Monday, September 28, 2009

Sunday in the Park with Nikki

Nikki's facepainting is really starting to take off! I already wrote about her painting at Antonela's party, but she didn't stop there. There is a preschool in the neighborhood, and she got Debby to ask the director if she could paint the kids' faces there. Of course, she agreed, and she has already done it twice, and plans to do it once a week.

She has also been lobbying to take her show on the road to Parque Paraiso. This is the park where Debby does her aerobics every weekday morning. On Sundays, it is packed with families, mostly just enjoying the day with friends. There are also lots of vendors, some selling hot food from a grill, others selling candy. There can be music, rides, and who knows what else.

So yesterday, we borrowed the landlady's portable table and chairs, and walked over and set up shop. Mia was her first customer, and it didn't take long for a crowd to form. Even though a clown started his act about 100 meters away and stole most of her clients, she still managed to come home with $0.35!

Today, she went with the director of the preschool to paint faces at a monthly birthday party at a nearby residential center for kids with cancer. They were celebrating the kids' birthdays for the month of September. Very sweet! The center is a bit like the Ronald McDonald house in Seattle and is the only cancer treatment center for the entire province of Azuay. Many of the families are very poor and stay for free in the center while their child receives treatment. Adrian, the clown who was also performing for the party, asked her if she'd be interested in doing more parties with him!

If Nikki would just raise her prices a bit from $0.05, maybe I won't need to get a job after all!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Odds and Ends, Sept 28

I haven't written lately because I've been spending much too much of the past week playing network administrator (a job for which I am completely unqualified) for our apartment's wireless network. Additionally, we haven't really had too many experiences worth blogging about - lots of mundane stuff. But here is a little bit of what we've been doing

Juan Luis Guerra concert. Pretty much since we arrived in Cuenca we've been seeing posters for a concert at the soccer stadium with Juan Luis Guerra. He is a very popular Dominican singer, mostly of merengue and bachata styles, and has a great band composed of lots of rhythm and horns. It was an interesting scene - really an all-ages crowd, lots of older people, probably about 7,000 in total. We sat in the covered seat area, instead of on the stadium floor, at the suggestion of some friends we went with. The sound wasn't that great, and we were pretty far back, but it was a fun concert. Everybody moves! There was a little Michael Jackson tribute in the middle, with a Latin-syle "Thriller-esque" piece, with four dancers wearing one white glove, but mostly it was straight up Latin music. We ran into our friend Gladys, a cousin of Jaime, who snuck into the concert towards the end (she is about 55) with a bottle of coke and Zhumir (the local aquardiente). After the show, she invited us over to her penthouse condo (!), and while we were looking for her car she ran into some other friends, whom she also invited over, and so we had an after concert merienda until about 1:00 am.

Fame. Debby has been spending her time getting in the local paper. First there was the Argentinian clown show that we went to in Parque Calderon (the central plaza in the heart of the historic old town). The next day, there was a picture of the performance in El Mercurio (one of the local papers), and if you look closely at the bottom left, you can see Debby and Mia sitting and watching.

On Friday of the same week, we were back in the park, to watch some folkloric dances,
as part of Int'l Tourism Day. After the colorfully dressed dancers finished their performances, they grabbed a few people from the front row, and brought them out to dance. I got a picture, as did a photographer from the paper

Politics. We're still learning about politics here, but there has been a lot going on. I think that, as part of a recently approved constitution, the National Assembly is working on approving a series of fundamental laws governing many aspects of how the country should run. One of these concerns education, and the proposed law has the extremely powerful national teachers union, UNE, up in arms. They declared a strike last week, and although it is not very widely supported - most of the schools in Cuenca are operating normally, there are some sporadic protests. Occasionally the street in front of the University of Cuenca (not the one Debby teaches at) is closed, and rock throwing students "confront" the police. It's mostly pretty low-key, and we tend to stay far from it. Another important law being discussed concerns water, and the campesino union is opposed to it, saying that it privatizes water rights. The government denies this, but the campesinos are planning a blockage of major roads around the country, starting this morning, so we have postponed a planned trip to Cajas, a national park about one hour from Cuenca. This all seems a little odd to me, considering that Correa came to power as part of a "Citizen's Revolution." As I said, we're still trying to figure it out.

Job. Still nothing new on that front for Don. I've given up on waiting for the contact that Pichi was going to help me with, and I've emailed some local council members my resume, and what I'd like to do. I also brought a hard copy to their offices, and I was going to go to the office of the Mayor's aide that Pichi was going to set me up with, but the student protesters were protesting in front if his office, so I decided to wait. A gringo friend we've met a few days ago knows the Director of Mobility and Transportation, and he has tentatively set up a meeting for us on Tuesday, so maybe something will happen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Expect the unexpected

Debby here. This seems to be a good motto to go by this year. If we expect the unexpected, we will not be disappointed and there will always be that sense of adventure. What will happen to me today?

Although we thought we had done our homework fairly thoroughly about life in Cuenca, there have been many surprises, some good, some not so good. First, the good. Who would have ever guessed that we could drink the water directly from the tap and not get violently ill? We had told the kids many times that they would be brushing their teeth with a water bottle and could never, ever drink from the tap. Turns out the water in Cuenca is not only the cleanest in all of Ecuador, but also in all of Latin America! The main water source comes from Cajas National Park (30 km west of Cuenca at 12,000 feet) and the many lakes and snow melt from there. We still do carry around our trusty REI steri pen when we are traveling around since the water is not safe outside of Cuenca. We get some interesting looks at restautants when I stick this phallic symbol into the water bottle and wait for 90 seconds for the smiley face to appear! :) Greatest invention for travelers and campers!

Another surprise was the size and modernity of Cuenca. I was here 20 years ago and remember it as a small colonial city. Ecuador's economy has grown a lot in the last two decades, primarily due to petroleum exports, tourism, and all the remesas (money sent from Ecuadorians living in the US). Turns out the province of Azuay (southern Ecuador) has the highest rate of people emigrating to the US in the entire country. We have been surprised to be out in the country side and see huge McMansions, along side a humble campesino's shack with an outhouse and a small plot of land. THe locals call these homes "residentes" and they are built entirely from $ sent from the states. The weird thing is that, despite being huge homes, they often have nothing in them except for a TV and a chair and a cow outside. Around these towns, you see kids with fancy American labels sauntering the streets. As in Mexico and in so many other Central American towns, these communities are missing most of the men from ages 18 to 50. The devastating effect on the family structure and the traditional communities and lifestyle is palpable. The majority of the Ecuadorians go to NY, Chicago, and Minneapolis. I haven't figured out the midwest draw yet.

We knew it was going to be chilly in Cuenca, but I, for one, did not expect such cloudy skies! Don, the eternal optimist and realist, always says "the weather just is, get over it". We have been here for 3 weeks but have only had about 4 totally sunny days. I think I notice the weather more when I'm not working... What we have learned is to dress in layers. In any given day, it can be overcast and raining and then 10 minutes later the sun comes out and it's 75. The sun is incredibly strong here (Ecuador- mas cerca del cielo..a popular marketing slogan for tourism) and we can get fried in 10 minutes if we don't put on sun screen. Now that it is September, though, it is warming up. Turns out August is the coldest, windiest month so we are now moving into the eternal spring we kept hearing about.

Don already mentioned the traffic. We have been surprised to see so many single drivers. Turns out Cuenca has far more cars than inhabitants. Gas is subsidized here (about $1.40 a gallon) so most middle class people drive everywhere. We were really discouraged at how loud the historical center was (especially since we were planning on living in the heart of it) and how the traffic was constant. Thankfully, we found a great apartment on a really quiet street, close to the biggest park in the city. The residents and the government are well aware of the traffic problem and yesterday, September 22nd was Cuenca's first ever "Day without cars". The idea was to encourage people to bike, bus, or walk to work. Don and I didn't notice a difference, but, according to the mayor and today's paper traffic was down 30%. It's encouraging to see that some people are beginning to be more conscious of the environment, although it's a far cry from where we are in Seattle.

One more surprise was, after about 10 days of being in school, we realized that both Mia and Nikki were in the wrong grades. I kind of clued in when my neighbor's 8 year old said she was in 5th grade. Nikki is 10 and in the States she'd be in 5th grade; Mia is 12 and would be in 7th. Turns out that after Kindergarten they go right to "segundo basica", or second grade. "Colegio", or high school, begins in 8th grade so Mia is in high school here! We had to get her a different uniform and return all their books and buy new ones. It was a hassle, but they are definitely in the right grade now with peers their age and they are learning material that is appropriately challenging for them.
I'm sure there will be many more good and bad surprises to come, but we are open to everything...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rootless, Rutless. Sept 20

Ok, I guess I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Yesterday, I spent the better part of the day waiting for and dealing with some guy from the cable company to try to set up a wireless network so that we can share our broadband internet access with others in the apartment building. I waited for him for an hour and a half on Friday, and he never showed up, then on Sat. he came, pretty much on time, but with no equipment. When he went for equipment, I asked him to bring both a low end and a mid-range router, and of course, he came back with only a high end one. It didn't work however, so he went back for the mid range one. Whatever..., same type of BS that one deals with in the states, probably not worth blogging about.

Anyway, more funk-inducing is that I still am not gainfully employed, nor do I seem to be moving in that direction. Pichi, the son-in-law of Jaime and Rita, who is well connected politically, helped me last Sunday, at the end of the birthday parties, to translate my resume into Spanish, and after he finished he called up his friend, who is the right hand man to the Mayor of Cuenca, and told him about me, and that I was interested in helping out. Since Xavier did not have his calendar with him (it was Sunday evening), they agreed to touch base during the week to set up a time. So I was pretty jazzed, and on Monday I finalized and printed out my resume (a bit more complicated than it should have been, since everyone uses A4 paper size here, and I needed to reformat the resume, then reset all the print settings on our computer). But by Thursday, I hadn't heard anything from Pichi, and even sent him a text message asking what's up, but still nothing. I don't want to offend him, but I think I need to explore some other routes.

So I guess the lack of getting out, and the lack of apparent progress has been bringing me down. Although, (if you'll pardon this tangent) having time this week has actually been a blessing, as we had to deal with some school issues. We had known that the girls were the oldest kids in their classrooms, although we hadn't realized that the reason for that is that in Ecuador, the grade after kindergarten, what we call "1st Grade," they call "segundo basico" ("2nd basic"). So since our kids were in 4th and 6th grade last year, we assumed that they should be in 5th and 7th this year. However, they really should be in 6th and 8th. So we switched them. But 7th grade is the last year of "basico" and so we had to move Mia to the Colegio, which is a different schedule, slightly different uniform, different bus; and of course, for both of them, different books and supplies. So lots of running around this week, and there will be a bit more of it to come.

But, (back to the point of this post) Sundy started out as a beautiful sunny day, and so I went out for a run. Since Cesar, the emoliente guy, wasn't out today, I decided to take a different route, starting out running in the opposite direction. I crossed a bridge I hadn't crossed before, and discovered some new things. Along the route I saw a sign for the "lavadores de Monay" and shortly thereafter, saw a bunch of buses and trucks getting hosed down, and some interesting platforms near the river for additional washing. After I crossed the next bridge, the route back wasn't along the river, but on the other side of the road (that's along the river), and I discovered that the trail follows some abandoned railroad tracks, with asphalt trials on each side of the tracks. So, lots more to learn about, lots more to see.

We saw a movie called "Home" yesterday - sort of a cross between the Discovery Channel's "Planet Earth" and "An Inconvenient Truth". A bit of a downer, but but also an impetus to continue to try to do something. The type of work that I'd like to do with transit, etc., is right up the alley of trying to do something to save the planet. So I've got some new ideas about how to get involved, and I'll keep plugging away. Most likely the Pichi connection will actually work out eventually.

I know there are always emotional ups and downs to resettling like we have, so I try to cut myself some slack. Exercise is important to my frame of mind, and running is great, because, quite literally, there is no need to stay in the same "rut" (or route) A change of scenery can help change my attitude.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Birthday Party - Sept 13

On Sunday, we were planning on going for a hike with a group called Sanguay, to a nearby waterfall. But Debby said that she got a text message that morning that the trip had been canceled because the driver had gotten into an accident the night before. So we moved to Plan B - attending the birthday party of Antonela, the 4 year old daughter of Maria Fernanda and Pichi, grandaughter of Jaime and Rita.

We went to Jaime and Rita's house, and got a ride with them to the location were the party was being held, a place with a nice large yard, and a small covered patio area where the food was kept. The theme of the party was Dora the Explorer (the Mexican-American bilingual cartoon character), and shortly after the party started, in came Dora. The guests at the party were mostly family, probably about 40 people in all. It was great to see a typical, upper-middle class birthday party, and the kind of activities that are part of it. Some games were the same as ones we know: a sack race, musical chairs, but other activities were different. The parents passed out large squares of paper and asked each family to make a card or "memory square" for Antonela. Another one of the games was called "Estatuas" or "Statues" and it is a bit like musical chairs, without the chairs. One of the aunts led the kids in dancing to music, and when the music stopped, the kids have to remain frozen while the aunt tried to get them to laugh.

Ecuadorians have an interesting twist to the birthday cake thing - after blowing out the candles, the birthday girl takes a bite of the uncut cake with no forks or hands, and someone pushes her face into the cake! Hmmm. It was an enjoyable party, even if the only food was pale hot dogs in a bun with potato chips, ketchup and mayo.

Another interesting feature of this party was facepainting - by Nikki! She first started face painting on the boat back from Stehiken this past summer, when after getting her face painted by a fellow passenger, she asked if she could borrow the paints, and then proceeded to paint another kid's face. She got really interested in the concept, and bought some paints, which she brought with her to Ecuador. She made up a small poster with the figures that she can do, and practiced on the neighbor kids. After doing a couple of kids at the party, she had quite a line waiting for their turn.

Afterward, we loaded up the cars with the presents and headed back to Jaime and Rita's. It was a smaller group, but when we got back, there was another surprise waiting - a birthday party for me! Debby had planned the whole thing (she didn't really get a text message that morning), and had gotten a delicious chocolate cake, and had made a dinner for the whole group with Rita. The Ochoa family (Jaime, Rita and their kids) gave me a Panama hat (which are actually made in Ecuador, mainly in Cuenca) and a Ecuadorian wall hanging. Debby and the girls gave me a set of frying pans. We drank whiskey and had lunch and then had cake. Luckily for me, Rita said that the chocolate cake was too rich to smash my face into it. The Ecuadorian version of "Happy Birthday to You" for adults includes the verse "Estas poniendote viejito, estas poniendote viejito, estas poniendote viejito, y solo te falta el baston." (You're getting older, etc., and all you are missing is the cane.) It was a very enjoyable day, with lots of talking, eating and drinking - a wonderful way to spend the day.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Our homestay house, as well as the apartment we are renting, is just a block from the Rio Tomebamba, and a few blocks from the Parque Paraiso. There is a trail that runs along the river, and every morning it is filled with Cuencanos out for a run or a walk. Over at Parque Paraiso (Paradise Park) there is a running track, as well as 3 outdoor aerobics, tai chi, and step classes, complete with a sound system and a teacher with a microphone wired into the speakers, which blast out salsa music. Classes are $0.25, and on a recent morning there were probably about 100 people participating. It’s sort of like an Ecuadorian Greenlake. According to a neighbor Debby was talking to, the riverside parks were an initiative of a mayor a couple of terms ago, and since then, Cuencanos have been exercising like crazy. (Although someone I met today disputes this, and says that Cuencanos have been exercising for at least 30 years) All along the river, and along the other major river in town, the Yanuncay, there are trails and parks with nice playground equipment.

I’ve been running along the river every few days, and after my run I stop off to visit Cesar, who mixes up a hot brew (“emoliente”) made up of juice scraped from an aloe leaf, some sort of hot mixture of fresh fruit juices, about 6 different colorful juices shaken from bottles, and topped off with 3 drops of uña de gato (cat’s toe nail- whatever that is?!). He stirs it all up in a metal cup, and then mixes it further by pouring it back and forth between the cup and the glass, until the cola colored stream reaches about two feet in length. A glass costs $0.50, and he always has customers. The kids are disgusted by the texture of aloe for a drink and it does take some getting used to – it’s a bit viscous.

Cesar is Peruvian, and he says this type of drink is very common in Peru, that people make it in their houses, and it is available anytime of day on the streets. He says there used to be many more vendors of emoliente, at one time there was even a business that ran a few carts, but business has dropped off, and all of the emoliente vendors now in Cuneca are sole proprietors, each making the drink a little differently, each with their own clientele. He goes back to Peru once a month to gather ingredients. Although he can buy them in local markets, they cost about three times as much in Ecuador, and he would have to charge about $1.00 a glass to cover his costs. He starts his day around 4:00 am, mixing up the ingredients, and is out selling by 5:30 am. He usually stops selling around 10:00.

Cuenca has a number of large coliseums, where classes in a wide variety of sports are offered at a minimal or non-existent cost. A sort of national hero is Jefferson Perez, who won an Olympic gold medal in “marcha” or speed walking.

First Day of School, Sept 8, 9

After many days of running around getting text books, uniforms, and school supplies (which I have a nagging feeling we still have not successfully completed) the big day finally arrived. The first day of school, the "inauguracion," was really more for the parents than for the kids. (In fact, we read in the paper that government offices allowed parents to come in late on the first day of school so that they could attend opening day activities at their kids schools.) The girls dressed in their "uniformes de gala," their dress uniforms, a plaid, pleated dress, black tights and black leather shoes. We all took a taxi to school, loaded down with books and supplies, most of which we ended up bringing back.

The real first day of school, the day they go on their own, on the bus, was today. Sports uniforms today - sweat pants, a polo shirt, and a sweat jacket. I've been pretty worried about how they would do, especially Nikki, who hasn't been speaking much Spanish, but of course it was fine. Mia came back bubbling about new friends she has met, and during an afternoon walk with me (to buy more supplies) she spent most of the hour talking to me in Spanish! And Nikki, although she was typically reluctant to admit to enjoying herself, spent most of her afternoon facepainting the neighbor girls, and talking to them in Spanish! I think they are going to be alright!

So now I guess it really is time for Debby and me to figure out what we are going to do with ourselves. The bus comes at 7:00 and they don't get back until around 2:30.... Hmmm, stay tuned.

Trip to Ingapirca. Sept 7

We took advantage of the last day before school starts to visit the nearby (2 hour bus ride) Incan ruins at Ingapirca. It's a pretty neat site, with ruins from both the original Canari inhabitants as well as the Incans who conquered them, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish. Under both groups it seems to have been a religious and administrative site, strategically located high up the sides of a valley. Notable is the difference in the building styles, with the Canari buildings made of stone walls, but the Incan ruins made of stones carved into trapezoidal shapes, and fitting so closely together that no cement or mud was used to bind them.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cuenca, Week 3: Settling In

We've been in Cuenca for 3 weeks now, and this past week has been devoted to lots of settling in type projects.

School. Now that we have gotten the girls enrolled in Alborhada, we've had to focus on getting their school supplies and uniforms. They were very excited about the uniforms - having never needed one before. They have a formal day on Monday, when they wear a dress and a nice jacket, and on Tue - Fri they wear either a polo shirt and jeans, or a sweat suit. All of this we needed to buy, and of course, they also needed black leather shoes and white athletic shoes. After uniforms came supplies and textbooks. The texts were obtained from 3 different bookstores, scattered about the city, and the supplies were mainly at just one papeleria. Unfortunately, the supplies, 3 bags full, are all mixed up, and I'll be getting together with Soledad shortly to figure out who gets what, and then go to buy what is missing.

House. We moved into our apartment on Sep 1, and an unfurnished apartment in Ecuador is really unfurnished. So we had to find a refrigerator, stove, table, chairs, etc. Of course, we are only here for a year, and we didn't really want to get all this stuff new. Garage sales and Goodwill stores are not very common, however, there are some places where they fix stoves and refrigerators, and sometimes these places sell used and repaired appliances. So we got a fridge for $230, with a 2 year guarantee, a stove for $150 (1 year guarantee), a small, new wood table at the "Rotari" market for $20, and a matress for Nikki at Coral Centro (a sort of Cuencan Fred Meyers) for $34. Our landlady, Maria, did leave us 4 kitchen chairs (3 of which are functional) and two beds with nice matresses. We also just ordered a small sofa and easy chair from a furniture maker for $300 total, and we should have those by the end of the month.

The apartment wasn't exactly in order when we moved in, so we've been dealing with that too. The toilet, which she said would be working by the time we moved in, wasn't; and the plumber, who she said would come on Monday night at 8, didn't; and and the one who she said would come on Tuesday night at 8, did, but didn't have the parts to fix it; and after she bought the parts on Wed, she tried to get me to fix it instead. However, I assured her that I would only make it worse, and that she really needed to have it fixed for us, as she promised. By Thursday morning it was fixed, at least it flushed, and since she assured me that it wasn't leaking, and since she is paying for the water, I'm not going to bother to tell her that the water-saving toilet which was so hard to fix, actually runs all the time.

Jobs. Well, yes, it is a sabattical year for both of us, but we really want to work at something, paid or unpaid, in order to be able to be part of some community. Of course, Debby was going to work with "resistoleros" (glue sniffing street kids), but we haven't found any of those yet. (I always said that, when confronted with the question of what we were going to do in Ecuador, and she would confidently tell people her plan, and I would just sort hem and haw, that she had an answer, but her plans were actually about as loose as mine.) But being bilingual, an experienced teacher, and so very friendly, Debby has already had one serious job offer, and two other strong possibilities. The job offer was at a Catholic girls "colegio" (high school), but it involved 4 classes a day, and 40 students a class, and she really didn't want to work this much. The pay was $400/mo. (negotiated up from $350). But it all came too soon, and she really wants something that will allow us to do some traveling while we are here, and to spend time with the kids, both at their school, and while at home. We're still not sure how much additional assistance they'll need in order to assure that they keep up with their Seattle-based peers.

Me? I'm working on my CV. Traffic, especially in the historic center is horrendous - it's usually faster to walk then to drive. So I'm hoping I might be able to do some projects with the City and/or the bus company. The son-in-law of the family we lived with at the beginning of our stay here (Jaime and Rita) is pretty high up in the local government, so I'm hoping I can use his connections to meet some people who might be interested in having me do some work for them. One idea I have is to create a map of the bus system. The buses here are pretty good, they are very frequent, and I think the coverage is good, but the only way to know where they are going is by the 3 or 4 destinations listed on a sign on the front of the bus. They have an touch card payment system, or you can pay $0.25 per trip, (exact change, no transfers) They even have a scrollling LED display on the bus telling you the next stop. Anyway, I'm not too worried. I'm keeping busy with the home and school start-up stuff right now, and there is plenty of time.

We are here on student visas, but not a single person has suggested that there will be any trouble at all getting work.