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.