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, September 30, 2010

Ecuador unrest

We were at the gym late this morning and noticed the TV was unusually on with the news. Vivid photographs showed President Correa in Quito being doused with water and tear gassed by members of the National Police. He had gone to a street rally to mediate a misunderstanding over police promotions and benefits. It turned ugly and the President was tear gassed and attacked then taken to the hospital for a checkup as he had been roughed up and was still recovering from leg surgery.  It is late afternoon now and a state of emergency has been declared until the situation winds down. The pivotal Ecuadorian Army has stayed on the sidelines and its only presence is guarding the closed airports and national infrastructure. If they stick with Correa it will blow over quickly. If not, we don’t have a clue what the next step will be.  We have been advised, and it makes good sense, to stay indoors until we know what is happening. The internet, TV, and cell phones have not been effected so we have communicated to our family that all is OK. Looking out the window, the city is quiet like a Sunday afternoon. Latin Americans have been through this a number of times and seem to have a more casual attitude than we gringos. But, we too, have been calmed by their stoic response. 

What’s familiar and what’s hard to find

We seem to be always writing about what is different and unusual in Ecuador but that really doesn’t help someone who is thinking of moving here who wants to know what to bring and what familiar items they can get here at the stores.  While we will list things common to someone who lives in the US, please be aware that there are many, many items both locally made and imported that are available in addition to this list. This list is far from complete. Some familiar items may be available and we have not yet found where to get them. These are just some hundreds of familiar products that will make purchasing easier until you get to know the less expensive, locally made products. Almost every product listed here has a local counterpart, often as good or better and certainly cheaper.  It took us a while but the only items on this list we still buy regularly are Colgate toothpaste, Reynolds wrap and Cascade dishwasher soap.

Drugstore items – Colgate toothpaste; Speed Stick, Dove, Mitchem & Arid deodorants; Head and Shoulders & Pantene shampoos; Nutrogena and Nivea products, Listerine mouth wash; Centrum Vitamins;  Phillips Milk of Magnesia; Eucerin & Lubriderm body creams.

Supermarket items – Cascade dishwasher soap; Dove hand soap; Sprite, Coca Cola & Pepsi; V8 Juice; Aunt Jemima Pancakes; Clorox, Ritz Crackers, McCormick spices, Jiffy peanut butter; Huggies Diapers; Scott Toilet Paper; Kleenex; Dasani & Evian bottled water; Kraft American and Velveta cheese; Reynolds wrap; WD40; Splenda & Sweet and Low sweeteners; Royal puddings; Berio Olive Oil; Kraft mayonnaise; Del Monte Creamed Corn; Twining and Celestial teas; Ruffles, Dorito, and Lays chips, Motts apple juice; Haagen Dasz Ice Cream, Heineken, Bud, and Corona Beer; Almost every liquor and wine found in the US.

TV – Samsung, Sony, LG

Computers – Toshiba laptops; blank CD’s & DVD’s; Epson, Canon & Lenmark printers

Cell phone – Nokia, Samsung & Blackberry phones

Stationary Store – HP printer paper; HP and Canon ink cartridges; bic pens; Stabilo Boss highlighters; Scotch tape; Duracell & Energizer batteries

Cars – New and used Hyundai, Chevrolet, Toyota, VW & Subaru; BMW & Mercedes less obvious but you see some.

Driving – right side of road; international road sign shapes but in Spanish.

Money – Ecuador uses dollar; ATM’s; familiar banking systems.

Electricity – 120 volt; common plugs.

Water – Cuenca has excellent drinkable city water.

Obvious omissions (these may be things to bring) – English books; Household cleaners; English software; English keyboard; yellow lined pads; Printer compatible photo printer paper; B vitamins; US DVD players don’t play Ecuador DVD’s; incandescent light bulbs; Braun power tooth brushes; Vick’s NyQuil cold medicine; High end camera equipment; High thread count sheets; Wireless headphones; 8 ½ x 11 paper and file folders.

The lists of familiar products and those hard to find could go on and on. This is just to give some inkling of the large amount of popular products sold in the US that are available here. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Double your pleasure by being bi-lingual

Two lessons were learned or reaffirmed yesterday.  Cuenca is really just a small town and being bi-lingual is a gift not to be ignored. It was Loretta’s birthday and the three of us drove up into the Cajas National Park to our favorite restaurant, Dos Chorreros, where we often go to celebrate a holiday or special event. It was a perfect day, bright sunny skies filled with powder-puff clouds, the weather warm and clear.

The twenty mile drive up and into the mountains passes through spectacular scenery with waterfalls, cattle grazing on steep grassy slopes, indigenous families waiting by the roadside for the frequent busses,  and the sensation and the reality of climbing, constantly climbing upward.

At about 12,000 feet we pulled off the highway onto a dirt and gravel road, past trout ponds and tumbling brooks until we came to the restaurant where a dozen or more llama were grazing on the grass.

On entering the restaurant, we encountered a couple from Cuenca who we had spent the day before with in Yungilla at another friend’s farm. It had been something of a home warming event with a busload of Gringo’s arriving at the farm for an all day picnic. We chatted a bit about what fun the previous day had been.

 On going to our table, a man called from his table. “Is your name Bill?”  They were a visiting family from Michigan who identified us from the photo on our blog. Jonny tore off with their 6 year old daughter to play outside by the tumbling creek that runs by the big glass windows of the restaurant while we talked. They ran and jumped over the creek and became instant friends sharing their exuberance in English. We chatted about the family's adventures visiting Cuenca until they left.

After seating ourselves at our table, Jonny noticed a boy his age at the table next to us. He went over, introduced himself in Spanish and he and the boy went out to play. It turned out they were a French family and the boy spoke only Spanish and French. The mother knew Jonny from the Cedei School where she had taught French in the upper school. They had moved here from Tasmania and bought a farm outside Cuenca. Jonny and his new friend spent most of our dinner time talking in their common language, Spanish, and playing in the woods and creeks until they returned soaked to the waist.

On the way to our car after feasting at the desert table, a teen age girl said, “Hi Jonny.” in English. She had known him from summer camp and was quite proficient in English as are many of the Ecuadorian students who go to private school.

Are there some lessons here? We think so. Cuenca is a city of approximately 500,000 people yet a day does not pass that we don’t run into someone we know. And, we are not unusual. It is a common observation of almost all of our gringo friends. For one reason or another, people are extremely friendly and go out of their way to express it. We have never had so many friends in our entire lives as we have here and we hear that from everyone. Secondly, having previously used only English, we would have been deprived of some of the friendships we have in Cuenca if we didn’t use Spanish. Jonny is growing up bi-lingual and thinks nothing of switching from English to Spanish depending on who he is playing with. Though our Spanish is still in the embryo state, his is vocabulary is exploding daily. We think we have given him a gift that will soon override all the trials and frustrations of living in a foreign country. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Some odd things – Some not so odd

Direct TV presently has seven high definition channels which make all the difference in our TV resolution. They advised that there will hopefully be an additional six channels by Christmas, 2010.

Lava solid dish soap is the best silver polish we have ever used though it is not meant to be used as such. Does a good job on the dishes too. 

Almost all DVD’s sold in Ecuador are pirated versions of legal discs. Most have the language option for changing the spoken language between Spanish and English. DVD’s cost $1.50 each. Blu Ray discs are just getting a foothold and pirated copies cost between $6 and $8 which is still far less than the $20 - $30 original versions in the US.

Buying English books in Cuenca is a problem. Even Spanish books are not sold as prolifically as they are in the US at large stores like Border’s or Barnes and Noble. There are no mega-book stores. There are a few good international bookstores and one we like is called the Libre Mundi International Book Store. There are a limited number of used English books sold at a small establishment in town called the Carolina Bookstore.

Inch long plastic matches come in tiny boxes. Tough on the fingers if you hold it too long.

Cuenca’s 8500 foot altitude makes cooking somewhat problematic. Boiling and baking food is almost always a crapshoot. But, gel shaving cream, again because of the altitude, explodes like whip cream when you spread it on.

Demand hot water heaters are often inconsistent in delivering constant hot water. It can be cold then hot then cold again all within minutes. In our apartment building a trick is to turn the bathroom sink hot water faucet on full blast at the same time you are running the shower hot water. Apparently, the combination lowers the water pressure enough to get the demand heater to kick on and stay on. Sounds crazy but it works for us and we can get a half hour or more of hot water with no problem.

We were out for dinner in town with visiting friends last Saturday evening and the pyrotechnics exploding on the street outside the restaurant was deafening. They were noticeably nervous at hearing gunshot like fireworks just outside the door. Exploding fireworks are a way of life in Cuenca. No need for an alarm clock. We are awakened every morning between 5:30 to 6:30 by a half dozen aerial salutes every five minutes signaling some call to worship that still makes no sense to us. Weddings announce their happiness by both aerial salutes and Fourth of July type explosions in the sky.  As the holiday season progresses so do the number of explosions all culminating in World War II on New Year’s Eve. And, we have yet to see where you can buy fireworks.

Packaging is challenging in Ecuador. Fruit juice, wine and milk come in boxes. Fresh milk comes in plastic bags that must be cut open and poured into a container then put in the refrigerator.

We won’t even touch on internet providers as everyone we know has a different story. When you get a provider who gives good service, hold on to them and we would suggest getting the best program they offer.

The government of Ecuador has decreed that incandescent light bulbs are a waste of energy and, once current supplies run out, can no longer be sold. Replacing them are the newer and more efficient twist bulbs.

Cell phones seem permanently attached to almost every ear in the city. There are two big companies offering plans and phones, Porta and Movistar. Probably the best way to have a cell phone is to buy one from either company and then purchase minutes each month rather than contract with one of their plans. It costs more to call someone who has Porta if you have Movistar but is free if you call someone Porta to Porta or Movistar to Movistar.  We constantly run out of minutes before the month is up and have a dead phone until we purchase more minutes. It is possible to have a specialized electronic store “unlock” your US phone for about $10 so it can be used here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Real costs of living in Cuenca

We, like many of our friends who live in Cuenca, have become concerned about the world-wide publicity that Ecuador is getting in the press, publicity that often shows only the glowing side of things and not the whole picture. While this attention is mostly justified, Ecuador is often misunderstood as being a cure-all for every problem with dirt cheap living costs. In the past few years, Costa Rica and Panama received similar accolades which led to overbuilding and a rapid increase in the cost of living and eventual disappointment by many who came to find their paradise.

We have seen the effect of the world-wide recession on friends and have met and corresponded with many people who are looking for answers to their own desires for change that might bring a full and comfortable life style.  Almost all are near or in retirement and are looking for a way to conserve their remaining assets and to live as well as they can on their retirement income. Living in the States and in Europe has become dicey at best for many of them. Often this means they must find a way and a place to live on Social Security and their pensions. Fortunately, this has worked for us and we have managed to live well on our retirement income. We do worry, however, that this will not remain the case if Ecuador follows the “progress” of Panama and Costa Rica. We are concerned about overbuilding, a rising cost of living, and a change in the character of Cuenca brought about by a huge influx of “wealthy” newcomers because the income, though modest by US standards, is “rich” by Ecuadorian standards.

There will be some disagreement with the lists that follow but these are our real costs not just estimates out of the blue. The column on the left represents our actual costs for two adults plus school for Jonny. The column on the right is an estimate of how these costs for two could be reduced to a lower monthly total. Somewhere in between is probably where you might land.

Rent                $740 -large 4 B/R apartment $300 - 2 B/R apartment
Food               $500 -supermarket food      $400 - for two at Mercados, etc.
Dining out        $240 - twice a week             $120 - once a week
Utilities            $60 – electric,gas, water       $40 – electric, gas,  water
Cell phone       $30 – 2 phones buy minutes  $10 – 2 phones used infrequently
Internet            $90 – Best speed                  $30 – slower plan
Computer        $15 – supplies – high use       $5 – supplies– low use
Cable/Satellite $76 – Direct TV w/ extras     $30 – Direct TV basic
Transportation $60 – car with gas expense   $60 – no car, use bus and taxis
Vacations        $100 – One trip a year          $0 – No vacation
School            $250 – private school            $0 – No children
Maid               $135 – 3 days at $15 day     $0 – no maid
Clothing           $15                                      $5
Haircuts           $10 – for two                      $10 – for two
Gym                $40 – for two                      $0 – no gym
Medical           $50 – pay as you go            $50 – pay as you go
Vitamins          $5                                       $0 – no vitamins
Cash               $400  little things                 $300 – fewer little things
                            $2816                                 $1360

The above expenses don’t include any emergency costs, unexpected medical bills, or one time purchases that always seem to pop up and ruin the budget. Our expense of roughly $3000 a month is less than half the same categories and their cost in North Carolina. Other expats will have other ideas of what it costs for them to live in Cuenca but, no matter how you massage it, the expenses for two living here will probably come somewhere within these two totals.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Internet update

We mentioned last week that we have recently been having problems with our internet connection and received a number of emails asking us to let them know how we solved the problem. We recently contracted with Empresa, the electric company, because we had heard that they were a better connection than Etapa, the water company, our present provider. Empresa technicians came yesterday afternoon to install our modem but insisted they had to drill a hole from the outside through our apartment wall so they could lead an optical fiber wire into the apartment. The owner’s of the building did not want wires running up the building and into our apartment so, we are staying with Etapa for our internet service. The Etapa technician came later in the day to see if we had a local problem as they insisted that their service was back to normal after a couple of weeks of tower problems.  He shrugged his head when we asked if there was any way for us to get a better connection. In rapid Spanish he explained the compression problem when too many people are on line at the same time and apologized for the fact that mornings and late afternoon were times when service is slower than evenings and mid-day. We’ll give Etapa a try for the next few weeks and keep our fingers crossed that they have solved their problems. For the last year, we have not had problems with our internet connection, only with Skype dropping calls, so hopefully all is going to be OK.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Trivia and more trivia

When looking into the possibility of moving to Ecuador, there are the usual big things to think about like cost of living, Language, owning a car, etc. etc. etc. But, there are lots of little things, even some not so little, depending on your particular interests and needs. Here is a partial list of basic facts. Some are permanent. Some change with the wind and politics. Some we have mentioned before but it can never be too many times.
The Ecuadorian economy uses the US dollar and all of the US currency. But, due to much counterfeiting, most merchants will not accept more than a $20 bill and will scrutinize the watermarks carefully before taking it.

Electricity is the same 110 volt as the US therefore all American appliances will work in Ecuador using the same two or three prong outlet plug. No converter is required as is needed in Europe.

However, that said, DVD players bought in the US will not play DVD’s purchased in Ecuador. DVD players all over the world have a disgraceful block built in that allows them to only be used in the region where they are purchased. But, if you bring a US DVD player it will play US DVD’s in Ecuador. You just can’t use DVD’s purchased here on a US DVD player.  If you buy a DVD player here you can purchase pirated DVD music or movies for $1.50 each.

Cable and Direct TV are available and widely subscribed to.  TV movies are in English with Spanish subtitles (good way to learn Spanish). CNN, Fox news and Bloomberg news are broadcast in English along with many Spanish news programs. Sports are endemic and, if you like futbol, it is on TV almost constantly.

You will find many familiar brands of food, electronics, appliances, even some clothing but choice is quite limited regarding size and products.  Imported brands have a high protective tariff which makes them more expensive than locally produced products which are, fortunately, often just as good.

Computer stores are common but the choice of laptops and desktops is very limited. A store will normally have three or four Toshiba laptops and a few generic desk tops to offer. The old computer company, Compaq, sells computers here in limited quantities.  It is a good idea to bring whatever computer hardware and software you require. All software is available in Ecuador but it is in Spanish.  Bring Windows or Mac OS with you. It will work on any computer. Pirated operating systems like Windows will get blocked by Microsoft or Apple in about a month if you try to use them so a licensed US or Spanish version is necessary.
Keyboards bought in Ecuador will be somewhat different from those you are used to so it makes sense to bring your US keyboard when you come.  You can get used to it but your fingers seem to have a mind of their own and go to the wrong place too often.

There is no 8 ½ by 11 copy paper sold in the stores only the larger A4 paper but both can be used in the inexpensive Canon, Epson, or Lexmark printers available here.

Almost everyone has a cell phone. If you bring a US cell phone it will have to be “unlocked.”  A few local electronic stores will unlock your phone for about $10. Most familiar brands of cell phones are available for purchase at Movistar or Porta, the two largest cell phone providers.

Skype or Vonage work well here when the connection is strong and give an affordable way to talk to friends around the world.  Both drop calls when traffic is heavy.

The time zone is the same as East Coast US standard time. However, we do not use Daylight Savings Time in Ecuador.

The weather is always a topic of discussion everywhere. Here in Cuenca, we are fortunate not to have any severe weather only an occasional heavy thunder storm and our recent and well publicized earthquake of a 7.2 magnitude that thankfully caused no damage. It was the most severe ever felt here yet was a rarity. The apartment buildings are supposedly built to seismological standards. No snow or icy streets. No hurricanes. No tornados.

Driving while crazy, is thankfully on the right side of the road (usually).

We use the metric system so you will have to get used to Kilometers, grams, liters, and centigrade.  This usually causes no problem as most US people are already used to metrics but, the one place it takes some adjustment is with the stove. Download a Fahrenheit to centigrade chart from the internet so you will have a ready reference to set your stove oven correctly. Also, the high altitude of Cuenca makes baking a crapshoot, and is probably a trial and error project at best. The locals know how as the excellent breads will testify.

The language is of course Spanish and Ecuadorian Spanish is spoken quite clearly and slowly compared to other Spanish speaking countries.  As English is taught in the schools and education is compulsory, almost all Ecuadorians have a smattering of English yet usually look at you with a blank stare.  Don’t count on always being understood even using the Spanish you learned in school as the pronunciation is quite different from American school Spanish. 

The Ecuadorian legal system is also quite different from what you are used to and is too complex to deal with here. Using a lawyer for any transaction is good advice.  Buying or renting property requires some local knowledge and a lawyer is essential. There is no MLS system and offerings are found out by the expat grapevine, the newspaper, or one of the “realtors” who hang out a shingle. A realtor shows you the property he knows about and sends you to a lawyer for the paperwork. Comically, it is almost always a cousin or uncle they refer you to.

There are no English newspapers but the local Spanish papers, El Mercurio and El Tiempo, can be translated into English using Google translate or a similar internet translator.  There are no English bookstores only the Carolina Bookstore which sells used books. It is shocking to find that Ecuadorians just don’t read like American’s do.  

Clothes don’t use American sizing numbers. As an example, a women’s size 7 shoe in the US is a size 36 in Ecuador.

Furniture made in Ecuador will be lower in height than in the US to satisfy the requirements of the smaller stature of the Ecuadorian people. If you have furniture made, they will ask you to sit and will measure the height of your knees and where your arms rest on a table or desk.

So, here is a lot of trivia that we hope will answer some of those nagging questions that are hard to find answers to.