Sunday, January 31, 2010

Brownies, Pepper Spray, and Puppies

How awesome are Peter and Sasha?

I know I usually initial out people in my blog, but if you come over to my house and bake me brownies, you are going to get a shout out by name. Not only did I get fresh baked brownies, but they also brought me a thing of pepper spray that looks like a ballpoint pin so that I can defend myself. It fits in with my general writer motif and I love it!

Even cuter? I got to meet Toblerone, aka Toby, aka Mr. Peligroso, their brand new six week old cockerspaniel puppy. He was so sweet and cuddly, it's like my bad never happened.

Other notes on Peter and Sasha? They have an alternative news website,, which is worth checking out. Read some stories, click some ads, and be grateful (as am I) that there is more than one writer in Cuenca.

Reasons To Love Cuenca: The Music

Today I've had the chance to have my spirits lifted by music on a number of occasions. It's one of the reasons to love being in Cuenca - Ecuador has a great tradition of live music.
  • There was a parade today on my street. I have no idea why, and some of the marching bands were truly helpless, but the costuming was enthusiastic and there really is nothing like a brass band, even if they're bad!
  • Next to the church behind my house, there was a man singing guitar solos. His voice rang out from the midst of the flower stall in glorious slow ballads as I made my way to the supermarket.
  • The gazebo in the park had a three piece ensemble doing some kind of local flamenco-y music.
  • Just now, over dinner, strolling musicians hit my cafe, with guitar, song, and dance. They played "Cancion del Mariachi", which is one of my favorites. You can hear a version of it sung by Antonio Banderas in Desperado below:

There's also a regular chorus of church bells and the street sellers will sing from time to time, too. Truly a very musical city!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Robbed At Knifepoint, That Was Fun

So, after an evening of disappointments (last week's gringo night was better), my friend C and I were standing in front of my apartment, waiting for a cab to pull up so she could get home. Suddenly, we both got grabbed.

Some little punk with a big ole kitchen knife had one arm around my neck and the other one ripping my little hand wallet away. {Note: Dear Baby Sis, I'm really sorry about the owl wallet. P.S. You're not getting it back.} I was screaming like a banshee, proving that all those opera lessons in high school really were good for something.

What was weird was that even in a state of panic, I could translate Spanish. He was telling me to stop yelling, which didn't appear to be happening, and asking me if that was everything while grabbing at my pockets. My hand had been around my wallet, which had my keys attached, and fortunately when he yanked that the hook for the keys broke and I was left with those while my cash and my credit card got to be all his. I told him I didn't have anything more and that was it.

The knife thing was a little surreal. Never been held up at knife point before, and that was more than a little odd. I should have probably been more afraid, but it is hard to be scared of something you know spends most of its life cutting vegetables, even if it is right in front of your face.

Anyway, the dudes took off, with the one giving my hair an extra yank since I was being so loud, and we pulled ourselves together and got inside the building, where C was a little hysterical. It helped, because I knew both of us couldn't break down. She kept reminding me about the knife in my face, and I was like, I'm fine, I'll deal, I'll get to that later. Our "Are you okay?" session was broken up by my neighbors.

Spanish was spoken . . . a lot of it! The basic jist of it all was that even though we have a guard on the street, crimes of opportunity do occur in this area. With all our focus on the upcoming cabs, C and I were not expecting anything from behind us, especially since the entrance of my apartment was right there.

My upstairs neighbor was totally nice, lending C his phone to call her other friends here to get home and calling the police for us. He's a grandpa type, with a knife scar on the side of his face from a robbery in his youth, so he gets it, probably way more seriously than I do right now. He hung with us for about 30 minutes, dealing with the other neighbors, and being generally all around awesome.

In his green knee-length housecoat. Smoking. With wingtips on, but no socks. Loved it!

Long story short, the police never came, which pissed off our Grandpa Angel. The guy who lives on the topmost floor is some kind of government official, and according to Grandpa Angel he is now going with me to file a police report in the morning.

I lost a credit card {canceled in 5 min} and almost all my cash. Computer, passport, spare change, and cameras where all in the house, along with my bank cards. Usually I was carrying a bank card, but had taken it out tonight. My guardian angel was on that! Also on not getting cut--I'm missing a serious chunk of hair and the side of my face feels weird, like it can't decide if it wants to bruise or not, but I don't remember being hit there. We'll see in the morning I guess.

C lost more--she had a proper purse with a phone, journal, drawings, credit cards, cash, and her itinerary for her plane tickets. Her parents were pretty upset too--we used her skype to call them, and she may be going home tomorrow.

All in all, a very memorable finish to an entirely forgettable evening. More details on filing the police report and other adventures as they happen!

Friday, January 29, 2010

No, I Am Not Writing A Travel Guide To Cuenca

I was working at the Kookaburra Cafe in Cuenca today, using my mobile Internet plug (I'm on rations--40 MB of bandwidth a day. It's criminal). A girl from California popped her head in asking about the wi-fi, which is one of the things NOT offered at the awesome Kookaburra Cafe.

I volunteered to let her look up something quick on my computer, because I have a lot of sympathy for disconnected souls. I know that pain. Anyway, she wanted to sit for a while with some wireless, so I whipped out a piece of paper and gave her my list of places to go for free wi-fi in Cuenca and some commentary on their service levels, food, and ambiance.

Pow-pow, I powered that thing out in less than 2 minutes. I mean, those places are my homes away from home, basically. I know the waitstaff by name, it's that sad. So her jaw drops and she's like, "Are you writing a travel guide to Cuenca or something?"

Yeah . . .no. I may write articles about life in Cuenca, and the existing travel guides are in desperate need of updating, but that's one project I will take a pass on, thanks.

Still . . . it's nice to be a resource! Guidebooks on Cuenca are really crappy about the stuff visiting gringos really care about like wireless Internet points, laundry services, and accurate information on safe zones/danger zones in the city.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wi-Fi Hotspots in Cuenca Ecuador

Most of the wireless hot spots in Cuenca are concentrated in the downtown area. This list of Cuenca's wi-fi hot spots is something I'll revisit as I find more locations:
  • Cafe Austria: Medium speed wireless. Open 7 days a week, but not until after 9 am. Only one power outlet, near the emergency exit, which is always ajar so you may get a bit of a draft/chill on cooler days if you need to plug in.
  • Parque Calderon: Etapatelecom operates a wi-fi hot spot in front of the tourist office. Slow. Also, in attempting to work here, was repeatedly interrupted and told the areas was a dangerous one in which to have valuables, especially computers. Ridiculous PITA to work here, consider it an emergency usage point.
  • Cafe Eucalyptus: More food options than Cafe Austria's limited menu, but also more limited opening hours. Weekends not open before 5 pm, although it is open until 2 am Friday and Saturday.
  • Bar Inca: Drinks, view over the river, and football (American college & NFL) in season.
More to come as they are found!

Internet Connections In Cuenca Ecuador

After several days of fighting with the Porta system, I have come to terms with a rationed Internet life here in Cuenca. Apparently my unlimited wireless did indeed have bandwidth limits, which I exceeded in about five days. Oops.

I learned this after braving the Porta customer service office in Cuenca, where I learned many things about my Internet account, and my Spanish. Basically, both are not nearly as good as I want them to be at the moment! I did manage to temporarily top up my Internet account, but plowed through that almost immediately trying to catch up.

Basically, in Cuenca there are several different ways to have Internet. Cable Internet solutions are only available in some parts of the city, so most home users have a kinds of USB modem/dial up system. Etapatelecom and Porta both provide services. In talking with longtime residents, costs are upwards of $60/month for what would be generally considered an acceptable connection comparable to what you might have in the US.

There are also pre-paid plan options, which entitle you to 100 MB of up/down Internet per 24 hour period. I'm looking into these, as my regular monthly plan through as arranged by my landlord doesn't renew until the 8th of the month, and I need the Internet for work! It is about $3 for these plans, but I am not sure where to buy the cards, as some of the Porta stops I visited only deal with phones. A Monday adventure, for sure.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Connecting With Local Expats In Cuenca

Building connections in Cuenca, Ecuador is something that I am trying to work on. Part of the barrier is overcoming my natural tendency to keep to myself. Most of the expats I've met are very friendly and seem more than willing to share information and company.

For example, today I met a lovely duo at lunch who have promised to point me in the direction of the best dentist in the city. One was from California and has been in Cuenca for a year, with intent to stay. The other was actually a North Carolina connection, and we shared a moment of small world when we discovered that we had both worked for Bank of America in Charlotte. She's moved here recently, plans to spend the rest of her life here, and rents a five bedroom house with a fruit and herb garden for $300 a month.

Also, I met a few of the local teachers, and have connected with the editor of a local English language magazine. We're trying to find a time to meet. I've just been so pleased with how laid-back and open the people I've met have been.

On Friday's, both Zoe's bar (Calle Correro, between Presidente Cordova and Sucre) and Cafe Eucalyptus (Gran Colombia) have expat meet ups at 5 pm. I'm planning to go and just see who I meet!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blisters All Over The Block

Blisters are a traveler's biggest pain. Small yet pernicious, they make it hard to enjoy strolling the neighborhood and even harder to decide which instrument of torture will be covering them today. By instrument of torture, I am referring to all the shoes I brought with me, none of which I can currently stand to wear.

This is mostly my own fault for over exerting myself in shoes that I hadn't worn in a while. I don't wholly regret it, however, as it resulting in getting to see some great parts of the city.

I spent Sunday afternoon with CF, an artist and ghostwriter from New York that I met on the plane from Guayaquil to Cuenca. We'd hit it off during the plane ride and had swapped contact information so that we could meet up. She's here for three weeks, I'm here for nine, but what the heck--an expat is an expat is an English speaker with a sense of humor. I'll take it.

Sense of direction? Well, maybe we should have taken that too. Cafe Austria was the meeting place, but the destination was anyone's guess. Nominally, we were after empanadas and morrochos, which is a kind of local non-alcoholic drink.

After two or three miles in strappy sandal, my feet were killing me! We'd also been the victim of two drive by water balloon attacks and one window water balloon bombing. The Cuenca tradition of water ballooning people was thankful explained to me by my landlord in advance, so I didn't view it as malicious. CF, on the other hand, took it as an attack. Well-meant or not, the balloon impact is painful and it's no fun being wet walking around.

We didn't find our place, although we did stop and eat after getting our cabbie all lost and confused, too. Hunger overwhelmed, and with the little phrase "Somos locas . . ." we got a quick u-turn and dump at a decent looking food stand.

That was all good, in the end. Surveying my feet this morning, however, is all kinds of bad news. Blisters on the back of my heel, pinkie toes, and sides of feet are explicable. More mysterious is the blister in the middle of the bottom of my left heel. No idea where it came from, but barefoot seems to be the rule of the day!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

No Need For Heels Here

I made the strategic error of wearing my four inch high heels out for the evening. This was a problem on a number of levels:
  • The native population is not naturally gifted in the height department
  • Rain + High Heels = Not Good
  • Four hours in heels walking and dancing exceeds my natural tolerance for pain
Out of the lot, though, I would have to say the height issue was the biggest thing. I'm 5 foot 6 inches tall, which is about average-ish back in the states. Here, that's on the upper end. Add in heel height and it was a sure bet that if he was tall enough to look me in the eye, he wasn't from around these parts.

Shoot. Now what do I do with those shoes?

Tea With Lime

The waitress just brought me my tea with a full bottle of brown sugar and a slice of lime. I've never in my life had tea with lime, and I think that's going to be where I draw the line.

Yesterday I had mystery meat with my set lunch, which turned out to be croaker. I knew it was a kind of breaded fish when it appeared on the plate, but since I'd been thinking I was getting pork chops it was one of those just-roll-with-it moments. Can't honestly remember the last time I ate fish.

Today the set lunch had a soup I didn't know, although I am back at the Cafe Austria for the wi-fi armed with a computer. I thought I would see if it was a kind of corn chowder, which was my first guess. Uh, no. Sopa de arveja is split pea soup, which I've never had before either. Not bad, though. Better than the fish.

On tap for the evening: I've scored an invitation to a birthday party at Bar Inca from some teachers in the cafe. Who knows the birthday boy? No one. That's not the point. The point is expat together + beer = potential friend making. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Toilet Paper Isn't The Only Thing That's Arrived

It's official . . . after two days of connections, airports, and more airports, I've finally arrived at my apartment in Cuenca. I would be enjoying it a lot more if my body wasn't letting me know what it thought of my decision to be hand luggage only . . . apparently order two on the menu will be finding a masseuse and/or chiropractor to put my back in order again. So glad I brought the smaller computer or I would be a complete cripple!

Order one was toilet paper. It's the little things, right? Here I am in a lovely apartment located in the central downtown district furnished with everything you need to live . . . except for enough toilet paper to get a girl through the day. I was conserving squares from my very first wee, having heard from my rental agent about Supermaxi, the local mega-supermarket. Her directions indicated that it was close enough to walk, but not at night, due to needing to cross a river and a park that were "not nice" after dark. Exhausted from my day of travel anyway, I just went for food and called it a night, counting off my squares carefully.

In the morning, I just about chickened out and took a taxi. I'm lazy, my back hurts, the altitude is affecting me, wah, wah, wah. Whatever--I need to learn to navigate here on foot, so I make myself suck it up and walk there, with a nice detour to the Cafe Austria at the corner of Benigno Malo y Juan Jaramillo. They have a lunch set, which is more expensive than several of the other almuerzos I saw advertised walking over there, but they also have English magazines and a Wi-Fi spot. I add them to my list of potential work cafes and head out for the supermercado.

And promptly get lost. Who's surprised?

Fortunately, I did find it before pride failed and my sore feet had me hailing a taxi. Naturally, the way home was straightforward, since the place is only about a 10 minute walk from the house when you don't loop around the soccer stadium and all over the wrong side of the Parque de la Madre to get there. I don't think I will make it a primary stop . . . the fresh produce selection was kind of meh, which is not surprising given the number of outdoor markets here. However, I now know that I have a toilet paper connection whenever I need to get it. With a four roll pack costing just 90 cents, I think I can safely stop conserving squares.