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Sunday, December 30, 2018

New Years Traditions

You've all heard about the craziness that makes up new years here. The bonfires, the effigy burning, hopping over flames that contain's a pretty good time, barring death or third degree burns.

Ron and I got over the whole "big" new years thing pretty quickly. Why drop a couple hundred dollars on an indigestible meal, watered down drinks and huge crowds of people trying to make merry at the hotels in Vancouver? (We did this a sum total of once...did we have a good time? Yes. Was it worth the fancy dress, hotel room and various other expenses? No.) For the most part, we like to pass the evening in the company of a few friends, with a decent bottle of bubbly (nope, not champagne) and some good food. (That sums up my life philosophy.)
We aren't big on "good luck" traditions, like wearing red underwear to bring love or yellow underwear to bring money. (That's actually a thing in Cuenca.) We don't eat 12 grapes, which is also a tradition here, that stems from Spain. And we most certainly DON'T make new years resolutions. Life is way to unpredictable for that sort of thing.

When I was a kid, we'd make tons of noise, banging pots and pans, at midnight to drive away "evil spirits" supposedly and threw open the doors to let the old year "out" and the new year "in". (Wouldn't you have loved to be our neighbours?) I don't do that anymore. We like to watch the fireworks blossom across the city skyline and take in the apparent war-zone, with things burning and blowing up on every corner, that is downtown Cuenca. (A family friendly war-zone to be sure, but anyone with PTSD/S should keep well away.) 

What are your new years traditions? What would you never skip?

Would you let a redhead in through the door before a dark haired man, or would that bode ill luck for the rest of the year? (Scotland) First footing is a big responsibility!

Do you eat black-eyed peas? (USA) Or lentils? (Chile) Lentils and pork trotters? (Italy)

I do like the idea of putting wishes for the new year or regrets from the past year on a piece of paper and burning it. This goes quite well with effigy burning here. I'm not crazy about the idea of putting the ashes in a glass of champagne and drinking them. (Purportedly a Russian tradition.) It's always a great time to reflect and strive to improve. (Without the stupid resolutions, because, for me, failure is, apparently, an option. Never again.)

I haven't even touched on many of the Chinese traditions! However you celebrate New Years Eve, enjoy it, whether in your jammies, watching the ball drop, or kicking up your heels at some shishi event.  Oh, and kiss you're loved ones if they're close, or send them love if they aren't.

Monday, December 24, 2018

For the Love of Tourtiere

Anyone who knows Ron well, know that Christmas is a four letter word to him, even after being out of retail for 8 years. There is, however, one tradition that he looks forward to as the day slowly marches forward. Presents? No. Decorations? Hell, no. The anticipated item is French Canadian tourtiere. It's one of those nifty recipes that is ever changing and no one family makes the same. 

We follow the basics of his Mom's recipe (three of four lines of instructions, including the ingredients) and we tart it up a little, just for fun. We don't go the ground meat route, no we use cubed meat, usually beef and pork. (Venison is great if you can get your hands on it, but alas, that is not to be.) The down side is that, in Ecuador, it is hard to get good beef, unless you have a Uruguayan or Argentinian source. The last couple of years, the beef has been chewy. Not acceptable...we've marinated, roasted, precooked, tenderized and still no love.
Secret can probably guess two!
Well marinated meat (48 hours)
 This year we sprung for the good stuff...lomo fino, the beef tenderloin, in hopes that we can finally overcome this final challenge.
Pretty classic mirepoix
Plus potatoes
So, this year, with any luck, we'll have all the little components down. We've finally managed to create a decent pastry, we've gotten the perfectly cubed potatoes, carrots and spice mix down. 
Add a little homemade chicken broth and simmer
Fill the pies and top with more crust
 The deed has been done and the pies are awaiting the oven. Murphy is a dish rag (language modified as we're coming up to Christmas) as my reliable pastry failed miserably. It looks a bit like Frankenstein pastry, but Ron thinks it will turn out alright, in the end. Only my taste buds can confirm it. On the up side, the beef seems to have come out much more tender. It's always something. I'm a bit afraid that the Christmas we get it just right, we'll both drop dead from the shock of it.
Final product...minus the Frankencrust
(full disclosure this was last year's pie)

To you and yours from us and ours: Happy Christmas, Merry Holidays (see what I did there?) and all the very best in 2019. May joy find you in unexpected moments, may your shoes fit just right and your heart grow three sizes.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Searching for the Christmas Spirit

Ron (grudgingly) helped me put up the Christmas decorations this year. He's never been the season's biggest fan and nearly four decades in retail took their toll. He got to see the stress, short-temperedness, and gratuitous commercialism that embodies that side of the season. There's so much pressure for the 'perfect' gift, perfect memories, perfect day, that he really didn't care for the experience of nursing people through it. I get it. Working in banking didn't give me a much different perspective. Bank accounts got low, credit card statements rose and houses filled with stuff...unnecessary stuff, or even worse, expensive unnecessary stuff.
You'd like tired after 9 hours of parading, too.
Now, I know that there's a whole raft of people who believe that Jesus is the reason for the season. Good for you! Enjoy your observances, enjoy mass or services, take the time to appreciate His sacrifice. Not everyone has that same belief. I could go on about the historical realities of Yule and other festivals that celebrate the winter equinox, when days get shorter and celebrating the return of longer days. I won't get into Jesus's birthday.

Ecuador is a blissful mix of secular and laic celebration. They have no issue with Rudolf riding a bike next to the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. In many ways, it's my kind of Christmas. I don't really believe in the commercial side, nor the religious, so what does that leave me? (Especially with a spousal unit that would prefer to ignore the whole thing?) Twinkling lights, copious amounts of glitter and food. Food is the one thing I know Ron can't resist, so Christmas baking, toutiere and homemade caramels are on the list. 
You thought I'd made that up, didn't you?
We also have a movie watching ritual that includes It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim), A Muppet Christmas Carol (Beaker gives Scrooge the finger) and A Christmas Story...who can resist little Ralphie in a pink rabbit suit and an Italian mystery prize? So that, that is our Christmas, good food, some minor traditions...I mustn't forget out traditional Christmas day much more pleasant when it's over 20 degrees, as opposed to minus something.
Festival of Lights

A little holiday laundry? Sure!
Christmas trout? Why not?

My take away? Gratitude...that's what most people can agree to about this season. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Eid (yes, it sometimes falls around this time of year), Saturnalia, Festivas, Yule, Bodhi, Pancha Ganapati and anything else I might have missed, I'm pretty sure we can agree that being thankful for what we have, whom we have with us and how lucky we are to be wherever we are is a decent theme for the holidays. May you find things to be grateful for and we wish you a very happy holiday season, whatever you believe.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Sounds of Nature

While city life can be noisy and messy, the quickest solution is to head out on the bus to the final stop and wander out into the countryside.

We went on a most memorable hike on the outskirts of the city. It wasn't long before we left behind the sound of grinding motors, honking cars and the ever present song "Quiero Cuenca" that comes from the many gas trucks plying their trade. 

With only the birds and distant river in our ears, we ascended a long trail that ends in a set of cascades and then loops back from whence we came. With only a shallow river in our way, we sloshed through happily and wandered back down the hill on the opposite side of the river. 
Does this look like a folk album cover?

With rain comes this amazing green
Sure, it was muddy and slippery, but the surrounding trees, babbling water and blue sky were like a spa experience. 

We finished off at Le Petit Jardin, a restaurant on the outskirts of Cuenca. When you've had such an amazing day, being able to finish it off with a top notch meal makes the day as close to perfect as you can get here.
Salmon in herb sauce
Pulpo al carbon
Beef Wellington
Wine poached pair in chocolate
Sometimes all you need is amazing company, a good dash of nature and delicious French sustenance at the end of it all. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Sounds of Cuenca

When we were researching San Miguel de Allende and other parts of Mexico, we came across an expat site that explained that one doesn't move to Latin America for peace and quiet. This is true.

I've come to believe that Ecuadorians (and other Latinos) just don't hear noise the way I do. Ron's pet theory is that Latinos believe that death is quiet, therefore life should be loud. It's a full and joyous expression of being able to suck air into one's lungs; proof that you "are". For me, the cornucopia of sound that encompasses daily life here is often overwhelming, sometimes diverting and, almost always, unexpected.

I've written before about the barking dogs, car horns and alarms. I've waxed on about the home and business alarms that sound off endlessly and the "sonidos" that are used to call the faithful to prayer at the churches. (Imagine a cannon going off next to your bedroom, that's pretty well what they sound like. If it's close enough the windows rattle, not the best way to start the day.)

So why, you may ask, would any peace loving gringo retire or even vacation with all of this nuisance noise?  For all the other noises. The marching bands that parade down streets for no known reason, the children's choir, the symphony and the random concerts. For the chimes of the nearby church that play Ave Maria, which floats over the air and falls calmingly on my ears. It's the  long string of HUGE speakers that run along the shopping streets, all playing a different Latino classic. I'm here because I'm waiting for the perfect record of bad karaoke to be broken and to enjoy the actual fireworks that flower in the sky on any given evening. (Sometimes even during the day...I'm still trying to figure that one out.) I'm here for that fleeting moment of silence, on a Sunday morning, before all the other sounds rush in.
My point, I guess, is that yes, life IS noisy here. It's not a serene island with bobbing palm trees and endless expanses of white sand and blue ocean. It's vibrant and reminds those of us that take life for granted that we should celebrate the fact that we're above ground, where the flowers bloom, rain falls and the earth continues to rotate.

Monday, November 19, 2018

CUE vs SMA - Spanish Colonial Hotspots

You might be asking yourself: "Why...why would they trade one cute Spanish Colonial town for another? Where's the adventure in that?" I'd say...good question. This is the thing with home exchange. Sometimes you get offers that are in places you never heard or or thought about as a "destination", but you say to yourself "why not?" That was the case with San Miguel de Allende (officially shortened to SMA). Ironically, both have a church as their claim to fame. So how does one stack up against the other?
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel
Catedral de la Inmaculada ConcepciĆ³n
SMA is a smaller town at a lower altitude. It has also had A LOT more experience with tourism and English speaking foreigners, which makes it easier for non-Spanish speakers and newbie travellers. There is a passion for bougainvillea that makes the whole town bright with colour. Add to that their certain fearlessness with house colour and SMA is a feast for the eyes.  Their familiarity with "expats" has also affected housing prices (not the only factor, I'm sure, but a factor, nonetheless), which you can see in the numerous real estate offices and rental agencies. Housing is definitely more expensive. Restaurants generally are inexpensive (relatively speaking) and grocery shopping will save on your usual North American food bills. Alcohol can be inexpensive, or not, depending on brand etc. If you like tequila or mezcal, you'll die happy and, very possibly, drunk off your ass.
One of the smoother streets in SMA
Definitely more colour in SMA
Cuenca has narrow streets, too

And we can walk by the river in CUE
Culturally, both towns have an active scene, though they are different. There are lots of things going on in the streets, theatres and restaurants. In SMA mariachi bands swarm the main square on weekend evenings, as do the street kids, selling candies and gum. The street entertainment is stronger in SMA, though I've noticed that Cuenca's is going through a fairly rapidly growth, whether because of changes in governance or influx of street entertainers, I don't know.


SMA is way more tony. The high end art galleries, shops and other experiences that require fat wallets abound.  Cuenca does have people with money, but they spend it in the shopping malls, not chic little boutiques, or, more accurately, they spend in chic little boutiques in the shopping malls. That doesn't mean there aren't expensive little stores throughout Cuenca, but they're mixed in with mid-range and lower range places to the point that they aren't really obvious.
Fabrica de Aurora, SMA

A story of murder and betrayal @ the Fabrica

This little guy fascinated me in SMA
Traditional ceramics, Cuenca

Metal work by local a Cuencano
Masks, an Ecuadorian specialty
Drivers in SMA are much more patient, letting aimless visitors wend across the little cobbly streets with impugnity. There's a lot less honking and cutting off. The pedestrians are also more mindful, making space or stepping off the curb with way more frequency than Cuenca. I wouldn't want to own a car in SMA, the roads are made of fist sized river stones, which are great for siphoning off heavy rain fall but deadly for your suspension and tires. Don't go there if you have a bad back. Cuenca's roads seem to be smoother, even though they're quite frequently under repair/construction/maintenance.
Click to make larger and note the cobbles
Cuenca streets, cobble, but smoother
Their tourist trade for things like t-shirts, mementos and general money burners are quite similar. Little store fronts that open up into vault like spaces in the back with a myriad of choices. The "stuff" factor can be overwhelming. (Not Morocco overwhelming, but overwhelming, just the same.)




Foodwise, I have to give the win to SMA. Mexico has the whole dining thing down. We didn't have a bad meal. Now, if you don't like Mexican food, you won't starve, as Italian, South and North American choices are available, but you'll miss out on a whole dining experience that you really shouldn't. Nothing we ate was overly spicy, unless you added the variety of salsa provided. The grocery stores have way more selection and it would be pretty easy to cook as you liked there without begging friends and family to bring in specialty items from foreign climes. (I did see a bottle of kombucha in Cuenca yesterday, which shows me that they really are trying to get up to speed.)
Molcajete mixto - Mixed meat volcano pot

Chiles nogados (Chiles stuffed with nuts)
Cuy - Ecuadorian speciatly
Res (beef) a la parrillada (barbeuced)
Cuenca is catching up, and fairly quickly. The difference between our arrival and now is incredible. And, yes, you can get Mexican food here. The two towns are probably equal in home grown optionsm, but Mexican food is Mexican food and Ecuadorian food is, well, Ecuadorian food. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ecuadorian food, they honour the ingredients and keep things simple, nothing too spicy, sometimes too salty. It's a bit like comparing Szechuan (SMA) to Cantonese (CUE), both delicious in their own way, but appeal to different palates. I don't want too much of either.
SMA Street Art
Cuenca Street Art

Decorated Streets SMA
Cuenca decor
From our roof in Cuenca

From our home exchange roof top

So, what then, is the difference? I think that San Miguel just has a bit more polish. It shows me where Cuenca is headed, for better or for worse. Strangely, we felt that SMA had too many foreigners (meaning us white folk). There's something charming about standing out in the crowd and feeling out of place, in a manner of speaking. It makes you feel like you're actually somewhere that isn't your natural habitat, but that you've embraced wholeheartedly. While Mexico really seems to get the whole "green space" thing, something that Ecuador could take note of for their cityscapes, it doesn't sway our decision. For us, San Miguel de Allende was a lovely place to visit and we're glad to be back in our familiar little city, with all its quirks.