Tuesday, October 25, 2011

International Food Fair

I don’t usually do public service announcements on this blog, but I’m making an exception for something important. The 17th annual International Food Fair will be held at Mall del Rio on November 13 from noon until 4. Cynthia and I volunteered there last year without knowing a lot about it, and we were amazed at the size and excellence of the event and the thousands of people who showed up. Cuenca readers, mark your calendars now and be sure to attend.

The Food Fair is a major fundraiser for FASEC, a non-profit facility that for the past 30 years has provided hospice care for nearly 15,000 cancer patients from all over Ecuador.

FASEC needs money to purchase materials and supplies for the USA booth, and they are reaching out to the expat community for help. Donation bowls will be placed at California Kitchen, Carolina Bookstore, Di Bacco, Inca Lounge, and Kookaburra Café for the next two weeks.

Please support these businesses and give generously to this worthy cause.
The USA booth will once again be serving our highly acclaimed barbeque spare ribs (we sold out in less than an hour last year) along with sides of potato salad and baked beans. It doesn’t get much more American than that!

If you’re a baker please consider donating your favorite cake or pie to the Dessert Booth. It’s no surprise that this is the most popular spot at the event. Contact Patricia Vintamilla at patriciavintamilla@gmail.com.

The 17 ladies who selflessly give their time and energy to make FASEC such a success appreciate your support. This is an excellent opportunity for each of us to contribute to our wonderful hometown of Cuenca and have a great time as well.

See you there!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Home Alone Part 2

You know how when you drive to a new destination it seems to take forever to get there, but then because you’re now familiar with the journey the trip home seems shorter?

I haven’t belabored the point like I probably did this time last year when she was gone for a month (sorry everybody), but Cynthia’s been in the States for the past four weeks. She finally returns home this Saturday.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that last year she went back to be with her sister in her final days. This trip has been on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum as she got to spend a fun week with our daughter in Hoboken and since has been the nanny for our new granddaughter in Durham. Because of these two absences she has never been in Cuenca during October.

My experience this go-round has been very much like that return car trip. I already did (and survived) a similar separation so it hasn’t been as hard as the first one. Of course we’ve chatted on Skype frequently. The topics of conversation haven’t been nearly as important as simply hearing each other’s voices.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been a bed of roses either. The first week, to take my mind off my aloneness, I was a social maniac—meeting people for lunch, dinner, drinks, bridge, whatever. By Sunday I was fried. I slept my brains out and stayed home in my pajamas all day.

(Taking Hugh Hefner out of it, is there anything more decadent than staying in your PJ’s all day when you’re not even sick? I don’t think so.)

Realizing begrudgingly, once again, that I’m no longer in my twenties and can’t maintain that pace (I think when you totally accept this notion you immediately start to die), I decelerated gradually over these remaining weeks.

Slowed down, yes, but stopped? No way. We’ve become partners in a business here in Cuenca that is very exciting news. I’ll be telling more about it shortly. I’m heavily involved in the International Food Fair to benefit FASEC, a non-profit facility providing hospice care for cancer patients throughout Ecuador. And there have still been plenty of meals, parties, meetings, and excursions along the way. Thanks to my many friends for all the lovely invitations.

Despite all the activity there are two times each day when I cannot ignore my solitude—going to bed each night and waking up each morning. Alone.

Nobody to spoon with on the chilly evenings. No head on my shoulder to quietly welcome each day. These usual best of times have been by far the worst.

Saturday will be a very good day.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Party On!

I attended a business cocktail party a few nights ago. It was held at a beautiful special events facility that I didn’t even know existed. I learned that many weddings are held there, which when I returned home and got my bearings helped explain where many of the fireworks displays we see out our bedroom window originate. My, how the locals love their fireworks!

The format of the shindig ran quite differently from similar functions I’ve attended in the States. My first clue was when my Cuencano friend and I arrived and no cocktails were being served at the cocktail party. H-m-m-m----.

A good number of people were milling around chatting, but even more were sitting in rows of chairs on the back side of the cavernous room. “I wonder what’s going on over there?” I asked. “There’s going to be a presentation,” I was told. “You mean there are two different groups here?” I naively inquired.

No, those of us standing were beckoned to join the other already seated guests as the principals of the firm mounted a stage to give a 30 minute or so power point presentation about their company. The four of them passed a microphone around and shared with us, mostly in Spanish, what appeared to be a summation of how the firm started, what it does, and where it is headed.

My still limited language skills prevented me from understanding a lot of what was being said, but I think it could be summed up as, “We’re a swell company that appreciates your business and we’ll continue to work hard for you in the future.”

Towards the end of the presentation servers came down the aisles passing out flutes of champagne. Just as when I attended a Catholic mass as a boy and closely watched the faithful to know when to kneel, I paid attention to the Cuencanos to see what was next.

They were all sitting there holding their champagne and not drinking, which brought up another religious memory from the old days of the deacons in my church distributing the little glasses of unsweetened grape juice during communion. Thankfully none of those bland little wafers followed this time.

As I suspected, we were waiting to share a toast together. Some of the other gringos in attendance weren't as observant and were seen prematurely sipping away. Oops. After the toast the real party started. The servers carrying the ever-present silver trays came around with various tasty morsels throughout the rest of the evening. There was no “open bar;” after a second round of champagne the servers delivered a choice of either rum and coke or scotch and something clear—water or soda. I’m not a scotch guy so I didn’t find out which.

I asked my friend if this format of a formal presentation followed by the party was typical of business functions in Ecuador. He said, “Of course. How else would the company be able to present itself?” I responded that all the 200+ guests were already clients of the company and the presentation seemed to be geared more to prospective customers than existing ones. He was surprised that in the States the company’s members would simply mingle and socialize to promote goodwill.

Like the recent elevator story, another example of cultural differences. No right or wrong to either approach. Just different. OK. Elevator etiquette. Check. Business cocktail party. Check. God knows how many to go???

Friday, October 14, 2011

Taxi Driver

Last week I went to a very nice party with our neighbors. We walked out to the sidewalk, hailed a cab, told the driver where we were going, and away we went.

Sort of.

Everything started out well enough. Our driver was taking the regular route to our destination, but then he exited a traffic circle prematurely and headed in pretty much the opposite, and therefore wrong, direction.

H-m-m-m---. Maybe he knows about some congestion and is avoiding it.
We got to the next traffic circle and I’m thinking, “OK, he’s gonna swing around here and get back on track.”

Nope. He drives up the hill into downtown El Centro, when we’re supposed to be going to the other side of town.

That’s it. I ask him in my best Spanish, “Where in the hell are we going?” He is visibly agitated by this outburst and his eyes start darting around.

Here’s a little tip from me to you: when your cab driver stops, rolls down the window, and asks a perfect stranger how to get where you’re going, you’ve got a problem.

Now I ask him, “What’s up, senor?” Understand, Cuencanos are loath to admit they have screwed up. No weak “the dog ate my homework” or “my grandmother died” here. These folks are pros in the excuse making department, probably because they get a lot of practice.

But this young man broke the mold. He freely admitted he was new to Cuenca and didn’t know his way around very well.

I appreciated his honesty and in this case no problem, because at least I knew the directions. With me navigating we quickly regrouped and got there a few minutes later. I didn’t ask for a discount for my assistance, but I did tell him how much to charge for the fare. And, yes, the fare was fair.

When I was telling this story to a friend last night he also had one for me. He related that once he and his wife were in a taxi when the driver suddenly stopped and told them to get out.


“Because I don’t know where this place is.”


There’s that honesty again, and he didn’t charge them anything for the aborted ride either. Fortunately they discovered they were only a few blocks from their destination and the story had a happy ending.

So, Cuenca readers, any amusing tales to share? There have got to be some other doozies out there.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Weather Report

When we lived in Vegas I used to joke that the weatherman should just bring several changes of clothes to work , say, “Clear skies, hot, and dry!” seven times, then go home.

In Cuenca it’s the polar opposite. The meteorologist here trying to predict the weather should qualify for hazardous duty pay.

For the second day in a row the wind is blowing like a son of a bitch. And even though the sky is fairly clear I just heard thunder somewhere. Or maybe that was yet another person shooting off fireworks for no apparent reason. (Sigh----)

A couple of days ago it was balmy and beautiful during the morning hours. Then in the afternoon we had a drenching thunderstorm, followed by a hailstorm combined with the thunderstorm, concluding with sunshine again.

An umbrella here is as essential a part of your wardrobe as your underwear. Like the old American Express commercials, you “don’t leave home without it.”

Still, the temps are now consistently warmer. Hopefully our heated mattress pad can go into hibernation for a long while, and I won’t have to walk around here with a bathrobe on top of my clothes.

For a place that supposedly “has no seasons” Cuenca’s certainly been doing an excellent job lately of pretending otherwise. Our “winter” was, minus the bone chilling cold associated with the season in many places, downright wintry. Chilly, wet, and gloomy.

Now it’s springtime, the weather’s warming up, plants and trees are blooming, and we’re blessed with glorious sunsets once again.

Living here contains so many surprises that it wouldn’t even be appropriate for the weather to be predictable, now would it? All part of the fun, I say.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Backs Against the Wall

Cultural differences come in all sizes. There are the big ones like languages and foods, and the less obvious such as expecting the waiter to bring your check versus having to ask for it.

Small, obscure cultural peculiarities can sometimes be hidden in plain view. Occupying an elevator, for example. In the States we get in and all face the front until the doors open on our floor. We don’t think about this practice and probably no one gave us lessons on proper elevator positioning. It’s just what we do.

And it’s what I’ve continued to do here in Ecuador for the past year and a half. Until last week, that is, when a friend I can’t recall asked for reasons I don’t remember, “Did you know you’re supposed to stand facing each other in elevators here?.”

No, actually I didn’t know that. So the next time I entered one I watched and, sure enough, everyone had their backs to the walls---except me. I quickly found an empty slot and joined the others and will always do so in the future.

This small revelation makes me wonder about three things:

1) How much are we missing (I say “we” because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one) as we walk around listening to the endless chatter between our ears and oblivious of our surroundings?
2) How many Ecuadorians have I unwittingly offended?
3) What else do I not know? Was this elevator etiquette part of a short list or the tip of an iceberg? I’m guessing the latter.

Yesterday I went to a Cuencano birthday party in Paute. There were 30-40 people there. I was the only gringo. The guest of honor was a beautiful 88 year old woman, seated in a corner with a few lady friends. My group was among the first to arrive, and as more folks showed up guess what happened?

People started taking chairs from the tables that had already been set up and began placing them around the wall. When there was no more space the line of chairs then formed a “J” and we were working on a “U” when the last attendees sat down. It was like we all were sitting in a super-sized elevator!

I have no idea where this “don’t have your back to anyone” notion originated. Was it for protection like the Mafia bosses who always sit facing the front of the restaurant so a hit man can’t shoot them in the back? Or is it simply a matter of politeness?

A couple of other observations from the party. All afternoon a gentleman wandered around serving drinks from a tray. This is very typical and charming. Often appetizers are served the same way. We would reserve this level of service for “fancy” events, usually opting for a bartender and a table loaded with “serve yourself” goodies. I’m certain Ecuadorians don’t consider tray service special. It’s just what they do.

When the bowls of food were delivered to our table the attractive young woman next to me offered the nearest one to me. I asked her to please go ahead and she said, “But you’re our special guest.” I replied, “We’re all guests here and the only thing special about me is the color of my eyes and skin. Where I come from it’s polite for the lady to be served first.”

She smiled and dished her plate. It’s comforting to know basic things like good manners are appropriate in any culture.