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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Revival of the Automobile Horn

We think we have uncovered a major technological achievement for Ecuador. Dating back to the early 1900’s, when the automobile was in its infancy, the auto horn was an indispensible part of the driving experience. The “Ayooga” sound was critical to chasing cattle off the dirt roads. It was essential for the youth of the day to frighten horses or to announce their existence on the planet.  The horn became a basic and necessary part of the automobile. But, as the car invaded the cities, the horn soon became a nuisance and was discriminated against by one regulation after another to the point where, late in the 20th century, the use the horn, except in an emergency, brought a violation of city ordinances. The horn quickly fell into oblivion as car manufacturers, especially those in Japan, reduced the horn’s decibel level to a tinny sound that could barely be heard even within the car itself. But, no matter how hard the car manufacturer’s tried to eliminate the horn’s usefulness, it hung on. Enter Ecuador’s discovery of the auto horn. Ecuadorian drivers came to the rescue and, once more, the horn found a place where it was esteemed. It was felt by Ecuadorian drivers that traffic would become permanently grid-locked, if not for their ingenious use of the horn. It was soon codified as follows. One beep is a warning meaning “You’d better stop because I’m going too fast to give way.” Two beeps loosely translated means, “I’m coming” or more definitively, “Move it!”  In those seconds before a traffic light turns green, at least one and sometimes two cars behind you will give two blasts on their horns possibly thinking you are asleep or conceivably blind to not have started moving forward before the light changed. Three beeps take too much effort and too much trouble so they are almost never used. Our understanding of the code is not good enough to interpret what a long, persistent blast means but we suspect it has the same message as anywhere else in the world. Taxi drivers augment their mastery of the horn with flashing headlights. Two flashes of the headlights mean, “I’m for hire.” Frantic continuous flashes and horn blowing mean “Get out of my way.”  Personally, we would prefer pulling our car off the road if we saw a car approaching from behind with flashing lights and pounding on the horn but it doesn’t seem to bother other Ecuadorian drivers who continue on their way as if deaf. This obstinacy covers ambulances, police cars, and other vehicles with flashing lights on their roof top. We would not be surprised to find auto manufacturers throughout the world noticing this revival of the horn in Ecuador and beefing up their horns even with the possible return of the “Ayooga” Claxon. Having a claxon on our car would help at the next red light we encounter and might even the odds a little. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Things we don’t miss about the USA

Dirty streets – Streets in cities where we have lived in the US are almost universally full of trash. Often, there were $200 fines for littering but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Litter was everywhere. Some people were audacious enough to dump bags of trash along the roadside just to get rid of them. Here the streets are spotlessly clean. Trash and garbage are efficiently picked up daily by teams of little green men and women.

Interstate highways –We often think of the monotony of driving along miles and miles of Interstate highway dodging speeding trucks, long delays sitting in traffic jams and the rest stops filled with junk food and dirty, crowded bathrooms versus our decent country roads with an occasional interesting restaurant and an adventure around every corner.

Homeless people – we have yet to see a truly homeless person here in Ecuador. In Philadelphia there are homeless on nearly every downtown street. In the winter they sat on steam vents to keep warm. They were everywhere, sleeping on the sidewalk, rifling through dumpsters and trash cans, or wheeling their possessions along the street in stolen shopping carts. It was something we never really got used to.

Dumpsters – We have never seen one in Ecuador.

High cost of living – gasoline at a stable $1.48 not $2-3.00 plus a gallon like in the US, heating oil is not necessary, air conditioning is not necessary, food, especially fresh food, is very inexpensive. Private schools are $3-4000 per year not $10-12,000 as in the US. Home costs and rental apartments are quite inexpensive.

Aggressive sales people – The Ecuadorian sales clerk has not yet learned to be aggressive and you must often seek them out in order to buy something. The hard sell found on TV, newspapers and magazines is but a quarter of what you would find in the US.

Junk mail – Our mailbox used to almost overflow with junk mail every day in North Carolina. Most was never read but just ended up in our trash can. We rarely receive mail in Cuenca, only an occasional utility receipt or bank statement as mail is not a common way to communicate.

Doctor’s offices – We remember the long waits in the doctor’s office in the States even though we had an appointment while he fell farther and farther behind as the day progressed. Then the visit lasted only a few minutes. Contrast that with a visit to the doctor here. It is a first come, first serve, walk-in system. Surprisingly, the doctor will spend a long time talking to you as he asks probing questions. The doctor is usually alone and does everything from diagnosis to treatment to collecting his fee. 

Violent weather – We remember hard, cold winters and oppressively hot summers that were costly to tame and often gave us an edge-of-the-chair storm or two each season. Cuenca’s weather is the same spring like climate all year long and is never violent.

Industrial pollution – There are no tan skies filled with smog as you will find in the industrial cities of the north. We must admit, however, that the diesel truck and bus exhaust is terrible. Fortunately, Cuenca’s high location and facing position lets the wind keep the air clear and pollution free.

Insects – Having come from North Carolina where the mosquitoes and ants seem to be taking over, our bug free climate is a welcome relief. We have no screens on our windows in Cuenca though this would not be true in the Amazon region or on the coast.  Freedom from bugs is a real plus here in the Sierra.

Junk food – It is relatively easy to buy familiar junk food in the supermarkets here but it is sold side by side with healthy and often organic food which does not carry an escalated price as in the States. Fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are available everywhere.

Restaurants – Unlike the US, it is almost as inexpensive to eat out in a restaurant as it is to cook at home.

Seasons – Believe it or not, we don’t miss the lack of seasonal change as much as we thought we would. It is now February, 70 degrees and sunny, and the news is full of the worst winter snow storms of the century that have hit the east coast.

Daylight savings time – It was always stressful in the north with winter’s early darkness, waking in the morning to a pitch black sky, kids leaving for school in the dark in the morning and coming home in the dark in the afternoon, and the twice a year project of time adjustment when you had to change every clock in the house and car. But here in Ecuador, there is no daylight savings time and no change in the amount of day or night. Daylight Savings time isn’t necessary as the days are always about 12 hours long and the nights the same.

Lawyers – In the US, there was barely a function left that didn’t require the expertise of a lawyer and we always felt vulnerable if we didn’t seek their advice.  Many of the same legal problems exist in Ecuador but they are not as expensive to execute or as pervasive. It is not a litigious society possibly because legal matters take a long time to resolve and, therefore, are not as appealing to begin.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Buddha in Cuenca

Our friends Alan and Elinor have traveled all over the world and collected artifacts, books and unrecognizable, yet beautiful, objects from every place they visited. Their house is a virtual museum of uncountable objects-de-arte, each room filled with hanging pieces, books, whatnots and statues. In the living room, an incredible Buddha sits in meditation with his eyes closed seeming to be praying for peace and contentment. 
But, another Buddha in the garden outside had sat alone for months with no purpose after being carefully placed there and they had felt it was time to officially dedicate it as a shrine. A party was planned. Matt Hayes, who has lived in Japan for five years and is somewhat a student of Buddhism, was asked to MC the dedication. After an hour of socializing, thirty guests gathered after nightfall in the garden and listened to Matt touch on what Buddhism means and is. He spoke of the three concepts of knowing yourself, knowing your community of friends, and the Buddha himself. As a group, we stood in the dark, each holding three lighted sticks of incense, looked at ourselves, our friends and the beautiful statue sitting quietly and peacefully in the corner of their garden. Each of us considered how fortunate we were. We stood there, a collection of friends, old and young, Expats from all over the world, Ecuadorians, and visitors, Christian, Jewish, agnostics, and a few wandering souls, and spent a few moments thinking humbly. 
It was a touching moment for all of us only to be followed by an incredible repast of a dozen dishes, each better tasting than the last. Once again, we have found that the people we know and have become friends with in Cuenca have had an enormous impact on our lives.  Learning more about the concepts of Buddha has only helped reinforce our love of life. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Buying and renovating property

We purchased a house in a suburb of Cuenca called Challuabamba where we did a large amount of renovation to bring it up to our North American standards.  It is now finished and is a gorgeous 5500 square foot home with an indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam room and many amenities that Americans are used to.  The house is now for sale as we have moved into the city proper for the convenience of the cultural events, our friends, and a closer school for Jonny. If you have interest in seeing the house when you visit Cuenca, take a look at a previous “buying property” posting.  Send us an email and we will be pleased to drive you out and show the house to you.

 But no matter what house or condo you buy there are a number of differences in the purchase procedure and the renovation process compared to the US. The best advice we can give is to use a lawyer to handle a purchase transaction from the very beginning. The purchase agreement and the actual sales agreement are miles apart in what should be looked into and verified. We have friends who bought property on the coast only to find that the people they bought from did not officially own the property.  Realtors here don’t do the same investigative work as realtors do in the States. This is the lawyer’s job. Also, renovation contracts with an architect/general contractor are much simpler in Ecuador and can leave out some very important issues if you don’t insist on them. Once again, we would suggest using a lawyer. Two rather obvious additions to a renovation contract are a specific end date for the project with a penalty clause if the contractor goes beyond that date. Contractors in Ecuador are notorious for not meeting your schedule and failing to finish on time. Sometimes they do not finish at all and just leave to go on to their next job. You should also make conditions for the inevitable changes in the original agreement and how to handle them.  You don’t want to be surprised by a list of additional costs that you have not agreed to in advance. The general contractor/architect will normally hire the workers and actually bring them to the house each day. We had about 40 different workers in our house over a six month period. If we did it again, we would ask the architect to provide a copy of each worker’s cedula (identity card) before allowing them in the house. And, it goes without saying, that either you or the architect should be in the house whenever work is being done so that it is done properly.  We are very pleased with the final result but it was a learning process all the way.  “Caveat Emptor” is the byword in Ecuador as it is everywhere in the world. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Outside of the box

A lot of what you find in Ecuador is living outside of the box. One step outside of what we as expats think is normal is getting to know Ecuadorian’s personally. In the 10 months that we have been living in Cuenca, we have been fortunate enough to have made many friends both in the expat community and among native Ecuadorians. The blogs about Cuenca often tell about the exploits and adventures of the expats but seldom about the Ecuadorians themselves.  From our experience, the rumors that Ecuadorians are leery of foreigners and keep them at arm’s reach, could not be further from the truth. When we bought our home in Challuabamba, we found we were living next door to a wonderful, middle class Ecuadorian family who have become very close friends. In their house live the great-grandmother and her son, who is the family father. Neither speak any English. The father’s wife, a great cook, has about as much English as we have Spanish. Then there are the daughter, two sons and a granddaughter that speak quite passable English. As a group they own and operate a company in Cuenca that designs and sells high end European kitchens. They also built our custom made upholstered couches and chairs some months ago. It was our good fortune to be invited to the father’s 54th birthday party last Monday during Carnival week. We arrived at their home at 2:00 PM on a beautiful, warm sunny afternoon, the only Gringos among 30 Ecuadorians of all ages from one to 89. Everyone there was family - uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. We sat out on the porch of their modern home, overlooking the mountains, sipping whisky and soda and getting to know each of them.  As the party grew to its full size, the laughter and stories began, some included our story which brought us closer into the family. Though we were something of an oddity and struggling with our Spanish, there were enough of them who spoke reasonably good English who told us what Great-grandmother had just said or asked us a question about something or another. A few had spent time in the US. Most tried valiantly to resurrect the English they had learned in high school while we worked hard to be understood in Spanish. We were treated like honored guests especially Jonny, who with his curly, red hair and party exuberance, became an instant hit. About four o’clock, dinner was served at tables for six, outside under a tent. A delicious “Comida Tipico” progressed from a choice of pork or chicken soup, to a huge main course of rice, chicken and enselada, and ending with a variety of cakes and coffee. Then, as typical in Ecuador, everyone got a chair, arranged themselves outside in a large circle, and the real party began. Glasses of whiskey were passed from person to person. Cigarettes were handed back and forth and the laughter went to an almost constant uproar. A family of thirty and three, wide-eyed outsiders laughed and told stories for the next hour or so. The one-year-old baby boy was passed from one person to the next. Two young men, who are currently at the University in Cuenca, were shocked to hear the price of a college education in the US as they pay $1000 per semester. Toasts of “Salud” were made to the birthday father every few minutes. We were taught the correct pronunciation for our Spanish guffaws. Then, as we finally gathered up Jonny to leave, we were invited to a brother-in-law and his wife’s home two weeks hence. We were no longer outsiders. It was very refreshing for us, with our family scattered all over the globe, to experience the warmth and camaraderie of an entire Ecuadorian family full of laughter, love and friendship. We watched with envy as four generations gathered together as a single unit of thirty people to celebrate the father’s birthday. As we drove home to our apartment in Cuenca, we realized we had stepped outside the box and had possibly found the real Ecuador for at least one afternoon. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What is retirement really?

Most of the expats we know here in Cuenca are retired, about to retire and looking for the right place to live, or thinking out a few years about what they will do when the time comes. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what retirement means for them - travel, an easier life style, an escape from the work ethic, leisure, a time to do things never done before, and dozens more reasons or possibilities. But retirement isn’t all that easy. For us, it meant uprooting the family, leaving everything familiar, and moving to a foreign land. Some others realized their dream by moving into a retirement community so they could play golf every day for the rest of their lives. Some have actually stayed at home and will work, as they have always worked, until it is no longer profitable or feasible.  Others reached out and followed a life-long dream by traveling or moving to a more hospitable place.  We have found that three of the real draws when making these choices are health care, economics and a favorable climate. These are subjects that we, and others, have dealt with extensively in our blogs. But there is another factor that lays hidden in the excitement of retirement.  What will you do for the rest of your life? There are hundreds of answers to this question and it is very personal but the main fact to think about is that you must have something to do with yourself when you retire.  There is nothing worse than no longer having a job to go to, nothing to do, and 24 hours to deal with each day. So, before you make this important transition, start planning what you’ll do in the next chapter of a long and fruitful life. Nothing will serve you better than to tuck a few projects into that suitcase, projects that will make a contribution, that will satisfy a life-long need, or that will keep you engaged, interesting, and useful. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The drought is over

As you can see by the photos of the River Yanuncay as it rages through town, the drought appears to be over. It is apparent that there has been a lot of rain up in the mountains. In fact, we have had a few good rains over the last few days right here in Cuenca.

El Nino has kept us pretty dry for the last few months so possibly this is the beginning of a change to a more normal amount of precipitation. Down on the coast, El Nino is giving them a rough time with very high tides and waves that have done a lot of damage to the shoreline.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

DVD Stores

Almost all DVD’s for sale are a pirated version of the original. You have to bend your ethics a little but there are few other choices in Ecuador if you want to purchase a music, movie or game DVD.  On almost every street in Cuenca, you will find a small Mom and Pop store with the walls covered with rack after rack of DVD’s in jewel boxes. Inside is a copy the original disc and a copy of the label on the outside of the box. 
Most cost $1.50 though some games run as high as $3.00. There is generally a good selection of movies that, with a click of the remote, can be switched from Spanish to English if necessary. Just ask the proprietor if your choice is available in English. They will put it into a DVD player and check for you. Music DVD’s have a more limited selection. There are very few classical or jazz discs available, a good selection of American rock but an absolute gold mine of Latin music. In the places we shop, they even have three disc music compilations that cost $5.00. Our apartment now vibrates to the Latin beat. Games are available but are limited in the Mom and Pop stores. However, at the mall there are a number of game shops where they have good choices for almost every game system. But a word of warning when buying pirated copies of originals. 
We bought new computers in Ecuador from one of the many computer stores. At our request, they put an English version of Microsoft Vista on both new computers. These were not licensed versions as licensed software in English is extremely hard to get in Ecuador. The Toshiba laptop has been running just fine as they installed a Toshiba version on it. But, the desktop, which was made from generic parts, had an unlicensed English version of Vista installed. Everything worked well for about a month until Microsoft shut it down automatically possibly because they were alerted it was an unlicensed version by the frequent updates or cookies or something we are not aware of. We installed it again and the same thing happened in about a month. The computer just went dead and could not be started. The computer store tried a half dozen distributors in Ecuador looking for an English version of Windows 7 and finally gave up. We then installed a Spanish licensed version of Windows 7 and all has been perfect. The only problem is deciphering all the commands which are in Spanish. But it has been a good way to expand our learning of Spanish. Though our experience with Windows has been frustrating, the pile of inexpensive movie and music DVD’s just keeps getting higher and higher. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What's cheap, expensive or hard to get?

We remembered that before we came to Ecuador, there were many questions in our minds over what to bring, what we could and could not get in Cuenca and what might cost more than in the US. This is a controversial subject as some of the following items may be available and we just have not found where to get them. But, with that said, let’s take a look at three categories of what we have found to date. The lists are far from complete but will give you an idea of what costs more or less and what is hard to get in Cuenca. This is a favorite subject for the Gringos. We would appreciate contact from people who live in Ecuador with additions to this list and we will post it again soon with more information.

What costs more in Cuenca?
At the beginning of the 2009 economic crisis, the government of Ecuador imposed a high protective tariff on almost all imported goods which raised the cost of imports considerably. The government has promised to eliminate most if not all of these tariffs in early 2010 but we shall see. We are hopeful that when present supplies have been restocked, prices will come down on imported goods.
Nevertheless, we still find some items more costly like shoes, blue jeans, cars (especially if you want an automatic shift), cameras, toys, mail to the US, children’s school workbooks,

What is hard to get in Cuenca?
A large selection of almost anything, children’s clothes, off size clothes (Ecuadorian’s are generally smaller in size than North Americans), high thread count sheets (300 about top count), Levi jeans, aspirin in 325 and 85 mg size, cold medications, frozen foods, parsnips, good salad dressings, baby foods, chicken bouillon cubes, prepared foods like Whole Food in the US, full range of vitamins, A3 copy paper (only A4 available), English language books, TV and camera accessories, DSLR cameras, a full school day (classes end at about 1:00PM), high-end gyms,

What costs less in Cuenca?
Maid service ($8-10 a day), Utilities (did you know that there are no heating or air conditioning units used or necessary in Cuenca?), housing (both rental and purchasing), taxis ($1-2 anywhere in the city), fresh vegetables and fruit, Restaurant food (also tipping is much less), computer printers (most under $100), medical care, gasoline($1.48 gallon), In-country air fares, South American wines and liquors, custom made furniture, granite counter tops, labor ($10-15 day depending on job), DVD’s ($1.50 each),

Let us know what you think could be added to this list.