Sunday, February 24, 2013

Crossed Wires

Yesterday morning my cell phone rang. I didn't recognize the number of the caller.


"Yes, this is Joyce. I was wondering if you'll available next Friday morning. I'm moving Bill to an assisted living facility outside of Cuenca. I need help breaking down the bed and taking it there, and then another bed needs to be brought back here. I'm willing to pay $100."

"Um, the $100 sounds good, but who is this again?"


"Is this Oscar?"

"No, this is Edd. I don't know Oscar, and I don't believe I know you either."

"Oh, sorry. Cancel the call."

Later in the afternoon I went to the home of some good friends for dinner. I knocked on the door, and when it opened, Trish greeted me with a big smile.

And at the same time seemed to be shooting me a bird with her middle finger.

I was confused with these mixed signals and commented on her odd welcome. It turned out she had moments before cut her finger and was holding it up to stop the bleeding.

So in the same day a stranger treated me like a friend, and a friend treated me like a stranger.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mashpi Lodge

A private driver picked us up from our friend's house for an early morning drive to Mashpi Lodge. Mashpi has ushered in a new level of tourism in Ecuador. It's an extremely high-end ecolodge hidden in an amazing cloud forest northwest of Quito.

On the drive there we crossed the equator twice and enjoyed the lush countryside.

We drove past fields of sugar cane and through tiny villages for a couple of hours before heading down a narrow, bumpy dirt road for another forty five minutes. Where exactly was this place?

A short distance from the last village we entered the cloud forest, and instantly the air became misty and cooler. It looked, felt, and even smelled different. The surroundings felt primitive, like we were entering the world of Avatar or Jurassic Park.

Finally the clouds thinned and we arrived at the gate. As it opened we expected to find ourselves at the lodge, but, no, there were another twenty minutes of excitement and anticipation as we wound our way past waterfalls and increasingly dense vegetation. Then at last we rounded a curve and there was Mashpi Lodge, our sleek, ultramodern home for the next three days.

The interior is stunning, with wide open vistas of the forest in every direction.

And talk about a room with a view--WOW!

After getting settled and eating lunch we were hooked up with two lovely couples visiting from Canada.

We hiked to the Life Center, where native butterflies are studied.

We saw beautiful scenery

and even a baby ocelot along the way.

This is an orphan they are hoping to reintroduce into the wild, but without parents to teach it to hunt the task will be difficult.

Inside the Life Center we observed many species of awesome butterflies.

We were told that sunny days are unusual, so we felt fortunate to see a stunning sunset before heading back to the lodge.

The next morning required early rising for bird watching from the lodge's observation deck.

This is a good example of why the area is called a cloud forest.

I must admit I heard about 1000 birds and actually saw about five of them. Maybe I didn't consume enough coffee to sharpen my vision. Then we were off on another hike, this time a long one to a waterfall. There's Mashpi in the distance as we trekked through the forest.

After about two hours we heard the roar of the waterfall and soon arrived.

Some of the group chose to cool off in the water. The temps were a bit too nippy for us.

The challenge of a long hike is when you get where you're going you still have to go back. We were pooped, so after lunch a nap plus a bottle of wine and a trip to the Jacuzzi formed the rest of our afternoon agenda.

On our final morning we packed in the activities before heading to the airport. First we climbed up, up, up the observation tower

for a breathtaking look at our surroundings.

Then, we climbed into a bicycle-like contraption for a treetop cable ride across a long valley.

Across the sky we soared, feeling just like Elliott and ET.

I must say ET looks a lot more gorgeous than I remember from the movie.

Everything looked much different from our unique vantage point.

After that adventure we had one more memorable treat in store. We stopped near the front gate at a hummingbird observation spot. Thirty one different species have thus far been identified at Mashpi, and many of them were strutting their stuff for us.

A most remarkable thing happened just before we left. As our departure was on Valentine's Day, Mashpi's staff had given both of us roses when we checked out. These are of course not indigenous in a cloud forest, but we were curious to see if the hummingbirds would react to the flowers' red color. Indeed they did.

So we decided to take our little experiment a step further, and Cynthia received a Valentine's present she'll never forget!

Did we have a fabulous time at Mashpi Lodge? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I used to hate Quito. When we first visited four years ago it just seemed like another big. dirty, unsafe city. The drive from the airport into downtown went through a seedy area. The historic area was filled with unsavory characters during the day, which gave little incentive to venture out at night. Little kids would rush up to you with shoeshine kits--when you were wearing tennis shoes you wondered if they were a distraction for pickpockets.

All that has changed. The mayor has done an outstanding job of cleaning up downtown, ridding the area of riffraff, installing lighting, closing streets to vehicles and encouraging pedestrian traffic, and keeping graffiti under control. The transformation has been nothing short of astounding.

Plus we had the pleasure of meeting Daphna Amit, a fellow speaker at International Living's conference last August. She and her husband Rami offered to show us around their neighborhood, which was a short walk from the hotel, before we returned to Cuenca. Our afternoon together proved to be a revelation.

We strolled through beautiful streets with lovely homes, shops, and restaurants. We dined al fresco at a cute pizza restaurant. They took us to their 10th floor apartment in an area called Gonzalez Suarez that, sitting high atop a hill overlooking the city, affords magnificent views. As we later boarded our plane Cynthia and I could only say to each other, "Who knew?"

So we were excited when Daphna graciously offered her spare bedroom to us after the most recent conference for a couple of nights before we visited an ecolodge in a cloud forest several hours away (Part 3 of this series). She told us that she was going to take a city tour on Monday with Ecuador Expat Journeys, a company owned by IL speaker Sarah Dettman, and that since we were her guests we'd been invited to tag along.

This wasn't to be a typical city tour focusing on sights and attractions. Since our fellow travelers were attendees of the conference our day would be geared toward seeing different areas of Quito as potential places to live.

Around 40 of us boarded a bus that morning and headed out.

We were fortunate that because Carnaval was in full swing the streets were virtually deserted. Carnaval is the biggest travel weekend in Ecuador all year, and many people leave town and head to the coast or other getaways.

Our bus wound through the city, beginning in Daphna's nearby haunts then climbing to El Panecillo (meaning "little bread loaf" because of its shape), a hill that dominates the southern skyline. This is the home of the Virgin of Quito, a large statue that watches over and protects the city.

The views of Quito from this vantage point are quite impressive.

Next we reentered the city and explored other in town neighborhoods with large parks, malls, and modern architecture quite unlike what we see in Cuenca.

We made the obligatory stop at a mercado downtown and I was thinking, "Oh, boy, another mercado," but even this was a surprise. The building was well-lit and spotlessly clean,

and I was impressed that all the meat and seafood was refrigerated and behind glass, a far cry from our local markets.

Many Quito residents live in "the valleys," a sprawling area south of the city. We drove through Cumbaya, an upscale community that resembles suburbia in the States--gated communities with large homes, strip malls, chain restaurants. For status-seeking Ecuadorians such a lifestyle is a dream come true, but this is the very existence we gladly left behind and have no desire to revisit.

The road we traveled will be the main connection between Quito and the new international airport that opens today until the "real" roads are completed. You might ask, "Why in the world would they open a new airport when the roads aren't finished?" This question would be a dead giveaway that you don't actually live in Ecuador.

The official projections are that the trip between the airport and downtown will take an hour and a half. Given that the existing road is already the main thoroughfare for all the outlying residents commuting into and out of the city, and that "Ecuador time" is often, well, different, I'd suggest this timing is probably overly optimistic, especially during rush hour. We plan to avoid the new airport like the plague for the next year or so unless we can make direct connections without an overnight stay.

Our excursion finished in Sarah's outlying community, where we enjoyed a delicious almuerzo together

before returning to the city. It seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere, but because of the lack of traffic we got back amazingly fast.

Thanks so much to Daphna for putting up with us for two days, and to Sarah for showing us her hometown "up close and personal." Quito certainly deserves a serious look from potential expats seeking big city amenities and cultural activities.

Monday, February 18, 2013

International Living Conference

The last week or so has been incredibly busy for us--so much so that a series of three blogs will be needed to give all that has happened proper description. So here we go-----.

Cynthia and I were honored to be asked to speak again at International Living's Fast Track conference in Quito that took place February 7-9. Over 420 attendees came from all over the US and Canada to learn the in's and out's of relocating to Ecuador. Twenty five speakers shared information about immigration procedures, health care, shipping a container, learning Spanish, starting a business, purchasing or renting property, and of course, in depth presentations of the most interesting areas of the country to live.

Our role was expanded this year to give an overview of Cuenca as well as tell our story about how we came to live there. We took the audience through a day in the city from the time they get off the airplane, showing them hotels they might choose and food they would eat. Then we took them on a "walking tour" of the historic district and New Town, pointed out interesting day trips in the surrounding countryside, and provided some current properties for sale and rent.

Then we related the circumstances that precipitated our move abroad, how we chose Cuenca, and what happened during and after our arrival. It was our goal to provide both "information and inspiration," and our talk seemed to be well-received.

In addition to this full slate of speakers, an exhibition hall was filled with businesses assisting all the guests with their relocation requirements. We manned a table in this area to answer questions about Cuenca during coffee breaks. The evenings offered great networking possibilities with cocktail parties and special dinners. I believe the 3 day program was greatly appreciated and extremely helpful to every participant.

During our presentation I asked for a show of hands of how many people were particularly interested in Cuenca. I was amazed that it seemed almost every hand went up. I told everyone to keep their hands up and look around to see who their future neighbors might be.

If this level of interest was indicative of how many folks all over North America are seriously considering our city for their future homes, Cuenca is going to look quite different several years from now.