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."