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, March 25, 2010

Driving in Cuenca

Though we own a car and are quite comfortable driving now, it took some time to get used to all the idiosyncrasies of maneuvering through the city. Interestingly, a number of our friends, who originally didn’t have a car, have recently purchased one, mainly for trips out of town. We have found that the streets and roads are in good shape compared to other South American cities. The potholes are usually filled quickly after they appear.  If you are a driver, you will find that the gas stations are manned with a half dozen eager attendants. There is no such thing as self service in Ecuador and the attention is quick and efficient. Gas is presently $1.48 for Extra and has been for at least a year or more, a low price compared to America and Europe and is primarily due to the nationalized petroleum cartel. You will also enjoy not having to pay that painful fifty cents for air to fill your tires as you do in the US. Air and water are free at all gas stations. In the Centro of Cuenca, SOAT, an arm of the city government that oversees licensing and ticketing, has agents roaming each street who will sell you up to an hour’s parking permit for a dollar which allows you to park in allowable spots on the street. If you cannot find a SOAT person after you park on the street, you can purchase a permit at almost any store near your parked car. You merely write in the time and date on the permit and put it on the dashboard for the roaming SOAT agent to see. Until we learned this system, we parked and, of course, got a ticket. It took two days of asking and driving around to suggested places before we found a rather obscure location where we could pay our $10 parking fine only to find out later that we were ripped off. It was not the correct place to pay. We recently found out that you can pay parking tickets at the caja at the motor vehicle compound just off Solanno near the main Banco Pichincha. There are very few painted lane markings on Cuenca’s streets and roads and it probably wouldn’t make any difference if there were as drivers often pay no attention to staying in a particular lane and weave in and out at will. It is a little disconcerting to see cars parked along a two way street facing in both directions on both sides of the street. Apparently  this is not a parking offense. However, the city is making a commendable effort to crack down on violations but this appears to be an almost insurmountable task. Almost everyone walks everywhere in the city or takes a taxi for $2 or less so a car really isn’t necessary. Here is a photo of our tiny 4 passenger taxis. 
We have always had a car and it was an addiction too hard to break. We feel that driving into the vehicle crowded Centro is not a problem once you are used to it. There are Parquedero’s or parking lots on almost every block where you can park your car for about 60 cents an hour. They give you a greater sense of safety for your car and anything left inside compared to leaving it on the street. Car radios sold in Ecuador have a pop off control panel that you would be wise to remove and take with you when you leave the car on the street.  Having a car in Cuenca is a personal choice but we enjoy using it to drive up into the mountains and to visit the fascinating small towns and their market places. And, it is amazing how much we end up hauling around.  One way or the other, we find ways or excuses to justify owning a car. 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cuenca, the clean city

One of the interesting things you will find as you wander around the streets of Cuenca, other than the fact that it is an absolutely beautiful city, is that the infrastructure is sometimes confusing and often exasperating.  One way streets, one way bridge crossings over the rivers, cobblestone streets, lack of street signs, and horrendous traffic are some of the emotional and actual obstacles that drivers and walkers must learn. On the up side, Cuenca is one of the cleanest cities you will ever encounter. Yes, there is a lot of pollution from the diesel engines of the busses and trucks. Fortunately, the wind blows the exhaust fumes away and the sky is usually crystal clear. Probably the most effective of the city wide systems to keep the city clean are the little green men and women who never seem to stop sweeping and cleaning the streets. In teams of three or four, they push their carts along the streets constantly sweeping up trash. Bagged garbage isn’t just put by the side of the road, it is placed in raised brackets high off the ground so roaming dogs don’t get to them.  Cuenca has just instituted a garbage recycling program with stiff fines for infractions. Recycled paper and plastic must be put in blue plastic bags. The only problem is that the Supermaxi markets can’t keep the blue bags in stock. But that will change once the pipe line is full.
Modern garbage trucks come on scheduled days but seem to never stop. They just keep rolling along while the workers hop on and off. Usually there will be four workers hanging onto the back. When they approach some bags of garbage, the one on the left jumps off the moving truck, grabs the bag, tosses it into the back and leaps back onto the truck on the far right side. The others move over one place so the next person is ready to jump off at the next location. Then there is the grass on the avenue’s center strips and in the parks that is kept trimmed and well manicured at all times. You will probably never see a lawnmower in Ecuador as the grass is cut by men wielding large, gasoline powered weed whackers that they swing back and forth cutting the grass to within an inch of the ground. The men work in teams and once the grass is cut they rake it up into piles and haul it away.  An interesting side light is that cattle often are put by their owners in the center strip or the sides of the road to eat the green grass.  Actually, this isn’t a bad idea as the cows keep the amazingly fast growing grass in check.

Although it really doesn’t help keeping the grass cut, you will often see people at the side of the road cutting what looks like grass or weeds but are actually edible herbs and grasses that they sell in the markets and on the street corners. We constantly hear the comment that Cuenca is one of the cleanest cities people have ever seen. The cars and busses are clean. The streets are clean. The people wear clean clothes. The city is manicured. It looks like hard work but the city government is committed to making it so and it rubs off onto the population. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Fruits of Ecuador

Along with all the more common fruits you are used to plus papaya, kiwi, melons, and passion fruit, the markets in Ecuador are filled with exotic fruits you may never have seen before. After opening, deseeding and sometimes skinning, most can be made into exceptional fresh juices (jugos) using a blender, juicer or citrus juicer.

Mora (Blackberry) Ecuadorian blackberries are different from those you’re used to as they are larger and more tart. The blackberry bushes grow like weeds in most parts of the country. Although they can be eaten right off the vine, generally Ecuadorians blend them with water and add a little sugar for an excellent juice.

Tomate (Tree Tomato) The tree tomato is a red, egg-shaped fruit full of pulp-covered seeds 
somewhat  like passion fruit. They are called  tomatoes because their reddish color is a like a tomato and the juice made from the seeds tastes vaguely like a tomato. Tree tomatoes are good for juice or for boiling in sugar for a dessert treat but they are too sour to eat fresh.

Taxo (Banana Passionfruit) is an elongated, soft  fruit that looks a little like a small, straight, orange banana. Inside of the fruit, there are dozens of seeds covered in pulp which you remove from the seeds. The pulp is used to make juice or ice cream. The skin is discarded. Taxos have a tangy, tart taste, and although they can be eaten fresh, they rarely are. In shops, where they make handmade ice cream, the taxo is a popular flavor.

GuanĂ¡bana (Soursop) The GuanĂ¡bana is a green fruit with a rough outer skin. They can get quite large, some reaching the size of a soccer ball. Inside the green skin, the fruit is white and pulpy and full of many seeds, each of which is about the size of a cherry. This white flesh can be eaten fresh and tastes vaguely of strawberry. It is very sweet and mild. Because it is messy to eat and the seeds are annoying, Ecuadorians prefer to make juice out of them.

Naranjilla (Little Orange) are a round, bright orange fruit a little smaller than a tennis ball. The inside is full of tiny seeds and pulp. The pulp is scooped out and blended, strained and sweetened  to make a greenish-orange, tangy juice that has an interesting perfume-like aftertaste. The naranjilla is native to Ecuador and Colombia and rarely grown elsewhere.

Granadilla (Sweet Granadilla): Referred to as passion fruit in some parts of the world, granadillas are small, pale orange-pink, egg-shaped fruit. The outer shell of the fruit cracks open to expose the fruit inside which consists of dozens of black seeds enclosed in a semi-transparent gray pulp. The seeds and pulp are eaten whole and the cracked skin is discarded. Granadillas have a very mild, fruity flavor. They are generally eaten fresh and raw as they are far too mild for juice.

Pitahaya (Dragon Fruit): Ecuadorian pitahayas are bumpy yellow fruit that grow on a local species of tree cactus. The skin is cut open to reveal the pulp which is semi-transparent, grayish and full of tiny black seeds. Eating one is a little like eating a kiwi. The fruit is sweet and mild and is usually eaten raw and fresh although it also makes good juice. It has mild laxative properties.

Uvilla (Ground Cherry, Gooseberry): These small yellow fruits are called ground cherries because they grow close to the ground and are roughly cherry-like in size and shape. They have nothing in common with cherries, including taste and there is no stone. They are bright yellow and grow inside a husk that looks like a paper lantern. The flavor is a somewhat  like pineapple and they are eaten raw and fresh, one after another, like popcorn.

Tuna (Prickly Pear): Not to be confused with the fish, the tuna is the fruit of a species of cactus. The fruit even looks like a small cactus. The outer green skin is cut open to reveal the red pulp inside. There are small, crunchy seeds that are tasteless and can be eaten. The fruit itself has a very mild flavor and is fairly bland.

Orito (Finger Banana): Ecuador is famed for the varieties of bananas it produces. One favorite is the Orito,a small banana, about half the size of the ones destined for export. Oritos are sweeter and have a slightly richer taste than the bananas sent abroad.

If you prefer you can buy many of the above as fresh, squeezed pulp in plastic bags at almost any market. 

Oranges: Throughout the world there are 97 varieties of oranges. In Ecuador a few of these varieties are grown everywhere and make wonderful fresh juice. The large oranges have no seeds but are less sweet. The small oranges are full of seeds but are very sweet. We mix them together to make our morning orange juice.

It takes a little experimenting to know the right amount of sweetener to add to the pulp of the more exotic fruits to create a juice that you will enjoy. But after trying them one by one they open up a whole new source of pleasure and good nutrition.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Infrared photography

How about a Little departure from scenes of Ecuador to some infrared photography we did in North Carolina? Once you get hooked on this unusual style of photography, it opens up a visual understanding of your subject that your eyes never see. Infrared filters, like the R72 filter, block almost the entire visible light spectrum and allow only infrared light that is invisible to the eye to pass through to the camera’s sensor. The resulting images are ethereal, dreamlike and surreal. The skies will be dark and vegetation will glow a ghostly white. The image often looks like a northern snow scene.  

We have yet to take any Ecuador infrared photos as we no longer have an R72 filter but, once we get one, we will get back into it. The subject matter here is perfect because of the extreme contrasts in the vegetation and the cloud filled skies, all perfect for infrared photos. If you have a DSLR camera, you can make infrared photos like ours by doing the following. Set the camera on a tripod. Frame your subject. Take a color reference shot so you can see if the subject is in focus and the view is what you want. Being careful not to move the camera, screw an R72 infrared filter onto the lens. Cover the lens viewer with your finger or a piece of tape so no extraneous light gets to the sensor. Try a number of settings from ½ second to two seconds. Unfortunately, you will not see anything in the view finder because the filter blocks all visible light. Therefore, by shooting a trial and error variety of settings, you will find the setting that works best with your camera.  

Some camera manufacturers have built special blocks into their cameras that will not allow any of the infrared spectrum to interfere with normal photography. So, the only way to know if your camera will take infrared is to try no matter what the manual says the camera will do or not do. 

The way we have come up with these photos is by doing most of the infrared work with the camera and not messing around with image altering software. The exception has been an occasional crop with software.  For more detailed guidance there is a lot of information on infrared photography technique on the web. 

Try it. You will find Infrared photography is a novel and surprisingly interesting new way to use your DSLR camera and the photographs? Wow! What more can we say.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is Ecuador right for me?

A few years ago I wrote an article for a magazine on the decision making process. Little did we know at the time that we would soon begin the process of trying to find the right place to retire where we would put every decision making concept that I had written about to the ultimate test. Almost every expat or potential expat we have spoken to has made a similar journalistic journey and done an enormous amount of research prior to moving from the US, Canada, or Europe. In every case once the germ of the idea took root - the idea of moving abroad - the search started in earnest. With few exceptions, searching on the internet through websites and blogs is where the decision process began for all of us. We researched Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Italy, India, and found enough negatives to eliminate them. In the long run, Ecuador is where we found the most desirable qualities to fit our need for living well affordably. The search then began to get deadly serious. We brainstormed on paper with arrows running in a hundred different directions. What town is the best? What is the right part of that town? A house or apartment? Rent or buy? What is the true cost of living? Are there English speaking people? Will we be able to buy what we need there? Will our four year old grandson get a good education? What are the consequences of leaving the US that we had known all our lives and relocating to a foreign country? These questions were put down on paper along with the solutions that we found, plus endless lists of additional questions that required more up-to-date answers. But, who knew these answers? Where could we find them? We asked specific questions via emails and got good answers from expats living in Ecuador. We found more and more websites and blogs as we narrowed our choices. We then put the decision to move to Ecuador into action by planning an extended visit to Ecuador. We still believe that a visit is the most important step of all. We knew that we would not be comfortable on the coast though we love the ocean so our trip concentrated on the Sierra - Quito and Cuenca – and we visited both extensively.  One of the concepts of decision making is that a person often has to make decisions quickly without enough time to really look as deeply as you would like.  Experts advise in these situations that you keep your eye on the goal and then let your intuition make the right choice. We did just that. We saw a house we loved in Cuenca and, on the last day of a three week visit, put a deposit down to purchase. It had been a two year long decision making process but, in that moment of resolution, we knew we had done the right thing.  There is no way to give another person all the answers to the questions that dwell in their minds but most of us are here to help if at all possible. We look forward to meeting new friends and sharing our experiences, good and bad.  There are a thousand steps along the way that each person has to ascend, a thousand decisions, big and small, that must be made that lead to a final choice each will make. With all that said, the second best advice we can give is to not make it a tedious enterprise but make it a fun process and enjoy the ride.  

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Post Office

We have posted our mail adventures before but here is a new one. Four weeks ago, Loretta ordered a coat from an Ebay outlet in the US. They used Ebay’s standard $20 international shipping charge.  When we had not received the package after 4 weeks, we checked United States Postal Service tracking and found that it had arrived in Ecuador four days after being shipped and had been held in customs for weeks. Though we had no information other than the tracking information and no idea where customs would hold it, we felt that logically, it might be at the post office in Cuenca Centro. Armed with passport, cedula, and, what we felt was an adequate amount of money, we went to the post office at their appointed hour (package pickup is Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings).  
Loretta stood on one line, was sent to another, and was sent back to the original line. She is the one in the photo being crushed against the window. When her turn at the wicket came, they checked her cedula, a customs inspector in military clothing opened and inspected the package, and handed her the coat without comment. There was no extra duty and no extra postage. Fortunately, Loretta had requested the sender mark on the declaration that the coat was used and had the sales tickets removed.  We were also lucky in that we thought the logical place for the customs hold up would be at the post office. We later wondered what would have happened if we had not figured that out. Would they have finally looked at the address on the package and sent us a notice that it was being held by customs? The only logical answer is that our next mail adventure will undoubtedly be different. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Many Faces of Cuenca

Take a little tour with us and get a glimpse of some of the fascinating faces you will see in Cuenca. There is so much to see that this is only a small peek into life in the city but it is a beginning.  
At the indiginous markets, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of family stalls filled with everything from fresh fruit, vegetables, clothing, live animals and articles you haven't seen for years, all at extraordinary prices.
It is a common sight to see women, often elderly, with huge loads of unimaginable weights, strapped to their backs.
Manual labor, not mechanized, is the order of the day. The worker in the middle is pounding the cement sidewalk with a 15 lb.sledge hammer. A crowbar and shovel are his assistants.
A wood gatherer coming down the mountain with wood to either use at home or to sell. Horses, mules and donkeys are the main transportation for many of the farmers. Oxen are often used to plow the fields.
Almost every establishment that handles cash has guards out front probably more as intimidation as much as for real security. At the wages they earn, it is hard to believe that they would risk their lives to protect the stores they are there to guard.
Laden down with hundreds of sunglasses tucked onto his hat, on his shoulders, in his belt, and dozens more in his backpack and plastic bag, the sunglass salesman finds a way to carry more artfully arranged in each hand. At street intersections, where cars must slow down to turn, these entrepaneurs make a good living, selling sunglasses to ward off the intense sunlight.
On almost every street, you will find a "Comida Tipico" where meals are served for around $1.50. A meal of excellent soup, main dish of chicken and rice and a fruit drink are the usual offerings at this "can't refuse" price.
When was the last time you saw a donkey parked out in front of a store? Little specialty shops sell almost anything you could wish for in small, one room establishments.
But, there is another class of citizens in Cuenca, the wealthy. Though less obvious, they are a strong backbone of the city.
Pre-school is a wonderful start for many of the more well-to-do children in Cuenca. Again, there is a pre-school on almost every block of the city. The children are dropped off at the pre-schools by their working parents and picked up at lunch time.

Our Jonny opening the door to his bus at 7:50 in the morning. Almost every school has a mini-bus to pick up their students. There are so many of them at this hour that they actually seem to outnumber the taxis.
Grade school kids all over the world look like this but in all schools here in Cuenca, public as well as private, the children wear uniforms. Each school's uniform is different.
A group of high school girls heading home after a day of study. Unfortunately, the school day ends earlier than we are used to at around one or two o'clock each day. Many kids then go to dance class, Tai-kwon-do lessons, swim lessons, futbol, or some other after school activity.
Then, of course, there are the expats. This was Loretta's birthday at our house in Challuabamba. The rest of the group was in the kitchen wolfing down lunch.
A, more or less, typical Friday evening at the Eucalyptus Cafe where the expat community meets. It is a wonderful way for a newcomer to meet the "old hands." This was rather early in the evening as normally there will be about 30 at the Eucalyptus Cafe and another 30 at Zoe's Restaurant each Friday.
Cuenca is a city of festivals and with every festival come numerous parades. A week doesn't go by that there isn't a parade. The problem is finding out the reason for the parade.
A toy peddler that is an almost irresistible target for every child who passes by. Some of the blow up toys are most unusual and a lot more fun than just another balloon.
Tens of thousands watch the Christmas parades. This group took ten minutes to dance and intertwine the ribbons and kept the rest of the parade, which went on for five hours, from moving. No one seemed to mind.
Horses or donkeys, ridden by children, are decorated with intricate designs made from fruit, vegetables or candy bars, all strung together to make unusual and colorful saddle hangings.
There are fifty-three churches in Cuenca. Christmas service at the New Cathedral with the Cuenca Symphony playing Christmas carols, both English and Spanish, was a special treat.

So, here in photos, is a little glimpse of the many faces of Cuenca. It gives a small view of what you will see but barely scratches the surface of the sometimes constant and, more often, delightfully changing scene.