Monday, November 30, 2009

Our daily routine

Our friend, Bennett, asked us to write a bit about our daily routine so here goes. Everyone is up around 6 a.m. and of course it's already light out, which is nice. Don makes a hearty breakfast for the girls which always consists of fresh fruit (mangos, pineapple, papayas, bananas, etc) and eggs, oatmeal or cereal. Sometimes he even goes to the trouble of making hashbrowns for them. I do my yoga while he gets breakfast ready and then take out the garbage. The garbage gets picked up 3 times a week so we usually have just a little bag. There is recycling once a week but very few people do it. You have to buy the bags to recycle (which seems like a poor incentive to encourage participation...) and it's picked up once a week. it kills us to not be able to compost our food waste, like we do in Seattle. If we lived in the campo, we'd just give it the animals or dig a hole, but we can't do that in the city. I've heard there is composting at the market but we need to figure out a way to get our slop to the market....

Enough about garbage. After yoga and after the kids eat, I walk them to the corner at 7:05 and wait for their respective buses to pick them up. Since Nikki is in the school and Mia is in the high school, they go on separate buses. Then comes my favorite part of the day. I power walk over to Paradise Park and go to my exercise class. Mondays is dance, Tuesdays is "palo de escoba"- or broomstick (we do all kinds of exercises with the broom handle), Wednesday is Taibo or kick boxing, Thursday is weights and Friday is a combo class. The teacher, Miguel, is always animated, brings great music (salsa, reggaeton, hip hop., pop), and always varies the class. I found this class the first week I got here and after 2 classes, people started chatting with me and welcomed me with warm arms into their little exercise circle. These women have been working out together for 3 years and have become very close. They celebrate birthdays together, have a unform, call themselves "Flores de paraiso" and even have a little cheer for their group. These ladies were my first friends here and I'm indebted to them for making me feel so at home. Needless to say, I love starting the day working out with other people outside!

While I'm at my exercise class, Don goes for a run and then we meet back for breakfast and to read the paper. Every day I savor the fact that we get to read the entire paper, uninterrupted and unrushed. I've never had that luxury in my life!

I go to the University three days a week and Don volunteers at a day center for kids whose parents are working at the market all day long. On the other days, we usually go into the historical center to visit one of the many museums, churches or art exhibits that are part of the Bienal (a 6 week art festival that happens every two years). I never tire of seeing all the beautiful buildings, churches, and plazes of Cuenca. Other days we go to the market or the supermarket or run errands. Everything takes a bit longer since we walk or take the bus to everything.

Mia comes home from school about 2:30, does her homework and gets ready for gymnastics at 5. We found a gymnastics program for her at a sports complex that is about a 15 minute bus ride from our apartment. One of her friends from school is also in the class and her Mom brings her home at night which really helps us out.

After classes end for Nikki, she stays at school to participate in "bici cross" which is sort of like mountain biking on a concrete trail. Think of BMX racing on a circular track. She looks so cute in her motorcycle helmet and her leather gloves! The school has its own track, and the coach, Santiago, is great at motivating kids to do their best and have fun. About once a week, Nikki returns home with a bloody elbow, a bruised shin or a scraped hand, but she always has a smile on her face!

Don and I take turns cooking dinner and every now and then we eat out at the burger place down the street run by the Venezuelan who used to live in Chicago. Both girls often need help with their homework (mostly with language) and then it's bedtime.

In a typical day, I think we both walk about 4 or 5 miles since we have no car. We have learned the bus system pretty well and are totally used to not having a car. The only time we miss it is when we want to get out of town. We manage by taking a bus to the bus station and going in any direction from Cuenca, but we miss the mobility and ease of hopping in a car and taking off whenever you want. Cars are more expensive than in the U.S. here and in the city it makes no sense to have one. The drivers are crazy, there is a lot of traffic and, in the historical center, you move faster by foot anyway.

Because of the lack of machines in our daily lives (most notably a car, dishwasher, and a dryer) everything takes a bit longer to accomplish. We don't really notice, however, since we have more time on our hands and tend to enjoy the simple tasks of hanging laundry or washing dishes by hand (reminds us of our cabin and life in the Adirondacks...) or walking to the market for fruits and vegetables. And, at least for the time being, the power is cut every day for 3 hours which adds an element of surprise to our daily tasks.

So, there you have a glimpse into our daily activities. Every weekend is different so there is no routine there.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Random notes, 23, Nov.

Long time, no blog. Well, here is some of what's been going on with us lately.

A sad story. On our 2nd or 3rd weekend in Cuenca, we were invited by Rita and Jaime to visit their "quinta," or country home, in Susudel . Since that time I've been talking with them about the house, and Rita's desire to rent it out more, as sort of a retreat center, or a B&B. We had talked about a web page, and I had created a flyer for them to use to market it as well. A couple of weeks ago, while talking with Rita, I learned, through many tears, that they had decided to sell it.

I knew that Jaime had not been fully employed for a while, what I learned during our talk was that they had taken out a $35K loan, for which the property at Sususdel was used as collateral, and for which they hadn't been able to make a payment on since Jan. (Not all of this came out during our first conversation, but rather over the course of many conversations with Rita, Jaime, and their daughter Fernanda, over the course of the past couple of weeks.) The loan was with a private person, a friend of their son's, and he was calling it in. At the time of our first conversation, she thought she had a month or so to sell it, and I offered to help by creating a quick and dirty web site, and talking it up to the gringo community here. A few days after our first conversation, I learned that they had to give up their car, to resolve a work-related lawsuit that Jaime was involved in, so things were starting to spiral down. I also learned about this time that a maquilladora-style sewing project I was trying to set up with her, sewing pants for a friend's new business at home, wasn't going to come through, because in our global economy, she just couldn't produce them at a competitive price and still make any money. I couldn't bring myself to tell her this directly - too much piling on of bad news. Anyway, she was pretty wrapped up in the need to sell Susudel.

Last Thursday, while walking home from La Fundación El Arenal (see below), I got a call from Fernanda, asking if I knew anyone who could buy the property - today! Apparently, they had been talking with the owner of the debt, and he needed to collect his debt - which was now $45k (they hadn't factored in the interest they owed, which they hadn't realized was 5% per month, not per year) - immediately. Having already, finally, come to the realization they would have to sell it, now they were just trying to make a little money on the sale, enough to purchase another car, and to cover daily living expenses until Jaime can get a good job. They had put a price of $60k, although the property is easily worth 2 to 3 times that, but only if they had some time to find a buyer, which they didn't. So Debby and I did what we could. I created a little flyer with some pictures I had and some facts about the property, we emailed it to our gringo contacts. I also created this in Spanish, and gave Rita some copies to give to their friends. I also created it as a web site and sent out the link, and we went to "gringo night" at a couple of local bars to talk it up. We found a couple of potentially interested folks, but the time and the questionable title were issues. Luckily, they were also pushing it to friends, and as of yesterday, it looks like they have a buyer. Debby went up with them to serve as translator to the 3 gringos we had rounded up, and during this "open house," it turned out that one of their Cuencano friends had been looking for something just like this. The deal is not done yet, and they ended up forgoing a lot of money due to their failure to face reality soon enough, but it's better than just giving it up to the owner of the debt. No moral to this story, it's just quite sad.

Drought. Cuenca's, and all of Ecuador's rainy season usually starts around Oct., and runs through March or May. But this year, after a moderately rainy week in mid-October, the rain stopped, and the country, which relies on one major hydro-electric plant for about half of its energy needs, has been experiencing an energy crisis. Ecuador only produces about 48% of the energy they use. They typically import a lot of energy from neighboring Colombia, but Colombia is also experiencing a drought, so has cut back its energy exports. Starting around Nov 5, when we returned from Baños, there have been daily, rolling blackouts, or "apagones" and "cortes de luz" where the power is shut off to various sectos for 3 or 4 hours at a time. This has caused considerable inconvenience to people and businesses, with some stores buying small gas generators to get through it, while others just do what they can. The good thing is we know when the electricity will go out the next day so we can plan ahead. But it's killing the small businesses. Last we heard this will continue to March unless the rain really picks up. Surprisingly, no one seems to complain at all; they just put up with it and recognize it's just part of daily life here. In reality, there haven't been cuts like this for about 10 years. It reminds me of Cuba. I tell you Americans would never put up with this.

Hike with Club Sangay to Cajas. when we first got here, we learned about a hiking club called Club Sangay, which is like Cuenca's Mountaineers. since we got here in August, we've wanted to go on some trips with them and we finally were able last weekend. Not knowing how hard it would be, we decided to leave the kids with Fernanda's family for the day. One nice thing about the drought is the sunshine. This made our first hike with Club Sangay, up to Cajas (actually an area just outside of Cajas) quite pleasant. In fact, people on the hike commented that no one would believe they had been to Cajas, which is usually shrouded in mist, unless they splashed some water and mud on their clothes! Cajas is a national park about 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, quite high (we were hiking at about 12,000 ft), and starkly beautiful. We plan on returning to another part of the park with this group in December.

Paute. We have been a lot more social in the past month, both with Ecuadorians and gringos. We had our first party in our apartment and invited over Fernanda's family and an Ecuadorian/ Cuban couple we met through a Seattle contact. They stayed late and seemed to have a great time and we're ready to have more parties!

The weekend before we spent the weekend in a little village outside of Cuenca called Paute. We were invited to stay at our friend Ron's hacienda and it was gorgeous. Turns out Ron is from San Juan Island. He came to Cuenca about 10 years ago to live with his kids and teach English for a couple of years. 10 years later, with his kids in college and having recently split up with his wife, he decided to move back to Cuenca. For a long time, he was a DJ at a local radio station and how he volunteers at an orphanage, works on his fruit trees on his property and recently married an Ecuadorian. We LOVED his piece of paradise in Paute and will definitely be back. The next day we met up with an American/ British couple that also teaches at the University of Azuay and spent the day at the pool near their house. The best part of the weekend was the Sunday market and eating roasted pig for breakfast. I guess we are no longer vegetarians this year...

Fundación El Arenal. Part of my coming to grips with the fact that the Municipio is probably not going to take advantage of my offer to create a bus map for them, is that I needed to find something to do, (although doing nothing is becoming a lot easier with time!) Debby and I finally visited La Fundación El Arenal, a few weeks ago, and I have decided to start volunteering with them twice a week. This foundation works with the school age children of people who sell in the biggest open air market in the city, El Arenal. They help the kids with their homework, counsel them and their families, and make sure they get at least one good meal a day. I'll be working with the older kids, improving some basic computer skills such as Word and Excel, and even basic Keyboarding. I found a good, free, typing program through the internet, and the staff, mostly hunt and peckers themselves, are excited about it.

Bus Map. I haven't actually completely given up on the City, and in fact, in my last conversation with the Director of Mobility and Transportation, he told me that he had talked with the mayor about me, and although there wasn't any money in the budget to pay me for my efforts, if I was willing to do it completely voluntarily, they be willing to take me. I said I was, and he said he'd start to pull together the materials and resources I'd need, and have me sign something to make it official. In the meantime, I'm trying to see if I might be able to get some recompense for this work through Peace Corps Response, a program which places ex- Peace Corps volunteers in short term assignments in their areas of expertise. Stay tuned....

Thanksgiving. Although the 4th Thursday in November is just another day in Ecuador, we´ll have a Thanksgiving meal with some gringo friends on both Friday and Saturday. We hope those of you who read this will be enjoying a wonderful meal with your friends of family, and that you have plenty to be thankful for. We certainly do.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Long Weekend in Baños de Ambato

Nov. 3rd is Cuenca's independence day (all the major cities seem to have their own independence day), and since Nov 2nd was Día de los Difuntos, and Nov 1 Día de Todos los Santos, it was a long weekend. We were going to stay in town to see all the festivities; parades, fireworks, beauty contests, etc., but we decided instead to take advantage of two days off school to go on a road trip. We rented a car (!) and headed north to Baños (de Ambato). We were a bit apprehensive about renting a car, as many of the roads are in bad shape, and the drivers are crazy, but we decided that the extra mobility a car affords was worth it, and if we stayed off the roads at night, we'd probaby be ok.

We left Cuenca about 3:30 in our rental Chevy Corsa - a small, weak car, which meant that we wouldn't be racing other drivers around blind curves or up steep hills, and after a short, unplanned detour to find 1) a gas station and 2) the northbound lanes of the highway out of town, we were really on our way.

While many of the roads in the country are in bad shape, this is changing, and there is a lot of road work going on. On the Panamerican highway heading north, this means that they are replacing the pot-holed asphalt with reinforced concrete, definitely an improvement. But since the road is a 2 lane highway, this means that there are quite a few spots where one lane is closed at a time. Locals take advantage of this situation, and itinerant snack sellers work the waiting line of cars, offering nuts, chips, drinks and cut fruit. Due to the delays, and the patches where the road still needs considerable work (asphalt gives way unexpectedly, and unannounced, to dirt), we didn't get quite as far the first day as planned. Instead of spending the night in Alausí, we felt ourselves lucky to find a place to stay in Chunchi.

After checking into a clean but non-descript room in probably the only hotel in Chunchi, atop a 24 hour restaurant right on the Pan-am highway, we found a place to eat. Talking with the waitress, we learned that there was a festival that night, a "concurso de baile," a dance concert to raise funds for the old folks home. We headed down to the "Coliseo" to check it out (without our camera, unfortunately.) The coliseo was sort of like a high school gym, with concrete bleachers, about 1,500 people in attendance and two (2) doors (can anyone say "fire code?") We were the only outsiders there and we could feel all the eyes on us. Nobody goes to Chunchi, which made our time there all the more unique. The dance groups came from surrounding villages, and typically had about 25 - 30 participants, ranging in age from 8 to 30, men and women. The dances were all sort of the same, a line of men and a line of women converged, mingled, separated, etc., but the costumes were great. Men wore western style cowboy hats, serapes, and leggings made of some furry animal hide. Women typically wore large, colorful skirts, shawls and headscarves. In some of the dances, one person stood apart from the lines of men and women. This person was dressed almost other-worldly, with a facemask and headress. They weren´t leading the dance, as much as overseeing it, only occasionally whipping a dancer back into the line.

We got back on the road the next morning after breakfast, with Baños as our destination. The Andean countryside is stark and beautiful. The road winds throug very high hills, mostly cultivated, or waiting to be planted. Very little forest is seen here, and the hills are rolling, not rocky like the Cascades, even though the elevations are between 7,000 and 10,000 ft. As we were getting close to Riobamba (our intended lunch stop) we saw what looked like a small rest stop, with a large group of colorfully dressed people visible from the road. We pulled into "Laguna Colta" where the tourism agency was having a group of folkloric dancers perform for visitors. We checked it out, explored the lake and the playground, and headed on. After a nice lunch in Riobamba, we headed on, arriving in Baños about 4:30.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Baños, but it is definitely a touristy place, although 95% of the tourists are Ecuadorian. There are lots of hotels, restaurants, and "tipica" stores, all crowded into a fairly small valley, surrounded by beautiful hills, and just out of view, the active volcano, Tungurahua, whose last major eruption was about 10 years ago. Due to the long weekend, the place was packed, mostly with "Quiteños." Along with some great restaurants, and some good, cheap hotels, there are also a number of outfits offering various adventures: mountain biking, 4-wheeling, bridge jumping, and tours in open-sided buses offering tours down the valley to one of many "tarabitas" or cable cars crossing the Rio Pastaza.

The next morning, before breakfast, we went to to one of 3 municipal baths, which are set up to take advantage of the thermal mineral water coming from the volcano. We thought we would beat the crowd, but since they open at 4:30 am, the pool was already packed when we got there at 7:30 a.m.. (I think that one of the reason's they are so popular is that it is awfully hard to get anything like a hot bath in Ecuador. Most homes do not have bathtubs, and most showers are equipped with an on-demand water heater, located right at the shower head. The heat turns on with the water pressure, but it's capacity is easily overwhelmed by the flow of cold water.) After breakfast, we hopped in our car and drove down the valley to

"El Pailón del Diablo," (Devil's Cauldron),

an enormous and powerful waterfall. Beautiful, but nothing in the way of solitude - the 30 minute hike to the falls had more people than the path around Greenlake on a sunny day in February! On the way back to town, we decided to stop at a tarabita, and take the

cable car across the river.

Luckily, the tarabita we chose allowed us to get off on the other side which we did, and went for a very nice hike on a stone-lined path thru jungle-like terrain to a smaller waterfall. There was also a little restaurant, which had a small tank full of trout, which they would cook up for you if you'd like, and

some very cool rope swings out over a river.

Back in Baños at night, we checked out some local "delicacies" of sugar cane, cane juice, and a hand-pulled taffy called "milcocha."

Mia, Debby and I awoke early on Monday morning and took a steam bath like we've never had before(baño de cajón). You sit down on a bench and an attendant closes you in with a box so that only your head is exposed. There's a lever you can adjust to let in more or less steam and for 5 minutes your body heats up. The attendant then opens the box, and leads you thru rinsing your body parts off with cold water. We repeated this procedure 5 times and the attendant finshed us off with a cold water jet spray. We all felt relaxed and refreshed for breakfast after that!

After breakfast, we hiked up to a small viewpoint above the city, then to the town cementary. While people do clean up and decorate their relatives graves for Day of the Dead, the day is not celebrated like it is in Mexico. (Most of the cementeries we've seen in Ecuador have the graves above ground - I'm not sure why that is.) We left town around noon, hoping to get about half-way back to Cuenca, but the long line of cars returning to Quito, and the numerous detours for road construction meant that we only made it as far as Riobamba. We scored a really cool hotel in Riobamaba- a family's restored 100 year old home and we had the place entirely to ourselves which was fun for everyone. We ordered take out and spread out in this beautiful mansion (the owner slept upstairs in a separate area). In the morning, we awoke to clear skies and a view of the spectacular Chimborazo volcano, the highest in Ecuador (20,700 feet). A beautiful and uneventful drive on Tuesday brought us back home, where everyone was happy to be.

This past week in Cuenca has been a bit strange, in that the rainy season has not yet started in the southern part of the country, and the rivers are very low. This means that the hydro-electric plants are running at way below capacity, and Thursday and Friday the government started rolling blackouts in various sectors of the country. Making things worse, there have been a number of forest fires in the hills surrounding Cuenca, possibly started by campesinos who believe that the smoke from the fires will bring the rain. (This is actually what people are saying, although it sounds a bit like scapegoating to me.) Anyway, we are all hoping for rain. (Well, maybe not Debby - she does like the sun.)