Sunday, May 30, 2010

Even a Caveman Can Do It

We were invited by a new Cuencano friend to spend the day with her and her husband at their farm in the country Saturday.  After checking our social calendar and noting we have no other plans until November we said, "Sure, we'd love to."

Here's the setup for an interesting outing:  our Spanish is horrible; her English is decent and hubby's is non-existent.

So off we all go.  A little ways out of town we stopped in a tiny village for breakfast.  This hamlet apparently has a reputation because there were numerous small roadside stands on both sides of the road all cooking the exact same items--cornmeal griddle cakes, chickens, and guinea pigs (a local delicacy known as cuy).  

I was aware of cuy and with the same spirit of adventure that brought us here I was planning on tasting it on a day of my choosing and certainly not first thing in the morning.  Since it's pretty much roasted "childhood-pet-on-a-stick"--head, feet, claws--the whole chincillada, Cynthia, a Doctor Dolittle type, had never been a player on the concept.

But we weren't doing the ordering.  Fortunately our hosts skipped the meat altogether and we dined on the griddle cakes and an interesting hot milk drink that included more corn and an unrecognizable spice.

After a short drive through a town called Paute where many roses are grown for export and up a bumpy dirt road we arrived at their retreat.  It's a modest 2 bedroom home with a loft, very rustic in a good way.  Natural materials right off the property have been incorporated wherever possible.

A tour around the spread revealed several gardens (our constant Spring-like weather requires staggered plantings so ripe produce can always be available) , a trout pond, chicken coop, rabbit and, yes, guinea pig coop, and a lone sheep tied up with a rope.  

We were soon to eat the freshest food we'd ever consumed.  Our hosts gathered onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, celery, and tomatoes and a chicken was selected from the coop.  Then we entered a cultural time/space continuum that's hard to describe, but I'll try.

The chicken was slaughtered, plucked, and butchered right before our eyes--in like 20 minutes.  Vegetables, fruits, and herbs were sliced and chopped.  The tiny 4-burner stove was wall-to-wall with big pots boiling, sauteing, and deep-frying away.  It was all a blur of activity that inexplicably felt calm and relaxed.

All the while we're talking--sort of, gesturing, passing a guitar around and singing, laughing.  Effortlessly sharing a wonderful spirit of camaraderie stripped of sophisticated verbal communication, enjoying connection at a basic level with which many of us have sadly lost touch.

After a remarkable feast that went from farm to table in only two hours the men retired to the front porch,. somehow "discussing" politics with lots of arm-waving, foot-stomping, and exaggerated facial expressions. Like religion this subject of conversation is fraught with peril under ordinary circumstances, but fortunately we found we leaned in the same direction---a la derecha (to the right).  Otherwise our wild gesticulations could have resulted in fisticuffs. 

One part of Latin American culture Cynthia & I have quickly embraced is the siesta, so we retired for a quick nap while our hosts checked out the progress of some projects around the acreage.  I awoke first and sitting alone on the porch admiring the surrounding vistas I felt a surge of emotion.

It dawned on me that last Memorial Day weekend, during three blurring days of white-hot energy and intention, our thought process had wildly accelerated from the initial notion of leaving the US to contemplating a relocation to Cuenca, Ecuador, of all places.  Three days???  Cuenca, Ecuador???

And now, exactly one year later, impossibly, I found myself sitting  alone and staring out at-----South America.  Wow.  We did it.  We really did it.

Soon everyone reconvened, we straightened up a bit and returned to the city.  As we said our goodbye's it was apparent that each of us had just experienced something magical and deeply satisfying.  Two couples had really put themselves "out there" to begin a relationship. Without the usual crutch of banal, stereotypical chitchat we were forced to dig deep and focus not on what we were going to say next but solely on what the other person was trying to say.  We supported and encouraged, expressing ourselves and understanding each other as we truly were because it was impossible to do otherwise.

Two couples, strangers in so many ways at the beginning of the day, parted last night as real friends.    

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cum on Feel the Noize

I don't know what it is with me and the song references, but I've got to give myself credit for pulling Quiet Riot out of the memory archives.  Especially when I sometimes walk into a room and can't recall why I'm there.

Anyway, yesterday was moving day.  We left the hotel and are now in a small, furnished efficiency.  Casa Ordonez is the same place we stayed during our exploratory visit and I highly recommend it.  The hotel is a converted old family dwelling with bedrooms surrounding a central courtyard that has a clear plexiglass roof to let the sunshine in but keep out the elements.

And, as we quickly learned at this new place, the noise.

You know the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for."  As we walked along the river last summer we looked up at the beautiful old buildings towering over it from the hill above and agreed, "Now that's the kind of place we'd like to live in."

Well, here we are a year later on the 3rd floor of just such a structure.  Up the stairs from the rooftop terrace the view is spectacular.  You can see everything----and hear everything.

From this elevation sounds are coming at you from literally every direction.  Lots of sounds.  Traffic--honking horns--sirens--car alarms going off and staying on.  Thank God the rap music/big subwoofer-in-the-trunk thing hasn't caught on here.

We learned last night the hard way that there are numerous nightclubs in the area.  Nothing like the gentle THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of loud techno music to lull you to sleep at midnight.

Those fireworks I wrote about recently have finally stopped.  Apparently last week was some big national celebration that ended Monday.  At 5 this morning we were greeted by the real thing.  Yep, roosters.  I didn't say a rooster.  Roosters.  Two of them somewhere within crowing range.

Being a city boy I don't have much experience with barnyard fowl.  As I lay there listening to this "Crowdown" (apologies to Bobby Flay) I noticed something that perhaps is perfectly normal but struck me as a bit odd.  One of the competitors was doing the usual cockadoodledoo thing, but the other one was just going  cockadooooooo.  And I thinking, "Yo, wassup.  Listen, listen.  I know we tell you to make it your own but, dude, you don't go messing with a classic like that, changing the arrangement.  I didn't even recognize it.  Just crow it, dawg, crow it.  I don't know.  It started out really pitchy for me.  You were screamin' that last dooooo over and over.  It didn't work for me, man.  I didn't get it.  I didn't get it."

When we were up on the terrace yesterday afternoon I noticed that the neighbor next door has a grassy rectangular backyard, highly unusual in a dense urban area like Cuenca.  Just as I was drifting back off to sleep from the roosters I noticed that the neighbor next door was mowing that yard--at 5:30?!?!  All right, all right--you win Yard of the Month award--turn that damn mower off so we can maybe get some sleep!!

H-m-m-m---it's now 9:15 and my knowledge of roosters is growing exponentially.  I thought they just crowed when the sun come up, but those two little bastards have been going at it constantly for 4 hours straight.  Please, for God's sake, cockadoodledon't for a while!!   

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Typical Lunch

I'm about to tell you something I never thought I'd say. I bought something I never thought I'd buy.  And  I'm sitting here enjoying something I never thought I'd enjoy.

Boxed wine.

Because of super-high import taxes, wine is the one thing that is unexpectedly expensive here.  Chile is our next door neighbor, but it's a different country, so a bottle of Chilean wine, or any wine for that matter, costs more than in the US.  Who knew? 

The solution to this problem was revealed to us by an expat friend.  Concha Y Toro, whose vintages you may have enjoyed, produces a boxed white and red priced at $4 something per liter at the Super Maxi. She told me to put my prejudice aside (we're not "wine snobs" or anything, but boxed wine--yikes!) and give it a try. I bought a box of tinto (red) and poured a taste with trepidation.

I was amazed that the stuff was better than awful; even better than pretty goodTruthfully we've had $10+ bottles in the States that were WAY worse.  There's no date on the box so I'm guessing it's the extra-special 2010 variety.  And I found a 1.5 liter box at a little corner grocery for $5 something, so we've discovered our own Trader Jose's "2 Buck Chuck.'

But this post is really about what's called the "typical lunch" here in Cuenca.  There are restaurants tucked along streets serving their own versions all over town, often identified by a sandwich board posting the day's offering.

The lunch usually includes a glass of fresh juice, soup, an entree, and dessert, with prices we've paid ranging from $2.20 down to today's bargain $1.25.  That's all in, tax & and tip included.  In exchange for such a modest investment we've been happy to adventurously wing it even when we've had only a vague idea or in some cases no idea what we'll be served.

At the $2.20 establishment the meal started with a small basket of popcorn and there was a choice of 3 entrees.  A $2.00 lunch elsewhere had no popcorn and only salt shakers on the tables (every place has a small bowl of a creamy hot sauce) so we figured that's what the extra 20 cents bought you.  Salads aren't real popular here, so when the menu offers "ensalada" it's a tiny mound of finely chopped whatever and a faint flavoring that passes for salad dressing.  Soups and juices, on the other hand, are diet staples.  The servings are consistently generous and delicious.

At our "el cheapo" lunch spot today we started with the popcorn (a good sign), honeydew juice and yummy cream of carrot soup.  We'd brought our Spanish dictionary along and had unsuccessfully tried to decipher the entree before entering.  When it was brought to the table we were looking at a salad, beans and rice, and what appeared to be 3 chicken nuggets.

I popped one in my mouth and immediately understood that the reason I couldn't locate our main dish earlier was because I had been searching in the wrong section of the book.  I was looking under "food & drink" instead of "anatomy."  The only way I can describe what I was attempting to eat is "fried bones."

Yep.  Battered and deep-fried bones with little slivers of a meat that was possibly chicken embedded in the crevices.  I say "possibly chicken" because it tasted like chicken but we couldn't quite determine from what part of the fowl these particular bones could have been extracted.  Their shape suggested perhaps the tail or wrist but those choices were obviously impossible.

But whatever we were gnawing on was tasty enough so like hungry vultures we reduced our nuggets to little piles of bones, learned by watching other tables that dessert wasn't part of the "tasting menu" here, paid $2.50 and departed.

A final note.  The food here no matter what price is fresh, unadulterated, and delicious.  Chickens don't look like small turkeys; fruit actually goes bad if you don't eat it soon after you buy it; eggs taste more---eggy??  It has been a joy to discover that real food still exists.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Rooster Here Goes "Cock-a doodle-BOOM!"

BOOM!!  BOOM!!  What the hell??  It's Tuesday, our first morning here.  I remember looking at my watch.  7 AM.  Then I'm back fast asleep and forget about it.

Wednesday.  BOOM!!  BOOM!!  God Almighty.  I pick up my watch from the nightstand.  7AM.  I drift off.  BOOM!!  BOOM!!  BOOM!!  Jeez.  7:15.  Nod off.  BOOM!!  BOOM!!  Must be the water pipes in this old hotel responding to the day's 1st shower or something.  Either that or we're near the town firing squad.  The day starts and the memory fades.

Thursday.  Yep.  More booms.  Even more than the other days.  At breakfast I finally ask the owner here, "What is all that racket every morning?  It sounds like fireworks or something."

"It is fireworks."

"What???  Who's shooting off fireworks first thing in the morning?"

"The priests."


"At the big cathedral behind us a few blocks."


"They start every day this way to honor some saint or another."

"But in broad daylight?  You can't even see fireworks then.  Isn't that the point?"

"Not for these guys.  For them it's all about the noise."

"And this happens every day?"

"Si.  Wait till Friday.  It's All Saints Day."

(Sigh).  Guess we'll get an early start tomorrow.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adventures at the Super Maxi

When we first announced we were moving to Ecuador, I'm sure that many friends and relatives  knew zero about the country and thought we were going to live in a straw hut in the jungle and become hunter/gatherers.  I must admit that prior to our initial research I couldn't have located the place on a map myself.  My Geography class experience in high school was an endless memorization of countries, capitols, products, and rivers that I found excruciatingly tedious and unworthy of retention. 

If you've been following this blog you now know Cuenca, our new hometown, is a wonderful combination of old and new with many modern conveniences.  The city has two Super Maxi's, the US equivalent of a respectable grocery store.  After a meeting with our attorney yesterday we decided to visit one near his office to reacquaint ourselves with the prices and selection, and to purchase a few items to take back to our hotel room.

Some random observations:  there is no milk in the dairy section--it's super-pasteurized, in boxes on the shelf, and requires no refrigeration; the rice section takes up almost an entire side of an aisle; beef and pork are butchered into unrecognizable cuts and are amazingly lean; most anything you would want is available, but imported goods from the US are a bit higher in price than there (which considering how cheap everything else is--like 6 apples for a dollar--makes them VERY expensive).

So we select a few things, put them on the belt at the checkout, and I push my buggy through to the bagging area as usual.  Except it won't go through--the widest part in the rear is too wide for the space.  Everyone of course laughs at my faux pas, because that's not what you do here.  It seems that you unload, leave the buggy, and someone returns it to the front of the store.  Who knew??

Apparently my cultural indiscretion distracted the checkout guy, because when I looked at my receipt he'd charged me for two bottles of wine when I'd only purchased one.  Oh boy, the literally nonexistent Espanol is about to be tested.  So far around town playing Charades, nodding & smiling have worked pretty well, and I haven't had to use the tried-and-completely-untrue American tactic of speaking slowly and loudly.

Fortunately the customer service girl knew some English and understood the problem.  But her suggested solution was a bit odd:  "Since you've paid for two bottles would you like another one?."  "No," I replied, "if I had wanted two bottles I would have bought two bottles."  Silence.  "What I'd really like is my money back for the bottle I don't want."  Quizzical look.  "You would like the money back?"  "Si."  "Oh, OK."

While she was processing the refund (which involved manually writing the bar code down on a tablet--the items have bar codes but the stores don't have the scanner technology to process the information yet) I noticed you could sign up for a store card like in the States.  Or so I thought. 

"Tell me about this Super Maxi card," I said.  "How do I get one of those?"  She handed me a form and replied, "You fill out one of these."  This was familiar.  "And pay $44."  H-m-m---I wasn't expecting that one.  You know these are free in the US.  "After I fill out the form and give you $44, what do I get?"  Quizzical look again.  "I mean. what is the benefit of having this card that I pay for?" 

Her answer was brilliant.  "You get 10% off everything you purchase in the store for a full year."  What a concept.  Spend less than $10/week to save money all year?  Now that's a way to build customer loyalty--and this store doesn't even have any competition! 

So many little cultural differences.  Like last night we learned you can't call a cell phone from a land line.  Why?  I have no idea.  Next time I'll tell you about a very unusual 7 AM wake-up call we get each morning.  

Ciao for now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Airport Insecurity

We arrived in Cuenca a couple of days ago and already there are stories to tell, but I want to first share a crazy airport story.  Since we left Vegas we're been through six terminals (not just to get here--we also went to our son's wedding in Mexico and visited our daughter in New Jersey).   If you don't fly much let me tell you, the security "standards" are anything but.  They vary from country to country, airport to airport, and even person to person.

At McCarran in Vegas, a TSA guy pulled one of Cynthia's bags and was giving her all kinds of crap about several of her carry-on bottles being 4 ounces instead of 3.5.  He said either throw it all away and come back through security or go back to the counter and check the bag.  Some of the stuff was expensive and/or medically necessary, so we hustled back to the counter, only to be told it was too late to check the bag and we would have to take a later flight.

Understand we're leaving the country.   Everything we're carrying on is oversized and unbelievably heavy, especially the ones I'm carrying. I'm pouring sweat and in no mood for this level of "customer service." The clock's ticking.  For these and a multitude of other reasons we weren't taking a friggin' later flight, so we split the items up among several bags, chose a different security line with the most apathetic looking agent, and went straight through.  (Sigh)  As a result of all this nonsense we had no time to purchase any food and barely made our flight, getting  to "feast" on a bag of nuts we'd brought along.

But that's the frustrating story, not the crazy one.  Check this out.  After the wedding we went through Cancun, Newark (twice) and Atlanta.  We took off our shoes, forgot to take off our belt, set off the alarm in one airport with an item that caused no problem somewhere else--all the usual shenanigans.

In Quito, Ecuador, our last stop before finally getting here, we of course leave our shoes on, because nowhere else in the world had that stupid "tennis shoe bomber."  How many years ago was that?  His diabolical plot didn't even work.  Exactly why are we still doing that?  But I digress.  We've got an open bottle of water.  That's OK too.  But they pull off the belt for inspection an accordion file of Cynthia's.

H-m-m-m---what's up?  Why are they hassling us? There are only papers in there, right?   Oh, maybe because of that big pair of scissors in the back!!

Wow.  Completely forgotten about by us.  Completely missed by security in three different cities more concerned about belt buckles and an extra half ounce of whatever than a potential weapon.  Not of mass destruction, but capable of at least a respectable puncture wound.  How is that possible??

Go to bed tonight assured that your safety is in totally incompetent hands.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Bye Bye Miss American Pie

"Took our Outback to the Carmax so we could simplify
Them good old boys was thinkin' they would comply
Sayin' this will be a car that we buy, this will be a car that we buy-----"

So enough with the pop song references.  The car is sold, the stuff is packed, and we're off to Ecuador in two days.  In the last week and a half we've flown from Vegas to New Jersey where our daughter lives, from New Jersey to Mexico for our son's wedding, then back to Jersey before leaving the US on Sunday.

The home stretch was nothing short of brutal because we severely underestimated how much was left to do and how long it would take.  Our last day was envisioned as Cynthia shopping for a new bathing suit and me getting a head start on my wedding tan.  Instead we were madly scrambling to pack boxes, finish the inventory list, phone, email, and instant message at a frenetic pace so we could get to the dealer before it closed, which we barely did.

Like our episode with the liquor, the food situation got a bit grim as we depleted the cupboard and refrigerator.  The last morning I asked Cynthia, "What do you want for breakfast--the piece of pizza or half a hot dog?."  At least I had the foresight to dress the half dog with mustard and catsup before I packed the condiments.

Not so with our "Last Supper."  We had held back a frozen flatbread something-or-other, lettuce and dressing for a salad, and an expensive bottle of wine.  Cynthia had "set aside" plastic flatware and plates for this feast, but I was in the packing "zone" all day and in my Zen state of mind those bad boys were directly in the line of fire so into a box they went.

In ordinary times I would have incurred the wrath of Medusa for such a grievous error, but these were not ordinary times, my friends, so we just shook our heads, laughed, and plotted the latest of countless improvisations.  We ended up sharing our flatbread thing on a cutting board and eating whole salad leaves out of mixing bowls with our bare hands.  What a sight--what a moment!  We did get to enjoy the wine out of real glasses that had somehow eluded me, the all-devouring  "Pack-Man."

A lot of people have asked me, "What are you going to do over there?."  The short answer is, "Within reason, whatever I want to do."  I've spent most of the hours of my adult life preparing to do, going to and from, and doing a variety of things that were necessary to provide the financial support my family required.  No complaints--I'd do it all again.

Now I've placed myself in a position to pursue a different path--enjoying things I've always wanted to do that have no guarantee of monetary reward:  writing--painting--sculpting--learning to play the cello.  Looking for ways to be of service and leave the planet a better place than I found it.  Embracing interests that have absolutely nothing to do with chasing a dollar--improving my fitness, exploring randomly, reading for the hell of it.  And yes, perhaps starting a new business if the opportunity presents itself, as long as it doesn't involve a J-O-B.

I've often joked that the problem with folks relocating to "get a fresh start" is that they take themselves with them.  These are the best years I have left, and I'm acutely aware if I go to Ecuador and fritter that time away, shame on me.  In the words of Jack Bauer from the TV series 24, "That's not happening."

Ciao, amigos.  Stay tuned for updates from afar-------