Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stepping Out In San Francisco

Even though I often agree with Mark Twain's mis-attributed assertion that "The coldest winter I ever spent was that summer in San Francisco," there is no doubt that I enjoy being in the city. For starters, almost everywhere you look there's the water and one of the city's fabulous bridge.

The Distant Bridge Here Is The Bay Bridge

San Francisco

There's also the generally fun vibe of the town, and the fact that almost everywhere you go in the downtown area there is something to see, someone to stare at (yes, I'm talking about you, crazy man arguing with a trash can), and a delicious restaurant.

My personal favorite is Burma Superstar, which is absolutely the best (Burmese) food in the world. We went there yesterday and had several delicious goodies, and I swear I am going to hunt down the recipe for the cardamon chicken and rice casserole. MMMmmmm.

Tonight was quieter. It's been raining, bringing in fog and making the city stay indoors. Thus, instead of going outside properly, I was introduced to the hot tub at my friend's building. Right, hot tubbing in San Francisco, looking up at the stars and out at the Bay Bridge. . . it's almost enough to make me move here.


Nebraska bound in the morning, however. . . .wonder what I will find there for amusement without the bridges and the ocean?
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First View Of America

I've now officially been back in the United States for a week. It's been a little crazy, to be sure. I'd definitely gotten used to the sleepy speed of Cuenca. Maybe I shouldn't have started with the East Coast!

My First Shot of the States - Princeton

Princeton Campus

On the other hand, while Cuenca seems suspended in its perpetual summer season, I can definitely tell that springtime is just beginning to dawn in the United States.

Princeton's campus was beautiful as a first impression of America again. After the bustle of the airport and the jostling of the train, it felt great to step out of the Dinky station and into the crisp spring air. I walked all over the campus on my way to the library, where I waited for my ride to get off work. While I waited, I had the chance to watch all the college kids (and they do seem like kids now!) jogging in clumps and marching in and out of the library hauling the weight of their mid-terms around on their shoulders.

My initial wonder at all of it has faded somewhat - I'm tired! While you are supposed to feel fabulous physically when you come down from extended time at high elevations, I don't think the effect lasts between multiple flights and both US coasts. I was only in New Jersey for a few days, and am now trying to catch my breath in San Francisco. Eventually I will be adjusted to my proper elevation, proper time zone, and proper temperature. . . .

. . . probably just in time to head to the airport again on Wednesday! ;-) More posts as I adjust to the new environment and American pace of life again!
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A $20 Adventure At The Cuenca Dentist's Office

I can't stop running my tongue over my teeth and smiling in the mirror today.

I've been to the dentist, and I couldn't be more pleased.

Recommended by a friend who had his entire mouth redone, Paula Dominguez has a simple office located just off Solano on Daniel Cordova Toral. It's behind the Colegio de Benigno Malo for those of you that are landmark driven. The building is a part of a longer strip of clinics and consultants offices. I made by appointment by phone - she speaks some English, but her husband is fluent, and so they work it out that way (cell: 097 - 868908).

When I arrived, she greeted me and asked after my teeth. I didn't really have any problem to report, other than having not been to the dentist's office in about a year. I'd already been planning to come to Ecuador, and I knew dental services were cheaper done here, so I'd been putting it off. In Ecuador as well they don't really have dental technicians, so even basic work is done here by the doctor.

She put me in the chair and then DANG, did my teeth ever get cleaned. She did an amazing job, checking over each tooth and cleaning them all twice, I swear. She even took the tooth polisher and cleaned my tongue, which tickled like crazy but was kind of fun, too.

Then she brought me a mirror so I could check out my smile and WOW. It looked like I'd had a whitening treatment, as she'd somehow managed to remove all evidence of the bazillionty trillion cups of black tea that I drink on a regular basis.

Total cost for an hour of high touch dental cleaning? $20. Totally worth it, as I couldn't be more pleased with my mouth!

Cinnamon Roll Sadness

One of the things that I frequently forget about Cuenca is how high the city really is above sea level. At 8,200 feet, altitude is an important factor to remember.

Especially when you're cooking.

I recently attempted to make cinnamon rolls, craving a taste of home. Unfortunately, no one in the kitchen with me remembered that yeast reacts differently at high altitudes. If you are cooking with yeast, you are supposed to take out one teaspoon of sugar for each cup in the recipe, and shorten up the leavening time by 15 - 20 minutes.


The recipe can also be used to make dinner rolls, if you let the dough rise twice. . . or let it rise the full time limit at 8,200 feet. Instead of cinnamon rolls, I ended up with sweet dinner rolls sitting in cinna-goo. Edible, but definitely not what I wanted!

Photo of Motorbiking In Cuenca

We were actually captured on film as we headed out to the streets on the Yamaha scooter by Court, the owner of Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental. Check out those smiles!

Jen Adams,Benjamin Wheeler-Harsh

Monday, March 15, 2010

My First Motorcycle Ride In Ecuador

I just survived my first motorcycle ride in Ecuador.

Actually, I should say I just ENJOYED my first motorcycle ride in Ecuador. And the bike was, technically, a scooter.

The Yahama Zuma Scooter


The ride was one of those very happy Ecuadorian accidents that happen. My friend and I had just stopped by to say hello to our friends at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental. It's a mountain bike, scooter, dirt bike, and motorcycle rental shop that they just opened up last week, so while we were in the neighborhood we thought we would stop by and see how they were doing.

When we got there, Court, one of the owners, was just closing up shop. His enthusiasm for bikes is contagious, and he loves to share what he knows with people. Which may explain how 10 minutes later I was perched on the back of the bike above, heading off into Cuencan traffic in rush hour.

Um. . . whee?

After the first five minutes, when I wondered if we were going to die since we launched right into one of the busiest roundabouts in town, I settled down into the sheer awesomeness of zipping through the streets. We stopped off at the Supermaxi for dinner supplies and then headed out to find home.

Remarkably, we didn't even get lost once! Cuenca is laid out in a general grid, especially around the Centro, which is the historic downtown. We went through the Centro, across Avenida de las Americas (one of the biggest streets in Cuenca) and up and down the hills to my friend's house without incident. We only really got crowded by a driver once, in the turn lane on Avenida de las Americas, and other than that the drivers were really pretty polite and good about sharing the roads even on the roundabouts.

All in all, it was a super fun ride. The scooter was an automatic, so it was really easy to steer once Court showed us what to do, and even as night fell we could see perfectly well. Definitely going to have to try that again!

Lime Juice For Bug Bites?

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned that there weren't many bugs in Cuenca? Apparently I spoke too soon!

Rainy season has kicked off. This means that we have glorious sunny mornings, and then it will rain in the evenings or maybe for an hour or two in the afternoon. It breaks up the day and has added a nice touch of moisture to a climate that had been getting a little dry.

It also brought the bugs.

By bugs, I mean "las moscas," a loose term which covers mosquitoes, gnats, and flies. Pretty much anything that flies around and bites you in the night. . . which is why I've been waking up to some impressively swollen bug bites. It's night to have the windows open, but they don't do screens here, and something has been eating me alive.

And the bites itch. Oh sweet Jesus, do they ever itch!

I've tried Benadryl. I've tried cortisone cream. Seeing me scratch like a flea-infested dog at the Kookaburra Cafe yesterday, the owner suggested I put lime juice on my bug bites to neutralize the reaction and take down the itching.

I've never heard of this as a cure before, but at this point I'll try anything. Thus, I currently smell like a margarita on the run. . . I'll let you know if this works. Also open to other quick cure suggestions!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Expats: Include Them All, Even The Weirdos

One major feature of the expat life is that beggars can't be choosers when it comes to home country friends. One minute you are talking with the most interesting creative mind you've met in years, and the next minute you're cornered conversationally by someone you suspect was dropped on their head as a child and annually every year since.

Perpetual travelers find more than their fair share of crackpots in their midst. Some days it feels like the motto is "Have conspiracy theory, will travel!"

On the other hand, without these types around for contrast, you'd never appreciate the warm and truly balanced souls that also line the globe. Thus, even though sometimes you wish the nutters would crawl back under whatever rock they crept out from, there is no doubt that to have the breadth of acquaintances that make the world rich you have to include them all!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Prices in Cuenca Ecuador: The Vice Squad Edition

Coming off a visit to the police station, I thought it might be fun to share a price list for some of the vices in life available here in Ecuador. Compare and contrast with your local black market and/or underground economy!
  • Coffee: 50 cents - $2, depending if you are drinking local black or a fancy schmancy thing.
  • Pack of Cigarettes: $1.60. Many small shops and bars also sell cigarettes individually for 15 - 25 cents each.
  • Cocktail: $2.50 - $3
  • Glass of Wine: $2 and up, depending on the vintage. A boxed liter of Clos (a reasonably quaffable Chilean red) is sold for $5 - $7, with other regional bottles of wine available for $10 - $13.
  • Bottle of beer: Okay, so beer is available in two sizes. "Pequenos" are what we might think of as a standard beer. "Grandes" are about double that size. Most locals don't bother with Pequenos, opting instead to get cups and split Grandes. At cheaper local places, you can get a Grande for 75 cents. Mid-scale bars will charge around $1.50, and some of the expat places will charge you as much as $2.75. Common beer brands are Brahma, Club, and Pilsner.
  • Condoms: $2.80 (ish) for three. These are sold at pharmacies and available only behind the counter. The big local brand is Duo, with Lifestyles and Trojans as the major foreign players. I haven't seen any other kinds of contraceptives on sale (it is a Catholic country, after all), and there hasn't been a single adult store anywhere in the city that I've found, although I haven't been looking.
  • Hookers: No idea. Mainly located in the immediate vicinity of the municipal bus station. Have been warned by locals that many hookers here are cross dressers. No idea what to make of that . . . negotiate at your own risk!
  • Marijuana: Reportedly $175 - $200 per pound. And yes, that is pound and not ounce. However, most of the marijuana in Cuenca actually comes from somewhere else, like Quito or Guayaquil. Apparently local growers and suppliers are very difficult to find. The discussion on this has been interesting to me, because a number of the expats down here really love their weed and have been shocked to find that there was better availability of the stuff at home in the States thanks to our medical marijuana laws, lax enforcement, and other loopholes. There truly is little that is more comical than seeing a 70 year old prim retiree grouch about not being able to find a source in order to smoke up. . . for medical reasons, of course ;-)
And that's what I know . . . no idea on hard drugs. South America may be famous for their cartels, but although I've read about busts in the newspapers, I haven't seen much in the way of a hard drug culture in Cuenca to have any price points to share!

Update:  If you're looking for more current prices for these things, check out my 2012 Cuenca Price Update.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday Night With The Ecuadorian Police

My friend Ben commented to me the other day that in his six months in Ecuador, he had experienced more life than he had during years in the States. I would have to agree. If there has been one constant of my time in Ecuador, it has been new experiences and upheaval.

Last night was no different.

Somehow, in my path to a BBQ, I signed my name to four copies of an official statement regarding the murder of one Francisco Flores Flores, better known as Paco. It's another chapter in a unique story that I'm involved in only tangentially, mainly as a translator. Basically, an Ecuadorian friend of a friend was murdered in what was thought to be a home invasion and robbery, since his car was taken and later found burned on the side of the road.

Not exactly. . .

As more details emerge, it seems that this may have actually been a crime of passion based on a secret lifestyle that was being lived by the deceased. The family didn't know anything about it, although the accused was living with the deceased, but in an odd twist of fate, my gringo friends hosted a party for the Carneval where the number one suspect may have made his appearance. As the only ones who have met the suspect, we needed to come into the police stations to make a formal statement and look at some photos taken from Paco's computer to see if we could ID the suspect.

The police station was nothing like you might expect, even counting terrible TV stereotypes. The inspector was dressed in street clothes, and the waiting lounge had Bend It Like Beckham playing on the TV. There was one uniformed officer at the door, but everyone else seemed as though they had just wandered in wearing whatever. A small child (no idea whose!) slept on a couch behind the main desk.

As the owner of the best Spanish, I got to serve as the translator back and forth between the inspector and my group of Americans. It was a challenge, but also really interesting. We worked together to type up the final statement, and since I helped I had to sign it as the "traductora" before they printed it off on an antique dot matrix Epson. Somewhere there was a copy machine to make the four copies, and someone at the station has Internet savvy since they had accessed Paco's computers for the photos.

The whole process took a little over four hours, from our initial visit to the photo id attempt (no luck, sadly). I was completely exhausted by the end, but it was also fascinating to see how the police system works here to do an investigation on a first hand basis.

Monday, March 1, 2010

This Little Witch Grew Up

Jen Adams,Mandy,Lyndi,Sarah
Seen here with the siblings who've tolerated me for all these years!

When I was a kid, I had a lot of plans for when I was 30. Since 30 represented the age at which I would be practically a geriatric, I was sure by that time I would have a beautiful house, lots of kids, a career, money, and a pony. I've no idea why the pony was in there, given that I haven't been on a horse in years, but you know, hey, they were daydreams.

The reality is a lot different.

For starters, no ponies. You see the sling on my arm in the picture? I haven't gotten any more coordinated with age. All those ballet lessons and the gymnastics have managed to keep me out of a wheelchair (thanks Mom & Dad!) but I still have a penchant for really high heels (thanks Grandma!) and a tendency to run off to foreign countries with uneven sidewalks.

The other thing is that I don't feel particularly geriatric. Frankly, I'm having a hard time even feeling like I'm 30. I woke up this morning feeling the same as I did when I was in my 20's. Actually, I felt better than I did for most of my 20's, because last night I got a full eight hours of sleep ;-)

There's no house full of kids, my career is non-traditional, and money is something to be spent on airplane tickets instead of stockpiled. So my 10 year old plans for my old age have not exactly come to pass, but that's okay.

Instead of what I had planned, I've had a few trips around the world and amassed enough memories to bore my eventual grandchildren to tears three times over. Uphill. Both ways. Barefoot on broken glass, BEFORE there was Internet.

What will the next 30 years hold? My sister asked me today and you know, I have no idea. Fortunately, the day is young and at heart, so am I.

Facebook Takes 22 Days To Fix Account Problems

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls. . . 22 days after the original hijiacking, my Facebook account is back!

*golf claps for the Facebook security team*

While I am thrilled to have my Facebook account back, I am still so underwhelmed by the Facebook security team's response to this whole thing that I just don't even have words. Which is pretty impressive, since I make my living doing 300 - 500 words on almost anything under the sun. For an massive organization, either Facebook doesn't monetize well enough to have sufficient customer response to handle a security issue in less than 3 weeks, or they've got a bunch of high schoolers running that show in their free time.

In other news, guess who no longer recommends setting up a Facebook page to any business? First two guesses don't count . . .