Friday, February 26, 2016

The Tranquilo Life

Ch - ch - ch - changes that have come about after over a year of living here in Ecuador in the tranquilo city of Cuenca: I can't begin to list all of them in a comprehensive way, but I'll attempt to provide a portrait of what that looks like in everyday life here from our perspective.  Here goes!

Tranquilo, or tranquil, is well translated into peaceful, easy, serene, quiet, relaxed, unconcerned, calm, still, quiet.  You get the idea.  The Eagles had a song "Peaceful Easy Feeling" that expresses much of the same theme.  Laidback to be sure!  For the third largest city in Ecuador to be described that way is quite a compliment. . . but for a larger city of around 500,000 people, Cuenca deserves it.  It really is safe, quiet (by Latin America standards, anyway) and serene.  

It used to be that when I was working in Southern California I would get up at 5:00 AM or in that time frame.  I would be leaving the house by 6, arriving at work by 7 or 7:30 AM, for work starting at 8:00 AM.  These days I get up around 6 or 7 AM, and sometimes don't leave the condo to take our chihuahua out for his daily duty until 8 AM!  Quite a change from what hours I used to keep.  

It gets better.  Instead of having to deal with the unyielding bureaucracy of the educational institution I used to work for, and the youth that had such intractable (with few exceptions) attitudes towards learning and improving one's mind and station in life, I get to work for myself in tutoring English to natives here in Ecuador.  I also work with Arco Language Institute, a small school, that is actively working to make learning English enjoyable and attainable, having motivated youth and adults for students.  Students that actually want to learn and are motivated to achieve educational goals in life. . . a breath of fresh air.  I pinch myself sometimes. . . (smile)

Each day I get to decide what needs to be done.  Everyone has tasks to do, whether in the workforce or retired, as we are now.  Today I knew would be a good day to visit the mercado - market - and get some fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as get some meats and cheeses from Supermaxi.  Every Friday Supermaxi, a grocery chain here in Ecuador kinda like Vons or Albertson's back in the States, offers a ten per cent discount on meats. .  . pays for the bus fare getting there and back (actually more, the way I buy meat there).  And it was time to visit Coral, the cadena de hipermercados - chain of hypermarkets - that is akin to Costco or Sam's Club in the States.  Regular grocery list shopping time.  I would rather shop on a weekday than on Saturday or Sunday when the stores are busier, and Friday offers that Supermaxi discount on carnes (meats).  So off I went to three places today.  

Carolyn Anne prefers the fresh tomatoes that are higher in quality (and cost 30 per cent less than Coral) available at Mercado Diez de Agosto, so that was my first stop.  I can breeze in and out of there using Cuenca Transito bus in less than an hour.  I had a nice conversation with a Cuencana on why I shopped at Diez de Agosto versus going to the largest such mercado in Cuenca, the humongous Feria Libre - Free Fair - which I could actually walk to if Ichose to do so.  "The safety issues surrounding the place, as well as general cleanliness," I allowed as I replied en Espanol.  She agreed with me, although she was a regular shopper at Feria Libre.  My wife's profesora de Espanol - 
Spanish teacher - had her purse snatched at Feria Libre, so it's not uncommon for those concerns to take center stage in one's choice of location when shopping at a mercado.  

One turn to the right as I entered the mercado building, and one turn to the left after the first aisle, and I was at my regular vendor of frutas y vegatales, Alexandra and her mother (and father).  Alexandra is young, energetic, and with a ready smile.  "Buenos dias, David. . .?Que quieres hoy? she begins as she is already serving two or three other clientes at her part of the aisle.  I recite step by step the items I'm looking for today.  "Y por favor deseo los melones mas duro esta vez," I remind our erstwhile empresaria.  Last time, the cantaloupes became too soft early on, and were on the way towards becoming rotten.  The bananas are usually yellow and towards ripeness here, and on the smaller side. . . but I get a bunch for just a dollar.  Usually 8 or 9 of them, too.  Combined with the good prices on the melones, the pin~as (pineapples) and the green skinned naranjas - oranges - I don't mind the less than perfect looking bananas.  At ten cents or therabouts apiece, I can't complain about the price of "going bananas."  The oranges, by the way, are 6 for a dollar or 12 for $2.  Once you peel 'em, you can't tell the difference from the imported ones from the United States. . . often from California, which cost triple the Ecuadorian sourced green skinned ones.  

I walk back to the bus parada across from Hotel Milan, where we stayed at while visiting Cuenca our first time.  It's only a couple of blocks, and you share the sidewalk with pretty much everybody.  Often I see foreign Gringa tourists as I do so, and their casual clothing and backpacks often give them away, if not their use of English.  They rarely say hello to me, though I've tried to greet them over the past months.  It's as though I've become one of them. . . the native Cuencanos.  Oh, well.  Their loss.  The native Cuencanos, by the way, often will give you a "Buenos dias" or at least an "Hola" as you walk past them.  You're in close proximity with folks here, and not what you would find in Southern California or a lot of the United States.  Here, resources are more precious, and everyone shares the common space.  

Looking up ahead, I notice that there's a woman cooking some carne of some sort, and she is using a coffee can with embers in it that offers up a burnt smell that signifies a pedestrian obstacle. . . and a place not to put your foot near!  You see street vendors like her all the time here in Cuenca and Ecuador, and you can buy literally everything from aguacate to yuca on the sidewalks here, especially on the corners.  Cocos are a favorite, and you can buy pieces for around a dollar (a whole coconut goes for about that same price at the mercado. . . such is the price of convenience for the cliente and the opportunity for the vendedor.)  

Having walked my ten pound bag loaded with fruits and vegetables to the bus stop, I get on my bus.  You don't want to get on one that's too crowded, because then it's harder to get off towards the rear door, where you are supposed to walk towards to exit the bus.  This morning I see the bus isn't too crowded, and I get on.  "Gracias, conductor," I respond as I climb the steps and place my bus pass card on the electronic reader.  I have learned the art of walking down the aisle of the bus.  Depending on how vigorous the conductor is with his driving, I have learned to walk during the third or fourth gears as the earlier gears are often with jolts that upset one's balance standing up.  Some of the drivers are more kind to the passengers and the equipment they drive, and are more gentle in going through the gears (and the frenos - brakes).  

I get off at the marked bus stop this time.  Sometimes the driver will let me off in between official bus stops (marked with a blue sign), sometimes not.  This one does it by the book.  I walk back to our building and watch my steps.  Uneven walking surfaces exist all over Cuenca and Ecuador, and it pays to watch everything every moment, as construction changes things sometimes and potholes develop (and rarely if ever get repaired in a better condition anytime soon).  Drivers let me pass through as I cross the redondel by our building, and are polite in doing so.  Trying to do that back home in the Antelope Valley of California would get you killed quickly. . . and the drivers there are not used to seeing a large volume of pedestrians.  Here in Cuenca, it's routine.  

Once I've unloaded the purchases, it's off to Supermaxi El Vergel for the discounted items I seek.  I talk with a Cuencana passenger as we get off at the Planetario, and she asks me about my legs.  I tell her that the condition runs in my family, and that I am diabetic.  "?Tienes sal en la dieta con comidas?" she asks me.  I respond no. . . I don't use salt in my food like Ecuadorians generally do.  She smiles, and is happy she has checked in with me about my health.  This is common due to the appearance of my legs, which is not typically seen here.  

As I walk up the street to Supermaxi, I see several Gringo couples walking past me.  Unlike the Cuencana lady who inquired about my legs and health, these folks, who speak my native tongue, don't say a word as we walk past one another.  Not even a wave or a smile hardly.  The coldness and the standoffishness I had come to hate while living in the United States comes back to me in a flood of memories.  "God, help these people to see your love in these kind of situations when they see a friendly expat," I offer as a "breath prayer" as I continue walking past McDonald's. . . Chill 'n Grill. . . and then at the El Vergel shopping center and Supermaxi.  

Today I see a new item: grated cheese - "taco cheese" as it's called here on the label of some of them - and there's *three* different brands to choose from.  I take a look and see that there's a new brand among the two I've seen previously.  Fifty grams more in the package, and with a lower price to boot!  I pick up three of them.  (saving $1.50 or so in the process)  

Off to the meat counter.  Today there's plenty of the rolled chub packaged carne molida hamburger which is just 15 per cent grasa - fat - and is just $2.99 a kilogram, according to the package.  I pick up two, and I'm out about $11 for the both of them.  Later on, I'll see at Coral a smaller clear plastic sealed container of hamburger for about the same price as the large rolled chub of hamburger I picked up at Supermaxi.  The size difference is astounding to one who pays close attention, and I  do.  

Rounding out the purchases, I find Avena en Hojuelas - rolled oats - in the Supermaxi store brand in the one kilogram size.  One buck!  Can't go wrong here!  Didn't know they even offered the item here. . . found out about it by reading the Gringo Post.  Quaker is also available, but at double or more the price of the national brands.  FYI.  A couple of envelopes of soup (national brand stuff) at a buck apiece, and I'm ready for checkout.  I see Campbell's soup is back on the shelf after disappearing in the midst of Ecuador's financial cutbacks during 2015 (we saw plenty of Campbell's varieties in our 2014 visit).  Some cream of mushroom, chicken noodle, and tomato, and a couple of others.  Prices are quadruple what I remember them being in the USA, however.  FYI.  

I greet the cajera and ask if the meat is still at the ten percent discount.  She responds in the affirmative, and my small purchase is completed.  I haven't spoken a word of English the whole time this visit.  This Supermaxi location is often frequented by Gringos - extranjeros - and as I get my bags I notice a retired older gentleman speaking in English in a loud enough voice to attract my attention.  He's talking with another person, perhaps an employee, perhaps a friend he's with. . . nevertheless, he's likely one of the number here who don't use Spanish or don't even try (whether they can learn or choose not to is something I cannot say).  I remember the importance of assimilating into the local culture as I walk back to my bus stop, which to catch on the return trip is past the delightfully tranquilo Parque de la Madre with its Planetario (Planetarium), jogging paths, workout areas, park benches, and overall green spaces.  Great place to meet and talk with all kinds of people, and I have done so here.  Not today.  Nothing clicks.  I move on to my bus stop.  

I return home again, unload my second batch of groceries, and in due time, venture out for the big shopping at Coral at Mall del Rio.  

Getting on the bus, I talk to a fellow Gringa (blonde, obviously a foreigner in appearance) a bit.  I trotted out my usual "Buenos tardes" and seeing that she didn't respond to that, followed up with, "Good afternoon," which elicited the same back to me.  My fellow expats can be so private and guarded, and this lady was no exception.  She got off in an area that obviously was residential, and I wondered how she was getting along with perhaps little to no Spanish in a city full of Spanish speakers.  

Later in that same bus ride, a Cuencano helped an abuela - grandmother - get off the bus.  Her back was bent and her hair gray, and she had several baskets that needed to get offloaded with her.  A younger man helped her get out the front door as the driver patiently waited.  So very kind of him to do that, and exemplifies the generosity of spirit and respect of one's elders that is part of the culture of Ecuador and Latin America.  I thanked him as he got off the bus with me at Mall del Rio, and he was appreciative of that.  As I walked down the steps, here came a young Cuencana who offered me her hand to make the large leap from the last step of the bus to the ground, away from the curb a good bit.  I was glad to get the help, and she obliged.  

We talked as we walked to the mall entrance, and I found out she did speak some English, but not fluently by any means.  I let her know it wasn't a problem. . . I'm bilingual (conversationally) and she let out a sigh of relief.  She could talk to me, and appreciate a discussion with a foreigner like me that was appreciative of her country and its ways.  I asked for her name, and she replied, "Rebecca," with a distinctly Spanish language pronounciation.  She enjoyed the conversation as we entered the mall, and we said our goodbyes.  

One thing about Coral. . . you don't know what the price is until you reach the checkout stands.  The price marked on the shelf doesn't always agree with the price that is read on the bar code scanner machines located in different parts of the store, which don't always agree with what I see on the receipt (for the record).  The old saying applies. . . This is Ecuador.  Don't like it?  This is Ecuador.  You really liked that experience?  This is Ecuador!  To be fair, this likely applies to other competitors and retailers as well, but with Coral it's more obvious due to the bar code scanners being available for use by customers.  Sigh.  

I have learned to first go to the cereal aisle and check out our favorite brand for availability.  Today, good news: it's there with more to spare.  I get six, knowing the next time I come, there might not be as many (or any, depending on the day I return).  Saturdays and Sundays are the worst for restocking high demand items like this granola we like that has a price a dollar give or take less than Supermaxi.  Every other granola cereal costs a dollar or more than this brand.  Not cheap compared to US prices we used to enjoy, but a bargain compared to the competition.  

I check out the apples in the produce section.  I decide to ask, since the price isn't marked on the sign, what the fuji apples cost.  "$2.25 uno kiligramo," the produce clerk shoots back after checking on her scale/computer.  Best price on apples out of all the other varieties. . . so I get this kind today.  Happy to get the bargain.  

The way it works in Ecuador, it's not how efficient you work, it's that you are occupied with work despite being perhaps not nearly as efficient as you might encounter in North America, which by comparison is ruthlessly efficient.  So here in Coral, one sees for example two female chica employees assembling an end cap of kitchen cookware.  One hands the item to the other, and the other pegs it into the wall/endcap display.  Talking and chatting continuously as they do so. . . in the United States, it would be a dismissable offense talking that way and doing work together so inefficiently.  Remember, This is Ecuador.  As you can see, even for employees, it's the Tranquil Life.  

After checkout, I get - with the kind assistance of my bagger lady - a taxi to get home with my purchases. I regale the chofer with the advantages of living in Cuenca that might not be so well known to him - the four rivers with running water, the periodic, regular rain (which just happened this afternoon, still raining as we head to my building), clean and orderly streets and public buildings, safety to the point it's safe to walk the streets - even in the evenings, great schools and universities, excellent medical infrastructure with doctors and hospitals in abundance, and - of course - a relatively low cost of living vis a vis other locations in South America.  He agrees and smiles - even laughs - at my retelling the virtues of his city.  This is not what the average taxi driver or even citizen hears on a regular basis, by the way, according to what I hear.  It's nice to tell the positives of the place you have decided to live at, and it sure beats complaining, which I'm sure people like my taxi driver receives on an all too regular basis. 

Yes. . . we're living the tranquilo life here in Cuenca.  Glad to do so, too!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Carnival Holiday recap 2016

I'm reminded by one of our faithful friends from the States to give an update on Carnival, which is akin to Mardi Gras in the United States.  Carnival is much better known and more of an international tourist type holiday in Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro but not so much in Ecuador as far as we know.  

Here in Cuenca, Carnival is an Ecuadorian national holiday.  A lot of people start leaving Cuenca for the coast and the beaches on the Friday before the official holiday starts (this year it was February 8th and 9th, the 9th being "Fat Tuesday" as Rio would know and call it, as well as New Orleans in the US).  Saturday can also be a big travel day to the coast, especially in the morning.  As you can tell, this leaves anywhere from two to five days free for families to party and enjoy the fiestas.  The days off are made up by working the next two successive Saturdays, as we found out last year from our law firm, which was open those days (not normally open on Saturdays. . . these two days are the "make up" days to compensate businesses for the time off from work earlier in Carnival).  

The people who visit the coast often end up in or near Salinas, which is the coastal town past Guayaquil, the port city on the Guayas River at its terminus in the Pacific Ocean.  I haven't yet been there, but Carolyn Anne has, and it's hot and humid there especially this time of year, when it's effectively the warmer season of the year from December to February.  We hear it gets crowded in the timeshare rentals, hotels, and lodgings there during Carnival season, and typically attracts a younger crowd.  I doubt that Salinas is where we would spend Carnival.  Cuenca suits us just fine!

An update on our friend that got sprayed with espuma - foam - on the Thursday before Carnival at the social fiesta at Parque Calderon in the El Centro of Cuenca: she is recovering well, and is able to see out of I believe one eye at present.  She will regain her sight, and the worst of it will be that she may have to undergo laser surgery for her affected eye.  That remains to be determined, however.  She is able to walk outside and go visit the doctor (Carolyn Anne went with her to that appointment).  We are grateful to God she is improving after such a nasty attack.  By the way, the foam used came from China, and is alcohol based (which makes it more of a hazard than a non alcohol based foam product).  There's Ecuadorian produced non alcohol foam for sale before Carnival, and if you gotta have espuma, we'd certainly prefer folks purchase the Ecuador produced product.  

Natives to Cuenca that have lived here much longer than us have mentioned that the city used to be a much more dangerous place for tourists and we foreigners to be in during Carnival.  "It was virtually a war zone!," opined one of our Iglesia Verbo pastors.  Tons of balloons, foam, water, ice, and probably more being tossed at warp speed to zing unsuspecting recipients, which probably included some foreigners.  They must have complained to the police, because the local police crack down on a lot of what used to be happening during Carnival season.  Public municipal fountains (not all. . . the one at Av. Solano at Av. Doce de Abril was on this year) get turned off nowadays to prevent people from loading water pistols and water balloons, for example.  Streets aren't near as wet and slick as they used to be (some sidewalks in El Centro and in the El Vergel office/retail district south of El Centro would be exceptions, currently).  

But some things haven't changed despite the police crackdown on the more risky and dangerous behavior.  "I don't know why, but when we have our festivales, we don't think," confided one of our Iglesia Verbo translator volunteers.  "It's like turning our brains off or something."  "Wouldn't it be appropriate to always consider safety in the activities surrounding Carnival?" I asked her.  "Yes, but it's not in us to do that," admitted our young adult friend.  So there you have it.  Culturally when these parties or festivales start up, the Ecuadorianos go loco totalmente and lose their minds.  Now you - and we - know!  You gotta believe we will keep this bit of knowledge and advice in mind regarding future national holidays here in Ecuador.  In but not of, as the apostle John wrote.  In the local culture, but not ensnared by it in a way that would cause us harm.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

These Cry Out for Wisdom

Here in Ecuador, as in anywhere else in the world, one's life is made up from the small choices we make, not the big ones.  How do I know that?  By observing my own life as well as the lives of others.  

Earlier in my life, I became acquainted with a Los Angeles Police Department officer, Jim Harpster.  One of the themes he would refer to over and over as he shared from the Scriptures of the Bible to our Men's small group that met on Saturday mornings at the church where I met and married my wife was the big consequences of small choices.  In the context of his dealing with criminals that needed to have law enforcement presence in their lives for whatever reason, he would listen, learn, and then speak on the topic of how these folks' small choices could - and often did - land them before a judge, and even jail.  "But I was minding my own business until (fill in the blank) drove by!" they exclaimed.  "I was just having a good time and then this officer came and gave me trouble!" another confided.  And so it goes. . . do folks learn from one's mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, or dare we even say it: sin.  Good question, and it pertains to me just as much as it does to you.  

Lately in Cuenca, where we live in the southern Andes Sierra of Ecuador, my wife and I have a friend who is currently recuperating at home from a rather nasty eye infection from a social gathering associated with Carnival, a national holiday here similar in some ways to Mardi Gras in the United States, that included people spraying espuma - foam - on and about others in the crowd.  You have to understand that the foam hit her eye, and has caused her pain and suffering. . . and even the possibility of becoming blind permanently.  We are praying for her and in communication for this dear one, and she has to have "lights out" at her residence for the time being as light is too much for her to deal with and she cannot effectively see as she used to.  Her neighbor is helping her with daily tasks for the interim, by the way.  

Some thoughts I have discussed with Carolyn Anne about this episode include "How did she get involved in going to the event where the foam was sprayed?"  "Why did she have to go with her friends to the event?  Couldn't she respectfully have declined?"  And. . . "Is the crowd always right in what they do and say?"  Here in Cuenca, in a foreign city in a foreign country with folkways and customs we Norteamericanos are not as familiar with, it pays to have a healthy detached objective view of the inherent risks and rewards of such activities, fun that they may be for others involved.  At our age and health condition, I have determined for at least myself that this kind of event is not appropriate for us to attend.  Our friend's current condition is a very telling reminder why.  

As I was walking the other day to our usual farmacia to get some medications, I was nearly hit with a water balloon - it grazed my leg - thrown from someone from an upstairs balcony in El Centro (the historic downtown area of Cuenca).  Water hoses with running water were also in evidence down another El Centro street, with a restaurant family member about to hose down his little brother.  I wisely watched where he aimed the hose (not at me, thankfully).  I also was ready to cross the street if this young man was about to try to hose me.  Great fun for lots of the natives, but they know better than to involve los extranjeros (us foreigners).  At another location in town outside of El Centro, I saw another shop owner getting ready to pour a bucket of ice and use a water hose on what looked like his daughter, who was already soaking wet.  

Now I like fun and a good time as much or more than anyone else, but given our age and condition it's wise for us not to be too terribly involved in crowds of natives when they are armed and ready with foam, confetti, buckets of ice, and water hoses.  Best to stay away until the Carnival period ends. One more day until normalcy returns.  My two cents fwiw.  

Turning the page, but keeping the same theme. . . 

The Gringos, or foreign typically native English speaking expats largely from North America here in Cuenca are a motley lot.  It's rare for all of them to agree on anything in a discussion, and just like back home in the States, there can be personal attacks, name calling, demeaning comments, and the like. Just because they move here doesn't cause them to act any differently. . . one more proof of fallen human nature.  

We're glad we have decided to not be solely involved with the Gringo expat folks exclusively.  We are glad to be a part, and be social, and share and encourage where that's possible, but not every expat is like us that way.  

We're here to assimilate as much as possible with the Cuencanos/as as well as enjoy the friendships of the Gringos/as amongst us.  We have several friendships especially through our Verbo church with the locals, and we're thankful to God for knowing them and loving them.  In that way we are able to learn the language and share our lives with them.  They by and large are very open to that, and are gracious people.  

Many of the expats here, on the other hand, do not get involved with the locals, or attempt to learn their language, their customs, or their ways.  It's what's been termed by others who arrived here long before us as the "Expat Bubble."  A world cut off from the rest of the population of Cuenca, largely located in what's been termed as "Gringolandia," the area of Cuenca on the west side that has many high rise condo buildings on or near Av. Ordon~ez Lasso.  Here's a photo that exemplifies the "brick canyon" that is Ordon~ez Lasso and Gringolandia:  

In that "Expat Bubble" of living, shopping, dining, and conversing in Gringolandia, the expats largely encounter those who speak English.  They see and hear little to no Spanish at all.  But they also miss out on living in the rest of what makes up Cuenca, probably 98 per cent of the city.  Quite a sheltered existence living one's life in Latin America with no regular connection to locals or those who know the culture and speak the local language.  The locals pick up on that, too, and they are amazed these folks would keep themselves sequestered from them.  Frankly the locals pity them.  

There's several community forums and English language Internet sites that expats frequent, among them the Gringo Post, perhaps the oldest and certainly the most read English language forum for expats living in Cuenca and Ecuador.  Sometimes the discussions can continue without end, for various and sundry reasons.  Some of this could be due to a lack of assimilation within the greater Cuenca community, but some of it is surely due to strongly held beliefs that just won't budge.  Here's a current one that just won't quit as of now:

Rather than write my response to that incredibly long conversation, I'd prefer to give what are the enduringly wise words from the Scriptures, to wit:

"A person gives joy in giving an apt reply - and how good is a timely word!" (Proverbs 15:23)

"Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues."  (Proverbs 10:19)

"Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips."  (Ecclesiastes 10:12)

"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."  (Ephesians 4:29)

"Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you."  (Matthew 7:6)

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." (2 Timothy 2:23)

Also, read what another local Cuenca expat, Susan Burke March, wrote on this topic.  Exquisitely well written piece, if I may say so myself.