Category Archives: #Ecuador

Things I Will Miss and NOT Miss about Cuenca

My 3-month stay in Cuenca, Ecuador, is quickly coming to an end, and now is a good time to talk about the things I´m going to miss and NOT miss about being here:

NOT MISS – Teaching English to chicos/teens.  (See my previous blog article).

NOT MISS – Credit card cash advance fees of 5%, thus you´ll pay $30 in fees to get a $600 cash advance.

NOT MISS – Rain, rain, and more rain.  It has rained at least 50% of the days I´ve been here, and some days all day.  There has not been one completely sunny day the entire time, for there are always clouds lurking on top of the nearby mountains ready to roll in at a moment´s notice.  I´m sure I´ll have no problem giving away my 3 umbrellas.

NOT MISS – Hanging my clothes to dry.  My apartment has a washing machine but no dryer, which I thought was odd at first, but come to find out is the norm here.
NOT MISS – People standing in my way on the sidewalk, or cutting in front of me while I am walking.  I talked about this in one my previous blog articles, it´s not something I should be judgmental about but instead should accept as part of the culture.  However, I brought expectations here, and as a result, hardly a day went by that I didn´t get irritated with someone over their sidewalk etiquette.  Perhaps a bigger problem I had was thinking, “While in France, do as the French do,” so I began compromising my own values in an attempt to fit in … or perhaps as recompense for perceived slights.  Thus, with regard to the old lady walking down the sidewalk carrying several bags – to heck with you, walk around me!  Or to the disabled person in a wheelchair – to heck with you, too, I got here first so just hold your wheels!  And to the young mother nursing her newborn – get out of my way lady!  I exaggerate, but this entire issue how best to navigate the sidewalks has definitely been harder for me to overcome than I anticipated.  Fortunately, after 3 months of conditioning my attitude has improved significantly.

NOT MISS – 50 cent pieces.  Everyone hates them here, including me.  You may not know this but Ecuador converted their currency to the U.S. dollar a little over 10 years ago during a severe economic crisis.  (Coins remain a mixture of U.S. coins and the old Ecuadorian coins in denominations of $1, 50 cent, 25 cent, 10 cent, 5 cent, and 1 cent).  It sure makes it easy to travel here … you pay for everything in U.S. dollars, thus you don´t have to do a currency exchange in your head every time you buy something.  Want to know where all those golden Sacagawea U.S. dollar coins are being used?  Here in Ecuador, they love them here.  In contrast, everyone hates 50 cent pieces here.  I think it is because it costs 25 cents to ride the bus, far and away the most common form of transportation here, and the bus drivers will not make change.  Thus, and this may sound strange, but it becomes a game of hot potato everywhere you go here, sellers try to dump their 50 cent pieces on buyers, and buyers try to dump their 50 cent pieces on sellers.  One vendor tried to refuse my payment with a 50 cent piece, asking whether I had any other coins to pay with.  And when I have asked a vendor not to give me a 50 cent piece in change, they have been a little irritated.  Strange game of hot potato, isn´t it?

NOT MISS – Being apart from my wife and puppies and life in the U.S.

NOT MISS – Gringo prices.  There is a widespread practice here of charging us North Americans, us Gringos, higher prices for stuff than the local folks are charged.  Not everyone does it, but many do.  For example, I have paid $2.50 for virtually the same pad of paper that I later bought at a similar store for only 70 cents.  As a result, when I have just the slightest suspicion that someone has charged me an inflated gringo price, I never return.

NOT MISS – Panaderias.  These are the bakeries that are located in just about every block and that sell fresh baked bread and pastries.  You can pack on some extra pounds here if you are not careful.
Okay, enough about all the things I won´t miss about Ecuador, it´s time to talk about the things I´ll miss.

MISS – Panaderias.  Yes, you read that correctly … leaving the panaderias is going to be bittersweet for me, something I´ll both miss and NOT miss.  There´s nothing like walking down the block and suddenly having your nose infused with the smell of dough rising in the oven, and then having the opportunity to sink your teeth into a still-warm, chewy, roll of doughy goodness.

MISS – Almuerzos.  These are the $2.50 lunch deals that are all over town.  For that price, which includes the tip, you´ll get a bowl of soup followed by the lunch of the day (often rice, veggies, and a meat), accompanied by a bowl of popcorn and a glass of fresh juice, and topped off by a dessert.

MISS – The Catholic Cathedral.  It sits just outside my window, and I get to look at it´s architectural glory every day.  Indeed, as I write this blog article, all I have to do is lift my eyes to take in the Cathedral.  It spans half a block wide by a full block long, and you can spot it from virtually every vantage point in this entire city.  But as spectacular as it looks from the outside, it is even more spectacular on the inside.  The Catholic Church has always believed that church buildings should inspire adherents to reflect on the awesomeness of God, and being inside this Cathedral is definitely awe-inspiring.

MISS – Spanish speakers everywhere.  For someone such as myself who is working toward becoming fluent in Spanish, there´s no substitute for immersion in the language.

MISS – My Spanish tutor.  I don´t think I´ll ever find in the U.S. a Spanish tutor who is happy to be paid $8 an hour to give me one-on-one instruction.  Not only that, her undergraduate and graduate studies included a specialization in the teaching of Spanish to foreigners.  Moreover, her English is exceptionally good, and thus she can use her English to help us Gringos get unstuck during the process of learning Spanish.  As a result, I suggested that she offer her tutoring services via Skype, so if you are reading this message and are interested, let me know and I can connect you with Maria.

MISS – 25 cent bus rides.  The bus system is extensive here, and you can go from end to end, and to all points in between, for a mere quarter.

MISS $15 doctor visits.  It´s not like I enjoy going to the doctor, but in Ecuador it is normal for doctors to spend 15-30 minutes in consultation with you for as little as $15 dollars.  In contrast, last year my wife and I had some flexible spending money to burn before the end of the year, so I visited a few doctors just to make sure all of my parts were still functioning normally.  One SOB doctor spent all of about 1 minute and 37 seconds with me before he rushed back to the nurse´s station to continue his conversation with the nurses … and for that, our insurance company was probably billed $100.  The U.S. healthcare system, for all its technological advances, has become something of a sham … where you can spend a lot of money for very impersonal care.  You´ll not find that in Ecuador.

MISS – Fruit packs.  In Ecuador fresh fruit is plentiful, including many types I had never heard of before coming here.  It is recommended that you thoroughly clean fruit here since the bacteria in the water is different from what North Americans are accustomed to, and indeed some travel advisors suggest that you not eat any fresh fruit that includes the skin (i.e., strawberries, peaches, cherries, etc.).  Nonetheless, I found in the freezer section of the grocery store these big fruit packs that are called “pulpa de fruta” and that are 100% fruit.  They only cost $1.75, and you can get them in mango, strawberry, mora, naranjilla, maracuya, peach, orange, pineapple, coconut, and many other flavors.  These fruit packs make great smoothies.

MISS – Ecuadorian chocolate.  In Ecuador they produce some of the finest chocolate in the world.  Granted, you can buy Ecuadorian chocolate in the U.S., but you´ll be paying the U.S. price that includes shipping costs.  In contrast, while you are in Ecuador you can pay the Ecuadorian price for chocolate that is from cacao beans that are grown and processed in Ecuador.  Kind of like, “fresh from the farmer´s field.”  And speaking of Ecuadorian chocolate, I think I have a bar (or bars) in the other room, so I think it´s time to stop writing and go have me a nibble (or nibbles).   
Also posted in #travel

Bike B-Gone

In January I bought a bike here in Cuenca.  I rode it home from the bike store to my apartment, and that was the last time I ever rode that bike.  In a flash it was gone … stolen … no más.

I can’t say that I was not at all bothered by the theft … I was looking forward to touring the area on that bike.  But really, I was over it quickly.

It was only a $60 used bike, and perhaps that is why I was hardly bothered.    It looked like it had been pieced together from various other bikes, and I was just hoping that it would last the few months I am here.  I had even done the responsible thing and locked it to a steel pole with a heavy duty chain, moreover it was out of site except for those who live or work in my building.  But alas, my Master lock was not sufficiently heavy duty enough to hold back the implement that was used to pry-open the lock.  The bike is gone, the lock is destroyed – but hey, I still have the heavy duty chain that was left there on the ground.

Would I be more upset if the bike was worth more … or if something of greater value was stolen from me?  A few days ago one of my fellow teachers told me that his MacBook was stolen, and he was pretty upset about it.  He had been on a Skype call with his mother, and his MacBook was in a case next to his feet.  Evidently, some thief sat next to him, and when the thief’s accomplice created a brief diversion, the MacBook disappeared.  Surely that theft was more upsetting than the theft of my used bike.  As a result, and if I might make a general statement about all of us, it seems that our degree of disappointment is directly proportional to the amount of loss.

What is there to learn from this?

First of all, realize that for every act of unkindness in the world, there are probably thousands of acts of kindness.  Refuse to focus on the bad, but instead focus on all the good.

And secondly, we would do well to be less attached to stuff, and more attached to storing up true treasures in our hearts that no thief can steal.

Medicine Men

Chiropractors are hard to come by here in Cuenca, in spite of the fact that nearly 400,000 people live here.  In fact, I have heard of only one chiropractor … and she is a gringo who charges North American prices.

So one day Sheri and I were on a walk and passed by a health food store, and we thought: “Maybe this health food store can recommend a local chiropractor?”  We wandered inside, and in my best available Spanish I asked the owner of the store if he knew of a local chiropractor.  To my surprise and delight, he said that he does spinal adjustments, as well as perform other healings.  He called himself a natural “Healer,” and his services include working with the chakras of the body to re-balance and optimize the energy fields of the body.  I thought, “Why not?”  I´m willing to try anything once (that is within reason and moral behavior), and he only charges $10 for a 30 minute session.  So I made an appointment for the following Monday.

In addition to wanting some chiropractic work on my back, I had been battling for 4 weeks some sort of allergy to the local climate, and since I was feeling run-down I wanted to find a local Doctor as well.  Fortunately, the school where I am teaching English provides a list of suggested local medical Doctors, so I picked one from the list and made an appointment for the following Monday about 2 hours after my appointment with the Healer.  Who knows … maybe the Healer would cure me and I would not need to go see the medical Doctor afterwards?

Two medicine men.  Two completely different healing methods.

On Monday I arrived early with Sheri for my appointment with the Healer.  He asked us to sit down on the bench behind the counter while he prepared his studio.  After several minutes he looked at me and said “un momentito,” which translated means something like “just a moment,” but in Latin America could mean anything from 5 minutes to half an hour.  In full view of where we were sitting, he began to clean some dishes that were sitting on the sink in his studio.  After several more minutes it became clear that he had a clogged sink, so he unfastened the drain pipe under the sink and water began to pour onto the floor and in our direction.  He quickly plugged the hole with his hand, grabbed a pitcher, and motioned for me to come help him.  He filled the pitcher with drain water, plugged the hole again with his hand, and asked me to pour the pitcher of water into the toilet that was next to the sink in his studio.  After I had poured about 3-4 pitchers full of water into the toilet, the sink was empty and he re-attached the drain pipe to it.  Then I took my seat beside Sheri, and we watched while he mopped the floor and cleaned and prepared the studio for my session with him.  And actually, the studio was nothing more than another bench (covered with a towel) which was in front of the sink and toilet.

Finally, after about half an hour, he came to me with two jars of ointment.  I had my choice of which ointment he would use during the session.  I picked one, and he ushered me behind the wall into the studio and asked me to lie down on the bench.  Silly me, I only took off my shirt … so he asked me to also take off my shoes and socks, and to strip down to my skivvies.  I thought, “What the heck? – I´m willing to try anything once …“  So, he started to work on my back, and legs, and feet, and neck, doing what seemed like a combination of massage and acupressure.  At one point while he was working on my upper back, I could feel someone caressing my foot.  I thought, “Hmmm … who could that be?”  His nephew was also in the store that day, and I knew that he was serving as an apprentice, but it did not feel like a man´s hand.  It felt like my wife´s hand, indeed I hoped it was my wife´s hand, but I did not miss a beat and continued to lie motionless while he worked on me.  Sure enough, Sheri had moved to the end of the bench where she was sitting because she wanted to observe the proceedings – and she even got to participate in the proceedings!  While the Healer worked on me, including hovering his hands over my energy points, he was explaining to Sheri everything he was doing to me.  Although it was all in Spanish, he acted as if Sheri could understand everything he was saying.  And of course, she kept nodding and acting as if she could understand everything he was saying to her.

He ended up working on me a full 40 minutes, and because he started late, there was not enough time left for him to work on Sheri.  We had to hurry to get to my other Doctor appointment … and besides, after Sheri had seen what I got, she decided to pass on getting treated.  (Perhaps it was the stripping down to the skivvies that gave her the heebie-jeebies).

So we went to the other medicine man, the Doctor trained in western medicine.  After the customary stethoscope trip around my chest … and after a brief but pleasant conversation about my symptoms, about where we are from and why we are in Cuenca … the Doctor wrote me a prescription for both Claritin and an antibiotic, and we were on our way.  I was charged $15 for that 10-minute consultation.  

I don´t mean to make fun of the Healer or discount his method of helping people.  This guy has been doing this work for over 30 years, and apparently has a steady business.  Indeed, there was a family waiting to see him while I was still lying on the bench.  Nonetheless, the whole scene was a bit comical to us … but we did not chuck and make fun, and I submitted myself to the whole procedure, and then afterwards gladly paid him for his services while thanking him for helping me.  I can´t help but think he could do more business with gringos if he was a little more prepared, if he was a little more punctual, and if got himself a longer, wider bench – my big feet and ankles were hanging off the end!

In contrast, the western Doctor is trained at throwing medicine at the problem straightaway.  And the truth be told, a prescription for an antibiotic was exactly what I was after.

So, if you are ever in Cuenca and need medicine men, let me know and I will point you in the right direction.

Catholics Galore

As a non-Mormon living in Salt Lake City, I must confess to being occasionally irritated with the extensive influence Mormonism has over the local community.  It has a church building on practically every corner, it has a seminary building next to every public school in the State of Utah, and it has its fingers in just about everything.

Personally, I don´t think like a Mormon, I don´t act like a Mormon, and I will never be a Mormon.  But having said that, I have many Mormon friends, and I will probably always have Mormon friends.  My chiropractor and dentist are both Mormon, my HVAC guy and Roto-Rooter guy are both Mormon, all of them have given me excellent service over the years, and I readily recommend them to other people.  I am non-Mormon, but not anti-Mormon.

So it´s interesting that I am not the least bit bothered by the extensive influence that the Catholic Church has over the local community here in Cuenca, in fact I´ve attended Mass at least two times, and also poked my head into several other Catholic Church buildings.  Here in Cuenca the Catholic Church has a building on every corner, it has a school near every public school, and it has its fingers in just about everything.

Why am I not bothered by the influence that the Catholic Church has over Cuenca?  Because I was raised Catholic, I went to Catholic schools for 12 years, and the majority of my family and relatives are still Catholic.

Yeah, conversions take place, and some people switch religions, but it seems that for the majority of the people in the world, their religion is determined by the family which raises them.  People stay with the familiar … most by choice, but unfortunately some by force.

I have believed for many years that it is not helpful to the soul of the world, not helpful to the spiritual well-being of the universe, to believe that my religion is the one, true, religion. Practice your religion and devote yourself to God, if that is how the Spirit within you is guiding you, but you wander away from the center of Love when you begin to think that your religion is better than the next, when you begin to think that your righteousness exceeds others.  I dare say that virtually every religion worth following that has ever existed has warned against judging others, has preached about the supreme power of unconditional love … the same love that does not and cannot include self-righteous judgment of others.  If you only ever love, friends and enemies alike will call you Holy, a Saint, an Avatar, a Shaman, a Good Person, Righteous Among the Nations, and any number of other superlatives.

God created a multi-religion, multi-cultural, multi-language, multi-color, multi-whatnot world.  Obviously, God loves diversity … and does not favor one stripe over another.

Also posted in #spirituality

Slow the Gringo Down

I have read that if you get impatient with a Latino service provider that you could aggravate the situation, and today I experienced that very phenomenon.

I was at the grocery store and found what I thought was the shortest checkout line, but after I had emptied my cart on the belt I learned that the family in front of me, after paying for their groceries, wanted to buy multiple gift certificates and do any number of other post-sale activities (including chat with the cashier).

What the hell do you do in situations like this?  Normally I have a book or my iPod with me for situations just like this, but alas not this day.  So you wait and watch, and wait and try to appear invisible, and wait and review the items for sale at the checkout, and wait and consider moving all of your stuff to another line, and wait …, etc.

Meanwhile, the senorita cashier (maybe 19 years old) can´t help but notice my growing impatience, and apparently, decides to stretch the process even more and Slow the Gringo Down.

Finally, after waiting for what seemed like enough time for a baby to be conceived and born, she´s just about to start scanning my items when some young hombre shows up with his few items and persuades her (without too much prompting) to process his sale before mine.  I´m standing there where the bagger would normally be standing, watching this scene.  She did not dare to turn around and look at me, and processed his sale while enjoying a chuckle with him in Spanish.  And then post-sale, she continues to chat with him like he´s an old friend and they just met on the street.

At that point I lost my cool and angrily said to her in Spanish something like, “Young Lady!  A little bit faster please!”  Then the hombre looked at me as if to say, “What the F — is the matter with you, Gringo?,” while continuing to stand in the middle of the lane.  So then I angrily waved at him to get out, and barked “Adios!”  Then he uttered a Spanish word at me that I didn´t recognize, which is probably a good thing.  It sounded like a word I´ve heard yelled at soccer games toward members of the opposing team (or at members of your team if they are playing sucky soccer that night).

Then the senorita decides that she does not know the price of the vegetables and fruits that I´ve selected, and dispatches a coworker with them to the produce department to verify the prices.  At this point I am standing in the lane where I should be, waiting to pay, and looking at her to see if she will at least look at me.  No, she continues to scan the crowd looking for the lost coworker, and, not wanting to make her feel threatened, I too scan the crowd.  After another long wait, and just before I was about to give up on the whole process, my produce returned.

When she finally handed me my receipt, I was so pissed that I was the one that could not, or dare not, look at her.  It was not my finest moment in culturally sensitivity, and I sincerely hope that in the future I will be able to get out my ego and become the observer in situations like that, to be present in the moment and not be bothered even when it seems that I am being provoked.

In any case, grace appeared in the form of Juan, the young lad who appeared to wheel my groceries out to the bus stop.  When he learned I was taking the bus, he dashed back into the grocery store to get me a huge plastic bag that would make it easier to carry all my groceries on the bus.  While we walked the 2 blocks to the bus stop, I learned that he had just arrived from Peru to start law school in Cuenca.  Maybe he should study shoppers’ rights.

Also posted in #Latino