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, August 27, 2010

The Internet

It has taken us three different companies to find one that will give us a good connection to the internet. Part of the problem is of our own making by not understanding what we were being advised by the person we contacted at each company. We first tried Porta which required eight visits to the store at Mall del Rio before we were up and running. Each visit required us to get some kind of additional documentation including a statement from our Ecuador bank stating that we were customers in good standing. We left them a month ago because we could not get a Skype connection that would last more than a minute and, even more often, no connection at all. Then, on a recommendation, we contracted with Etapa, the water company, who are another local internet provider. It worked just fine for a week but soon developed a critical condition that prevented us from connecting any time of the day except late in the evening.  Another friend had suggested we try Empresa, the electric company. Today, we signed a year’s contract with them and think we finally understand the connection problem. The key is the usage figure that they all quote. It is either 8:1, 6:1, 4:1 or a commercial rate of 2:1 or 1:1. The first number is the amount of people you will share the connection with. Therefore, 8:1 means you will share the time you are on with up to seven other people plus you when you are all connected at the same time. The more people on at the same time the slower the connection speed. Of course, the price goes up as the speed increases and the rate decreases. The way to figure the best plan is to divide the receiving speed, say 512, by the usage rate, say 4:1 to get a number that will be 128 and compare it to another plan that will give, as an example,  384 speed divided by 2:1 or 192. 192 is a faster rate than 128 so is supposed be a better connection. This is probably the reason we had so many problems with Etapa at a speed of 1200 divided by 8:1 ratio which gave us a rate of 150. But, who knows. It might be something else. Once you sign a contract, a technician will hopefully come to your apartment or home within a couple of days to install the modem on your computer. Empresa, the electric company, is a huge organization but required us to walk two blocks to the nearest copy shop to get a cedula copied. This happens all over, at the car registration, at the hospitals, or at the utilities. Almost everywhere they will not use their copy machines but make you go out and get one at a nearby copy shop. These little frustrations are just part of life in Ecuador but the internet connection has become a major trial for us and we can only keep our fingers crossed that it is solved once and for all. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making a living in Cuenca

We have mentioned before the fascinating and complex intricacies of the Ecuadorian marketing structure. As in every country, there are the more familiar stores, markets, and a conventional infrastructure that provides access to almost anything you might wish to buy. This represents the successful and more prosperous segment of Ecuadorian society. However, there is another level of marketing, the Mom and Pop store. 

A typical Mom and Pop fruit and vegetable store

Thousands of $1.50 pirated music and movie DVD's 

Infinitely more in number than the big shops, the Mom and Pop stores line every block in the city. In these small stores, often one room with a grate in front where the article chosen is passed through to you in exchange for your money, you will find every commodity from auto parts to fruit to electronics to building supplies to cooked meals.  These stores are the real backbone of the Ecuadorian economy and provide a good living for the majority of the population in the city.

Then there are the open air markets. Some of the most famous are the flower market and the huge mercados selling food and commodities.

The famous open air flower market in the courtyard of the Santuario Mariano Church

The live animal area of the Frera Libre Mercado

With no building or store front, there are the people who seem able to make a living by selling a product or their talent almost anywhere. Here you will find the more marginal income producers yet, by being able to sell something on the street, they have found a way to make a decent daily wage.  It is a thriving economy where you will find someone selling something on almost every street corner in the city. Here are just a few of the street sales people whose ingenuity you have to admire.

Selling raw milk door to door

Alpaca rugs displayed on the street corner

Street jugglers with the baby in his carriage

Hammock seller

Selling kites in the street median

Football jerseys for sale outside the stadium

A little restaurant in the street median

Ice cream carts on almost every street 

Three soccer balls for sale

Selling sheets of lottery tickets

The sunglasses salesman

Trucks, large and small, roam the streets selling propane gas cylinders

A seller of chickens having lunch on the job

A woman with a bicycle cart selling fresh juice while carrying her baby

A friendly chat while waiting to sell fresh cut flowers 

A fruit stand at San Francisco Park

We hope this photographic essay gives you a little appreciation for the industriousness of the Ecuadorian people who are ingenious in finding ways to earn a living. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Expats

One of the wonderful things about Cuenca is the size and vibrancy of the expat community. Four years ago, two of our most prominent expats thought it would be a good idea to have a weekly gathering of expats who live in or who are visiting Cuenca.  The concept was to share experiences and create a network of friends. They spread the word around and a few expats started meeting at a local restaurant on Friday evenings for a glass of wine and conversation.  
Over the years, the venues changed frequently from the Eucalyptus CafĂ©, to La Parola, to the Eucalyptus again and currently, to Zoe’s Restaurant as different people came up with new places to meet. During the last year, some 30 to 40 people have gathered on Fridays at Zoe’s. Some are just visiting and have heard through the grapevine that it is a fun and informative evening. Some are renting here for a month or so and are trying to decide whether to move to Cuenca or not. These people are usually thirsty for information. Others are expats who are long time residents who have put down roots and expect to stay for years to come and who attend to meet old and new friends.  But almost all find it an interesting evening with many people willing to share information and friendship.  If you are presently living in the US, Canada, or Europe and thinking of an international move, one of the things you are probably looking for is information, current information that is valid and has no hidden commercial theme. From our experience, there is no better place than the expat community in the city or region you are investigating.  We looked at Quito where there are many expats in the Tumbaco and Cumbaya areas but, from what we saw, there is no organized expat community.  There may be but we could not find one. We looked at southern Spain, which still interests us and where there are many expats from the UK who have summer homes along the coast. But there seems to be no functioning group of expats in the areas we researched. Everywhere you look, there are good blogs, good sources of information, but a real expat community is often lacking. There is an argument against belonging to a vibrant expat community. It is that shopworn argument that “The last thing we want is to export the same life style we are leaving.” We have not found that to be the case in Cuenca.  Our group of friends are from all over the world and have brought their interesting lives with them. This is not an enclave of Americans huddled behind closed gates who seldom go into the Spanish world around them. Our friends are scattered all over the city. They are involved in cultural and charitable events.  They lead exciting lives. Just read some of the blogs about Cuenca to see how “out and about” they are. What the expat gatherings have done is provide a venue where we have gotten to know each other and sorted out friendships which have become one of the strongest parts of our Cuenca experience. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

A boy in the mountains

This is the story of a curly, red-haired, five year old, city boy spending an afternoon in the mountains.  While we were doing some work on our house in Challuabamba, Jonny went outside to play.  He would usually find sticks to play with or rocks to throw or just plain explore the great outdoors. 

The fields next to our house are rocky, filled with waist high scrub brush and tough wild grass. What more could a boy ask for to explore? A half hour later, we went outside to check on him and couldn’t find him. We called his name and, from a hundred yards away and out of sight over a rise, he answered.  We heard him climbing up the hill and talking to someone. Minutes later, he arrived, his shirt covered with burrs. Dust and dirt covered his hands and smiling face. “I’ve been with my friends,” he said with a huge grin. Behind him came two young children followed by a dozen sheep slowly eating their way up the hill. Jonny had been playing with and talking to two shepherds, a boy of about nine and a girl of possibly eleven years.  They were both dressed in long sleeve shirts and pants that had been washed so many times no color remained only worn cloth the color of tan dirt. The boy held a long stick, a staff, that he used to herd the sheep. Jonny ran up to us with a baseball sized rock in his hand, saying “He gave me this stone. It’s special. He says it’s part of the mountain and he gave it to me.”  The children stood nearby, passively, watching Jonny and us without a saying a word. We climbed into our car to head back to the city with Jonny clutching his magic stone. We all waved goodbye.  They waved in return and went back to herding the sheep toward fresh, new grass. 

This was just a moment in our lives but there were strong images that we will remember for a long time.  Something is happening to Jonny. After a long adjustment, he is comfortable using Spanish. He seems no longer to be frustrated by a lack of language and the ability to communicate easily with other children who speak only Spanish. He is much happier now than before in being able to talk to them. It has taken over a year but we hear him jabbering away in Spanish with an ease far more advanced than ours.  He asked if we could go back tomorrow so he could go looking for his shepherd friends again.  He sees no difference in them. They were just new friends. Jonny, by Ecuadorian standards, is a boy that comes from a wealthy family but cannot distinguish rich or poor. We thought about how this child of five has no class distinctions, and as yet, no rules of how to relate to others who are different. Where do we get this dividing line later in life of who we should be friends with and who is not acceptable? Class, race, status?  Where does it come from?

 We thought of the shepherd children and how different their lives will probably be compared to Jonny’s. What will their lives become? School is compulsory in Ecuador but does anyone check up in the mountains to see if these children were going to school? If they go to a local public school, it is obvious that the minute they get home they are told to take the sheep out to feed on the mountainside. We know of many people on our mountain who live in little more than shacks with dirt floors and an outhouse in the field behind. 

It is almost certain that these two children live in a similar shanty.  In the city, poverty is all around us but we seldom see a homeless person. Almost every poor person finds some way to sell something and survive. In the country, families scratch a living from almost vertical hillsides, raise animals, grow vegetables, scavenge the land for herbs to sell, collect firewood, and more. 

All is done without the need for a national safety net or welfare.  These shepherd children may, unfortunately, be a perfect example of how an Ecuadorian country boy and girl may grow up knowing little more than their mother and father’s existence and carrying on a life style that may never change. For Jonny, it is a different story. He is learning how to deal with diversity and poverty and friendship in two languages. With all of the problems of raising a child in a foreign country, an encounter like this probably has no match in the US. It would be all but impossible for Jonny to gain the same understanding almost anywhere else other than in the mountains of Ecuador. It is our hope that he will be a better person for this experience and many more to come.