Wednesday, March 15, 2017

New Immigration Law 2017 -- Part II Temporary Visas

The Newly Released Human Mobility Act (Immigration Law 2017) is causing a bit of confusion for some folks, so I'm going to try and clarify a few things.

In the good old days, we entered Ecuador on a T3 visa, which allowed us to stay 90 days. Actually, we arrived with a 12-IX visa which allowed us six months, but we were able to get permanent residency in three weeks! Imagine that? We were either an immigrant or non-immigrant.

Under the new law, you’re either a transient (visitor) just passing through on your way somewhere else; a tourist; a temporary resident or a permanent resident.  And, yes, you can become a naturalized citizen, but we’ll save that for part three in the series.

There are some key differences in the new law: First, you will need proof of medical insurance that is valid during your entire stay in Ecuador (it can be private or public); a passport valid for at least six months (that’s not new), and lastly you cannot apply directly for permanent residency (one of the principal differences in the old and new law). You have to apply for a temporary visa first. Did I mention that Ecuador loves paper work! They just added a second step to a three-step process.

Let’s talk about these “temporary” folks:

Transient: These are folks that are just passing through. You’re really on your way to Machu Picchu, but your plane doesn’t leave until the next morning out of Quito, so you’re spending the night at the new Wyndham near the airport.

Tourist:  You’re coming here to strictly visit the country (not to work, but to play). These visas are granted upon arriving in Ecuador and are valid for 90 days.  And if you love Ecuador as much as we do, you’ll probably want to extend your stay (right?). Yes, absolutely, you can do that! You can apply for an extension for another 90 days, which is a total of 180 days (or six months). However, you can extend this only once in a one-year period!  There is also another option by which you can extend your stay for up to a year, but only once in a five-year period. 

This is good news for a lot of folks, especially those who really don’t want to apply for a permanent residency visa because they want to live six months in the States and six months in Ecuador. This works out perfectly for them and we know several people who already do that, but you sure don’t want to run over your limit. By the way, I would suggest if you plan to do Ecuador living this way that you first consult with an attorney. The last thing you want to do is overextend your welcome.

Okay, so you’ve stayed in Ecuador and liked it so much that you want to apply for a temporary residency visa.

Temporary Residency: This visa allows you to stay TWO years. And, guess what? You can renew it again for another TWO years!  And you can travel in and out of the country (and go see Machu Picchu). However, one thing remains the same; you cannot be gone more than 90 days in the two-year period. In other words, just like in the good old days: 90 days the first year; 90 days the second year (and the same for the next two years if you decide to renew). I just call it the 90-day rule.

And the categories for the temporary residency visa remain the same: work, pensioner, investor, academic, athletic/artist, religious volunteer (missionary or pastor), volunteer for other organizations, student, dependent on the person holding the migratory visa, and technical/professional. 

Proof of medical insurance is mandatory; criminal background check; and passport valid for at least six months. And, of course, all of the different categories require their own documentation, which I won’t go into right now as there are approximately 13 categories. Oh, yes, and there are fees for all the paperwork and more fees if you’re going through an immigration attorney.

Permanent Residency:  I know I already covered this in my other blog post, so I’m working backwards and going forwards. Bear with me. This visa allows you to stay in Ecuador for an indefinite amount of time (as its name implies – PERMANENT). Here’s the catch! To apply for permanent residency,  you have to go through the temporary visa process and have stayed in Ecuador for at least 21 months, be married to an Ecuadorian (it happens a lot), and be related to a permanent resident or citizen.

And, of course, there’s lots of paperwork involved and a definite process for those holding temporary visas to change to permanent visas. The biggest change for permanent residency is the travel restriction, which has been extended to 180 days for the first year, 180 days for the second year, and a whopping five years for the third year before needing to return to Ecuador. Remember under the old law, it was 90 days -90 days -18 months, except if you were going for citizenship (naturalization) and then it was 90 days in three years (30-30-30). But we’ll talk about citizenship the next time (maybe!).

So what if you’ve already applied or you’re in the process of applying and now you’re confused. Don’t be. If you’re going for permanent residency, you just have one extra step; you need to apply for a temporary visa first. After being here for 21 months as a temporary resident, you’ll need to submit the application for permanent residency before your temporary status is up (two years or 24 months). 

Once you receive your permanent residency visa, you can then apply for IESS (Social Security Medical System) or other private insurance.

Let’s sum it up. Yes, there are some good things and some bad things with the new law, but the most important thing is to have your travel medical insurance in place before you come to Ecuador. Personally we use World Nomads when we travel out of Ecuador and now that we’re permanent residents, we have IESS (Social Security Medical System). 

Other important items: This law does not go into effect until 120 days from February 6, 2017. I guess that makes it around June 6, 2017 (or thereabouts). All visas that were obtained before the enforcement of the new immigration law will remain the same. And all visa applications that were started before the enforcement of the law will be exempt from the new regulations. I can already hear a collective sigh of relief!

Until next time...hasta luego, 

Connie & Mark 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mobility Act -- Immigration Law 2017 -- What You Need to Know!

The one thing you can be sure of in Ecuador is change and now we have new changes in residency visas.  To clarify the many questions that I’ve received, I’ve decided to blog about it. There are still some unknowns about the new act, but I’ll clear those up as I receive news.

Back in the day (meaning when we got our permanent residency visas in 2010), we went to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Washington DC and received our 12-IX and three weeks later upon arriving in Ecuador we had our permanent residency visas (pensioner’s visa) good for 12 years instead of 10 – don’t ask (we still don’t know why that happened). 

There were some stipulations, however, and they had to do with travel. We couldn’t be out of the country more than 90 days for the first two years and then up to 18 months the third year. I call it the 90-90-18 month rule. Unless, you were going for citizenship and then it was the 30-30-30 day rule; you couldn’t be gone from Ecuador more than 90 days in a three-year period. Now we do know some folks who got their citizenship despite that rule, but it took some "lawyering" to get it done.

Our experience with the pensioner’s visa process was seamless (seven years ago) with the aid of an immigration attorney in Quito. It was textbook perfect.

Forget everything I just told you because those are the old rules and these are the new rules, which have some significant changes.

Under the old law there were two categories non-immigrant and immigrant visas, which have now merged so you can dismiss those two words from your vocabulary and now they’re all lumped into the following: pensioner’s visa (retired); investor’s visa (25K in the bank or equivalent property); religious visa (missionary or pastor); student visa; professional visa; volunteer visa and sportsman visa (I have no idea what that entails), and dependent visas (I’m dependent on my husband’s pensioner’s visa), and lastly international protection visas.

I’m going to begin with the Permanent Residency Visa, since most folks are planning to stay (even though they usually don’t and leave after five years to explore other international destinations or back to the States).

Permanent Residency Visa: Allows foreign citizens to stay in Ecuador for an indefinite period of time. If you obtained a temporary visa (which I will talk about at another time) and decide you want to stay indefinitely you will need the following:

*Apostilled criminal background check (FBI). 

*Proof of economic resources. For example for the pensioner’s visa, you must prove that you have $800 per month for life and $100 for each of your dependents.

*All the necessary legal paperwork for the categories listed above.

A temporary resident can be eligible for permanent residency if they married an Ecuadorian citizen (that happens a lot – especially with the teachers we work with); they have stayed in Ecuador for at least 21 months; they’re related to an Ecuadorian citizen (or permanent resident of Ecuador); and  minors or disabled person dependent on a permanent resident of Ecuador. If you are going from a temporary visa to permanent residency visa, you’ll need a valid Ecuadorian criminal report or valid criminal background check and proof of economic means to remain in Ecuador.

Here are the big changes (read carefully):

*Proof of foreign medical insurance or enrollment in Ecuador’s health insurance system (IESS) or private Ecuadorian health carriers (Humana, Salud, Confiamed, etc.).

*Travel Restrictions. This is quite a change from the previous rule. A person with a permanent residency visa cannot be out of the country more than 180 days each year (previously it was 90) during the first two years and after that you may leave the country up to five years (previously it was 18 months). Wow, that’s a big change! The penalty for staying out more than 180 days during the first two years is $1,500.

There are still some things that need to be clarified. For example, those of us who received our permanent residency and cedula seven years ago – are we grandfathered into the new law? What about the folks who started their paperwork in 2016 and are caught in the middle – do the new rules apply? And what type of health insurance must they show. For example, you’re only eligible for IESS (Social Security System of Ecuador), after you become a resident.

My Thoughts: I think it’s a good thing that foreigners are required to show proof of medical insurance before entering the country. One of the reasons why we came to Ecuador was for the excellent medical care, but we had a private policy for three years before we signed up for IESS. And as far as the extended periods of stay outside of Ecuador, I think it’s also a good thing especially for those of us in the sandwich generation with parents who are still alive, children and grandchildren (oh my!). Our problem is this: We’re 61 years old and aren’t eligible for Medicare (yet), so we have to buy medical insurance when we travel to the States (and it isn’t cheap!). And to add insult to injury, under Obamacare we can’t be gone more than 30 days from Ecuador or we have to pay a fine for exceeding those limits. Now, I know Obamacare is being repealed, but as expats we don’t know what the new restrictions will be (better or worse).

As mentioned, the biggest changes are the proof of health insurance (how much coverage I’m not sure about) and, of course, the travel restrictions. I’m not sure what the new fee schedule will be for each of the permanent residency visas (if any), but I will keep on top of it.

Next time, I’ll tackle the change in temporary visas. I won’t update the book Living and Retiring in Cuenca:101 Questions Answered until I’m clear on the new fee schedules (if any) and any other changes.

Until next time…hasta luego!

Connie and Mark 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Seven Years in Review

It’s hard to believe, but we’re coming up on seven years in Cuenca—almost as much time as we spent in Italy, so naturally it’s a time of reflection (the good and the bad).

The other day a newcomer asked, “What’s changed in the time that you’ve been here?”

At first, I didn’t have an immediate response (my mind went blank) and then it all came to me. Here’s a list (by no means complete), but it will give you some idea of the transformations that have taken place in this beautiful city we call home.

1. More Security. I remember when we first arrived, the only police presence were the officers in their brown uniforms with their fluorescent vests. Now, we have transportation police at intersections with video surveillance; citizen police who patrol the parks and streets on foot, bicycle and sometimes horseback, and Wi-Fi and video surveillance in the major parks and streets. It’s incredible when you stop to think about it compared to seven years ago. Also, we have a major 911 Call Center and you can bring your phone into a local police station and they can program it so they have all your vital information and your address, so in an emergency you just hit a single digit and help is on its way. Sure there’s still petty theft, but no more than you would expect from any large city.

2. High Speed Internet. We now have fiber optics all over Cuenca and in our condo building it was installed free of charge. Our kids in Pennsylvania still don’t have fiber optics and we live in a “developing” country.

3. IESS Medical System. When we first arrived we had to have a private medical policy because IESS was not accepting new patients and you had to take a physical exam. Basically, if you weren’t in perfect health you weren’t accepted. That’s all changed. For $78 per month, Mark and I are both covered for hospitalizations, office visits, labs, medical procedures, surgery (inpatient and outpatient), and prescriptions. It’s one of the most efficient systems we’ve ever been part of. We make our appointments online with the same doctor. We’re usually seen within one to three days. Medical records are electronic and we’re seen on time. We’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes. If we need to see a specialist, the wait time is longer. But we always have the option of seeing one of our private physicians for $25-$35 per visit. Now that we’re in our 60’s, we appreciate the fact that we are part of a stable, reliable, and efficient medical system.

4. Easy Come, Easy Go.  It goes without saying that people come and leave Cuenca just like the restaurants. As soon as you find the best restaurant in town, the next thing you know it’s moved or gone out of business (especially in El Centro). The average for a couple is about three to five years before they move on (either to another part of the world or back to the States). Some of the issues that draw couples back are taking care of elderly parents; grandchildren; and health problems. We are at a high altitude and if you have heart or lung conditions, Cuenca is definitely not the place for you. We receive 20% less oxygen at 8,300 feet and therefore all the vital organs in your body are deprived of oxygen. If you have pulmonary problems or heart issues, look for a place at sea level.

5. Transportation. We have a love/hate relationship with the buses in Cuenca. If we could change anything it would be the pollution from the buses, cars and vans. Emission control is certainly something that they’re working on, but not fast enough. I always cover my face with a scarf when I’m out and about and when I run along the trails. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back home and found soot all over my face—streaks of pollution! I don’t even want to think of what my lungs look like. The greatest concern is for younger children who are most susceptible to the particles that lodge in their lungs and stay there! The tranvia (electric train) has made progress, but is often stalled because of contract negotiations. For a while it was making great strides, but now it’s stalled again. It’s on again and off again. I suspect that by 2018, it might be done (hopefully). They are looking to buy new eco-friendly buses, but at $120,000 a piece it might be a while before we see the fleet of 350 being replaced. Mark and I usually walk everywhere and find Cuenca one of the most walkable cities we’ve ever lived in.
Photo courtesy of El Tiempo

6. Language Learning. Mark and I learned Italian in our 20’s and Spanish in our 50’s – what a difference a few decades can make. I still read in Italian, but I’m more fluent in Spanish now (obviously) because I speak it every day. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. We see that with our students all the time. A year after they’ve finished 16 levels of English at CEDEI, they can barely answer a simple question. If you only hang around expats, you’ll have a harder time learning. Our younger teacher friends who have boyfriends/girlfriends are fluent in three months. We’re now at the stage where we can read the newspaper, watch TV in Spanish, and understand basically everything, but we work at it. We write down new words every day and then try to incorporate them into our daily conversations. Just like English, you’re always learning!

7. This is Home. Now when we go back to the States, we refer to Cuenca as home. I still believe after seven years that our family and friends haven’t truly accepted it. I think in part because we didn’t ask their permission to move overseas. But for us it was the best decision we could have ever made. This year we’ll receive our social security, which means we can save that income. Our condo is paid for, so we’ll continue to live on my husband’s UPS pension and continue to save, save, save. We will do more traveling, but we want to build up a nest egg again, which is something we definitely couldn’t do in the States. With property tax of $53 a year and condo fees about $58 a month, it only makes sense to buy if you can.  If you own your home, you can easily live off of $1,300 - $1,500 per month. We also don’t own a car (and never plan to), so you can save even more (no gas, no maintenance, no car insurance, and no worries about theft). In fact, almost all our friends who own a car have had some sort of theft problem. We think it’s a luxury not to own a car.

Although many things have changed in Cuenca—including more expats—it’s still the same place we fell in love with. The climate is still the best part (no need for heat or air conditioning). It reminds me a lot of San Francisco – moderate all year long. However, I will say this: I’ve been in some Ecuadorian homes on a sunny day and they’re downright cold! The reason being is they don’t allow the light in because they’re usually surrounded by a cement barricade and the homes are dark. The key to living comfortably in Cuenca is don’t buy more than you need. Our condo is 850 square feet (two bedrooms, two baths that are on separate ends of the house) with windows, windows, and more windows letting in morning and afternoon sun. We have friends who have a five-bedroom home (two levels) and they keep their space heaters running constantly. We love our place and the view that we have (Andes Mountains, view of the city, and the Church of Turi). Best decision we ever made was to buy. And we would never buy a single-dwelling home—only a condo. Almost everyone we know who has bought a single-standing home has had a home invasion and if they leave for a few days or a few weeks, they have to have someone stay at their place. Even our friends with state-of-the art security systems have had break-ins. We enjoy 24-hour security and we can leave any time we want without fear of someone breaking into our place. Peace of mind is worth everything.

Would we do anything differently? Yes, we would have retired at 40 instead of 55, but that simply wasn’t possible. However, we run into young couples all the time in Cuenca who have retired at 40 and when I ask them how they managed that they say, “We didn’t have kids!”

There you go…the secret to retiring early (not having kids), but then we wouldn’t have our precious granddaughter, Clara Joy!

Until next time…Hasta Luego!

Connie & Mark 

P.S. Did I mention that you can now get blueberries delivered to your door?! I always told Mark that there was only one thing missing in Cuenca and now our lives our complete. BLUEBERRIES!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Happy New Year!

Right now while I'm writing this blog post, I can hear the fireworks outside in all directions and it's not even New Year's Eve yet! Tomorrow will be spectacular and I hope to capture it in pictures and on video.

Unfortunately, last year I forgot to plug in my camera battery, so you can imagine my disappointment when the red light went on while the fireworks were exploding and I got a snippet here and there.

The New Year's Eve fireworks are the best I've ever witnessed and they start at the stroke of midnight and continue until 2:00 a.m. Last year our house was filled with smoke -- just from leaving the windows open. And I might add, that we can actually see out our windows this year as the condo association gave us an early Christmas gift and cleaned the outside windows free of charge. I have to admit it was a little unnerving to walk into the kitchen and see someone in our window -- three stories up! He was roped in and harnessed in with huge magnets, but I sure wouldn't want his job! Thankfully, we can see clearly now.

This year is our transition year as we're actually going to retire! Mark will be finishing up one more cycle at CEDEI from 2 PM to 8 PM (Monday through Thursday) through May until he receives his Social Security and mine will come in October 2017. I will continue to write for the editors I've established relationships with, but I won't be taking on any new assignments because we plan to do be doing a lot more traveling.

We have trips planned to the San Francisco Bay Are in May to see my parents who are in their 80's; a trip to see our granddaughter in August for her second birthday; and (drum roll...), a trip back to Catania, Sicily in September/October to revisit the place where our older son was born, our old stomping grounds, and to Taormina -- the "pearl of Europe." It was one of our favorite cities while we lived in Italy for six years.

One of the highlights of 2016 was having my sister and her husband visit in March for three weeks. They liked it so much that they're planning another visit next year and plan to come every two years!

This was a big year for birthdays as well: Our older son turned 35, our younger son turned 30, and our granddaughter, Clara, celebrated her first birthday in August, so we flew back to Pennsylvania to enjoy her big birthday party bash with a watermelon theme.

Thankfully, due to FaceTime, we've enjoyed all her firsts: She learned to crawl while we were there, then walk and now she's talking up a storm and we treasure the videos that our daughter-in-law, Kim, sends us and now Clara received a kitchen for Christmas, so she's making us meals (smile!). For those of you contemplating a move to Cuenca and wonder how you're going to keep up with the grandchildren, don't has it all figured out for you.

I'm going to leave you with some collage pictures of some of our highlights this year -- especially Christmas Eve, which we spent at Mansion Alcazar (Casa Alonso). It was an amazing dinner and we made a lot of special memories.

Christmas Eve Dinner at Mansion Alcazar

Our granddaughter, Clara, on Christmas Eve!

Christmas Day from Ecuador to the U.S.

2016 in Review including "La Perla" Ferris Wheel in Guayaquil -- a must see!

From La Casa Pombo in Ecuador, we wish you a joyous, healthy, and peaceful 2017. Happy New Year!

Abrazitos (Hugs) from Cuenca, 

Connie & Mark 

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Beginning of the End

It’s been six years since we made the journey to Cuenca and we’re beginning to see the end in sight. No, we’re not leaving Cuenca, but in May of 2017 we’ll be receiving our Social Security and we’re going to be traveling more (lots more!). We have three trips planned and one of them is going to be Italy, where we lived for six years and where we started our family.

Let me back up a little bit and say that retiring at age 55 is one of the greatest gifts we could have ever received and we’re grateful that my husband’s pension allowed us to do that. But now that we’re approaching 62 years of age, we think it might be time to take our Social Security pension!  Mark will receive his first check in May 2017, followed by mine in August.

Yes, we still live on $1,317 a month and we’re only able to do that because we own our condo and don’t have to pay rent (and our property taxes are on $67 a year). The beginning of the end part is Mark won’t be teaching six hours a day five days a week and I’ll be cutting down on my freelance writing. We have used both those incomes to finance our traveling back to the States and I’ll be honest with you; it’s not cheap!

If you don’t own your home and in our case—a condo—you need to tack on about $500-$600 a month for rent. Prices are going up on just about everything. If you stick to fruits and vegetables, you can live very economically. Yesterday in Supermaxi (our big grocery store chain), I saw Nature Valley Granola Bars for $10 a box. Imported items are ridiculously expensive. I saw the same thing in the States at Dollar General for $1.50. Imported food items, clothes, shoes, and electronics are definitely more expensive in Ecuador. Restaurant dining is still really cheap for us because we always split a meal; we just can’t eat big portions anymore, so dining out is still very economical for us.

The Blue Domes from Our Apartment 

As far as “retiring,” we don’t want to completely give up on the things that we love to do: teaching and writing, but we just want to do less of it so we can travel more and visit a “few” more places on our bucket list. And, of course, make more trips back to the U.S. to see our boys, their wives, and granddaughter in Pennsylvania and visit our family in California.

Our Precious Granddaughter -- Clara Joy! (Photo: Courtesy of  Kim Pombo)

We feel grateful that we were able to retire early and do the things we love. Recently, I wrote a story that was accepted into Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude, which I share about “The Beauty of Age Spots.” The book has received a lot of attention lately because I think most of us forget what a difference having a grateful spirit can have in our lives. I didn’t expect to live to see age spots, so they truly are a gift.

Recently, Deborah Norville, the co-author of the book highlighted some of the stories on Inside Edition and it made me think again how all of us can turn something not so pleasant into something we’re truly grateful for and in doing so we break the cycle and we’re able to bless others.  Here’s a clip from Inside Edition
My Story "The Beauty of Age Spots
Mark and I are both grateful for early retirement that allowed us to begin a new life in Cuenca, learn another language, buy a home here, and pursue the things we love without financial restraints. There’s absolutely no way we could have the quality of life we have here back in the States and believe me; we don’t take any of it for granted.

We’re both looking forward to the “beginning of the end” and this new stage of our retired life. Mark will probably still teach one class or intensive per cycle and I’m excited to write about our travels and do more e-books.
Cuenca is the best decision we’ve made in our lives and we have absolutely no regrets; we just wish we could have done it sooner!

Until next time...

Connie & Mark


Friday, May 13, 2016

Six Years in Cuenca, Ecuador!

Mark and I are approaching our six-year anniversary in Cuenca next month. It hardly seems possible, but in that amount of time we have grown to love this country and its people.

April 2016 - The Gardens of Mansion Alcazar
We were young retirees (age 55) when we first arrived and I wondered how we would fit in because everyone was sixty-five or older and now that we’re in our sixties, we feel right at home! Actually, the tide has changed and there are a lot of younger retirees in their 30’s and 40’s. Recently, we met a couple in their early 40’s and asked how they managed to retire so young and they said, “We decided not to have kids!”  There you have it – your ticket to early retirement.

In six years we’ve married both our sons, gained two lovely daughter-in-laws, and have a granddaughter who will turn a year old in August. We will be back in the States for that occasion and hope to make more trips to the States as we’re both about a year from receiving our Social Security. The last six years we've been living on Mark’s pension from UPS. Since we own our condo, the extra income from two Social Security checks, will help with traveling expenses back to the States to visit family.  We’ll still live on $1,317 a month, but our extra income through writing and teaching ESL will go to traveling as well.

The Pombo Family 
In many ways Cuenca has remained the same and in other ways it’s a different city. I’ll try to summarize some of the changes.

*A lot more gringos. We arrived with the “Class of 2010,” and gringo sightings were occasional and spotty. Now—especially in Gringolandia—you can’t help but run into “muchos gringos.” Norte Americanos are just part of the landscape. Depending on where you live in Cuenca, there will be greater concentrations.  Probably the largest population of gringos can be found by the Oro Verde Hotel, which is affectionately termed as Gringolandia.

Yanuncay River and Walking Trails
*More high rise condo buildings.  We were fortunate to buy our condo when prices were low and in a great section of the city (Primero de Mayo), which is close to the Yanuncay River and walking trails; three blocks to Mall del Sol, and a 35-minute walk to El Centro. We still don’t have a car and believe it or not, we consider it one of the best things about living in Cuenca. We walk, take a bus or taxi to wherever we need to go. We average about five to six miles of walking every day, which is how we stay in shape.

*Tranvia (electric train). Personally, I think the city would have been better served with a fleet of 400 new buses that were energy efficient and handicapped accessible rather than investing the time and money in the electric train that only serves a portion of the city, but it’s a little late for that. The train should be finished sometime in 2017 and we’ll probably ride it as a novelty, but that’s about it. Primero de Mayo and Avenida Solano where we live aren’t serviced by the tranvia.

*More International  Restaurants. It seems like there’s a new restaurant opening every week and just as many close. In El Centro (the historic part of the city), it’s a struggle to compete with so many restaurants and to maintain a profitable business with the rents continuing to rise. I’m happy to report we have some amazing new Italian restaurants, which make us happy little campers!  Along with the movement of Italian restaurants has come cheese – glorious cheese!  We lack for nothing in the cheese department now and with it comes olives and Italian bread.

Cheese -- Glorious Cheese!
*Food Prices Have Gone Up. If you eat like an Ecuadorian, you can keep your food bill to $30 a week.  That’s because we eat just fresh fruits and vegetables along with lentils, rice, and pasta. We don’t drink alcohol, so our grocery bill hasn’t changed. But with the economic down turn, imported items have gone up, along with alcohol and liquor, which is now being sold on Sundays. For the first time since 2010—when we arrived—alcohol will be available in stores and in restaurants on Sunday and will be reviewed every six months. All this is in an effort to increase sales and tourism. The fruits and vegetables in Ecuador are just short of amazing and the variety is astounding. We think it’s the best part of living here, except for the weather.  We have cherimoyas, guanabanas, uvillas, mangoes, pineapples, and dragon fruit in our fruit bowl right now. Probably the only one I could buy in the States might be a pineapple, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be ripe. We’re so spoiled in Ecuador!

*Transportation police. In 2010, the presence of police in their brown uniforms with fluorescent vests was about all we saw. Now, we have the transportation police on their bikes, on foot, on horseback, and at intersections directing traffic. We have traffic lanes and bike trails that are constantly monitored by police and we enjoy riding our bikes, which is something we wouldn’t have done six years ago. 

La Policia
*Four Points Sheraton.  For the first time, we’ll have a chain hotel in Cuenca. The ten-story hotel by Mall del Rio should be completed in a few months and will have a 120 rooms, conference center, pool, restaurant, and gym, so we’ll be like the other big cities—Quito and Guayaquil. Personally, we prefer the boutique hotels like Mansion Alcazar, but I’m sure it will be good for the tourism industry as travelers love to use their “points” and now Cuenca will be able to offer something for everyone.

Four Points Sheraton from Our Condo 
*Visitors from the States. I can still hardly believe it, but my sister and her husband came to visit us in March. Besides our older son who came to visit in 2010, this is the first family we’ve had in Ecuador. They stayed for three weeks and we had so much fun showing them around Cuenca. 

Family Visitors!
Thankfully, they left before the April 16th earthquake, but since they’re from California I’m sure it wouldn’t have rattled them too much. They said they’ll be back!

In the future (2017), Mark will probably just teach one or two classes and I’ll still be writing because that’s what I do, so I guess you can say we’ll be “retired.” It will just be nice not to have our life run in cycles like it does now.

One of the greatest perks of living in Cuenca is the health care. We've been 100% pleased with our care here and how wonderful to make an appointment online and show up at the doctor's office the next day – even specialists. 

We use a combination of IESS (the Social Security Hospital) and private doctors. We pay a total of $71 for both of us, which includes office visits, medication, hospitalization, surgery, labs, etc.  The IESS system is much like Kaiser in the States in that you have to go through a primary care physician first before seeing a specialist.

We always have the option of seeing a private physician for $25-$40 per visit and the follow-up is always free. I remember in the States having to wait five months just to see a dermatologist!  We're spoiled with the health care in Cuenca.

And I will have to mention the earthquake as that has also changed Ecuador. The last big one we felt was shortly after our arrival in 2010 and it was a 7.1 and six years later, the Pedernales earthquake that was 7.8. It’s been a month and it will take years for any sense of normalcy on the coast, so continue to keep our wonderful country in your prayers. When people ask how they can help, I always mention the Ecuadorian Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse Ministry

Until next time…hasta luego,

Connie & Mark

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The 7.8 Magnitude Earthquake in Ecuador

Last Saturday, April 16, 2016, at 6:58 PM, Mark and I were sitting in our living room when we felt a "trembler"; we get them occasionally and never think twice about them. As California natives, we don't consider them noteworthy. But this one was different -- a lot different! The trembler got more intense and then shook hard as we watched the pictures fall  from the shelves and the lamps swing back and forth. The shaking continued for a good minute. We heard children crying in our building and watched as neighbors ran out of their condo complex. The swaying of our building was a "little" unnerving as we watched other buildings do the same thing with windows bulging. 

For quite some time afterward, I still felt like I was on a roller coaster and then I turned to Mark and said,  "Wherever the epicenter is; it's going to be horrific." The "trember" turned out to be a 7.8 magnitude earthquake with the epicenter in Pedernales.

7.8 Magnitude Earthquake -- April 16, 2016

Mark and I have always lived in earthquake-prone areas (California, Italy and now Ecuador). We knew about Ecuador's history of earthquakes,  but we figured it came with the territory. We've actually been in two big earthquakes since we've been here (2010 and 2016).

Ecuador is in the "Ring of Fire" which is a horseshoe-shaped ring stretching from Japan and moving around to Alaska, down the coast of Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico, Central American, and South America. 

Ring of Fire 

The April 16th earthquake was the strongest to hit Ecuador since 1979. 
 For the complete list of the earthquakes in Ecuador, click here

There was only minor damage experienced in Cuenca from Saturday's earthquake, but on the coast it was a different story and we're only beginning to understand the true devastation as many of the roads along the coast have been damaged, making access to some areas further inland more difficult.

To date there are 577 dead with the most casualties felt in Manta and Pedernales; 5,733 injured and 163 missing. We have friends who have been to the hardest hit areas and they can only describe it as utter devastation. Pedernales doesn't even exist any longer.

There are three zones in Ecuador:"The coast is Zone I  for earthquakes; Zone II is the Quito area in the northern Andes, which has many semi-active volcanoes; Cuenca, in the southern Andes, is in Zone III, and has not had a major earthquake in 500 years; and the Amazonias (Oriente), in eastern Ecuador is the least susceptible area to earthquakes."  No one can predict natural disasters, but if you live in Zone I and II, then you have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. You have to decide if the view of the Pacific Ocean every day is going to make your life more stressful or more enjoyable. 

Ecuadorian Coastline 

We love the Ecuadorian Coast and vacation there every chance we get and we've often talked about buying a place on the coast -- like Salinas, but Saturday's earthquake pretty much sealed the deal for us. We're staying in Cuenca until God calls us home. 

After Saturday's earthquake many have asked us if we're moving back to the States and I understand their concern, but we don't scare that easily and most of our lives have been spent in earthquake-prone areas. Ecuador's earthquake has destroyed the coast and it will be years before it will be rebuilt, but the Ecuadorian people are resourceful and resilient and I know that with proper planning the new coastline will be safer and stronger. Even as recovery efforts are still ongoing, engineers are planning the next phase. We know that the structures that withstood the earthquake were made from bamboo and wood--not stone or cement. We've seen some of the plans suggested and it makes perfect sense that in the future the structures should be flexible--not rigid. 

The outpouring of support for Ecuador has been so heartwarming and the relief efforts have been nothing short of miraculous. It hasn't even been a week since the quake hit and the outpouring of support from around the world has been so encouraging. There are donation drop-off stations all over town and caravans of trucks and airplanes bring in supplies daily to the hardest hit areas, but so much more needs to be done as we're only beginning to understand the long road ahead of us.

The poorest of the poor are giving what they have to help their neighbors on the coast and this earthquake has already stretched this country that has already been knocked down by the lowering of oil prices -- Ecuador's major export. But we're like a reed bending to the force of the wind and soon we will stand tall and stronger than before.

If you would like to help with the relief efforts, there are so many organizations that are available -- from the Samaritan's Purse Ministry by Franklin Graham to Cruz Roja (Red Cross) of Ecuador --where you can make a donation. No gift is too small. 

In the meantime, if you're planning  a trip to Ecuador, don't cancel it. The coast was ravaged by this earthquake, but there are still the southern beach towns like Salinas (the little Miami of Ecuador) that was kept out of harm's way; Quito is open and ready for business; Cuenca was spared any damage; and, of course, the Galapagos Islands were completely spared. One of Ecuador's greatest sources of income is the tourism industry and want you to experience this beautiful country and its warmhearted people they way we have.
We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your love, care and concern for Ecuador and for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers. 

Until next time...hasta luego, 

Connie and Mark 

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