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.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Learning Spanish


We came to Cuenca ten months ago knowing no more Spanish than the few words learned by accident in the US. Neither of us had taken Spanish as a language requirement in high school or known any Spanish speaking people back in the states. We figured we would learn when we got here. So, we arrived with no more than a few rudimentary Spanish words, some good sign language, and our ears tuned to try to “hear” what people were saying. At this stage, we were surprised at the consideration most Ecuadorians gave when they tried to decipher our attempts to speak their language. We were often greeted with smiles and even occasional laughter at our atrocious pronunciation.  Even though it is ten months later, we have still not taken any formal lessons though we get along quite well.  A friend gave us a tape that we have used irregularly but we haven’t taken the “one on one” lessons we promised we would do as soon as things quieted down. One on one lessons run about $8 an hour or more depending on whether you employ an independent teacher or go to a language school. Cuenca has a reputation for having excellent Spanish language schools and there are many. It is also said that the Spanish form taught in Cuenca and elsewhere in Ecuador is purer and is spoken slower than in other Spanish speaking countries.  We have also heard that there are more than 1000 English words that are almost identical to the word in Spanish. This gives you a head start when you understand that you already know over 1000 words and didn’t realize it. Our lives have been such a whirlwind since we arrived that we have probably postponed the most important thing we should do, learn Spanish. Life would be measurably improved if we were able to have meaningful conversations with Ecuadorians. Jonny, who is five and goes to a school with all Spanish speaking classmates and teacher, is picking the language up rapidly. All Ecuadorian students take English at school but there are very few who speak it well. That said, it is often the grade school child who does the translating for a family. Grade school students are very proud of their English and seem to want to use it whenever they can. Every day, upper class students at school seek out our Jonny just to speak English with him.  But, other than eager students, you will rarely find Ecuadorians who speak English well, if at all. We have learned a huge number of words just by exposure, watching TV and listening closely. But we say them poorly. Yesterday, I asked someone for salsa and they could not understand the way I pronounced it. When we are in a situation like this where there is an impasse, the proprietor of a store or office will often find someone who can interpret. Our experience has been that, even though we don’t know the correct grammar, we give it a try. Our pronunciation is terrible and often, though we use the right words, we are often not understood. Sign language and making sounds that imitate what we are trying to say helps. Loretta caused hysterical laughter when she didn’t know the word for dog and said, “woof. Woof.” Many of the letters of the alphabet are pronounced differently in Spanish which is the root of our problem. We are not the ones to ask advice on this subject as we are only at the beginning stage of learning but we seem to get along amazingly well.  We shop at the markets and stores. We get what we think we ordered at restaurants. We talk with neighbors. We conduct our daily life with hardly any language problems. We struggle when someone talks rapidly in Spanish but we ask them to slow down and the meaning seeps in. Our conversations with Ecuadorians must be hysterical but they are generally understanding and try hard to help.  The only advice we could give is that your life will be dramatically better in Ecuador if you speak the language but, with a little patience and a lot of practice, the words will seep in and, before you know it, you will be speaking decent Spanish and sharing your life more intimately with Ecuadorians. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Buying furniture



Here is another subject that local expats don’t seem able to agree on. Many feel that you should not bring furniture when you move here from abroad and then, when you get here, buy whatever you need in Cuenca. Most, who feel this way, plan to live here for a year or more and then move on. This group may find it best to rent a furnished apartment and not have to buy anything that will later need to be shipped somewhere else. Some are concerned with the cost and hassle of shipping a container full of furniture and prefer either renting furnished or buying all new furnishings in Cuenca. Then there is the group, to which we belong, who are coming to Ecuador to live permanently and want to bring the furniture they love. We shipped a 40’ container from North Carolina through Guayaquil to Cuenca with no damage and nothing lost. The cost for a door to door shipment for a total of 15,000 pounds was approximately $12,000. It was a happy day when we opened all the boxes and our favorite things tumbled out. The house we bought in Challuabamba was quite large and needed some additional furnishings so we had to go shopping.  As we have mentioned before, when you purchase a house or apartment in Ecuador, no appliances will come with the sale. They go with the previous owner.  If you are shipping a container, it may be your choice to include your existing washer, dryer, stove, and refrigerator. Costs to buy new appliances in Cuenca are roughly the same as the US for Whirlpool, Mabe, Indurama, and LG so bringing yours may not make sense. Ecuador’s electric circuitry uses the same 110 volts and identical plugs as used in the US.  Furniture can be purchased already made at many furniture stores and the choice is excellent if you want modern styling but few choices if you want a different period. There is some limitation as to the choice of fabrics because the fabric styling on ready- made furniture is quite unusual in Ecuador which makes choice more difficult. A second possibility, if you are looking to find inexpensive furniture is to purchase it ready-made at any one of many small furniture stores located primarily along Calle Larga. A double bed can be purchased at one of these Mom and Pop stores for under $200. They also have inexpensive armoires, chests of drawers, tables and chairs.  A third possibility is to have furniture hand made.  Since our home is filled with Victorian furniture we decided to have the additional pieces we needed made to order. 

We looked at many places that make furniture and found one called Louis XV that appealed to us.  In the front of the store there is a furniture display of items that they have made. But out back, in what must once have been a stable, a half dozen men stand in piles of sawdust and wood shavings as they sand and chisel by hand to make intricate designs in wood. It took about a month for them to finish the job but we were very pleased with the outcome. We had two queen size beds, two night stands, and two living room, low, center tables made of solid wood and when we say solid wood, we really mean it. They are not made of fabricated wood with veneer glued on top. They are solid wood and extremely heavy.  It took a number of tries for the spray man to get the right look as almost all furniture made in Ecuador has a dark reddish-brown, high gloss look. You have to almost beg to get the workers to make the color a lighter brown with a see through, satin finish.  

For mattresses, we found a small shop that is actually a distributor to most of the small furniture stores. His shop was about the size of a one car garage filled with mattresses stacked on end. We chose a couple to test. He put them on the cement sidewalk and asked Loretta to lie down on each to try it out. This is a photo we wish we had. People walked by only casually looking at this woman lying on a mattress on the sidewalk with her eyes closed.  A queen pillow top runs about $230. At another hand made manufacturer, we had a couch, love seat and two upholstered chairs made. We chose a photograph from a furniture magazine as the model for them to duplicate. We then visited two huge fabric shops with the owner and chose the fabric. The pieces included loose pillows which were absolutely huge. We asked them to remake them half-size and they are still quite large. These pieces also came out well and fit right in with our old Victorian furniture. 



So, there are a few different ways to deal with furniture, bring your own with you, buy inexpensive ready-made or store inventory, or have it made. Any way you look at it, the process, like everything else is long and tedious but well worth it. 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Yes, there is mail in Ecuador



Our mailbox in North Carolina was filled with at least 10 pieces of mail every day of the week. Seventy-five percent was junk mail, and the remainder bills and an occasional letter from friends that didn’t use email.  To our surprise, receiving mail is actually an event in Cuenca. Personal mail boxes are a rarity. There are actually no street addresses in the country though, fortunately, they exist in the city. And, so far, we have found only one post office which is located in the Centro. Bills are not sent by mail. A person pays at the store or business or has utility bills automatically deducted from a bank account.  When you receive a letter or package, a courier on a motorcycle comes to your house or apartment, rings the bell, and gives you the item in exchange for whatever extra postage is due. If you receive a package that requires duty be paid, the man on the motorcycle will give you a notice to come to the post office in the center of town between the hours of 8:30 and 12:30 only on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays. You present the notice and a national policeman will cut open the package, examine the contents and assess a duty to be paid before the package is given to you. The same post office is where you send mail abroad. A one page letter will cost around $2.00 in postage stamps to mail to the US. Packages can be sent from the post office but they are best forwarded by DHL (office near the stadium) who have the best international service. We sent a small box under a pound to the US the other day and it cost $31.00. We have not tried sending packages to other countries so are not aware of the expense.  It is a little more complicated In order to receive mail or packages. Though we have not placed many orders, it is quite straightforward placing a mail order with a US company and have it shipped directly to our address in Cuenca. If you are ordering a used item, there will probably be no duty assessed. US companies are set up to make international shipments on new items and will make the customs declaration and collect the international postage in advance. As an example, we ordered an $8 filter for our Nikon camera and it arrived in two weeks but with handling and international shipping and duty, the total came to $55. We also ordered $90 worth of vitamins that are hard to get in Cuenca. The vitamin company charged us an additional $37 in postage and handling. We received a notice from the post office to come and pick it up. A man behind a wicket advised we owed $1.75 additional postage and then handed us our box which appeared unopened. So, we have received packages three ways. Once it was delivered to our apartment and just handed to us by the courier. Another time the package was opened by the National Police at the post office and we paid duty. And this last time, we were given the unopened package at the post office after paying additional postage. We have yet to find the best way to order new items from the US but each time it seems to have worked.  Before we left the States, we were concerned about how to get letters forwarded to us that would undoubtedly continue to arrive at our old address. We chose Earth Class Mail (www.earthclassmail.com) as our international forwarder. But this has to be set up in the US before you leave as there is a US Postal Service form that must be filled out giving Earth Class Mail the authority to handle your mail. The system has served us well in that we had many business, tax and other important mailings that were difficult to make forwarding arrangements with prior to leaving and it was impossible to contact each of them before leaving. Plus, our house in Challuabamba, like all the country homes, had no mailing address that we could give our correspondents. Earth Class Mail operates by sending an email letting you know that they have received a letter for you. They then ask if you want them to scan the content which takes one day. If you want it forwarded they will forward the letter to your Ecuador address. If you don’t want the mail, they will shred it for you. We usually have them shred a bill after we have looked at the scan to see what we owe and when it is due which we then pay online. They also have a new service where they will deposit a check to your bank for you. It takes a little getting used to but if you take an overall look at the mail service in Ecuador, it will at first seem slow and archaic but, fortunately, it works.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Exercise in Cuenca


Another question we had prior to coming to Cuenca was if there was a good gym where we could exercise. A gym didn’t seem necessary with all the walking we do but exercise at a gym was a real habit with us. Cuenca is a city of hills, steep steps and is located at about 8000 feet elevation. All this tends to make even walking a pretty strenuous activity. When we first arrived we were concerned about altitude sickness and even had our North Carolina physician prescribe medication to prevent a reaction to living at a high altitude. This was totally unnecessary as we acclimated almost immediately, even when we stayed in Quito which is at about 10,000 feet. However, more strenuous exercise than walking takes a while to get used to. Running or climbing the 50 steps up to the city or even hiking in the mountains, makes even the most fit person, stop to catch their breath. After living at sea level for almost all of our lives, the altitude in Cuenca took a little getting used to when we exercise. Even though normal walking or working around the apartment doesn’t bother us, strenuous exercise like climbing the steps to the city requires a stop to recover. So, we decided to try to find a gym. There is no such thing as the huge Gold’s Gym or its equivalent in Cuenca. Most gyms are small and have quite antiquated equipment. The gym at the University of Cuenca, which you would expect to be quite elaborate, appears almost dangerous. The equipment is old and in bad repair. After much inquiry and a lot of looking, we found, what we think is the best in Cuenca.


It is called Cam Gym and is located in the newer section of town just off Avenida Remigio Crispo. There are many others located all over the city but Cam Gym has fairly new equipment, a trainer, is clean and is in good repair. Tai kwon do and dance are taught upstairs. Tai kwon do is a very popular activity for children of all ages and the gym creates many champions while the children are still in grade school.  Because almost everything is within walking distance, we and most of our friends enjoy  and  go walking a great deal more than when we lived in the suburbs of the US. It has to be healthy, even though it is tough going sometimes, and, along with going to the gym three times a week, we feel in the best shape we have been in years.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Map of City of Cuenca

It is difficult to find a good map of Cuenca. Cuenca Real Estate probably has the best one. However, none of them tell you where specific places of interest to Gringo's are located. We have marked up a very simple map of the city with approximate locations of places you will undoubtedly go to when you are here. You can see by the map that the city is divided almost in half by the River Tomebamba. On the north side is the old city or Centro where much of the cities infrastructure exists, like churches, parks, stores, businesses, government buildings, lawyers, and restaurants and, of course much more. On the south side of the river are the newer suburbs where you will find the Futbol stadium, many restaurants and stores, the large mercado, two of the Supermaxis, and most of the 5 plus story apartment buildings. Circling the city are the Avenida de las Americas on the north and the Autopista on the south. To see a larger view of the map, double click on the map



Here are some of the actual addresses:
Zoe's restaurant (expat meetings) – Borerro y Sucre
Eucalyptus restaurant (expat meetings) – Gran Columbia y Benigno Malo
Supermaxi El Gal – Avenida Cordero y Jose Peralta
Supermaxi/Sukasa (upscale department store) – just above Gran Columbia y Avenida de las Americas
Supermaxi/Kywi (best hardware store) – Avenida Turuhuaico y Gil Ramirez Davalos
Del Rio Mall – Autopista in South west corner of city
Main Mercado El Arinal– Avenida de las Americas y Remigio Crispo
Cooperia (food coop) – Victor Manual Albornoz near Avenida de las Americas
Collisium (Tennis courts) – Avenida 12 de Abril y Unidad Nacional
Post Office – Gran Columbia y Borerro
Bank of Pichincha – 12 de Abril y Solano
Cam Gym (largest in city) – Nicolas Sojos y Gonzalo Cordero

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Security

Security is a something that few of us who lived in quiet suburban homes in the US had much concern about. We previously lived in a home in North Carolina where we left the doors unlocked when we went to sleep at night. Now we live in a new country where security can be an issue.  Personal safety is always a delicate subject as each of us has lived under different circumstances and there is no way of knowing what a reader’s experience might have been. What we say comes from our own personal experience and we cannot suppose the level of security other people require.  Because there is much poverty in Ecuador, petty crime is quite common. Stealing of pocketbooks, cell phones, and car radios has been little more than an annoyance in the past but recently there has been an upsurge of more serious issues.  Though major crime is still rare, it is felt by the police that external elements, such as gangs from Peru or Columbia have escalated robbery to an infrequent but more dangerous level. High profile crime here remains an odd occurrence but has happened.  When you contrast serious crime in Ecuador to that in the US there is absolutely no comparison. Homes in Cuenca have always had high stone walls with cut glass or metal spikes or electrical wires on top to prevent people from entering the property. When we first came here, we thought this was partially a social statement of privacy and not just for security. But, it is apparent that Ecuadorians are highly conscious of personal security especially in their homes. We brought our American sense of openness with us and made the mistake of being too casual. We left our gate open and our doors unlocked at our home in Challuabamba. Loretta wore expensive jewelry and our large, expensively furnished home stood out as a target. And as many of you know, we were robbed and lost most of our electronic and TV equipment plus jewelry and fur coats. We are now much more security conscious and have had no further trouble.  We currently follow a few pretty basic rules of behavior to be less conspicuous. Some of our gringo friends feel it is safer to carry very little of value when they walk the city streets. It is probably a good idea. We know a couple who have had inside pockets sewn into their pants where they carry their money and identity papers. It is also a wise idea to carry a copy, and never the original, of your passport and Cedula (identity card) as these are your most valuable papers. Loosing either is costly and they are difficult to replace.  Since this is a cash society, a person often needs to carry a significant amount of money. Only you can be the judge of how much cash to have on your person. Businesses and stores carry the security issue even further.

All businesses that handle cash have armed guards who carry shotguns and stand menacingly at the entrance to the building or store. It takes some getting used to but seems to prevent problems and you soon get used to their presence. As conspicuous as you are as a gringo, it is a mistake to make it worse by wearing expensive jewelry or carrying visible cameras or loosely hung purses that invite petty thievery. That said, Cuenca has the reputation of being a quiet, peaceful city, much more so than Quito or Guayaquil. But, as in any city, it is important to be street smart. When you are in the crowded, poorer parts of the city, it makes a good deal of sense to not wear exposed jewelry, not carry loose bags or visible cameras, and not carry more cash than you think you will need on your present excursion. We have learned our lesson the hard way and are now very careful how we present ourselves in public. Ninety-nine percent of Ecuadorians are kind, friendly and helpful. Like everywhere, it is that small percentage of disenfranchised people that cause the problems you must be aware of to prevent petty crime.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Doctors, hospitals and pharmacies

We have been quite pleased with the quality of health care we have encountered here in Cuenca.  As we mentioned before, there are three major private hospitals, Santa Ines, Monte Sinai, and Hospital Del Rio (a new teaching hospital run by a US conglomerate).  The hospitals are clean, have modern equipment and are staffed by unusually caring personnel (something we seldom encountered in the US).  Next to the hospitals are the Consultorios, or office buildings where the doctors have offices and see patients. Many speak English and, if you have an English speaking doctor, he or she will often take you to a Spanish speaking referral and translate for you. It is also not unusual for a doctor to make a house call. How many of us can remember that happening? There are a number of public hospitals where military families, Social Security patients or anyone with a cedula can be treated at little or no cost. They are a lot less desirable as they are not especially clean and are extremely crowded. A patient must go to the hospital at four in the morning to get an appointment to see a doctor or be admitted except in an emergency.  Almost all the expats we know use private hospitals and have been quite pleased with the quality of service. Health care is inexpensive compared to the US and Europe and, we have heard, compares favorably with Canadian costs. Health care plans are expensive and are notorious in not paying claims. Most expats choose to self-insure and use a pay-as-you-go system. Pharmacies are all over town with a few chains like Fybeca, the largest. Many of the over the counter prescriptions and brands of cosmetics, dental, shaving, and other items you are accustomed to are available. But there are a few that are limited. Cold medications are few and far between possibly because we seldom get colds. The steady weather conditions rather than the changing seasons up North, may be why. There are vitamins but only a few like C, Ginko and other herbal types but, unusually, not B12 complex or minerals. Aspirin only comes in 500 and 100 mg sizes. Most medications other than narcotics can be obtained at the pharmacies without a prescription. The pharmacists are excellent in advising what to take if you describe your symptoms. There is usually a generic available if they do not have your exact medication. Bring an empty bottle so they can see the exact ingredients. Magazines for sale in the pharmacies are all sealed in plastic possibly to prevent you from reading them and not buying.  The pharmacies are small compared to CVS or Walgreens but are adequate in most departments. Dental care is inexpensive compared with North America and often up to US standards. When you sum it all up, the quality of health care, the cost and ready accessibility of medical help in the city of Cuenca, plus the availability of an enormous variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, makes good health something to look forward to here in the mountains of Ecuador.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mild weather, absolutely

One of the major cost and quality of life advantages to living in Cuenca is the constant mild weather which has a huge impact on everything from cost of living, to clothing, to the lack of bugs. On the cost front, because the weather is almost a year round 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit with nights going down into the 50’s, homes and buildings are built without heating units or air conditioning.  Initially, we could not believe it when we were shown houses and apartments without them.  Back in North Carolina, our monthly costs for heating and air conditioning ran an average of $300 a month. Plus, there were continual repair issues with recharging air conditioners, rusting out and replacement costs because of the salt air by the ocean, and huge spikes in cost every time we got a delivery of propane.  Because of the mild weather here in Cuenca, this $300 monthly electric and propane utility cost has been reduced to about $30. New construction expenses are reduced considerably as there is no need to install the expensive ducting, piping, and electrical wiring plus the expense of installing heating and air conditioning units. Ductwork in our house or apartment doesn’t exist.  There are no heating units or air conditioners. On the rare hot day, we just open the window and let the breeze blow through. Speaking of windows, there is no need for storm windows or screens. There is no reason for storm windows to keep out the cold. There is also no reason for screens to keep out insects.  In the city, bugs like mosquitoes and flies are rare though there are a few. Fortunately, the mosquitoes at this altitude are not the variety that carries malaria. Worse case, their bite makes a little, itchy spot.  At our house in the country, there are mosquitoes but still not enough to require screens. There are ants but, again, not like back in the states. We could not sit in the grass in North Carolina without being attacked by red ants that bit and caused little, itching sores. Here, you can sit in the grass without becoming a meal for the ants. Spiders are another story. While not a pest, they are prolific. Seems this climate is perfect for them. From tiny black spiders to huge CD sized tarantulas, you will find them everywhere but, again, they don’t bother you.  As far as clothing goes, the mild weather means there is no need for seasonal changes of clothes. There is no need for parkas, heavy sweaters, boots, gloves, or scarves. A man’s day time outfit might be jeans, sneakers, sport shirts or t-shirts plus a sweater or light jacket at night. Some of our male friends wear shorts during the day.  For women, casual attire is slacks, blouses with light jackets and low heeled shoes. Though few women wear skirts or dresses, they often wear high heel shoes which is amazing considering the flagstone sidewalks in Cuenca. To compensate for the constant change of weather during the day, most people wear multiple layers of light clothing. Of course, one of the most important effects the constant mild weather has on many people is the ability to plan ahead without considering the weather as a factor. You can bank on tomorrow or a month from tomorrow being the same as today. The only variable is when in the day, it will rain. The pattern is consistent, clouds in the morning turning to sunshine later, then clouding up in the afternoon with a possible rain shower, then clearing again toward dusk with cool, clear nights. Over and over, the weather follows this pattern with slight changes in the time of day that each event occurs.  When you look at the cost savings in not having heating or air conditioning, and the fact that annoying pests are almost non-existent, that you always wear light clothing, and that day after day, the weather will be near perfect, Cuenca’s climate becomes a major factor in most people’s choice to live here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Flowers in Winter



It is probably not kind to rub it in when the US and Europe are having such a hard winter but, with your indulgence, we'd like to show you some photos of Winter in Cuenca. Today is January 12th and it is around 65 degrees and cloudy. Flowers are in bloom everywhere. Some we have seen before. Others are new to us but just as beautiful. If you know the names of the more unusual and would like to share them, we'd appreciate it.



This is a hedge growing on the wall next to our aprartment




Daisys never stop growing




This thick hedge grows on top of a wall and is absolutely impenetrable.




Flowering pink tree






Up close shot of the flowers on the pink tree



Another impenetrable hedge growing on a stone wall




Bottle flower?





You have to see this to believe it





Growing over a wall




Huge shrub or tree with enormous yellow flowers





These flowers are about 5 inches across





No flowers are more well known than the roses in Ecuador. $2 for 18 long stem roses at the flower markets.




There are times of the year when the trees are completely covered with these purple flowers and no leaves.




We have seen these in California but here they grow almost wild.




And the best for last.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Senior Discounts

We have been here almost a year and have not yet taken advantage of the supposed Ecuadorian senior discounts. Therefore, we post this with a grain of salt as getting correct information is hard to verify. There are a number of websites that state that those people over 65 who have residency are entitled to senior discounts that can be quite substantial. We will look into them one by one in the near future and post our experiences. But, in the meantime, the senior discounts we have heard about are the following:
-          50% off public and private transportation within Ecuador including the Galapagos.
-          50% off tickets to most cultural and sporting events including movies
-          50% off electric and water charges
-          50% off airfare for international travel for round trip tickets offered by Taca, Copa, and AeroGal when purchased here and for flights originating in Ecuador.
-          Free domestic landline telephone service

If all of this is true and the companies involved respect the discounts, there is a huge savings available to those who take the time to follow up. All that will probably be required is to present your cedula (identity card) at the particular company and you will be billed far less than the average citizen.
We have recently heard that, after registering with SRI on Avenida Remigio Crispo, you can submit bi-monthly your facturas (official sales receipts) for the previous two months.  Most retailers will ask you if you want a Factura when you go to pay your bill. SRI will give you a 50% discount on the 12% IVA tax imposed on most sales and then deposit it directly into your bank account. You can submit up to $1560.00 refund per year. Again, we have yet to do this but will apply at SRI very soon as this is too good a deal to pass up.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Purchasing property in Cuenca

Most expats first come to Cuenca on a visit, then rent an apartment if they wish to stay, and ultimately, when apartment rental costs begin to eat into their savings, choose to purchase a condo or a home. Like everywhere, ownership is less expensive than renting especially as you will pay cash here and probably not have a mortgage. Loans are not easily available and when they are they carry a very high interest rate often as high as 12%. There is no such thing as MLS listings in Ecuador so each real estate agent has a group of homes which they will show you. Therefore, it pays to contact a few different realtors. They normally find homes or condos for sale by word of mouth, or just keep their eyes open for a moving truck, or knock on doors if there is a rumor floating around. It is a very informal system yet seems to work. One of the oddities you will encounter is that all appliances such as stove, refrigerator, washer and dryer go with the owner. So, you will almost never see these appliances remain with the sale of the house or condo. They will have to be purchased by you. Water heaters will stay and they are, once again, not like in the US.  Water heaters hang on the wall and, using a demand system, heat the water as you need it. They are more effective than the inefficient American, 80 gallon water heaters that waste so much energy.  Almost all water heaters and stoves in Ecuador are run by propane gas. You will have a gas cylinder near the heater or stove with a hose connecting the two. The cylinders cost approximately $55 and have a refill cost of $2. Depending on your needs, a cylinder will last from a week to a month. This represents a significant cost savings compared to energy costs in the US. You get refills by exchanging an empty tank for a full cylinder that is purchased from trucks that roam the neighborhood honking their horn to get your attention. Transferring money from the US for the purchase of a home or condo is not a problem as large sums can be easily sent by wire from a US bank to an Ecuadorian bank or to a local lawyer. The purchase process requires visits to a notary with formal papers to sign but it is quite a simple transaction compared to what you are used to in the States. It would be nice if Ecuador had a HUD statement that summarized all the costs and expenses but that may be years down the road. You just have to keep track of each procedure as it occurs.


 Our experience in purchasing a home was somewhat slower than we were accustomed to but our lawyer made the transaction as smooth as possible and walked us through each step one at a time. Utilities such as electric, water, telephone and internet are transferred to you but often keep the originators name. We have not looked into it yet but there are discounts as high as 50% for utilities for those over 65, however, this will not amount to significant savings because utility costs are quite low in Ecuador. All in all, purchasing our home here went quite well even though each step was a new and different experience for us. As we now live in the city, our home in the suburb of Challuabamba is up for sale. Let us know if you are interested and we will send you photos and particulars.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Mall



One of the questions many prospective visitors and newcomers ask is “where are the malls?” The blunt answer is that there is one called Mall del Rio that is along the Autopista in the South East corner of Cuenca. It is a short taxi or bus ride. While not quite as slick as most North American malls, it has almost everything you might be accustomed to. Anchored on one end by the huge Wallmart-like “Coral”, which is nicknamed “the plastic store,” the mall has about 100 shops on two floors.  At the other end is a truly American style movie complex that shows movies in English. A ride-aboard train for the kids winds its way around the first floor among kiosks selling telephones, ice cream, Fossil hand bags, etc. etc.  A huge Christmas tree and a bubbling fountain are presently in the center. There are numerous shoe stores (Pay-less is very expensive – figure that out), clothing stores, Porta and Movistar telephone and internet shops, music stores, computer stores, electronic stores, home d├ęcor shops, an athletic clothing store, and much, much more. On the second floor, there is a huge entertainment complex and a food court and many more stores. Local restaurants have outlets there, even the ubiquitous KFC restaurant.  Interestingly, there is a very upscale restaurant tucked away in the corner.  Sunday is the wrong day to visit as almost all of Cuenca seems to be there shopping and it is very crowded especially at Coral. Many of the shops are merely outlets of their parent store in the city but we find ourselves going to the mall where most of our shopping can be done in one place rather than all over town. The only other “mall-like” complexes around town are those that surround the Supermaxi food stores of which there are three. Outside of each Supermaxi there are many small boutiques, barber shops, shoe stores, furniture stores, etc. At one, there is a very upscale department store called Sukasa. At another is our major hardware store, Kywi. So, a shopping trip to Supermaxi usually requires side visits to get a haircut or pick up new shoes for Jonny, or some other item on the perpetual “need to get” list. And, of course, while not a mall, the huge Mercado’s are the essence of the concept of a mall.



At the largest Mercado (there are at least three major Mercado’s in Cuenca and more in the neighboring towns), it would not be doing it justice to say that there are 500 food, clothing, knickknacks, or live animal stalls. There may be more but there is no way of knowing as the aisles and lanes wander endlessly. As you can see, shopping in Cuenca is part of our lifestyle, and we have just barely scratched the surface. Every day, someone tells us of the best store for this or the store with the best selection of that. Even so, shopping at the Del Rio Mall in Cuenca on a Sunday is an experience you will not forget.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Blog structure



This may be an unnecessary post to most people but there may be some readers who are not familiar with the way blogs are structured. As blogs grow in size, only the most current postings are shown on the opening page. You have to go to the left side of the page in order to click on older or specific postings. There are a number of ways to do this and each will take you to something that is not visible on the opening page.  The first way is a listing called “Blog Archives” which is a chronological listing of postings. Just click on the arrow so it goes vertically and you will see a list of all the postings during that month and year. Click on the posting you want and it will take you there. A second way to find subjects is to click on “Labels” which will show you postings by subject and the number of postings on that specific subject. Click on one that interests you and all written on that topic will come on the screen. A third way is to read the opening page to the bottom, then click on “older posts.”  This will take you to a second page and, after reading it to the bottom, you may find another entry saying “older posts” which, when clicked on will take you to more pages of postings all in chronological order. Then there is the listing on the left called “Links” which will show you blogs and websites that we find interesting. Click on the link you want to see and it will take you directly to that blog or website.  We hope this little treatise will help some who are new to blogs navigate around the page.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Food



In Ecuador there are many fruits and vegetables most northerners have never seen before. We are not sure we can do them justice by introducing them to you in our blog but we’ll give it a try. 
Most of the following are available at Supermaxi, the Cooperia, the mercados, or from the wheelbarrow merchants that prowl the streets of Cuenca. First of all, fruits and vegetables are probably the least expensive things you can eat. A vegetarian has a real fiscal advantage here. Second, though we realize there are growing patterns, it seems as if strawberries or lettuce or almost any other kind of produce is available all year long. There doesn’t seem to be a season for anything, they are almost always sitting there in the market. It would be hard not to find everything you are used to plus dozens you have not seen before. Supermaxi sells bags of juice made from tomate, Guanabana, coco, maracuya, marianjilla, mango and guyaba. All you need do is add some water, put it in the mixer with a little sugar to take the tartness away and you have a great drink. You will see from the following that having a juicer and blender is essential to take advantage of the usual and the unusual.
All the more conventional stuff is available, Mangos big and small are excellent, watermellon, cantelope, black berries, strawberries, grapes (though most have seeds), lettuce, carrots (unusually fat and short), cucumbers, potatoes, spinach, and on and on. Avacados are everywhere and excellent when they get very ripe so they are completely  soft.  There must be a half dozen varieties of oranges which we buy by the dozen a few times a week and squeeze every morning for fresh orange juice.
But, it is the unusual that keeps you staring and wondering what to do with such an exotic creature.



One of the most popular is the tomate, a tomato like fruit that, when juiced, makes a wonderful drink.



Then, of course, you can buy bagged fruit pulp and make your own special juice.



You could probably exist on bananas in Cuenca. They are dirt cheap and delicious. Many varieties.



Just a few unusual fruits at Supermaxi. Mango, Durazano, Chirimoya, Taxo, and Pepino Dulce.

  

This is at the Cooperia, a tray full of Tuna and Dulce.



Two kinds of Papaya at the Cooperia. There are at least five rows of shelves filled with every fruit and vegetable grown in Ecuador.



A tray full of mangos, so sweet they are almost sinful.

We hope that this little photographic tour of the exotic fruits of Ecuador has whet your appetite. We are slowly learning how each one of them are best prepared but it is confusing when you stare at something totally foreign and try to decipher how to get at its core. There have been a lot of trial and errors as we struggled with  pulp difficult to separate from pits and super tartness here and there, but each time we try something new, we find out a little more. Our diet has changed enormously and we find ourselves eating fruit instead of sweets. Can't be all bad.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Holidays

Happy New Year to our old friends and new, those known and unknown out there in the far corners of the globe, and those we have yet to meet but who share our adventure through our blog. For us it has been an incredible year, one too full to explain well, a year loaded with good and bad, and definitely one we will never forget. We are sad for those friends and family we have left behind, yet full of the pleasure of our new friends here in Cuenca.
For us it all began with the tedious process of selling our home in Wilmington, North Carolina in a terrible market and learning to accept a huge loss. Then there was the tag sale and auction of many of our prized possessions, something we hope never to repeat. We feel that we made a good decision to bring a lot of our treasured books and furniture to Cuenca that now surround us in our new home. The process of shipping a container from North Carolina to Cuenca was interesting and tedious to say the least but it was hugely successful and nothing was stolen or arrived broken.  We flew to Cuenca and spent three months in a temporary furnished apartment while our home in Challuabamba was being refurbished. A few months later, it was our bad luck to stand out as a potential target due to our North American openness and casual security. We were having extensive repairs done with many workers in the house. Because of some or all of the above, we were robbed.  It was so traumatic for us to see many of our family acquisitions and trust taken away that we decided to move into the heart of Cuenca to a more secure apartment building. It is odd how a single event can change the course of your life but the robbery changed ours. We are much more security conscious and, being in the city, we are able to go to many more events and see all of our friends more often. Jonny is able to go to the school he wants and is very happy there. So, something terrible has turned out to have led us down a new path, one we enjoy very much.


And here it is New Years Eve. The streets are filled with sidewalk vendors selling paper mache mannequins dressed in real clothes that represent almost every known political, entertainment, and cartoon character known and many more. It seems like the original purpose of the tradition, that is to burn in effigy a person you have a grudge with or don’t like in order to remove their bad karma from your life at year’s end, has changed like most other holidays. To burn in effigy a Mickey Mouse or cowardly Lion is a bit of a stretch but it is the fun that counts. Today and tonight there will be hundreds of street bonfires where people toss the mannequins into the fire. Some daredevils even jump over the fires to chase away the demons. There is another tradition where young boys dress up as girls in black women’s clothes and beg at the street corners. It has something to do with getting money to pay off their husbands. But like many traditions, the real meanings may have been lost in the translations.
We had New Year’s Eve dinner at Quatro Rios, a fine downtown restaurant with 13 friends and came home early as Jonny’s sitter had to go to a family affair before midnight. At around 11:30, the usual occasional fireworks explosions began to increase. By ten minutes before midnight the noise and shooting rockets had become almost constant.  Picture this if you can. A few minutes before midnight, as we stood and watched from our 4th floor picture window, there were so many explosions and fireworks shooting up into the air, that there was no way to take it all in. Hundreds, possibly thousands of them were going off at once. On and on it went, the sky filled with the crackling and huge booms of small and professional pyrotechnics. When we say the sky was filled, we mean literally filled with starbursts and shooting rockets and a deafening noise. Every block in the city seemed to be competing with everyone else in an effort to fill the sky. Never in our lives have we seen such a display, not in New York City over the Hudson or in Philadelphia over the river or anywhere else. It is rumored that Cuenca celebrates New Years Eve like no other place, and after a life time of loving fireworks, we are firm believers that it is true. By 12:30 the noise and explosions had died down to a few left over explosions when we heard laughter coming from the middle of the street below. A dozen children from the families in our building were crowded around one of the fathers as he torched a mannequin as large as he was. They screamed with delight as the figure went up in flames.  Jonny slept through it all. For us, this was a night to remember.


The holiday season has been an eye opener for us. It has shown us the openness of the Ecuadorian people and the pleasure of new Expat friends. It has shown us holiday customs new and exciting. It has exposed us to a unique way of life, a gorgeous city, and has knit our family together more closely than ever before. We don’t think we will ever have a year like 2009 but who can tell. We have proven that we are up to huge challenges and that we can make the best of them. We are thankful for our good health, cherished friends and family love most of all. So, with those thoughts about last year and its ups and downs, we wish a Happy New Year to everyone as we move into the next decade.