A New Kind of Blog

There is a world of information about Ecuador. It is one of the most popular countries for people who want to retire to a place where the dollar goes much farther than in the US, a place for adventuresome families who want to experience a new language and exciting culture. However, much of what you read or hear does not touch on the practical, the problematic, or the local information necessary to make things work. There are many blogs which are basically daily diary’s from people who live here. But this blog will be different. We know how hard it is to get accurate and timely information. We have been through it. All of us who live here have learned step by step and we question whether it is necessary to have every newcomer reinvent the wheel. We hope this blog will help shorten the learning curve. There are many hurdles but all are surmountable. What is required is patience, an understanding of local ways, and a realization that you are going to live in a country which is not the same as the US, Canada, or Britain. Our choice was to live in the wonderful city of Cuenca in the Southern Sierra but this may not be your decision and you will therefore have to look further to find the answers you need for different areas like the coast or the Amazon. Please realize that all the suggestions and ideas are based on our experiences. Ecuadorian regulations change rapidly and must be checked before you make any investments or major decisions. Please email us at Sailorburr@gmail.com and let us know if you have any questions or comments.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


It was inevitable. As we have mentioned before, there are almost no cats in Ecuador. The pet shops have to special order them and can only get two breeds Siamese and Persians. The vets rarely have them. You can advertise in the newspaper and see if someone with a new liter will read your ad.  Or, you can do what Loretta did and go to the huge indigenous market where they sell almost every kind of live animal to see what might be there. While I sat in our parked car to guard it from any problem, Loretta and Jonny went into the huge live animal market. They wandered down rows of cages packed with live chickens, roosters, rabbits, dogs, guine pigs, and finally found one with kittens. Though there were only a few available – a mixed breed female for $5, a semi-Siamese for a little more and, Alex (instantly named by Jonny) a Siamese for $20. The next thing I knew was Loretta carrying, back to the car, a tiny bundle in her arms. She had bought the Siamese.

We raced off to the vet who gave him a shot for parasites, an anti flea lotion on his back, and cut his nails and then pronounced him a healthy cat.  A quick visit to Supermaxi for cat food and litter which we found is very expensive in Ecuador.

Though terrified b y the car ride and Jonny’s need to hold it, Alex survived and is now sleeping under the bed.  It seems Ecuador is just one adventure after another. Now, we have a cat.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cost of Living

There are three of us living in a high end apartment building in Cuenca. Except for unusual expenditures, we are living on Social Security and a pension which amounts to $3000 a month. We have those amounts automatically deposited to our bank in the US. When we need cash we withdraw fairly large amounts from any one of the many ATM machines in town. There is a $5 international transaction fee for each withdrawal. But, this is by far the most efficient way to pay for daily items in Ecuador’s cash society. Again, we are living very well and two people and a child, like us, could live far less expensively.  Here is a rough breakdown of our monthly expenses.
$740 – Rent – We pay $600 rent and $140 building maintenance fee. You would not have this expense if you owned and most apartments are less expensive especially if they are unfurnished.
$45 – Electric bill – we pay no water or gas bill as it is included in rent. It would run about $30 max.
$60 – Gasoline and maintenance – Taxis and busses are cheap but we opt to own a car so we could travel easily.
$108 – Internet – this is expensive. We have two computers therefore we need two Porta USB modems at $54 each that connect to our computer’s USB ports.
$70 – Direct TV – Cable is less expensive but Direct Satellite TV is the most English friendly and is very reliable.  We have contracted for almost every channel they offer. Fewer premium channels would cost less.
$120 – Maid – For two days a week cleaning and two evenings a week as a sitter.
$222 – School – The primary schools we have investigated run from $126 to $350 per month.
$100 – Expatriate meetings – About $25 per Friday evening covers wine and appetizers for two.
$240 – Eating out – We eat out about 8 times a month. Each evening runs approximately $30 for two.
$15 – Haircuts - $4 for men x 2, $6-11 for women x 1
$60 – Gym – 3 times a week at $5 for two for each visit
$200 – Cash – Miscellaneous pocket money
$800 – Food – purchased at the Supermaxi and the co-op, we spend about $36 a day for 3 people. Buying produce at one of the mercados would save a great deal of money.
$2780 – Total per month for three of us. This leaves about $200 for all those unexpected items like a $25 visit to a doctor, or some new clothes, or a new cell phone, etc.  Again, I want to repeat that we are living very well on about 30% of what we spent each month in the US. We know many expatriates who are living on less than half of what we spend per month.
Here is a more detailed list of a recent visit to Supermaxi.  We have not included much produce as it is so inexpensive at the coop  and the mercados as to appear almost ridiculous.

The following list is for items that we think might be more expensive than in the US.
$6.31 – Box of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes
$1.20 – 2 liter bottle of Coke Light
$4.74 – 2 kilograms uncooked whole chicken
$6.35 – Quart of Florida Natural orange juice – This is almost out of sight costwise.
$1.34 – Box of Ritz crackers
$6.21 – 40 Huggies diapers
$2.17 – 350 gram bag of Ruffles potato chips

Some of the following items are familiar and some are Ecuadorian rake-offs of more expensive imported products.
$5.93 – 12 bottles of Pilsner beer.  This is a good local beer that most people drink
$3.32 – 6 pack of yogurt – There are about 10 different brands. Yogurt is popular.
$2.89 – 500 grams of La Chonta cheese – an excellent local stringy cheese
$4.54 – 0.5 kilogram of flank steak
$0.93 – Bag of microwave pop corn
$0.80 – Stick of butter
$0.59 – liter of fresh milk in a plastic bag – milk comes in plastic bags or boxes
$3.43 – 550 grams of Gonzalez Cheddar cheese – So far the best cheddar we have found
$2.08 – 6 La Europa hot dogs – many brands available in all sizes beef and chicken
$1.73 – 200 gram package of sliced ham – many brands available in different hams
$0.91 – can of tuna
$0.74 – 400 grams of spaghetti
$2.25 – Bottle of Rubino Spaghetti sauce
$1.36 – 400 grams of Maggi ketchup
$2.43 – 400 grams of Maggi mayonnaise
$3.77 – 600 gram jar of Meil honey – This is a lot of honey
$1.84 – 550 gram jar of fruit jam
$1.34 – 2 kilograms of sugar
$2.05 – 2 kilograms of rice
$2.65 – 2.5 kilograms of small potatoes
$0.81 – bag of bread crumbs
$1.43 – large cantelope
$1.54 – 500 grams of fresh strawberries
$2.14 – Box of McDougal’s corn flakes
$1.16 – Box of Schullo’s granola – not up to par with some in the US
$1.93 – 350 gram bag of locally made potato chips
$1.18 – box of Ricas (Ritz rake-off) crackers
$2.37 – Liter of Garasol sunflower cooking oil
$1.61 – box of 12 fresh eggs – strangely they don’t refrigerate eggs when on sale
$2.37 – 3 kilograms of juice oranges – five different kinds of juice oranges available
$1.51 – liter box of Nestle orange juice
$4.85 – Liter box of Clos white wine- a very decent Chilean wine in a box
$9.12 – 750 cc Bacardi Cuban rum – yes Cuban rum. It is fantastic
$2.67 – 750 cc bottle of Zhumir Tacao chocolate liquor – actually rivals Bailey’s
$2.36 – 12 fresh red roses – this is expensive. Can get 18 for same price at flower market
$7.00 – 4 kilograms of Procan dog food – Procan is the preferred dog food here
$1.47 – Spray bottle of Virginia cleaner (Windex)
$2.21 – Roll of Diamond plastic wrap
$3.42 – package of 12 rolls of Supermaxi toilet paper
$2.20 – package of 3 rolls of Elite paper towels

This is possibly a lot to absorb but hopefully, this list will give you some comparisons when thinking about the cost of food.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Christmas Day
The buildup to Christmas was over and the big day upon us. Jonny was, of course, beside himself with anxiety over whether Santa would find our apartment without a chimney and how was he ever going to get to every child in the world before dawn. We did our best to ward off his fears. At 6:10 AM our bedroom door flew open and the announcement was made that Santa had come. All was saved. A half hour later every package had been torn open, each toy played with and we had gulped down a saving cup of coffee. All morning was spent in a child’s world, a place almost all of us have forgotten. Then off in the car into the mountains on one of the sunniest, bright days we have ever seen. Up and out of Cuenca through the street lined with tall brick apartment buildings where so many of our friends live, through little villages with whole families sitting by the road watching the cars go by, up and up into the Cajas National Park. At about 12,000 feet, we turned off the highway onto a dirt road that winds along a stream and ponds filled with trout.

We were headed toward our favorite fish restaurant, Dos Chorreras or Two Falls, for Christmas dinner. It was unusual for us to put on sweaters but it is quite cool at that altitude even though we are almost on the equator. Jonny played in the woods, slipping and sliding down grassy hills, jumping a tumbling brook, and pretending to fish with a stick in a little lake. Then came a huge dinner of delicious potato soup, steak and trout, a carafe of sweet Ecuadorian liquor for Loretta and me, plus an enormous selection of deserts, that ran $25 for the three of us. It was almost impossible to get Jonny to leave after two women workers from the fish ponds dumped two large buckets of trout into an indoor pond. All the children in the restaurant spent the next hour helping the fish “come to” after the shock of being netted and carried up the hill in buckets. A photo I missed was Jonny holding a foot long rainbow trout in both of his little hands with an expression on his face of sheer joy and success.

He napped after such a long day as we drove through Cuenca to see what was going on, passed some parades and came home exhausted and happy. Aided by Santa, Cuenca’s effervescent holiday spirit, and the joy of our child, Christmas in Cuenca lived up to all of our expectations and more.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Christmas Eve

Christmas is upon us and the frenzy is palpable.Tonight, the evening before Christmas eve, there were events everywhere. We insisted Jonny take a nap this afternoon as we knew he would be up late, then a taxi into town to conserve our energy and into the huge New Cathedral on Parque Calderon. Along with a thousand other revelers, we sat in a pew right by the orchestra and listened to the Cuenca Symphony play both English and Spanish Christmas carols. The cathedral is so huge that the acustics were not the best but the enthusiasm of the audience made up for it. Jonny clapped and sang along with the chorus.

We decided to go to the other Navidad event at the parque and entered the Old cathedral just across the square. As we entered, we heard a girl’s choir singing just prior to a very elaborate Christmas manger pagent.  After listening to them sing and act out the nativity scene, we went out into the parque where the 30 man Ecuadorian army band was playing rousing military music, slightly inappropriate but nevertheless very lively.  Jonny was rubbing his eyes by this point so we didn’t stay for the huge standing fireworks display to explode in all its glory. When we got home, the children in our building were all crowded around a huge paper balloon that had somehow chosen our yard to drop into. We looked up into the night sky which was filled with at least 15 paper balloons. More and more followed. They are like miniature gas balloons made of colorful paper around a frame that supports a wad of burning cloth. The heat from the fire causes the balloon to rise into the air where the wind takes it where it will. When the flame burns out the balloon falls gently to the ground. We watched one very large one rise up from town shooting off fireworks that lasted for at least five minutes. An amazing amount of balloons rose up from at least 9:00 to 11:00PM. At the stroke of eleven, we heard loud explosions and saw the smoke rising from the huge ground fireworks display at Parque Calderon.  Our only regret after such an evening full of Christmas was that there was so much going on in town that we might have missed something.  Tomorrow is the Children’s parade, a 6 hour long parade through town that is an absolute “don’t miss” event. Christmas in Ecuador is a more grand extension of our past Christmas’s and confirms, once again, that this country absolutely venerates children. Almost every event we went to was crowded with children and many were elaborate events directed just at them.  At the very least, Christmas in Ecuador brings out the child in everyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Real Estate

Just 15 minutes outside of Cuenca by car or taxi, is a suburb called Challuabamba.  Not many years ago, it was a small farming community but since it has recently been incorporated into the City of Cuenca, it is exploding with new home construction and all the necessary stores to support a growing community. Much of its charm comes from the fact that Challuabamba is located at a lower altitude where it gets less rain and is about 5 degrees warmer than nearby Cuenca.  When we first saw it, we fell in love with the town and bought a big home, a mansion by anyone’s terms, that is located on a mountainside with views that go on forever.

We did a huge amount of redecorating and remodeling to suit our North American tastes that included a glass roof over the indoor swimming pool, the construction of a large terrace with BBQ and fireplace, a modern master bathroom with Jacuzzi, hand crafted closets everywhere as there were no closets in the house at all, and a wonderful, large kitchen with granite counter tops. The house has six bedrooms and seven baths and will be sold unfurnished. Why, you might ask do we have such an incredible house up for sale? It is a long story, but briefly, we were foolish and took no safety precautions. We left the doors unlocked and the gate open. Plus, our lifestyle made us stand out as potentially rich gringos and the house was robbed. We have since installed a motion sensor security system and beefed up the entry gate security. But, our grandson was very frightened by the experience. The house was also far from the school he knew and wanted to attend. Though we still love this dream house, we have decided to place our grandsons’ needs first and have moved into an apartment in Cuenca.

As far as buying real estate in Ecuador, you will find that realtors do not operate like in the US. We believe there is no such thing as an official real estate license. All it seems to take is to print a card, open up a website and post houses for sale or rent. You seldom see a for sale sign in front of a home as people do not want to advertise that the house is empty. Commissions run from 3% if you are an Ecuadorian to 5% if you are a foreigner. The commission the realtor charges will be higher if the realtor does all the paper work for you. But, most often the realtor recommends a lawyer who does the title search, the notary requirements and the bill of sale. It is a much less formal system than in the US, with the clear title search probably being the most important aspect as you need to know if there are any hidden liens or title problems.

 So, in essence, often the realtor merely does the job of locating homes or condos for sale and then shows them to you. There is no such thing as MLS listings in Ecuador. Homes for sale are located by chance or from heresay.

The next step with a realtor, if you come to an agreement with a seller, is to go to a lawyer who will then do all the paper work.
But back to our house for sale in Challuabamba. Take a look at some of the photos. The tennis court in front of the house is still owned by the previous owner but can also be purchased. If you are interested, please be in touch with us and we will pass on whatever information you might need plus more photos than can be posted here. The purchase price for the house is $375,000 which for 7000 square feet under roof is quite a bargain even by Ecuadorian standards. If you come to visit, we would be pleased to show it to you. And, by purchasing directly from us, you would save a 5% commission.  If you like the house, we would put you in touch with a great lawyer who speaks English and is probably the best in town.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


The Ecuadorian is an enormously friendly person. There are many rumors that it is impossible to get close to an Ecuadorian if you are a gringo. We have not found this to be the case and thankfully have made a number of close friends with the locals. There is a much stronger cast system here than we have ever seen before, a real division between the have and have-nots, the educated and the working class, or those with Spanish heredity and the indigenous Indian population. We shocked our Ecuadorian friends when we greeted our Indian maid with the ubiquitous Ecuadorian greeting hug. Speaking of hugs, it is very common when you first meet someone to give them a hug and a bus on the cheek. Friends, male and female, almost always greet each other this way. When you thank someone for something with ”Gracias,’ the common reply is “De nada,” or literally “It is nothing.” When you ask directions to a store or a street you are unfamiliar with, the person you have asked will always tell you something whether they know the answer or not. It is embarrassing to them to not be able to give you the answer to your question. It would make them feel foolish, so they tell you something, anything to seem knowledgeable. However in contrast, downtown, if you stop in a store and ask where something is, more often than not if it is close by, the clerk or proprietor will walk you there to show you. Such gracious and unsolicited friendliness is the rule not the exception.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Children at Christmas

As we mentioned, Christmas is the big holiday here in Ecuador and there would be no more proof than the many, many Christmas school pagents performed all over town. Last week there were booths set up in the parks and holiday inventory was brought out in most stores, all catering to the need for Christmas pagent costumes. Our Jonny was not left out. He was assigned the role of Melchior, one of the wisemen. So, off we went looking for a crown, purple robe, sash and beard for a four year old. In San Francisco Park, almost all of the booths that usually sell only native Indian crafts had, on this special week, women busily sewing Christmas pagent paraphanalia. For a few dollars, we got the necessary costume parts and spent the next evening trying to make it fit and stay on a restless little boy. There was huge excitement the day of the pagent. The entire school spent the day at the San Sebastian Church yard rehearsing.  At the appointed hour we sat in front row seats of the church yard among a crowd of about three hundred parents. Angels, wisemen, Marys and Josephs paraded onto the scene. Spanish Christmas music played over loudspeakers and, class by class, songs were sung and the nativity scene was acted out. A huge success for all, especially the children who, though usually quite shy, sang out loud and clear. There is a seven year old blind boy who stood at one of the microphones and sang his heart out with a huge smile on his face. Christmas is a season where we too easily forget the real reason for the holiday but it came through for everyone, old and young last Friday evening. To see the children’s faces filled with joy at the applause and genuine attention who have never performed in front of an audience, was a pleasure to behold. And, a similar scene went on at each of the hundreds of schools in Cuenca. The costume is now packed away until next year. And the long wait for Christmas begins.

Friday, December 11, 2009


If anything is absolutely universal here, it is the Ecuadorian love of children and family. It is very common for three generations to live in the same home. There are many children as Ecuador has a young population compared to the aging population in Europe and the US. Interestingly, most childbirth is done by cesarean section which is preferred by the medical profession. Cesareans are a much larger percentage than in the US. Children are adored and, even though a poor family has little, their children will be well clothed and may even be sent to a private school.  There are private pre-schools catering to children up to four on almost every block in the city. Public schools are also everywhere but most gringos choose to send their children to private school. Public or private, each school has a distinct uniform which the children from four to eighteen wear.  Almost all schools teach English at some level. One school we know of teaches English two hours a day yet another teaches English only twice a week. We have looked carefully at three schools for our 4 year old grandson who lives with us. The German School which is very regimented who do teach English but they don’t begin until the 4th grade. The school has an excellent reputation but, unfortunately, they teach German in the Spanish language from almost the beginning which would make it doubly difficult for an English speaking child.  Another, called the American School has one or two teachers who know English and is also quite regimented.

Then there is CEDEI who has many English speaking teachers plus student teachers from the US doing their college practicum. It is where Jonny goes to school.  Choosing a school is a very personal choice and really depends, as everywhere, on the child and his learning needs. There is a continual controversy in the expatriate community over whether to send a non-Spanish speaking child to total immersion at a school where no English is spoken or to a school with English speaking teachers.  We have tried both and have found our child was happiest in the later. The private schools require the parent to supply the books. But school work books written in English are extremely expensive. For instance, a simple pre-school workbook we bought for Jonny cost $37. It is not unusual for an American parent to think their child has been assigned to a class that is too young for their child when they visit the classroom for the first time. However, the size of an Ecuadorian child is illusive. The typical Ecuadorian child is much smaller than most American children (as are most adults) so they look much younger. Ecuadorian children are also very well behaved almost to the level of seeming shy. Our exuberant child stands out with his high energy as well as his curly, red hair but he is adjusting rapidly and is very proud of his burgeoning Spanish.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Ecuador is a Latin country with macho attitudes that are familiar to anyone who has seen movies of a Latin nation or read one of South America's great authors. The men are flirtatious, often swagger about and stare with impunity. Girls, from an early age on, are taught that beauty is essential. We went to a birthday party for a five year old girl where they had a beauty contest. Under the direction of an MC, the girls paraded around the room as if they were in a fashion show. They all looked and acted as if they were grown-ups. Ecuadorian women usually dress up and seldom wear casual clothes when they go out. The usual attire is high spiked heels with extremely tight spandex jeans, and low cut tops. However, if a woman works in a bank, a large office, or in a major store, she wears the same outfit as all the other women in the establishment which is basically a uniform consisting of a skirt, top and jacket.  All schools for children have a uniform.

Each school’s uniform is a different design and color. There are numerous uniform stores that carry huge inventories of all sizes for a half dozen schools. Public displays of affection are very common and you will often see young people innocently kissing each other on the street. You will seldom see a woman in a dress with the exception of the indigenous Indian women who wear colorful, pleated velvet skirts and embroidered tops. The Indian men, who are mostly workers, wear what we would call informal clothes. They go to a job site where they might be pouring concrete, change their street clothes to work clothes, work all day, then when it is time to go home, they change back into their street clothes, wash their hair, hands and faces in running water and go home looking as if they were going out for a special dinner. In the US, workers arrive in their soiled work clothes and go home in the same clothes, day after day. Hair styles for men are like other countries but young men often slick their hair down with a shinny pomade which makes their hair look soaking wet all day long. All in all, the appearance of Ecuadorians is one of neatness, cleanliness and personal care. We have probably not seen a single sloppy dresser with the exception of some foreign tourists.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Cuenca has the reputation of having a holiday, festival or parade occur almost every week. Every dawn there are a series of airborne salutes fired into the air by one church or the other. Five minutes later, another three explosions go off. No one seems to know why.  Huge nighttime fireworks displays happen many evenings each week. We asked why they fire off expensive pyrotechnics and someone said, “They shoot them off because they have them!” It seems like as good a reason as any. A recent celebration was a four day weekend holiday which was the city of Cuenca’s Independence Day. Each big city has an Independence Day, though no one seems to know why. More learned Ecuadorians might say each city experienced a revolution that freed the city from something oppressive but it is not information that is easy to come by. At the fireworks displays there is very little concern for safety and they seem quite dangerous because people crowd around the ground displays and get awfully close to stray rockets shooting out in all directions. During the Independence Day celebrations there were hundreds of art exhibits all over town.  At one of them, a Romanian friend exhibited extraordinary portraits of angels made of thousands of pieces of tinted glass. We bought one that is called “Seven Tears.” It was made of 14,000 tiny glass pieces all painted, fired and assembled into an almost life-like portrait. The rest of the gallery’s exhibit was of angels - paintings, statues, sculptures, Christmas decorations, etc. The holiday of Corpus Christi is another big event where there are hundreds of booths up and down the streets selling sugary confections that attract bees by the thousands but the bees don’t seem to deter anyone.  Most American kids here are disappointed about Halloween as it is only celebrated in a small way. Trick or treating doesn’t seem to have caught on yet.   We let Thanksgiving and Fourth of July slide by with little fanfare though we celebrated them with other American expatriates. Thanksgiving actually turned out to be a great day as friends threw a party for 25 Americans with all the trimmings. It kept a little bit of the US alive on such a special day for Americans. The Christmas season is a big deal in Ecuador.  We made a big mistake giving away or selling all our Christmas decorations and wonderful big tree before we came to Ecuador so we had to buy all new decorations but that was actually fun as there are some wonderfully creative and interesting things to buy. Lighted trees and decorations popped up everywhere weeks prior to our Thanksgiving. Then there are the many other Ecuadorian holidays that we are totally unfamiliar with. It will take some time to accustom ourselves with them yet they add to our very full calendar. Holidays and noisy celebrations are a way of life in Cuenca to which we have added our American holidays. All in all, they add up to an almost weekly occurrence.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


When we first made our plans to come to Ecuador, we asked our North Carolina doctor what we should do about potential altitude sickness. He recommended some expensive pills to take to ward off any side effects of arriving and staying at altitudes above 8000 feet. We were all rather surprised when we felt no effect of the altitude except some shortness of breath when we climbed stairs. We never used any of the pills and feel like we have adjusted to mountain living quite well. We have even been up to around 12,000 feet in the Cajas National Park though we did not do anything strenuous while up there. It was cold, however, and we needed to wear jackets and sweaters which is a real oddity here on the equator. Cuenca has a half dozen outdoor staircases that you climb to get from the river area up to the level of town. These stairs can be up to 100 steps each and it is fun to watch a family of Mom, Pop and a couple of kids race up to the top. We generally take a moment to rest half way up and are not surprised to see others doing the same thing. Then there are the futball players who are absolutely amazing. At this altitude, they race back and forth on the playing field seeming not to ever be out of breath. They must have the lung capacity of an elephant.
Even with the unregulated diesel fumes from the trucks and busses, the air here is clear and dry. Humidity is low and the temperature stays relatively constant. Around the second of December, a friend told us that he had seen a report saying that the temperature reached 81 degrees that day, a thirty year record high. We remark often that the temperature in Cuenca is near perfect, never too hot and never too cold. It is very special to read reports about severe weather in the States and look out the window in mid-winter at people walking by in T-shirts and jeans and flowers constantly in bloom. The weather may well be our favorite thing about Cuenca.


From the incredible mountain scenery to the chiseled faces of the Indian elderly and absolutely beatific babies, Ecuador is a photographers dream. Photoshop imaging software is almost unnecessary as the bright sunlight almost eliminates the need for fill flash or correcting underexposed shots. The biggest problem is having the camera ready when you come upon the “shot of the day.”  The best approach for this is to have a small pocket sized point and shoot camera ready to go at a moment’s notice.  I have a small Sony Supershot W230 that I keep in my shirt pocket that only takes seconds to start up and take a shot. For more planned photographs I use my Nikon D90 which has a long lens where I can take perfect close ups and which also gives me the distance to take photos of unsuspecting subjects. I hesitate to push a camera in the face of a 70 year old Indian trudging down the street with a huge package on his back. But, with a long lens I can take dozens of shots without his knowing I am taking them. Probably the best approach for an up close shot is to ask if you can take their picture and then show them the photo on the camera’s LCD. Some photographers even offer their subject a dollar for the privilege but I have not found it necessary.  Most people like to have their picture taken. The streets of colonial Cuenca are lined with old buildings, wrought iron balconies and carved wood doors all demanding to be photographed. A word of caution, however, is to be sure of your surroundings and the people around you when you bring out an expensive camera. It can be a very tempting target for petty thievery.
It takes some adjustment in your thinking about a shot’s composition when photographing in the bright sunlight of midday. As Cuenca is almost on the Equator, is high in the mountains at about 8000 feet, and often has totally cloudless days, the sunlight is exceptionally bright. It is so bright that when you first experience a clear bright day, it actually hurts your eyes. When people walk, they often carry an umbrella over their head or a scarf draped over their head and shoulders just to keep out of the sun. Sunscreen is almost essential. This extremely bright sunlight creates some very unusual photo possibilities. As an example, we drove up into the high mountains of the Cajas National Park only 20 minutes outside of Cuenca.  Looking down into the valleys, the grass was a green I had never seen before. It was so vivid in the natural light that it seemed as if I had put Photoshop on Vivid.

A suggestion would be to bring whatever camera equipment you need when you come to Ecuador. Purchasing a camera here is expensive, the selection is very limited and DSLR’s are almost non-existent.  Most cameras for sale are point and shoot types and, even those are limited to Kodak, Sony, and a few other less well known brands. There are almost no Canon’s or Nikon’s available.  As far as accessories go, there is absolutely nothing to be had at the camera stores.  I have not tried to order online and have a package sent directly to Cuenca as the duty on a new product would probably make the cost excessive. I have ordered equipment online and had it sent to a friend’s home in the US prior to their coming to Ecuador. They merely carry it onto the aircraft as hand luggage and bring it into the country duty free. 
If photography is a hobby of yours, there is probably nowhere else that approaches the photogenic possibilities as the people, scenery and climatic conditions in Cuenca and the mountain towns nearby.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Getting around Cuenca

It is really not really necessary to have a car if you live in the city as almost everything is within walking distance and taxis are cheap. If you have a home in the countryside it is almost essential to have a car. Purchasing a car here is expensive.  Most private cars appear to be Hyundai Tucson’s and Chevrolet Vitera SUV’s possibly because they are big and can dominate at the street crossings. To compliment the SUV’s there are many small subcompacts from every imaginable country including China and India.  It is interesting to see many old Volkswagen bugs, a lot of them dating back to the earliest models.

They have rusted out and been patched numerous times and, with a new paint job, look terrific yet always touch a nostalgic nerve. We have driven American automatic shift cars for so long that we felt we had to have one. We searched and searched for a used automatic and found they are almost non-existent in Ecuador. There are absolutely no automatics in the small cars and maybe one in a hundred among available SUV’s. We were fortunate enough to find one but also found the price for an automatic approximately 50% higher than a stick shift. However, gasoline is a real bargain. Ecuador is an oil exporter and the gasoline industry is nationalized. The government controls the price of gas which at present is $1.48 per gallon and has been so for the last year. There are no daily price increases or decreases like in the US. Getting an Ecuadorian driver’s license is a real hassle. It is expensive and we understand the driver’s test has to be taken in Spanish. Most gringos who opt to get one hire someone to take the test for them. For almost everything bureaucratic here in Ecuador there is someone who can do it for you. To register our Hyundai Tucson, we hired a taxi driver who specializes in car registrations. It took four stops, one to have the car inspected, another to get official papers that became covered with stamps, another to have copies made of everything in triplicate and lastly a visit to a special office that looked over everything and sent us out for more official papers.  Car insurance is yet another story, one we have yet to investigate. If it is like health insurance, the conclusion will be that you should self-insure as the insurance companies are notorious for not honoring claims. Good maps of Cuenca are hard to find. The best one is provided by Cathy at Cuenca Real Estate. It shows every street on hard, glossy heavy paper. Driving in Cuenca takes some getting used to as there are many one way streets. Most river crossings into town are also one way. There are very few street signs that identify cross streets so learning the basic thoroughfares is important. Home and business addresses in the city are numbered with a dash in the middle like 3-82 or 1-24.  If you have a car you will have to get used to the wild taxi drivers who dodge in an out of unbelievably small spaces often within inches of your fenders. It is a game of bluff where cars, trucks and busses inch their way into an intersection until they intimidate someone approaching to slow down and they then charge into the intersection. There are many traffic and driving rules just like in the US but they are mostly not obeyed. Police sit at the circles and intersections talking to each other and pay little attention unless there is a problem.  If you have an accident, the locals advise you not to call the police as it opens a potential criminal case if you are in the wrong. Most local drivers just leave the site of an accident. Our maid’s father was walking his cow across the Autopista in Challuabamba and both were killed by a car that just kept going and was never apprehended. Traffic circles are everywhere. You enter the circle after giving right-of-way to the cars already in the circle. Then, when there is enough space for your car, you enter quickly yet watch carefully for other cars trying to find a hole in the circular procession. Almost always some small car will dart into the circle from your right side letting your car shield him from oncoming traffic. At intersections, vehicles inch slowly forward, more and more until they are almost blocking the oncoming traffic. Again, they hope someone will get nervous, stop or slow down and let them proceed. Nighttime is even worse. Car radios are one of the items that petty thieves find almost too easy to steal and convert to cash.  Everyone advises that you take the removable radio out when you park the car almost anywhere except in the safety of your home. We have lost two radios due to carelessness on our part. But, driving is not really that bad. It just takes getting used to. Enormous patience and super care are primary requisites to navigating the city.
However, if driving is not your cup of tea, busses run often and go almost everywhere at twenty-five cents per trip. The 4 hour bus ride to the coast from Cuenca is approximately $8. One of our problems with the profusion of buses and the trucks is that they are all diesels and spew enormous quantities of black smoke. 
Taxis are also a bargain as you can go almost anywhere in the city for $1-2 although some taxi drivers take advantage of the Gringos who they think don’t know the system. Taxis at night are sometimes about a dollar more. Almost all taxis are little fiat’s, Yaris, or Chevrolet subcompact cars. Small and agile, they are the best way to get around the city. Just sit back and hang on. If you are driving a car, it is a little unnerving to be waiting at a red light and the moment the light goes green, a taxi behind you will start honking his horn. Seat belts are provided in private cars but are used much less than in the US. It is frightening to see children riding without car seats.  We have often seen a two or three year old’s head hanging out an open front seat window. Older children and the wives often ride in the back of an open pick-up truck along with the family dogs and merchandise.
Then there are the motorcyclists. Dirt bikes, mostly Yamaha’s, dart in and out of traffic with almost no concern for safety. It is a local belief that this is the fastest way to make your way through the grid-lock traffic in the city during the rush hours. Most motorcyclists wear no helmets. We have seen four people on one bike, Father at the handle bars, two kids squeezed into the space between him and Mom who has her arms circling around the kids. He might be wearing a helmet but no one else does. We know three men in their twenties and all three have had serious motorcycle accidents, each have been left with a limp and scars. Motocross racing is a big sports event and many of the bikes darting between cars in traffic have racing numbers painted on back.
Air travel is quite sophisticated in Ecuador with three local airlines serving the larger and even many of the small cities. The airlines are LAN Ecuador, Arogal and Tame. Since this is a mountainous country, air travel will save an enormous amount of travel time compared to road travel. For instance, driving from Quito to Cuenca can take eight to ten hours whereas a flight will take 30-45 minutes and today costs approximately $79 each way. Presently, Cuenca does not have an international airport but LAN Ecuador is planning direct flights from Cuenca to Miami and New York. This will be a great help for those traveling to and from the US as present schedules both ways require an overnight stay in Quito before flying on to your destination. Quito has an airport tax of approximately $45 to leave the country and a similar airport tax at Guayaquil is around $27.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shipping into and out of Ecuador

If you plan to ship furniture or other items to Ecuador, there is a very involved process with rules that change frequently. We chose Mayflower in the US to make a door to door shipment of a 40’ container from North Carolina to our new home in Cuenca. All I can advise is that you check with a reputable shipper in the US to find the latest information. The cost, based on weight for 15,000#, was approximately $12,000 which included insurance, packing in the US and unpacking in Cuenca, land transportation to Charleston, sea transport to Guayaquil, customs charges and land transportation to Cuenca. Guayaquil used to be famous for stealing from containers but with the new government this has lessened considerably. We had nothing stolen and nothing broken. We have heard that it is far less complicated to clear customs in Cuenca than it is in Guayaquil. Choosing what to bring and what not to bring is such an individual question that it will be up to you to decide. We wish that we had brought more and sold less in the US but there are others who arrived here with a dozen suitcases (paying the overweight air charges) and buying what they needed in Ecuador. It may be a tossup in cost but, in our case, we have the things we love. If you have individual packages shipped to Ecuador from the US, they will be either opened or valued according to the customs declaration and import duties will be added. This makes shipping from the US quite expensive unless it is something you need desperately. In the city there are street addresses but in the country there are no street names or house numbers. Some people take out post office boxes for $25 a year that are located around town like in the photo but this has not worked well for us.

 We do get mail at our apartment but it is, once again, not like in the US. Getting mail is not common. Letters are delivered by a man on a bicycle to our apartment but if we get a package, we receive a phone call from the post office telling us to come in to pay whatever import duty is due. To get a package at the post office, we have to go downtown between 8:00 and 12:30 on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday and stand on line while a national policeman opens the package, inspects it and announces its value which must be paid on the spot. There are no zip codes in Ecuador. To send a letter to the US, you go to the post office where the letter is weighed and postage of $1.00 – $4.00 is levied. It takes from 7 to 10 days for delivery in the US, depending on where it is going.

Health Care

There is a social security system here that provides health care to anyone who has residency. However, the Social Security hospitals are so crowded and busy that few expatriates use them. To get an appointment with a doctor at a Social Security hospital, people come at four in the morning to stand in line. There are a number of fine private hospitals where you can get almost any service required. Many of the doctors have trained in the US or Europe. Doctor visits are inexpensive at $20-30. After being accustomed to the long forms of health information required when you visit a doctor in the US, it is a little confusing when a doctor in Ecuador just asks a few questions and keeps no notes. But, they are thorough and spend a long time with you not the few minutes spent by doctors in the US. There are health plans but they are notorious for not paying claims presented to them. Most of us don’t subscribe to health plans but prefer to pay-as-we-go. Medicines are cheap compared to the US. Pharmacies dispense antibiotics and many other medicines after you describe your symptoms. Almost everything but narcotics can be obtained without a prescription. Vitamins and over the counter medicines are available but not all you are familiar with. Bring what you need in large quantities of items like Nyquil or laxatives. Then you will have enough until you discover whether your medication is available or not. We have ordered on line and had items we cannot find here sent via the mail but it is quite an expensive way to go. It is often better to find a locally made medication that will substitute for the one you have been using.

The Internet and cell phones

Cell phones are expensive but absolutely necessary as everyone uses them. There are two major cell phone providers, Movistar and Porta. There are others but these are the two big ones with the best coverage. Plans are available but most people opt to purchase cards with a given amount of time on them. Unfortunately, if you have not used up your time by the first of your months anniversary, the remainder is cancelled unless you buy a new card prior to the old cards expiration. Phone cards can be purchased almost anywhere. The retailer merely calls the provider, gives them your phone number, and the provider automatically adds the time to your handset. You then pay the retailer the amount due and, within seconds, you have more time on the phone. Internet is here in a big way but, depending on who you choose as your service, it will be somewhat slower than you find in the US. We chose to use Porta who give you a small USB plug-in for your computer that allows you to connect to the internet and it runs roughly $54 a month per computer. There are other companies but it is always a tremendous effort to get authorization for the provider to bill your bank account monthly. It took eight visits to the Porta store to get approvals and get our modem working. This is not unusual as red tape and inefficiency are a way of life and must be gotten used to or your days would be miserable. Delays and slow reactions to your requests are everywhere but especially in the electronics arena where Americans are so used to instant response and a competitive market which demands efficiency. It is best to learn to relax and wait it out. Tomorrow is another day. Software bought in Ecuador is all in Spanish, so if you want a specific software item, bring it with you when you come. You can download almost all software but, due to cookies identifying the source as Ecuador, the download will almost always be in Spanish. I just had as frustrating experience. I wanted to get Windows 7 to replace my Windows Vista operating system. My local computer store assured me they could get Windows 7 in English. A month went by, and they put Windows 7 in Spanish on my computer after trying to get the English version from a half dozen suppliers. Actually, the Spanish version is not too difficult to navigate and I’ll probably keep it.

Computer keyboards purchased here are all in Spanish and have a slightly different layout. It doesn’t take long to get used to but it might again be easier to bring an English keyboard. Printers are inexpensive and you can get a small selection of Canon, HP and Lexmark products. You can only find A4 paper which is longer than the usual US inkjet paper. It works just fine in any printer but is harder to fit in a filing cabinet.

Gringos in Ecuador

We stand out like a sore thumb. Ecuadorians are very adept at quickly judging who you are and responding in kind. Prices go up immediately. All Americans and Europeans are rich in their eyes, no matter how you are dressed. You will be stared at especially if you have other than the ubiquitous coal black hair or if you have fair features. There is a rather disquieting habit Ecuadorians have of looking you directly in the eye for a long time. Total strangers will stare long and hard at you until you wonder what they want and why. But, I think it is just what they are used to doing and, after all, you do look unusual to them. Women look men right in the eye and don’t divert their gaze as they do in the US. But almost universally, there is an inbred attitude of class distinction and separation that finds our North American openness very strange. Nevertheless, almost all of the Ecuadorians we have met have been extremely generous and friendly which is contrary to what you read about how North Americans can never become close with the locals. Possibly because of our openness and friendliness, we have been welcomed into their homes and, though we struggle with language, we spend long hours talking. However, as much as we like to mix with the Ecuadorians, it is a great feeling when a group of Americans, Canadians, British, and other Europeans sit around and compare notes. To this end was formed the 5:30 Friday evening expatriate meetings at either the Eucalyptus Café or Zoe’s Café in Cuenca. Venues for the meetings change but either café will know where the English speaking community is meeting when you are visiting here. There will always be about 30 to 40 expatriates attending who make a real effort to welcome visitors and newcomers. Some 300 people here and abroad subscribe to a website called the Gringo Tree which gives the expatriate community shared sources of information about local events and pertinent news relating to residency and other important subjects.

The dollar in Ecuador

Ecuador uses the American dollar as currency. The bills and coins are the same as in the US with the addition of a brass dollar coin which is used quite freely. It is basically a cash society though credit cards such as Discovery, Visa, MasterCard and American Express are used freely. Some retailers will charge more if you do not use cash. An IVA of 12% is added to the cost of most items. Recently because of the economic collapse and to try to keep cash in Ecuador and prevent it from leaving the country, the government has passed regulations adding a protective tariff to almost all imported goods. This has affected the price of everything from electronics to perfume. There is also a law that a retailer must give you a receipt for every sale. It is the government’s way of regulating taxation on retail sales. Often there is this painstaking writing out of a receipt for sales as small as a loaf of bread. Retailers also expect you to provide the small change part of a transaction. If the sale is $20.43, they will ask for the 0.43 from your small change. ATM machines are everywhere. What most expatriates do is use a debit card from an American bank at a bank ATM machine and pay their bills with cash. We use a Bank of America account in the US and take out a few hundred dollars at a time. The international handling charge for our bank is $5.00 for each transaction. Other banks charge more or less. There are many excellent Ecuadorian banks but they are usually very crowded at the tellers booths. We were fortunate enough to be introduced by a friend to the private banking department of our bank and deal with an officer of the bank for our transactions. Transfers of money or deposits of foreign checks take a minimum of 21 days to clear. It is probably a good idea to take out a checking account at a local bank so you will have checks to pay things like rent, electric and water bills. Alternatively, you can easily arrange for your local bank to pay these bills automatically each month. Be aware that if you bring substantial amounts of cash into Ecuador to make an investment, the government charges 2% to take that money out of Ecuador. There may be ways around this but it is something to be aware of.

Learning Spanish

There are two aspects to language learning in Ecuador. First, life will be enormously more complete and easy if you learn Spanish. “One on one” lessons are $8 an hour here which makes it very economical to take long term lessons. It will be quite a challenge to learn Spanish well but, having been here for seven months, we have already picked up a lot though I’m sure it is quite crude. The pronunciation is the most difficult part as words similar to those in English are pronounced differently. As an example, our word “President” is pronounced “Pres eh den te.” It should be simple as there are about 850 words that are identical in both languages but it takes hard work. There are so many dialects, one for Guayaquil, one for Quito, one for Cuenca and others for people from Peru or Columbia or Argentina. All are so different that I personally have a much more difficult time “hearing it.” We will start our “one on one” lessons soon and, I’m sure they will make our lives even more normal and useful. On the other hand, there is the almost universal desire for Ecuadorians to also know how to speak English. Schools, both public and private teach English on some level. It is always interesting to find a family where the child is the one who does the translating for the family. Our child, Jonny is almost five and is in school with all Spanish speaking kids. He is beginning to use his Spanish at school but uses very little with us. Children, who hear Spanish all day in school, are bound to pick it up quicker than adults who have lost that “ear” for language.

Animals in Ecuador

Be prepared to find animals almost everywhere with the exception of cats. While there are a few cats here and there, dogs are everywhere. There are many rumors why there are so few cats but it is clear that they are not popular. Many dogs are without homes and wander in packs yet stay in their own neighborhood. They don’t appear dangerous and people feed them and grow to accept their presence. Domestic dogs are predominately Golden Retrievers and small poodle types. In town, we often see a person walking his goats on long rope leashes right on the city sidewalks. Shepherds, often young children around ten years old or so, herd three to five cows, prodding them forward with switches along the median of the Autopista, or into the grassy parks, or along the side of the road so the cattle can forage for tall grass. Sheep, goats and chickens wander around the yards near the city and around almost every home in the mountains. Here in the Sierra, there are beautiful wild birds though not as plentiful as we are used to. Humming birds are a national treasure with dozens of varieties and if you have some grounds, sugar feeders are the way to keep them visiting. Only a few hours away, a visit to the Amazon region or the coast will reveal completely different species than we have here in the mountains. Ecuador has the reputation of having the most animal and plant diversity per square mile of any country on Earth.

Eating in Ecuador

One of the most interesting subjects about Ecuador is the wonderful food. The mid-day meal is the big meal of the day followed by a light dinner. Many businesses and retail establishments close from one to three in the afternoon when most people go home for the main meal of the day. Restaurants open early but are never full until at least nine PM. It is not unusual to see a table full of an entire family, grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, cousins and children, even small children, eating supper that will last up to 10 or 11 at night. To buy food for your own cooking, there is a large supermarket chain in Ecuador called Supermaxi who have three stores in Cuenca. This is far fewer than you may be accustomed to but Supermaxi has almost everything you might want. A couple of notable exceptions are that there are very few frozen foods and almost no prepared food. Also fresh orange juice in cartons like Tropicana is expensive at around $6.00 per quart as everything imported carries a high protective tariff. Oranges and most fruits are very inexpensive. Most people squeeze their own OJ using an Oster juicer. You will have to get used to the food packaging in Ecuador as some of it is very unusual. Milk comes either raw and is delivered from buckets by truck to your door, or fresh pasteurized milk in one liter, plastic bags at the markets which have to be cut open and poured into a jug to keep in the refrigerator, or irradiated milk in one liter boxes that you keep un-refrigerated in the pantry until you need it. The wine we drink is quite good at about $5.50 per liter. It comes from Chile and is also in plastic boxes. Hamburger meat has very little fat. We buy 1% fat content ground beef at about $2.50 per pound. The produce counter is the most fun with dozens of unusual fruits and vegetables, too many to name. At the market you will find imported products like Ritz crackers alongside a locally made imitation that will be half the price. It takes a little investigation to find what the good local products are but the savings can be large. Mini-markets are on almost every block where you can get basic staples. Cuenca has an incredible co-op called Coopera which sells fresh fruit and vegetables many of which you have never seen before at extremely reasonable prices. Yesterday, $13 bought us a cantaloupe, a head of lettuce, a cucumber, a pound of white grapes, a pound of huge strawberries, four fat carrots, a half dozen tangerines, two mangos, a dozen peaches, a dozen tomatoes and a dozen large juice oranges. At a nearby flower shop, another $5 bought 18 long stem white roses, 12 white carnations and 12 stalks of Baby’s Breath. We keep fresh flowers in vases around the apartment almost all the time. In the city, vendors push wheelbarrows full of huge strawberries, oranges and tangerines that are some of the best you can find anywhere. There are three huge Mercado’s with hundreds of stalls where Indians sell farm raised fruit, vegetables, meats (mostly un-refrigerated), and live animals like chickens, guinea pig, dogs and cats. We sometimes shop there when we are looking for some unusual produce but the Mercado’s are somewhat risky places for gringos. Unfortunately, the indigenous Indian diet of boiled rice and fried chicken causes a lot of obesity and the poorer children are lacking in milk which stunts their growth. All in All, our food purchases and restaurant experiences have been excellent. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of restaurants, only a few dozen of which we have gone to. Most have been great. As an example, a very high end restaurant called Quatros Rios serves an excellent dinner comparable to any you might find in the best US restaurants at about $10 per person. There are restaurants at every price range down to a Tipico at $1.50. Everyone has their favorites. A number of them are in old Spanish hotels where the restaurant is in an indoor hacienda-like, courtyard. There are Chinese, Indian, Italian, and most other cuisines available.

 It is a little adventuresome, but we have gone many times to “Comida Tipicos,” or restaurants that mostly cater to the working class. A bowl of delicious soup followed by a plate of rice and chicken and a fruit drink costs about $1.50. Then there are the roadside roasted pig food sellers. The pig is suspended on a spit. Skinned, roasted and hacked at day after day, they are popular with the locals who stop and buy a pig sandwich. Unrefrigerated for days at a time, this can be risky business for a gringo. Guinea Pig is a local delicacy. Called Cuy, these cute little creatures are an even larger obstacle for Americans who know them only as pets. Eating Cuy seems to be a national pastime and, believe it or not, they are quite delicious. We tend to only eat out a few nights a week because of our four year old grandson, but most of our friends eat out nearly every night. The enormous variety and the low cost, makes it hard to avoid eating out as often as possible.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The weather and climate in Cuenca

Living in the mountains of the southern Sierra is living in a land of one season. As Cuenca is just below the Equator and at approximately 8000 feet, it is cooler than at the coast or the Amazon. Days and nights are about equal in length all year long. Daylight begins within a few minutes of 5:30 and ends at about 5:30 pm. Dawn usually starts the day with clouds covering the sky, many low enough to hide the mountains from view. The clouds slowly receded and expose sun washed mountains in all their glory. It is cooler in the morning than at mid-day which is almost always sunny and warm. Toward mid afternoon, dark clouds usually appear and a half hour of rain falls. Then it clears again, often with a beautiful sunset. Nights normally have clear skies and become cool enough to put a light comforter on your bed. The next day is almost always very close to being the same. We think the climate here is like that of San Diego yet without the Santa Anna winds. We are having a drought right now but it usually rains every day for a while especially during the rainy season. Most of the time the temperature is in the 60’s or 70’s during the day and in the 50’s at night. It is often cloudy but never cold. In the evenings we wear a light jacket or a sweater. Daytime attire is a t-shirt and jeans all year round. The clouds are almost always brilliant, white, fluffy cumulus clouds. A warning though, the sun is extremely bright, in fact, so bright that people walk with umbrellas for protection or drape a cloth over their head during the days with cloudless skies. We visited an English speaking dermatologist who advised us, without fail, to use a strong, locally made, sun screen called Umbrella. Cuenca, because of the altitude, bright sunny days and proximity to the equator, has a high incidence of skin cancer. Even the dark skinned Ecuadorians walk with a real umbrella or a shawl over their heads to protect them from the sun.

Since there are no seasons, just the same weather year round, the only thing that differentiates the weather is the rainy season. During those few months when the rains come, huge quantities of water fall on the mountains, water that is engine for our electric grid, the hydroelectric plant in nearby Paute, Ecuador. Huge turbines are rotated by falling water creating much of the electricity for the whole country. Fifteen years ago there was a huge drought and, just our luck, this year looks like a repeat. All summer long, there has been very little rain high in the Sierras. El Presidente has called a national emergency and imposed mandatory electric blackouts to conserve electricity.

 Every day during November and early December, the newspapers announce when the blackouts will occur. Power can go off for up 7 hours. Our apartment building has a huge diesel generator which our security people turn on in anticipation of the blackouts, so we have not been too inconvenienced. But some of the other buildings and most of the private homes and businesses are not so fortunate. Last night, a building a few blocks away looked quite eerie with most of the windows illuminated by candle light. The indigenous Indians have a belief that, if they light huge fires, the smoke will cause the clouds to dump water as rain. So, our crystal clear sky in late November looked like LA with haze caused by dense smoke. Unfortunately, what the Indians did was burn large tracts of wooded mountainous land upwind and the smoke blew down on the city. I don’t know why they kept doing it as it did little good.
Normally it rains almost every day for a while, then clears up and the sun comes out but we have had almost no rain for the last three months. The normal rainy season begins sometime around December but with global warming and who knows what other factors there are at play, this appears to be a difficult time for those of us used to unlimited water and power. Interestingly, there are no restrictions on watering flowers, or shower use, or washing cars. It’s just one more thing to get used to.
As I post this we have had rain off and on for the last few days, one day it was absolutely torrential, so we all have our fingers crossed that the drought is over. As a side, I am looking out of the window of our apartment as I type. It is dusk. A few moments ago, the sun was streaming across the city. Now it has set and, even though it is still full daylight, the biggest full moon I have ever seen crept up over the mountain ridge. It is so huge that even our maid came to the window to look and said, “Magnifico.” My new camera is at the repair shop so all I have is the memory and the wish that next month it will repeat and I can capture it as a photo to show you. Never have I seen such a full moon in the States to compare with this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shopping in Cuenca

Everyone moving to Ecuador faces the same question. “What should we bring?” There is no way to know ahead of time what you might need that can or cannot be purchased here or what item will be much more expensive than in the US. We made a huge mistake selling many of our valued possessions before we came yet we shipped a 40’ container with our best items. Furniture can be hand made by many shops that only need a photo of the piece you want and the fabric you wish to cover it with. There are a number of small computer stores where you can buy Toshiba laptops, generic desktops and most accessories. Electronic stores are all over town but have a limited selection. For instance TV’s are LG, Samsung, Sony and some off brands. Clothing is another story. There are many small women’s clothing stores with very upscale merchandise but there will only be a selection of one or two of each item so size becomes an issue. If you see something that you like and it fits, buy it now as it will not be there next week. Girls children’s clothes are quite easy to find but there is little available for boys. Many Expatriates with children have clothing brought here when friends visit from the US. But there are many extremely interesting stores. Panama hats are made here not in Panama and the stores are fascinating. There is a copper shop on a long hill up into town where two men sit in an old stone doorway and pound copper with hammers into pots, pans and all sorts of interesting stuff. A little further up, in another hole in the wall, there is a one man barber shop, filled with people waiting as the barber shaves Indians faces with a long straight razor. There must be 150 wide stone steps up the hill to town. Most of the locals stride right up but we take a couple of breaks on the way pretending to look out over the town at the view as we catch our breath. Remember, Cuenca is at about 8000 feet above sea level. Once in the old part of town, there are no really big stores except for the huge Indian mercados filled with fruits, vegetables, meat and live animals.

But everywhere, up and down the streets, there are room size store fronts usually with an eclectic mix of things for sale. One store will sell mattresses, the next handmade furniture, the next might be a minimarket, the next a DVD store selling pirated DVD’s for $1.50 each, the next a woman cooking rice and chicken in a big pot and serving it at two tables in plastic bowls with a spoon. Then the next block will be a repeat of the same type of stores. On and on it goes for block after block interspersed with these Mom and Pop stores which is how most people here make their living. We have one huge mall called Mall Del Rio that has almost everything you could ask for including a large Wallmart-like store called Coral and a movie complex. By the way, almost all movies on TV are in English with Spanish subtitles. If you have Direct TV at home as we do, and if the program happens to be in Spanish there is a little yellow button on the remote that switches the spoken language from Spanish to English.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The City of Cuenca

It is one of the most charming cities you will ever encounter. From the air, the view is of mile after mile of red roofs and four raging mountain rivers running through the heart of the city. Much of Cuenca has retained its old Spanish colonial look with cobblestone streets lined with eucalyptus and palm trees plus buildings that are a photographer’s dream. Never have I seen flowering trees, hedges, bushes and wild shrubs like here. On our block in Cuenca the sides of the street are lined with large trees. The trees have very few leaves but are covered with thousands of purple flowers. They seem to bloom continuously. In place of stone walls many homes have grown impenetrable hedges up to ten feet high that are filled with tiny yellow or red flowers. In the fields and on uninhabited hills, a tough wild bush grows with Forsythia-like yellow flowers that make the hills come alive. On and on it goes. Everywhere you look there are blooming trees or flowers that grow all year long, only lessening during dry spells and increasing during the rains.
The streets and sidewalks are spotlessly clean as teams of green uniformed men and women daily pick up every speck of trash.

Approximately 90% of the roses sold as cut flowers in the US flower shops come from Ecuador. They are grown in the lower valleys around Cuenca and along the narrow valleys between Quito and Otivalo. Many other cut flowers are grown here but it is the wonderful roses that are the most famous. We buy 12-18 long stem roses at our local Supremaxi for just over $2. At the flower markets and the Mercados they are even less expensive. Ecuador is a Catholic country and as such, Cuenca has 53 churches many dating back to the Spanish colonial days. If you are a church tourist, you will not be disappointed. Even though Cuenca has approximately 500,000 people and is the third largest city in Ecuador, it has a small town feel. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t meet at least two or three people I know. Try that in a city of this size in the US. Traffic is a big problem in the city as thousands of busses, taxis, and cars argue over right of way along the many one way streets.
Today, I was at our house in the country which is 15 minutes outside Cuenca via the Autopista. It is an area that is even warmer and drier than Cuenca, a suburb called Challuabamba. The house is for sale but we love to go out there to enjoy the quiet and peaceful countryside. Sitting on the terrace, I was struck once again by the industriousness of the Indigenous Indian people who have so little but make the best of everything. A family of Indians had recently plowed a field next to our house and were planting corn by hand. There were five of them, three women and two men between 25 and 60 years of age. All but the youngest woman wore traditional Indian clothing, velvet skirts and embroidered blouses. The men wore regular attire. All were barefoot and wore hats to protect their heads from the intense sunlight. Two of the men and two of the women were bent over digging with hoes attached to short handles no more than four feet long. The fifth woman broadcast the precious corn seeds into the furrows. It will take them many days to hoe and plant row after row in order to complete sowing seeds on nearly two acres of land. It is a laborious job that would take an American farmer with his tractor and other equipment only hours to complete. At noon, they stopped hoeing and planting and sat down in the dirt to eat rice from plastic bowls. Laughing and talking, they put their tired bodies to rest for a few minutes of a long day.