Thursday, February 26, 2009

Water, Rain & Orchids

The last day of Carnival (Feb. 24) had us walking downtown as none of the buses were running. Most of the shops were closed but we did manage to get a cappuccino & a cookie. We deftly avoided several marauding gangs of people with hoses & buckets & water balloons but it was like Christmas or New Years Day, very quiet, hardly any traffic & many families barbecuing in their yards or along the river. Fredi made friends with a gang of young kids, fascinated by the digital camera. They had us take several pictures of them & Fredi and then delighted in seeing themselves on the camera screen.

It's raining today (Feb. 26). The demented school master has turned over the reigns of the loudspeaker to apprentices and they've been practicing haranguing the student body all morning. The other children are marching & they've got flags (!) in the rain mind you. We can only imagine what's going on. We'd planned on going to the orchids this afternoon but if the rain continues we might (once again) put that trip off. After we'd done Spanish this morning Fredi, knowing we always go out after Spanish, set to wagging her tail & following us closely as we walked through the apartment. After awhile her tail drooped when she realized we weren't leaving right away. It's the first time since we got her that the morning routine had differed, except for the once a week we have to leave her locked in the bathroom when we go buy groceries. Upon our return her piteous tiny whimpers always pull at our heart strings. Brian & Fredi watch CNN; Shelley plays with the computer; the workmen below us pound with their hammers; Ecuador rains.

The skies cleared and we headed off to the orchids. The fellow running the place has been there for 20 years. He showed us through several rooms filled with over 400 species of orchids. We kind of expected to be overwhelmed by this garish display but not every plant was blooming & some of the orchids are tiny. It cost us $1 each for the tour; well worth the price but we both felt a little foolish in that we didn't have adequate language to show our appreciation of the flowers to the people running the place. It's quite a walk from our place (45 minutes) to the orchid farm but we managed it without getting wet and even had to take off our coats because we were too warm. We took the bus home and just as we left the bus, big rain drops started falling again. The drops turned into a biblical rain with fantastic thunder & lightning so...our timing with the orchids finally worked out!

If you want to see more orchid pictures, click on our FaceBook album:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Carnival & Gualaceo

Across the river & across the street, in between the road construction they've been working on since we moved into the apartment, they've set up 2 tents where we believe they're holding something like a beer garden. Energetic music has been blaring out since noon. We'll have to mosey over there & have a boo at some point this weekend. Wonder how late into the night the music will go?

For our morning walk with Fredi we ventured down Doce De Abril & stopped for a a look-see at a bunch of Peruvian vendors that set up shop for the weekend. Shelley eyed Peruvian dolls with Fredi in mind but managed to restrain herself, however, we did pick up a hat for her (Shelley) & some hand knit gloves for one of the kids back home.

An ExPat friend shared a tale about Carnival with us by email:

  • A couple who are long time residents here told me that many Cuencanos leave on the weekend to avoid it. Many people have been hurt (hit in the face with balloons etc.) and, one year, this particular couple had someone stick a spraying hose in their car!
We advised our friend we'd been here last year during Carnival and had gotten sprinkled a few times (beware of balconies) but had been fortunate just to see the fun loving, good humoured side of the whole thing. Weren't kept up until all hours of the night because of blaring music at a beer garden, however ;-)

As it turned out, the music stopped before nightfall and the tents were gone by the morning so now we think it was probably some kind of party for the workers on the road. The attendees were mostly men but there were a few women milling around, cooking things & serving. There was some dancing and whatever it was, it seemed like a successful bash.

Gringo Tree had recommended the Mediterrane Restaurant at Honorato Vasquez 7-64 y Luis Cordero, so we met a friend of ours there for dinner. Shelley had a designer vegetarian pizza, Brian had penne pasta with seafood & our friend had a meat ravioli. We all had a couple of cerveza & the total bill (with tip included on the bill) was $43. Everything was absolutely wonderful (!) and the young couple who run the place are delightful. We'd spent the morning going for our monthly coffee run downtown (incidentally the price had actually gone down at the place where we buy our ground coffee) & expected to come across all sorts of Carnival happenings both in the morning and evening, but other than a 10 year old girl dropping water balloons from a balcony, we saw nothing. We asked our taxi driver coming home from dinner why it seemed so quiet and he too said most people leave town.

Over the hills & through the dales to Gualaceo we went; off to see their version of Carnival. It cost us $1 each to take the bus and the ride was interminable. It was bumper to bumper traffic for miles before the toll booth area and then bumper to bumper traffic for miles before Gualaceo as the bus took some sort of detour to deposit us on the Carnival side of the river. We were entertained by the usual fabulous scenery & a little girl with her father, both semi-fascinated by Fredi. Upon arrival there were vendors up and down what we think is the Rio Bolo and we weren't there 10 minutes when someone threw a bucket of water on Shelley's behind. Everywhere you looked they were selling various sized buckets, spuma (soap spray in a can), cuy on a stick & candied apples. Brian & the couple we were with both were sprayed quite extensively with spuma. We finally bought a can ourselves (to be used in self-defence) but ended up not needing it.

The river was crowded with people wading & splashing & teenagers carrying semi-protesting friends down to the water for a full body dunk. There was a large flat bottomed boat taking people for rides and we walked through the fair area and across a swinging bridge into town. After Brian asked directions, we found a nice restaurant where we all ate a hearty meal and had a large cerveza each for $29 for the 4 of us. We then wandered through town to the bus station, spuma at the ready, & paid for our return tickets. This time the tickets were $.60 for Shelley & $.30 for Brian (being 3rd stage). We have no idea why there was a discrepancy with the tickets. The bus ride home was a snap, no bumper to bumper traffic, no detour, no delay. Brian spuma'd several people through the window of the bus leaving town.

We got off the bus close to home to take Fredi to her favourite off-the-leash park area by the river. She LOVES to free run & burns off a lot of energy, so we do it as often as we can. However, this day we were followed by what was obviously a well-loved, groomed and overly friendly dog who wanted desperately to play with Fredi. They both had fun even though the big galoot tumbled Fredi over and made her yelp a couple of times. He followed us home & we shooed him away at our door hoping he would find his way home. Ecuadorians generally have a fairly cavalier attitude about their dogs & don't seem to control them in the same manner we do in North America. Normally we wouldn't have anything to do with a free ranging animal, but his overtly friendly demeanor & good grooming won us over.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Day in the Week

Friday the 13th came and went and we, once again, survived mostly intact. The web tells us there'll be 3 this year (Friday the 13ths) which apparently only happens once every 11 years. "Fear of Friday the 13th - one of the most popular myths in science - is called paraskavedekatriaphobia as well as friggatriskaidekaphobia. Triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number 13." It's all very interesting and means very little.

In any case, we took Fredi to the Park, the "best place in the whole world" (to her) and she romped & hopped & generally had a great time. We even went through some jungle tracks & pretended to be great hunters. Shelley got some nice pictures of wild flowers & Fredi snoozed on the bus going home. Talking with one of our ExPat friends on the phone Brian commented: "It's getting harder as we've been to all the good spots now" in response to the question "wha'da'ya been up to". Our routine of Spanish lessons, chores, long walks & afternoon naps has become pretty much entrenched.

More Spanish: When the object of a verb is a person, you need to put the preposition "a" (also known as the "personal a") in front of it. This "a" has no real meaning and is not translated, e.g. Quiero a Lucy - I love Lucy.

Valentine's Day kept us close to home except for Fredi's walk during which we saw several vendors selling Valentine balloons & roses. Downtown, near where the flower market is, they've been selling cards & stuffed toys for the last couple of weeks. We both downloaded/printed a card (in English) from the net for each other, kept them hidden until the big day & then shyly brought them out. We had lomo fino & Caesar salad for dinner and generally, one more time, congratulated ourselves on not being in Vancouver during February (perhaps that city's most miserable month).

An example of how cosmopolitan we're becoming is that the other day we watched an older version of the movie Project Valkyrie on History Channel on TV. It was in German with Spanish subtitles. Given that we knew what the story was about, we actually didn't have much trouble watching it. The Spanish subtitles seem to be getting easier and easier to follow. We guess we really are making some progress, even though at times it doesn't feel like it.

Sunday we were invited out to dinner at a friend's apartment. It was the first time we'd seen their place and it really was charming; Shelley would almost "kill" for their patios. In any case, we had a lovely chat and were fed an absolutely divine Thai noodle dish. We would have got the recipe but several of the ingredients cannot be purchased in Ecuador. Fredi as usual was close to perfect even though we'd had to sneak her into the building, past the security guard (no dogs allowed) in a zippered purse.

Monday morning dawned for us at 2:30 a.m. when Fredi got kicked off the bed accidently. Having slept for several hours, she figured it was time to get up (after all she'd been rudely awoken) and it took us some harsh words and at least an hour to convince her it was inappropriate to be in such a good mood. Shelley was greeting by Brian in the morning telling her the computer was "down" and although he'd tried the various tricks to get it going again, they'd been to no avail. Dragging her butt from bed, it took Shelley about an hour to get the Mac rolling & in the meantime Fredi's feelings were hurt once again because she'd missed her usually morning Shelley cuddle. Two wrong-telephone-number calls at 8:30 a.m. & a text message from Shelley's youngest daughter saying she was ill (nothing too serious), rounded off the morning quite nicely. Have we mentioned the demented school master who harangues his students every morning over a loud speaker and often plays rousing military music at 7:30 a.m.? This blog started out with comments about Friday the 13th. Is there a delayed effect in Ecuador?

Tuesday had us wandering downtown to pick up some potatoes at the public market, a new $14 shirt to satisfy Shelley's clothes lust (made in Ecuador thus no extra taxes), some indigenous tea & some cooking chocolate. You can't buy cooking chocolate at SuperMaxi but you can buy it in the public markets in huge flat-with-bumps-slabs or smaller chunks. Shelley's wondering a little how to convert the cooking chocolate measurements she's used to (x # of squares) into these slabs & chunks (it can be done). Fredi as usual, charmed the sales ladies and they're teaching us all sorts of diminutive words in Spanish to describe cute small things. Linda, bonita, perracita...

Wednesday was inoculation/grooming day for Fredi. She had her shot, which is always quite a shock & then that icky tasting medicine, not to mention having her temperature taken from the rear end. Then she had her fur cut/groomed on her body, leaving just the fur on her head and tail long. Now she really looks like the lion the Tibetans named her after. While we were waiting for Fredi it was off to the Public Market to pick up a couple of cactus. We thought Fredi would be all traumatized by her morning at the Vet, but once she was outside on the leash everything seemed to be just fine. That afternoon she had her regular nap with Brian & except for the fact that she looked so cute in her new hair-do & that she seemed just a tad more needy, you wouldn't have known anything had happened. Unable to help herself, Shelley picked up a pink dog back pack for Fredi. She fits in it very much like a newborn baby pack and seems to like the ride just fine. "It'll be easier on me" Shelley told Brian trying to convince him (his real problem was that it was pink). "This way she'll be on 2 shoulders not just one like with the purse". Brian obviously caved in the end. Are we indulgent "new parents" or what?

Thursday Fredi figured out how to get on the bed. She's been too small to jump up on the couch or bed so far, but last week she leaped onto the couch (surprising herself) & this morning she managed the bed. Brian's usually up around 5:30 or 6:00 but Shelley sleeps to a much more civilized hour. However, when a Fredi dog is licking your ear it becomes almost impossible. We stuck around home in the morning, only going out for Fredi's off-leash romp for 45 minutes. Later on we were invited for coffee & snacks at a friend's place. They have the most spectacular view of the big cathedral anywhere. We'll post the pictures in a future blog. When you see them remember that it's only from their apartment that you can see all 3 domes of the cathedral at the same time.

On the way home we ran into yet another Cuencano parade. This time it seemed to be a battle of the drum bands between various high schools. Lots of energy & enthusiasm & the young people seemed to really enjoy strutting their stuff. This weekend marks Carnival, Ecuador's biggest and most boisterous celebration. This is the one where kids of all ages seem to delight in throwing water on people. Frequently you'll see a pick-up truck with people in the back & buckets of water. They grab cups and sling the water on bystanders. You also have to be careful when walking under balconies. Water balloons are a huge item! Gringos are a favourite target.

We've purposely done a week on this blog (day to day), as much for us to see what a typical week looks like as for the people who may read it. None of it is earth shattering, but we manage to keep ourselves busy and active in our retirement and continue to enjoy it. Fredi has added a whole new dimension to our lives and we're both rather surprised at how much we feel for the little darling. We'd thought that rabies shots were not administered until 15 months but finally figured out it's 15 weeks, so we should be clear to travel cross border with Fredi in not too long a time (we're still looking into the details). If this is your first reading of Planet Irony, you should check out the index for "Ecuador Winter Holiday 2008" for first impressions and "Homeless in Ecuador" & "Getting Settled in Ecuador" for details re setting up an apartment etc here.

Until next time...tienen un gran día!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stinging Fingers & Coq Au Vin

ExPat night is for the time being held at Zoe's. We don't always go, but we went last Friday (Feb. 6th) and Shelley had baby back ribs & Brian had pollo madeira. Both dishes were tasty and quite wonderful. A first class dining experience for $6 to $7 a plate. Zoe's gives the ExPats a 5% discount on ExPat night so that's nice too. We met some new people from Oregon who are planning on staying for a couple of months, and gossiped and chatted with the old timers that we see most times we go there.

On Sunday we decided to climb up the hill behind our apartment to see if we could find out if the patch of green on our city map was a park. While we didn't discover the park, we did find the red light district we'd been told about previously. We didn't actually see any "ladies" but there was a procession of cabs with only men going to and from the area as well as rather naughty signage. We watched a couple of guys trying valiantly to get their "borracho" friend in a cab (it was 1 p.m.) and then Brian, feeling protective of Shelley, scooted her away from the area. We continued on with our walk but what we thought was park had fencing all around it. When we got to the top of the hill we saw that it was actually a water reservoir.

Later on Sunday afternoon, Brian was down for his nap and Shelley was on the computer when suddenly the whole building swayed back & forth a couple of times. Shelley went "Whoa!" and grabbed onto the desk. Once everything stopped moving (only seconds) she headed into the bedroom to see Brian. Brian had thought Shelley was at the bottom of the bed shaking it, trying to wake him up. The net tells us that it was a magnitude 4.8 earthquake about 20 miles outside of Cuenca.

Tired of searching & not finding, we spent the afternoon making doggie treats & drying hot peppers in the microwave. We had gone to the public market and bought $.50 worth of chicken livers, boiled them, pureed them & cooked them in a garlic & parsley cookie for training treats for Fredi. If you check the web there's no end of puppy cookie recipes available. In Canada we probably would have spent $10 or more on healthy training treats for her and here for a little effort it cost us less than $1. The drying of the hot peppers in the microwave was endless as you dry them for 1 minute and then let it set in the microwave for about 4 minutes and then dry & set again until they're ready. Shelley's fingers burned for several hours after chopping the peppers in tiny pieces. Is there a trick to that? After spending 30 years working and raising kids and never having time for herself & then living on a boat where using the oven was onerous, Shelley is really enjoying her kitchen time these days. Brian's still the main cook but Shelley's been making cookies & treats for the whole family.

We stopped by the Mansion Hotel on Simon Bolivar and had a tour of this once grand home. A lot of it has been redesigned by Robert McCartney, an ExPat Irish/American who is married to a lovely Cuencana. The rooms are just stunning and the restaurant menu is definitely high end. This isn't a "backpacker" hostel but a world class boutique hotel. The collection of antiques is incredible and Robert tells us that it's an on-going acquisition program. It's very difficult to describe the elegance and ambiance of this most gracious home away from home. We'd originally run into Robert on the street when he'd notice Fredi in her purse & then again at ExPat night. He'd graciously insisted we come for a tour of the Hotel.

We've managed to survive yet another family crisis, long distance, via a days worth of email and Skype. It's frustrating dealing with grown children when you're not actually there to resolve the problem. However, in the end, we threw some money at it and the problem went away. Funny how that works, huh?

Our week was rounded out with friends over for dinner on Tuesday; Brian made coq au vin & was very pleased that it was a hit. Shelley's increasingly famous microwave cheesecake topped off a very nice experience. Wednesday was off to Feria Libre and the huge public market. Fredi enjoyed it too because she got to see the collection of puppies for sale there. We kept pointing out to her how lucky she was to have found us (it didn't seem to impress her that much).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bus Passes & Bowling

Off we went to the Parque Paraiso to give Fredi a good romp. She loved it! She roared off in all directions, smelling every fixed object in the park to see who had been there before her. She bounced like a bunny into the tall grass exploring every nook & cranny we passed. She met several small children who wanted to pet her and then when the opportunity came, were too afraid. She worked her considerable charms on an elderly high Spanish lady and made a friend for life. Brian ate a doubtful hotdog (it was orange inside & even the stray dogs wouldn't eat the last bite he threw to them) and we walked and sat on benches and watched various soccer games and generally all had a very good time. The bus was packed on the way home and Fredi fell asleep in her carry purse almost immediately, exhausted from perhaps (in her mind) her bestest day ever.

Standing slumped over in a T-shirt and his underwear, his hair poking up at odd angles, Brian threw a pouting & accusatory look at Shelley and asked, "Who were you talking to? You were almost yelling!"

Shelley had been on Skype and was talking with an old friend from high-school who lived in Alberta, Canada. She'd gotten way too excited about the whole thing and apparently woke Brian from his nap. "It's a wonderful thing!" she told her friend talking about Skype. "We lived long enough to enter into Buck Rogers' territory!" she exclaimed.

"Make me coffee!" Brian insisted after her explanation. "It's the least you can do."

In an effort to broaden Fredi's horizons & at the invitation of some friends of ours, we took Fredi bowling at the Mall del Rio's Fun Centre. Unfortunately for Fredi it's 10 pin and therefore unreasonable to expect she could use the ball; the rest of us had fun though. One of the workers at the Fun Centre was very curious about Fredi and wanted to know her breed and asked in that frank Cuencano way how much she cost. Shelley'd told Brian to tell anyone who asked that we paid $40 for her. There's a general assumption here that all gringos are wealthy & one person suggested Fredi cost us $1,000. We're a little concerned that she could get dog napped. (Shelley had a dog napped in Canada years before.) We're not sure anyone believes us when we state the $40, but you can buy mixed breed Cockapoos at the Feria Libre for about that price.

Off we went to look at the orchids once again. We'd gone before and were within a stone's throw and had turned back not being able to find it. We'd carefully gone both times on a Tuesday as a friend had advised they were closed on the weekends. We arrived at 11:50 and were advised it wasn't open until 2:00 p.m. We're not sure if they're open in the morning and closed for lunch or if their hours are only in the afternoon. It's a lovely walk along the river, if only it wasn't 20 minutes too long for us. Fredi got her little legs all muddy and slept in her purse on the bus ride home. Upon arrival in the apartment Fredi & Brian had a bit of a hissy fit with each other as Fredi wanted to nap immediately and Brian wanted to eat lunch. Brian won.

In Vancouver we always bought monthly bus passes, except for holiday months when it wasn't worth it. The bus pass gave you a sense of belonging. It was much more satisfying to flash your pass than come up with your exact change $2.50 and plunk it in. We finally purchased our tarjeta for the Cuenca bus system; 40 bus rides for $10. You can put whatever amount you like on the card and once Brian gets yet another piece of I.D. identifying him as over 65, he can then get a discount tarjeta. And yes...once was much more satisfying using our cards on the bus than plunking in our exact change $0.25.

After some wandering trying to figure out where to buy our bus cards, we then ventured over to the Nueve de Octobre market downtown which has recently been refurbished. Apparently they'd been working on it for 18 months. There's big tall Brian with Shelley's fancy cloth purse slung over his shoulder and Fredi's little head poking out. At least half a dozen of the sales ladies in the market teased Brian about being PaPa and wanted to pet Fredi. At one stall a woman offered Fredi a tiny taste of raw hamburger and Brian explained partly in halting Spanish, partly with sign language, that it wouldn't be a good idea as it'd probably just come right out the other end. This caused great hilarity. The market is beautiful, with lunch stalls on the top floor offering pig & chicken & beans, fruit stalls on the main (middle) floor and meat stalls on the bottom floor. Everything was extremely clean and well laid out and we didn't get the feeling of pick pockets lurking behind us like we did when all the stalls were outside.

Thinking our PO Box was only paid up until the end of last year and wondering why we hadn't received a notice, we hopped on a bus (with our brand new bus cards!) and went to the Post Office to inquire. Yes, in fact, our PO Box was due for renewal as of January 1st and we paid our $23 for the year. When we inquired as to why we hadn't received a renewal notice we were advised they waited 2 months and usually by that time most people had managed to pay it without a notice. Can't argue with that.

We tried to go to Punto and pick up a small cake for Brian's 68th (can you believe it?) birthday but Punto kicked us out because we had Fredi in a purse. Shelley told them we'd never come back shopping there again, but it didn't seem to worry them at all. She suspects even if she had told them in Spanish it wouldn't have made any difference. It's funny, we've gone to several restaurants and Fredi's sat politely under the table until it was time to go and we've gone to numerous shops where usually Fredi is doted upon, not kicked out. Alas, Punto's cakes will no longer be on our menu. Later on that day in fact, we went to Sankt Florian and had their lunch special & a bottle beer in the middle of the day to celebrate Brian's big day. He got email cards from several people and even from one of the children & a son-in-law!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Planet Irony

Shelley & Brian have been wasting quite a bit of time lately arguing, trying to figure out if they've been together 13 or 14 years. As Shelley measures time by events, she'll take the age of one of her children and subtract, or know the date she quit a particular job and go from there, etc. There's been argument as to whether they should count from first meeting or from first living together and that argument isn't worth squat if neither one of them can remember either date. They have agreed however, it's likely between 13 & 14 years from first meeting.

The story behind Planet Irony:

Shelley put an ad in the paper for Brian. She had been single for 18 months or so and was beginning to get lonely. With 2 children hanging on to her every time she went out, you may understand that she wasn't getting asked out a lot. The ad, the various dates, the machinations Brian & Shelley went through are stories unto themselves. However...

During the very first phone call after Brian answered her ad in the paper, he waxed poetic about his wonderful boat Dowager, his "mistress". They talked for a couple hours that very first long distance phone call. You can't believe their phone bills the first 6 months! Brian was managing a radio station in British Columbia's Cariboo region and Shelley was living & working in Vancouver with her 2 kids. Brian was also on City Council in the small town he was living in. There had been some preliminary discussion suggesting the possibility of his going into Provincial politics.

Quipping with Shelley, trying to impress, he asked her if she'd ever thought of being married to a politician.

Shelley was taken aback at the mere mention of marriage at the very beginning of their relationship. Thinking it was very presumptuous and knowing who she was, she told him she wouldn't make a very good wife for a politician.

Brian laughed, "Ya...I don't think I'd make a very good politician myself."

"Well that's ironic!" Shelley threw at him, wondering why he'd asked in the first place.

Brian laughed again "If they hadn't named the planet Earth, they would have called it Irony" he told her.

In any case...when it came time to name the blog and Shelley discussed it with Brian, he immediately suggested Planet Irony.

There was no argument.