Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Magic of Ecuador

You most likely aren't a subscriber, so this is the text of my column in Friday's La Tarde newspaper here in Cuenca.

My wife and I returned home from the United States Tuesday, and we felt Ecuador with us all the way. In the airport restaurant in North Carolina, we ordered lunch but my meal never came. It was OK—my wife’s food was more than enough for us to share.

In the Miami airport we rode a train from one side to the other to board our flight to Guayaquil. Uh, oh—there had been a gate change. So back we went on the train to return almost to the identical gate we came from. This was beginning to feel a bit like home.

Now it was time to get on the plane, but all the computers stopped working in the entire airport. We finally boarded. A coffee machine on the plane promptly broke so we sat there forever while the mess was cleaned up. I could hear Ecuador calling to us loud and clear.

When we arrived in Guayaquil almost two hours late the van service we had hired in advance to drive us to Cuenca of course wasn’t there to meet us, so we had to pay “gringo prices” to have a taxi bring us home in the middle of the night. I tried to sleep in the car, but the first time I opened my eyes we were dodging a boulder in the middle of the road, and the next time it was raining, very foggy, and we were almost hitting another boulder. I stayed awake the rest of the trip!

We got to our apartment just before dawn. The neighborhood roosters said “hello.” I awoke around noon. The birds, traffic, buses, car alarms, and horns formed a chorus singing “Welcome back!”

On our return trip many things went wrong; people didn’t show up; it took longer and cost more than anticipated. Yet this is the magic of Ecuador, is it not? Life is far from perfect here, but somehow it all seems to work out and everyone is happy.

We missed Cuenca very much and are so glad to be home!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Outlet Mauled

I experienced an extremely traumatic event several weeks ago. I am happy to report that no therapy was needed and my recovery has progressed enough that I can now share it without unbearable mental anguish.

It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. My son-in-law even warned me about the danger and refused to participate. But although I’ve “been around the block a few times,” as they say, nothing could have prepared me for the horror of a


When we were in Hoboken my wife and daughter invited me to accompany them for some shopping. I saw this as a chance to make a large deposit in the Brownie Point Bank & Trust, an institution from which we men are constantly making withdrawals because in the eyes of our beloved spouses we are constantly screwing up.

A form of “payday loans” is available if one’s account is overdrawn, but the penalties are incredibly high. Once when I found myself reduced to such a position I had to take Cynthia to a Travelling Pants movie to get back in the plus column. Thank God I had a positive balance when both of those dreadful Sex in the City abominations were playing.

So we boarded a bus bright and early and were off on our excursion. Immediately I witnessed a warning sign that filled me with trepidation. Many women had brought along huge rolling suitcases. Uh-oh----.

Now I’ve been to outlet malls before, but never one with overnight accommodations (although I later learned our destination is so gargantuan that several hotels are available nearby for shopaholics who can’t get their fix in a single day). I thus surmised that we were in the company of serious major leaguers. And that I, a rank amateur, was hurtling headlong toward a day of sheer agony.

(Sigh). It all started out promisingly enough. Our first stop was a Banana Republic store, where I came, I saw, and I bought several items in maybe 30 minutes. Meanwhile the ladies were still meandering around and hadn’t even tried on a single item. Yikes.

Finally they disappeared into the dressing rooms and I begrudgingly took a seat on the floor. I hate women’s stores without adequate seating. They are obviously not designed by husbands, who would understand that a happy, comfortable hubby will patiently relax, say, “Uh-huh, that looks great, honey (sound familiar, guys?),” and pull out the plastic after sitting for what feels like, and sometimes actually is, hours.

When my butt was numb and my legs had started going to sleep I hollered, “How much longer?” into the void. “15 minutes!” came the reply. So I went out and wandered around the allotted time, came back and announced my return. “Just 5 more minutes!”

This wasn’t exactly my first rodeo shopping-wise, and I already knew how this was going to unfold. Twenty minutes later when I reappeared at the door and they still had not emerged I said, “That’s it--see you in 2 hours at the food court.”

Set adrift in an ocean of huge stores that mainly catered to women, those 2 hours felt for like 2 days. Aimlessly rifling through racks of stuff you have absolute no interest in is about as stimulating as being stranded in a law library. People-watching among the GP (general public) also holds little appeal; observing the behavior and unique grooming/sartorial styles of the LCD (lowest common denominator) is vastly more entertaining. FYI--this latter group can usually be found at Big Lots and Dollar General.

So we met for lunch as scheduled. After all morning at the mall my short burst of shopping had bagged more items than both the ladies combined. Then we again split up and I was left to my own devices. I wandered; I rifled; I sat. This pattern repeated itself over and over.

The crazy thing is I didn’t visit a multiplex there that could have killed a couple of hours. Eat, Pray, Love—some kid movie in 3-D with no special glasses on—it wouldn’t have mattered. Even now I can’t understand how that happened; I must have by then been in some sort of hypnotic, zombie trance that prevented rational thought.

Later in the day I stumbled into a ginormous Burlington Coat Factory store and did manage to purchase 2 pairs of jeans. There were racks and racks and racks and racks of jeans in no order whatsoever. This would have normally irritated the hell out of me, but I needed new ones and, boy, did I have time. So one by one I searched every single rack for 34x34’s and tried on every single pair I found.

This ridiculous exercise ate up the rest of the time until we reconvened and got out of there. On the bus ride and walk back to our daughter’s apartment I said little. When we got home maybe I ate. Maybe I went straight to bed. I have no idea. I was by this time like a drunk who has mentally passed out but somehow is still semi-functioning.

What I do know is I awoke the next day at 10 o’clock, the longest I’ve slept in since what must have been some serious illness so long ago I can’t recall. My back hurt. My feet were killing me. But the Brownie Point account swelled to such a level that getting too drunk a couple of times since and not even starting my Christmas shopping yet have not thrown me into the red.

Oops. Spoke too soon. Cynthia just “asked” me to go with her to the mall this afternoon. Where are those deposit slips?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cuenca in Atlanta?

Last night Cynthia and I had a Cuenca-esque experience at a Cheesecake Factory here in Atlanta. Since we don't even have a McDonald's back home (thank goodness) this perhaps sounds odd, so let me explain.

Neither the food, which of course was quite good, nor the setting mattered all that much. What we enjoyed so much was an evening of fellowship and conviviality.

You see, "Edd the Organizer" was at it again. I contacted several of my dearest friends from high school and suggested getting together while we were in town. Some of us hadn't seen each other in 40+ years.

So here we were all eating, drinking, and socializing just like what happens almost daily somewhere in Cuenca. What a blast! I haven't been to a reunion in a long time and when looking at pics from our last one my comment to Cynthia was a paraphrase from The Sixth Sense: "I see old people------."

But as objectively as is possible when part of what one is describing is oneself I must say that this was a damn good-looking group. Unfortunately we were all having such fun that no one thought to bring a camera or even take a photo with a cell phone, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Shared memories were conjured up; life stories were updated; contact info was exchanged. Of course since everyone else is local and our address is somewhat remote there was considerable curiosity about what the heck we're doing in Ecuador and what life is like there.

I have particularly fond memories of high school, so it is always a special blessing for me to reconnect with a former friend I thought would forever remain in my past. It's almost like someone coming back from the dead, and for me the renewed friendship adds extra texture and color to the fabric of my life.

So Jack, Jim, Penny, Marilyn, and Mike---thanks for a new happy memory.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What It's Like to be Back

It's hard to believe we've been in the States for over a week and a half. Time really seems to pass more quickly here. No wonder in our previous life we always felt so rushed and stressed.

After seven months away I returned with no preconceived notions of what to expect other than satisfying a pent-up desire to consume some of the foods unavailable to us in Ecuador. Funny thing about that--after enjoying Popeye's fried chicken, a "Blimpie's Best" sandwich, a big old messy bacon cheeseburger, some Mexican food, I realized that my anticipation overshadowed the actual experience. It wasn't that I was disappointed--I loved every bite of all of it--but in the end, that burrito was just another of the 60,000+ meals I've consumed over my lifetime.

The sheer size of this country is something you take for granted until you're away from it. Where we live we can walk to most everywhere we need to go in 20 minutes tops. Hoboken, NJ, where our trip started, is also a pedestrian-friendly town, but if you need to go into Manhattan, it's 20 minutes to get to the train to get to the subway to get to-------. And here in Atlanta folks walk their dogs or for fitness; otherwise you drive everywhere.

That's the reason we left this city, my hometown, in the first place. We realized we were spending more time driving from A to B and back than we were doing whatever it was we were doing at B. All that time behind the wheel just wasn't an acceptable way to spend our precious waking hours.

As I'm writing this I'm realizing how important that original decision has turned out to be since years later we've taken it to the extreme of not even owning a car anymore. Or wanting to.

Experiencing seasons again has been a novelty. Pictures I posted recently showed springtime in Cuenca, but even though the flora acted differently with the beautiful blooming the temperatures don't really vary all that much. So it was an unexpected thrill to see a lot of late autumn foliage still on the trees in New York City.

And the cold weather was fun too---for about the first hour. I'm certain that several weeks of coats and hats will be more than sufficient. Since we have no heating or air conditioning at home it's generally warm outside and cool inside. Feels odd for it be just the opposite; we miss needing to jump under the covers and snuggle to get warm at night.

Today has been "vacation from our vacation" day. After a luxuriously slow and lazy start we're off to indulge ourselves with chili dogs and onion rings at the Varsity (insider Atlanta food reference), a current movie without subtitles, and a trip to Target. Yes, I'm driving again (a big pimp-daddy Chrysler 300) and actually enjoying the experience since we're in absolutely no hurry to get anywhere.

So far, like the old John Denver song (there couldn't be a new one, could there? He's dead.), "Hey, it's good to be back home again."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Totally Thankful!

Being in both Ecuador and US airports only hours apart provides an quick, interesting lesson in cultural differences. Domestic security in Ecuador is SO much more user friendly. Take off my shoes? Nah. This water bottle--do I need to throw it away? No, it's fine. What about my computer--remove it from its case? No--why would you do that?

On the other hand, we stood in line over an hour just to check our bags and get our boarding passes. The airline seemed to have plenty of employees, but somehow anything involving paperwork (and Ecuadorians love their paperwork) takes for--ev--er. Plus, beyond that I seriously think we had to show our passports at five different check points on the way to our gate. And after all that we were required to flash our boarding pass right before boarding the plane, as if----well, never mind-----------.

Conversely, while US security borders on fascist, American efficiency immediately welcomes you back and reminds you of what a pain in the ass the simplest things often are in your new hometown. We blew through Customs and security in time to enjoy breakfast at Popeye's (yes!) in Atlanta before heading on to Newark.

After dropping our bags at our daughter & hubby's home I found myself almost immediately on a train to Union Square as an appointment wingman. I enjoyed excellent farmer's and holiday markets in the square, then returned to flop on the couch for a much-needed nap.

Too quickly the front door opened, and through half-opened eyes I was bewildered to see----my son? And then his wife?? What was happening? Brandon had just returned from 5 weeks in India that day. I knew his layover was in Newark early this morning, but he was supposed to be in Durham by now. I was confused.

And thrilled. Thanksgiving is of course a classic "Norman Rockwell" American family holiday, and TeamStaton is a very close family unit, but for too many years and too many reasons we have not all been able to gather around the dining table on this special day.

So our kids had conspired to finally make it happen. But it turns out there was a bigger reason for this surprise. As we all stood in the kitchen Brandon and Jennie shouted, "We're pregnant!!"

What? You're what??

It's true. Cynthia and I will be grandparents next June. How odd that after the initial shock this all seems so natural and perfect. It's the right time; they'll be terrific parents; we're ready to do our thing. Let's have a baby!!

Our son-in-law's parents also came to New Jersey from England for the holiday (not a big one for Brits, but we were thrilled to see them for the first time in 3 years since they normally live on a boat in Greece.) Because their flight back home left Thanksgiving afternoon our dinner took place on Wednesday. With other friends who joined us eleven folks gathered together for a wonderful evening of food and fellowship.

We've all had "special events"--Christmas's, birthdays, Valentine's--that you would struggle to recall anything that happened even two years later. I'm certain that we will remember Thanksgiving 2010 forever.

And I'm thankful to each of you who find this little blog about Ecuador worth reading. Let's all be mindful and grateful for our many blessings every day!

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Thought This Might Happen-------

When we moved here in May mayhem, pratfalls, absurdities, and general craziness broke loose. Such is the life of strangers in a strange land, and it made for some interesting stories. But after six months you've either thrown your hands up and moved back home (we know several folks who have done just that) or you somehow manage to settle in and begin creating a life.

We have chosen Door #2. Our Spanish still sucks, we still often have no idea why many things are the way they are (we quit asking--it makes things SO much easier), and yet---here we are, happy as can be.

The trips to the supermarket no longer involve intense stare-down's hoping the Spanish labels will somehow reveal their English translations. There are no more arguments with cab drivers about whether the fare is $1.50 or $2.00. We don't know all the street names yet but we don't get lost any more. Have we become boring? Hardly. We've simply become more comfortable.

But I'm a bit sad to admit that as a result this blog is becoming too "bloggy" even for me. I hate online diaries, and thank God I'm not yet reporting where we ate for dinner and, since we don't own a pet, what color nail polish Poochie got at the salon. But still, I and you expect more than a photo gallery with a few clever comments.

So what to do? I have no clue. I'm now writing for two publications, La Tarde and Cuenca High Life; there are several business deals cooking; our social life is totally off the hook; we are becoming a magnet for social causes. But all this isn't wildly entertaining--it's just us---today.

Perhaps all this should be reassuring and comforting to those of you considering a life abroad. We are poster children for a normal (debatable) suburban couple who parachuted into a different culture with zero friends and through positive intention have very successfully created a rich, vibrant new life.

We're returning to the States this Sunday for a 5 week stay to visit family and friends during the holiday season. Maybe plunging back into the world we left behind will generate some craziness. We're excited to see everyone, and I'm pumped about diving into the food (it's gonna get ugly)that's just not available here.

But even though we're going "home," I'm certain we'll be ready to get back to the beauty and peace of our real home here in Ecuador. For us Estados Unidos is now a "nice place to visit, but wouldn't want to live there."

Strange but true. Let's see what happens next.

Monday, November 15, 2010

International Food Festival

The barbecue sauce of course did get made, and we showed up at Mall del Rio yesterday morning ready to rock and roll. We had no idea what to expect, and in fact didn't know that the convention center at the mall even existed. We were happy to see a big sign announcing the event.

We were the first to arrive at our booth, so Cynthia posed for a pic in front of our sign.

Then the rest of the crew arrived and we set up shop and got organized.

I got a chance to wander around a bit before everything got started. I was amazed both at the size of the venue and the number of cuisines represented.

There was a large open area with all the booths and two enormous dining rooms with flowers on the tables and wait staff ready to serve.

Then the crowd started arriving.

And we quickly got busy. How busy? See the rib tray? The 20 racks of ribs we prepared sold out in less than an hour.

In no time the whole place was packed.

Even ghosts were showing up.

$25,000 to $30,000 was raised for FASEC (Foundation for the Assistance of Cancer Patients) in about 4 hours. We were incredibly impressed with how smoothly everything ran and the helpful attitude of every volunteer. It was fantastic to be around so many happy people having a wonderful afternoon. We look forward in the coming year to continuing to give our time to this awesome organization.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Great Day

There's rarely a "bad" day here in Cuenca, but yesterday was an exceptionally outstanding one. I had a morning meeting with an attorney friend to review detailed plans of the proposed parking lot at Madre Park. For those of you living here who have been relying on gossip and Internet hysteria about this project, here's my assessment: overall this appears to be a well thought out concept. There are several unanswered questions that we are presenting to the city for clarification, but the finished product will be more attractive and useful than the current hodgepodge. And no, they're not going to cut down all the trees. I'll keep you informed on this one.

In the afternoon Cynthia & I, along with our good friends Will & Val Lacy, had the opportunity to visit two rural schools outside Cuenca to plan some Christmas festivities for the children there. We met the young lady and her mother who had requested our help, jumped on a bus, and headed off for an adventure.

A limousine was waiting to whisk us to the schools.

The scenery was fantastic as we bounced along dirt roads for miles.

The kids were a bit shy upon our arrival.

But no one could resist Will's charm.

After touring the school we all lined up for a picture (and some of us actually looked at the camera).

Then it was time to distribute the candy we brought along.

We made a brief stop at another school, then it was back to Cuenca (there's Will "working the room" again).

We went straight to a special Gringos & Friends night. This weekend Cynthia and I are blessed with the chance to help raise funds for FASEC (Foundation for Assistance of Cancer Patients). FASEC provides temporary assistance and lodging to patients from outside Cuenca and hospice care to those who need a caring place to die with dignity. These patients come from all over Ecuador for treatment at SOLCA, Cuenca’s outstanding cancer specialty hospital which is adjacent to FASEC’s facilities.

We got involved with this event and the schools because of an article that appeared in the newspaper about the first G&F event. My email was included, and I cringed when I saw it, but several worthwhile inquiries such as these resulted so it turned out to be a good thing.

Understand that all this crazy stuff I share with you that we're doing lately is totally unplanned. We arrived in Cuenca in May with zero agenda except to make a new life here, but one thing has led to another has led to another has led to another, and 6 months later I've started a Gringo night, am writing a column in the newspaper, and have become a "lightning rod" for charities here. And just today I've been invited to write for another publication and to appear on a radio program. This has been a wild, unpredictable, and incredibly fun ride.

Anyway, Di Bacco, the host restaurant, generously offered to donate 10% of last night's proceeds to the FASEC, and there was a large and supportive crowd in attendance. Several hours later we stumbled in the door dog-tired.

Tomorrow we pick up the ingredients to make barbeque sauce for 20 racks of ribs. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that our involvement includes helping man the USA booth Sunday for the 16th Annual International Food Festival to benefit FASEC. We're also having people over for lunch and other folks for cocktails Friday, doing prep work for the Festival Saturday afternoon, and going to a party Saturday night. When was I going to make that sauce? Right now I have no idea, but it will be made.

It's kinda funny. I actually thought we came here to retire. Silly me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

First Column

A number of you have asked me to post here the column (which I named "All Things Gringo")I wrote for the newspaper. As you'll see, because it's published in English and Spanish each piece will have to be pretty short.


Over the past few years you’ve seen more and more foreigners around the city and you may be wondering, “Why have all these gringos left their countries to come to Cuenca, Ecuador?” I will be writing a column each Friday to help us all get to know each other better.

My wife and I came here from Las Vegas six months ago. I’m happy to report that so far being in Cuenca has far exceeded our expectations. Every gringo (we call ourselves that too!) has a unique life story, but I think it is fair to say that most of us are here for a combination of these reasons: 1) wonderful weather, 2) low cost of living, and 3) proximity to the US.

This is information that can be obtained through research on the Internet. There is, however, a special hidden treasure in Cuenca that can only be discovered by living here on a daily basis---the kindness and generosity of this beautiful city’s citizens. It is difficult and stressful to relocate to a different country and culture where you know no one and perhaps don’t speak the language well. We are very grateful for the special blessing of feeling so welcomed in our new hometown.

And many of us want to do more than just reside here. In upcoming columns I will sometimes spotlight gringos who are doing important volunteer work or opening new businesses. Our city’s recent growth creates many opportunities, and by working together Cuencanos and gringos will guide Cuenca to an exciting future.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cuenca Independence Day

Correction: my weekly column did start in the newspaper today, but it was in La Tarde, the afternoon paper, instead of El Mercurio, the morning paper. Sorry for the confusion.

So last Saturday through this Wednesday marked the celebration of Cuenca Independence Day. It's deliciously fitting and symbolic that we spent 5 days celebrating one "Day," since it sometimes takes that much time for workers to finish a one day job (or to show up for that job).

Most of the businesses, banks included, were closed the whole time. Can you imagine that happening in the US? Sure, we've sort of turned Thanksgiving into a four day weekend (sorry about that, all of you involved in retail) and Christmas into a 3 1/2 day event if it aligns properly with a weekend, but 5 days??? Impossible. Many Americans don't even use all of their vacation days.

Oh, by the way, note that this is Cuenca's celebration of independence from Spain, not the whole country of Ecuador's. You readers from afar might ask, "Why is that?" We citizens here have so many opportunities to ask that question about any and everything that after awhile we grow weary, get beat down and just go with the flow. Unless you're hardwired to be a factoid hunter/gatherer, does it really matter?

Here's what was going on. Merchants from all over South America were here peddling their wares. Some of it was of course crap (I even found some "artisan" clothing with labels from China--oops!), but a lot of it was super-high quality handmade textiles at embarrassingly low prices. After a bit of haggling.

One of the main areas for this was in Madre Park, which happily is quite close to our home.

Here's Cynthia in front of one of the many vendors' stands.

Food was plentiful as well. Candied apples, of course, but do you see the candied grapes??

I especially liked the Ecuadorian version of gingerbread men

And the "gettin' down to basics" hand-churned ice cream

But for some reason we weren't comfortable trying the food here

There was lots of entertainment too. Some conventional

And some curiously unexpected

But you don't know entertainment until you've seen a full blown Ecuadorian fireworks display. Understand, knuckleheads shoot off fireworks all the time here. Sometimes at 6 in the morning. Why? Remember-----------.

This is a whole different level of pyrotechnics and, frankly, danger. In the States an unthinkable number of laws and regulations would be broken by what I'm going to show you. Which makes participation as a spectator kind of---naughty? Thrilling? Liberating? I'm not quite sure how to describe it.

This tower is loaded with explosives. And note the proximity of the crowd.

The "Mad Bull" starts the action

by becoming a mini-fireworks display and then igniting the bottom of the tower

The crowd looks wary of what's about to happen

And for good reason because suddenly all hell breaks loose!

But after all that the crowd notices the top of the tower somehow didn't explode

So party on!!

Exciting, huh? Guess what--there was another tower on the other side of the park.

But see the sign on the top. This one was sponsored by the local government, so it was surely much safer, right? Uh, not so much-----

After all the walking, shopping, eating, drinking, and fireworking our tongues were hanging out.

So we're resting up now and getting ready for not 5 days but 5 WEEKS of shenanigans in the US soon. God help us!!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Springtime in Cuenca!

The locals like to claim that there are no seasons in Cuenca. The flora disagrees--it's springtime here, folks! Hard for you on the other side of the equator to imagine, I'm sure, as the weather is getting colder. These are some pics I took walking through our neighborhood on the way to the grocery store.

Is this place beautiful or what???