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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Fickle Foreigner and Other Expat Tales

Okay, so maybe there aren't really any "tales" included in this blog post, but I think there's a life lesson to be had somewhere in there.

I feel badly that we don't have the income to support all the restaurants that we like here in Cuenca. Some really good ones have come and gone, while other  more pedestrian (is that a nice way to say it?) remain. How can this be? It's a phenomenon I like to call "the fickle foreigner".

Here's how it goes: a new restaurant opens, and craving diversity, the expat community floods it with business - I include returning Ecuadorians that have been in Europe and North America in this group. (You must understand that in Ecuador there isn't the diversity of food choices that many have grown to appreciate. Chicken is chicken; pork - pork etc. There's a noted lack of foreign ingredients like Thai, Chinese, Indian, European, etc. that makes it difficult to achieve any real diversity.) So, what happens when you've gone to a place for the 5th time in a couple of weeks? Yup, you get tired of it. Then something miraculous happens, just when you think you might have to cook a meal at home; another restaurant opens! (Yay!) Cue the flock.

Now, the old restaurant suddenly has a dip in sales, they have to let staff go, their quality slips and no one wants to eat there anymore. So that restaurant has to close up after what was an incredibly promising start. The new restaurant booms with success and the cycle continues.

It's not really the expats fault, especially if cooking at home holds zero interest for them, but if they'd just show a leetle bit of common sense or even pragmatism, they could stop the cycle. This also applies to the better heeled Ecuadorian middle and upper class. They seem to suffer the same affliction.

I want to make something perfectly clear...Ecuadorian food is actually very flavourful. (Beware the salt content in some places!) There's just not any hint of fusion, no external influences (except the rice that the Spaniards brought with them). There's very little spice; aji sauce being the go to condiment, if you're looking for a little heat (emphasis on 'little'). They do good solid basic food and make an art form of soup. If you're a meat/poultry/fish and potato person, without all the bells and whistles you'll think you've died and gone to heaven.

So if you really (and I mean REALLY) love a restaurant here, do it a favour and don't binge at it. Go once a week, find other places in between and give the owners a real chance at making it, not a tidal wave of false success . In truth, there are restaurants here that have clued in to the "Fickle Foreigner Phenomenon" and only open once a week for dinner. While I take umbrage at their title of "restaurant" I can't really find a suitable alternative to replace it.

If you have the funds, be kind and spread the love. We'll continue to go to our favourites and try the new ones as our budget allows.

The photos in the blog are only some of our favourites, or just good places to get together with friends based on location, price point or bilingualism. Tell us what your favourite restaurant is in Cuenca in the comments section. Not only will it help others who come visit but might give us somewhere new to try.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstasty

There is little worse than being a creative spirit. Nor is there anything better. (Yes, it's like A Tale of Two Cities.) The process of creating is both invigorating, soul sucking, uplifting and devastating. In's amazing.

Then comes the presentation. For writers, it's not just about writing the book, no. You also have to worry about the whole publishing process. Just because your book has been professionally edited it doesn't mean that it's mistake free. You can have three, five, twenty people go through it and there will still be mistakes. (Cue frowny face.) Then there's after your baby (yes, that's what it is) is published. There's this thing called marketing. Some people (creative people) live for this. I do not. It's really hard for me to sell myself. If I read my work, I think it's brilliant, but then I read it again and hate almost every part of it. There is no such thing as perspective.

Anyhow, it's been almost a month since I released my latest book and I've watched the sales, the free downloads and the reviews. The word is in, at least in a small degree. (Remember, I'm not good at selling myself.)  I've had 5 reviews and they are all 5 stars...out of 5. I know. This makes me feel good. Okay, so I've only sold 12 copies, but when I was giving it away free 260 copies were downloaded. This is also good.

This is the glory and the pain. I remember CBC Weekend Sports used to have a reel and the voice over that said "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" and that is my experience with the writing process.

Thanks for the support, those of you that bought or downloaded and for those of you who couldn't thanks for the moral support.

Just as a teaser, I'm almost 23,000 words in to the sequel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In Search of the Monks' Backs

Do you ever wake up in the morning and just want to do something? No, neither do I...usually. I'm not known as a morning person. I usually think it's amazing that I get up, drink a cup of coffee and go work out. (Better to do it when I'm half asleep, right?)

But yesterday was different. The sky was a bright, pure blue that just called to me and the hill across the valley of Cuenca was mocking me. We'd made a couple of attempts to get to it before. Once was a sad sort of "maybe-we-can-figure-out-the-road" sort of attempt and the other was fairly serious, but we'd come unequipped - meaning no food. So yesterday was the day, dammit! (It felt wrong omitting that word.) Even though we'd gone to the gym first thing in the morning, we thought "why not?"

We sunscreened up (yes, that's actually "a thing"), packed a lunch, loaded up our water bottles and headed off. Here's where the mountain/hill is from our place:
Las Espaldas de Monjos
Now don't get all freaked out, it seems farther than it actually is. At least that's what we told ourselves, anyway. We walked down our little hill, through El Centro, up Avenida Solano past Tres Puentes, up a brutally steep side street to reach the stairs before the stairs of Mirador Turi. We scuttled down a dirt road, crossed Las Americas, climbed the embankment and finally got to the Turi staircase. 439 stairs later we arrived at the church directly opposite (across the bowl of the city) our condo. Now, all we had to do was find the road to Las Espaldas de Monjos.
Closer up view from our place
Actual first steps to Turi
The bell tower of Turi
Don't get us wrong, we'd done as much homework as we could, but maps here don't really go outside the city proper (meaning El Centro) and it's pretty hard to figure it out on online maps if you aren't exactly sure what you're looking for. (It's not like the hill top is marked on Google Maps.)
We asked directions and the two men at the bus stop seemed surprised by our destination, but yes, we were going the right way. They pointed to a road arching up towards the hill top and we merrily went on our way. Sure we had to pass heaps of barking dogs, the further you go into the countryside the more dogs you'll see - no small feat considering how many dogs are in the city.
Seriously gorgeous day.
Baby cow! 
Final-ish stretch
We don't worry so much about the street dogs, but the owned dogs can be aggressive and unpredictable. We passed cows and sheep, more chickens than you can shake a stick at and suddenly the hill came in to view. The only problem was that the road was turning away from it. We carried on, assuming that it would, eventually, loop back. This happened several times and we debated on whether we should give up or not but we finally found ourselves at the ridge of Las Espaldas de Monjos. Of course, you can't see that part from where we live.

We followed the dirt road up and around one of the hills and could finally see a direct road link to our destination. We made it to the cross that marks the top of the hill in two hours and fifteen minutes. Not bad, considering we had to stop and ask for directions a couple of times and took one wrong turn. We honestly should have known that there are no "direct" roads to darn near anywhere here, but in many ways we're still naïve.

Been there, done that!
The views were well worth the walk and we enjoyed our picnic lunch amongst the butterflies that inhabit the summit. I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Ecuadorian pose!
Las Cajas in the distance

Surrounding landscape
In a fit of pure optimism (buoyed by our success, no doubt) we tried to find a shorter path down, but only got to some steep cliffs that were impassable without mountaineering equipment, so we were forced to hike back up to the summit and return the way we'd come. Fortunately, it was mostly down hill going back, so it only took us a couple of hours.
Artsy pic with the cross's shadow
From the back side of Turi
If walking 18.5 kms isn't your thing, you can always catch the #19 bus and it will drop you off on the road that runs the ridge to the hill, but for us - what would be the fun in that?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

No Joy in Air Travel

Flying used to be fun, kids, I swear. Free wine with dinner, free headphones, shorter arrival times, longer flights, less layovers. There was even a certain amount of glamour to it. But all that is gone now.

Airlines are now nickel and diming us to death. Baggage allowances are getting smaller, there is a shortage of direct flights to pretty well anywhere. The "hub" reigns supreme. And now the IATA is talking about reducing the size of carry on luggage by 40%.  Yes, that's right...almost half. Add to this extra costs for checked bags, for purchase on board meals, fees for "premium" seats, "preferential" boarding and Lord only knows what else (using the loo on one economy airline in Europe!), it's completely taking the joy out of travel. And that's just the actual flight. This doesn't even include arriving THREE HOURS early for international flights, having your bags weighed like you're some sort of overweight baggage criminal. Then there's clearing security (remove your liquids, electronics and shoes!), finding your gate, possibly having to deal with another random security inspection, having your carry on rejected by the flight attendant, engendering an additional checked bag fee. The glamour is officially gone.

With all this in mind, we find ourselves asking: "should we buy new, smaller carry-ons?" Should we say "screw it!" and just travel via bus/train/boat, or do we, as the airlines hope we will, just suck it up and get on the airplane anyway?

We just don't have an answer, but it's daunting. I can't imagine being a new traveller; someone who is taking their first international flight, and surmounting all of this ridiculousness. The airlines will eventually lose's just not worth it, especially to the newbie. Hey, they can just go to Vegas and visit the Eiffel Tower, Egypt, Italy etc. They'll never know the difference and for West Coasters it's a short flight, with not much luggage required, especially in the summer. So go on "stay-cations", discover your own country, heck even your own town - especially if you can do it in the comfort of your own car and stick your tongue out at the airlines that have obviously lost any sense of customer service or obligation to the people who pay their way.

That being said, the airlines in South America are more generous to their long flight guests, so all is not lost, maybe give them a try and enjoy a bit of what flying used to be about. To the other airlines, that have created a class system that makes me want to slink into the coach section, like I'm not worthy of even laying eyes on the first class passengers, shame on you! Pull up your socks, develop a better business model and stop punishing the coach passengers for not being able to pay for first/business class. ( Canada the ticket is often double the price!)

I will say thank you to the airlines that rejected the IATA recommendation of down sizing carry on...and to those of you that try and sneak things on that you well know are oversize, please don't continue adding to the problem, no matter how tempting it is! (Trust me, I know the lure of taking everything into the cabin with you!) We won't talk about the possible class action law suits against Air Canada and several US airlines regarding collusion to rig costs at inflated, we won't discuss that yet. 

I raise my $8 glass of (mediocre) wine to all of you that continue to fly the unhappy skies to get to strange, new, wonderful places and see what the world has to hold.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Ecuadorian Contracts - Important Info!!!

We all know that things are different down here, or at least I would guess that most people have that understanding, but sometimes I forget and find myself surprised in certain circumstances.

Let's take a hypothetical situation - you're buying a new build house that has a late delivery clause. If the condo is supposed to be ready for occupancy on July 14th, but isn't ready the builder may agree to a financial penalty, most likely per day; say $20. (For arguments sake). You finally move in to your condo on the very first day it's ready for occupancy and that day is July 30th (I like easy math), that means that you should be getting a discount/refund of 17 x $20 = $340, right?

No, not necessarily. Even though this is a clause written in to the purchase agreement, if the builder doesn't pay it willingly you will need to sue him. So it comes to down to the question "is it worth it?" For $320? No. No, it isn't. 

Your lawyer might even explain to you that this is more of an "encouragement" clause, something that keeps your build on track and that you can fall back on if things really go south, say they owe you 300 days. That's assuming your contract doesn't include a way to get out of the purchase if the place isn't ready in 90/120 or however many days the property may be late. (It's possible you might have to sue to get your money back, as well, we never had to go that far.) When it was added (not at our request) we thought it was odd to have a late delivery clause...I mean, really, when has a new build ever completed on time? It seemed sort of un-Ecuadorian. Live and learn.

But it actually was a classic Ecuadorian lesson. As a people, they are notorious for agreeing to things that are completely impossible, or at the very least, improbable. I believe they really don't like conflict as a general rule and will say anything to avoid it. Now that we know there's no real way of enforcing verbal or even written agreements of this nature (without spending a load of money on legal fees etc.), the extranjero can be caught by surprise. Locals will be genuinely confused when you get upset with them for things of this nature, as this is standard practice here.
Okay...that's just funny!
What's the take away? Put those sorts of details in the contract, because you might actually need to act on it, but don't expect it to be an adjustment on the closing costs that you're lawyers follow up on. Consider yourself forewarned and always ask for clarification when talking about these finer points. Don't take anything for granted and be prepared to let some things go.