Monday, May 23, 2011

Strange Little Things About Living In Cuenca

Now that Pam and I have lived here for a total of 6 weeks, we have some observations- strange little things - that may interest those of you who are thinking of moving here:

1. The cost of Kleenex is astronomical here (If you can find it.) Bring your own!

2. You don't have to be in conflict regarding which way to put the toilet paper in the holder (roll from the top or from the bottom?)! Their paper holders only allow you to unroll from the top.

3. Don't move here if you are thinking of starting certain businesses such as (a) heating and A/C (they don't have any); (b) exterminator business (again, there ain't none); (c)  swimming pool cleaning business (haven't seen a pool yet), (d) window screen business- don't have em,  (e) dishwasher sales (don't exist).

4. Be prepared to walk a lot. Great for your health. Pam and I will sell both our automobiles in Orange County if we move here and we don't intend on buying another. If you don't like to walk, you can take a bus almost anywhere for $.25. Taxis are another option....anywhere in the city for $1.50 to $3.00 depending - and they are everywhere. Pam said that she counted about 1000 that went past our apartment in two hours. (unless it is raining; then, you can't find even one). Conversing with Taxi drivers is a great way to learn Spanish; they frequently are very motivated to talk to you to improve their English. Some have relatives in the United States or have lived there themselves, so they are are very motivated to talk to Americanos.

5. Many Andean women sell beautiful baskets and other items right on the street, dressed in their village costumes  including Andean hats which identify which village they are from.

6. Doctors here actually make house calls. Remember Marcos Welby, MD? He may live in Cuenca now and apparently has trained many other doctors. Almost like the 1950s.

7. You can purchase DVDs here for $1.50 (4 for $5) that play in English (with Spanish subtitles). Blockbuster Video - eat your heart out!

8. If you get homesick you can visit a huge mall called Mall de Rios which has many American businesses (or franchises) such as Burger King, KFC,  Pendleton Clothes, New York Pizza, and Payless Shoes, to name a few.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The "Green Card" In Ecuador

Believe it or not, Ecuador, like the United States, also has a major problem with undocumented illegals- not from the United States, but from countries like Columbia and Peru. To be legal here in Ecuador, in addition to your visa, you need what is called a "cedula," a National Identity document that basically gives you permanent immigration status.(the correct spelling is to have an accent over the "e", but I don't have a Spanish keyboard).This cedula is common in many South American countries. It is a pain administratively to go through the process of obtaining the cedulla, but once you have it, you have many privileges and rights that you would not otherwise have.

Problem is - or was - that up until now, it was relatively easy to duplicate fake cedulas in Ecuador. Not any more: starting Monday, the Ecuadorian government has added a computer strip (or whatever it is called) to the document and issuing a  protected "password identification" to you so that it seems almost impossible to fake your immigration status. I believe there are 15 other "points of identification" on the cedulla (birthdate, name. etc) to tighten things up even more.

My thought is: why can't we do this in the United States? Call Bill Gates and have him set us up with a similar system! As an American, I don't feel offended if the Ecuadorian government wants to know where I am or what I am doing; after all, I am a guest in their house.Likewise, why should legitimate foreigners in America care or be unwilling to go through this process in order to gain the advantages and benefits of living in a place they desire?

Am I missing something here?

All comments welcome!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Learning Spanish In Cuenca

One of my goals before retiring to Cuenca would be to learn passable Spanish. No offense to anyone who doesn't share my beliefs, but I think it is presumptuous, offensive,and egotistical to move to a country and not even try to learn their language, especially if you expect the locals to learn how to communicate with you, instead of the other way around. In the United States, I knew people from other countries who have lived in the USA for thirty years and knew not one syllable of English. They survive by moving to an enclave with others from their country, isolating themselves from the local culture and local people.

I decided I did not want to be in this category. If you are a guest in someone's home, I believe you should try to learn how to do things as they do, not try to impose your way of doing things on them. This involves learning how to communicate with them on a basic level. It shows respect, good will and willingness to accommodate.

I actually had had Spanish (formal Spanish)in high school and college, so while I was still in the U.S. I figured, what the heck.......a little dusting off of the book and a little review and I'd be all set. So, I started practicing here and there (like ordering food at bilingual restaurants), but I noticed that whenever I said something in Spanish, the hispanics would answer me in English. Mmmm....not a good sign.  I also noticed that I couldn't remember most of what I had learned some 50 years ago (of course, in my mind, no way has 50 years passed).

So, still in the USA, I hired a language coach who was a certified bilingual teacher at $50 per hour. He was very good, but I could only afford one hour a week. No progress was evident after several months despite also studying English to Spanish videos and supplemental reading material.

My next step was to join a Spanish class sponsored by the city of Orange. Again, once a week for an hour. The instructor was very good, but after class I would forget most of it, as I returned to my normal English-speaking life. This class lasted for 6 weeks.

Fighting discouragement, I knew that my first trip to Ecuador was approaching, so I started asking other people how to learn the language. Their advice was universal: "Immerse yourself in the culture."  So, I figured that after three weeks in Ecuador I would come back finally speaking espanol and ready to have a serious conversation with Geraldo Rivera in his native tongue.

Alas, I immersed myself in the culture, even getting sick enough to have to be hospitalized in Quito my first night there. I tried to explain to 13 doctors in Spanish all about food poisoning and the symptoms I was having including....never mind; that is probably too much information.Anyhow, how much more could I immerse myself? My Spanish did not improve. I think it actually got worse (if that is possible).

So, one year later I am back in Cuenca for 4 weeks, but still couldn't speak even survival Spanish.This time I decided to try another approach. After one week here,  I found a school called Simon Bolivar which has an excellent reputation and only charges $8 per hour for individual sessions. Sessions are daily for two hours a day (they also have a 4-hour a day program). For three weeks that comes out to 30 hours for $240 - a great deal. The intensity of the program (daily two-hour classes) really makes a difference! Now, when I speak Spanish the locals look at me strangely, but at least they seem to be able to understand me.

There are many good schools here all of which work well for a percentage of people. The point is that a school, in my experience, is the way to go. You not only learn the language, but also learn about the Ecuadorian culture as part of the process. A side benefit is that you are teaching your instructor about America. My professora is very curious about America and Orange county, so we spend at least 30 minutes a day discussing American politics, problems in America, American social issues, etc.(in Spanish, of course).  I find it very stimulating.

Stay tuned for more information on the language issue in future blogs. For now, adios y buenos noches.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Incredible Free Concerts in Cuenca and more....

Last Friday night we attended a live concert presented by the Orquesta Sinfonica De Cuenca (Symphony Orchestra of Cuenca). It was marvelous! And it was FREE! The concert hall was small (holds about 700 people) but very modern. The concert featured world-class musicians including Andrea Baccheti on the piano and Domenico Nordio on the violin.They played Bach. Then, the orchestra played a Brahms symphony that brought the audience (both gringos and locals) to its feet.

Pam and I aren't into classical music that much, but this was outstanding. And the price was right! I don't know how they can present such quality programs to the community for free, but my understanding is that this happens frequently, as Cuencanos value cultural presentations. There are four universities here, several with music departments, so I guess one would expect a lot of culture in a "college town."

But culture here is not only classical. Last night we attended a one-year celebration of the opening of a local restaurant called The California Kitchen. After a fabulous dinner, we were treated to Salsa dancing by a professional troop. Sexy. Exciting. Nice. We didn't have the energy to try it ourselves, but I have to confess we were thinking about it.

As is usually the case here, we met many expats from the United States who now live here. including a retired airline pilot who now flies private jets for Warren Buffet. Everyone we talked to encouraged us to move here, as they love it.(I guess the ones who don't have already moved back). Some buy property, others rent. All say that a big "draw" is the support of the gringo community as compared to expats in other retirement locations such as Panama. Because almost everybody is retired, people can put a lot more energy into relationships than is possible when involved in "the rat race" which means the working world. By the way, many of the "retired people" are surprisingly in their 40's and 50's. Some do start new businesses down here while others just enjoy life.

UPDATE on Pam's health since her visit to the Shaman. as reported in my last blog: Today she is feeling great! Coincidence????? Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pam Visits a Shaman

As I mentioned in my last post, I am taking Spanish Lessons at a school called Simon Bolivar here in Cuenca. They really believe in a "hands-on" approach to learning language.In the course of one of my lessons I mentioned to the instructor that Pam has been having some chronic medical issues which Western medicine hasn't seemed to help that much. She immediately suggested we visit a woman shaman that she knows who "practices" in a local mercado (a huge, outdoor market).

For those of you who are not up to snuff on shaminism, a shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits. Here in Ecuador, many of the shaman are mujeres (women).

It was raining outside, but the mercado was only a short walk away so Pam agreed to make the trek to see the shaman without knowing what to expect.

We encountered a little old Andean woman with crinkles at her eyes and a sweet smile on her face. She was dressed in colorful native garb and wore a fedora type hat.She didn't speak a word. (Sorry, I didn't think to take a picture at the time, and I was also fearful of offending those evil spirits).

Pam sat on a little stool. The shaman started by grabbing a bunch of herbs which she crushed with her hands against her leg. Then, she thrust them into Pam' s face for Pam to smell. This was followed by shaking the herbs and then pummeling Pam about the head and body with them, while silently chanting.

I found out later that Pam was also chanting to herself, but with a different chant: "please don't touch my hair...please don't touch my hair...please don't touch my hair."

Step two in the process was the "egg." It was a brown egg that apparently had special powers.  The shaman rubbed the egg all over Pam' s hair, face, and body while still chanting. I think the purpose was to draw out evil spirits (poison) from Pam' s body. In this step, Pam later revealed she was telling herself: "please don' t break that egg over my head....please don't break that egg over my head."

On to Step 3 - the sacred water ritual.This lady comes from a local village where they have sacred water which is supposed to have special healing and spiritual properties. She had some in a bottle from which she took a swig. Suddenly she spit out the water in puffy bursts on Pam's head, and the back of her neck. Then she lifted up Pam's sweater and continued the treatment on Pam's stomach. This purification ritual was experienced by Pam as: "she spit on me."

Finally, she put some "vile-looking" green liquid with a pleasant aroma on Pam's hands which Pam then applied all over her body. We have no idea what the liquid was but it felt good to Pam so she continued to apply it.

The cost? Only two dollars. Did it help? We don't know yet, but Pam was feeling better the next day.
Maybe..just maybe..we'll return for another treatment. In the meantime, we will practice spelling the word "placebo."

Retire to Cuenca? Today I'm ready!

As I mentioned several blogs ago, the main purpose of our visit this time to Cuenca is to help us decide if this is where we want to retire and enjoy what are euphemistically called our "golden years." Today the decision seems to simple; it was a beautiful day, we enjoyed great food, and we connected with numerous gringos and one local who strongly encouraged us to hang it up,drop out of the rat-race of Southern California, and start a new life here. Problem is, things don't seem so clear when I get back to Orange County, pick up the phone to call a Realtor, and seriously consider giving up my clinical practice.

For those of you in the same dilemma, I share our day with you. Met some new friends (Gringos who moved here about one year ago from las Vegas) for lunch at the newly remodeled Hotel Cuenca in the historic district of town.  Each of us had delicious chicken soup, a plate of two pork chops, rice, tomato and green and yellow squash, hominy, and a desert of fresh pineapple.Also included was a nice fresh pear juice.Cost? Only $5 each which included great conversation and many useful survival tips from this experienced couple.

We then wondered around for awhile, finding one of many DVD stores. We bought two DVDs (which play in English down here) for $3 for entertainment when we get back to our condo.

Then, it was time for my Spanish lesson. Signed up at a school called Simon Bolivar in the historic district (corner of Luis Cordero and Gran Columbia). I plan on taking lessons two hours a day for five days a week for three weeks. I get INDIVIDUAL lessons from a very qualified bi-lingual person for $8 per hour. In Orange County, a Spanish tutor costs at least $50 per hour for individual instruction. Look out my Spanish-speaking friends in Orange County: I'll now know it if you are saying bad things about me in Spanish!

After the lesson, it was time for Pam and I to visit a local friend that we met when we were here last time: Alberto Ordonez who is a lifeline for gringos here in Cuenca. He broke out the bourbon and the "catch-up" began.Several other gringos stopped by to say hello to Alberto and his mother who own and operate Casa Ordonez bed and breakfast.

Then, it was time to return to our mini penthouse apartment, watch a DVD, and marvel at the beautiful mountain scenery that surrounds us.

Today I could see retiring here.......

Friday, May 6, 2011

Do you KNOW anybody in Ecuador?

Back in the states, I had to announce to my therapy patients as well as my anger management clients that I would  be gone for a month to go to Ecuador, South America. First response often was "why Ecuador"? (while they were frantically searching their geographic memory banks to recall where the heck Ecuador is), followed by, "do you KNOW anybody down there?"

Well, we obviously did know a few people from our last visit and, as it turns, out, that is enough. The ex-pat community down here is very supportive and friendly. Gringos number about 2000 mixed in with a general population of about 500,000 (about the size of Long Beach, CA)- and surprisingly, many know each other due to numerous networking avenues. One of these is an e-mail newsletter called the gringo tree which announces gringo gathering spots, special events, services, etc. Another is a curious event called a "gringo night" to which gringos are invited to a restaurant for networking and libation. Right now, I know of at least three of these weekly events. Now mind you, some of the gringo's at these events are other Americans or locals  trying to sell you something, but my experience is most people are there just to connect with other gringos.

At one such event Tuesday night we met a lovely young couple from Washington, DC here for 6 months, living on investments and an internet business. They are integrating into the Cuenca community by her teaching  English to underprivileged children (on a volunteer basis)and he to Cuencano businessmen.  Before long, we were exchanging telephone numbers and looking forward to a future lunch date with this couple.

Last night Pam and I were enjoying delicious ice cream at a specialty shop just off a main public park(called Parque Calderon) in the center of the historic district. There we struck up a conversation with a very engaging 18 year old "girl" (woman? what do you call an 18 year old?) also from the D.C. area, but someone who grew up in West Virginia. She was traveling ALONE, just in from Peru. Call me "getting old," (and I do realize that many young people travel abroad these days) but we thought she was exceptional, comparing her to the many young people I know in the LA area who have never been outside the neighborhood in which they were born. What a different life perspective this young woman is going to have! But, back to networking. In the course of the conversation, she referred us to a local Spanish school here which she attends (Simon Bolivar school) and we will also be starting lessons (only $8 per hour) Monday.

In addition to these new people, we have contacted friends from our previous visit who have invited us to lunch, and to a Mother's Day gathering Sunday where we will meet many new gringos.

Do we know anybody in Ecuador? Yes, and the list keeps growing due to the affiliative nature of expats, adventure seekers, and others who make their way from other parts of the world to Cuenca.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Back in Cuenca after 11 months

Hard to believe, but almost a year has passed since we visited Cuenca. Now we are back for one month for our "second look" - living more as expats than as tourists to see if we can adjust to would be "regular" life down here as a retiree.

Air Fare here was fairly reasonable from LAX - about $750 per person round trip (on COPA airlines)  to Quito and then another $110 or so per person from Quito to Cuenca on LAN airlines.All flights were on schedule and uneventful (which is a very good thing to say about airline flights). We had rented a condo for the month from a gringo in Texas named Linda Mock. She had a person pick us up from the airport which was very comforting when you arrive in a foreign country at 7:30PM. He was kind enough to find an open restaurant for us (we were starving) before driving us to the condo located on Avenida de las Americas. His name is Juan Perez and he was more than helpful and accommodating, explaining that he  has a business here supporting expats and their needs.

The condo, billed as "mini-penthouse" turned out to be beautiful with a 270 degree view of the city and mountains.It has high security, so not sure of the safety of the neighborhood yet, but so far seems fine. Weather here has been cloudy most of the day, but Pam and I like the cool breezes. We also need to get used to the high altitude (8200 feet)mainly by taking things slowly until we literally get our breaths.

We made our first trip to the major grocery store here called "super-maxi." Problem was we didn't have a car to get the groceries back to the condo, but hey- no problem. The check out woman instructed a young man to get us a taxi, so he took out our grocery cart, hailed a taxi, put the groceries in the trunk, and $2 later the taxi driver completed the process by relocated them to the front stoop of our condo.No sweat! The grocery prices were very reasonable, except for some American made imported products some of which cost more here than in Southern California.

Right now I am enjoying a glass of Merlot (for medicinal purposes - to help with the altitude adjustment) and to help evaluate my life style change and the direction it will be taking as I head toward retirement.

More later.....