Thursday, September 29, 2011

Seattle in Cuenca?!?

I thought I was imagining the whole thing until I heard one of the ESL teachers (at CEDEI) comment, “This weather makes me feel right at home!” 

When I asked him where he was from, he said, “Seattle!”

September has been filled with a blanket of gray skies, but we’ve been too busy to notice what the weather’s  been like! We have such a rich and full life that I hardly know what we did with all our time before we went back to school and Mark started teaching. 

Blue Skies?
During the weekdays we’re in Spanish Class at CEDEI, Mark’s teaching English, and on the weekends we play—normally doing things with the students or teachers at CEDEI. It has brought us into an entirely new and exciting world. Most of the teachers at CEDEI are in their 20’s (having just finished college or working on their Masters ) and the other half are in their 50’s—many of whom travel the world teaching English. There’s no middle ground.  Those who are in their 30’s and 40’s are still back in the States putting in their 20 years of hard labor so they can PLAY when they grow up!

Home on the Range!

Since I’m slated to teach in January, I’m trying to catch up on my writing and get to the next level in Spanish so I don’t sound like an 6th grader the rest of my life. Mark and I are not your typical expats, so please don’t follow our example! 

Students and Teachers at CEDEI  -- on the weekends!
I thought my writing was suffering (with all the activity) until I received two acceptance notices this week and one was from the Chicken Soup series. The book won’t be out until May 2012, but it’s the story of how we came to Cuenca  (the roller coaster ride).  Looking back on it, it was pretty “stormy” weather getting here, but now we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. I don’t envy any of you who are going through the packing, selling and getting here stage. But once you’re here, you’ll almost forget what you went through to get “south of zero”!

Roasting in the Country!
If you find yourself talking about the weather in Cuenca, then it’s time to travel, study or volunteer. Yes, it’s a lot like “Seattle in Cuenca,” and probably not the best place to live if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, but one thing is for sure—you will never have to worry about heat or humidity!

Until next time...hasta luego!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Expat Profiles

Arrival in Cuenca - June 5, 2010
Since arriving here last year, I’ve been trying to figure out the typical expat profile and every time I think I’ve got it figured out, someone comes along and breaks the mold!

Most of us have some type of stereotype of the typical expat and mine went something like this: double income (double retirement), no kids (or pets) and well into their 60’s or 70’s. Yes, there is a lot of that, but a new expat profile is emerging.

Instead, we’re seeing more and more folks in their 50’s and some in their 30’s and 40’s who are tired of the rat race in America. They’re sick of working a 60-hour work week with little (or nothing) to show for it. With 401K’s tanking, a dwindling economy, and long commutes, they’re looking for a slower pace of life with a chance to do something with the little investment revenue they have left.

The expat profile basically falls into three categories: investors, business entrepreneurs, and those who are truly retired (pensioners). It’s always easy to spot the entrepreneurs: they’re always trying to sell you something—from greeting cards to a hacienda in the Yunguilla Valley!

Learning the Alphabet in English
Mark and I are not investors; we’re pensioners who like to call ourselves the “working class” of Cuenca. Mark teaches English five days a week from 4-8 p.m. and I’m a freelance writer who volunteers at “La Esperanza” orphanage. And, it looks like in January I will also be teaching at CEDEI.

Unlike many expats, we experienced “retirement” in reverse in our 20’s and 30’s, during which time we traveled throughout Europe. And then in our mid-30’s we settled down to raise our family and put in our 20 years of “hard labor”—enough to get a pension—and retired in Ecuador because of the medical benefits.

It’s amazing to me that we can live in Cuenca on the same amount that our medical premiums would be in the States. In fact, many of the expats in their 50’s have decided to retire in Ecuador for the same reason. When you realize that medical premiums can be as high as $55,000 a year in the States and you can live on one-quarter of that in Ecuador, it makes you re-think your retirement options.

The Kids at La Esperanza
We still travel, but now we look forward to having our kids visit. Jeremy, our oldest, will be arriving in November and Jon and his wife, hopefully, will be coming next summer. The experience of traveling overseas is not a new one to Jeremy (he was born and raised in Italy), but it’s been 20 years since he’s had a new perspective.

Christmas in California 2010
Oh, I almost forgot…there’s another expat profile I wish I didn’t have to mention! Mark and I were dining out at one of our favorite restaurants when we heard the words , “I owe the government $XXX,XXXX but they’ll never get it from me now!” I’m sorry, but this goes beyond the ugly American syndrome. When you’re obviously intoxicated you say things you probably shouldn’t, but repeating it over and over again (as if we didn’t hear it the first time) is totally inappropriate. We felt the need to apologize—to the Cuencanos at our table—for the bad manners of our American “counterpart.”

Thankfully, the latter is a small fraction of the expat community in Cuenca, but one bad “apple” can spoil the whole bunch. I think it’s best to remember that we are guests in this country and can be asked to leave at any time. Until such time as you get your Ecuadorian passport and become a citizen of Ecuador instead of resident, it’s best to behave yourself!

For the most part, expats are doing their part to better the reputation of “norteamericanos”  by volunteering their time, immersing themselves in the culture and learning Spanish.

Having "almuerzo" with one of the CEDEI students
Let’s continue to keep the expat profile a positive one!

Until next time…hasta luego!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back to School

When our boys were young, I loved the back-to-school time of year: crisp fall mornings, making sack lunches, and soccer practice every afternoon. Those days are gone, but in their place is life in Cuenca as students with a teacher in the family!

Mark is busy with classes at CEDEI (he's also required to take six hours of Spanish each week), and I’m teaching English at “La Esperanza” (orphanage). It’s all part of our plan to keep our brains functioning into our old age. So far it seems to be working (I think!).

Our goal—for the first two years in Cuenca—is to immerse ourselves in the language and culture as much as possible and we’re about half way there. For us, that means spending more time with Ecuadorians than native-speakers of English which has been difficult, but profitable for our language learning!

On Sunday we spent ten hours with our “adopted” Ecuadorian family which mainly consisted of eating, playing soccer, eating some more, playing soccer until we all dropped and the porch light went out.  Mark and I were in charge of bringing potato salad for 60 people (that’s a lot of potatoes, celery, onions and eggs!). We had hamburgers and hot dogs with all the trimmings and celebrated FOUR birthdays with two chocolate cakes and one candle in the form of a question mark. There were four generations present, including “la abuela” (grandmother) who took me under her wing. Being invited into an Ecuadorian kitchen—to cook with the rest of the clan—was quite an honor and now I’m officially part of “la familia.”

Our new schedule has taken some getting used to and coincided with several writing deadlines so we feel less than “retired.” But we’ve still been able to keep up with our date nights which we celebrated last week at “Mangiare Bene” which gets five stars:  price, value, location, menu selection and authentic Italian cuisine. Because we spent six years in Italy, we’ve been less than impressed with the pasta in Cuenca, but Mangiare came through with flying colors. The kitchen area is open (think Macaroni Grill in the States), so you can see everything being made fresh right before your eyes. I ordered the penne pasta with jumbo shrimp and it was amazing; the pasta was perfect – “al dente.” Our entrees were served with garlic bread and our drinks were on the house!

Mangiare Bene!

We’re back into the swing of things and the weather is even cooperating! It feels like football season in Pennsylvania, complete with cloudy skies and cool mornings. The school buses are running, the kids are back in school, and so are we!

Until next time…hasta luego!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

It's the Little Things...

Someone once told me that it’s the little things in life that will get you…not the big things. How true that is! I think I handled a cancer diagnosis much better than a computer hacker that turned my life upside for the past month!  A whole host of e-mails were sent out in my name that went to family, friends and “yes” my editors. 

Jardin del Valle
The responses of the receivers ranged from: “Oh, don’t worry...that happened to us…keep the faith” to “I’ve spammed you!” And somewhere inbetween was, “I’m so sorry this happened to you; how can  I make your day better?”

You can always tell who your true friends are by the way they respond in a crisis: they don't minimize it; they don't maximize it; they make it manageable! Thankfully, we already knew who those people were and sure enough they came through—yet  again. Although I’m not comparing a cancer diagnosis to a hacking problem, but it sure has some similarities (it takes over your life for a while!).

Yunguilla Valley -- where the sun is always shining!
Things are almost back to normal and through it all I was able to keep up with my writing deadlines and even got a writing contract, so that was the silver lining. We are fortunate to have an amazing network of folks here in Cuenca who have blessed our lives; we can always count on them. Our friend, Dave, knew about our situation and said, “I want to take you guys to the Yunguilla Valley; you’ll forget all about everything!”

Entrance to Jardin del Valle
So on Thursday—while my hard drive was being scrubbed—we enjoyed the beauty of Yunguilla— just a 75 km drive from Cuenca (about 40 minutes) .The sunny skies and subtropical weather were a welcome relief.  A smile lifted my cheeks and I whispered to my hubby, “Isn’t this paradise?”

Butterfly Shrimp -- Oh, YUM!
We dined at Jardin del Valle (a friend of ours owns this lovely hosteria) and he treated us like royalty. We sat at poolside, enjoyed jumbo butterfly shrimp and had volcano cake for dessert. Afterwards, we  played ping-pong and talked to the resident parrots: “Paco and Lucy.” Watch out what you say because they will repeat every word!
Paco and Lucy "Los papagallos" 
After we soaked in some sun, we made our way through some of the back roads of the valley where we visited some friends who are building an hosteria that is almost complete. I told Mark that I’m going to sign up to be the caretaker of their property.  He can teach at CEDEI during the week, while I lounge poolside with a good book.
I could get used to this!
When we arrived home that evening, I felt like a new person. It’s the “little things” in life that make a HUGE difference!

Until next time…hasta luego!

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