Saturday, August 25, 2012

What Do You Do All Day?

I’ve made frequent references in this blog to living in the moment. While yesterday wasn’t exactly “typical,” it does demonstrate what can happen when you just put yourself out there.

The day started with only one thing on the calendar—meeting friends for lunch at 1 o’clock. Good—a quiet day heading into the weekend (yes, we casually note when those roll around).

My friend and partner Juan called to say he could come by at noon and take me to get a replacement phone for the one that was stolen. Kind of tight time-wise with our commitment, but OK—let’s do it.

We went to the phone place and got all the paperwork done, but the phone wouldn’t be ready until 5:30. Could I come back then? Those of you who have followed our adventures and misadventures are aware that coming back is usually part of showing up in Ecuador when any kind of paperwork is involved. Sure, I’ll return then.

Our lunch rendezvous happened right on time and we had a lovely meal during two hours of chitchat. Since we were in El Centro we decided afterwards to drop by TerraDiversa to pick up our monthly shipment from the wine club we joined.

While there we learned that it was one of our employee’s birthday. We also found out that in the evening Mansion Alcazar, perhaps Cuenca’s finest hotel, was hosting a trade-only event to showcase their new spa facilities. That sounded like fun, so we decided to attend. After all, we had no plans, right?

Now we were caught in that in-between time—it was too early to pick up the phone and too much trouble to go home then turn around and leave almost as soon as we got there. When Cynthia learned where the business was located she realized it was close to a clinic where she needed to make a doctor’s appointment for a friend.

So we strolled over there with the thought if the phone wasn’t ready we’d sit and relax until it was. While we were waiting for the receptionist to return we were more than a little surprised to see the female half of the couple we had just eaten lunch with walking around the corner.

She was there for an appointment with another doctor who apparently wasn’t showing up. Our appointment was made and her husband, who was waiting in their car, did a double take upon seeing us all walking out together!

After telling them goodbye—again—we walked to the phone business. It was an hour early, but time is very fluid here, and what do you know, the phone was ready. Outstanding! I remembered seeing what appeared to be a chocolate store on the way, so we doubled back to hopefully pick up a birthday gift for our employee since we would be seeing her later at the hotel.

Except we got our directions mixed up and went the long way around the clinic. Cynthia had just said we’d probably see someone else we knew when we walked around the corner. Guess what---we walked around the corner and immediately saw another couple we knew. Things like this actually happen all the time here.

After chatting with them for a bit we found the store but it didn’t have what we needed. Then Cynthia remembered a kiosk in the shopping center below the Supermaxi that sells chocolates and would be on our way home, so off we trekked. En route we bought a bag of cherries (they’re in season now) from one of those wheelbarrow produce merchants. We also saw Juan again as he was walking from a dental appointment.

All of these places we had walked to are not close to each other and we were getting really pooped, but an obstacle course loomed ahead. Our path took us around the stadium, and we discovered it was game night.

We weaved through ticket hawkers, food vendors, shirt vendors, noise-making vendors, plus lots and lots of excited fans. I think soccer is all that really matters in Latin America.

After emerging from that madhouse and purchasing the chocolates we decided to splurge and take a taxi home (that normally happens only when we’ve got too many groceries to carry). But it was late Friday afternoon, the soccer game was right up the street and roads were blocked, there were about four people waiting and no taxis in sight, so screw it, we kept walking.

Finally back home with an hour to rest up before heading out again, off came the shoes and out came the vino. Sufficiently fortified with a couple of glasses we taxied to the hotel (no more walking, we agreed!) and, as expected, enjoyed a lovely presentation of the new facilities complete with tasty hors d'oeuvres and more wine.

Then the TerraDiversa group plus the folks from another tour operator decided to take the birthday celebration elsewhere, so we piled into vehicles and went to a nearby bar. Thirteen people crammed into table space for at most ten. Here came the food. Here came the beers and more vino. In other words, here came the party!

We didn’t understand much of what was being said, but so what? Everyone was talking, laughing, and having a great time.

A ride home was offered but Calle Larga, the street where the bar is located, is party central and jammed with cars and people on the weekends. It was therefore much quicker to walk (so much for our agreement). Around 11 we arrived at the casa exhausted and inebriated. I barely remember going to bed.

So let’s recap: lunch at 1 was our one thing to do.

Instead it was: phone place+lunch+walking toTerraDiversa+walking to clinic+walking to phone place+visiting friends along the way+dodging the soccer crowd+walking to chocolate kiosk+walking home+home with wine+Mansion Alcazar+bar+walking home.

And sometimes that’s what we do all day in Ecuador.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hummingbird Exhibit

It seems everyone in Cuenca except Cynthia and a survivalist wacko without a computer (just kidding) is writing a blog these days. So perhaps you've already seen photos of the hummingbird exhibit that has been in town this month.

On an absolutely glorious day we finally got around to visiting yesterday and were pretty much the only people there. Sent down to us from Quito, at least 50 sculptures have been painted and decorated in unique ways.

It's a pretty amazing display of creativity. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend heading over to Otorongo Plaza before the end of the month.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Caving to Incompetence?

I was taken to task by a reader after my last post about not assigning values or judgment for caving to "incompetence and ineptitude."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Accepting what is and dealing with it in no way implies acquiescence to sub par behavior or performance. In fact, one of the key aspects of Latin American culture in which I steadfastly refuse to participate is failure to execute as promised.

We went through three attorneys before finding someone who we found to be satisfactory. Craftsmen with great skill who were tardy or didn't show up have been summarily dismissed in spite of their talents. We scold our maid, who has been with us over a year, every time she is late.

This has nothing to do with cultural differences, in my opinion, and everything to do with basic respect. If you tell me you will show up, I wait for you, and you are a no-show, what you're basically saying is, "My time is more important than yours."

That is just not acceptable.

The older I get, the more I realize that time is my most precious, yet diminishing, asset. So if you waste my time on purpose you are showing a disrespect to me that will not be tolerated.

We gringos talk a lot about not trying to force our values on a culture in which we are guests. Sorry, this is one area in which I hope in a tiny way I do make a difference.

Agree or disagree?

Monday, August 20, 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

I've gotten a lot of email feedback to the series of posts about our week in Quito, primarily in response to our quest for cedulas. Almost everyone expressed condolences for the "trouble" and "difficulty" we went through.

While people taking time out of their busy lives to write is always appreciated, this sentiment frankly caught me off guard. Because as that wacky day unfolded we never once thought of anything that happened as a "problem."

This caused me to reflect on the Edd and Cynthia who arrived in Ecuador over two years ago and the people we are today. Part of what we brought with us was the Type A, go-go, make-it-happen personalities that contributed to our success in the States.

We quickly learned that approach is not a winning strategy here.

You know how you can be stuck in slow-moving traffic when you really need to get somewhere? And how frustrated that can make you feel?

This pretty much describes our 24/7/365 life. So you are faced with a choice: stay constantly upset or take a breath and let it go.

A lot is written about life in Ecuador and specifically our hometown of Cuenca. The low cost--the fresh produce--the great weather--the top notch medical care. Perhaps because it's so hard to put into words, you don't read very much about how being in a place like this can completely alter your perspective and approach to life.

I often say that a fish spends its whole life in water and never knows there is air right above. Similarly most people are so caught up in their busyness and future orientation that they are totally unaware there are other options.

Separating ourselves from the hustle/bustle of US culture, the multitasking, the constant mental chatter about what's next and will there be enough time, has transformed us in ways we could have never imagined or anticipated.

There's an old Chinese story about a wise man who lives in a village. Each time something happens the townspeople cry, "That's good," or "That's bad." The wise man always replies, "We'll see."

As an example, at one point the wise man's son falls from a horse and breaks his leg. The townspeople say, "That's bad." Shortly afterwards all the eligible young men are drafted to become soldiers in an unpopular war. The son is left behind and not forced to fight.

This is how we have learned to approach whatever presents itself to us. No judgment, no labeling--just accepting and dealing with it as best we can.

I now completely understand the kind comments from those of you who graciously took the time to write. I once thought the same way you do.

And I'm thankful that is no longer the case.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

One Helluva Week (Final Installment--I Promise!)

So after a morning filled with cedula shenanigans we get ready to go to lunch and discover our attorney's car has been booted. Why? Well, she paid the attendant for 2 hours when we arrived and told him to put a new ticket on the windshield if we hadn't returned by then and she would pay him the additional fee.

Unfortunately there was a shift change and the guy getting off work didn't bother telling the new guy, so a police lady applied the boot as soon as our time ran out (I noticed when it was removed she stored it in the parking guy's hut--surely they weren't in cahoots?!).

Arguing was attempted but of course did no good. The only way to resolve the situation was for the assistant to take our attorney's credit card and go to a specific nearby bank, pay the debt (I think it was over $40!), and return with a receipt. Off he went.

We waited. And waited. And waited. My stomach was rumbling and there was a McDonald's in view. Guilty fast food pleasure increasingly seemed quite desirable so I asked, "Why don't I just go over there and get us some lunch?"

"No. As soon as you leave he'll show up and then we'll have to wait for you," came the rapid reply.

Nuts. The assistant finally returned, explaining that he took so long because the bank was a madhouse during the lunch break. The receipt was displayed, the boot removed, and at long last we were out of there.

Back at the attorney's office, we parted ways for an hour and Cynthia and I went off and found a quick almuerzo (fixed price and menu lunch--only $3.50 each, a bargain in Quito!). Then back in the car, back to the cedula building, and a stern lecture to the parking guy before we entered.

Lo and behold, the kid who screwed up promptly called me over, I signed the pad he had earlier forgotten about, and after a wait in yet another area my name was called and I was handed my cedula.


I forgot to mention that Cynthia's turn after my disaster went flawlessly, and as a result she couldn't get her cedula that day. It seems with foreigners a final check must be done in Immigration that takes a couple of extra days. Because of the error mine apparently was expedited. Our attorney promised to pick hers up on Wednesday and courier it to Cuenca.

Away we went (no boot this time!). A taxi was hailed, our bags transferred to the trunk, and we were off to the airport with time to spare. After an eventless 35 minute flight we were home by dinnertime.

End of story, right? You know better than that.

Cynthia's cellphone rings first thing Wednesday morning. I answer and a lady inundates me with an avalanche of Spanish. I ask if she speaks English, she says "no," so I ask her to please find someone who does. A guy gets on the phone, says he is from the Immigration office in Quito and that Cynthia needs to come to the office because "there is a problem" with her cedula.

(What are we up to now? I think it's super extra loud SIGH---).

I tell the guy, "Cynthia is not in Quito and she's not coming to Quito. Here's what is going to happen. I'm hanging up now and calling my attorney. Then she will call you back and talk to you."

It turns out the "problem" was that Cynthia, unlike Latin American women, does not use her maiden name as part of her last name. This was apparently confusing, but our attorney assured us everything was OK. She would pick up the cedula that afternoon and send it to our other attorney here in Cuenca.

Thursday--Friday--Saturday--Sunday--Monday--no cedula. It was a holiday weekend, so we figured perhaps her vacation had been extended. This turned out to be true and finally we learned that the cedula in fact is here.

Hooray again!!!

Now for sure it's the end of the story. Uh, no.

I went to the gym Thursday morning. Since I had a meeting right afterwards, I rode my bike and took my backpack along with legal pad, pen, an apple, my wallet and cellphone. I locked up my bike outside, put the backpack in a cubby up front and started working out. When I returned from the rear of the gym I saw that the backpack had been stolen.

My wallet contained, along with the usual suspects, my brand new cedula.

As Jimmy Buffet sings in Margaritaville, "Well I know, it's my own damn fault." I should never have left my wallet and phone unguarded like that, and I got burned.

Does this seemingly never-ending saga have a happy ending? Of course. Because it was stolen, the cedula can be replaced right here in town by filling out an incident report. My life is so simple now it took less than half an hour to cancel and request replacement for my one debit and one credit card. A replacement driver's license is on the way, and my new Supermaxi card is already at the grocery store for me to pick up.

Whale watching--IL conference--cedula shenanigans--I'm tired of writing about this crazy week, and I'm sure you're equally tired of reading about it. Thanks for persevering. Hope you enjoyed the story.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

One Helluva Week (Part 1 of Part 3)

This almost-final post (I now realize the saga is too long, forcing me to break it up into episodes) of our ultra-busy week got delayed because I've been waiting for the story of last Monday's events to end. Yesterday it finally did. And then today it didn't. Let me explain.

After the International Living conference we stayed over in Quito an extra night because our long-awaited cedulas (Ecuadorian resident cards) were going to be processed on Monday. This would culminate over a year of delays while Immigration officials were repeatedly fired for corruption (shocker!), each time disrupting the process.

Last summer we decided to switch from business to retirement visas, and were given 6 month tourist visas to "keep us legal" in the interim. Those expired in January with no new visas in sight. Since July when our application was submitted we had to get our passports back from Quito 3 times so we could travel to the States. And we'd left and returned to Ecuador twice with those expired visas this year--no easy task, I assure you.

Now we have the proper visas stamped in our passports, and clearing this one final hurdle would complete the process. So we were pretty excited.

Our attorney picked us up first thing Monday morning and we were off to our destination. We parked, went inside, and---bedlam. There were people everywhere. People with little kids. Lots of little kids. Turns out this wasn't the ideal time to be conducting our business, because school starts soon and all new students need the same cedula cards as us.


But here we were in Quito, damn it, and today was the day, so we took a number and a seat. After waiting awhile it turned out this was just the first stop where somebody verifies that you have all the proper forms and that they are filled out correctly.

We then went downstairs where there were even more people and more kids. After sitting around for a bit we noticed two things: 1) the numbers on the overhead screen showing whose turn it was bore no resemblance to ours, and 2) the numbers weren't changing.


Our attorney's assistant checked with the folks in charge and learned that yes, the screen wasn't working and no, we were in the wrong place. So we moved to the other end of the room where non-Ecuadorian applicants were processed.

And waited some more.

Finally it was my turn. The young man handling my application didn't look old enough to shave, spoke zero English, and nevertheless asked a zillion questions. My lawyer's presence to provide answers made me once again thankful I hadn't tried to fly solo on obtaining residency.

Eventually he was satisfied, my photo and fingerprints were taken, and the file was saved in the computer. Done! Then he made a face and put his hand to his head in a gesture that in every language means, "Oh, shit!"

It seems he forgot to have me sign the pad verifying all that we had just completed.

(Loud sigh)

Ah, but he had a solution---"Please come back Wednesday."

There are times when I'm actually glad my Spanish isn't outstanding, and this was one of them. Because with a literal translation of what I told my attorney to say to the kid I'd probably be writing this blog from a jail cell.

Here's the "family friendly" version: "We're getting on a plane to Cuenca at 5:40 this afternoon and we're not coming back to Quito. He caused the problem. He's trying to make his problem my problem. That's not happening. I want this fixed today."

Well, Ecuadorians are not accustomed to folks balking like this, so with a shocked look he retreated to speak with his superiors. When he returned he proudly announced that if we came back at 3 not only would the problem be resolved, I could take my cedula home that day.

Now that's more like it.

It was lunchtime anyway, so we all decided our attorney and her assistant would return to work, Cynthia and I would grab some lunch, and we'd meet back at her office at 2:30.

We got to her car and discovered it had been booted.

(Extra loud sigh)

To be continued-----------

Friday, August 10, 2012

One Helluva Week (Part 2)

Several months ago Cynthia and I received a surprise request to speak at International Living's Fast Track conference in Quito. While we readily agreed to participate and were honored to be chosen as the expat representatives from Cuenca, we quickly realized there would be two major hurdles to clear:

#1--in 41 years of marriage we had never given a presentation together, and
#2--we'd be making our joint debut in front of 300+ attendees.

We were asked to tell "our story," and we decided to base the talk around the theme of "Keep Dreaming." You see, for many years we envisioned living comfortably abroad in an ideal climate, but never thought specifically of Cuenca, Ecuador (primarily because we'd never heard of it!). So we created our presentation around the idea that when dreams stay alive they sometimes come true in amazing and unexpected ways.

After only one day back from our whale watching trip, early last Thursday morning we boarded a plane and flew to Quito for the conference. The sky was wonderfully clear and en route I took some great shots from the window along the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

The event was held at the luxurious Swissotel.

As soon as we walked into the lobby it felt like we had magically left Ecuador and were---well, somewhere else.

Wonderful restaurants, full service gym and spa, indoor/outdoor pool,

and lush landscaping surrounded us.

Our room wasn't too shabby, either.

Soon after registration

two and a half days of presentations, exhibits,

cocktail parties, VIP events, and networking began that afternoon.

Every subject imaginable was addressed to assist attendees with their plans:

---Destinations throughout Ecuador
---Immigration considerations
---Purchasing and renting property
---Tax and reporting issues
---Spanish schools
---Cultural matters
---Starting a business
---Medical care and health insurance
---Shipping household goods
---Staying in touch with family and friends

And of course there were we expats sharing our personal stories about life in locations large and small, and in the highlands, valleys, and coast of our beautiful country.

This was our first International Living conference and I'd like to share my impressions. Swissotel, while the perfect venue for an event of this size, is an international chain that, as previously mentioned, in no way delivers a true Ecuadorian experience. Fortunately most everyone we spoke with (and a show of hands indicated most were first time visitors) had either arrived earlier or planned to remain afterwards, so hopefully they returned home with a more balanced and realistic impression.

The participants were far more diverse than I anticipated. I expected to look out on a sea of gray, and while the demographic was definitely skewed towards age 50+, a surprising number of young people were interested in exploring new life experiences. And I think everyone was amazed at the number of single folks in attendance.

What about the quality of information? IL is sometimes taken to task for giving unrealistic figures about the true cost of living in Ecuador. I'm pleased to report that absolutely everything presented was correct and up to date. Numerous speakers shared their personal monthly budgets, and in each case the numbers accurately reflected differing lifestyles and locations.

After living here for 2+ years even we learned some valuable and helpful new information!

And how did our presentation go? Considering it was our first time ever using PowerPoint and speaking together I think we did just fine. Most gratifying were the comments made to us afterwards that could be summed up as, "We weren't confident about doing this, but after hearing your story we now think maybe we can."

Overall the conference was well-run and extremely informative. Everyone in attendance left with a much better understanding of both the challenges and opportunities of relocating to Ecuador.

Before closing I want to share that Quito is really growing on me. The first time we passed though several years ago I couldn't wait to leave. It seemed like just another ugly, dirty big city with too many undesirables lurking about.

On subsequent visits I've noticed that particularly in the historic district Quito has really cleaned itself up. Plus I've since been exposed to lovely areas besides the slums you always drive through going to and from the airport.

We left the hotel for lunch several days and found cuisine and al fresco settings not available in our smaller city--Mediterranean tapas and Japanese, for example.

One of our fellow presenters moved from Cotacachi to Quito, and on Sunday after the conference she and her husband showed us around their neighborhood with beautiful buildings, shops, and restaurants along an avenue with a tree-lined pedestrian median. It's too easy to let first impressions become lasting impressions. Quito has taught me a lesson about keeping an open mind.

We stayed an extra night because Monday morning our attorney was accompanying us to get our cedulas, an identification card that represents the final step to becoming an Ecuadorian resident. Since Part 3 of this series is about just that one day, you might correctly assume that shenanigans were involved.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

One Helluva Week (Part 1)

The week from July 29 through August 6 was so extraordinary and packed with so much activity that I can properly describe everything that happened only by breaking it into separate segments. This first entry is about a three day whale watching trip we took through our company TerraDiversa.

From June through October each year humpback whales journey from Antarctica to mate in the warmer Pacific waters of Ecuador's coast. Although they can be spotted from as far north as Esmeraldas all the way south to Salinas, prime viewing of these magnificent creatures is enjoyed near Puerto Lopez on Ecuador's central coast.

Early Sunday morning our group of 15 plus guide and driver set off for that destination. Here's a shot of the "Sea of Clouds" as we went through the Cajas mountains.

The total drive time is 7 hours, so the trip was broken up with a stop at the Guayaquil Historical Park.

Speaking honestly, a lot of "attractions" in Ecuador, while always well-intentioned and sincere, are rather amateurish by American standards.

Not so here. The park, set on 20 lush acres smack in the middle of an extremely prosperous neighborhood, is first class all the way. It's divided into three sections.

The Wildlife Zone is home to indigenous plants and animals.

Young coffee buds grow right out of the bark. Who knew??

I think this ugly looking mammal is a tapir.

The Urban Architecture Zone preserves historical turn-of-the-century buildings that were actually moved from downtown into the park and reassembled.

And the Traditions Zone celebrates the cocoa-producing culture of the Ecuadorian coast. The park was so big we kind of rushed through this part to continue our journey so no pics here. Sorry.

After lunch at a nearby mall we continued up the coast and arrived late afternoon at our lodging in Montanita. We were there several months ago and I already knew my way around, so as soon as we checked in I headed straight for the beach for some body surfing. Then Cynthia and I downed several beers by the pool before heading into town for dinner.

An early start the next morning took us to Puerto Lopez, a fishing village that enjoys a tourism windfall during whale watching season.

We donned life jackets, climbed into the boat, and were on our way.

I'd seen photos of whales quite near the shoreline and thought we would have the same experience. Wrong. We kept going out, out, out, and I was nervously remembering previous deep sea fishing trips where I puked my guts out. Amazingly, although we rode a couple of hours and about 25 miles before the first whales were spotted, I never even got queasy.

Our guide guaranteed we'd see whales. Did we ever!

It was unbelievable we could safely get that close. Maybe in retrospect we weren't all that safe. But we spent about an hour enjoying our good fortune.

Then we continued on to Isla de la Plata, or Silver Island, so named by the Spanish when they first saw it gleaming on the horizon. Words cannot describe the disappointment they must have felt when they discovered upon disembarking that the silver color was due to massive amounts of bird droppings instead of precious metal.

In modern days the island is nicknamed the "Poor Man's Galapagos" because numerous species from that famous archipelago also reside there. Most notably, the blue footed booby,

also named by the Spaniards not for having large breasts but because of their clumsiness on land. And perhaps because they wander around as in this pic clueless to the possibility that they could be dinner in the wrong species' eyes. Fortunately on this island and the Galapagos no such predators exist.

Isla de la Plata has a rugged and wild look that made for some nice photo op's.

After a long and bumpy ride back to Puerto Lopez we returned to Montanita, ate dinner, and crashed. On our last morning we stopped off briefly in nearby Olon to admire the amazing and completely deserted beaches

then stopped at a craft village to shop for some lovely merchandise created by local artisans. We purchased these napkin rings made from tagua, or vegetable ivory, packaged in a cool balsa wood box.

I hadn't seen that material since I was throwing those lightweight airplanes as a kid.

We arrived home totally pooped. But no matter, because the following day we unpacked and repacked for our flight to Quito on Thursday. You see, we were the expat representatives from Cuenca at International Living's Fast Track conference, and we were scheduled to give a 30 minute presentation Friday in front of about 320 attendees.

I'll tell you all about that weekend in Part 2.