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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Deliciousness of the Festival of Corpus Christi

There are a lot of festivals here and, mostly, I don't understand the why of most of them. That doesn't stop me from enjoying the celebration, of course! I actually had to look up Corpus Christi (Cristi, here). Of course, I knew it's a Catholic celebration and by the name, it should be obvious that it celebrates the body of Christ. So I went online. (Whatever did we do without the internet?) It's actually a celebration of the Eucharist - the transformation of the blood and body of Christ to the holy wine and communion wafer. This is also know as transubstantiation.
2nd best macaroons so far




What I didn't get is why Corpus Christi is celebrated here with a wealth of sweets, so I did a bit more digging. It wasn't just a matter of taking the communion wafer to a whole new level, no. Corpus Christi happens to coincide with the return of the Pleiades constellation to the sky over the Andes and many indigenous groups use this time of year to celebrate the harvest and consider it the "new year". Sweets and harvest time go hand in hand. So, I feel I've solved the mystery. I've always loved how traditional festivals and Christian ones seem to line up so nicely. Of course, we all know that it helped ease the disparity between the old and new religions.Catholicism had a pretty amazing marketing team, back in the day.


Vendors as far as the eye can see



So, despite my status as a non-believer, I still get to browse the sweets, enjoy the odd treat and enjoy the fireworks displays that are set up in the main square of parque Calderon for the five day event. What fireworks have to do with transubstantiation, I have no idea. Nor, do I know why they're built into bamboo towers, so close to the crowd that you can get singed hair. What I do know is that if there aren't fireworks in Ecuador, it isn't a real party.




At least this year, they've cordoned off an area around the towers, before you could get as close as you liked! Safety first! (So not an Ecuadorian motto!)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Renewing Our Passport Whilst Abroad

First of all...yes, yes I did use the word "whilst". Call me old fashioned, but it has a certain panache and is actually the correct usage, as opposed to "while". Sure, "while" is widely accepted now, but this is just how I roll.

We have been invited on an adventure with friends, which has waylaid certain plans and made it necessary to renew our passports early. (I think our 5 year passports have never truly been more than 4 and half year passports in reality.) But we're here and Canada is...well...there! Enter the Canadian Consulate in Guayaquil. "Of course you can renew your passports here!" "Yay", says I! We don't have to make the 7 hour journey to Canadian Embassy in Quito. Happy day.
We dutifully filled out the paperwork, got our photos and hopped on a ridiculously early bus to Guayaquil (a 5 am one, to be precise) so that we could arrive bright and early for the 9am office opening. Most of you know that morning is not my time to shine, much less the 3:30 wake up call, but I persevered. Because of the time of day, the 4 hour trip only took 3 hours and we found ourselves outside the consulate with 40 minutes to spare. A quick coffee and "continental" breakfast filled up the time and we were whisked up to the 6th floor of the Blue Tower to submit our paperwork. We were met by the very helpful Paola. We managed to catch the 9:55am bus back to Cuenca and found ourselves back at home a little before 2pm.

We'll ignore the fact that as Paola looked over our paperwork and asked us a few questions, she very happily told us that we could have couriered in the paperwork, we needn't have come ourselves. (!!!) Considering the hour at which we started our day, we took the news fairly well, but it was something that we really would have been happy to know through one of our email conversations with her. She softened the blow by saying they would courier our passports to us FOR FREE. No need for a second trip.

So, lesson learned and you're welcome, other Canadians, who might be put in the same position! 

As one of our friends signs off on his email "this is the life we chose".

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Flip Side of the Immigration Coin

Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, it was easy to get caught up in the "Asian Invasion" blame game. Even now, housing prices are sky rocketing, making it unaffordable for the actual residents of the city. For several decades, we've experienced an influx of emigrants coming from various Asian countries. (Not to mention countries all over the world.)
Vancouver city skyline
To be fair, the first Chinese immigrants to Canada built our railway system and the cost to them was dear. Thousands died trying to link our two distant coast lines. At one point, Vancouver had the largest Chinese population outside of the actual country. That was back in the day, when Asians were menial labourers, struggling to establish a life in their new country. Once they moved out of that role and became business people, real estate magnates and community builders the "real" Canadians started getting nervous and pointing fingers about housing prices, alterations to our "true" culture etc. I believe that there is some truth in this: I know there's money laundering going on, that real estate investment is an easy way to clean your ill gotten gains. I also know that we have problems with Triads and the drug trade, but can we blame the whole thing on one people? Hardly.

View from the North Van Squamish train run
So, here I am now, in Cuenca, Ecuador and I'm the evil foreigner that's ruining the country through increased costs, strain on the social support system and because I stand out like a sore thumb, it's easiest to point the finger at me. It's an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least and it's really hard not to argue the point. I know full well that there are some people here who can't stand the "slowness" of service, the informality of contracts, the inability of the residents to speak English etc. The whole ugly "expat" thing. They don't realize that Ecuador operates under Napoleonic law, making litigation challenging. (I actually find that refreshing. If you're stupid enough to fall in a hole, you deal with it.)
Cuenca city skyline
There are, of course, mitigating factors. As soon as oil tanked, the former President increased import taxes by up to 43%. This affected building costs, food costs and other sundry things that all Ecuadorians use, but no one mentions that. Then there's the crisis in Venezuela that has thousands of people fleeing the country so they can eat regularly, or even semi-regularly. After the 2008 financial crash that affected the US and Europe, many Ecuadorians that had left the country returned, bringing European and North America expectations (as well as Euros and US$) with them. That is also rarely mentioned. Nor is the fact that the burgeoning middle class has an improved standard of living. This has happened over the last decade and would surely affect costs around the country.

Celebrating (and praying for more) plenty.
But, really, who am I to say whether my being here has impacted the country? I have no meter to measure it by. For now, I have to suck it up and be the scape goat (possibly the very real cause) for/of the cultural and financial changes that seem to be hurting the local populace. This is the price of being where we are and I'm either willing to pay it, or I'm not.

Friday, June 2, 2017

To Roam at Will

You know that fantasy, where you win the lottery and you pull up stakes and roam the world?
Machu Picchu

Uluru (Ayer's Rock)

Sydney
Would you actually do it? That endless treadmill of planes, hotels and way stations? I often wonder how long people would last?
Somewhere in Montana
Canadian Rockies

Thailand

For the most part, humans are creatures of comfort. We like our stuff, we like easy, we like familiar. What does it take to yank someone out of their comfort zone and roam the globe, unhindered by the need for home? (My personal thought is that the earlier you're exposed to travel the more likely you are to have a passion for it.)

Quebec

Paris
Newfoundland


New York City
We've traveled quite a bit, not like some people who are almost literally vagabonds, but lately, we've been getting around. 


Vancouver Island

Washington State

Cabo San Lucas
I find there's a magic moment when the tedium of hauling around suitcases, clearing security and triple checking travel plans becomes second nature. It's usually around the one month mark in my travels. I stop caring about wearing the same clothes over and over again, because the experience of new places appeases my need for diversity.
Mount Rushmore

Chicago
Barcelona
The problem is that the world is so big and fascinating. (And what about interplanetary travel???) How do we get to see all that we want without impoverishing ourselves in the process? Perhaps we need to divest ourselves of most of our worldly possessions and just go - calling no place  or all places home. Ron is particularly good at this. If you've ever seen his wardrobe you know that simple is his mantra. To be honest, you can't usually tell if he's changed clothes or not, but assume he has because he almost always smells nice.
Prince Edward Island
Boston

Quito. Ecuador
I'm not quite sure that I'm ready to do that (despite the wanderlust that drives me), so we're trying to leverage the home exchange thing as much as we can. Perhaps, we'll try and do the granddaddy of exchanges - a full year (or more) of back to back trades that will take us all the places we want to go without having to pay for many hotels. 
Tofino

Victoria

Vancouver
For now, we'll do the best we can with what we have. What are you willing to do to see the world? Does anyone out there have a brilliant plan they're willing to share?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

This Crazy Health Insurance Requirement

When we first came to Ecuador we were told that we might need to prove ourselves healthy. So we went to our doctor and got a letter stating that we were in good health and unlikely to strain the health care system here.

Unlike the US, (yes, that is a dig) they have a socialized health care system here that one could participate in. We never got around to applying and opted to put cash aside every month to pay for medical incidentals. (Dentist, doctor etc.) Until I hurt my leg/hip, we'd spent maybe $200 on such things. 
I guess that when...

Then the ugly head of mismanagement raised its head. This is strictly my opinion, the Ecuadorian government puts the onus on extranjeros that are straining the system as they aren't paying into it.  I guess that's possible, there are a lot of immigrants coming from Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia and  other Latin American countries to try and improve their lot in life. (Aren't we all?) Here, they take care of your medical needs and worry about payment after. Because of that and some North Americans who have also taken advantage of the system, it has left the Ecuadorians to foot the bill. I can see how that might put a strain on a countries budget, especially when the rug has been pulled our from under them in the form of devalued oil. That doesn't mean that bribery, embezzlement, fraud and plain old mismanagement haven't contributed to the situation. The health system is going broke.

...you do stuff like this...
Anyhow, in classic reactive style, they have decided to make health coverage manditory. For the social program (for the two of us) they want 21% of our stated income that we used to apply for the pension visa. (Yes, more than a fifth of our gross income.) So we started checking out other options and the cost of health insurance is SHAMEFUL. (We belong to the tribe of "Insurance-is-mostly-a-money-grab" (Yet, we always buy travel insurance...go figure!) Granted, compared to what is paid in the US (or so we've heard) the rates are low here, but to an innocent Canadian with universal health care benefits back home, it was all rather shocking.
...insurance is a good thing.
We finally found something that was acceptable to us (private coverage), but it's still costing us $115 USD (yay us for being under 65) that we weren't really putting out before.I'm trying not to resent the fact that we are required to pay for something that we'll likely never need. In truth, it's a small price to pay for my freedom here. So, be prepared, the rules are changing (not a surprise) and you might be turned back at the border if you don't have health insurance. You can't say we didn't warn you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Galapagos Grandure - About Our Trip

Spoiler alert: no matter how you do it, isn't a cheap trip. The islands are over a 1,000 kms off the coast, so you're pretty much trapped prey and, in fairness, it must cost a lot to get goods to the islands.

We weren't really sure how we wanted to do the Galapagos. There's really two options, a cruise or island hopping, the later being more affordable, but providing less access to the far islands. (We've also heard that the water  taxis between islands can be quite an adventure on their own - not for those with weak stomachs.)
Hanging out on the top deck

After much debate we opted for a cruise that hit most of the islands we wanted to see. (None seem to hit them all, so you'd have to take multiple cruises.) Most tour companies offer similar routes, either north or south and have a variety of options with regard to number of days. Almost every multi-day tour will meet you at the airport (we landed in Baltra, the other option is San Cristobal). This makes it seem like it might be hard to get to Santa Cruz, where the hotels are, but it really isn't all that difficult. A bus (free), a barge ($1pp) and another bus ($2pp) or taxi ($25 - this can be split with other travelers, if you're feeling friendly) and you're in town (coming back you pay $1.50 extra to get to the bus terminal by taxi, but that's for up to 4 people (driver excluded).

Things to know: there are restrictions on the type of food you can bring to the islands (citrus is definitely out, but KFC is okay...go figure.) You will also have to wait for your bags to be checked out by the dog squad before you can pick them up.You will pay a $20pp transportation fee at the airport before arriving on the islands and will also have to pay $100pp park entry fee for foreigners ($6pp for residence/citizens & $50pp for participating South American countrymen). Cash machines are available in the airports and bigger towns of the Galapagos  Conservation is a big deal in the Galapagos and the airport in Baltra is the world's first LEEDs Gold airport. All the power is taken from three wind turbines on the island and, apparently, doesn't include wifi.

We opted for Latintours - Nemo II. (There's also a Nemo, and Nemo III, with each ship catering to different budgeting needs. See site here.) They are all sailing catamarans with a motor, as well. Double hulls are more stable in the water (less rolling) and we liked the idea that we might get to travel under wind power.  They call it an 8 day cruise, but in reality it's 7 nights with the final day being only a few hours long. 



Under sail - we cheated the motor was going, too.

Covered outdoor dining area
Briefing area and lounge
Our cabin

Here's our itinerary, accompanied by some photos of the islands we visited:

Day 1 - Bachas Beach - our first sea turtle sighting. The visibility wasn't great, but it was an amazing start! (Snorkel and hike)




Day 2 - Plazas Islands and Santa Fe (snorkel and hike)

 

Day 3 - San Cristobal, Kicker Rock (shark city!) and Brujo Hill (snorkel and hike)

Shark hunting!
Play "sea lion or rock" - I dare you!
Day 4 - Espa├▒ola, Suarez Point and Gardner Beach (snorkel, walk and down time)


Day 5 - Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz - Charles Darwin Centre and the Highlands (walk)

At the tortoise sanctuary



Day 6 - Floreana - Champion and Post Office Bay (snorkel and hike) Floreana has kind of a crazy history involving idyllic Germans, a fake Baroness and murder. Click here for a quick summary of the strange goings on. It will open in a new window.

Founded in 1793 and been in operation ever since.
Letters are hand delivered by travelers.

Day  7 - Bartolome and Chinese Hat(snorkel and hike) this is where we saw the manta's
Lava tunnels



Pinnacle Rock

  
Day 8 - Black Turtle Cove and back to the airport
Black Turtle Bay is a natural sea life nursery
Golden ray school
Sere lava fields - quite a contrast to the sealife
Last minute trips (off season) are fairly easy to come by if you don't mind the uncertainty. Many of our ship mates stayed on Santa Cruz for a few days in search of a good deal. At this time most last minute cruises will expect payment in cash. Because of cash withdrawal limits on your bank card and the weird limits on the machines themselves this might wipe you out.

Tipping: this was a huge stresser for us, even before the trip and a hot topic on travel sites. While our guide made it perfectly clear that tipping is not a requirement, I know how things work in Ecuador. The cost of your cruise will mainly go to the boat owner, tour company and the booking agent will get a cut. (Our advice, deal directly with the cruise company itself, you'll pay a bit less. Here's a good site: Galapagos Cruise Links) Wages here are low and prices on the Galapagos run double to triple what they are on the mainland.(Case in point: Pilsner beer (large bottle) is $2-3 in restaurants here, on the islands it will cost at least $5.) So while tipping is voluntary, the crew will be at a major financial disadvantage if you skip the monetary gratitude. 
Part of the crew hard at work
Our Captain - Antonio - manning the helm
Some companies suggested 10% of your cruise value (pp) and others suggest a daily rate both for the guide and the crew. Our company suggested $10-15 per day (pp) for the guide and $15-20 per day (pp) to be split equally amongst the crew. (We had 6 crew members, so that doesn't divide too evenly.) They deserved it, our crew worked ridiculously hard to make sure we were happy, safe, well fed and entertained. I am doing the crew a disservice, I didn't take any pictures of the food. They really did an amazing job. We tipped on 7 nights which made it easier on our pocket book and was fair as the last day wrapped up at 8am and the first started at 11am. We did the lower of the range, but it still cost us $350USD. I won't even get into what that is in Canadian dollars.

Many of our cruise mates were caught by surprise. Their cash had been wiped out to pay for the cruise itself and they had no access to bank machines before the end of the cruise. Consider yourself warned about it all. (I know, Aussies, this is particularly hard on you!)

Best time of year: Depending on what you want to see (mating, hatching, whales etc.) different times of year will be better. There is basically a wet season and a dry season. High season is June to August and December and January. Water does get rougher starting from July-December with September & October the absolute worst. We went in "low" season and lucked out majorly. We saw almost everything on our list and some things we didn't even know we wanted to see. Do your research, but keep in mind that Mother Nature doesn't give a fig about your plans and may thwart you regardless of how well you plan. Here's a good place to start: Ecuador Travel Site and the Galapagos Calendar (same site).

Thanks for coming along on our adventure with us. We highly recommend a visit to these amazing islands and the Nemo boats.