I attempt to place a call, the phone message reads, "Can only use in emergencies". The gentleman took out the chip and reinserted it, and it worked just fine. The next day, the same thing happened, I returned, and he did the same thing. He told me whenever the problem repeats itself in the future, just take off the back, remove the chip, and it will reboot itself. It's happened only once since, and it worked exactly as the Claro technician said it would. But why should I be having this problem in the first place!?

Fifth, an Ecuadorian friend has been after me to take out the twenty dollar a month plan. I hesitated for a few days, but decided I spend about that much anyway, and with the plan I won't have to worry about running short on minutes, or taking time to go to a business to recharge. The plan includes in the twenty dollars the 12.5 surcharge. I receive 150 minutes per month. I am able to have one primary caller for which I am charged one cent per minute. I am allowed ten additional favorite callers for four cents a minute. All other callers cost me twelve cents per minute. Now, a call to a MovieStar client will cost me twenty-three cents by the minute, about half of what it cost without the plan. I can also call numbers in the United States for forty-five cents a minute, which means except under the most dire of imminent emergencies, Skype has not lost that share of the market from me to Claro. All these are substantially less than the per minute charges without the plan. The twenty dollars is automatically deducted from my Ecuadorian bank account each month, so that means one less line in which I have to wait.

The favorites list is not cast in stone, and the numbers can be changed by me at anytime. However, there is an additional charge of $1.12 to initiate my primary caller, and six cents each for the initiating of my ten favorite callers. Therefore, those of you living in Cuenca who find I am quick to get off the phone with you, that will be a big clue that you didn't make my top eleven list. I also had to procure a new telephone number, which is 088 315 970. It seems when I purchased my phone, the number was placed in the name of the proprietor from whom I purchased my phone, since credit was charged to the phone number it didn't matter whose name the phone was in. However, once I bought a plan and the fee would be automatically withdrawn monthly from my account, I had to procure a new number that is in my name.

The new number also resulted in a new chip. We copied down on paper all my contacts and their numbers. It seems if you placed your contacts only on phone mode, than all the contacts disappear when you change chips. If the contacts are saved to the SIM card, then they can be downloaded to the new chips without being reinserted one by one. I have no idea how that download would work, and I hope I will never have to find out. I hope everything I wrote makes sense. My heads been swirling for months with this phone foolery.

I would never in a hundred years encourage anyone who does not speak Spanish to attempt converting to this plan on your own. A bilingual speaker is a must. I also went with someone (and I can't emphasize this enough) who was already familiar with the plan, and initially recommended it to me. The fast service may also have been the boon that resulted from having a bilingual intermediary who had relatives and friends working in the office as well.

I did have to sign my signature a total of eleven times. I requested of my intermediary that she inform the gentleman behind the counter that I charge $100.00 each time I sign my autograph, and he was up to $1,100. My intermediary chose to ignore my request. Everything was in Spanish, and I was completely at the mercy of the good faith of my bilingual friend and her experience in these matters. Nevertheless, I did learn later when I actually tried to read the contract that I signed a two year agreement. Something that my intermediary failed to mention. I have no idea if the contract could have been taken out on an annual basis, but my mobile phone contracts back home were always two year agreements as well.

I have tried to peruse through the text of the contract. I can make out 1/3rd to 1/2 of the text as my understanding of Spanish improves. I do believe it reads something to the effect that the contract is irrevocable, and any attempt on my part not to honor it during it duration will result either in the confiscation of all my worldly assets; or if the United States government gets to my assets first, then I will meet with immediate extermination by Claro. Imagine, and all because I wanted to make a phone call. Sure makes me wish for the good old days when all one did was pick up the phone, and a live operator said, "Number please", and you just had to give her the number.