Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Certain Comfort In Routines

I just settled in to my "Tuesday Night" spot, and I had to laugh at myself, because not only I tell a friend to find me at "the usual place" but I also noticeably relaxed once I was settled in.

Since when am I a creature of habit? (Staff at the Kookaburra, don't answer that!)

What was it, three days ago and I was whining about the status of my adventure, and now I am enjoying my routine? We humans are nothing if not contradictions, apparently.

Still, there are cafes and corners all over the world that I think of as mine. A visit back to any one of my old haunts brings the same sense of relaxation, even after years. I'm nostalgic for the tapas bar on the square in Alcala, 36th & Hennepin's Dunn Brother's Coffee, the outside balcony at Shanghai's Porterman Hotel, the dive-y Indian place on the first floor of Tennoji Station, Vietnamese Frog in Shinsaibashi, Tin's Hall. I randomly crave Burma SuperStar in San Francisco and Lincoln's Lamar's Donuts. It's inexplicable, but all these scattered threads are pieces of me or happy memories in one form or another.

Readers, how about you? What are your places?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Adventure, Humpf.

It's 2 am and I have a splitting headache. I spent the earlier part of my evening being quite ill from something I ate, and now I'm sitting up thinking about Tim Mills and China.

For those of you new to my backstory, I spent two years in Asia just after I graduated from college. Ask me about it now and I'll tell you I loved it, China significantly more than Japan. In my biggest "that's it, I've had it" moments, the next step is usually running off back to Shanghai. It was an adventure that truly reshaped my internal landscape, and one I'm never going to forget.

Tim Mills comes into the story as a tangent. My Tim Mills connection is Spain, where he and I studied abroad way back in the dark ages before the Euro. We kept in touch - still do - since he is one of the most grounded and level-headed people I know.

One January I called him up and was just venting. I'd come back from Christmas to discover that my boss had fought with the school where I taught, so now I had no job. My Polish boyfriend had announced he was moving back to Poland. There was snow, crappy job interviews, and other various life annoyances. A perfect situation for a pity party, until Tim Mills cut me off.

"You moved to China to have an adventure, right?"

"Well, yeah."

"Who said it had to be fun?"

That made me laugh and snapped me out of it the worst of the woe-is-me mindset I'd slipped into. Good, bad, ugly and incomprehensible, I was definitely having an adventure in China.

What, then, does this have to do with Cuenca? As you may have guessed, I've been creeping into the woe-is-me mindset again. I went took a wonderful, highly enjoyable vacation back to the States at the end of August, and since I've come back to Cuenca its been a bit of one thing after another. Friends have announced they are leaving, work has been overwhelming, and as the locals will testify, for the past couple of week the weather has been lousy. Woe, woe, mope, woe.

I've got to snap out of it.

I'm in the middle of an adventure, and one that's going to close out the year full of new experiences. Here's what's on tap:
  • Classes: I'm teaching a business writing course, and for a semester final my students are going to be building Facebook pages in English for local businesses. How fun will that be? I'm excited for it, even if I'm a bit suspicious about the quality of my students after one of them asked me today if we could get rid of Friday classes since they are "inconvenient" to attend.

  • Writing: At the end of October I'm going to the AWAI Bootcamp, a major copywriting conference and job fair event. I've wanted to go for two years now, so I am super psyched up about attending. I'm also terrified - more than 300 of my peers will be there and the speakers are some of my copywriting inspirations. In the flesh. Eek!

  • Christmas & New Years: In a major change from the norm, I won't be home for Christmas (boo!) because my boyfriend's parents are coming to Cuenca and then taking us to the beach. This is a yay. I think. Maybe? It will definitely be an adventure!
So, even though in the day-to-day I'm moping around a bit, there really is a lot that will happen between now and the end of the year. Somewhere in there I'm hoping that my buoyant spirit of adventure returns. Until then, I'm off to find some aspirin for my headache and cross my fingers that I can keep it down long enough to get some sleep!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ecuador's Sleepy Vacation Season

Europeans aren't the only ones who love a good long vacation in August. Ecuadorians are also big fans of taking a few weeks off in the month of August. School is out of session, so most families are itching for the chance to get away, and the business culture seems to support the idea of taking off for an annual big vacation.

Where do Ecuadorians go on vacation? It depends. Many who have family in the States and the ability to get a US visa (this is getting increasingly difficult) head for the States. The big "family visit" destinations are to the Ecuadorian communities in New York, Chicago, and Miami. However, I feel a bit sorry for my students heading toward the States - Cuenca's summer months have been unseasonably cold and wet, with July being absolutely miserable. Moving from 40 degrees and rainy to 100+ degrees in a muggy urban environment? Yuck, even if the shopping is better.

Other popular vacation destinations are the beaches. Manabi, Montanita, and Salinas all get a certain amount of vacationers in August, but Caribbean, Columbian, and Peruvian beaches are considered to be more of a getaway. I don't know what the travel advertisers in Punta Cana did to secure the loyalty of the Ecuadorian public, but hitting resorts in this Dominican Republic beach zone is considered to be a top vacation choice.

Europe and Asia don't seem to be on the travel radar except for those at the very top end of the financial scale. Tickets are just flat-out expensive to get from here to there, making destinations closer to home more popular. Ecuadorians seem to be pretty big fans of domestic travel, showing a lot of love for their own jungle and volcano attractions.

Still, with a significant proportion of the population on vacation, Cuenca is a sleepy little town. When people here are on vacation, they don't answer their phone or check their email. Employees report that their bosses are on vacation as though that's a perfectly acceptable explanation for why you can't have what you need until the 1st of September - and here, that's just the way it goes.

This travel bug is a bit contagious. A large number of my friends here are taking trips back to the states throughout August and early September, channeling the Ecuadorian way. It's all about shopping, visiting family, and spending one or two days on a beach. In the meantime, Ecuador's main streets seem a bit depopulated and extra quiet as everyone settles in to enjoy the sleepy vacation season.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ecuador's President Renamed A Series Of Unprintable Words On Wikipedia

Ecuador's President hasn't been making many friends within the media community lately, to the point that Anonymous currently has the country under attack. One of the crowning jewels showed up this morning on Wikipedia.

I can't print it. I won't even put up a picture. Just read the new name for Rafeal Correa on Wikipedia. If your version has no obscenities used as middle and last names under "Spanish naming conventions", then it's been caught. If not, well, this is a gem that insults both Correa and his mother.

I'm sharing because in the midst off all the political trash talking going on about the situation in the US, it really doesn't compare to what happens on the political scene. Also, can you imagine if this happened in the States?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What Music Ecuadorian Kids Listen To These Days

One of the fun things about working with high school aged Ecuadorians is getting glimpses into the forces that are influencing them. The other day we had some work time in class and one of the kids asked if we could put on some music. I told them yes, but I didn't have any. Not to worry - Ecuador is one of the only countries I've lived in where people actually use the MP3 player feature on their phones. As the class shared the favorite pieces from their collections, I got to hear:
  • Katy Perry - Firework & Teenage Dream
  • Queen - We Are The Champions
  • Lady Gaga - Poker Face
  • The Village People - Y.M.C.A. (Although when I said, oh how appropriate since we are studying hotels, they were shocked. They didn't realize that a YMCA is a place you can stay. They thought it was a resort or disco).
  • Poison - Every Rose Has Its Thorn
  • Taylor Swift - Romeo
  • Kenny Loggins - Highway To The Danger Zone
  • The Cranberries - Zombie
There wasn't one Spanish language song among the lot, and the kids were pretty surprised I knew the words to any of them since I'm old enough to be their collective mother. Still, we had a pretty fun class while they made posters ... and how does this list compare to your perceptions of what music Ecuadorians like?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cuenca: A Home For America's Economic Refugees?

Americans visiting Cuenca used to talk about the climate, the culture, and the opportunities for new businesses in the city. Increasingly, they are talking about economics. Not local economics, but American economics. The idea is that they want to get out while the getting's good, and want to know if Cuenca's the right place to ride out America's imminent financial doom.

I've had a surprising number of conversations lately that focus on getting out of the US dollar and escaping the US economy. Many of the people quizzing me about my international life aren't planning to join me in the Freelance Kingdom - they are really just running. Running from the idea of retiring in debt, running from the idea of long-term unemployment, and running from the idea of losing it all, once and for all.

To be honest, these people inspire two emotions in me: Fear and Pity. The fear is rather contagious - the latest crew of American arrivals in Cuenca seem to be genuinely afraid of just about everything. Talk to them for a while and you, too, will start to wonder if tomorrow you will wake up to the wreckage of a midnight Armageddon. On the other hand, I really pity some of these people, because in their fearful mindset, they are shortening their lives by stressing themselves out something ridiculous.

It's not to say that all of their fears are groundless, or that Cuenca is necessarily a poor choice for waiting out the Greater Depression. Last time I checked, yes, the US economy still stank, and yes, the cost of living in Cuenca is significantly lower than a similar US lifestyle. However, cheaper does not always mean better for every situation, and cost of living isn't the only metric to use.

Cuenca's culture is very different from that of the United States. It can be warm and welcoming, but it can also seem very closed off due to a strong emphasis on family ties and last names. You need to speak Spanish or you will be stuck in the gringo community. The gringo community is okay, but it can seem to be very us vs. them for new arrivals vs. old Cuenca hands. Expect to make acquaintances readily and friends more slowly.

Many of the systems that people are used to in the US don't exist here. Yes, many economic refugees want to "leave America behind" in theory, but in practice they still expect there to be functional administrative systems that respond to their needs and complaints. Not so in Cuenca - most people here fend for themselves, and the complaints department is permanently closed. Noise complaints can be directed straight to your neighbor, thank you very much, and if you don't like your cable service, join the club. This "we don't care" attitude in service areas is a sharp departure from the US where sales clerks and phone agents jump to serve "the customer who is always right". After all, if you don't like it, you'll blog, tweet, and post youtube videos about it.

Only not in Cuenca. The technology barrier is high - only about 28% of Ecuadorians regularly access the web (meaning once a week or more) and high speed connections like those in the States just haven't arrived yet. Facebook has caught on pretty strongly, but blogs and Twitter are still marginal. Websites for businesses vary in quality. If you want information, word of mouth, newspaper, and radio are the top choices. Or picking up the phone and calling directly, something many Americans consider archaic.

So there are some pretty significant adjustments, and the economics aren't all fabulous. Most Americans in Cuenca aren't making a local income - it's all dependent on what they have going for them from the States. English teaching might net $250 - $500 per month as supplemental income, and there are a few restaurants owned by gringos, but other economic opportunities are limited. People who think they will come down and work for a local are sadly misguided - there are plenty of unemployed locals for local jobs!

And that's my two cents on the matter for the moment. Yes, Cuenca can be wonderful, and if you know what you're getting into, it might work for you as a new home or economic refuge. However, it's not mini-America, nor is it Mexico, and economic refugees looking for either had better look somewhere else!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom Is A State Of Mind

Independence Day overseas is always an adventure, because you know its supposed to be a holiday, but nobody else is taking the day off. While my family and friends back in the States are enjoying the sunny weather and a three day weekend, Cuencanos are enjoying the fifth straight hour of pouring rain and another workday. Yee-haw!

The question does sometimes come up as to whether I worry about my freedom living overseas. The short answer is no, not really. America isn't the only place you can live free and happy ... and to me, attaching freedom to a place diminishes the concept.

Freedom isn't a concept that can be fenced by borders. It's not even really a concept that can be fenced by facts. Was I more free in America, where an organized government efficiently collected taxes, monitored citizen activities, and regulated the snot out of being a small business owner? Or am I more free in Cuenca, where a highly inefficient government doesn't provide much more than basic services and the police can be readily bribed? (In a recent lesson on crime vocabulary, I mentioned a friend paying the police $10 to get out of a ticket. My students told me he overpaid - it should have been $5. "You foreigners run up the price of everything," harrumphed one of them, implying "my people" are ruining their freedom to drive like maniacs.)

Moving from the cops back to government, was I more free in America or when I was living in China? I didn't speak the language well and had no knowledge of the local laws. I know I got tons of exceptions from locals because they knew I didn't get it and it wasn't worth it to them to make an issue out of it ... but in America, there are no exceptions for me. If I speed, fail to register my car properly, don't follow my community covenant for recycling, or a hundred other small things, I'm in trouble.

So what is my freedom, really? Were my forefathers fighting for the right to watch reality TV on high-speed Internet connections in McMansions? I like to think they were fighting for the right to live on their own terms - the right to choose their futures, govern their destinies, and take their lives where the path led. It's not a place - it's a concept, a state of mind. Rainy skies, no fireworks, and miles from home, that's what I celebrate as my Independence Day.

Now We're Mobile

Hey, quick administrative note -- I've set up to optimize the viewing of the blog on your favorite mobile device. This should make it easy for iPad owners, iPhones, and other "smart" mobile devices to visit me without a mega-jumble on the screen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Readjusting To Life In Cuenca

After three weeks in the States, returning to Cuenca has been interesting. I loved, loved, loved being in America with the whole country being on the cusp of summer. Here we are on the cusp of what passes for winter, and the return from a land in bloom to a land where that's just not the season has been interesting.

Of course, the weather isn't the only difference between Cuenca and the States. One of my friends here asked me to do a comparison, so I spent a lot of my time in the States (since I had a lot of time in the car between North Carolina and Nebraska) reflecting on that. The differences jumped out from all sides, and not all of them bear repeating, but here are a few that have hit me going both ways.

  • The cheek kiss thing: When I got to the States, I was totally set to kiss everyone on the cheek because that is just the Ecuadorian way. It's kind of hard to shut off once you get in the habit. Now that I'm back, it's hard to turn back on. I once again feel like people are invading my space when they lean in for a kiss, but based on the weirdness that ensues when you try to shake hands with someone trying to kiss you, I'll need to get over that fast.

  • Punctuality: I had to get back in the groove of leaving for things on time in the States. Not so here in EC. Except for my classes, we're back in the land of approximates - around 2, sometime this evening. I kind of enjoyed the more scheduled life - I've apparently missed things that smack of routine. Cuenca's chaos is quaint, but not always conducive to getting things done.

  • Shopping variety: I'll be honest, I just about cried when I walked into the Trader Joe's in Lincoln, NE. It's not the biggest, it's not the best ... but it has so much variety that is flat out lacking here. You go to the supermarket and it's pretty much this or that, and having been to the supermarket three times in the last three days, it's frustrating. There may be six brands, but there aren't six kinds. In the US there is more variety of kinds of things to buy, both in the food aisles and on the shelves in retail stores. If I want to buy only modal cotton clothes in the States, I can do it. If I want to do that in EC, well, it's this shirt or that shirt, take it or leave it, plus 22% tax on imported clothes.

  • Height: In the US I'm average. Here I'm a giant, as being away and then back reminded me.

  • Pricing: You know, a lot of people go on and on about the cheapness of Cuenca, and so I was expecting more sticker shock being in the States. The biggest was the $65 taxi I took in Chicago - here taxi rides average $2, and the airport might be a $5-$10 ride in Quito for about an equal distance. Yet on the other hand there were a lot of elements in the States that were very affordable compared to Cuenca. Textiles of all kinds were very affordable in the States (no $5 for 6 pairs of Hanes socks here!) and a decent meal out at night was still $20+ per person just like it is here. Hotels in Cuenca are cheaper, and gas is cheaper because of the government subsidies. Yet in other areas of life it's not that different, and quality/selection + 12% Cuenca sales tax definitely are pricing factors to consider, too.
Anyway, I have to get back to adjusting - and unpacking! However, just wanted to share some of my thoughts as I make the (re)adjustment and settle back in to life in Cuenca.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Who's Dead?

Last night we watched the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. So did the rest of the world, if the Internet speed was any indication. It was an interesting moment, watching the nation celebrate without us expats at their side. I think my patriotism must be a bit lacking, too, because watching everybody go nuts in the streets my main thought was, "Sheesh, don't these people have to work tomorrow?" What can I say? It was after midnight, I was tired, and it's been a long ride finding Mr. Needle-in-a-Haystack.

When I woke up this morning, the President was dead.

At not yet 7 am, the phone rang. The frantic caller on the other end has no Internet at home and was desperate for an Internet touch-base. "Obama has been shot and killed!"

"No, it was Osama."

"They told me it was Obama! It just happened last night, you have to look."

"No, it was Osama."

"My girlfriend said Obama is dead! It's breaking news."

"No, no, no. Not Obama. OSAMA. OSAMA is dead."

"Are you sure?"

Massive growl of frustration. Power up computer. Hit the Internet. "Yes, I'm sure. Osama is dead, not Obama."

"Oh, well, thanks," Click.

Guess who was extra early to school today? GRRRRRRRrrrrrr.... OSAMA is dead!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Waiting For A Taste Of Easter

In about an hour, I'll know if I get to taste Easter this year, or if I've blown it entirely.

Everyone has their own thing that means Easter. Not in the grander meaning-of-the-holiday sense, but in the smaller, personal family sense. Easter for some is hiding eggs under bushes and for others it's big chocolate bunny-filled baskets. Here in Ecuador, Easter is associated with a very particular kind of soup that has a ridiculous number of ingredients, and back in Nebraska I kind of associate Easter with banana bread.

Laugh now, but then think about this: If Easter was a holiday you put in your mouth, what would it taste like to you?

I can't make a sunrise service in the Brule park in Ecuador. I can't pretend not to be too old to hunt eggs in my grandmother's yard - not least because Easter egg hunting is not the Ecuadorian way. I can't fight my cousins for my mom's mashed potatoes, and I won't be working my way methodically though a dessert table that rivals a bakery.

What I'm left with is banana bread. Specifically, my aunts, but since I didn't get the spike of Easter lonely till about 10:30 tonight I had to cheat and get a recipe off the Internet instead of calling her. It's from Australia and it has lots of sugar and butter in it, and I already had the bananas.

My history as a chef is not a shining beacon of excellence. I've learned the hard way about things like not mixing cinnamon with paprika, and that following the instructions is actually kind of important. Even with the best of intentions I've been known to completely screw up basic meals and side dishes, to the point where I'm a bit intimidated by my boyfriend's request for deviled eggs.

Yet I meticulously chopped my own walnuts to put in the bread, and creamed my sugar into the butter with gusto. No proper mixing bowl meant the thing got stirred up in a casserole pan, but it was indeed smooth as per the instructions. I dutifully buttered and floured my baking pan, and pre-heated the countertop convection oven. I am very proud of myself at the moment, but still fearful that something will be all wrong, like my oln friend the high altitude or something about the kind of bananas we have hear.

Still 46 minutes to go ... but the smell is right. Naturally it needs to be mixed with an undertone of baked ham and the chatter of family, but sweet banana will have to do. Let's all hope this tastes amazing ... and HAPPY EASTER to you all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Happy Teacher's Day ... Who Are You?

Today I had a nice surprise when I went to my school - it's Teacher's Day in Ecuador. I received a beautiful rose from the Abraham Lincoln school and many well-wishes and hugs from my students. My current students were somewhat obligated to acknowledge the holiday, but the past students who made a point to come give me a kiss on the cheek and a hug were especially precious.

Now if only I could remember who they all were ....

Between my own classes, substituting for other teachers, being around the school, etc, etc, I have met well over a hundred dedicated English students. Some of them are unforgettable, but others fade into namelessness when the new cycle starts (12 week class cycles). I recognize their faces as having been in my class, but I can't quite put a name on the face.

The worst is when I see the students out and about and nowhere near the school, so my brain can't sort them by their class time or level. I met a student on the bridge to Solano today coming back from her high school, and though we had a nice conversation, I still don't know if it was Jessica or Veronica. I'm pretty sure she's Jessica. I think. Definitely a Saturday morning student ...

Still, even if I don't always have a ready name to put to the face, it is nice to be able to recognize people on the streets of Cuenca who are not my fellow foreigners. This is a definite benefit of teaching - you have a recognized connection to the society, and get to feel more at home in the culture. Also, the students definitely know you, so it makes for those nice moments that you would have in a small neighborhood, stopping and chatting, even in the middle of Cuenca's bustling byways.

Happy Teacher's Day, indeed!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Missing The Cuenca Cheerleader

Swapping email with a friend this week, I was called out on my lack of posts about Cuenca over the last few months. She was asking if I was busy or if I'd lost the motivation ... but part of the problem has been that I've lost the love.

The official party line of blogs that touch on Cuenca is pretty much Rah-Rah, Sis-Boom-Bah, Go Ecuador!!!!!!!!! Since Cuenca is the ranking destination for retirees world-wide according to International Living's Quality of Life index, what could possibly be wrong with the city? How could you not be in just absolute adoration of the local customs, the local people, and the weather?

Humpf. My fresh-off-the-boat wonder must have been left on the curb, next to the car alarms. I know from my time living in Asia and Europe that your affection for your expat home can vary dramatically over the course of your stay, and while I'm not in the get-me-out-of-here mode yet, I'm definitely having one of those time periods where you browse for other options.

I'm not alone in this. For every 10 people who come to Cuenca to live, 6 will be gone in 6 months and 7 will be out by the end of the first year. The only other place I've lived with a turnover rate this fast was Shanghai, and a large part of the turnover there was because corporate rotations tended to only be a year long and the language barrier was brutal. Many of the people I knew in Asia had a deep love for the vibrancy and complexity of the culture, while here in Cuenca there seems to be a deep ambivalence about Ecuador on the whole, even among those who love the city.

It's not just one thing - there's a hundred things that line up for the shot at being the final straw. Maybe it's the trouble maintaining high speed Internet that gets you. Maybe it's the layers of bureaucracy involved in attempting to finalize a residency visa, get a censo, or open a business. Maybe it's the lack of punctuality for appointments, coffees, or repairs that's grown to the point where 20 minutes late is still almost 30 minutes early. Maybe it's the emerging need of a prescription to buy an aspirin ... the petty theft ... the maniacal bus drivers ... the hot water heater ban ...

Solar-powered shower, anyone?

Solar Shower

Whatever it is, there comes a moment in your life in Cuenca where you just wake up and don't want to deal with it anymore. You want to go on a major rant about it, but that's just not the party line here. Starry eyed love and relentless promotion is allowed; crabbing about poorly maintained sidewalks is not. So it's been a little quiet on the blog front while I work through that. Bear with me, folks - we'll look into more facets of life abroad in Ecuador ... or you'll get to hear about the next adventure soon enough.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Crime In Cuenca

Looking out my window, there was my neighbor standing with no shirt on and barely in what was left of his pants. He had one lonely shoe in his hand as he gazed up at me hopefully, asking, "Let me in, will you? They took my keys, too."

Crime in Cuenca is unlike anything I've experienced while living in other countries. Crime in Japan was most likely to be some kind of blackmail or extortion. In China, most of the crime centered around smuggling goods or information. In Europe, while I did have my bag snatched at the Paris North Train station, for the most part the biggest risk was messing up the currency swaps and overpaying gleeful storekeepers. In Cuenca, they want it all.

I'm much more informed about crime in Cuenca since last year when I was robbed at knifepoint, but I'm not sure the additional awareness is a blessing. On one hand, I know that if I'm held up, I probably won't be hurt if I just give them everything they want. On the other hand, the thieves here are a bit more expansive about what they want.

In the US, while people might steal some designer shoes off your feet, for the most part they are just after your money or your cell phone. Your clothes are pretty safe. In Ecuador, I've heard numerous tales of people losing their wallets along with their hats, scarves, jackets, gloves, belts, and so on. One man actually caught his thief because the man was wearing his jacket and distinctive hand-tooled leather belt later.

I don't know what motivates that. Yes, you can make the extreme poverty case ... to a point. There's a greed and envy point to be made, too. Yet to me, coming out of a robbery half-naked is just adding insult to injury. Thoughts? What are the weirdest things you've heard of being taken in a crime in Cuenca (or anywhere else)?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Don't Mess With My Showers

The government of Ecuador is attempting to interfere with my ability to have a hot shower in the morning. This will not end well.

Basically, President Correa has mandated that production and importation of gas hot water heaters be stopped. This is how the majority of the homes in the country get their hot water. He hasn't proposed a replacement system, he's just said that the subsidized gas that the government provides is only supposed to be used for cooking, and that the hot water heaters are a health hazard anyway.

Sample Gas Heaters

Thanks, olx quito

I'll grant him a bit of that second point. Poorly installed gas hot water heaters - especially those foolishly installed inside homes - emit copious amounts of carbon monoxide. The heaters need to be properly ventilated, and ideally should be outside on a terrace, balcony, or outside wall. They can kill you when you do things like install them in your bedroom closet (no, really. That happened.)

However, we're not merely addressing the issue of poor technical skills that plagues the nation. We're talking about the President of the country essentially declaring that hot water is an optional luxury for most of the population. Solar water heaters exist, but the units run over $1,000 before installation with no backup systems, and electric water heaters imported from the states are just as pricey. The average monthly wage in the country is $300. A gas water heater is about $250, and powering it for an hour a day's worth of hot water is about $2.

I've ranted before about the dangers and misery of electric showerheads, so I've no interest in going back to that system. I'm glad my house has a gas hot water system already installed, and that the building runs on a centralized gas system with no way to separate my gas for cooking from my gas for showering. I'm probably going to be okay, unless "they" come to my house and try to rip my water heater off my wall. They should be prepared for some serious protesting.

And I won't be the only one protesting ... although not all of the protesters are motivated in the same way. One of the things thought to be behind the ban is the rising price to the government of continuing to subsidize propane and natural gas prices. The wholesale price for a home canister is about $1.60, with home delivered gas canisters at $2. The going market price should be around $8 per canister (works out to $0.32 kg/gas). Many locals would be hard pressed to afford a price jump of that size.

I know it seems like pocket change, but pocket change is serious money here. The government is a little bit stuck on this one. The "Land of the Cold Shower" is not exactly a reputation their tourist industry can afford to be stuck with, but the bill for the subsidies is not exactly one the government can afford to be stuck with over time. So we'll see how this goes ... you'll know if the hot water goes away, because I'll be sending through a new address!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tax Exhaustion

All around me in Cuenca, the city is quieting down as the residents start to embrace Carnaval exhaustion. I should have joined them a bit more, but I thought that with the city all shut down and water balloon lobbing terrorists on the rooftops (it's tradition) that now would be a good time to do my taxes.

My brains are kind of mush.

Last year, I wrote about tax tips for writers, and I really did try to take my own advice. There were only a few receipts this year that were a mystery. I even found some receipts it would have been great to have last year, with no idea how they managed to not only get overlooked last April but also stow away to Ecuador with me this year. Little buggers are crafty.

The bigger challenge on this go-round was the international forms. I had no idea Turbo Tax had so many screens. Last time I filed my taxes as an international resident, I just remember one little form online. It was a magic form - I filled it out and *poof* I didn't owe any more taxes.

Things have definitely gotten a bit more complex since the early & mid 2000's on the international tax front. Turbo Tax hooped me through all the physical presence test requirements before somehow on the second run shifting me to the much shorter bona fide foreign residency test screen. Guess which one makes you look up every day you were anywhere and which asks yes or no questions?

Still, I feel pretty good about the final forms. I *think* I understand where all the numbers came from - I'm a little geeky and read over all the forms before I let Turbo Tax do its thing. I think I'm all good. I hit send anyway, so there's no going back now!

I'm using my brain numbed state to prep for next years taxes. We have master spreadsheets and file folders. It's like I'm related to certified accountants or something the way I suddenly feel better if I have month-by-month receipt folders and labels. Creepy. Very creepy.

Yet I'm done - after only 2 days - and I'm done early. Here's wishing the rest of you the best of luck with your own taxes ... and I think I might go have a drink.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Charlie Sheen & My Grandfather

One of the funny things that happens to you when you live abroad is that the most random things start to remind you of your family. Take, for example, Charlie Sheen. Currently the poor man is going through a very interesting phase of his life/career. He's always been outlandish with his vices and proclivities, but this is taking things to a new level.

And it reminds me of my grandfather.

Not, of course, that my grandfather behaves in any way, shape, or form like Charlie Sheen. It's just that once I went to visit my grandfather in North Platte and he was watching Two and a Half Men, which is the show that Charlie Sheen has just caused to be canceled by going somewhat insane. So when I see Charlie Sheen right now, I think of Two and a Half Men, which makes me think of that visit, which makes me miss my grandfather.

It's logical, really. Or at least makes a bit of sense. But I will confess that I told my friend that Charlie Sheen reminded me of my grandfather and she said, shocked, "I had no idea your grandfather was that crazy!" Which of course required a lengthy explanation to ensure she understood all the ways in which Grandpa is the polar opposite of the current version of Charlie Sheen. And then I felt odd for having brought it up ... and I still missed my grandfather.

It's all your fault, Charlie Sheen.

And just for laughs at Mr. Sheen's expense since he has me all mopey, there are these bits of web comedy genius to explore as a reminder of why you really shouldn't do live interviews if you're also doing a lot of drugs.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Another Noisy Day In Cuenca

Of all the cities I have lived in over the years - including Shanghai - Cuenca is by far the loudest. It seems like there is always something in this city going on to assault your eardrums.

I don't know how to describe it in a way that you can imagine, but here's a start. Imagine a world in which almost everyone who owns a car has a car alarm for it. Imagine that alarm is a multi-part siren capable of running a 60 second loop. Imagine that the sound of this alarm is not unlike a rhythmic air raid siren, and that for a 100 yard radius it will feel like you are standing next to the Keith County Courthouse when they are testing the tornado sirens.

Imagine that in this world, NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO TURN OFF THEIR OWN ALARM.

That's right people - whoever sold the population of Cuenca their car alarms neglected to instruct them in basic courtesy features, like the ability to turn off the alarm on the car while you are sitting in it. Or how to lock the car without setting off the alarm. That the children of Cuenca have not been permanently deafened by the echoing wails of their parents' alarm systems going off every time a door is opened while the engine is running is beyond me.

Today a guy parked across the street from my apartment block, and went into the restaurant there to pick something up. He left the alarm going full blast and the door hanging open. Two floors of us leaned out the window to yell at him, it's gotten that frustrating. I think we shook him up a little.

Horns honking, mufflers rattling windows, people playing their music too loud ... I can be on the phone in my bedroom and my parents will ask where I'm at that it's so loud. I know it's partly the season - Carneval is coming, all the schools are on break - but seriously, my nerves are fraying. I had a dream last night that a massive earthquake reduced the city to rumble, and I remember being happy because it was quiet at last.

A car alarm woke me up.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dear January, Where Did You Go?

Does anyone else feel like this year has just zoomed in? One minute I'm elbows deep in final papers, exams, and work projects and the next minute I'm watching the Superbowl. Sans commercials, naturally. Ecuador's like that.

January is just gone. I know people talk about time passing more quickly as you get older, but this is ridiculous. I'm not that old! I still have things I need to do!

Still, it's not like I've been exactly wasting the time that I have here. In January I wrote more than an article a day and a book-length manual. And had company for 10 days, visiting Quito, Vilcabamba (miserable experience), and Otavalo. I had time to catch up with the people I enjoy, and the sun did a fair bit of shining.

So that's all well and good. What's not well and good is how tired I feel. I know there's a saying that really busy people wait until their lulls to get sick, so maybe I'm using these past few days to just acknowledge that I have a sleep debt that rivals the national deficit? We'll find out ... day three of 10 hours of sleep a night coming up!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Helicopters Over The Homefront

My taxi couldn't get me all the way home today, thanks to the police.

Pulling up to my intersection, the taxi driver helpfully pointed out the helicopter circling low overhead, cameras focused. Cop cars filled the streets, and uniformed patrolmen were milling about filling out forms, doing interviews, and up the block, loading something into a truck.

I paid my fare somewhat nervously and hustled it up the block, where I could see the entire staff of the copy shop that's on the first floor of my building huddled on the corner. Those girls are sharp about watching what's up, so after some hey, how are you's we cut right to the chase: Why is there a helicopter and half the Cuenca police force here?

They didn't know. We stood collectively for a minute weighing our options, and then a pair ran across the street toward the action in a swift move of bravery. Not about to get shown up by chicas half my weight, I followed.

More cops, lots of rubberneckers. This something a little different about Ecuador. In the States, we have rubberneckers, but we're a little more subtle about it. Little old ladies flick back their curtains or motorists drop it down about 5 mph. In Ecuador, people stop what they're doing and walk right up to the action. Motorists park and get out for a better view. There is no shame in staring, pointing, or openly gossiping about what's happening at a volume audible for 50 feet in every direction.

The cook from the restaurant across the street eventually gave me the scoop. Apparently all the action had to do with car part. Banned car parts, probably (I was missing a word in there) and lots of car parts for which this particular shop owner ***gasp*** had no receipts.

Y'all, I didn't even know there was an auto shop in this particular building, and I walk by there an average of four times a day. The catch is that what faces the street is just a wall with a big door and not really much of a sign. I've never really seen much for in and out on any of the shops on that block, even, so I thought the interior was empty.

Or pack floor to ceiling with hot car parts. You know, whatever fits in a building that looks like it was rescued from Spain circa 1750. Apparently the locals knew there was some kind of car place in there, but not that there were ***gasp*** no receipts!!!! for any of those parts.

The receipts are a big deal here, because the local SRI (our IRS) doesn't mess around. They will shut your business down until you are straight with them, and they'd sent their SWAT team folks down with the cops. It was kind of fun to watch them do their thing, actually, because they seemed a lot more active than any IRS folks I've ever seen (okay, imagined. I've never seen one and don't want to).

I went back in the house when the second wave came in along with the press because it was lunchtime. It was also much more comfortable for me to watch the whole thing from my windows. I may be getting more Ecuadorian every day, but I'm still not a dyed-in-the-wool rubbernecker. Maybe next year ....

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pants From The Past

One of the fun things about moving abroad is coming back to visit your closet in America. Suitcase weight limits keep going down (when I went to Japan, it was 75 lbs, and now you get 50 lbs with some places pushing for 30) so you have to be really careful about what you're packing. Since I tend to do things like pack George Foreman grills into my luggage (no, really, I did that) it means I'm often short on clothes.

The bonus of staying in Ecuador is that this time when I went home, I just brought a few things to wear with the rest of my suitcase for bringing things back. Really important things. Really, really important things, like the 4 lbs of pretzel M&M's I got for Christmas, copious amounts of orange scented Arbonne goods, and pants.

Ah, pants.

The particular pair of pants inspiring this post entered my life circa 2007. This means they are Ann Taylor pants, since 95% of my wardrobe in those days came from Ann Taylor. Something about working in HR for a risk management department may have been prompting that. They are dress pants, and I thought they might be good for the need-to-look-older while teaching thing. Also as a break from the three other pairs of pants I have in EC, which are all jeans.

The issue was that I was a bit sickish over the holidays, and I didn't do a lot of the closet review and room cleaning that I had originally planned. Instead, I just admired my closet for most of the break, and then threw a few things in at the last minute without trying them on.

This morning, I needed the pants, and I was just hoping against hope that they fit.

And they did. It was awesome! I practically skipped to class, and refused to put off by the lack of taxis on my way or the ennui of my students when faced with the history of the World Bank Group. It'll be on the test, kids, and did you know my pants fit? Bwahahahahaha . . . ahem.

Old pants that fit, people, is my happiness for today. What's yours?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Limping Into 2011

I'm back in Ecuador at last, and it definitely feels good to be back in t-shirt land! What I'm not getting used to just yet is the fact that the calendar has turned over.

Was it just me, or was 2010 a total whirlwind? It seemed like a lot of different changes all came through at once, and I just wasn't quite keeping up. True, some of these choices, like taking on the teaching at the University of Azuay and that whole moving to Ecuador thing, were entirely my own decision. And maybe I should have skipped out on some more of the weddings and family things that I did, but really, that wouldn't have been right, either.

So what does 2011 hold? I feel a bit like I'm limping into the new year after an intense Christmas trip home that included a heavy dose of the holiday crud. What a bummer that turned out to be! Made this big trip home for the holidays and then was congested, aching, and miserable the first few days. I blame Miami - that many people going through customs at one time just spells major germ spread.

Still, I've recovered a bit, which means I'm supposed to be jumping into 2011. The trouble is that I'm kind of denying it's arrived. Maybe if I pretend it's still December . . . no, actually, that doesn't work either. It's just that the idea of a laundry list of resolutions when I still have things on my to-do list feels wrong on lots of levels.

As a result, I'm resolving not to resolve. I don't want a temporary burst of things to do . . . if I'm going to be changing my life, let's go big or go home and really commit to something. So now I'm just waiting for that perfect inspiration to strike . . . .