Sunday, December 24, 2017

Feliz Navidad 2017

Wow, the past few weeks have been amazing and exhausting. There have been concerts, ballets, galas, private dinners, parties galore...more parties, the festival of lights, Christmas plays, musicals, symphonies, more dinners, and today is Christmas Eve and the Pase del Niño Viajero parade (that lasts eight hours).

If I could pick a favorite event this season, it would be the Nutcracker Ballet with the Cuenca Symphonic Orchestra. It was the first time either one of us had seen the ballet and we were mesmerized. The tickets were a mere ten dollars, but I would have paid three times that amount. It was that good! I hope they make it a tradition every year. We had seats closest to the front so we could see into the orchestra pit and somehow by the end of the ballet, I wanted to be a harp player (or the Sugar Plum Fairy).

Gone is the big Christmas tree in Parque Calderon and instead they decided to light up Cuenca. Cuenca is in lights (literally) in Parque Calderon. There's a huge tree of lights at Plaza Otorongo (the tallest one in Ecuador) and lights spelling out LUMINARIA and more lights at Plaza Domingo spelling out NAVIDAD. And if that isn't enough, the Tomebamba River is "swimming" in lights. There are fish jumping out of the water; a frog sitting on a lily pad; a bluebird in the tree; and indigenous women doing laundry by the river. Oh, and just when you thought it couldn't get more colorful, the fireworks at night light up the sky in red, green and white with globos (balloons) floating into the darkness.

Last night we had dinner with some friends at Mansion Alcazar and we could hardly hear one another with all the fireworks that were going off for a solid hour. By the way, Mansion Alcazar is and always will be our favorite place to celebrate -- whether it's a birthday, anniversary, Christmas or for no reason at all. No one in Cuenca has attention to detail like Mansion Alcazar and we're always treated like family. It was a packed house at the Mansion as many come to Cuenca just for the Pase del Niño Viajero parade. Today was spectacular and sunny, so I hope the kids keep their sombreros on.

Tomorrow we'll have a Christmas brunch and our kids from Pennsylvania will call and we'll get to watch our two-year-old granddaughter, Clara, open up her gifts from Mimi and Nano. We'll be flying to Pennsylvania in January to see our growing family; our newest granddaughter Adeline Grace Pombo (Addie) was born on December 21st.

We were kind of hoping not to have any December birthdays as we don't do snow anymore, so we'll have to devise a plan to celebrate summer birthdays in the fall and winter birthdays in the spring. Cuenca has pretty much spoiled us in the weather department. After living in blizzards for twenty-three years, there's nothing thrilling about going into subzero temperatures with snow and ice.

In case any of you were wondering, we don't plan to go back to the States to live because we have grandchildren (as many expats before us have done). I look at it this way, if we went back we'd be working full-time until we dropped dead and then we wouldn't be able to see our grandkids anyway. This way, we have the best of both worlds: we can have an extraordinary life and when we return to the States for a visit; our grandkids have our undivided attention. Let's face it; what employer would give you one month twice a year to see your kids and their kids (aka grandkids)?

Mark will only be teaching one or two classes in the spring (April), so we have a fairly long vacation from our vacation coming up. And I still write, but I'm pretty selective about what assignments I take on. I first ask the editor, "How badly do you need this?" If it doesn't fit with my schedule, then I politely say no. I didn't have that privilege before, but now I do. I have a story in a new Chicken Soup book coming out in February titled "Miracles and More" and I continue to write for them from time to time. I have a new motto in my 60's: "If it's not fun, then don't do it!" Life is way too short to say yes to anything that's not fun.

After seven years, I think our family has realized that we're not moving back, so they've stopped asking. But I do feel hopeful that we'll have more visitors as my sister and her husband made it here and hopefully one day our grandchildren can come visit us. I think it would be a wonderful opportunity, but it's entirely up to their parents.

And Cuenca just keeps getting better and better. The old blue buses are being replaced by newer buses that are eco-friendly. That's a relief! And in less than 288 days, the tranvia (electric train) will be complete. A French company has been assigned the duty of completing it and I have a feeling it just might become a reality in 2018.

Christmas in Cuenca is as busy or as quiet as you want it to be. There are so many things going on you can get exhausted just thinking about it or you can be selective and only do the things that really matter to you. This morning in church, the kids were in costume and sang a medley of Christmas songs and it was so wonderful. Worship is a big part of our lives and so time spent with our church family is extremely important to us.

We also have a goddaughter, Gaby, and her boyfriend, Freddy, and we love doing things with them once or twice a month, whether it's a movie, out to dinner, or just spending a night at home fixing dinner and playing boardgames, it's a blessing. Both are university students now and one day Mark will be walking her down the aisle. We always wanted a daughter and now we have one.

We want to wish you a blessed holiday season and the happiest New Year ever!

Until next time...hasta luego,

Connie & Mark

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Four Points Sheraton in Cuenca

Mark and I recently celebrated a milestone (42 years of marriage) and we didn't even have to leave town. We took a taxi three blocks up the hill (that was my suggestion), and entered the doors of the new five-star Four Points Sheraton.

The lobby of the hotel is spacious and luxurious with five-star service as soon as you enter. And the view is amazing at every turn, especially from Cook's Restaurant at sunset and there is plenty of balcony space to enjoy the city lights "al fresco."

Our check in was a breeze and we stayed two floors below the rooftop pool, which is the only one of its kind in Cuenca. The roof is retractable, so you can swim under the stars. On Saturdays for $20, you can enjoy a pool party that includes music and a drink for a cover charge of $20. We came on a Friday, so we had the pool to ourselves and what a treat to do laps in a heated, chlorinated pool. Not that we don't love going to the mineral baths in Baños, but this was special in its own way.

We spent our honeymoon night at the Sheraton in Concord, California; we lived three blocks from the Sheraton in Catania, Italy; and now we're three blocks from the Sheraton in Cuenca, Ecuador. It seems that the Sheraton is part of our travel experience.

We had a gift card for our stay, so it was free (a gift from our kids for our anniversary) and we spent $34 on a magnificent dinner. The chef is Peruvian with a fusion flair. Anyone can enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner at Cook's Restaurant and reservations are preferable, but not required. The view is the best in Cuenca, especially at sunset so keep that in mind if you're dining out. The free breakfast buffet that comes with your stay is one of the best we've ever had and includes Ecuadorian dishes, eggs to your liking, plenty of fresh fruits, pastries, breads, cereal, meats and a variety of cheeses.

The rooms are spacious and be sure to ask for one facing the city (you won't be disappointed). The halls are carpeted, but the rooms are floating floors for a modern, polished look with clean lines. And the bathrooms are huge with a rain shower and all the amenities you'd expect in a five-star hotel.

After dinner, they delivered a special gift to our room for our anniversary, so be sure to let them know if you're celebrating a special occasion. The quality assurance manager will make sure that every detail of your stay is perfect.

The Four Points Sheraton in Cuenca is the only hotel in Ecuador that is next to a a shopping mall complete with a theater, bowling alley, food court, and event center, so it's the perfect place to host large functions (or small).

This is the first chain hotel in Cuenca and because of its location, I don't think that it will be competing with the other boutique hotels in El Centro, but certainly for us it's a novelty and we'll continue to use it for our "staycations."

Quite frankly, when we were there overnight it truly felt like we were on vacation in another city. It's amazing what a million-dollar view and a change of location will do for you.

We'll definitely be back!

Until next time...hasta luego!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Cookies and Candy Anyone?

It's that time of year when we start thinking about what to give our neighbors and friends for Christmas. It's easy for us; we just send our kids an Amazon card via Punch Bowl Greeting Cards. And, of course, in January 2018 we'll be going back to the States for the "twins" -- both our daughter-in-laws are pregnant and due at the same time. We thought it was so kind of them to coordinate that for us!

But what about our friends in Cuenca, what do we give them? We have our guards and their families; our friends; our pastor and our goddaughter and her boyfriend, and the list goes on. Well, in the past I made my own cookies, but I found a better way! AbueSofi is a new pasteleria (bakery) that I found near Supermaxi (Don Bosco). It's two blocks east (going toward Mall del Rio), turn left on Av. Francisco de Orellana (past the Condominiums Yanuncay) and you'll see AbueSofi on the right. Juan Pablo is the owner and he makes a variety of cookies every day (chocolate chip, banana chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, lemon, oatmeal -- to name a few). The thing is they don't taste like your average cookie from the bakery; they taste like they're from your mom's kitchen! He also makes brownie bites (my personal favorite), cakes, and sugar cookies. These are no ordinary sugar cookies; they come individually wrapped or you can order them by the dozen and the recipe is like my mom's recipe.

Juan Pablo is also available for your catering needs; he makes bocaditos (appetizers) and my personal favorite is his cheese cracker/biscuits with herbs that are perfect for a cheese platter.

His prices are also amazing! Twelve of his specialty cookies are 12 for a dollar. Oh, did I mention he makes scones (chocolate chip, strawberry, and berry). I don't know of any place in Cuenca that sells scones. They're 40 cents a piece or five for $2.00. Recently, I ordered cookies for a women's event and they flew off the plates; they're that good!

For a box of two-dozen sugar cookies (decorated), it's $10.00 or 40 cents a piece (cheaper by the dozen!) or you can buy them individually wrapped for 50 cents. In fact, we just might decorate our Christmas tree with cookies this year.

Finally, after seven years, we found someone who makes cookies that taste better than homemade. Juan Pablo lived in the States for a number of years and so all of his recipes are American (I could taste the difference immediately).

He makes sandwiches as well, including chicken salad sandwiches. Your holiday entertaining just got easier. Call Juan Pablo with your orders and they can be delivered to your home.

Here's Juan Pablo's information:
Phone: 281-0507

Juan Pablo speaks perfect English and he answers his emails every day (seven days a week).

And if you have a real sweet tooth, then you can combine cookies and candy. At MercArt, I met Gaby Ordoñez who has a dulceria. I'm a See's Candy lover and I have to say that she's my new See's Candy source in Cuenca. She makes candy for all occasions (especially weddings). She makes a chocolate heart filled with peanut butter; Nutella squares; toffee and chocolate crunch (vanilla and chocolate) and peanut butter crunch. My absolute favorite is maracuya and coconut. The smaller candies are 3 for a $1.00 and the larger ones are $1.00 a piece. The chocolates are individually wrapped in specialty wrappers (all different), so they look sensational in a box with a clear lid and tied with ribbon. Gaby also speaks perfect English.

Here's Gaby's information:
Agustin Cueva 8-57
Email: gabyordoñ
Phone: 07-281-1400
Cell: 098-571-8884

There you have it; your Christmas shopping is complete. Now that Cuenca has blueberries, homemade sugar cookies, and "See's Candy"; I don't feel the need to leave Cuenca (except to see our kids, grandkids and my parents).

Life just got a little easier and whole lot sweeter in Cuenca!

Until next time...hasta luego!

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