Saturday, March 27, 2010

Biking in Cuenca

After 4 months in Cuenca, Don and I finally broke down and bought bikes back in January. We didn't buy them the first week here basically because we were terrified about getting killed by all the manic drivers. Just to give you an idea, the Ecuadorian drivers make Bostonians look polite and docile! I literally fear for my life every time I try to cross a major street. Even when there are traffic lights, which many major streets still lack, the pedestrian never has the right of way. Don started cutting out weekly newspaper articles about pedestrians getting hit and even killed. Being a pedestrian in Cuenca is something I will not miss when we go back to Seattle, the land of crosswalks that are, for the most part, highly respected.

But back to biking. Since we were having such bike withdrawals, we figured we would just ride on the weekends or on trails to minimize our contact with cars. Happily, we have found that we are actually safer and more visible as cyclists than pedestrians. Cars stop for us, treat us like another vehicle, and we have found that cruising around Cuenca on our mountain bikes is not only a blast but relatively safe.

There are fantastic rides all around. Within 10 minutes from the city, you are out in the campo, sometimes even on dirt roads and you are climbing hills. Within 20 minutes, you feel like you are in the hills of Vermont or Switzerland and you have fantastic views of the historical center of Cuenca and all its churches. Don and I have taken to riding on Friday mornings after the kids have gone to school or on the weekends.

Another great cycling event is the biweekly "Ciclopaseo" run by the city for over 20 years. On my first ride last week, I actually made the paper! (I'm 2 riders behind the guy in the black in front with my tie dye John Stanford t-shirt and Mia's strawberry helmet.) Sponsored by bicycle enthusiasts and the City, Ciclopaseo is a 2 hour ride through the city on Sunday mornings and is open to people of all ages. Last week I saw kids as young as 7 and adults as old as 70. There is a wonderful community feeling and, the best part, is we bike through major streets of the city and have an entire lane to ourselves. Jaime Lopez, the organizer and founder of Ciclopaseo, is fiercely proud and knowledgeable about his city and is a huge biking fanatic. Every Thursday, he leads a night ride around the city and every other Sunday when there is no Ciclopaseo, he leads a bunch of mountain bikers on a more rigorous ride. I want Mia and Nikki to join in, but their bikes are at the Bicicross track at school which is not convenient for us to get at all...

Friday, March 26, 2010

The expat community in Cuenca


Perhaps one of the principal reasons that Cuenca was selected as the top place to retire in the world by the magazine International Living last year is the incredibly low cost of living. It also may have to do with the fact that one of the authors of the article is connected to the real estate community here in Cuenca....

Regardless of the reason, Cuenca is home to an interesting group of expats. We have met a lot of them through the one and only bilingual bookstore here, the Friday night "Gringo nights" at two local bars/ restaurants, and through my work at the University of Azuay. Truth be told, we don't have a heck of a lot in common with these folks. With some rare exceptions, hardly any of them speak much Spanish, which never ceases to amaze us. This fact makes their experience here very different from ours; they will never connect with the locals they way Spanish speakers can, they tend to stick together and create their own little gringo communities, which is natural; and they are limited in what they can do on a day to day basis. Still, there are some very interesting characters and it's not just any gringo who picks up and decides to move to Ecuador for retirement.

I do want to write about 3 of my favorite ex pats that I've met. One is Richard, the "first gringo" to come to Cuenca. One of the first Peace Corps Volunteers to come to Ecuador in the mid 60's, Richard was instrumental in creating the Sports Federation of Azuay which promotes physical education program in schools, city parks, and universities throughout the city. After his Peace Corps stint, he ended up staying in Cuenca, getting married, raising a family, and opening up the Abraham Lincoln Center, one of 2 inter cultural organizations in the country. This was where our friend Alex studied years ago on an exchange program with Lewis and Clark College. The Center is going strong today and houses a small library (funded in part by the U.S. government) and offers English and Spanish classes to locals and foreigners. I was thrilled to discover the library and am there every single week... Richard has some amazing stories about Cuenca 40 years ago and he has really helped to shape the city for the better and is highly respected by the locals.

Gringo #2 is actually a couple and they are considered to be the 2nd and 3rd gringos to come to Cuenca, again in the late 60's. Their story is amazing. With two small kids in tow, they left the US in the late 60's as Vietnam was approaching and they hitchhiked through Mexico and Central America and ended up in Ecuador. They loved Cuenca, were hired to teach English by Richard, the Peace Corps guy above, and had 5 more (yes, I said 5) kids here. As Kate said, "it seemed like the thing to do back then and our family was considered small...." Did I mention they are very Catholic?? Turns out they live a couple of blocks from us and are now professors at the University of Cuenca. Of their 7 kids, only one stayed in Ecuador while all the others are in the U.S.

Last but not least is our friend Ron who hails from San Juan Island. Surfer, buddhist, farmer, traveler, former lawyer, father of 2, remarried to a local doctor, volunteer at the local orphanage, former Blues DJ....Ron is just an amazing guy. He lived with his kids and ex wife in Cuenca twenty years ago (doing a year similar to ours) and found himself back here later in life. We have visited him in his beautiful remodeled hacienda 45 minutes outside of town and we'll be back again for some R+R (like we really need it :) The enclosed photos are from his house and the town of Paute. He and his wife plan to turn their hacienda into a free clinic for rural folks who do not have access to health care. It's an amazing piece of property and what a great cause!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Montañita, No Kids

Debby and I left Mia and Nikki with Jaime and Rita for five days at the beach. In honor of the Oscars tonight, here is a longish video of photos from our trip, set to music. Click here to watch the video on YouTube.

We've never created nor posted a video to YouTube before, so I hope this works, and isn't too big. I imagine it will take a while to load, but I hope it will be worth it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Karioka en Cuenca, by Mia

Karioka en Ambato(Mia)

talk about
a little bit about the parade
and all the floats
all those cool costumes
also maybe some about the mass
but more about in the night time
with the live music every where
and all that karioka
how it was like snow
a bit about restaurant and dinner
but more like the streets at night
and finally the little battles
and how im def gonna miss this holiday in the states


As my parents have probably already wrote about, carnaval is a holiday that we celebrate here with all different kinds of rituals and traditions. In Ambato, they have a magnificent fruits and flowers parade with all these amazing floats made completely out of fruits and or flowers. They are amazing. Anyway, for carnaval the tradition all over the country is to get people wet. you can do it by dumping water on their heads, throwing water balloons, spraying a hose, whatever way you want. But in Ecuador there all also "props" so to say for carnaval like maicena (corn flour), karioka, and others. These are like different sprays and colored corn that you spray or throw at people. I also heard that in some places like Guaranda they don't just throw those things, but eggs, oil, and flour too.

In Ambato, it's supposedly prohibited to throw water, but when we were there, that was not the case. Everybody threw everything. Especially karioka. It's a type of foam that is white and usually smells pretty good. No one sprays you, unless you're a kid and unless you have a bottle. Well, me and Nikki were considered kids, and boy did we get sprayed. Our parents were not too happy about that, so they made us walk like 10 meters in front of them always. It was kind of annoying because everybody sprayed us and we had no defense. So we finally convinced our parents to let us buy 1 can each. From that moment, it was pure craziness....

Fundación Arenal

In January I (Debby) started volunteering at a center called Fundación Arenal. Located a couple of blocks from Cuenca's biggest market, la Feria Libre, Fundación Arenal serves as a day center for kids whose parents work all day at the market. If it weren't for this Center, many of these kids would be at the market after school at best and, more likely, hanging out on the streets. The market is located in a pretty tough area of the city and the poverty surrounding the neighborhood brings me right back to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

As a private school parent and a University professor here, I have mostly been surrounded by middle to upper class Cuencanos. This volunteer job puts me in direct contact with the city's neediest and most vulnerable population. I work with the 6 and 7 year olds in the afternoons. The kids are in school in the morning and then they eat lunch at a special place in the market (funded by the Foundation) and then they head over to the day center. We start our afternoon with some quick exercises and calisthenics (yesterday we danced to MJ's "I'm Bad" - very cute!) and then the kids go into their age appropriate classroom and sit down and do their homework. Homework is a big deal in Ecuador, at all levels, and if the kids do poorly on it it's a reflection of their parents. I've seen so many shopkeepers, neighbors, domestic workers, etc help their kids (read: do their homework for them) with their work after school. Kids definitely don't do it on their own, except in our household. Actually, Don and I both end up helping Mia and Nikki a lot with their daiily work mostly when they get stuck in the language.

Anyway, the 1st and 2nd graders at Arenal come from very poor, unstable, and often abusive homes. Their parents, if they have both living with them, have no time or desire to sit down and help their kids with their school work. Many of the parents didn't study beyond 6th grade. Many of these kids are behind their peers in reading and writing and the Center is trying to close that gap, while raising the self esteem of the kids.

The first day I was there I immediately noticed that this population was different. Their clothes are dirty, they smell like they may not have bathed in several weeks, and they are constantly itching their hair (lice....). Their language is different from other kids, they are more physical, and they are starving for attention. Within 10 minutes of being there on the first day, I had little girls climbing on my lap, touching my hair, looking at my wedding ring, staring at the color of my skin, and asking me questions non stop.

After several weeks of going, I started to bring some picture books in Spanish to read to the kids. After they finish their school work, they get a stamp and they have free time. One day, I pulled out an "I Spy" book in Spanish and I instantly had a crowd of kids surrounding me. They were completely rapt by my story telling and I realized many of them have probably never ever been read to at home or at school. They were amazed by the pictures, loved following a story, and begged me to bring more books! One little boy sat on my lap the entire time and was totally focused on the story and the lead educator for the classroom told me after she had never seen that boy sit still for more than 2 minutes. I'm going to try to build a little library at the Center and am working on getting some books at a discount from a local bilingual book store. Kids' books are really expensive here.

Yesterday I had an eye opening conversation with a 7 year old. When I first met her, I could tell she was a very angry kid and she spent more time sticking her tongue out at me and making faces than anything else. I decided she would be my personal challenge. For the first 4 or 5 visits, she continued to be nasty to me and even hit me on the arm, calling me stupid. She swears all the time to the other kids, pulls their hair, rips their paper and then gets in trouble. Apparently, it's even worse in school. My initial reaction was "I don't need this" and I moved away from her, but then later I realized she's just testing me and this is the only way she knows to get attention.

Yesterday we made a bit of a break through. She was relatively polite to me and now understands she can't use foul language or hit me. She asked me if I was married and when I told her I was, her first question was "Does he hit you?" I was shocked and told her no, when we have arguments, we work it out with words. Her follow up question was "He doesn't even hit you when you are with other men?" !! Then I asked her if her Dad hits her Mom and she said "all the time, especially when she's with another man". Her next question was shockingly vulgar, especially for a 7 year old. ¿Su esposo la sube en la cama? (Does your husband mount you?? !!!) Again, I just told her we hug each other and then go to sleep in bed. And she told me her family of 7 shares a room but she is in a different bed than her parents. Children are indeed products of their environments....

I'm sure there will be more eye opening stories as I get to know these kids. The Director of the Center tells me these are the most vulnerable kids. In addition to being extremely poor, many of them come from homes of domestic violence, alcholism, drug addiction, and there are even cases of incest. The Center has several social workers who work with the families as well, but it is an uphill battle. The satisfying part for me of working with kids is there is always a seed of hope in youth and I can only hope that the positive role models they see around the Center can give them a glimpse of other possibilities for their futures.