Monday, August 13, 2012

No Record Heat for Cuenca

Being from the Midwest, the weather is a natural topic of conversation for me. And so I've been watching the shift in conversations about weather here in Cuenca with some interest.

At first, people were coming to Cuenca for the warm, temperate weather. You'd go to an expat event and people would tell you about how they were escaping the horrible snows of Manitoba once and for all. They'd brag about never having to freeze their way through a Minnesota winter again, or tell cheery tales of getting away from Vermont once and for all. Sunny days were here and that was just the way they liked it.

Now people are coming to Cuenca because it's cold. Not ice cold, obviously, or the snow birds wouldn't have migrated here. But not 114 degrees in the shade, either.

With the record temperatures all over the US, expats are now checking to make sure Cuenca is going to be cold enough for them. People talk about how happy they are to be in Cuenca where you don't need to stand in your freezer to survive. They're gleeful at the idea of not needing air conditioning. And they really hope that things stay chilly here for the foreseeable future.

Ah, what a difference a year makes!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Expat Dilemmas: What To Do With All The Stuff

Stuff is a major problem in the expat life, caused in no small part by weight limits on your suitcases. This dilemma is front and center on my mind today for two reasons - I'm packing to go home for my sister's wedding and trying not to overload my suitcases, and I just finished reading J. Maarten Troost's excellent and funny book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, which has several great chapters on the deprivation-overabundance extremes of international life.

In the States (and Canada and Europe, for that matter) you can get pretty much anything you want, anytime you want it. They don't have it in stock in your town? Amazon will make that right in about 48 hours.

In Ecuador, things that I want I can't have until I go back to the States for a visit. And maybe not even then. Period. That's just the way it is here. Yes, people have mentioned various schemes for getting monthly postings of goods from the States, but the cost makes it prohibitive for simple things like my favorite shampoo, my facewash of choice, my favorite teas, etc, etc, etc. In Cuenca, ask for these things and you get a shrugging, "No hay" (Don't have it) and they don't care either. There was no Haagen-Dazs, dill pickles, or tahini sauce at the local Supermaxi for close to three months, and anyone I asked about it was pretty darn indifferent.

And that's just the silly little things. Those things really don't matter. Not compared to say, a hernia sling, which retails for about $14.99 in the US and "No Hay" in Cuenca.

You learn to make do. You get used to going without. You catch yourself jerry-rigging the most ridiculous solutions to problems with little more than masking tape and hope.

Troost talked about the extremes of this on his island, where they got even more "No hay" than we do in Cuenca. At one point, there was "no hay" on beer for weeks, which in Cuenca would cause riots. A little power outage? No biggie. Water off in the building for the day? No heat or air conditioning the whole city? Whatever. Like Troost, I'm just used to that sort of stuff.

And then you go back to the States ... land of here, now, whatever you want, instant gratification.

Troost wrote this great scene about he and his girlfriend walking into a megamall in Washington D.C. and leaving without buying anything because all the choice was too overwhelming. I laughed out loud, because I've totally been there. Going from not being able to buy a pair of shoes in your size off the rack to a store full of your size on sale? You just walk around looking at things in wonder, like you've stumbled into some sort of alternative universe museum display.

You also do a lot of asking. Mostly you're asking "Why?" as in "Why would anyone want a ..." In the States there's a pressure to have ... more ... lots more ... and THIS .... this gadget is absolutely necessary ... but for someone who jumps out of that for a while and then comes back in, it starts to look a bit ridiculous.

I see this hit expats in Cuenca who've moved down with everything from their home in the States. After about six months, the local bare-bones way of getting things done starts to sink in. "Why do I have all these kitchen appliances?" is one I hear a lot. People realize they don't need a toaster, a toaster oven, a toasting rack for their regular oven, and a toasting rack for their microwave. They hear about somebody who came down here with one bag on their back and who toasts their bread on a fork over the flame on their gas stove. And they start thinking of the freedom that comes with not having to clean, store, and cart around all their stuff. And then, even if they go back to the States, they give up on a lot of their stuff ... which is why garage sales in Cuenca are the most delightful collections of oddities you've ever seen.

So where am I going with all this? Just to say that when you start thinking of life in make-do, fit-in-a-suitcase packages, most of your "essentials" are anything but ... and sooner or later, you're going to be looking around at a pile of necessities that are now just "things" to you, wondering, "What am I supposed to do with all this stuff?"

Friday, June 29, 2012

Custom Leather Purses, Courtesy of my Cuenca Connections!

Having something made is always an adventure. You pay the money and just hope that everything turns out right. Fortunately, this time everything went smoothly!

A friend of mine in Cuenca is connected with a leather goods factory, and he's offered many times to let me make a purse with his team. I'd never taken him up on it, until now ...

These look even better in person!

My sister had a purse she wanted repaired or copied, if possible. It's the green one in the middle. Not only did Jaime fix it and make a great copy in the requested color (brown) he also gave me two color choices!

It's not just the outside that looks good, either - the insides are high-quality cloth and beautifully done. So now I am plotting, plotting, plotting to have every other bag I've ever loved copied over.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Cuenca's Artistic Construction Sites

Cuenca is under construction - they're doing $20 million in public parks, roads, and infrastructure improvements. Almost everywhere you look there is something torn up ... but not all of it is ugly.

This video of Cuenca's Parque de la Madre (Mother's Park) project shows how they managed to make a major eyesore into an attraction. It's currently a mud pit while they put in underground parking, but you'd never know it from all the art outside!

A Road Trip Out of Ecuador

Taking a road trip in Ecuador is a bit of an adventure. The roads stink, for the most part. Highway maintenance is not really a "thing" here in the way it is an annual summer "thing" in the states. As a result, the further out of the city you get, the more pitted, potted, and worn through the roads get. Needless to say, 4-wheel drive is pretty popular. Almost every little car you see out on the broader roadways looks like its hanging on to the end of it's rope!

These are the kinds of reflections you have going the equivalent of 60 mph down the side of a mountain. Roads around Cuenca run crooked, winding here and there to go up and down the Andes. If I got car sick, any roadtrip here would be a nightmare.

As it stands, heavy spring rains have caused multiple landslides, blocking roads and rendering several impassable. Others are now one lane dirt tracks. Traffic alternatives the passage based on who's there first - there were no guards, crossing watchers, or traffic workers to be found. I didn't quite realize this initially - we'd left super early in the morning and I'd snoozed - but waking up on a dirt track hanging off the side of a mountain at a sharp angle will bring you back to the present!

The longer I was awake, the more confused I got. My destination was Peru, which is basically south of Cuenca. The route felt a little unorthodox - like I'd left Ogallala for North Platte on Highway 30, but gotten off on the Roscoe access road for the lake, hit the dam, made a right for Arthur and then decided to take backroads the rest of the way back to North Platte. The driver seemed fully confident of where he was going, however, otherwise how else could I explain the top speeds we were maintaining, even on blind curves?

All in all, the trip was nearly 8 hours of winding mountain roads, sudden braking events, and enthusiastically passing anything going less than 100 kph.

You tell me ... was it worth it?

My breakfast cafe table in Peru
The view off my front terrace in Peru - and yes, that hammock was well used!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Prices in Cuenca: 2012 Vice Squad Edition

In 2010, I posted up about the prices for cigarettes, alcohol, and recreational drugs in Cuenca. It's turned out to be one of my more popular posts, but with the passage of time my education has expanded and my pricing has gone outdated. So, new for 2012, here's the Vice Squad edition of Cuenca prices, moving from mild vices to more serious, um, adventure items:
  • Coffee: The price of coffee in Cuenca has gone up slightly over the last two years, driven in part by poor local harvests. We had some damp years and one of the major suppliers moved into a new niche. There's also been an increase in artisanal and organic coffee in Cuenca, which naturally costs more. Expect a cup of joe to set you back at least 60 cents, with prices moving up past $2 in some of your nicer cafes.

  • Pack of cigarettes: $1.85 plus whatever your local tienda adds as a mark up. $2 is common for a full pack of Lider, the dominant local brand. Also note that since 2010, Cuenca has passed a law against indoor smoking in restaurants and public places.

  • Cocktails/Booze: Oddly, cocktails seem to be coming down a bit, depending where you are drinking them. Well drinks and glasses of wine start at $2 and move up from there. Do expect to pay $5+ for top shelf or cocktails at more upscale/gringo oriented establishments. Discount happy hours and bargain glasses are available, but you drink what you pay for!

  • Beer: Beer is still in two sizes as reported before, with Club starting to edge Pilsner as the dominant local beer after some fun price wars in the supermarkets. At the store, you'll pay around 60 cents for a small beer, which will be $1 in cheap bars and $1.50 - $3 or more in upscale/gringo bars. For "grandes" your local tienda will hook you up for about $1, while the average going rate in the bars is $2 (more or less, depending where you are drinking). If you don't like the local stuff, Heineken is making some distribution inroads at bars, while SuperMaxi now has Budweiser.

  • Condoms: $2.80 (ish) for three. These are sold at pharmacies and most supermarkets, though not always in sections one might think of as logical. Duo, Lifestyles and Trojans are the big brands. as the major foreign players. The day after pill equivalent is a local tea designed to start menstruation, and Ecuador leads South America in illegal abortions due to the strict official stance against it. Be careful out there!

  • Sex stores: In 2010 I didn't know where these were. Now I do - hunt down "Sexy Locuras" on the street next to SuperMaxi El Vergel - it's the pink thing next to the soccer shop. Apparently a chain.

  • Bribing the police: $10 and up, depending on the offense. I'm throwing this in there just in case you get up to something in the next section. Ask nicely, "Como podemos solucionar este?" (How can we solve this?) Traffic offenses will be the easiest to get out of (speeding, license issues) and remember, not everyone will take your money.

  • Hookers: $6 and up. Pay more than $6 for your hooker. Ecuador's STD stats are frightening - that's all I'm saying. May be found near the Terminal Terrestre (main bus station) or in the brothel area (ask your taxi driver). Those near the bus station are frequently transvestites, and crime in that area remains high, especially late at night.

  • Marijuana: Minor possession of marijuana is legal in Ecuador (one of two countries in South America with the loophole). You may score a hit of low grade stuff for $5 or $10, with pricing moving up sharply from there. I continue to be surprised at the number of retiree users in Ecuador. To buy, put it out there that you are interested and local expats will help you network in (but do realize not everyone here knows or is interested in helping you find pot, especially on a first meeting).

  • Hallucinogenics: San Pedro cactus will set you back 25 cents to a dollar a chunk at almost every local market. Preparation instructions are on the Internet. Jungle trips for Iowaska adventures start at around $40 and go way up past $200 depending on the shaman and tour package you're doing with it.

  • OTC medications: Codeine blend pills are readily available, and can be purchased individually or in packs from your local pharmacy, generally without a prescription. More intense stuff you'll need a prescription to get and Vicodin level stuff is very hard to source.

  • Cocaine: $10 and up. I've heard mixed reviews of the effects at Cuenca's altitude - evidently it is not as good as lower elevations. I have no idea on the science on that, nor do I have any first hand experience. In terms of buying, no, I don't know anyone, and nor have I seen/heard much in the way of news on other drugs.
And that's the 2012 update. Anyone want to (anonymously) report how this compares to their own area back home?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Talking to the Taxis

One of the fun things I get to do almost everyday is talk to my taxi drivers. I run with a taxi crew I call "the grandpas" and they probably know me better than anyone else now!

Riding with the grandpas happened by accident. Moving into the place on El Batan, we noticed there was a taxi syndicate stand just up the street. I didn't use them at first, but then I started to appreciate the convenience of having taxis waiting for me whenever I wanted one without having to call for a ride. And so we began spending a lot of time (and money) together.

The grandpas got their name because the group is anchored by two drivers who are (approximately) 100 years old each. Riding with one of them terrifies me because he can't really see over the wheel and big cars seem to scare him. He is also cranky about people trying to give him anything other than exact change - but he's there in the afternoons when I need a ride, and that's just how it goes.

The other truly ancient driver is adorable, especially this season. Apparently they decided that since they have foreigners as regular riders, they should learn some English. He has mastered "Good Afternoon" which he tells me every morning on my way to getting a ride for my 9 am class.

It's not that no one in the group speaks English - some of them worked in the States, and many are much younger. Out of the 30+ cars in the syndicate, I know 6 of the drivers well enough to have their life stories. Chatting in traffic, you can pick up a lot - Bruno, for example, says he's relieved to have left his delivery route in NYC because taking bread to the Italian bakeries meant getting involved with the mafia and you know, those Russians are crazy.

We chat about visa issues, the weather, vacations, my students, their kids, and anything else that comes up. Many women riding alone in Cuenca complain that their taxi drivers hit on them - not my regular guys! They're married (one with 6 kids!) and besides, at 3 - 4 rides a day sometimes, they already know all about me and my boyfriend.

It is sometimes a check that I have to watch what I share - the taxi guys have lots of time on slow days to share stories. Everybody knows when I'm on vacation, doing exams for the school, upset about something at work, etc, etc - even the drivers I don't talk with regularly. On the other hand, I know quite a bit about their habits and lives, too, so I suppose it evens out in the grand scheme of things.

The other thing that evens out is the price I pay for taxis. As a regular, I pay the minimal fare for everything - something I'm reminded of when I dare to ride with another set of drivers. Cuenca has more than 100 taxi syndicates, some of which have over 70 cars. They can set their own rates for fares from their home base spot to the rest of the city, but good luck finding out what those rates are without being a regular rider, and good luck getting the best rates with a random cab hailed off the street. That's just the way it goes, and I'm lucky to have a set of good cabbies I can trust since I live in one part of the city and work in another.

So do come for a visit - fares are down for 2012 to Ecuador, and then you, too, can talk with my taxis.