Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crazy Train

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, I was driving home to Atlanta on a Friday afternoon from The University of Georgia to visit my then-girlfriend Cynthia. I was anxious to get there so I chose to take a more direct short cut route rather than go out of the way to get to the freeway. Snow had fallen the previous day but the roads seemed fine. Nevertheless I was driving cautiously "just in case."

As I rounded a curve "just in case" happened. The car kept going straight and went down an embankment, doing a slow 360 degree roll before stopping back on its wheels. Shaken but unharmed, I squeezed myself out (the roof was of course crushed down), climbed the hill, hitched a ride with a kind stranger who had seen the incident and stopped, and finished my journey on a Greyhound bus from the next town.

I was reminded of that incident because of several occurrences this week. When you're living in a foreign country and you've settled in a bit as we have, most of the time you cruise through your days with little or no problems. But if you unexpectedly hit a patch of "black ice," you're "goin' off the rails on a crazy train" (from that great 20th century philosopher Ozzy Osbourne), and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

It's easy to believe that life isn't all that different from back home, and in fact the basic framework of daily existence seems and feels quite familiar. Roads, buildings, cars, people, roosters--well, pretty darn familiar anyway. Inevitably though, "stuff" happens (cleaning up the language of a popular bumper sticker from awhile back). And when it does the illusion disappears, you're totally out of your element and you realize you've got no game.

There's always the "language thing." I was vividly reminded of this recently when we went to some Cuencano friends' home for dinner. Eight people were in attendance--7 adults and 1 baby. The kid ended up in my lap and we were getting along famously. While the adults conversed junior and I happily stuck our fingers in each other's mouths and made silly faces. It suddenly occurred to me that our bonding was based on the ease of our non-verbal communication compared to the struggle I would have endured attempting my fractured Spanglish (a little Span and mucho Glish) with the others. Wow, instead of Spanish classes I need to enroll in Mother's Morning Out??

The added wild card is the cultural difference. The people here not only inconveniently speak the wrong language, they also have the nerve to do things differently. Why in the world can't they understand how, how wrong they are??? (written with tongue firmly pressed against cheek).

So first our brand new microwave quit working after about a month. In the States, no problemo. You take it back to Best Buy or WalMart with your receipt, get a replacement, and take it home. I was actually naive enough to think that's what would happen here. Silly me.

We had our local lawyer friend go with us to interpret because in spite of my blind optimism I wasn't stupid enough to think I could navigate those treacherous verbal waters solo. Even with her doing the talking it was obvious from the body language that we wouldn't be leaving with a new appliance that night.

Or even the one we came with. No, first a technician had to evaluate the problem and they would call first thing "manana." Have I mentioned the frequent use of this word before? At the risk of repeating myself, let me digress for a moment. Cynthia and I are diligently working on our Spanish, and we thought it was clear from our studies that "manana" means "tomorrow." Not so. What it really means is "not today." Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe never---but definitely not today.

So two mananas later I asked my friend to follow up. She was told the diagnosis may take several more days. Upon hearing this my skin started turning green and my shirt began to split across my back. Seeing that I was about to "Hulk" right there in front of her she got back on the phone and suddenly we were all on our way to the store for a "meeting with the manager."

After lengthy and sincere discourse the real truth emerged--they didn't have another microwave like the one we had purchased and locals hate to disappoint. They resort to what Americans would label as outright lying, but here it's just a polite way of buying time. The manager said he would get one from their store in Guayaquil (4 hours away) and we would definitely have it by Friday. It's Saturday and-----well, you know. (Sigh)

Instance #2. We're still not in our permanent residence upstairs--don't get me started; too many mananas about that to even go there. So we're having to use a local dry cleaner/laundry facility to wash all our clothes. Well, in the last load one of our pillow cases came back with a grease stain on it. We've all had a dry cleaners screw something up, and you know it can sometimes get a bit tense if the store doesn't want to take responsibility.

We weren't at all worried about that. The girl that works there is so sweet but she doesn't speak a word of English, and with our toddler-level Spanish we weren't totally prepared to say, "Apparently your machine caused this grease stain on our pillow case, so we would like for you to please clean it again at no charge." Let's see, in that sentence we could have said "Your this on our so we like for you to please it again no."

It didn't seem like that was going to get the point across, so it was time to play----- "Championship Charades!!" And here's your host----E-d-d-d-d----Sta-a-a-a-a-ton!! If, God forbid, there was a video of my behavior during those next few minutes any judge viewing it would pronounce me a maniac and call for the straight jacket. I was jumping around, wildly gesticulating, making exaggerated faces, drawing pictures, even resorting to the old tried and true tactic of talking louder.

Bless her heart After my virtuoso performance she smiled and indicated she understood. What a relief--it worked!! Then she proceeded to write me up a new ticket to have the pillow case dry cleaned for $3. (Double Sigh)

Finally comes the cell phone shenanigans. I haven't had much need for phone communication thus far, so I buy pre-paid minutes. Wednesday a week ago I apparently ran out so I stopped by a pharmacy (these minutes are sold everywhere) and bought $5 more. A week and one phone call later I was out of minutes again. H-m-m-m-m. I think the company maybe sent some text messages warning me but I of course couldn't read them so they went unheeded. Still five bucks for one call seemed a bit steep in a country where a filet mignon dinner costs $8, so I stopped by a company store for an explanation.

First let me tell you about this phone. I got the cheapest one because all I want to do is make and receive calls. Young people want to be "connected" all the time; I prefer to be "disconnected" as much as possible. Cheapness can manifest itself in mysterious ways. It didn't appear my phone had voicemail, but I've discovered it has a rocking little flashlight on the end.

I can envision the product development guys sitting around a conference table. "OK, listen up, guys. This is an inexpensive phone so we've got to make some decisions. What do you think---voicemail or flashlight? Flashlight? Good choice--let's do it!"

We walked in this store and an attractive young woman smiled politely, took a breath and unleashed a barrage of auctioneer-speed Spanish so stunning that Cynthia and I just stood there with our mouths open staring like Beavis and Butthead. The only thing she said that I understood was the name of the company--if there was even a "buenas tardes" in there I completely missed it.

Thank goodness one guy there spoke English. He explained that when you buy $5.99 or less unused minutes expire after one week. One week?? Well, he said, they don't really expire-expire. When you buy additional minutes the old ones are added to the total. Until they expire again a week later. And so on and so on---------.

But if you buy $6 or more you get your minutes for 30 days plus triple bonus minutes. I wanted to say, "So why didn't someone explain this to me when I bought this phone?." I wanted to say, "If I pay for the damn minutes why does it seem like I'm just renting them for a week or a month?."

I said, "I'll take $6 worth." He showed me that I really do have voicemail after all.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day Trippers

Some good friends of ours recently emailed us asking if we'd like to accompany them on a day trip to Giron. I replied, "Never heard of it. Sure!" Such is life here.

When I learned we were going on a bus, visions of the #16 flashed before my eyes, one of which started twitching uncontrollably. I decided to "get back on the horse" anyway--at least we knew where this one was going.

Our traveling companions said the bus terminal was next to a place called El Feria Libre, so we were to meet them there. When we stepped out of our cab we found ourselves in what can only be described as a "chaotic zoo." This area has a huge market that was swarming with people. The road in front of it is under construction and torn all to hell. There were buses, cars, and taxis galore, blowing horns and seemingly all trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Thrown into the mix were folks right out there with all the vehicles pushing juice carts, carrying huge baskets of god-knows-what on their backs, hawking merchandise---and we were casually supposed to "meet them out front??"

That turned out to be surprisingly easy because in the midst of all this madness the four of us were the only gringos in sight. So now united we boarded a very roomy and comfortable bus (never did see the "terminal"), forked over a buck apiece, and were off to Giron, a 40 minute ride from Cuenca.

Giron is the gateway to the gorgeous Yunguilla valley and home to some outstanding waterfalls, all of which we were there to enjoy. We got off the bus in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and started trudging up a steep road with no waterfalls in sight--in fact, with no people, vehicles, or end in sight! Oh, boy------.

Happily a small pickup soon approached and the driver offered to take us to the top for $5. Done. There wasn't room for us all in the passenger area so our friends gamely climbed in the back and away we went Beverly Hillbillies style. W-e-e----doggies!

Our destination was indeed the entrance to El Chorro de Giron, a highly creative name which translates as "The Waterfalls of Giron." We were fortunate that the girl working there spoke excellent English and, since curiously no printed maps were available, drew us one on a paper napkin.

Over the next several hours of sometimes arduous hiking we learned that her excellent English had failed to convey that we were actually journeying to the top of the falls. And that the bottom of said falls was a mere 10 minutes from where we started.

Nevertheless we all were so happy we soldiered on. In exchange for temporary exhaustion our bountiful rewards were gorgeous weather,incredible scenery, and great companionship.

After another pickup truck ride back to town we climbed aboard what looked like an episode of "Pimp My Bus." Check out this bad boy. Since the driver appeared to be around 12 years old, "Jesus, Take the Wheel" was in my head the whole way back.

So for a total of about $8 apiece (including a gigantic beer after the hike) we had a phenomenal day and created a wonderful memory. I'm happy to share it with you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Social Security

Friends back in the States are always asking us, "So what do you guys do down there?."

Usually our week starts with no plan whatsoever and life sort of evolves. Yesterday is a perfect example. We decided on Thursday afternoon to get massages the next day if anything was available. These are one hour hot stone massages for $13--why not?? I called and made appointments for us at 11; OK, we had a start for the day.

We needed to go to the grocery store and there's one near where we were going to be, so we thought we'd kill two birds with one stone. Cynthia then remembered there was also a hair salon in the area she wanted to check out--there went another bird.

Friday is "Gringo Night" at Zoe's, a popular expat hangout. We missed it the previous week because of the recently documented bus ride to hell and back and thought we'd drop by there in the early evening. Then I got an instant message from a friend inviting us to join him and his wife for dinner at 8. Sure, we'd love to.

As we were about to leave Friday morning for our massages I got an email from another friend who lives down the street asking us to drop for lunch at 1. Sure, we'd love to. So we did the massages, skipped the hair salon reconaissance, came back for the lunch, grocery-shopped at our usual neighborhood market, ended up missing Happy Hour, then went out for a terrific dinner.

Now we're certainly not always that busy, but this is how spontaneously a nothing day here can become overflowing with activity.

See if this sounds familiar. Our old lives went something like: get up and get ready for work/go to work/do your job/come home from work/be too tired to do much of anything in the evening/go to bed so you can get up and get ready for work---over and over again. Then the weekends were full of errands and chores, making it hard to keep up with friends and relatives on the phone or email, much less actually socializing regularly.

Expats have the time and the desire to cultivate friendships, and I find it to be the most unexpected joy of our life here so far. Cynthia and I have never been what you'd call "social butterflies." It wasn't that we were intentionally being anti-social hermits; our life described in the previous paragraph kept getting in the way, as I think it does for many folks in the States. Now our children are like, "Who are you people, and what have you done with my parents???."

Another thing. You're at a social gathering where you don't know a lot of the attendees. What's your go-to icebreaker question? You shouldn't have to think about this one long. It's, "So what do you do for a living,?" or the shorter version, "What do you do?," right? And others have probably asked you the same thing many times. It's the focus of American culture--what you "do" is who you "are."

That sort of thing rarely comes up here, especially right out of the chute. Long after we've gotten to know and like people we've learned they were previously a construction worker or a commercial fisherman. For every reason you can think of these types of friendships would have never had a chance to begin, much less flourish, before.

So the great news is all those preconceived social/status stereotypes don't seem to exist for most of us. From a crazyquilt of assorted back stories the commonality is we've all ended up in Cuenca, we're here to enjoy our lives, and we find ourselves enriched by each other's company.

Before we relocated people were always asking, "What are you going to do down there?." My answer was, "Within reason, whatever I want to do." It's wonderful to have great companions along for the journey.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To Hell and Back for 50 Cents

Enough time has passed that I'm now comfortable sharing our experience from last Friday. It was a bit traumatic and I considered counseling until I realized that with the language challenge I would be lying on a couch pretty much talking to myself. And I do that for free already.

Things all started out so innocently. Several of our friends here had done it and even encouraged us to try. "Go for it," they said, "you'll have fun!." How could we have known what we were getting ourselves into?

I'm talking, of course, about riding a public bus from one end of its route to the other.

I know what you're thinking--"E-w-w-w---riding a bus---don't hurt yourself"--"You're getting soft, Edd"--"Don't go near a bright, scary merry-go-round, big guy"----.

Well, amigos and amigas, keep your smarty pants comments to yourselves until you've ridden about 100 miles in my shoes. Or, more appropriately, on my butt.

We've ridden specific buses several times on a very specific route that goes from the east to west ends of town and back. No problem. But only one bus line goes down Paucarbamba (really is the name of our street--I'm not creative enough to make something like that up). We've been curious to know exactly where it goes.

I say "exactly" because we have a bus schedule, but its description of all the routes is a bit sketchy. And "schedule" is actually a misnomer because there are no times listed, only streets. To catch a bus you just stand at the stop and wait. Or if you're a Cuencano you wave your arms no matter where you happen to be when a bus approaches and jump aboard as it kinda/sorta slows down for you. I haven't seen a gringo attempt that maneuver yet.

So let's more accurately say we have a bus pamphlet. A secondhand pamphlet at that. We had been told the tourist office provided schedules but when we stopped by the best the ladies there could offer was this single used one they said somebody had turned in (note to myself: if we ever leave Cuenca be sure to drop by the tourist office to return our twice-owned bus schedule/pamphlet on the way to the airport).

I was reading out street names and Cynthia was following along on our ever-present city map. Things were going really great until she couldn't find the next couple of roads I called out. Huh--well, the map doesn't show all the names, and we had a pretty good idea where we were going, so off we went.

Did I mention that it was raining a LOT off and on that day? Or that we were sharing one of those little collapsible umbrellas that pretty much keeps the inside half of each of you dry while the outside halves are getting drenched? Or that Cynthia was remarkably wearing open-toed shoes in this mess because the secondary purpose of our outing was to find a mani/pedi salon she kinda/sorta knew about that was maybe "near" the vague bus route we were about to explore?

Against this backdrop we climbed aboard the #16 and paid 25 cents each for the ride. From our pamphlet we knew the first end of the line was the new Hospital Del Rio not too far from our home, so we sat back and enjoyed the scenery as we rode along the river. Well, for me specifically that's not quite true. You see, Cuencanos are generally small, so the buses are designed with that fact in mind. I on the other hand am 6'3", and it is impossible for me to squeeze both of my legs into the space provided for one's lower appendages. Therefore I always take the aisle seat and cram myself into a pseudo-twisted fetal position.

Anyway, this first phase of our journey went well except for a very bumpy last half mile or so where the road is still curiously unpaved--hope no ambulance approaches the hospital via that route with a delicate patient or there will be a flatliner inside when they open the back doors.

Speaking of opening the doors, at the end of the line we watched all the passengers disembark. We just sat there since we intended to ride back in the other direction, but the driver turned around and made it very clear, no matter what language he happened to be speaking, that we needed to exit as well. Now. Who knew? So we dutifully left, walked ahead to the #16 right in front of the one we'd just ridden, paid another 50 cents and sat down.

Since we were the first passengers, this time I snagged us a handicap seat with much more legroom. I know what you do-gooders are thinking--cool it. I'd observed folks doing this every time I've been on a bus and nobody gave them the "evil eye" (like I'm sure you would); and now that I think of it, I haven't seen a single person in a wheelchair the whole time we've been here.

Off we went again, at first retracing our route. Then not. H-m-m--this wasn't how those east/west buses we'd ridden before had behaved. What's up? We had no clue, so we just "went along for the ride" as the bus took a curiously meandering route that kinda/sorta resembled the description in our schedule/pamphlet, picking up more and more and more passengers along the way.

The windows were all fogged up from the rain outside and the crush of humanity inside, and we barely realized that we'd just missed our stop. Now in the States you get off either in the front or the back, depending on where you're sitting. Here you enter in the front and exit from the back---period. Of course our roomy handicap seat was the very first one, right? So we had to jump up and hurriedly squeeze ourselves all the way to the back before the next stop came and went.

We got out, put up our little umbrella that kept half of each of us dry, and started wandering around in the rain looking for the manicure establishment. Thankfully we stumbled upon it fairly quickly. Not so thankfully when we went inside there was one lady there working on a customer, and her friend sitting beside her was waiting to go next. (Sigh)

Well, it was pouring outside now and a soap opera was on the TV, so we decided what the heck, sitting there working on our Spanish and staying dry was better than the alternative. Besides, maybe the wait wouldn't be that long.

It was. It turns out the woman was working on both customers at once--kind of a "manicurage a trois." The two customers kept trading seats over and over and over. The soap opera episode ended. At some point my sanity clearly started slipping away because I announced to Cynthia that going back out in the rain was preferable to this torture.

We both must have been losing it, because sane people would have hailed a cab, gone home and called it a day. Not us. We decided to finish our mission, get on the next bus and see where the damned route ended on the other side. The manicure hadn't happened; we were both soaked. Why not?

It turns out there were several reasons why not. Whoever designed this particular route was clearly using serious drugs. The bus went up and down, back and forth, hither and yon--you name it, we did it. Mere words cannot describe the madness of this journey. We kept riding and riding and riding.

Finally we recognized a familiar street name and were triumphantly relieved. "Yes," we said, "he'll turn right at the next intersection and we'll be home soon!"

He turned left.

On we went, out of town and, what? Into the mountains?? The bus climbed up, up, up, literally to the top of the mountains all the way on the other side of civilization from where we live. Was this possible? Cuenca is at 8200 feet above sea level. We were so high I looked to see if the bus was equipped with those oxygen mask things flight attendants are always demonstrating on airplanes.

And then we stopped. End of the line. Somewhere. The only passengers at this point, us, got off. We knew the drill--trudge up and get on the other #16 sitting there.

Only our chariot was closed and the driver nowhere in sight. By this time darkness was approaching, we were wet, shivering, and miserable. He finally appears and back down the mountains we go. It's odd how there's so much sky in Cuenca and lots of cumulus clouds but you never see a gorgeous sunset. There's an explanation for that--the city's so high up that the mountains literally block the view from the valley. Guess what. We watched the sunset last Friday because we were on top of those mountains.

The drug-addled bus route designer wasn't finished with us yet. Once we got back to the edge of town we bobbed and weaved through the city a completely different way. We were by this time numb to the whole experience. I couldn't even utter, "How can this be possible?" any more. Four hours after we first boarded the first #16, the fourth #16 let us off near our building.

There were "drinks and dinner" plans for that evening. Well, the "drinks" part happened at least. We peeled off our clothes, jumped under the covers, and silently got snookered.

I later realized if you start on one end or the other our entire misadventure, all 4 hours worth, can be "enjoyed" for a grand total of 50 cents. Definitely cheap entertainment, but walking is good for you and taxis are everywhere if you get tired.

All those other bus lines in town start and stop somewhere too. Where? After our ride to hell and back on good old #16, no cats will die because of our curiosity. For us it's time to get off the bus, Gus, and make a new plan, Stan.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don't Press "1"

When you're a newcomer living abroad you manage to muddle your way through each day with varying degrees of success. There are times when you even tell yourself you seem to be fitting into your new environment quite nicely. However, certain instances have a way of accentuating the truth that you are a fish out of water and don't have a clue what's happening around you.

I offer Exhibit "A"--the person somewhere across the street who keeps shooting off fireworks. I've noted in previous posts that a day never goes by here without the sounds of fireworks and car alarms.

But this is different from the normal random shenanigans. From our bedroom window we saw real fireworks from a cathedral way off in the mountains last night, so apparently yet another holiday of some sort is being celebrated this weekend. Our neighbor seems to be deeply moved by whatever is going on because he's been setting off explosives periodically for the last 16 hours with a short break for sleep (or exhaustion). He's also the only person within earshot who has chosen this particular form of revelry.

It's mid-day as I'm writing this. The sun is brightly shining. Not the ideal time for fireworks, you might think, but in this case such trivialities as day or night are irrelevant because these fireworks are not of the ooh--aah variety that we all so enjoy. No, our buddy's are ignited solely for their decibel value (a dubious attribute in an otherwise quiet neighborhood). And each is a multi-explosion combo pack.

All of this raises limitless unanswered questions to the outsider I am revealed to be. What exactly is being celebrated? Why is this guy (I say "guy"--somehow I can't imagine a woman doing this) the only one around here shooting off fireworks? He stopped around 11 last night. Why then? He started back at 6;30 this morning. Why then? The detonations seem to occur about every 15 minutes. What's he doing the other 14?

But you see, this is just a minor although revealing example of a much larger mystery. Because when I think about it I don't really know anything of substance about anything that's going on here. Hell, I haven't read a paper or watched the news in almost 2 months. Not that I'm disinterested--I don't know what's being written or said!

We're working on our Spanish most every day. Watching a soap opera while Cynthia was getting a mani/pedi yesterday we could pick out more and more words and phrases (he said "muchas cosas"--that was in our lesson!) And we realize that with increased vocabulary we will eventually emerge from the tunnel of cultural darkness through which we are currently traveling. The light on the other end is ever so faintly shining.

In the meantime it's interesting to be the shoe on the other foot. So many Hispanics in the US obviously don't speak English. Otherwise the too-familiar choice of button pressing when calling almost any large company wouldn't exist.

But as much as I'd like to be better informed right now--as damned frustrating and exhausting as it often gets trying to communicate on even the most fundamental level--I still don't agree that the American culture should have caved on this issue.

I firmly believe when you live in a country it's your responsibility to learn that country's language. Period.

We look on our present situation as a temporary inconvenience and an incentive to keep moving forward. Often the locals, seeing how much we're struggling, apologize for their poor English! We invariably let them know it's not their job to learn English; it's ours to learn Spanish. And we will.

H-m-m-mm----the fireworks have stopped. Oh, it's early afternoon. Has he quit for lunch, run out of ammo, or just gotten bored? We'll find out after 3 o'clock, when life in Cuenca always resumes.

Never mind----the correct answer is "none of the above." Another blast just went off. (Sigh)

I've almost recovered enough to report on the trauma otherwise known as last Friday. Stay tuned for "To Hell and Back for 50 Cents."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

American Gigolo

Don't you just hate it when you do something for the right reason and it turns out totally wrong? Like you move a chair when someone's about to sit down and they crack their head on the floor and get a severe concussion? OK, bad example.

How about when you offer to help your new neighbor hang a heavy mirror, and it's going well and she's smoking hot looking and you want to make a good impression but your hands are getting sweaty and the mirror slips and shatters and a piece of glass flies up and cuts her leg and she's standing there hysterical and crying and bleeding and---you were just trying to be a good neighbor.

So we were recently at a birthday party with probably 90% Cuencanos and 10% gringos in attendance. And most of the locals spoke not a word of English. These situations can be a lot of fun but attempting to communicate over a long evening without using language is incredibly draining. You focus so intently on everything else--gestures, facial expressions, and tonality.

But the fun is in at least trying to talk a bit as well. So we're all having some drinks and laughing--it's a party, right?--and I'm chatting it up with a nice couple. Things seem to be going really well. That is, until in shattered Spanish I enthusiastically say to the woman, "If you want to practice your English, I'm your man!."

Instantly a look comes over her face like I had just opened my raincoat and exposed myself (not that I have experience in these matters--pure speculation, I assure you). Confused, I think I must have been misunderstood, so I repeat with even more gusto, "I'M YOUR MAN!."

The lady repeats what I said to her husband and they immediately get up and hustle out the front door. Yikes!! Apparently I had innocently and unwittingly made a improper advance to this nice woman right in front of her spouse. How indiscreet can you get?

I'm happy to report they eventually returned to the party, although they remained on the other side of the room and avoided eye contact with yours truly for the remainder of the evening.

Forget about poor sentence construction or cultural misinterpretations. Sometimes just a misused letter or two can cause problems. We were spending the night with a local couple and as best I could I shared that in the morning I was really looking forward to taking a hot trout (trucha). Oops. Shower is "ducha."

But just so you know this language butcher knife has a two-sided blade. Last night in a restaurant I noticed that one of the sushi offerings was a yummy sounding shrimp and crap roll.

Hasta banana!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Broom Man

(This story happened a week ago, but we've thought back on it so often that I wanted to share.)

It's moving day.  Our landlord and friend has kindly offered to take us, our suitcases and groceries from his furnished studio we have occupied for a month over to our new permanent apartment.  We've huffed and puffed all our stuff down the stairs and are waiting for him to bring the car around so we can load and go.

Then he appears at the gate.

A man selling brooms, of all things.  Not the straw brooms we're familiar with in the States.  Synthetic ones with bristles maybe 3 inches long.  But brooms nonetheless.

Now there are numerous vendors on the streets of Cuenca--lottery tickets, "street meat," assorted candies.  We've even seen a guy carrying around handfuls of rabbit-ear antennae (remember those?).

The broom man obviously speaks zero English.  He also obviously wants us to buy one of his brooms.  The aforementioned vendors are all consistent in their behavior--they quietly offer their wares and if you're not interested they move on.

Not this guy.  He is a small, older gentleman with close-cropped gray hair and a kind face.  His demeanor suggests that, in polite terms, he is perhaps "simple-minded."  He quietly says something to us in Spanish that we don't understand.

"No, senor.  Muchas gracias."

That's the normal drill.  But this time, no.  He just stands there gently smiling and staring.

Being stared at is damned uncomfortable, even if it's a simple-minded Cuencano selling brooms that's doing the staring.  Kind of like being on the other side of the cage at the zoo.

"No, senor.  Gracias, pero no queremos una (Thank you, but we don't want one)."

He still doesn't budge and I'm starting to get a little agitated.  I tell Cynthia, "This knucklehead must think if he stands here long enough we'll give him some change to go away.  Let's just ignore him."

Sure enough, he finally moves on, the tension is broken, Juan shows up with his car, and off we go.

We know the apartment isn't going to be ready but that our container is supposed to be unloaded that same afternoon, so we have to make sure the space is prepared.  Lo and behold, the workers haven't properly cleaned up, there's dust and debris all over the floor, and the one thing we really, really need is-----a broom.

H-m-m-m-m---------------------------- .

So many "lucky breaks" have happened to us as we have relinquished control, relaxed, and been open to present moment opportunities over the past few weeks.  Could the broom man have been one of them that we chose to dismiss, or was all this just a coincidence?  

This incident makes me wonder how many "broom men" are sent to each of us every day that we overlook because we're so busy living between our ears that we don't even notice?  How many chance encounters are anything but?

Perhaps angels don't always have wings.  Sometimes they may have brooms.

Two Holidays in One Weekend!

We've successfully set up camp in our (amazing when I think about it) fifth temporary dwelling in the last 2 months.  H-m-m-m-m-----maybe that's why Cynthia seems a bit out of sorts these days.  What a relief----I thought it was something I'd said.

At least this time we can kinda/sorta see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Yep, a mere 2 floors away is our own private train wreck.  But at least we've been able to pull from the "wreckage" some of our furniture and household goods so we get a taste of our past and future simultaneously.

We decided we needed a break, so we signed up for a 4th of July outing (an intriguing concept for Ecuador, don't you think?) to a country estate turned resort about 30 minutes outside of Cuenca.  It was easy to spot our group when we arrived at the departure point in busy Parque Calderon--tall pale people wearing Panama hats.  For some reason Cuencanos don't wear the trademark headgear of Ecuador; you only see them on the heads of little indigenous Indians and gringos.

Our day was spent with an interesting group of residents and "tire-kickers"--and that's virtually the only two categories of gringos here.  You either live here or you're thinking about living here.  There are very few other outsiders except for exchange students and backpackers.

There was wine; a delicious buffet; a very talented jazz band; camaraderie; swimming; ping pong; fireworks;  patriotic music; red, white, and blue roses for every lady.  I couldn't help but think how surreal it was to be celebrating a US holiday on a higher level in South America than were most residents back in the States.
Then today we decided to open a couple of our kitchen boxes from upstairs so we could function a little better in our temporary quarters.  Those boxes were packed what seems like so long ago we'd forgotten exactly what was in them.

What a thrill!  It was like opening presents (without holiday paper and bows of course) on Christmas day that we'd sent to ourselves.  A whole container of Deluxe Mixed Nuts from Costco!  A whole jar of Nutella!  Pepperidge Farm crackers!  How brilliant were we to have such foresight!

I know all this probably sounds trivial, but the main things we find we miss about our old life are favorite food items like these that just aren't available here.  So a very trying week has ended on a very happy note.

Now let's open those nuts!!

Friday, July 2, 2010


So those of you who have followed this blog know that Cynthia and I have been enjoying an eventful but somewhat quiet first month here in Cuenca.  The "quiet" part vanished when our container pulled up yesterday afternoon.  Yesterday was supposed to have been day before yesterday, by the way, but appointments here are merely suggestions, and you check to see if someone's late not by the clock but by the calendar.

Oh, let me back up and set the scene for you a little better.  Our apartment's not ready.  It's not even close to being ready.  But our landlord has graciously allowed us to stay in a small unfurnished 2 bedroom place on the 2nd floor in the meantime, and even insisted that we stay overnight at his home last night when he learned we were basically homeless.  Such is the kindness of Cuencanos.

So, we're staying on the 2nd floor--our "real" place is on the 4th & 5th floor.  Cynthia is stationed at the truck to tell the unloading guys (who speak no English) which floor to go to; I'm on the 4th floor attempting to direct traffic.  Did I mention there were 7 hombres hauling our stuff in?  Or that our building has no elevator?

I felt like Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in Fantasia when the brooms keep coming with those water buckets--I'm hollering out the window to Cynthia "How much is left??" while trying to keep these guys (who sadly learned no English walking up 4-5 floors of steps) from putting a heavy box of books on top of a lampshade carton.  For 2 1/2 hours we were intensely herding cats (observation: when you live a stressed life anyway more stress is just that:  more stress.  When you're not used to it, stress kicks your ass).

And then it was over.

Well, that's not exactly true, is it?  Because our apartment is no more ready than before our stuff arrived.  Except now our stuff has arrived, the place is in total chaos, and we've got to figure out how to get it finished in spite of that slight obstacle.

In the meantime, Cynthia's at a "Girls Night Out" shindig; I'm having a quiet night alone in our sparse but workable abode enjoying probably too many glasses of Argentinean wine.

And we'll wake up tomorrow and see what happens.