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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.) 
Steep!
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

Parking/sidewalk

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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

God, what a Blast!

It's our favourite time of year, says I, tongue firmly planted in cheek. It's no secret that Ecuadorians like noise. Loud music, car and building alarms, barking dogs and cars without mufflers are common occurrences here. They also like celebrating Saints days with noisy fireworks that sound vaguely like cannons. They can be heard all over the city and every church (and there are lots of them) has a special celebration annually, where the devoted get up early and light off these noise makers before heading into services.
La catedral nueva
Generally speaking, it's not all that bad, given a few blocks of distance, the sound isn't completely heart attack enducing, but when the church is right next door to your house, it's a whole different matter. Why do they do this? Who knows, there are many theories, but none really make sense. Someone told us it was to scare away evil spirits, but that's not logical. War is noisy and I can't think of a better space for lingering malignant entities. If someone has an idea, I'd love to know.
Iglesia de San Francisco
We live next to the church of Cristo Rey, or  Christ the King and this Saturday is when Catholics traditionally celebrate his transfiguration. (Or so says the internet, I had to look it up.) This is (apparently) a big deal here. At 5:39 Monday morning, we were awoken with a bang...literally. Now here's the funny thing: these "sound" fire works go off randomly all over the city, in a similar fashion to people lighting candles at the alter; not everyone does it, but some people do. So just as you're settling back to sleep, off goes another one. The first day there were only 6 (not counting the ones during normal business hours) randomly spaced out, so that sleeping was just a distant memory.


La iglesia de Cristo Rey (we think it used to be
a monastery)


Yesterday there were seven, before 8am. They're loud enough to make the windows shake and car alarms to go off. This, of course, would never happen in North America, what with noise by-laws and an aging population prone to weak hearts and nervous constitutions, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone here.  
Iglesia de Santo Cenaculo (?)
I know what you're thinking...don't live close to a church. Ha ha! Just try it. Unless you're willing to move out into the countryside, there is going to be a church near you. It's rumoured that Cuenca has at least 52 churches, one for every week of the year, and that's within the city limits. I can see 17 from our windows and that doesn't include Cristo Rey, which is behind us.
Iglesia de San Blas
Only three more days to go until it's back to the dogs and alarms.  

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Getting Out of Ourselves

The news from all over the world is harsh and depressing. I've found myself caught in loops of trolling the news and (ack!) reading the comments on the articles. (Side note: never...ever...read the comments, it's so completely soul crushing.) 
How I feel about current events
I knew I had a problem when I'd already cried before 10:30am last Thursday. What I was doing wasn't healthy for me and I was starting to obsess, no matter my good intentions to stand up for those that were being maligned.  A friend of ours invited us out to help an indigenous family that was building a new home with supplies and labour donated by CETAP-Lucy, a foundation and school that helps children with developmental disabilities and Hearts of Gold Foundation, that helps link immigrants from North America to charities here in Cuenca, plus another local charity that I don't know the name of. (Okay I know that's poor English, but I don't care.) Here's a special shout-out to Ric, the friend that invited us and official photographer. I totally forgot to take any pictures at all. The existing house is quite small, maybe 2 metres wide and 4 long. The new house will be double in length and triple in width, with two (maybe three) bedrooms and a nice long combined living/kitchen area.

Here's the some of the family:
Jhon, one of the family's three sons
Junior, another of the sons
Rocio, Angel (volunteers) and Juan Diego, one of the sons
On Saturday we headed out early (not my forte) and met at CETAP-Lucy and headed out to the work site. We'd been told that the conditions weren't ideal, that the lot was steep and the work hard. They hadn't undersold it. The slope of the plot had to be around 45 degrees.and only near the current house was there a path carved into the rock. It took a while to get used to moving up and down the grade, but, surprisingly, I got used to it. (Sort of...)

Super steep
The existing house is (as Ron described) rudimentary, but they now have running water and electricity, which is a definite improvement. Some initial foundation supports had been poured, but the government is improving the road by widening it, which means that the placement of the new house must change, rendering one foundation wall completely useless and required that new posts be poured further down the property. 
Existing house
The kitchen
 Much digging ensued. Rock, clay, stone and soil was slowly chipped away to allow space for the new foundation posts. In addition the garbage that was strewn around the lot was gathered and burned. (This is common here. There is little regard for clouds of toxic smoke in the face of "free" rubbish removal. I don't believe there are sanitation services in that part of town.)
Franny - our intrepid organiser
Me wielding a pick axe
Pedro (a volunteer) and Nellie, the mother
Nellie and Ron
Ric, our official photographer and invitor
Hauling away the rubble with Robert
Rocio (from CETAP-Lucy) and Salvador, the father
Nellie, Robert and Ron working on the solid rock.
Ron, enjoying every minute
Salvador chipping away at the wall of dirt and rock
We spent around four hours on site and managed to clear most of what was necessary to get ready to put in the new posts, which will have to wait for at least another week. The going is slow, the work manual and the technology basic: shovels, pick axes and chisels, for the most part. I know the concrete will be mixed by hand and painstakingly poured, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, but it's a great way to focus on something positive. It also is exhausting and we slept pretty well last night. Sure we have some sore muscles and Ron is sporting a couple of blisters, but it was worth it.

If you would like to help out by donating towards the project please go to Hearts of Gold. CETAP-Lucy is also supported, in part, by donations to Hearts of Gold. Or, if you'd like to volunteer your time, drop me a line and I'll get you in touch with Franny.