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Friday, September 23, 2016

All Natural Hike

I have always enjoyed getting away and losing myself in the wilderness. There is something truly invigorating and peaceful about wandering through nature. It's a place where you can contemplate creativity as you are surrounded by nature's beautiful pallet. You can destress and get away from the noise and clutter of civilization. In a way, it's sort of like meditating, except rather than sitting in a room with your legs folded, you are surrounded by nothing other than the sounds and sights of the forest, rivers,streams,lakes, flowers, wildlife and other amazing beautiful sights.

Avilahuayca in the Cajas, Cuenca
Base of the Salkantay, Peru
It can also be a wonderful way to meet new people, find new surroundings and keep physically fit. We have been very lucky in that regard and, to date, have had the opportunity to hike and wander amongst some incredibly stunning scenery in the world. We've met a lot of amazing people and hopefully we'll also visit and meet plenty more in the future.
Our Salkantay trekking group
Axel (hiking is a natural high)
I was born in the Gaspe Peninsula area of the province of Quebec, Canada and Danica was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and then we spent most of our lives in and around Vancouver, B.C. These are all incredibly beautiful parts of Canada, an amazingly vast and stunningly gorgeous country.
Percé Rock, Gaspé Peninsula

Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia
I consider myself very lucky to be a Canadian and to have had the pleasure and opportunity to grow up being free and feeling safe to venture out into the wilderness that abounds throughout. There doesn't seem to be a limit to the lakes, forests, mountains, or oceans that are within easy distance from almost anywhere in the country. It is the second largest country by area in the world and 38th by population consisting of just over 36 million people compared to the largest country Russia's 143.4 million. This gives us a vast amount of free space to wander and explore.

Whistler, B.C.
I'm not sure if being from a country that has so much wilderness is part of the reason that I enjoy being in nature and hiking so much, but it had to play some role in it, I'm sure, and I don't hike nearly as much as a lot of Canadians and other people in the world but I do thoroughly enjoy it.
Freycinet National Park
Some people hike for the exercise, such as a lot of the Vancouver people who tackle the Grouse Grind on a regular basis, and some do it strictly for the pleasure of communing with nature. For me it's kind of a combination of the two. I love the experience of being out there but I also love pushing myself to see what I can accomplish.
Grouse Grind
I am also amazed at the ability of a lot of people in the world that despite their age they continue to have an incredible mental and physical ability to do very challenging hikes and other sports feats and they seem to thrive on accomplishing their chosen task with great joy. I, too, will strive to continue to do these things in my life and each time I have the chance to achieve another hike or another adventure I rejoice that I have the freedom, blessing and opportunity to do these things in my life, because there are so many people in the world that are unable to.
Cradle Mountain, Tasmania
12 Apostles, Australia
Blue Mountains, Australia
Three Sisters, Australia

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

You could also call this blog post "Desperation is the Mother of How-Hard-Can-It-Be?"

I think it started when we had the Bed and Breakfast, or maybe even earlier, in Home Ec  class; the idea that you can make stuff from scratch. I had time on my hands, as it was hard to find work in the Comox Valley and who doesn't love home made baked goods? I thought it would give my little B&B an edge. Of course, making cookies was old hat by then, but then I tackled bread. Yup, for many of you this is a no brainer, but for the city dwelling "if it doesn't exist in the supermarket it doesn't exist" variety of people (like myself) this was a huge leap.
Homemade chicken pot pie

When we relocated to Prince Edward Island, it turned into a small specialty cake business, that was both rewarding and terrifying in equal measure. Being responsible for someone's wedding or major anniversary cake is a pretty big deal. I even tried my hand at pasta and was getting pretty good at making candy.
From the "hell yeah, I made that" files
Then we found ourselves in Ecuador; land of rice, potatoes and unaged beef. Not to say that the food isn't good here, but many of my "go to" things aren't available, or if they are, they're ridiculously expensive. Case in point peanut butter. When we first arrived it was $5.89 for 500mL. Currently it is over $10 for the same bottle due to increases in import taxes. So, what to do? We found that the mercados carried pasta de mani (peanut paste - just ground up , lightly roasted peanuts) and I started tweaking it with a bit of extra oil and some salt. This was a much less expensive option as I could buy the paste for $2 a pound. Fast forward to our last grocery outing. As I'm perusing the aisles of SuperMaxi I espy a 1lb. bag of raw (shelled) peanuts for $1.27. What if I roasted them myself, removed the skins and ground them up? This is where the "how hard can it be?" came in. Into the cart went the bag and proceeded to sit in the cupboard for several days. Then I noticed the peanut butter was getting low.
Stashed in an old Schullo peanut butter jar
(That's the $10 per bottle brand!)
So, I did it. I roasted them, and removed the skins as best I could. (Apparently a salad spinner works marvelously, but we don't have one.) Then into the food processor they went with a bit of oil. Grainy and dry. More oil, more blending and VOILA, peanut butter. Here's the learning curve part. The oil doesn't really release from the peanuts until they're creamed, so I have slightly runnier than normal peanut butter, but it has a gorgeous roasted flavour that is lacking in the pasta de mani. Was all the work worth it? We shall see.

Home roasted, hand mixed peanut butter
So I've now made, due to lack of (or price of) frozen processed crap here: pizza dough, focaccia, peanut butter, tomato sauce, ginger ale, hot chocolate, add to that Ron's pancakes and waffles from scratch and the regular gamut  of things I make from scratch and we're almost back to the good old days of "if you don't make it, you don't have it". Heck, I never buy salad dressing anymore, I just whip up a small batch as needed.  Who knows what's next, maybe mayo, perhaps fresh mozzarella, and I also have a recipe for Dijon mustard just waiting for when my stash runs out.
Pizza...again, homemade

Now, if we could only set up a garden and grow our own fruit and vegetables, we'd be ready for the apocalypse, assuming there was still electricity. (Ha ha.) 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Everything in Moderation

I've been reading part of my old blog posts lately and have been finding it interesting. I haven't really focused on the big stuff, like our great trips or accomplishments, but more on the little things. The blog posts that have a tranquility to them, where I'm thinking positively and feeling good. 
I choose somewhere in between
It's so easy to fall out of that sense of peace. I easily get caught up in the day to day minutiae of life and like a dripping tap, all those little things get on my nerves. No matter that every day I find a reason to be grateful, the drip drip drip wears down my enthusiasm sometimes. I also have very high expectations of myself. This is a character flaw of the highest order, to be sure and it can be exhausting. I had big dreams for my little blog. I imagined that I'd help people thinking about moving abroad, that I might bring a little amusement into others' days, that I might do some good, but on a grand scale. That isn't to be. I don't have the drive to go out and schmooze with business people, drop broad hints that I'm a popular blogger that might help their businesses or have the acerbic wit that draws so many fans to other sites. At the heart of it, I'm lazy, I just want things to happen organically. (Meaning I don't have to work too hard.) This theory also applies to my novels. I did the heavy lifting writing the things, shouldn't that be enough? But we all know it isn't; that more work needs to be done to become successful and that doesn't even take into consideration that luck that is also required.
So, I've decided that, like everything else in life, moderation is the key. My books are moderately successful, considering the effort I put in to marketing them, my blog is moderately successful in that I've been read in 92 countries and am coming up to 40,000 hits. Not bad for a non-monetized, non-advertised bit of flotsam on the web filled with such things. My diet is moderate, as is my drinking and exercising (more or less) and my social activity falls into the same category. My Spanish is moderately good, and I think that's the most I can hope for, so I'm trying to learn to accept that exceptionalism just isn't for me. Like Popeye says "I am what I am" and that's okay.

Seriously, most of us have to be's the law of, well...averages. I know we all want to be special, to excel at something more than everyone else, but the odds are just against us on this. (It's like trying to beat the stock market...statistically challenging.)  

So here's to average and to moderation. I salute you and I salute all of us that fit in the middle category. Without us, no one else would be amazing.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Hardest Part

When we contemplated this crazy adventure of being abroad for a long stretch, we came across an article that said there were two key points in time when attempting such a thing: the 6 month mark (presumably when the honeymoon was over and reality set in) and the 3 year mark. I couldn't imagine what might change between year two and year three, but I think I'm starting to get it now.
Holly (headed home) and Sky (still around)
Miriam,  Mike, Neil, Inge and Clarke (mostly gone)
There's something about that space and time when things change. You may not change, but some of the people around you do and, even if you're content, they're not (or life just happens) and friends start moving away. You don't know how much your friends mean to you, until you start realizing that they aren't going to be around. Our friend John passed away this year and that was hard. Harder yet, for Kathy, who was left behind.
John and Kathy
It was unexpected and the city doesn't feel the same without him here. His wife returned "home" and so, in a way, we lost her, too. Many more of our friends are freer now, able to leave for extended periods of time and, as most wanderers do, there are undiscovered places calling to them, as well as the obligations to family and friends back home. Some marriages don't weather the change of location and this creates a bit of chaos. (This is a real thing...several long time marriages have collapsed under the pressure of expat life, with usually one spouse missing home and the other content to be "away".) Others are called away due to family illness and they go quickly in a flurry of activity, leaving a hole, where once friendship lived.
Our bike tour group; most have left to go home or elsewhere
This is the hardest part. I'm sure this is something that our friends have experienced before, when we were the new kids, but we're starting to be the old kids, the ones that have been here the longest and that is an odd experience. Usually, we're the ones who leave, moving on before things get too settled, but now we're the "leavees". At some point the wheel will turn and we'll be off and running again, but for now we're left to adapt to the changes.

Before I close, I just want to shout out to the friends that are still around, the ones that are near and dear to us. We probably don't see you enough, but we're sure glad you're here. To those that have moved on, we still love you, and can't wait to meet again.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Over the Hills and Far Away

We were a bit fretful about coming back to Ecuador after our wide ranging adventure to Australia. Whatever would we do with ourselves? There are no extended holidays to plan, no SCUBA diving to train for, but there are major limitations on our funds after surviving a first world holiday on a pensioner's budget.
Church in Banos de Cuenca
Pastoral views
Little gold hummingbird
Our quandary was resolved by a weekend hiking group. We've been heading out, with some regularity, to the outskirts of Cuenca to enjoy unknown (to us) neighbourhoods, new restaurants and the camaraderie of like-minded individuals. We may not be the fastest hikers, but we do enjoy the journey.
One of the many rivers

The first surprising experience was having a woman demand that we give her $5. ("Soy pobrecita, deme cinco dolares!" - "I'm a poor woman, give me $5!") I, conveniently, never have cash if Ron is with me, so I apologised and kept going. ("Lo siento senora, no tengo ningun dinero" - I'm sorry Madam, I have no money".) It's unusual for beggars to be so bold, and to be honest, she came around from the side of a fairly nice house that she insisted wasn't hers - which is entirely possible.

The next surprise was finding a beautiful little French restaurant in the outskirts of town, called Le Petit Jardin. I had a gorgeous fried trout in lemon butter. The only thing missing was vegetables, but we are in Ecuador, so allowances must be made.

The third surprise is how far you can get on a quarter; choose the right bus and you can ride for an hour on a thin 25 cents. You wend through the city and into the suburbs (a rather loose description of the little towns that are slowly expanding to meet the city limits) and go all the way to the end of the line.

Then you disembark and hope like heck that someone in the group knows where we're trying to get to or has a smart phone to find our way. It's always fun to try and get directions from the locals, who seem astounded to see gringos, let alone one's that can speak at least some Spanish. (I call it the "talking monkey" phenomenon.) At the end of the hike, we usually try to grab a meal, or at the very least a beer. 

We also talk of many things, inane and profound and generally enjoy each others' company. It's a great mix of people from different backgrounds and places, but we manage to get along.
Some of the crew on the hike
Our last hike was more daring. We headed out into the Cajas (an hours drive from El Centro) and took on an 8.5km hike at a higher elevation. What you must understand is that hiking at elevation (for children of sea level) is much like climbing to the 40th floor of a building. (Forget how you feel for the first 5 flights, think about all the rest.) 
This never changes, at least not much - you gasp for breath on inclines like "the Little Engine that Could". What does change, eventually, is your acceptance that there is less air and it won't kill you. It's especially hard for newbies to embrace this concept, but over time they realize it to be true.
Cajas colours
Fresh from the set of Vikings
one half of our guide team - Axel

Sample of some of the easier trail
The sacrifice is worth it. The views are stunning and we had such a gorgeous day that it was impossible not to enjoy the sweeping landscapes, bright blue sky and shimmering lakes.

Shahbaz coming up the hill

So, yes, we've found something to fill our time, at least for a day of the week, and for that we're grateful. It's a good gig, if you can get it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Wheel dependent? Ecuador isn't for you.

Ecuador is a land of opportunity; rich in culture and spectacular scenery, it's something that really should be experienced, if you can manage it. Of course, there are exceptions to that. One of the glaring oversights that I've noticed with regard to the information about Ecuador is that it is second/third world country that doesn't have very specific advances that you find in the first world. I've heard a couple of stories about people who want to come visit, (or worse, have bought property, sight unseen) who are reliant on either wheelchairs or electric scooters to get around. Accessibility is an issue. There aren't handicapped parking spaces, few (if any) vehicles that can accommodate electric wheelchairs/scooters and the pedestrian spaces are not designed to facilitate wheeled mobility units.
There are good sidewalks in Cuenca and other cities in Ecuador - truly. They just aren't frequent enough to traverse the city without incident. I've touched on this issue in another post a few years ago, but I really think it bears repeating. 
10" curb - there are higher curbs
 Curbs don't have a standard height. I've seen curbs that rise up past my knee, sometimes with a stair, but more often not. Many curbs don't feature ramps at the cross walks and many corners have barriers that protect the buildings from errant drivers that "miss" the corner. The barriers occasionally won't be wide enough to get a wheelchair through. Wheelchairs, walkers, scooters and other mobility devices (outside of a sturdy walking stick) are a rarity here. Beggars with crippled legs used wooden blocks to protect their hands and duct tape on their trousers to get around or a small board with wheels to push themselves along. I have seen the odd wheelchair, but the user is normally on the road with the traffic, trying to navigate through speeding cars and motorcycles.

Broken/missing concrete


Sidewalk ends abruptly
The buses have no ramps or lifts and steep stairs to board, taxis are mostly regular sized cars that are ill equipped to manage your luggage let alone a wheelchair or walker. Even the water company's payment office requires a person to walk up four steps or so. Sidewalks end suddenly in the middle of the block and you are forced out onto the street to pass an extra wide building. The sidewalks that do exist aren't well maintained and are uneven, have missing manhole covers, broken asphalt and missing cobbles. Drainage grates are missing leaving foot wide holes that have to be navigated. Even with sound legs and a healthy sense of balance, you can be caught by the many hazards of the road.
This is not (yet) the place for you if you have mobility issues. (I'm not kidding.) Our brand new building is only accessible through the garage and even that has its challenges. 

Add to this the current construction going on for Tranvia, here in Cuenca, and it's a logistical nightmare, trying to navigate the streets on foot; it's completely impossible in a chair or by scooter.
The planks aren't always secured...
Dodgy corners

Tranvia construction

More disappearing sidewalk
Steps/no ramp
Look, they're trying. New sidewalks get ramps (some of which, I feel, are too steep), and the Ecuadorian government has a fairly progressive policy for people with physical and mental challenges in the work place, but it is not up to first world standards. It's not that they don't want to have people with physical challenges here, they just haven't gotten to the point of development where they've thought about what that requires.

So save yourself some grief, disappointment and money; if you can't get around on your own two feet. Go somewhere that is ready for you, somewhere that's easy for you to get around because, unless you have a four wheel drive wheelchair, an incredible sense of humour and patience all you're going to experience here is frustration.