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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Photos!!



Deck of my hostal (where I write from)
 


Interior courtyard of my hostal
 


The river below my hostal


Cats in prison (kennel)

The big cathedral.  The central point of Cuenca.


View of Cuenca
 

Party Hearty

It’s evening time right now and I’m writing this outdoors on an elevated deck just above the river.  So, I am hearing the constant roar of the rapids as I write.  Down the street a ways is a concert in the park.  If there’s one thing you hear about Cuenca, it’s that the people love to party and they need no excuse or a holiday to suddenly start celebrating.  It’s not uncommon to hear, at least once out of a week, fireworks going off.

I’ve been here 10 days now and I’ve seen 2 parades and heard others.  Last Sunday I was sitting in on the outdoor patio of Coffee Tree having my morning coffee.  I began hearing the music of a marching band growing closer and closer.  There were probably three dozen horses with adults and kids on them, decked out in costumes and regalry followed by a small band, and inter-mixed a few trucks draped with banners, sheets, teddy bears, and what not (didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason).  They ‘parked’ next to the cafĂ© in front of a church and seemingly did nothing but chat and interact with one another.   Then, after a few hours of this, they up and left marching down the street the other direction. 

Same thing happened today.   These parades that seem to happen frenquently and without notice, are not the kind where people gather along the sidewalks beforehand in anticipation of watching.  It just happens.

Like the fireworks.  You can buy them any time (not just July) and you’ll hear them go off any time, day or night.  BOOM!!!   Go figure.   This morning, they set off a boomer to indicate to the people at the head of the parade to start off.  The funny thing was, the entire stick of about 3 ft long that the explosive is attached to….goes soaring into the air and, thus, back down to the ground.   A few seconds after the BOOM, this stick goes KERPLOP on the ground!!!

Yes, they like to party here.  Next week is Carnaval and one of the most prominent aspects of that celebration here in Cuenca is WATER.   WATER being thrust at you, that is.   Either you get squirted by one of those monster squirt guns when you’re walking along a sidewalk, or even if you have your window rolled down in your car.   Get this…they even do the ol’ bucket trick from above!!!   Don’t look up, because there just might be someone up a few floors tilting a bucket of water your way!!!!  Most all of it is done in good fun and generally always taken in stride.  People have a good sense of humor here.    Try that in the US and you’ll get sued for 10 million dollars (and WIN!!) for pain, grief, suffering, and the damage done to your hairdo.  Don’t get me going on lawsuits and such…that’s another blog coming down the road.

Movies, Violins, and Vodka

Saturday’s are a bit quiet, but not as quiet as Sunday when nearly EVERYthing is closed (like back in the olden days when I was a kid)!!  Last Sunday since there was NOTHING going on in town, I decided to go to a movie theater at a small mall close by and see a movie in English (sub-titled in Spanish).  It was $4.50 for the movie, and $2 for a LARGE popcorn.   $6.50 for something back home would cost nearly $20 (because you have to pay to park, too).   They offered various combo’s too.  For $6 you could get a medium popcorn, a hot dog, 2 chocolate bars, and a drink. That would require a 2nd mortgage in the US.  

Oh, before I forget, I’m going to digress for a sec because I mentioned parking a few sentences ago.  There are NO parking meters ANYWHERE here.  NICE.

Most shops close at on Saturdays.  I went to open a POB but the PO was closed, so I sauntered by shops and examined the variety of motorcycles for sale.  It’s so weird here that there’s no rhyme or reason to what a store might sell.  For example, you can wander into a store and buy a motorcycle, a refrigerator, and a fifth of vodka.   Go figure.  Most of the downtown stores don’t sell motorcycles larger than 250 cc’s.  To give you a perspective, my bike in Bremerton was 1500 cc’s.  The smaller bikes are great for bopping around town, but it you want to venture outside the city it’s best to have something larger.  So, a vendor told me of a store out by the airport.  I summoned a taxi and he drove me to the well-known store.  More weirdness.   At this store, not only can you buy a motorcycle, but also a violin, a chandelier, a couch, a chainsaw, or silverware!!!

My First Week (2nd Attempt)

One of the first things I needed to do was to shop for furniture for my ‘new’ house.  I don’t have diddly squat.  I must’ve gone through 20 furniture shops all over town.  There was definitely a pattern that arose.  Most shops are small.  Most shops only have a few models to show you.  Most shops have their furniture made locally.  Almost every shop attendant informs you they can make whatever you want, just bring in a photo, drawing, page from a magazine, or whatever.   Craftsmanship is amazing here.   The only real differences between each of the shops is price and quality (fair, good, best).  

Whether you buy what they have in stock or whether you have them make it…same price.  If you like the style of the item, but don’t like the fabric, you can choose whatever you want….same price (except fabric vs leather).  I found very nice dining room tables with 6 chairs for about $700.  I purchased a nice handmade wood bed frame and a mattress (like Simmons BeautyRest) for $560.   I also purchased stuff for an office.  An L-shaped desk, 3-drawer file cabinet, and executive-type chair for a total of  $420.   Oh, and all prices quoted included tax and delivery. 

That’s another nicety down here.  You don’t have to ADD sales tax and whatever else onto the price you see.  What you see is what you’ll pay.  When you see $10 for an item on a restaurant menu, that’s what you’re going to pay….taxes, service are already included.  No fuss, no muss.  And, don't even get me started on tipping.  In America, it seems everyone demands to be tipped...even a cashier who's simply doing their job to give you the change you are entitled to when you buy something.  SHEESH!!!   Here, most restaurants already include a 10% service charge in their bill.  If you leave a tip, it may just be the leftover coins.  NICE

When homes are sold here, there’s a lot of things that are typically NOT included…the most prominent being appliances.  Whether buying or renting….appliances go with the person, not the place.  So, I had to buy all appliances.  Luckily, my friend who’s taking care of my cats referred me to Bryan to help me navigate through all this stuff.  He charges $5 per hour to accompany me and translate when needed.  Think about it, I didn’t even know WHERE to go much less negotiate in Spanish, or even understand brand quality (or lack thereof).  Yes, GE and Whirlpool are here, but they are more expensive because they are imported, whereas Ecuador brands are cheaper because they’re made here but are unfamiliar to most of us. 

Anyhoo, as luck would have it, Bryan’s cousin Jimmy works in a large store that sells appliances.  I had done some of my own research beforehand, writing down what goes for what in which store and it was clear Jimmy was giving me a hefty discount and I couldn’t find anywhere else that could beat his prices for the same item(s).  So, I bought a front loading GE Washer and gas Dryer, GE gas cooktop, an Oven with rotisserie, Microwave, GE Dishwasher, Whirlpool side by side Fridge, and a 40” LCD flatscreen TV all for $6,100.  Yep, including taxes and delivery.  Oh, and I bought a new all-in-one (copy, scan, print) Canon printer for $50. 

In amongst all this, I went to Home Vega and drooled over showers, vanities, sinks, tubs, etc for when I get around to remodeling the bathrooms.  Also went to some Fabricas not for fabric, but because they fabricate furniture, built-in closets, and cabinetry. 

Doing all this requires a LOT of walking and taxis.  Taxis are everywhere.  They are ONLY yellow and they rarely cost more than a couple dollars and they are not the big behemoth gas-guzzlers like in the US.  They are tiny sub-compacts.  I haven’t seen one yet that has a meter in it.  They charge based on distance/zones and there are no charges adding up while you sit at a light or in traffic.  NICE.

Most shops (except big stores) close from for lunch.  As a result, most restaurants offer a lunch special that typically runs from $1.50 to $3 and oftentimes includes a drink, meal, and dessert.  NICE

When I get pooped, sometimes I’ll head for a park and plop down and rest my legs for a bit.  The other day I was walking through the main park, Parque Calderon, where the large cathedral is, and music was being piped thru speakers.  I was taken aback when I recognized a song being played.  It was ‘My Way’.   Why was I struck?  It was as if a subtle message was being sent to me.  Because when I left San Diego in 1990 to move to Seattle, I performed my last ‘swan song’ at a club I used to work at.  That song was ‘My Way’.  The lyrics related to what I had done and was about to do….”And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…” (leaving San Diego, now leaving the US for EC).  Oh, what the heck…here’s the rest of the lyrics…you’ll see what I mean (y’all hum along now):

My friend I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain

I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets I've had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes there were times I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out, I faced it all
And I stood tall and did it my way

I've loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

For what is a man what has he got
If not himself then he has not
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

Yes it was my way

My First Week

The first week in Cuenca, not as a tourist, but as a new resident (albeit in a hostal temporarily).  Each day I had breakfast at the hostals ‘cafeteria’.  It’s a floor below and built out from the building so you’re sort of hovering over the riverbank.  With the walls and ceiling all of glass, I had an awesome view.  The standard breakfast served in hotels around here is coffee, juice, large roll, butter/jam, and two eggs.   Breakfast is included in my room rate. 

In these older buildings, water pressure can be hit or miss.  Also, there is no such thing as natural gas piped into buildings from the city’s infrastructure like back in the US of A.  99% of the source of gas, actually propane, comes from tanks stashed under the kitchen counter or a closet somewhere.  So, if you happen to run out of gas, you run out of hot water.  A good indicator that the tank has run dry is when you get a cold shower.   Sometimes I got a nice steady flow, other times the water barely fell out of the showerhead where I had to really contort my body to wash off the soap.   Oh, the soap ‘bars’ they give you are about 1 1/2 inches long, by ¾ inch wide, by 1/8th inch thick.  Shampoo is in little plastic rip-open packets. 

While on the subject of hotel amenities, sheets here (and in the residences) are, at best, 100 thread count and the ones on my hostal bed cover only the top of the bed and tucked in at each end….not fitted.   I knew all this from my previous trip, so I wisely bought sheets in the US and brought them down with me.  Most ex-pats do this along with many other things they either can’t find here or are of lesser quality than they are used to. 

Ex-pats tend to participate in a network of other ex-pats to learn some of the pro’s and con’s, where to go, avoid previous pitfalls, etc etc as well as tap into the ability to ask other ex-pats who are traveling to/from the states to bring some of their favorite stuff down with them.  For example, if a friend from Seattle was coming to visit me, I might ask them to stuff a few things in their suitcases that I miss having or can’t get here (like my favorite Costco tennis shoes).

Hmmm…I was going to tell you about my first week here but I seemed to have sauntered off course.   Ok…next blog.

Language barriers. Internet saves the day!

Skipping back a bit.  When I was waiting to fly out of Quito to Cuenca, there was a young Asian couple who obviously didn’t know the language and were visibly confused as to what to do.  They had their tickets in their hands and kept looking at the monitor and with a very baffled look.   They approached me and I tried to help them.  Their flight wasn’t listed on the monitor, nor was there a gate # on their ticket, so I asked a gate attendant why.  She told me their flight wasn’t due to depart for a few more hours so it was too early to list it on the monitor.  Keep in mind, Quito…albeit being the CAPITAL of Ecuador and a city of 2 million….has only FOUR gates at their INTERNATIONAL airport!!   So, the four gates were already assigned flights. 

Anyway, I tried to convey this to the couple using variations of sign language and pointing to spots on the monitor….’check back in an hour and your flight should be listed on the monitor along with a gate #’.   Didn’t work.

Finally, it dawned on me.  Technology!!!   I whipped open my laptop and connected to the internet (or “Internets” as George Bush Jr would say….but I digress).  I love using Google Translate for English > Spanish, Spanish > English.   I asked them what country they were from by saying Vietnamese?   Japan?  Singapore?  Korea?  Hellandback? Etc…all of them responded to with a big question mark on their faces.  Then I asked to see their passport.  Ah HA!!!   China.   So, I selected English to Chinese in Google Translate and typed my message to them in English and GT translated it into Chinese (all those funny looking drawings they call words).  They instantly understood.  

Mission Complete!!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unpacking

2/17/2011

After dumping my cats at a complete strangers house in a new country (not that they would necessarily comprehend what transpired) I settled into a different hostal (hotel) than I was at back in Nov.  This hotel (Casa Del Barranco) is in an equally old building, but on a quieter street and close to the main arterial that leads to my house.   It is perched on a bluff above one of the four rivers that run thru Cuenca.   I lucked out in that my room didn’t require a set of stairs to get to.  In fact, it is located right off the lobby, so all that heavy luggage I was hauling with me didn’t have very far to go.  Just as I arrived at the hostal, the clouds opened up and diluged us with rain, so I basically tossed my baggage from the taxi to inside the front door so we didn’t drown. 

My room is very charming at $30 per night (including taxes and breakfast).  Since I’m staying for 2 weeks, I wanted space.  The room has an upstairs loft which I thought I could use as an office but it only has extra beds.  Nonetheless, the fact that the lower floor is larger and the stairway adds to the feeling of openness.  At the top of the stairs in my room is a large skylight typical of almost every Cuencan home.  The bed is comfy, the bathroom tiny, and the wooden floors are most likely original (over 100 years old). 

Though it is very convenient being right off the lobby, I also ‘get’ to hear the front door bell every time someone comes to the entrance of the hotel.  Even though there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of crime around here, everything is built around security.  So, you must be buzzed in AND out of the hostel’s front door, no matter whether day or night.  So, I don my earplugs and off to sleep I go….BUT….not after unpacking my bags and putting everything away in drawers because, after all, I’m going to be living here for 2 weeks.

The Trip

2/16/2011

The kids kinda calmed down a bit and started warming up to me.  In the morning, all was catapulted into chaos again as I nabbed them and put them behind bars again in their kennel.  Off to the airport and onto another plane to Cuenca.  I almost missed my flight as one of my bags was selected (how honored I was) by security to be opened and examined.  However, the announcements over the PA system went by without me recognizing the pages were for me.  As the plane was boarding, the attendant notified me they were looking for me.  I was escorted back to the baggage area where security asked me to open my bag and they rummaged thru it and gave it their blessing and released me.  I was escorted directly to the door of the plane with my carry-on and made the flight. 

40 minutes later, and some fun turbulence, we landed in Cuenca and, once again, became instant celebrities with the cats and all.   A person met me at the airport, holding a sign with my name on it….well, if it weren’t for the fact he was holding it backwards (my name facing HIM) we would’ve connected right away.  That out of the way, we met up with his pre-arranged taxi driver.  Taxi’s in EC are small…think sub-compact car.  There was no way the kennel would fit in his taxi.  So, he hailed a small station wagon taxi and the kennel went in that while me and the luggage went in the other.

The cats stayed with my friend in his house while I stayed in a hostal (not hostel as in European backpacker type but,…a hotel) which couldn’t take animals…for the next 2 weeks until my house is vacated by the sellers.

....and so it begins

Feb 15th, 2011

Getting ready for my exit.

To move to another country, much less South America, requires you to choose whether you ship all of your belongings via container (envision a 20 or 40 ft container…the kind you see being hauled by a freight truck) or sell everything you have and move with whatever you can cram into your luggage.  I chose the latter after reading countless articles about the itemization, customs, fees, bureaucracy, and mishaps that occur with container shipping.  Oh, and the cost….THOUUUUUUSANDS of dollars.  I was also hearing how many people found it to be ‘freeing’ to sell off all their worldly possessions and start anew.  I didn’t get rid of EVERY thing.  I couldn’t let go of my most personal stuff, so I stored it at Moms.  At some point in time, maybe I can gradually bring those things down, presuming I stay here.   Aside from those, I sold almost everything I had, down to the last roll of toilet paper.  I lugged 3 bags on this first trip.  My carry-on, a large duffle bag that looked I stuffed a dead body in, and another roller luggage.  Oh, and a large kennel with two kitty cats.  Yes, there’s no way I could move without taking my kids with me.  But, they only allow 2 animals to enter EC at a time.  So, Gracie had to stay behind until the next trip South. 

‘They’ (the government) don’t make it easy.  The rules give you TEN days to get all the necessary steps completed in order to allow pets to be brought into the country.  It’s a process set up for failure.  First, vaccinations must be done no sooner than XX days and can’t be older than XX months.  Then, 10 days before you leave, you must:

  1. See your Vet and have them examine your pets and complete a form (in BLUE ink!) stating the pets are healthy and okay to travel.  Cost $180.  Note:  The Vet must be USDA certified. 
  2. Send that paperwork to Olympia for them to bless and release it.  Since I was a mere 100 mile roundtrip from Oly, I drove down instead of Fed-Ex’ing.   BUT, an appointment must be made first as they only take people from to 12.  I had no problems with Oly endorsing my document.  Cost $72.
  3. Next, you must Fed-Ex that document to the Consulate/Embassy of EC for THEM to bless it.  I chose to send it to San Francisco instead of Wash DC because SF is closer, thus the turnaround time would be less risky.  Right?  Right!!!  At a cost of $35, I overnight the document and payment (must be Cashiers Check at at $8 cost).  Now, the worrying starts because I have to have that document blessed and in my hands by the time I fly out.  Oh, I forgot to tell you….the 10 day period in which all this has to happen does not start at the time you LEAVE, but the time you ARRIVE in EC. 
  4. I leave on Tues, right?  On the Thurs before I receive the Fed-Ex return envelope from San Fran (at another cost of $35).  WHEW!!!  I open it and find my documents returned to me with a yellow sticky on it and scribbled ONE sentence in Spanish informing me I need ONE document PER ANIMAL.  I had submitted ONE document with TWO animals on it…because the @#%$^## document has 10 rows on it for 10 entries!!!  San Fran REJECTED it!!!  I was spitting bullets and using every cuss word ever known to mankind and made some up to fill in the gaps!!!!!!!
  5. Let’s stop for a moment and think about the costs.  The Fed-Ex TO San Fran cost me $35 and the Fed-Ex FROM San Fran cost me $35 to send the @#$%@$#! Yellow sticky back to me!!!
  6. On Friday morning, 4 days before leaving, I called the Wash DC Consulate thinking they might have some power over San Fran and tell them to ‘get with the program’.  They told me, ‘yes, no problem with 1 document for 2 animals’.  I asked why, given they are both Consulates representing the requirements for the SAME country, do the two Consulates have different procedures?  They said ‘oh, San Fran has a different boss and to try to get them to make changes is a waste of time.  GRRRREAT!!!  He, (Marco), said to Fed-Ex him the document and they would approve it.  I informed Marco I am OUT OF TIME!!!   He said, Fed-Ex it to me right now and I will have it Monday then I will approve it and send it back to you and you will receive it Tuesday.  GREAT…I LEAVE TUESDAY!!!   But, luckily, not until at night.  So, another $35 Fed-Ex overnight clear across the country. 
  7. Monday I call Wash DC.  Is Marco there?  No, he doesn’t work today.  ARRGHHH!!!  But, they confirm they received my package,  I beg them to make SURE they Fed-Ex it back to me the same day so I get it the next day.  OK!! 
  8. Tuesday, I’m at my best friends house in Seattle sweating it out that the Fed-Ex will show up in time for my flight.   If it doesn’t, either the cats stay in the US, or I have to cancel my flights, hotel, cancellation fees, etc and start the 10-day WHOLE CYCLE all over again.  Amazingly, the Fed-Ex arrived at on Tuesday.  Thank God I didn’t have an early morning flight, which is what I typically would have done. 
  9. Interestingly enough, not only do the two Consulates have different procedures, but had I followed San Fran’s rules, it would’ve cost me $100 ($50 per form for 2 animals) whereas Wash DC only charged $50 because they ACCEPT 1 form for multiple animals!!!  GRRRRR!!!!!

On to the airport.   There, I have to pay an overweight charge for my duffle bag and $150 for the cats to fly in the belly of the plane.

The flights were uneventful, albeit I was again flying first class and got my favorite dose of warm nuts!!  First, to Dallas arriving at the crack of dawn.  Then, on to Miami.  At each stop, I watched the kids (cats) go up the conveyor belt into the belly of the plane.  I could see them bobbing their heads around wondering WTF??  (I would spell that out but I know Mom is reading this).  Can you imagine what must’ve been going through their minds?  Airports, people, loud noises, conveyor belts, takeoff, landings, and the slamming of the brakes of the airplane probably squished them up against the wall of their kennel.  LOL!!!! 

I ultimately landed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.  People were mesmerized by these unusual beings as I rolled their kennel thru the airport.  Everyone wanted to look and take pictures.  You’d think they (the cats) were a Hollywood celebrity!  A pre-arranged van picked me and the luggage and the kennel up and whisked us off to our Hotel where the kids finally got to be free of their cage and roam around the room, but still with that WTF bewildered look on their face. 

About Me

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Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador
This is all about my transition from an American lifestyle and culture to my newest adventure, life in Cuenca and greater Ecuador. I'll be recapping some of my day-to-day experiences (and mishaps) to highlight what it's like to live here.

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