Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunsets in Paradise

Probably the only thing we’re lacking here in paradise is sunsets!

I have to admit that I do miss them—partly because I’m a California girl and I’ve always had the ocean in my backyard. And when we lived on the East Coast, I had been known to drive all the way to Cape May, New Jersey—in one afternoon—just to watch a sunset and drive back home again(4-1/2 hours one way). Who in their right mind does such a thing?

Well…if you need to see a sunset on the ocean, you do what you have to do!

It’s not that we don’t have sunsets in Cuenca; it’s just that they disappear behind the Andes Mountains (somewhere) and the sky lights up with yellow, orange and crimson, but no sun setting on the horizon. That’s a big difference for us sunset watchers! Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful and the painted skies are gorgeous, but it’s just not the same.

As you know, I got the South American –"you don’t ever want to have this again"—Flu and while I was on my “death bed,” my hubby said, “When you get better, I’m taking you to the ocean!”

He kept his promise.

We booked the Butterfly Suite at Mandala Hosteria in Puerto Lopez for July. It has a terrace overlooking the Pacific (just 50 meters from the ocean). That works for me! And from my perch, I can watch all the sunsets I want and maybe even see a few humpback whales (they’re making babies in July after migrating from
Antarctica to the warmer waters off the coast of Ecuador).

I never thought I would want to get out of paradise, but it’s time. June 4th is our official one-year anniversary in Cuenca and we have yet to travel to the coast. So we’re making it a mini-vacation, along with a trip to the "Poor Man’s Galapagos" (Isla de Plata). The giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and other creatures await us.

Our good friend, “Bob” who has lived in Cuenca for 17 years, thought we would never make it to Puerto Lopez (his favorite place). So we surprised him with our announcement the other day and he said, “Can I come?”

Of course! “Bob” gave us some insider information on the area and some of his favorite places that no one knows about—including a private beach. I’m sworn to secrecy right now, but I don’t know for how long. I guess it’s pretty much off the beaten path, but the water is crystal clear and the snorkeling is amazing.

I think if I had my choice, I’d be parked in a beach chair somewhere along the coast of Ecuador. But I married a mountain man and I don’t think the lack of sunsets in Cuenca is going to change his mind!

But a girl can dream—can’t she?

Until next time…hasta luego!

Technorati Tags: Mandala Hosteria, Puerto Lopez, sunsets in Cuenca, retiring in Ecuado
*Photo of Puerto Lopez

Friday, May 27, 2011

Condo Considerations

“Mark, did you hear that hissing noise?” I asked.

As Mark rolled over to go back to sleep, I decided to investigate. It was 3:00 a.m. and all was quiet except for the sound of “hissing snakes” in the kitchen.

I opened up the cabinet that houses the “cilindros de gas” (propane tanks) and realized that was the problem: it blew its top!

By that time, Mark was by my side trying to put a “lid” on the whole thing. He turned off the propane tanks and called the security guard downstairs. While they both talked about the leak and how fortunate we were to be alive, I shuffled back to the bedroom and fell asleep.

As you know, I’ve been a “little” under the weather lately and the thought of dying in my sleep went right over my head. But looking back on it now, we both realize that we were very fortunate. Adding to the distress was the fact that our carbon monoxide alarm didn't go off, which was perfectly normal. Carbon monoxide is a different gas than propane (duh!). Back to chemistry class we go!

If you’re looking for a condo, you have two choices: centralized gas or “cilindros de gas.” These propane tanks are sold everywhere and little vans circle the neighborhood--honking their horn--signaling everyone to get out their empty tanks and exchange them for full ones. Our security guards do this for us. They carry the full tanks upstairs to our apartment, hook them up, and away they go. “Yes” we tip them for their services!

Normally, tanks are housed outside your condo along with the tank-less water heater system, but our “cilindros” are housed in the built-in cabinets by the kitchen door. We now close the door, open the window in the kitchen, and turn off the tanks at night (lesson learned!).

The newer condos in Cuenca and many of the high-rise condos are all being built with centralized gas. Those that are not contain the propane tanks or “cilindros de gas.” It was no big deal for us to make the switch from the Palermo building to our current place because we had dealt with “cilindros” in Italy for six years. It was just part of life!

In all our years in Italy, we had absolutely no problem with "cilindros" and this incident was our first in Ecuador. There are ways you can test for leaks in your tank, which is a subject of another post, and also if you buy from the same vendor you can probably lessen your chances of getting a faulty tank. But life is not guaranteed—things go wrong.

If you want to sleep better at night and not worry about things that go “hiss” in the night, I suggest that you look for a place with centralized gas or at the very least, make sure your place has tanks positioned outside the house!

Until next time…hasta luego!

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Down Under!

Monday I was feeling a little off and then Tuesday night after dinner—with some new friends to Cuenca— I was down under. “La gripe” hit like ten-foot waves and I got swallowed up. I couldn’t move, barely could lift my head off the pillow and ached from head to toe. My fever broke on Thursday, so I felt a little more human, but not really.

“Yes,” even in paradise we get sick! It hurts even more because I was just about to blog on how wonderful it’s been to enjoy perfect health all year.

The flu season in Ecuador is Apri-May (I did not know this!). In Ecuador it’s called “la gripe estacional”– seasonal flu. You don’t want this—whatever it is. Mark even threatened to put me in quarantine and finally made me go to the doctor today because I lost my voice. Can you believe that? What good is a writer without her voice?

Little squeaks came out of my mouth instead of full sentences, so Mark had to talk on the phone with Dr. Parra. He offered to meet us at the hospital (Monte Sinai). Since his office was being remodeled by a lovely expat couple, we went downstairs to the ER where he checked me out thoroughly, including making me gag on the tongue depressor. I simply cannot stand that little stick! After the official diagnosis, I was sent home with two scripts and a warning not to drink cold liquids—just tepid. And rest, rest, rest.

It would be simple except we have lots of blog readers coming into town this week and I want to be out celebrating with them. We’ve seen them through the birth of an idea to the final “pack up your bags” and get on the plane stage. It’s been fun to get the updates from their Blackberry, including—“boarding the plane now.” You just can’t help but get excited for them. I hope they can hear me “squeak” from the bleachers! We might have to put off celebrating—for a week or so—until I get my voice back.

This isn’t exactly how I planned to celebrate this weekend—down under. But if I’m a really good girl, I plan to be back on the streets of Cuenca finding some more good stories to share with you. I’m using this bedside time to write some Chicken Soup stories and enjoy going through our son and daughter-in-law’s wedding album from May 30, 2010. Wow, it’s almost been a year!

Until next time…hasta luego!

NOTE: If you need a great doctor (internal medicine specialist and pulmonlogist), Dr. Pablo Parra is only a phone call away. Please, as a matter of respect, don’t call him “Pablo”—always use the Usted form (you) for politeness and respect. I heard some expats calling him “Hey, Pablo” and I nearly fell off the exam table. We are taking cultural classes along with our Spanish and our teacher still uses the Usted form with her father (as a matter of respect). As you learn the right way of doing things, adjust your thinking, and then put it into practice.

Internal Medicine and Pulmonology
Hospital Monte Sinai
Miguel Cordero 6-111 y Av. Solano
Cuenca, Ecuador
Cell: 09-610-8523
Landline: 288-5595 (Ext. 2511)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Paris in Cuenca?

A couple of years ago, some good friends and I traveled to Paris in the springtime. It was lovely and I have great memories of our trip. But I returned home about five pounds heavier because I literally ate my way through the city!

I loved everything about Paris: the Eiffel tower all lit up at night, the boulangeries on every corner, and the sidewalk cafes at every turn.

And you know what? Cuenca reminds me a lot of Paris—with its cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes (yes, we have them!), wrought-iron balconies and bougainvillea cascading down windowsills and filling in archways.

Okay, I realize that Simón Bolívar isn’t exactly the Champs Élysées and the Tomebamba River isn’t the Seine, but it sure creates a “starting place”!

Yesterday while we were walking home from church, I spotted a patch of pink and black out of the corner of my eye. It was “Chantilly .” I had seen it a few times from the bus, but it wasn’t convenient to stop or it was closed. But today—of all days—it was open.

When I stepped inside, I blurted out, “It’s Paris!”

Mark thought I was nuts and the baker smiled politely and asked if I needed anything.

Of course, I did!

I “needed” everything behind the counter, including the cute little cheesecake "thingy" with cookie crumbs sprinkled on top and doused in white chocolate. When I took a bite, I couldn’t help but think of all the pastries in Paris. But this one was so much better and it wasn’t at Euro prices!

Chantilly Pastelería is definitely my new Paris in Cuenca and I'll be back!

Until next time… au revoir!

Note: Chantilly Pastelería is located on the corner of Remigio Crespo and Av. Loja, Cuenca, Ecuador (closed on Mondays).


Friday, May 13, 2011

Culture Shock: One-Year Anniversary!

We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary in Cuenca, so we celebrated today at Piedra de Agua (thermal springs) in Baños. I cashed in my Mother’s Day coupon, we grabbed the #11 bus, and off we went.

The weather was almost perfect (cloudy with a chance of sprinkles). Believe it or not, I love cloudy days in Cuenca because it makes the colors so much more vibrant and the warm thermal springs that much hotter! While we were soaking in the three different pools, we took some time to reflect on all we have been through this past year in Ecuador.

Most of us don’t talk that much about “culture shock,” but it’s a very real thing! Even if you’re progressing quite nicely in the language, you love your condo down by the river, and you enjoy basking in the sunshine on your morning walks, you have to realize that moving to another country is a big deal. Although compared to our life in the States—where we literally ran a three-ring circus—this is truly paradise. But still there are some major-life changing events that have taken place.

In the book, Culture Shock, the author Myron Loss talks about some of the life-changing events that happen when you begin life in a new culture. A score of 300 or more (life-changing points) makes you more susceptible to disease, accidents, and surgery. And it’s even more drastic when you’re coming right from the workforce to life in paradise. It’s literally a shock to the system!

Here are some of the possible life-changing points you might experience as you transition into another culture:

*Change in financial state (38)
*Change to different line of work (36)
*Change in living conditions (25)
*Revision of personal habits (24)
*Change in work hours or conditions (20)
*Change in residence (20)
*Change in recreation (19)
*Change in church activities (18)
*Change in social activities (18)
*Change in number of family get-togethers (15)
*Change in eating habits (15)
*Change in language (50)

TOTAL 299 points

Additional points: marriage (50); gain of a new family member (39); personal injury or illness (53); change in health (44); spouse begins or stops work (26).

I purposely left out the additional points you get for selling a house, moving, and shipping a container because I didn’t want to stress you out too much!

But I have to say that after you reach the one-year mark, you have passed over a major hurdle. To be honest with you, some couples don’t make it that far (one or both of them can’t adjust).

What I’m getting at is paradise has its benefits and it also has some stress points during the first year. You can minimize some of the points by being aware that they exist. I won’t tell you how many points Mark and I have racked up, but let’s just say we were way over the 299 points (I mean way over!). Even so, Mark and I have managed to lose weight and lower our blood pressure. Mark was taking ten different medications when he first arrived and now is only on one! Our doctor told us that it’s not unusual; in fact, he sees it all the time.

Life in paradise has significant health benefits that far outweigh any life-changing points that you may experience during your transition. You can also minimize some points by being careful how much you take on during your first year here. Remember: you don’t have to say “yes” to every dinner invitation; you don’t have to attend every social function; you don’t have to go to language school every day for eight hours; and you don’t have to feel guilty for leaving your family or kids behind.

Life in paradise is what you make it and you get to decide how you’re going to live it! Please be kind to yourself while you’re packing up, moving, and transitioning. The honeymoon period can truly last a lifetime if you take baby steps, listen to your heart, and don’t take on too much at one time.

We hope we can celebrate your one-year anniversary someday!

Until next time…hasta luego!

*Courtesy of: Loss, Myron, Culture Shock, Light and Life Press, pg. 77.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Voting and Mother's Day!

Mark and I voted for the first time in Ecuador after a lot of confusion and discussion. When we entered our Cedula numbers into the official voting website, we were directed to show up on Saturday at Remigio Crespo Elementary School (San Sebastian voting precinct) and bring our Cedula cards with us.

Just like in the States, voting takes place in public buildings; ours was Remigio Crespo Elementary School. There was a long line that formed outside of the school and wrapped around the block, so we had no trouble locating where we should present our Cedulas.

After looking up our numbers in the computer system, we were directed to a station. This is where it got interesting: “hombres” were separated from the “mujeres.” Can you believe that? Mark went upstairs and I had to stay downstairs!

After about a 15-minute wait, I wiggled myself to the front of the line and presented my Cedula card once again. The volunteer checked off my name and presented me with a ballot, while I scooted on over to the voter’s “booth.” After making my selections (pen to paper), I folded my ballot into fourths and dropped it in the box. After that, I was given my “voter registration card.”

There were several booths set up on the grounds of the school that offered to laminate our cards for 30 cents, so we took the plunge! It’s official: we’re registered voters and we participated in our first election in Ecuador.

So what did we vote on? The 7th Popular Vote of Ecuador included—among other things—making bullfighting illegal and freedom of speech in the press (constitutional reforms).

During the period leading up to the popular vote and until 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, alcohol was not allowed to be sold in stores or served in restaurants. Ecuador likes sober voters!

Since we were already at “al centro,” we decided to celebrate the occasion with “Mother’s Day” almuerzo at Hotel Santa Lucia. Since Mother’s Day is quite a busy day for restaurants in Cuenca, we took advantage of the calm before the storm and enjoyed "Santa Lucia" to ourselves! Our total bill came to $18.99 (tax and gratuity!).

Afterwards, Mark asked, “Do you want to go for some ice cream at Tutto Freddo?” Now, what kind of question is that? We hopped on over to Parque Calderon and enjoyed “Oreo Cookie” ice cream and took our cup to go while we checked out all the gorgeous flower arrangements for sale at the open market.

Voting is taken seriously in Ecuador and many friends called to make sure we were at the polls. If you do not vote when your Cedula number pops up on the computer screen, you can be fined up to $30.

Mother’s Day and voting will forever be linked to my Ecuadorian experience!

Feliz Dia de la Madre!


Friday, May 6, 2011

Island in the Sun

Recently, our friends found their “island” in the sun—along the river at Rio Sol. This new development in Cuenca is a gated community with trails for bikes, wide streets, a riverfront view and close to a new shopping mall!

Shelley and Blaine are not your typical expats. They are a young family of four with elementary-age children who run an internet business from home (and the office!).

Originally, they came to Ecuador—ten years ago—to adopt, but instead they were blessed with two children of their own and decided to make Cuenca their home.

We were invited over for “almuerzo” to see their new place after months of anticipation. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. Their home is absolutely amazing with 3,000 square feet, three stories (or was it four?), a front yard, backyard, and amazing light streaming through the windows. Their home is open, airy and peaceful. My favorite room in the house is the master bedroom with a view of the river and a walk-in shower that’s as big as my kitchen!

So where did they find this spectacular place?

Blaine is a businessman in Cuenca and heard about this house for rent from a co-worker. They are renting with the option to buy. It’s absolutely perfect for their family of four and their dog, Princesa (Princess).

While we ate lunch we talked about the different housing options that are available in Cuenca and Blaine posed an interesting question, “What is it that you want and what are you willing to give up?”

I never heard it put that way before, but that question has a lot more to do with our lives than just real estate!

All of us gave up a certain way of life to come to Cuenca. For us, it meant living on one-tenth of what we made in the States. Think about that—one-tenth?!? I’m not quite sure what we did with all that money, but we never had enough. We felt like we had to keep up with the Jones: new house, new car, and a lifestyle that went with it. In the end, we were absolutely miserable.

We traded all that in to live simply and purposefully. We don’t have a car, we don’t own a house, and we don’t have to keep up with the Joneses anymore!

Yes, we did give up a lot to come down here, but in exchange we found what was elusive to us in the States—a life that money can’t buy!

We learned a long time ago that the accumulation of things, rarely—if ever—makes us happy. Our new life in Cuenca (more with less) has actually allowed us to create our own “island in the sun.”

Until next time…hasta luego!


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Eat, Pray, Fly!

My author friend, Patty, is flying down to Ecuador in the month of June to write her version of the book Eat, Pray, Love. She’s fluent in Spanish and will be staying at a nearby hostel. When I spoke with her last night, she asked me about the best way to fly to Ecuador and how to find the cheapest ticket. I covered some of that information in the book, but here are some more “cheap ticket” ideas:

*Book your ticket on a Tuesday, actually to be
precise (Wednesday at 1:00 a.m.). After that time the various airlines go into price-war mode and the tickets will start to escalate—reaching a peak on Monday.

*Try to schedule your flight on a Tuesday to Tuesday or Wednesday to Wednesday for the cheapest fare or if it’s a short flight, Thursday to Sunday works best.

*Keep with one airline. We use American Airlines because we’re accumulating air miles. But obviously if there’s a flight for $416 versus $700, we’ll book on the cheaper airline.

*Overnight flights are less expensive (but you already knew that). No one likes to take the red eye, but sometimes it works out for the best.

*Look for an airline that puts you at your destination in the morning. The good thing about an overnight flight is the fact that you arrive at your destination in the a.m., which means you don’t have to spend the night in Quito or Guayaquil.

One of the flights I looked at from Philadelphia to Guayaquil, puts you in Guayaquil at 11:00 a.m.; however there’s a 9-hour layover in the Miami airport. It’s a trade-off. Do you want to spend 9 hours in the Miami airport or arrive in the evening at Guayaquil and spend the night? As a writer, I love being stuck in airports and watching people, but others would rather NOT!

*American Airlines and LAN airlines have cheap tickets code-share agreements, so you can still rack up the frequent flyer miles. Personally, I would rather take LAN airlines any day of the week. Their airbuses are wonderful, the service is exceptional and the crew is always professional and kind. American Airlines has the great distinction of being the “meanest” airline in the skies and missed being the worst airline second only to United. I’m not sure what happened to the "friendly skies," but better choices might be Copa or Continental.

*Book on CheapTickets. With few exceptions, booking on CheapTickets has been our best bet. The only exception is if you go directly into the airline site (i.e., AmericanAirlines) and book directly from them. Sometimes the airlines will have a cheaper price by $20 or so, but not always.

*Be flexible on dates and times. When you book a flight make sure you leave the times flexible, that way it will bring up a list of all the flights ranging from daytime flights to the red eye. Of course, the “sleepy” flights will always be cheaper.

For June 1-29, 2011, I found a ticket with LAN/American from Philly to Guayaquil for $646 ($759 including tax and fees). Tickets in that time frame ranged from $646 to $1,500, which is not too bad for the summer months. However, two months ago, I was able to find a ticket for $416 (roundtrip), but I think we won’t be seeing those prices for a while.

There are some good deals out there; it just takes some researching. Month to month and week to week the prices change. Many airlines allow you to bring up a window to check the fluctuations during the month to find the lowest price. You can also subscribe to FareCompare, Yapta or Kayak to track prices. For instance, in the months of October-November, the cheapest time to fly is on October 28th. You can even sign up for their alert e-mails to let you know when a particular flight is hitting an all time low.

If you’re willing to be flexible with your flying dates and times and you’re willing to fly the “not so friendly skies,” you just might be able to snag a good deal and write your version of the book, “Eat, Pray and Fly."

Until next time...hasta luego!

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