Friday, June 30, 2017

Taking a Vacation from Our Vacation

To me there's a big difference between a "trip" and a "vacation." Taking a trip means you're out and about seeing and doing things. A vacation is more about kicking back and relaxing.

During our working years Cynthia and I most often chose the trip option. I especially tended to get antsy after a few days of hanging out, so even vacations ended up being filled with activities. In both cases we would return to the daily grind more exhausted than when we left.

Our move to Ecuador only slightly altered old patterns. We're living on a different continent, for gosh sakes, in a new country and city. So much exploring to do. Let's get busy!

And we've certainly seen and done a lot--cruises in the Galapagos and around the tip of South America; excursions along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, in the cloud forest of northern Ecuador, and up close and personal with humpback whales on the coast; adventures from hiking to horseback riding to zip lining.

There have been numerous vacations as well, but they've as in the past been less than totally relaxing. Last trip to the beach, for example, I found myself hang gliding along the Pacific coastline.

When we were booking flights to Quito for last weekend's International Living conference we decided to stay in town for a few days afterwards. There was some business to take care of on Monday, but beyond that we made no plans and figured we'd visit friends, museums, and the city's other attractions.

It hasn't worked out that way. In fact, since we got back to our living quarters Monday evening we haven't set foot outside the property except to eat lunches and dinners. And I'm writing this on Thursday afternoon before we head to the airport for our return flight to Cuenca.

What happened? Well, a lot of it has to do with the place we're staying. Friends who are developing a finca near Mindo offered us their residence here, and what a wonderful place it is. Make no mistake, Quito is a big, busy, noisy city. But their home, located only a couple of blocks back from "the action," is a peaceful oasis in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Although listed on Airbnb (check it out here), this is light years beyond the typical rental that feels like a sparse hotel room and mini-kitchen. The totally renovated space is a real home filled with artwork, books, decorative accessories, tasteful lighting, and exquisite furnishings.

We've been to Quito many times already so Tuesday we decided to stay put and recover from the rigors of the conference. Then Wednesday, well----. And now today, uh-----.

It's not like we've done absolutely nothing. Just almost nothing. Each day we've slept late, then sat out in the sunny patio with our morning coffee (Attention Cuenca expats: Quito has the weather you thought you would find in the southern highlands. While the additional altitude makes the evenings a little cooler, almost every day has been warm and sunny with blue skies.).

After breakfast we've done yoga before relaxing in the steam room (Wow, what an amenity!) and getting ready for the day--just in case there was something to be ready for. We ventured out a few blocks for lunch, and before you know it, time for a siesta. A little computer work, some chit chat, a glass or two of wine, and it's off for dinner. Taxi home, maybe another glass of wine, then early bedtime.

We often joke that going out of town is taking a vacation from our vacation, since expat life generally isn't particularly taxing. But this is maybe the first time ever that we've given ourselves permission to simply--be. No chores--no errands--no agenda. Nada.

I have to admit I don't know why I've felt the need to be so damned busy all these years, because the past few days have been transformative. I can't recall feeling simultaneously so invigorated and relaxed. Great news: after going home over the weekend we're off with friends on a three day 4th of July getaway in Yunguilla. And this time I'm told a hot tub overlooking the valley is involved.

Life may never be the same------.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Seven Year Itch?

The three most frequently asked questions I receive are, in order:

Why Ecuador/Cuenca?

What do you do all day?

Do you think you'll live in Cuenca forever?

Cynthia and I arrived here seven years ago last month, and I think I've done a pretty good job through this blog of answering the first two. Regarding the third one, my standard answer has always been, "I don't really think in absolute terms like 'forever.' But based on my life history (this being the fourth city of residence in the last 20 years), I'd say probably not."

It's been interesting to observe the dynamics of our expat population in Cuenca over the years. We were part of the initial wave of foreigners who arrived in 2010, and for the first few years the flow of expats defied the laws of nature--the tide always came in and never went out. I still remember vividly the shock when one of our first couple friends returned to the States after only about six months. They're leaving already?!? It was unthinkable.

We later learned that the average lifespan of an expat is 2-3 years before going back or moving on. And that is exactly what has happened here. Sure, new folks continue to show up, but their numbers are offset by others who are leaving. Every week in online publications there are posts for moving sales from people we never even got to meet.

There's no way to get an accurate count on Cuenca's expat population anymore. The immigration office knows exactly how many residency visas have been issued, but it is impossible to determine the number who are still here. Gosh, thinking back to the early days I realize that almost everyone we met from the "Class of 2010" is gone.

It also dawns on me that we've lived in this apartment longer than any other dwelling of our soon-to-be 46 years of marriage except the house in Atlanta we built and raised our children in. We were lucky to find it and all of the furniture we shipped fits perfectly, so why move?

Well, two reasons have slowly crept into our consciousness. As you know we travel internationally a lot, and dealing with the scheduling hassle of getting to Guayaquil or, usually, Quito with minimal layover and/or overnight stays has become increasing annoying. Since we plan to travel even more in the next 10-15 years it would be so much more convenient to live in a city with an international airport nearby.

Second, those four flights of steps in our building (plus another flight inside our apartment) weren't that big a deal seven years ago. As we continue to age and often go up and down them multiple times a day, let's just say the thought of having an elevator has crossed our minds. Particularly on grocery shopping day.

Does this mean we're out of here? No, not at all. But it does mean that as opposed to buying a car, which has never been considered, an occasional conversation about the subject now comes up. And I have to admit it's kind of fun to contemplate new possibilities. What besides an airport would be important to us in a new place? What features in a dwelling would we really like to have? Where else in the country, continent, or even world might be a great fit?

We've found this new topic of conversation so stimulating that we've even fantasized about the next "next"--what life could look like for us beyond the years of active travel. What kind of environment would we be looking for? What would we be doing?

Whether or not the details of any of these chats manifest is irrelevant. Something we've known intellectually for a long time has now become an essential aspect of our existence and a key element in all the blessings that have come our way since we stepped off the plane in Cuenca seven years ago.

Rather than obsess about minutia, we focus on a strong, solid general intention and then pay attention in the present moment to everything coming our way that supports that intention--a person--an article--a conversation. At first it took courage to not "be in control." Now we get out of our own way and simply let life unfold. The results have been so much better on every level.

As seasoned expats and travelers we have no trepidation about adjusting to life elsewhere. Since there's no sense of urgency about any of this, enjoyable flights of imagination over a glass of wine will continue. If and when the time feels right, perhaps we'll be motivated to take action.

One way or the other, our life continues to be an excellent expat adventure.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Happenings in the 'Hood

We returned last night from a month-plus in the States to, as usual, an empty refrigerator and pantry. So my first order of business this morning was a visit to the Supermaxi to replenish our supplies.

I actually enjoy grocery shopping, which in this case is a big plus since there was so much shopping to do. And I love wandering through the neighborhood on my way to the store to report back to Cynthia all the changes since we left. This time I'd like to fill you in as well, followed by a few comments about my discoveries:

The food business next door has been renovating their rear outdoor space for ages. My best guess is a restaurant will be part of the operation eventually. We returned to two half-finished roof tile installations (a job that would take two focused guys one day to do).

The eyesore ladies clothing store up the street is now a bakery. Looking through the window it appears they offer the exact same products as a zillion other bakeries in town. (Sigh)

A pizza place under construction when we left has now opened, bringing the total to three within a few minutes walk.

There has been rapid progress on a new condo building nearby. This is reported solely because of the word "rapid."

Conversely, a condo building that's been under construction forever has still not opened. The pyramids were finished faster.

The fourth incarnation of a tiny doomed restaurant space is closed. You can't turn enough tables for it to work, but people keep trying----.

A cute coffee shop we never made it to has also closed (oops, correction. It has moved a block to a higher traffic area. We're not too late!).

A restaurant took down their sign about two years ago and we thought it had closed, but mysteriously they still seemed to have customers. Well, the sign has been re-installed so I guess they are officially open again.

A home converted into an attractive hostal near nothing-that-visitors-would-stay-overnight-for seems to be closed.

The chocolate shop next door that never had a customer has also closed.

I poked my head into the food court area at Milenium Plaza and noted the following (Disclosure: we don't go there very often so these changes could have occurred earlier than a month ago):

Sweet & Sexy, a children's clothing store (does the name raise eyebrows for you as well?) has expanded into women's clothing and moved to a larger space.

In its former location is yet another women's shoe store. How many can this population possibly support?

There is a new food purveyor called Captain Morgan's that serves absolutely nothing associated with its rum namesake.

Another new place is called Chips London. Fish & chips comprises a total of one thing on the entire menu, and it's not even the featured selection.

Venturing on, another coffee shop has opened near the Supermaxi. And, amazingly, set to open is a huge German-style beer hall right across the street from the grocery store.

Now this may seem to you like a lot of churn in just one month. Honestly, the players change but what I've reported is quite typical in our neighborhood. I've watched countless businesses come and go over the past seven years, which has led me to the following observations:

1) New businesses seem to be vastly under-capitalized. People invest everything they have just to get the doors open and cross their fingers.

2) Fundamental marketing principles are unknown. Owners invite their friends and relatives to the "grand opening" hoping the word will spread. If it does (which rarely happens) they succeed. If not the space is vacant within 3-6 months.

The coffee shop and artisan beer explosion has been totally unexpected. When we arrived in 2010 the preferred coffee was Nescafe--in a country that grows some of the finest coffee on the planet. And the beer choices were our two local options--Pilsener and Club. With these new trends plus the opening of both a food truck park and container park (a grouping of converted shipping containers serving a variety of cuisines) shortly before we left in May, Cuenca is almost becoming hip!

It's great to be back home. We look forward to reconnecting with our wonderful life here.