Saturday, December 4, 2010

It's Starting to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

Okay, so it’s not exactly Rockefeller Center, but “al centro” is starting to look a lot like Christmas. Unlike the States where the department stores are stuffed full of Christmas merchandise and decorations starting in July, Cuenca takes a more relaxed approach and decorating begins in earnest during the first week of December.

The last two days we’ve enjoyed Parque Calderon with its giant Christmas tree and all the festivities going on, including concerts. With weather in the 70’s, it’s hard to believe that this time last year we were bracing for a major snowstorm. Certainly, the best part of Cuenca is the weather; we’ll take perpetual spring over snow any day!

Soon we’ll be leaving for the States and I have to say I have mixed feelings. Of course, we want to see our family and friends, but to leave “paradiso”? It’s really hard to do. My list of things to buy for the States keeps getting shorter and shorter. Having lived here for six months, I’ve found a substitute for almost everything except red pepper flakes. They have red pepper powder here, but it’s not the same when you sprinkle it on pizza! So we were surprised today when we stopped by Chicago Pizza and our server placed a glass jar of red pepper flakes on our table. I nearly fell off my chair. By the way, Chicago Pizza has the best pizza in Cuenca at prices that are incredible. Their medium-sized pizza is more like the size of extra large in the States and oh so good! Sorry, no pictures of the food; it was simply gone too fast.

Chicago Pizza is across the street from Santo Domingo Iglesia (Iglesia de Santo Domingo) which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous inside with its wooden floors and blue overtones. There was a mass going on today with a “choir of angels” singing, so we plopped ourselves down in a pew to listen to the music while our pizza had time to digest.

I have some writing deadlines to knock out before we leave for the States, but it’s so hard to concentrate when activities for Christmas are gearing up and Cuenca’s gorgeous weather keeps pulling me outside.

Compared to the scene out of our window (this time last year), we’re thankful that Christmas in Cuenca has a different landscape and beauty we never imagined.

Wishing you joy as you plan for the holidays!

Inside Santa Domingo Iglesia

We decided to adopt this Christmas Tree!

Ride anyone?

Our Christmas picture postcard this year!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Does the 2010 Census Look Like?

This morning we woke up to empty streets, no buses, no morning joggers, no taxis and an eerily quiet sound (except for the rushing river!). It’s Census Day 2010!

Every ten years, Ecuador enjoys the privilege of having everyone stay home from the hours of 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and wait for the census takers to collect their information. The census workers are not paid workers like the States, but hundreds of high school students (covering the urban areas) and teachers (covering the rural areas). In fact, this morning that was the scene on the sidewalks—ten or more students walking in groups with a supervising teacher in tow. This is a stark contrast to what a normal Sunday would look like: church bells ringing, a swoosh of cars, buses and taxis, and a steady stream of joggers along the river trail.

Of course, those in the medical field, emergency workers, police and security guards are all in their proper places. And, of course, those patients that are in the hospital will also stay put. Mocha heard that everyone has to stay in their "house," so he is also abiding by the rules!

Mark loaded up on movies and I have several writing projects to complete before we leave for the States, so we’re happy to have this time of quietness.

Last night we took about 30 minutes to fill out the census form which was in the newspaper (consisting of six pages and 71 questions – mas/menos!). The questions actually surprised us—unlike the US Census which is relatively short. These questions were more about housing conditions, water and garbage collection, and more personal questions pertaining to the use of computers, cell phones and level of education.

We now know why there are official census takers: one of the questions asked if we were able to read and write! There were more questions about our housing conditions, how many rooms we had, if we had running water and if our floors were made of dirt or if they were wood, ceramic or floating floors.
As a perfectionist (Type A personality) and slightly obsessive compulsive, I read into every question. For example, what do you do if half of your floors are ceramic and the other half are floating? That’s when Mark took over and checked both of the boxes!

We have all our materials on the dining room table: our cedulas, censo cards, passports, credit cards, bank information, health insurance cards, and—of course—our census form.

Since this is our first census, we feel like we’re ready, but then again—this is Ecuador and we’re ready for just about anything. For now, we’re enjoying the peaceful sounds of absolute stillness in this city of almost half a million. Because we won’t see the likes of this for another ten years, we count ourselves fortunate to be involved in this historic event!

Until Next Time...Hasta Luego!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things!

We've been in Cuenca for five months now and I have to say it seems like a lifetime (in a good sense). During that time we have learned a new language, experienced a new culture, got a puppy (Mocha!), moved twice, and have met some wonderful new friends. If I had to say what I love most – I can’t, but I can list a few of my favorite things:

Cost of Living: Nowhere in the world could we live off what we do here and enjoy the quality of life that we do in Cuenca. My husband’s pension isn’t great, but combined with my writing income it works. Sure, most of our friends live on five times what we make (or more), but we are happier now than we have ever been. No, we don’t have extravagant dinner parties, drive an SUV or go out to expensive restaurants, but we love our new life. We have no debt, we live simply but purposefully, and we have no stress! And for the first time in our lives, we are able to save hundreds of dollars each month and that’s living on $1,400 a month. Simply amazing!

Restaurants: There are a vast array of restaurants in Cuenca to fit any budget; our favorite is "Sucre y Sal" (owned by a French and Ecuadorian couple). We go there at least four times a month or more and enjoy wine, quiche, salad, and the best desserts in all of Cuenca! One of our new favorites is Hotel Santa Lucia (I call it the “Paris” of Cuenca). The service is excellent and the ambiance is spectacular. It’s dressed up for the holidays right now, so it’s a great place to enjoy an evening out.  A new favorite is “Vino y Olivo” at Esquina de Las Artes.

Flowers, Flowers, Flowers! Every week, I don’t go to the flower market at “al centro,” but head to Coral Centro to pick up my bouquets which are $1.05 and include sunflowers, roses, baby’s breath, carnations, lilies, and a whole lot of other flowers that I can’t even name. I put a baby aspirin in the water and they are still fresh as a daisy a week later. For $5.00 I can fill our home with colorful bouquets in every room!

Sunsets: This is a bit deceiving at first because we are high in the Andes Mountains. The sun sets over the mountains at approximately 5:45 PM every evening. That’s when you get to see a “glimmer” of a sunset before it disappears. You have to be quick because it’s over the southern sierras at 5:46 PM. The rest of the evening—until 6:30 PM— the sky puts on a color display which is breathtaking. This has taken a little getting used to, but I’m finally okay with just a beautifully painted sky.

The Rivers of Cuenca: There are four rivers that run through Cuenca and we live along the Tomebamba, probably the most popular. After a week of rain, it is back up to its normal level and the sound is amazing. We are fortunate to live 50 feet from its banks and it is truly the source of much joy in our lives. We open the windows at night to let the sound lull us to sleep. And, of course, Mocha loves his “backyard” with daily walks along the river trail. The eucalyptus trees make a whistling sound when the wind blows through and when it rains, the smell is like a balm to the soul. No wonder so many Ecuadorian poets and writers have found their source of inspiration from these waters.

Healthcare: Mark and I came to Cuenca as 55 year olds. Both of us have survived our share of life’s health crises, including cancer, heart-related conditions and accidents. As a cancer survivor times two, I count each day as a  blessing and a gift to be savored. Where in the world can you receive state-of-the-art healthcare, a doctor who makes house calls, gives you his personal cell phone number and spends 45 minutes with you at each visit? I think it’s called “paradise.” Our doctor, Dr. Pablo Parra, is a gifted physician with disciplines in internal medicine and pulmonology. In the States, a visit to such a specialist would be hundreds of dollars and yet we pay just $25 each visit.

A Writer’s Paradise: I came to Cuenca as a “retired” writer, but recently I’ve had several things published and a new book coming out (the one I was working on before we left for Ecuador). I just recently signed off on the proofs and it is available for pre-order. We will be going back to the States for Christmas and I’ll be doing some book signings, but I find that my writing has taken a different turn; I’m working on an e-book on “Living and Retiring in Ecuador” which will be available on Kindle. I hope it will be a blessing to newcomers. As a writer in the States, I was locked into deadlines, but now I write when I feel inspired—not because I have to. What a blessing!

This is not a lengthy list of my favorite things, but it all comes down to the fact that we made a decision—nine months ago— to retire in a foreign country. I have to tell you that was not met with a lot of “hoorahs,” but with a lot of speculation on the part of family and friends! Quite frankly, they thought we were crazy and that we would be back in the States soon after our arrival. Well, I have to say that’s not going to happen; we have made our home here. And our boys—now men—have accepted our decision. In fact, I don’t even think they miss us which is a sign we did our job well as parents. That’s doesn’t mean they don’t love us (they do!); it just means they have their own life to live, so that one day they can write a list of their own “favorite things”!

Until next time...hasta luego!

P.S. Next time, I'll give you a tour of my favorite places to drink coffee in Cuenca to celebrate "Coffee Lovers"!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rainy Day Mondays!

Normally, I don’t like Mondays and rain, but here in Cuenca it is welcome!

The Rio Tomebamba—where we live—was looking more like a river of stones rather than one of rushing water. At night, the sound of the river is so relaxing and drowns out all the noise. But the last week or so, it was sounding more like a faint trickle. The four rivers that run through Cuenca are a vital source of energy and when they are low, we pay the price—literally! In Sunday’s paper, there was an article related to the Tomebamba and the energy that is derived from this major source of hydroelectric power. When the rivers are low, there are “blackouts” of electricity during the dry months. We’re pleased to see the rain—lots of it—on any day of the week.

Mondays are also a day to catch up, especially from a busy weekend. Mark and I helped out with a fundraiser for FASEC (foundation for helping families with cancer) that was held at the Mall Del Rio Convention Center. It was an international food fest with all the area restaurants being involved and donating the proceeds to this great organization. We helped out with the California Kitchen and I brought “baked” beans. I have to tell you that baking beans in Cuenca is not as easy as it sounds. I was up at 3:00 AM to make sure the beans were thoroughly cooked before we had to leave at 1:15 PM. I like my pasta “al dente,” but certainly not my beans. At 12:30 PM, I started to panic; they were still “crunchy” and that’s after soaking them 24 hours the day before. Later I heard that some folks have to cook their beans three days in advance (something to do with the altitude) to make sure they are soft. I also found out some other tricks, so I just might have to do a “Bean Post.”

The day was a success in other regards: lots of people, lots of food, and everyone had a great time. I worked the “cash register” and got to meet a lot of new folks and also had the privilege of meeting some blog readers who are visiting Cuenca (two new couples who are thinking of retiring in Cuenca).

Today is officially our 35th wedding anniversary, although we have been celebrating all week. A young Ecuadorian couple took us out to the Hotel Santa Lucia on Friday, which was so much fun. They are the same ages as our kids in the States. How sweet that this newly married couple wanted to spend time with us “old folks.”

For some reason, it always rains on our anniversary, just like it did on our wedding day 35 years ago, but I hear that’s a sign of a long marriage!

I welcome rainy day Mondays (any day of the week).

Until next time...hasta luego!

P.S. I'll leave you with some more pictures of this weekend...
Nuestros Amigos Pat and Mike helping out at the California Kitchen

The California Kitchen Crew taking time to pose for a picture!
Ed and Cynthia made some great BBQ ribs!
Celebration at Hotel Santa Lucia

Hotel Santa Lucia which is deserving of an entire blog post!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Diesel Fumes

This is not going to be a very popular post, so you may want to switch “channels” now while you still have a chance!

There are few things I dislike about this glorious city—Cuenca—but diesel fumes are starting to “irritate” me just a tad bit.

In the beginning (five months ago), it was easy to ignore the exhaust fumes from the buses, cars and trucks, but now it’s not that simple. And if you ask Cuencanos, they will tell you the same thing. In fact, many Ecuadorians cover their faces when they’re in the presence of fumes—especially buses.

As a cancer survivor (times two), I can tell you that I’m not that excited about reading the effects of diesel fumes on the human body (I’ll let you read the lengthy list). But I can tell you this, I have noticed the eye irritation and headaches that accompany our trips to “al centro” via the bus and walking.

We came to Cuenca fully aware of the fact that diesel fumes were a problem and actually read some of the proposed solutions. It is and will continue to be a problem for quite some time, but proper planning now will also determine the future of this historic city and its people.

In my former life, I was a speaker for the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Survivor Network, and Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. I traveled the country raising awareness regarding breast cancer, wrote articles for Coping with Cancer Magazine, and basically shared my knowledge with others to help gain support in the fight against cancer. I championed the cause because it was real to me! In fact, it’s still a cause close to my heart. This Sunday we will be helping out with a fundraiser for Hospice of Cuenca, along with many other expats.

Diesel fumes are not going away (anytime soon!) and neither is cancer, but we can all do our part to help raise awareness.

Until next time…hasta luego!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Good News...Bad News!

We received our medical cards in the mail yesterday (good news)!

Bad news: Our insurance doesn’t pay for any of the prescriptions we need!

I had to chuckle when we arrived at the pharmacy and everything came up in the computer as “denied.” Not that I had high hopes, but it was disappointing to see “denied” after all the paperwork we had to go through. However, if you take into consideration that medication is one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of what it would be in the States, we’re still only paying $40 a month or less for all our prescriptions.

We look at our medical as insurance against something catastrophic (after all we want to leave our boys an inheritance!) so we will continue to pay $81 a month, which includes healthcare for both of us. Because you just never know when you might fall into a “femur” breaker like I almost did today.

We were walking along Remigio Crespo and I was admiring all the gorgeous spring flowers (trees!), but I forgot the cardinal rule in Ecuador: Stop, plant your feet, and then look or take a picture. But today the sidewalk just jumped up and almost swallowed me up!

The streets and sidewalks are fairly uneven all over Cuenca and sometimes there are cracks in the cement, metal objects sticking up out of the pavement and today—two huge holes that were three feet deep! Mark grabbed my arm right before I almost “dug” myself into a hole.

We have had a few close calls since we arrived in Ecuador and we’ve had many friends who have taken some bad falls. My hubby already broke his hip a couple of years ago, so we’re not taking any chances. Medical care in Cuenca is excellent and the cost is one-fifth of what it would be in the States, so we feel a little bit better about stepping into “femur” breakers knowing that our medical insurance will cover up to six months in the hospital if it's accident related.

Evidently, we got our medical insurance just in time; our particular company (Humana) will only accept persons 55 years or younger. I’m sure there are other companies that will insure you if you’re older, but it may cost you considerably more.

Like anything in Cuenca, there’s the good and the bad, but for us…it’s all GOOD!

Until next time…hasta luego!

P.S. I'll leave you with some springtime pictures (no wonder I can't keep my eyes on the sidewalk!).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Playa Perdida

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t receive an e-mail asking me, “So what’s expat life like in Ecuador?”

Well, I can’t answer that with one sentence because it’s different for everyone, but if you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be an “expat” without leaving the States, you need to read Playa Perdida.

I just finished it today during my siesta and I have to say for every character in the book, I found an “equivalent” expat here in Cuenca! And, I found myself in the book, but I’m not telling you who it is. I actually fell in love with all the characters—especially “Slot.”

Without giving away too much of the book's plot, it’s about a burnt-out pastor who brings his family with him to Panama to a corner of the world called “Playa Perdida.” It’s a “lost beach” that is home to many expats—all there for different reasons. Some come to escape their past, others come for adventure, and a few realize that what they are running from finally catches up with them—even the pastor who comes to minister to the expats (by their invitation—of course!).

I found myself laughing as much as I cried, as Dan Schmidt—the author—reels you into the plot and makes you believe you’re actually living at Playa Perdida.

Of course, I associated more with some of the characters than others, like Slot—the one armed vet—and Arthur, a “refined British gent.” In the end, however, the pastor—Gray Albright—and his wife Moira, receive more than they ever expected to give!

I give this book five stars and two thumbs up!

Until next time...hasta luego!

P.S. There’s a Kindle version available and I will also put a copy in the Carolina Bookstore in Cuenca.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Happy Independence Day Cuenca!

Independence Day in Cuenca is celebrated much like Fourth of July in the States: a day off from work, families get together for an afternoon picnic, and fireworks at night (okay, sometimes in the afternoon!). We've been celebrating as well with Ecuadorian families, watching parades, dancing in the streets and non-stop music.

Cuenca's history is steeped in tradition going back to the Canari Indians who first inhabited this jewel in the Southern Sierras, to the Incas, and then the Spaniards who ruled for 300 years until the liberator, Simon Bolivar, gave Cuenca back its independence.

The Spanish left quite a legacy in Cuenca, giving us the old colonial homes that occupy much of "el centro," the Spanish language, and the Roman Catholic Church. With such a long and rich history, no wonder it takes a month to celebrate!

We had an unfortunate incident happen in Parque Calderon last Saturday afternoon with some friends, so we have avoided the main square.

Cuenca is very safe, but during this week of festivities you have tourists from around the globe descending upon this beautiful city. We have a friend who has lived in Cuenca for 17 years and said that he also avoids "al centro" during the Independence Day celebrations. Because there is so much going on everywhere, you don't have to be at the center of the action to enjoy the beauty and splendor of this joyous holiday.

We have made so many wonderful Ecuadorian friends and count ourselves blessed to be taken in by these families. We missed a trip to Paute yesterday with an Ecuadorian family because I've been experiencing some eye problems (hopefully it's just old age).

Happy Independence Day Cuenca!
Until next time...hasta luego!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Viva Cuenca, Pumapungo and Amigos!

In Cuenca, there’s so much to see and do that—quite frankly—you can become overwhelmed, so we try to do something new every other day and visit a museum once a month.

Last week we started out at Parque Paraiso (Paradise Park) and were transported into another world. It’s Cuenca’s largest and most beautiful park. There are walking trails, a lake with paddle boats, a river running through it, playgrounds, places to picnic, a running track, soccer field and statues. You could easily spend a day there and not see everything!

Our favorite part was the walking bridge through the “forest.” It reminded us of Tom Sawyer’s Island in Disneyland. We went on the trail several times—taking a different entrance and exit each time. We were like two little kids discovering the park for the first time!

We worked up quite an appetite and stopped to have a frozen yogurt for 15 “centavos” at one of the “tiendas” and then off to the Pumapungo Museum.

Like many of the museums in Cuenca—this one is free. My favorite part was the shrunken heads! I heard about them before, but there’s nothing like seeing the real thing. Sorry, no pictures (cameras are not allowed in the museum), so I guess you’ll have to go see for yourself. I’m still trying to figure out why they had to sew their mouths shut!
The museum has two floors, the underground, and the lobby where there is an exhibit of contemporary silver art and jewelry. I so wanted to take some of the pieces home with me, but I’m not all that excited about spending the rest of my days in a Latin American prison, so I walked on by!

We briefly strolled through the Pumapungo Archaelogical Park, but soon realized we would need an entire day to explore this fascinating place in its entirety. It helps to know a little bit about Ecuador’s rich history to appreciate its present glory – “The Emerald of South America.”

From Pumapungo, Mark and I walked to El Centro and Parque Calderon to have an ice cream at Tutto Freddo and watch the festivities starting to “percolate” for the Independence Day Celebration. On November 3rd, Cuenca will be celebrating 190 years of independence from Spain.

Last week, we had a chance to enjoy a little of our own celebration with friends: Kathy, Mick, Nick (their adorable poodle), Mike and Pat. Kathy is an amazing cook and combined with southern hospitality, we had a great time savoring a great meal. Mocha gained a new friend—Nick—and learned how to share toys. Being an only “child,” Mocha needs to be with other “kids,” so we’re encouraging more play dates for our boys!

On Sunday, we took in more of the “Independence Day” celebration at La Esquina de las Artes with traditional dancing and food tasting. I bought a huge chunk of Guayaquil dark chocolate from one of the vendors and it’s safe to say that it won’t be making it to California as a Christmas gift!

We feel so blessed to call Cuenca home. We celebrated festivities with our Ecuadorian friends on Saturday and look forward to many more celebrations this week as well. Viva Cuenca!

Until next time…hasta luego!

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