Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Happy Anniversary!

In July Cynthia and I celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary. Well, actually that's not true. On the big day we said "Happy Anniversary" to each other at the airport as she left for a solo trip to the States--a surprise birthday gift from our daughter.

Once she returned one thing led to another, so we finally got around to formally celebrating this week with a trip to Piedra de Agua, a beautiful spa just outside Cuenca.

For no reason I can conjure up except "WE'RE SO BUSY!!" this was our first visit after living here 3 1/2 years. I can assure you it will not be that long before we return because we had a blast!

There are hot springs running through the surrounding mountains at Piedra de Agua, and they along with special muds extracted from the waters are the highlights of one's visit. Several of the treatment rooms are built right into the side of a mountain, in fact. After showering and sitting in a group steam room for awhile we were led to the first pool containing what the spa calls "blue mud." What do you think? Looks pretty green to me-----.

Yikes! I look like an extra from a sci fi movie. After we showered off all the blue mud it was time for a red mud treatment. No question this time--that stuff is quite red.

I'm thinking about selling this photo for a public service ad reminding people of what can happen when you don't use sunscreen.

Shower #3, then into individual steam boxes for more detoxification.

The final step involved underground plunge pools--one hot, the other absolutely freezing. The idea here was to hang out in the hot one for 15 minutes, then the cold one for 2 minutes, then repeat the cycle. Cynthia must have misunderstood the instructions because she lasted in the cold pool for 2 seconds. I thought her eyes were literally going to pop out of their sockets. Sorry, no photo--she wouldn't let me post it if there was one.

Shower #4 (not sure about the detox but we certainly were clean!), then a lovely lunch before massages.

After emerging from the massage cave we opened a special bottle of pinot noir we had been saving from a wine dinner we attended in NC for our last anniversary (thanks Brandon & Jennie!).

We think being happily married for this long is pretty darned special so we like to commemorate the occasion by doing something memorable. This time we definitely succeeded.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cuenca Independence Day Festivities

We celebrate a lot of holidays in Ecuador, and by far the biggest one here is Cuenca Independence Day (to give you a perspective, cities celebrate each other's independence days as well). For three days each November the place is abuzz with parades, fireworks, concerts, vendors out the wazoo, and parties galore. Visitors pour in from all over the place and every hotel room is filled.

This year marked Anniversary #193, and with the mayoral election just months away city government pulled out all the stops to make the event a doozy. I must confess, this was our fourth go-round and these events get a bit repetitious, so as the holiday approached we had a bit of a "whatever" attitude. I'm quite happy to report that throughout the weekend we were pleasantly surprised.

Friday afternoon we visited an orchid and bonsai exhibition at the mall.

That evening we walked over to Paradise Park for a special outdoor symphony performance. The program began with a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, complete with booming cannons and spectacular fireworks right over the bandstand. For the final portion a 12 piece mariachi band came out and had everyone on their feet dancing.

The festival is so big and spread out that we couldn't take everything in, but we sure walked our legs off Saturday and Sunday. The weather was glorious all weekend and there was a lot going on.

Caricature artists



To say the crowds were massive is an understatement

An indigenous tribe from the Amazon had an exhibit

As did a maker of our famous Panama hats

It's amazing that a light rail system will soon be running through the historic district. One of the cars was on display

And of course vendors selling leather goods


Yes, Panama hats

Plus musical instruments, native jewelry, and loads of other trinkets

Parque de la Madre had a special surprise for the kids---dinosaurs!

At the rear of the park a new planetarium just opened. We'll check it out later--the line was too long.

Speaking of long lines, Marc Anthony was performing at the stadium Saturday night. Our walk home went in that general direction, and we were shocked at 3 PM to see people "lined up" all over the place. That description is in quotes because lines were going in every direction with no discernible beginning or end. We could still hear the concert blasting away when we went to bed around midnight. And to think that the day before we almost bought tickets!

The celebration was a huge success and my congratulations to the organizers. You made us proud to live in Cuenca!!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Leisurely Sunday Breakfast

I rarely come home from the grocery store with everything on my shopping list. Not because I change my mind or forget something. Invariably either an item is simply not there (my favorite cereal was AWOL for three weeks) or a restaurant owner comes in and cleans out, say, all the asparagus.

On the flip side, it's always fun to discover a brand new item on the shelf--the store is so small that you notice these things. Worcestershire sauce, French's mustard, Heinz pickles are now available, for instance. Yeah, they are more expensive, but if you saw the color and consistency of the alternative local relish you'd gladly fork over the difference in price.

And even the produce section has improved. We now have several interesting greens like baby arugula, baby spinach, and Thai salad. This week, for the first time ever, I spotted containers of blueberries and immediately put one in my buggy.

Now these weren't the plump berries we're accustomed to. They were quite small, to be truthful,

but Cynthia loves blueberries (it's one of the few food items she asks me to buy at the grocery when we're in the States) so I thought I'd surprise her.

Turns out the surprise was also on me. When I rinsed them in the colander last night I discovered that hidden among all the tiny berries were a lot of sticks and little leaves. Worse--much worse--out of the 2000 or so tiny berries about 1980 of them had tiny stems still attached. They looked like little blue bombs from Roadrunner or Yosemite Sam cartoons.

I could have pretended they weren't there and proceeded to toss them into the blueberry muffin batter I planned to make this morning. But I just knew we'd both be feeling around with our tongues for tiny stems in every bite, so I stood there and sorted through the pile for what seemed like eternity plucking them off.

While doing so I thought of two things: 1) these teeny berries would have been left on the bushes for birds to eat back in the States, and 2) how in the heck do U.S. farmers get those damn stems off before packaging the berries?

I imagined (I told you this took a long time) the berry pickers here saying to the boss, and everybody up the line all the way to the grocery store saying to their boss, "I'm OK with these stems. You OK with them?" But did I get a vote? N-o-o-o-o----.

So I got up bright and early today ready to prepare a scrumptious breakfast. I have to admit up front that, while I consider myself a pretty darned good cook, baking is not my strong suit. And our South American oven is most definitely not of stellar quality, always struggling to reach and maintain the correct temperature.

I had downloaded a "Double Blueberry Muffin" recipe that had lots of stars and positive reviews. The "double" part meant there were crushed berries mixed into the batter as well as whole ones folded in right before baking. The now stemless tiny berries proved to be remarkably resistant to my attempt to mash them, as the recipe called for, with the back of a fork. By the time I was finished I had almost broken a sweat and my forearm looked like Roger Federer's from the effort expended.

After creaming, measuring, crushing, beating, and spooning, the muffins finally went into the oven. When I went into Cynthia's office she asked, "What was all that racket?"

"I was beating the batter for the muffins," I replied.

"Oh, I was afraid you'd say that. Don't you know you're supposed to barely combine the ingredients for muffins so they'll be light and fluffy?"

"Uh---huh--huh--huh----no----," said ButtEdd.

I'm now envisioning that I've created a new bakery item--the Tuffin.

What the hell, they're in the oven and it's time to move on. I'm preparing bacon, scrambled eggs, Double Blueberry Muffins, and half a grapefruit this morning, and that grapefruit needs to be cut.

The grapefruits here have seeds.

A LOT of seeds-----

I was reminded while I was plucking out all those bastards why we don't have this particular fruit very often. Vitamin C is much more easily attainable elsewhere. I'm no expert on GMO or cross-breeding, but to whoever created the seedless grapefruit I say, "Right on, brother."

The timer rings, the muffins come out, and Cynthia says, "Those look----interesting." That's code around here for, "I don't want to be judgmental so I'll just say those look-----."

Turns out they tasted fine and the breakfast was lovely.

Will I buy those blueberries again?

Oh, hell, no! We'll be back in the States for the holidays soon enough. Trust me, I can wait a few weeks.

NOTE: An Ecuadorian friend and restaurant owner read this & wrote to inform me that what I thought were blueberries are actually called "mortiƱos." They are a wild berry from the northern Andes of Ecuador that are only found in markets this time of year, and are used to make a typical drink called "colada morada" enjoyed only during the upcoming "Day of the Dead" celebration. She laughed at what she called a "new approach" to using Ecuadorian ingredients. That's a kind way of saying, "What a dummy!"

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Day of the Living Dead

It's noon and I just left Cynthia a voice message--my first spoken words of the day. Usually by now I would have uttered hundreds (my wife would more correctly put the word count in the thousands).

But this is by no means a "usual" day. I just returned home from the States alone last night while Cynthia remains behind for a few more days. Our maid came yesterday so it was great to walk into a clean house. And to lie down in our comfortable bed on clean sheets.

I didn't sleep particularly well, and discovered that my internal "alarm clock" has been reset to the much earlier wake up call of our family. I definitely need to work on that one. How odd it was to hear the murmur of traffic outside but no sounds of awakening babies.

All day travel involving three flights takes a toll on me, and I've found myself wandering around the apartment somewhat aimlessly all morning. I managed to take a shower and get the luggage unpacked in fits and starts, but was so tired by mid-morning that I went back to bed for awhile. I have a strong notion this is going to be a two nap day.

Cynthia had the foresight to cook and freeze something to eat before we left. I couldn't muster the hindsight to remember what was in the container. Beef stew. Shweet! Meal in a bowl and thankfully no cooking for me tonight.

A trip to Supermaxi is nevertheless my one absolute agenda item for the day. We did an awesome job of eating almost everything in the refrigerator and pantry, which now puts me in Old Mother Hubbard mode. I could survive indefinitely on peanut butter sandwiches and milk, but----. Looking at the grocery list I compiled I'm pleased to note that items from the produce section outnumber everything else in the store.

Speaking of which, a quick aside. I was stunned at how HUGE the fruits and vegetables are in the US. Apples the size of small grapefruits? I sometimes read about GMO's, but, wow, what a visible example of Monsanto doing what they do best.

I brought back the usual assortment of food products, personal care items, and clothing. It appears TSA and I have broken up or at the very least are going through a trial separation. They always leave a nice note in my luggage telling me how much they enjoyed rifling through my Target & Kohl's purchases. This time when I checked---nothing. I'm brokenhearted but will find a way to carry on.

It's time to do a zombie shuffle over to the grocery store and replenish the food supply. I can with great confidence predict an early bedtime tonight.

My visit had so many wonderful memories, the funniest of which I shared with you. I'm already looking forward to returning for the holidays!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Actually, a LOT of Trees Grow in Brooklyn

On this trip to Hoboken I had the idea that I wanted to do a touristy NY day. I looked in a guide book and discovered that aside from going to the Statue of Liberty (which I wasn't that interested in--especially climbing all those stairs) and to the top of the Empire State Building ($50 apiece for the express line--fuggidabowdit) I've already done everything touristy.

So I decided instead that Cynthia and I would ride the subway over to Brooklyn, roam around awhile, then walk back to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge. I chose Brooklyn Heights as our destination because it's right on the waterfront facing The City (as it's called by locals).

Brooklyn was annexed into New York in the late 19th century. Here's a bit of trivia for you: had it remained an independent city Brooklyn would be the 6th largest city in the US--ahead of Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, and Dallas in the Top Ten.

It was a glorious autumn morning when we headed out. A PATH train ride into the city, a subway ride to Brooklyn, and a hour later we arrived.

By the way, these subways are even cheaper than taxis in Cuenca--$2.50 will take you a l-o-n-g way.

We were immediately impressed with how quiet and "leafy" the neighborhood is.

And were surprised to find a street that looked almost like it had been transported from our former home in Charleston.

As we wandered around we discovered beautiful architecture everywhere we looked.

After a lovely alfresco brunch we walked along the Promenade,

with incredible views of the New York skyline.

Then we took a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge,

where we were treated to unique views of Upper and Lower Manhattan.

Thirty minutes later the walk was finished.

We stopped for an ice cream, did some shopping around Union Square, then headed home. An exceptional day!!