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Friday, November 29, 2013

Ron's Thoughts on Thanksgiving in Cuenca

I know that we are not American and that November 28 is not our Thanksgiving but it has made me pause and think about the reason for this celebration. I'm not 100% up on my American history or Canadian for that matter but my understanding of this celebration is to give thanks for a bountiful harvest albeit with the pilgrims, family, friends etc. It is time to take a moment and be thankful for the success of the season's harvest, our health and wellness and the family and friends that we are lucky to have there with us to share in this joyous occasion.
Turkey from a Thanksgiving past

I am feeling extremely thankful that I have a beautiful adoring wife to share my life with and the sheer joy of being in a place in my life where I am free to do as I please without being held accountable by some company's expectations. The pleasure and stress of learning a completely new language and the pure thrill of happiness when I am able to understand and communicate with the lady in the Mercado in her native tongue. Also I am very thankful that I am in a position to be living here in Cuenca and enjoying all it has to offer. That my children (& grandchildren) are well, healthy and prospering is incredibly satisfying and rewarding. They make me proud.

Sami & I at her wedding rehearsal..she looks so happy!

Mackenzie and Charlotte - sisterly love!
Matt & Klara - settling things with Bocci
 Dane is much like a vampire and doesn't show up on film...what can I say?

You may not believe this but there are actually over fifteen million people in this world that do not even have a place to live or a country they can call home or know where the next meal is going to come from.

That is truly what I personally believe is the reason and purpose of "Thanksgiving" so enjoy the moment and the  place you are in and I hope all of you that did celebrate this holiday both in October and November had a wonderful time and please take the time to appreciate what you have because compared to so many in the world we truly do have a lot to be thankful for.

(Side note from Danica: We had turkey sandwiches for our Canadian Thanksgiving in cranberry sauce, but good, none the less!)

Hearts of Gold - A Success Story

Some of you know that I'm doing a small bit of volunteer work for a non-profit group called Hearts of Gold Foundation.  They have full charity status here in Ecuador and act as a conduit between expats/gringos and Ecuadorian charities and foundations.  They help bridge the gap, acting as "translators", so to speak. They let people around the world know what sort of help charities in Ecuador need and funnel money and products to their partner charities throughout the country.

Why am I telling you all this, you may ask?  Well, the bit of work that I've been doing for them is writing.  (I know!)  I'm adding a link to an article by yours truly: HEARTS OF GOLD FOUNDATION. They really do great work and you'd be amazed to know how far your dollar can go.  100% of donations go to those in need, as Hearts of Gold is generously supported by corporate partners to help them cover administrative costs. This year they are supplying gifts and food to 600 impoverished souls and, funding permitting, could easily double that, as the need is great here.

I encourage you to consider a small gift to bring a child joy over Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Duwali, Eid or any other holiday you care to (or don't care to) celebrate.  You can buy live stock, food stuffs and other needed items or just send good old fashioned cash. They also accept monthly donations as Hearts of Gold Foundation provides continuous year round support to their partners here in Ecuador.  

That's it for my cajoling.  I've got some new installments planned for the near future, so stay tuned.  Be well!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Joy of Almuerzo

Now for something a little bit lighter. Having spent the last month acclimating we've discovered not only the financial pleasure, but truly mouth watering indulgence that is almuerzo.  (This is the Spanish word for in Ecuador it also means a multi-coursed meal, eaten at midday.)  You've seen the pictures, but there's so much more to it.  Sure, it can be'd be amazed at how quickly you adjust to prices.  "What?  $6.50 for almuerzo?  Outrageous!"

Price and quality do not go hand in hand.  Some of our best lunches have only cost $1.50 each. We've also paid more for something way less tasty. We've also been surprised that on the weekend, almuerzos are not always available and you pay per plate...making what we thought would be a $3 meal suddenly $6. (Like this one...still well worth the price, the chicken was delicious!) 

Steamed "choclo" (maize) with salsa roja


Fried chicken, rice, salad and frijoles (beans)

The less expensive lunches tend to offer fresh juice, soup and an entree. Cough over a bit more and you'll also get a small dessert.  Lunches are carb heavy...that's just how they roll here, but I'm still fitting in to my clothes, they might even fit better.  We have yet to eat an almuerzo that was unpalatable.  Soup is an art here...I don't even like soup and I could eat the offerings here everyday.  I don't know what they put in those vats of deliciousness...crack (sorry Rob Ford), pure MSG (I doubt it, I haven't seen any kicking around and they don't hide anything here...not even the chicken feet), or just good cookin', plus salt.  This is not a country for those on low sodium diets. In Quito we had a couple of dinners that were so salt rich we couldn't finish them, but never an almuerzo.  (We were  a bit horrified when a lovely old Ecuadorian lady sat next to us for lunch and proceeded to re-salt everything she put in her mouth. She was about 80 (some small signs of graying hair) so what can you say?  She made it that far.)

Chicken Soup

Pork Soup

Vegetarian Soup

Fish Soup

Potato and fresh cheese soup

Cream of broccoli

There's no end of variety in main courses...chicken, beef, pork, fish, various innards - one specialty here is "guatita", pork tripe in a spicy peanut sauce.  We haven't tried it yet, but it's supposed to be very good.

Fried fish

"Carne" this time meaning beef

Trucha, or trout
Vegetarian entree
Beef, with rice and spaghetti, of all things...sorry I already ate some.
Stewed chicken

Chicken with some creamed maize side
As you can see the variety is endless...if you like filling, inexpensive tasty meals, this is the place for you. (As long as you aren't too picky or have food allergies, high cholesterol or diabetes...) Not to say that there aren't any healthier options, many restaurants offer vegetarian almuerzos or you can order off the menu to get salad, sandwiches and other main dishes, but where's the fun in that?

You must forgive me, I usually forget to take pictures of the juice...and the photo never captures the wonderful combination of flavours that encompass the experience. But here are some examples (I'd tell you the flavours, but I have no idea what they use...I just know it's almost always fantastic, be it hot or cold):

Anyhow, that, in a nut shell, is the joy of almuerzo!  Sorry, I don't have many dessert photos, like the juice, I usually forget to take pictures at the end of a delirious almuerzo high.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Could it be that I'm an Ugly Foreigner?

So imagine you live in a place where you stick out like a sore thumb...too tall, too pale, you walk too fast, you're shaped differently, you speak differently...everything about you is different.  You're a bit like Dorothy in Munchkinland.  (Or Gulliver in Liliput.) 

Now imagine that you've spent all day sitting in a government office waiting to discuss very important paperwork with someone, only to find out that your documentation is out of date. The someone telling you this has been dealing with things like this all day as well, you can see in their face that they're hoping you don't freak out, but you do (some- a little, some- a lot). 

I know how this feels, because it happened to me, or more to the point WAS me.  Okay, I didn't really freak out or make a huge scene, but my voice was decidedly icy when I answered "porque?" (meaning why).  I didn't understand how a marriage certificate could expire. The government agent, used to this type of thing, replied sternly that marriage certificates needed to be issued withing 120 days to be valid. I reigned it in, I really didn't want to be one of those people, but it was a near thing. Yes, I'm describing the "ugly American", as the syndrome has been labeled. Mislabeled, as far as I'm concerned, as anyone from South, Central or North America qualifies as an American. (I've opted for ugly foreigner)

As I progress with this blog, I am doing so in a mindful way, knowing that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

We all know that person (or people) in our lives.  The ones that you don't want to go out to dinner with because they are going to say something insulting at some point. They might be prejudiced or just plain cantankerous, and we generally avoid being out in public with them if at all possible. You've seen strangers do it: the woman going off on the grocery store cashier, the drivers with road rage, the rude customer swearing at you over the phone, or worst (at least in my opinion) the faceless hordes who write ignorant comments on blogs hiding behind pseudonyms and usually spouting hate from fear and just plain stupidity.

This phenomenon is hotly debated here in Ecuador. Instances travel like urban legends through the expat population...groups are formed...what's to be done with these people who look like us, but aren't like us.  They're making it worse for us (okay...we) rational people.

Ron and I witnessed a gringa meltdown on one of the streets of Cuenca. I'll leave out the specifics, but it involved an illegally parked car and the traffic police cruising by on Segues (something that makes me giggle every time...but it's kind of cool) She was asked to move; politely as far as I could tell, as I was across the street. In that moment her face turned in to this hateful mask and she started yelling "No! No! NO!" at the top of her voice. She flips out her cell phone and tells the traffic police (in English, mind) that's she's calling the police, their boss...I think you get the gist. Her driver, (a local, or so I assume, with a cool head and experience with such things) could see where this incident was heading and did the smart thing: drove around the corner and away from a bad situation. Issue resolved. The traffic police proceeded on their way, having a bit of a laugh between the two of them. (Thank heavens they took it that way...I don't know if they have the authority to arrest/detain people, but I think she got off pretty easily.)

I was embarrassed by her and I don't even know her. In Canada, I would have looked at her with an expression of mild confusion mixed with a dash of disgust. I wanted to apologize to the police officers for her behaviour, something else I would never have felt at home, but here, it's like she was my mother or my sister making all this ruckus.

My point, in all of this? I don't want to be that ugly foreigner. I'm learning Spanish as fast as my brain can take in the information. I say "Por favor" and "Gracias", if I think I'm being offered gringo prices and I haven't pre-enquired, I pay it with an attempt at a smile. I'm a guest here and don't want to tip over the apple cart (yup, another tacky cliché). 

PS, I experienced this when I worked the switchboard at one of the Bay stores...when I answered the call, a woman on the other end of the line demanded that I speak Chinese and because I couldn't she hung up loudly in my ear.  I was peeved...we speak French and English in Canada, not Cantonese. Ah well, I've been proven wrong on that issue.  More to come, very shortly, on the good life here in Cuenca.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Takin' it Day by Day

I've got to be honest here...I know some of you are living vicariously through us...or so you've said, but right now, I still feel like I'm on an extended holiday. Even though I'm cruising in to three months of retirement (or unemployment, as some of you prefer), I can't honestly say that I feel, well...retired. Sure I'm getting my nine hours of sleep in and I get to write whenever I want. I don't have anywhere to be except for my Spanish classes on Monday and Wednesday unless I really want to be there, but is this what retirement feels like?

Street vendors working the crowds

Mind the knife!  She's cutting open coconuts to get at the water.

We have seen some pretty amazing things.  The celebration for Cuenca's independence show cased the best artisans of not only the country, but they invited a lot of their friends from all over South America, as Ron's blog touched on.  We went to the symphony (free), toured historic buildings hung with diverse types of artwork (free) and enjoyed an unusual (at least to us) parade. (It reminded me of herding kittens a bit.)  Cuencanos may not be big on schedules, but they sure know how to have fun! (It was impossible to get any decent pictures as the viewers refused to sit in orderly rows along the curbs and the participants seemed to march along at their own pace regardless of how far behind (or ahead) the surrounding parade entries were.) I will appease with pictures of flowers instead.

Stuff is blooming around here...what can we say?

It's also very strange for us to be out in shirt sleeves at this time of year, but with so many strange and new things we hardly have time to think about it. (Except when we see snow warning for PEI - I confess we chuckle a little when that happens...bad us!)  I am now going to inundate you with photos...occasionally they will repeat some of Ron's, but it's for good reason. I have attempted to recreate one of the quintessential (yup, that's a word...look it up) dishes in Ecuador...salsa roja.  Here's what it consists of (best guess):
Those red egg shaped things are tomate de arbol (tree tomatoes), the green thing is NOT a lime, as one would expect, but a lemon...the rest you should be familiar with, but in case not; onion, garlic and hot pepper. I boiled the tree tomatoes for a bit to make them easier to's what they look like inside:
Rather tomato-esque...a bit tarter though
Here's the finished product: (I forgot to mention the cilantro)
Mine wasn't as runny as the usual, so I don't know if I need to add more water or what.  It didn't taste too bad, but I threw in some chimichuri just for fun.  I've also attempted to make juice from previously introduced tree tomatoes and guanabana...I should have taken a picture of it, but now I have to shamelessly steal one from the internet:

It looks quite strange and I'm unable to aptly describe the texture...somewhere between a ripe mango and overripe pineapple.  The flavour is also challenging, as it has a citrus base, with hints of sweetness and the flesh has a smooth custardy feel that defies description.  It's quite tasty. (Also a b- well, you know, to get the seeds out.)

On one of our outings we came across a little fellow that was both amazing and remarkably friendly...I had a very interesting conversation in Spanish with a young boy regarding said amazing thing:
I'm presuming he's a leaf bug.
To be honest our conversation consisted of the little boy asking me all sorts of questions and me answering "I don't know." I neither know the Spanish word for insect or bug...let alone leaf bug. I picked the bug up off the sidewalk to ensure that it didn't accidentally get stepped on and he seemed to like me.  We hung out for about 15 minutes. (The bug and I, not the boy.)  We've seen llamas (or alpacas - to be honest I don't know the difference) grazing on lawns outside art galleries and chickens (ready for cooking) with the half formed eggs still inside them.  (Sure it sounds gross, but it's quite fascinating.) In short, there is much here to be discovered...things that we can't even imagine. But until we get to do those things and see the mysteries that surround us, I'll still wonder if I'm truly retired, or just unemployed.  Be well all of you.  Until the next time.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ron's attempt at posting a blog

Okay folks here comes my first attempt at posting a blog. You have to understand that there is a lot of pressure riding on this as I am writing in the shadow of a published author. And there is no guarantee that I will actually risk the embarrassment of posting it in the end. But as the saying goes nothing ventured nothing gained!

I must admit that right now I am feeling like Goldilocks, except for being about 5 and a half decades older and a different sex, but I might be able to pass for a blond with my hair being almost white and if your eyesight isn't quite what it used to be, which would go for a fair number of you out there including myself. The point I'm trying to get at is that I think we may have found the perfect place. Not too hot and not too cold, not too small but not too big, not too quiet and not too noisy and on and on. It is just about perfect!!!
I'm old enough and hopefully wise enough to realize (but the vote may be out on that one and I'm not referring to the age part when it comes to the vote) that it may be contributed to the whole experience of  "Loves first Bloom" when everything seems absolutely wonderful and we overlook all the little foibles and blemishes but I must confess that it is quite wonderful here in beautiful Cuenca.

Even the hassle of trying to get our residency is amusing, especially the multitude of colour copies that they seem to require for every document you submit, the notary loosing our documents in the office complex as hoards of people mill about in what seems to be utter chaos but is surprisingly efficient in Ecuadorian terms.
The term ("manana") a lot of us are used to for the lifestyle in Mexico is very much alive and well here in Ecuador and we are quite okay with it, this past weekend was their 193rd year celebration of independence with mucho festivities etc. The parade to launch the entire weekends events was supposed to start at 9:00 am but it actually got going closer to 11:45am, if you have an appointment for someone to show up at 9:00am it's probably going to be closer to 10:30 or so before they show up so you learn to roll with it and carry on. The festival was truly amazing with artists exhibiting from places such as Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay  etc. as well as an abundance of the aboriginal people selling their wares along the boulevards.  There was some incredible art on display for sale and it was very difficult to restrain ourselves and not buy anything, as we are truly trying to simplify our lives which means having less possessions.

The markets are an amazing experience with everything you could imagine for sale including livestock and all incredibly inexpensive. They do like dealing with round figures when it comes to the cost of things in the markets and everything seems to be $1.00, you want a bunch of bananas(about a dozen) $1.00, about the same quantity of tomatoes $1.00, a large bucket of  potatoes $1.00, a pineapple $1.00 and it goes on and on from there. They are also some of the most patient and kind people you could ever want to meet and when it comes to me trying to communicate with my terrible Spanish, their patience is greatly appreciated.

And of course we have mentioned the almurezos which are fast becoming our favourite meal out. Soup, bread, juice, main course and desert for $4.00 each (and that was an expensive almuerezo)!

I hope you enjoyed the attached photos to showing you some of Cuenca's beauty. So that is it for my first and probably last blog as I shall now turn it back over to the true writer of the family.