Friday, August 28, 2009

Aug. 26. “El que tiene padrino se bautiza. El que no, se queda moro.”

We learned this phrase today from Rita, who said it came from her mother. Loosely translated, it means "He who has godparents, gets baptized, he who doesn’t, get’s screwed." In its literal sense, this is just stating the obvious, but in the context of Ecuardorian society, it refers to connections. If you’ve got the right connections, you can get things done. And we seem to have some pretty good padrinos.

The family we live with, Jaime and Rita, are amazingly wonderful. I wrote earlier about Jaime’s heritage as one of 11 children of a huge ancestral hacienda owner. That certainly places him in the upper middle class of Cuencan society, but he is not at the top of the social ladder, and he definitely works hard – he is a civil engineer. He also loves to tell jokes, and cares deeply for his family and anyone in his care.

Rita is talkative and warm and entrepreneurial. She has been so helpful to us, in fact, she actually found us the apartment we will be moving into soon. She was out for a walk with her granddaughter, and saw the "for rent" sign, and talked with the owner, an old acquaintance, and actually bargained the priced down for us – before we’d even seen it. Today, she took us to Coral Centro – a sort of Cuencan Target store, so that we could learn prices before we met with one of Jaime’s cousins, who has a bunch of kitchen items that she is willing to rent or sell to us. Knowing what new stuff costs, we will be in a better position to bargain with Gladys. She also took us to a refrigerator repair store that she noticed a few days ago, because she guessed, rightly so, that they might sell used refrigerators.

Their son and daughter-in-law, Jaime Felipe and Soledad, also blessed us with their connections. We been struggling these last few days about which school to enroll Mia and Nikki in. We thought we had a good school picked out, it was one that we had found thru the internet, that seemed to have a very progressive philosophy, a non-religious school named Santana. As we have talked with people here, we’ve learned that there are a couple of really renowned, top-flight religious schools, one for boys and one for girls. They are not necessarily great schools, but they have great reputations, and all of the scions of Cuenca go there. They are impossible to get into, and we wouldn’t want them anyway. Next are three or four lay schools, all with good reputations, of which Santana is one – the most expensive one. But Jaime Felipe and Soledad’s kids go to another of this group, Alborada, and they really like it. Additionally, our girls have become friends with their daughter, Valentina, and she is a sweet kid. What’s more, it is considerably less expensive than Santana. We agreed to take a look at the school, and we drove out to see it with Jaime Felipe and Soledad, and while we were getting a tour from Jaime Felipe, Soledad was registering her kids for the coming year, and bargaining for us. Not only did she get the price reduced, she also got us in – the 7th grade class was basically full. But Soledad said to the business manager, a friend of hers: “you’re not really going to say no to me, are you?!” After Debby and I decided that Alborada would be a better experience for our girls, Soledad called back her friend, and negotiated an even lower inscription rate for us!

We’ve also benefitted from connections we’ve made thru the Spanish school we’ve been attending. Along with providing us with good advice on schools and apartments, one of their staff, Narcisa, took a couple of hours to drive us out to some government office, and walk us thru the process of getting our “censo” – an identification card that we can get because we have a visa to allow us to stay for a year. It’s one of those bureaucratic exercises, like registering our visa, that probably would have taken us a couple of trips to complete, but she got us thru in just an hour and a half!

And speaking of blessings, I really have to thank my own padrinos, whoever they may be, for leading me to Debby, my wife for 15 years on the day this is posted. She is a great partner in this adventure, and I think she’d say the same about me.

Friday, Aug 21, Susudel

It’s about 11:00 pm, I’m sitting in bed, listening to the frogs and toads singing outside, in one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve been.

The day started as most of them have this week, with Spanish classes. After lunch, Debby and I went to look for housing, investigating a nearby neighborhood which is traditionally the neighborhood of iron workers. This search for a house has been a bit frustrating, because Cuenca is not what we thought it would be. There is housing inside the historic old town, but it is pretty noisy in the old town, and it would be sort of like living in downtown Seattle. Outside the historic center, most of the housing stock is pretty new. Our homestay, for example, is a split level built in the 70’s. There are some Ecuadorian McMansions squeezed in between more traditional houses, which are probably only 50 years old. Anyway, it’s been frustrating, and we still don’t know where we will end up.

All week, our family has been talking about coming up to Susudel where they have a 2nd home. We haven’t heard too much about it, and we haven’t focused too much on it, because it didn’t seem all that certain that it would happen. At 1st, all the kids were going to come, but one by one, they dropped out, and so tonight it was only Jaime & Rita and the 4 of us. With so few, we all came up in Jaime’s pickup; Debby, Jaime & Rita in the front, and me and the girls in the back! This is probably the 1st time I’ve been in the back of a pickup since Peace Corps, and definitely a 1st for the girls. They were psyched! After an hour or so, it got dark, and cold, but we huddled together, and we were fine. Once we finally got out of the city lights, and the traffic, I realized it was the 1st fine I’d seen the stars at night, and (of course), the night sky is completely different than it is in Seattle – 0 degrees vs 47 degrees. Given all of the problems we had looking for a place, the drive up made me wonder if we should give up on Cuenca, and seek to live perhaps in a small pueblo nearby.

We finally arrived at their home in the dark, and it is a marvel – una maravilla. They started building it in 1991 and finished it about 5 years ago. It is made from all local materials – wood from eucalyptus trees (which are plentiful here, and smell wonderful), adobe and straw and tile roof, and hundreds of beautiful touches. It’s large – they have had as many as 140 people here to spend the night! There are rooms inside and outside, upstairs and downstairs. Even with the old world feel of it, the bathrooms were built with moderrn plumbing.

I knew the house was built on Jaime’s family’s land, but in fact, the town and the church in town, was built on his ancestor’s hacienda. The original hacienda house is now a national historical site. On Saturday, we climbed up to the cliffs behind the house. The trail led past many small adobe houses, and plots of land. Most had small irrigation ponds. The people who lived in the houses were all people who used to work for the hacienda owner. They lived on the land, but they owned nothing, and they owed the owner 3 or 4 days of work. On Sundays, they’d ring the church bell to call all the people together to give them their chores for the week. Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s Ecuador passed an agrarian reform law, in which the haciendas were broken up and these peasants were given a plot of land on which to live and another which they could farm. As we climbed higher towards the top of the cliffs, we could see that basically, all the land we could see had been Jaime’s family’s hacienda. It was huge! I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that it was easily as big as all of Seattle, north of the ship canal.

When we got to the top, some cousins had brought up a small grill, charcoal and meat, and had a barbecue at the top of the mountain. We walked through eucalyptus groves and saw sheep, cows, chickens, and pigs grazing freely in the grass. In the evening, we had our first experience eating a specialty of Ecuador, “cuy”, or roasted guinea pig. It was tasty, if a little gamey. The girls wouldn’t eat it, as they couldn’t but help thinking of their friends pets, Lucy, Lollipop, Panda, Snickers, etc. The family made a fire outside to roast the pigs and you could see what pleasure they took in sharing this special meal with us. The party continued after dinner with drinks, story telling, and karaoke singing. We feel so fortunate to have found such a closely knit nuclear and extended family.

On Sunday we got a chance to go into the old hacienda church. It is rarely used any more for mass, and it is being restored. It is small and simple, but with some neat old murals painted directly on the walls.

I still need to learn more about this, but although Jaime isn’t upset on a personal level about losing his family’s land, he believes that the agrarian reform did mess the county up. Lot’s of the land that had been farmed under the hacienda system now lies fallow. Many people have left the county for the US, Spain and other places. I think there are a lot of different factors at play here, and I hope I’ll learn more about this during the year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cuenca- Advantages of Homestay

There are so many benefits to a home stay and I’m glad we chose to begin our year with a 3 week stay with an Ecuadorian family. For one, we are in someone’s home, not a hotel, which makes us feel more like residents and less like travelers. The girls have their own room, which they have already decorated with posters from teen magazines and the family wants us to use the whole house and really make ourselves at home.

By far the greatest benefit for us all is seeing how important the family is in this culture. Because we are living with a family, we get kissed at least 10 times a day. While the kids seem to find this a bit squeamish and rarely return the kiss on the cheek, I personally love seeing it among family members and participating in the daily ritual. The parents kiss me every morning, afternoon after language school, and in the evening before going to bed. One simply never walks in a room without properly greeting and kissing a person. On a daily basis, 4 or 5 family members stop by for a meal or just to say hello and there is more kissing. It warms my heart to see a father kiss his son of 30 years hello and goodbye on a daily basis.

Meal time is another important family time and our kids are seeing how this family lingers over a meal and one person talks at a time (unlike in our household!!) and everyone contributes to the conversation. The afternoon meal, served at about 1:30, is the main meal of the day with several courses. Dinner is light (usually leftovers) and the kids are getting used to the different eating schedule.

My goal is to learn how to prepare a myriad of Ecuadorian dishes and really take advantage of all the different foods here so that when we live on our own, we don’t just fall into cooking what we’d eat in Seattle. Although salmon and pasta and pesto and a Pinto Noir sounds pretty good to me right now…..

Cuenca - Arrival and First Weekend

Our plane arrived in Cuenca about 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, after a cloudy (i.e., viewless) 45 minute flight from Quito.

What a sight greeted us when we arrived! The family with whom we will be spending the next couple of weeks, Jaime and Rita were there with flowers. Also at the airport was Jaime's sister Gladys; their daughter Maria Fernanda and her husband Jose (nickname - Pichi) and daughter Antonela (3 years old); their son Javier and his wife Maria del Mar, and their daughter Maria Gracia (2 years old). Missing was Rita and Jaime's other son, Javier, and his family, who is at the beach for a long weekend. It is Javier's kids who spend the afternoon with Rita.

We loaded all 8 of our suitcases into the back of the pickup, and headed to their home. (Traveling with so much luggage is a total pain, and not something we are used to doing.) We got to their home, unloaded and unpacked, and sat down for some before dinner conversation. We hadn't seen much of Cuenca yet, and what we had seen is quite a surprise for us. For example, Jaime and Rita's house is a split-level built in the 70s. What we were both expecting, from our experiences in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, was a fairly small, simple house, concrete floors. We were not expecting wall to wall carpeting and water that you can drink right from the tap!

After dinner they loaded us in the car, and gave us a tour of the historic downtown of Cuenca. We happened upon a celebration at a small church where they were lighting fireworks ("juegos pirotecnicos"), and they had music in the plaza in front of the church. They also set off some small hot air balloons - perhaps 3 feet in diameter, born aloft by some burning leaves that are attached to the center of bottom of the balloon. We went inside a small hallway, where some dancers in native outfits were waiting their turn to perform. A small indigenous women was serving hot shots of aquardiente flavored with cane sugar and cinnamon ("canelazo"). We finished the evening by driving up to a small chuch on a hill away from the historic center. There were many Cuencanos (citizens of Cuenca) up there, mostly young ones, enjoying the city lights. Young people in Cuenca are very fashionable. There is a definite presence of eyebrow piercings and tattoos - not as prevalent as in Seattle, but still quite noticeable.

Saturday night we had a wonderful sleep - the first one in a week, thanks to the rowdy hostel we stayed at in Quito. I didn't even mind the rooster waking me up at 5:00 am.

On Sunday, they took us to visit a nearby town - and again the whole family (minus the aunt) came with! A very interesting thing that we saw and talked about is the presence of many very large houses in some of the rural areas. They call them "residentes," and they are financed by the husbands who are working in another country - usually the US, but also Spain and Italy. Emigration is pretty prevalent in the rural areas around Cuenca, and it really changes the communities. My cousin Lynn, who we met in Quito a few days ago with her husband Nate, gave us a book called "La Chulla Vida," which is about this exact phenomenon, in this very area. It was written just a few years ago, by an anthropologist from Whitman College. I'm sure I'll blog more about this as I learn more.

We had lunch at this great place called El Barranco, which Pichi knew about because the owner was looking for a loan to develop the place further. It had a pool, which was great for the girls, who swam in their clothes, but for us it was also interesting, because we learned that business loans, as well as home mortgages in Ecuador, have an interest rate of 18 - 20%! Of course this is so discouraging to home ownership and small business development, and I'm sure I'll blog more about this as well, as I learn more.

Our family is not only incredibly warm and welcoming but they are also very well educated, well connected, and well traveled. Their daughter spent a year in Germany as an AFS student in the late 70's, one of only 2 girls to have ever gone to Europe from Cuenca. Their son-in-law went to grad school for 2 years in Cambridge, and he is the director of the provincial department of economic development. The parents have traveled to the US several times. They love to sit around after a meal and converse about everything from local customs to their favorite foods to politics to the importance of travel and accepting other cultures. They are understandably proud of their beautiful city and country and are so eager for us to see all that it has to offer. We feel that we have won the lottery in finding such a great family! Their hospitality is so genuine, so heartfelt. I continually get the sense that everyone has time for people and for conversation.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Day 5 - Last Day in Quito

We leave for Cuenca tomorrow, after 5 days in Quito, and before I leave, I want to record some overriding impressions of this city. I think that, once we get to Cuenca, I'll want to write about that.

Quito is problably the nicest Latin American big city I've been in. Not that I've been in a lot, but I'm comparing it to Mexico City, Guatemala City, San Salvador (in the 80's) and Panama City. It is pretty clean, the streets are well swept, and the only vehicles spitting out obnixious black smoke are the buses. Lots of taxis, most in pretty good condition, pretty new. People are friendly, not overly so, but they are when you talk with them. We don't hear many catcalls, "Hey mister,"or "I love you." There are many people selling things in the street, such as shoelaces, batteries, chicle (gum), etc., but not too many beggars. There are nice parks, which are well maintained, and provide an oasis from the noise and movement of the streets. We learned from a cab driver yesterday that every Sunday, over 30Km of Quito's street network are closed to traffic, with only pedestrians, bikers and skaters allowed to use them! There are a lot of beautiful colonial churches and museums to visit, lots of good restaurants, both traditional Ecuadorian ones, and others.

Today we went to visit "La Capilla del Hombre" which is a museum designed by, and holding a large collection of works by Oswaldo Guayasamin, a famous Ecuadorian painter/sculptor/muralist who died in 1999. His work reminds me of early Picasso (Guernica-type) as well as El Greco. His subjects are the poor and downtrodden of Latin America, and he focus on the faces and hands - which most closely show their humanity. It's a really moving museum - definitely worth a visit if you're in Quito. Once the family settles the estate, the plans are to open his former residence as a museum. We were able to walk around the grounds today, though, and saw his two antique cars (one the 1930's) that he drove up to his death.

The girls are doing well - but are ready to move on and get settled in Cuenca. Nikki is quite the photographer, and giving her the camera is a great way to get her focused on her surroundings instead of on whatever it is we won't let her buy!

We've been staying at a youth hostel called the Secret Garden. It's a nice place in a nice part of town, and if I were in my 20s I'd probably love it. But since I'm in my late 40's, Im getting a little tired of the drunk Aussies stumbling loudly in at 2 am.

We're all ready to move on!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Day 2 - A touch of Latin buracro-reality

No pictures today - we had business to do. "Register our visa" - whatever the heck that is supposed to mean! Here's what it meant to us: Take the express bus* to the address listed in the guidebook for the "Dirrecion General de Extranjeria." Learn when we arrived that the building held some sort of "tribunal," not the office we were looking for. Walk to the correct location. Stop at the Marriot, for confirmation of the correct location. (Buy some mandarins for Nikki from a street vendor on the way.) Continue to the correct location. Take a number. Wait in line (in some comfortable chairs at least, while watching Japanese cartoons dubbed in Spanish). Finally get to the official who asked us if we had copies of our passports and visas (no), if we had deposited the money for the registration in the bank account yet (no), if we had brought our file folder, with a 2-hole punch and clasp (no), and if we had our manila envelope (no). How could we have been so unprepared!? Clearly, we had some work to do!

The photocopies went pretty well (~5 minute wait in line), but when we got to the bank, we learned (~10 minute wait in line), that we couldn't pay the $40 fee with American Express travelers checks, nor with our visa card. We could, however, exchange our traveler's checks at a nearby Casa de Cambio. At said Casa, however, we learned (~no wait) that they don't deal with American Express travelers checks, but another Casa, a mile away, would. So after a couple of near-meltdowns, by Don, Debby and Nikki - Mia held it together quite well, and lunch at a Mongolian barbeque, we found the right Casa, and (~15 minute wait) had our cash. Debby and the girls had had enough, so they took a cab back to the hostel, with dreams of finding a pool. Don, intrepid adventurer that he is, headed back to the bank, and (~5 minute wait) deposited the registration money. Back to the Dirrecion General, take another number, and back to the very same suited and somehow sweatfree official. All in order: all that remains is to return in 3 days to retrieve our passport!

* Quito has three express bus lines that have a dedicated lane, and a cool boarding system. You pay to get into a waiting area, which is elevated above street level. When the bus arrives, it aligns itself with the doors on the platform that open and close to allow access to the bus. It would be great, but the buses are shoulder to shoulder packed. Quite polite though - no groping so far.

Monday, August 10, 2009

We've Arrived!

Our first day in Ecuador. Arrived in Quito around 10:00 last night after leaving our hotel in Burlington at 4:00 am! I had been very unclear of what to expect, but walking out of the airport it all came back. Although I've never been to Ecuador before, the feeling was familiar - similar to travels I've done in other parts of Latin America.

Today we explored the old part of Quito. Moving very slowly as we accustom ourselves to 9,300 feet above Seattle. We explored a very beautiful church called ... We climbed into the bell towers for amazing views of the city.

Today is Quito's independence day, so many shops are closed, and many people are in the streets, which are free of cars.