A New Kind of Blog

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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Neighborhood Apartments

One of the major tasks in moving to Cuenca is to find a place to live on a more permanent basis than a hotel or a short term lease that can be booked on line or with a real estate agent. 

Avenida Solano, our Champs Ellysees, on the South side of town

As we have mentioned before, finding an apartment for a long term is best done by going door to door and asking if something is available, following the newspaper advertisements, or just letting everyone you talk to know you are looking. Along these lines, we often get the question “Where is the best place in town to rent an apartment.” Once again, this is a purely subjective question and depends on your requirements. Do you want to live within easy walking distance of Centro or will taking a bus or taxi from a greater distance suffice? Do you want to live in a high rise building with a great view or would you prefer living on a lower, potentially less expensive, floor? How would you rate the security of the building you have chosen?  Do you want an outdoor terrace? How big an apartment in square meters (150 square meters is approximately 1500 square feet)? Would you possibly like to live in a house? On and on it goes and we can answer none of these questions for you. You have to come and look, ask, and do some real leg work.  Other than having a free standing home, most of the apartments you will probably find are in the newer, red brick buildings shown in these photos. All will have a doorman who is the security guard. All will have parking either underground or in front or back. And, many will have a reasonably sized gringo population. We are most familiar with the more residential parts of the city, the new part of town on the South side of the river and the West side of town, but there are many more apartment buildings scattered all over the city.

The River Tomebamba, separating old town from the newer South section

There are many apartments in the old city and we know a few couples who prefer to live there. But it was our choice to live across the river in the quieter, more residential area where there is a larger concentration of apartment buildings of our liking.

The above photo is of the area across the river from the old city and looking west. As you can see there are at least eight buildings visible in the photo. It is about a 15-25 minute walk to the center of town depending on how far west you are located. Shopping for food, appliances, electronics, and the Mall del Rio are here.

Here is a map showing in red the approximate area on the South side of town and across the river where many apartments are located. 

This photo is of the dozen or so apartment buildings in the Oro Verde Hotel area in the far west part of town on Avenida Ordonetz Lasso and is where many of the gringos have set up camp. It is about a 35-45 minute walk to Parque Calderon in the center of town.  There is plenty of shopping quite near plus the Coopera food coop and Sukasa, an upscale department store.

Above is a map showing in red the approximate vicinity of the Oro Verde Hotel and the nearby apartment areas on the West side of town.

We hope this very brief tour of some of the apartment areas of Cuenca will be of some help in orienting yourself when you visit and begin the process of apartment or house hunting. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and the internet

Before we came to Cuenca, we searched everywhere to find out more about Ecuador. One of the things we wondered was if there were any online newspapers in English where we could take the pulse of the city on an almost daily basis. We found none. We have since discovered that there appear to be no newspapers written in English. There are a number of Spanish papers but our understanding of Spanish at that time meant that the newspapers online were of little use. You might like to check them out however. El Mercurio is a fairly conservative paper and probably has the largest circulation. You can find the paper at www.elmercurio.com.ec.
 El Tiempo is another paper and has a somewhat more liberal presentation at www.eltiempo.com.ec.  Recently there has been some government interference in the concept of a free press which, though subtle, has put something of a crimp on open journalism. Magazines are available at the Supermaxi’s and the random sidewalk stores though we have seen few that are sold. They are all shrink wrapped in plastic which prevents browsing and may discourage sales. Women’s fashion magazines appear to be the most prevalent just as they are in the United States.  There are a few US magazines like Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and National Geographic but all are translated into Spanish. Radio is a way of life in Ecuador and there are dozens of AM and FM stations broadcasting talk, news, Latin music, and a lot of American rock music. Probably thirty percent of the rock music sent out over the airwaves here will be immediately familiar to someone used to US radio. TV is very prevalent with even the most humble home often having a set. There is cable but it does not appear to be as expansive or reliable as the satellite programming from Direct TV, the preferred provider.  After contracting them they attach small satellite discs to your home or apartment. There is a good amount of English news through CNN and BBC along with a half dozen Spanish news programs from Ecuador and other South American countries. If you subscribe, as we do, to HBO and other pay movie channels, you will have a dozen channels of movies in English plus a dozen more in Spanish. At least another dozen sports channels are available many concentrating on Futbol, an Ecuadorian mania. Then, of course, there is the internet which we have commented on in past postings. It is quite reliable and not that much slower than in the US. There are lots of choices for a connection like the cell phone companies, the water company and the electric company. It does appear, however, that signing up with a newcomer in the internet connection business is smart because often a provider, who becomes successful and signs up a huge amount of people, find that their system is quickly overwhelmed and the connection bandwidth gets overloaded. The new kid on the block usually costs less as well. Seems the electric company, Empresa, is the hot new one to try. So, when you add it all up, communications with the rest of the world is quite accessible and much of it is in English, a real plus until your Spanish is up to par. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some corrections on old posts

Many of us when we first come to Cuenca are overwhelmed with the cultural change that differs from what we knew in the States, Canada, or Europe and we write about these wonderful sights, tastes, sounds and differences in blogs, websites, letters home, and emails. Unfortunately, some of our first impressions can be wrong or, at least, we have not been exposed long enough to make sound judgments.  We have looked at our postings written in this blog over the last year and would like to correct or expand on some of our comments.

On one of our postings on Animals, we said that the birds were not as plentiful as we were accustomed to in the States and we did not know why. It is possible that there are fewer birds here because there are almost no bugs or insects for them to feed on. Cuenca is a remarkably bug free city where we have no screens on our windows and seldom see a fly or mosquito.

On a posting about Children, we spoke of the German school, CEDEI, and the American School. We have looked carefully at all three and have found each lacking for Jonny in some way or the other.  A friend who travels extensively with her children told us to look at schools with the IB (international Baccalaureate) certification. This certification means that a high school graduate’s IB diploma is accepted by almost all colleges in the world. Two schools in Cuenca have an IB rating, the German School and Santana where Jonny will go in September.  We are hopeful that by going to a school that aims for an IB diploma, it will give him a universally competitive education.

Under a Cost of Living post, we said that the protective tariff should soon be repealed but it is evident by prices on imported goods that the tariff is still in effect. Also, we’ve found that our monthly food costs are around $500 not the $800 we reported as we have learned to be more frugal.  Yet, our purchases still include wine, fresh vegetables and fruit at the coop, pan at the bread store and fewer visits to Supermaxi.

Under Indigenous people, we made the mistake of saying Indigenous Indians and have found that the indigenous people do not like to be referred to as Indians.

We are certain there are many more comments that deserve review but these are a few that jumped out when we looked over old postings. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

New Friendships

The three of us arrived in Cuenca well over a year ago knowing no one and feeling like immigrants arriving at Elis Island. We reluctantly left all of our friends behind that had been years in the making.  Family promised to visit but few have made the trip as they work and have little time off. Most of them thought we were crazy to just uproot ourselves and travel to a foreign country on another continent where we didn’t speak the language or know a single soul. At least we had done a lot of research. We had read everything we could find on the internet, various blogs and endless websites. We had connected via email with a few kind people in Ecuador who took the time to answer our questions about schools, actual cost of living, and residency requirements. We had talked on Skype to a few realtors. Our concept was to visit, decide whether to make the jump, return and finalize our plans to move. There was real pain when we sold much of our possessions at a yard sale in North Carolina but we rationalized that they were just things and we could replace most of what was sold if we needed them. We arrived and took a three month rental in a medium sized building that had three apartments on each floor. Immediately, we became friends with the other families on our floor. All were Americans. We began to go to the Expat gatherings on Friday evenings and our circle of friendships grew. At that time, about 40 people would show up at Eucalyptus or Zoe’s. This group was composed of about three quarters expats already living here and about a quarter visitors or newcomers. Friendships began, people with common interests sorted themselves out, and groups formed. Often, about ten of us would go to a nearby restaurant for dinner after being at the expat gathering for an hour or so. Friendships began to solidify. Dinner parties at one couple or another’s home or apartment followed with exchange dinners a week or so later. 

Dinner dates at a newly discovered restaurant became commonplace to the point where some of us were going out three, four, even five evenings a week. Our social life became almost too much. We had more friends here in Cuenca than we had ever had in our lives and they were continuing to grow. A number of our friends made the comment that they were not going to go to the expat gatherings because they were socially saturated and could not afford many new friendships. It began to dawn on us that with 700 to 1000 expats in Cuenca and only a possible 100 who went to the expat gatherings, why the remaining multitudes were invisible. It is possible that many of them have gone through the same process, met many good friends, and had, more or less, dropped out of the social whirl. Some of our friends who have lived in other parts of the world have said that this is a common reaction, expats banding together, and as the community grows, tend to go underground. We have been very fortunate to have found a half dozen additional friendships with Ecuadorians which are some of the deepest relationships we have made.  Jonny plays after school with an Ecuadorian boy using a hodgepodge of languages. Children’s play needs no precise language. All of this is to say that, in much less than a year, we have been fortunate enough to have made a large number of friendships with Ecuadorian, American, Canadian, British, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Peruvian, and other people from points east and west. We love our new friendships, continue to go to the expat gatherings to meet with new people and old acquaintances, still miss our good friends and family in the US, understand the apprehension of newcomers and visitors, and, more than ever, feel like Cuenca is our home now.  

Monday, July 5, 2010

Is it safe? Yes, but…

It is only fair that, with all the glowing written accounts naming Cuenca as the best city in the world to retire to, that people should be aware that there are problems as well. There has been a definite upsurge in crime in Cuenca over the last year. A day rarely goes by that we don’t hear another story about a crime from one of our friends and it has become one of our deeper concerns. Cuenca has always had a fairly low crime rate compared with the other two big cities in Ecuador, Quito and Guayaquil and possibly that may be one of the reasons why bad elements have looked at Cuenca and seen a passive, tempting target. Another possible reason is that there is a law that says any crime under $600 will not be prosecuted which gives license to a criminal to conduct petty crime without the threat of jail or fine. A third possibility is that Cuenca has a large population of very poor people who see gringos as all being rich and we probably are rich compared to their standards of living. We have also heard that crime has had a huge increase in Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama though we have no statistics to go by and we are sure the worldwide recession has caused great social upheaval throughout the world that has led to increased crime in most countries. A very disquieting observation here is that the police are quite ineffectual. There is a poor police presence, they are paid quite low wages, and almost never follow up even on reported crimes.  The criminal element must be aware that they will not be caught and if they are, nothing will come of it. What is so disturbing is the fact that Cuenca has been quite a safe place to live. In the last year we have become aware of an upsurge of many small crimes like purse snatching and items being stolen from empty parked cars and empty houses being broken into. More alarming are direct confrontations with injuries by masked men at gunpoint. These have included a serious home invasion, several car jackings, a bank robbery and a restaurant robbery where all the diners were held at gunpoint and robbed.  We have heard that there is some improvement coming and we are keeping our fingers crossed. The new mayor was elected on a platform of addressing the upsurge in crime. Already, new laws have been passed limiting the hours of sale of alcohol to 10 pm weekdays and 2 pm weekends and none to be sold on Sunday but this may only address a more minor element of crime. We can only hope the $600 limit for prosecution will be removed as this law almost gives license to steal. Probably the most important change for the better would be an increase in police presence on the streets especially at night, punishment for taking bribes and confiscated goods, better salaries, and most of all, immediate follow up and prosecution when a crime has been committed. Cuenca is a beautiful city loved by almost everyone who lives here.  So, how do we address this issue of safety? We are all being more cautious than ever and trying to become less conspicuous. We have become even more cautious of our surroundings. We cross the street or enter a retail establishment when we see a group of young men approaching. We limit what we carry that is exposed to sight. We limit the amount of cash and credit cards that we carry in our wallets and purse to the amount we need on that excursion. We take only the credit card we need for an ATM machine visit. We take only the amount of cash needed for purchases at the markets. Otherwise, we leave cash or credit cards at home. We do not hail street taxis cruising past. There are many taxi companies to phone who will send a taxi to you within a few minutes that are considered much safer than roaming cabs. In many ways, these, and other precautions, are a good policy anywhere. We don’t want to frighten people away, we only want visitors and prospective new residents to be aware that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, one that we sincerely hope will be quickly solved.