Tuesday, February 28, 2017

There's a "Yes" Out There Somewhere

A few days ago I absentmindedly dropped our coffee pot on the tile floor in the kitchen. This aggravated me for three reasons: 1) I obviously wasn't fully present in the moment, 2) I'd created a huge mess with shards of glass from large to nearly invisible everywhere, and 3) if I didn't get a replacement we weren't having coffee the next day.

Locating a miscellaneous item in Cuenca is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yes, we have Amazon, but in Ecuador's case it's a huge swath of jungle on our eastern border. No computer searches here--you've got to get off your butt and start looking.

Two instances involving my watch taught me the ropes of this procedure. First the battery died. I head into El Centro, go into the first jewelry store I come upon, hold out my watch and say, "Necesito una batería nueva." The clerk looks at it and says, "No." This is the expected response. Sometimes you strike gold with the first swing of the pick ax but-----.

On to the next one. Fortunately in Cuenca, much like in Europe, similar stores are often grouped very closely together. There's the "fabric block," the "party store block," and so on. The drill is you go into store after store and repeat the same sentence until someone says, "Yes."

While I was in the States one of the little metal posts connecting the links on my watch's wristband broke, and I decided, "No big deal--I'll wait until I got home to get it fixed." Wrong. Whereas replacing the battery took only two or three tries, getting that link repaired approached double figures. Still, a positive response and $5 later I was back in business.

Replacing the coffee pot presented a more nuanced challenge. There was nothing wrong with the coffee maker itself, but could I possibly discover a store that would sell only the carafe? I knew my chances were slim and none, so I waded into the "appliance block" near Parque Calderon fully prepared to return home with a whole new unit.

Stores that sell appliances downtown have a very curious mix of merchandise. Where else in a relatively small space can you buy a stove, a guitar, and TV, or perhaps a motorcycle? And in my case, a coffee pot.

This is Carnaval weekend in Ecuador, and as I approached the central park I heard the unmistakable sounds of a parade. A parade I was going to have to cross to reach my destination.

Oh, boy-----.

Two main ways of celebrating Carnaval here are spraying aerosol foam on and throwing water at each other. As I got closer I saw both activities were in full swing. Parade participants and onlookers were covered with all colors of foam; kids were armed with gigantic water guns.

Here I go. I cross the parade and magically feel like I'm doing one of those Tony Robbins fire walks where your feet don't get burned. It's as if I'm wearing a "cloak of invisibility." At 6'3", bald, and blue-eyed, the most visible person there somehow makes it through without a single drop of foam or water. Hooray!!

I enter store after store, and sure enough it appears I need to be narrowing down which new unit I'll be purchasing, because nobody is selling just a pot.

And then magic happens again.

An employee in maybe the seventh store asks in English, "What are you looking for?" I explain my situation and he says, "Oh, you need only the pot? Let me tell you where to go." He proceeds to draw me a map and write down the name of the shop, which is fortunately a few blocks away.

I thank him profusely and zip right over there, donning my invisibility cloak as I once again miraculously cross the parade unscathed. Sure enough, there on the shelf is exactly the replacement pot I've been seeking. After a $13 transaction I'm happily on my way home. There will be coffee in the morning!

I share this story as an example of how expat life is very different from the United States. The convenience many of you readers take for granted simply doesn't exist here. Levels of patience and persistence you didn't know you had become your strongest allies. For most everything there's a "yes" out there somewhere. You've got to be willing to keep looking until you find it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscar Time!

Tomorrow night is the Academy Awards show, so Cynthia and I have been watching the nominated films like crazy recently. Each year it's a tradition for us to see every movie in the major nominated categories before the "big night." (Disclaimer--this time we skipped Florence Foster Jenkins because it looked horrible and we couldn't do a whole movie with bumbling Hugh Grant, and Nocturnal Animals because everything I read said it was horrible) We've got the time and we love movies (and Cynthia loves the dresses)!!

For 2017 there are nine films nominated for Best Picture and I'm not sure why. In the previous two years there were eight (which still seems like too many) and from my perspective it's certainly not because there were so many awesome flicks and performances to choose from. Too many nights we finished a movie, looked at each other and said, "Well, that was disappointing."

I think last year's "outrage" about the lack of minority nominees is partly to blame. It felt like to make amends studios green-lighted the commercial release of more movies with black actors (films are in production for a long time, and many go straight to DVD), and critics felt compelled to praise them. Before you rush to judgment labeling me a racist for daring to say such a thing, read on.

So in too many cases we endured rather than enjoyed the process this time around. And aren't movies supposed to be on some level enjoyable even if the subject matter is disturbing? With that being said, here's my take on this year's nominations in the order they are listed on Oscar's official website:

Best Picture

Arrival--thought-provoking, and the only movie we actually discussed at length afterwards.

Fences--couldn't decide whether to be a play or a movie. There's something incongruous about an uneducated black garbage man in the 50's riffing street talk with his buddies and then breaking into an introspective Shakespearean monologue. Boring visually and didn't work for me.

Hacksaw Ridge--very moving story and the battle sequences were riveting. A few "Hollywood moments" I could have done without but overall a solid movie.

Hell or High Water--underappreciated film that maybe wasn't marketed properly. Chris Pine is way too handsome to play a poor white trash character, but I liked the story very much.

Hidden Figures--hands down the best of the bunch. A "who knew?" story about the huge contribution of black women to the U.S. space program. If you haven't seen it--see it.

La La Land--the opening production number was SO over the top that I thought, "Wow, this is going to be incredible!" And it wasn't. It was fine--I enjoyed it. But Best Picture? Sorry, no.

Lion--again, an OK movie that went on much too long. I could have figured out on my computer in a day (and I'm no expert, believe me) what it took the main character two years to discover.

Manchester by the Sea--am I not through with this category yet?? Geez. Tough story, very well done. Deserves all the praise. My second favorite.

Moonlight--critics loved it. I hated it. A Hollywood double header--urban street life with a gay main character. I'm not the only one with this sentiment. I just checked and even with all the hype it's done a whopping $22 million at the box office. Zootopia (more on this one later), on the other hand, has grossed over $1 billion!

Best Actor

To keep us all from being bored I'm going to summarize the rest of these categories. Casey Affleck should win for Manchester by the Sea. Andrew Garfield is my second choice for Hacksaw Ridge. Is it possible for an actor to be on the screen too much? That's the way I felt about Denzel Washington (the apparent favorite) in Fences--I wanted him to go away and shut the hell up.

Best Actress

Confession time--like Johnny Depp in his prime, I can't take my eyes off Ryan Gosling in a movie. Emma Stone--uh, not so much. La La Land is a musical (or at least tries to be), so when the actress is fine acting but only average as a singer and dancer, I'm out. Natalie Portman is mesmerizing in Jackie. Dishonorable Mention: Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, is even worse than Moonlight. My four word review--wretched, disturbed people interacting.

Best Supporting Actor

This category baffles me. Mahershala Ali (Remy on House of Cards) is getting all this buzz for his role in Moonlight. Friends, he's in the movie for like 15 minutes in the beginning and his performance is NOT riveting. I kept waiting for him to reappear and justify the accolades. Didn't happen. Jeff Bridges owns his role in Hell or High Water and is a shoo-in to me.

Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis is said to have inserted herself into this category instead of Best Actress. She would have won in either. All the other contenders did good work, especially Nicole Kidman in Lion.

Best Animated Feature Film

Zootopia deserves every penny it has earned. Amazing animation--great story--lots of laughs along with a positive message. I didn't expect to say it was my overall favorite movie of the year. Which speaks volumes about the nine listed above.

So there you have my critique of last year's movies. I don't get enough comments on this blog. Chime in, y'all.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Beware the "Death Cross!"

I keep up with political news in the U.S. I know all about the protesters who, almost four months later, still can't believe that Trump won. I know about Trump constantly lambasting the media for reporting "fake news." I know about the wranglings in Congress over Cabinet appointments, and about Senate Republicans threatening to use the "nuclear option" to confirm Trump's Supreme Court pick. There's a lot of angst going on up there, but I'm here to tell you you're not the only show in town.

We've got our own election shenanigans here in Ecuador. And yesterday our current President, Rafael Correa, evoked a term that makes "nuclear option" sound like ordering the spiciest wings on the menu.

He threatened to use the "Death Cross."

Does that sound ominous or what? THE D-E-E-A-A-T-T-H-H CROSSSSSSS----. But then again the term brings to mind a super-special wrestling submission hold like The Texas Octopus, The Sleeper, or my favorite, The Hangman.

Let me explain what's happening. Correa and the party he created, Alianza Pais, have ruled the country without serious opposition for the last ten years. Since we had seven, count 'em, seven Presidents in the ten years before his ascension to power, his tenure in office has been tremendously stabilizing to say the least.

And he has accomplished miracles over the past decade, catapulting Ecuador from a sleepy third world country to one of Latin America's most admired. Oil is Ecuador's main source of income, and high prices for the commodity allowed him to fund massive improvements in infrastructure, education, medical care. And China stood ready to bankroll whatever else he wanted to do.

But when the price of oil plummeted it was discovered that, like a giddy lottery winner, Correa had spent it all and not maintained adequate reserves. So the country's economy has taken a hit over the past couple of years but to be fair, he's done an admirable job of steering Ecuador through some rocky straits and we already appear to be on the rebound.

The other problem is that President Correa, much like you-know-who currently occupying the Oval Office, has--how to say it??--a polarizing personality. He shoots from the hip, blasts those who disagree with him, and has run the country with a "my way or the highway" attitude.

Sound familiar?

All that was tolerable while the good times were rolling, but the downturn in the economy combined with ten years of abrasive behavior from their leader have made Ecuador's citizens open to a change of direction.

In the past Pais has maintained its stranglehold on political control largely because in Ecuador it seems anybody can run for office, so at election time there would be 7 or 8 opposing candidates with conflicting agendas and minor constituencies to scatter the vote.

Our recent election season (which ended last week and thankfully runs only about a month and a half instead of for-ever in the U.S) was no different regarding the number of candidates, but this time a conservative banker from Guayaquil, Guillermo Lasso, mounted a serious challenge to Correa's hand-picked leftist successor, Lenin Moreno. Reflecting a rightward shift that has taken place not only in the United States and the U.K. but also within South America (both Peru and Argentina have recently chosen conservative leaders), Lasso garnered enough votes to force a runoff.

And in a dramatic shift from the fractured past, all but one of the defeated candidates have pledged their support to Lasso. Since Moreno failed to crack 40% in the initial election it is widely thought that Lasso will prevail in the runoff, signalling another defeat for the "pink wave" of leftist, socialist leaders in South America.

Which brings us to the Death Cross.

In an interview yesterday Correa conceded that a Lasso victory is "very possible," but then suggested said victory could somehow possibly lead to a political crisis. Should that occur he mentioned an obscure constitutional statute called "muerte cruzada"--the dreaded Death Cross--that can be used by a president in extreme situations to dissolve the National Assembly and order new elections, including one for President.

He also dropped a hint that if the Death Cross were employed he might consider running for President again himself. Now that, my friends, would indeed create a political crisis.

So now you know the United States isn't the only country with political drama. Whereas yours seems to be never-ending with President Trump at the helm, ours will hopefully be over after the runoff election on April 2 when Ecuador, like the U.S., may perhaps be embarking on a radically different course.

How fortunate we are to be experiencing this pivotal and most interesting period in world history.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

How Many Ecuadorians Does It Take----

Are you old enough to remember the "joke" about a certain European nationality changing a light bulb? (Answer--3. One to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder). This post isn't about ethnic insensitivity or making fun of another culture. A funny incident happened last week that I simply want to pass along to readers curious about what life is really like here in Ecuador.

Thursday is the day our housekeeper cleans the apartment. She was already here so we were surprised to hear a knock at the door. Lo and behold it was our landlord and another guy. He explained that they were here to take care of some problems we've been having with some of our light fixtures.

Backing up, these problems have been going on for months. But none were like ruining our quality of life or anything, so while we had made him aware of them we hadn't been applying pressure to get them fixed. But on this particular day for some unknown reason here they were bright and early at our front door so giddyup!

The gentleman accompanying our landlord is what is known as a "maestro." In our world we might think of a maestro as the person conducting an orchestra or at least a master of his trade. We used to think that about people who showed up to do work here. Just as we have learned over the years that mañana doesn't mean "tomorrow" but instead "not now," we've figured out that maestro indeed means "the person who shows up."

Clue #1--after examining the lights that won't come on in the ventilation hood over our stove, he asks me if I have a screwdriver. What "maestro" shows up without any tools?

Clue #2--he inquires if I have a ladder. See previous question.

While "handyman" will never be part of my resume I do have both of the required items. Plus a hammer and pliers should they be needed later.

The deliberations about these two little bulbs goes on and on. I go into the kitchen at one point and there's a third guy who appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as mysteriously. I didn't ask. Eventually Cynthia lies down on the couch and I assume a similar horizontal position in the bed. Our maid keeps cleaning.

At some point our landlord comes into the bedroom to inform me that they have to take the kitchen fixtures to a workshop for testing. He says they may have to jerry rig a separate switch to solve the problem. I ask him if it will be ugly. He says, "Maybe," another word that we've learned that in this context really means "Yes." I tell him ugly is not acceptable. He seems surprised that his solution is vetoed.

But while we're in the area, what about the lights that don't work in the master bathroom? The ones over Cynthia's sink and the accent light over a painting? The maestro replaces a socket and gets the accent light back on again. Hooray! Then he replaces one of the two bulbs over the sink with a light so bright that sunglasses are required. He is pleased that it works. I ask him to take it out and find something else.

All of this has been going on for hours and the two of them finally leave with the dismantled kitchen lights and wiring. They say they will be back "mas tarde en la tarde" (later in the afternoon). Translation--they ain't coming back today.

Sure enough, the next morning our amigos are knocking on the door. They've added a separate switch to the lights that dangles from the back of the hood. Not great, but some strategically placed masking tape holds it in place without looking too weird. For some reason one of the new bulbs doesn't work so they have to remove the one from the accent fixture in the bathroom that just became functional yesterday.


So here's where we stand a week later: the lights in the kitchen work--the lights in the bathroom still don't work. And it may be months before they do. We'll just have to wait for the next knock on the door.

In Ecuador, that's solid progress.