Thursday, October 29, 2009

For the Birds

Although they have Halloween stuff in the stores, Halloween is not as popular here as in North America. The stuff in the stores is a start, and in a few years the popularity of it all may come to South American, but for now it's a few pathetic spider web designs in windows, a couple of plastic pumpkins with faces, a witch here and there and the odd Spider Man costume. Artificial Christmas trees, however, are on display along with Christmas ornaments & a multitude of toys & dolls & plastic trucks & Christmas pillows & aprons and Creche scenes & what have you's.

There's a new award system happening at SuperMaxi (the local mega grocery store). We only have to collect 230 stickers and then we MAY win $100,000 or an SUV. So far we have 10 stickers. The last time we did an award system thing with SuperMaxi we got a half price trip to the Galapagos. Somehow (?!) we don't think we're going to win $100,000. Still...we'll continue to collect the stickers.

Having looked in the Mall del Sol in Guayaquil & all around Cuenca, and not having any success in finding shirts big enough for Brian, we finally set out downtown Cuenca searching for a particular store where Brian thought he might be able to get one custom made. Almost ready to give up, trudging up and down the streets, we finally stumbled upon it. They however, did not make custom shirts as we thought. Extremely helpful though, one of their staff had us follow her and she took us about 4 blocks out of her way and introduced us to a tailor. This tailor in turn introduced us to another tailor just down the block. Brian had himself measured and we picked out fabric for 2 shirts; total cost is going to be $44! We advised the fellow if we liked the shirts we'd get several more made for Brian and would tell all of our friends. He thought this was wonderful! We're picking them up 4 days from now and will provide more information, if in fact the shirts turn out nicely.

Shelley has herself fully stocked up on clothes for Cuenca's winter (North American summer). During the "winter" she usually wears a long sleeve shirt and capri pants. From time to time a rain coat or a sweater is needed but certainly not anything like everyday. She's also fully stocked up on clothes to wear when they holiday at the coast; shorts, tank tops, sleeveless dresses & sandals. However, now that Cuenca's summer is upon us, she realized she needed some more short sleeved shirts. Although many of the women in Cuenca wear tank tops in "summer" Shelley prefers a more modest dress. In any case, off we went to Feria Libre to see if they could supply anything. It was Wednesday and that is the big day at Feria Libre. We meandered amongst the stalls & eventually found a lovely short sleeved silk blouse together with a sleeveless under-blouse for $12. They can both be worn separately as well. This, of course, won't stock her up, but it's a start.

Note: Shelley can find things off the shelf to wear in Ecuador (unlike Brian; whose big & tall) but she does have to purchase size "large". In North America, she'd be a medium. All women reading this blog will understand how difficult purchasing "large" is when you KNOW you're a medium. (We won't talk about the weight she's gained since she quit smoking.) A lot of clothes in Ecuador come from China and thus the sizes are geared differently. There are certainly "large" women here in Ecuador but we have no idea where they buy their clothes. If you're a size 4 or 8 in North America, you'll find lots of clothes here, although they do tend to have a sameness about them. There's the pregnancy (or just had a baby look) with a low cut top but voluminous under the chest & there's the scrunched waist (with low cut top) look that's super if you're 21 and rapier thin. Shelley looks mostly for the tops sold by the indigenous to the tourists that are light cotton & loose fitting. These are very similar to the crushed cotton shirts you might buy in India.

Having chores to do downtown Friday, Saturday & Sunday, on Thursday we decided to go for a walk in the neighbourhood and perhaps stop at a garden centre and see if they had any new cactuses or succulents for our collection. We never made it. Just past the University on Av. 12 de Abril is a small, quite upscale artisan mall, one of the stores there being an outlet for the Vega families' art (Artes de la Tierra Galeria; www.artesdelatierra.com). We stopped in, just to have a look, and were lucky enough to meet Ernest Jaramillo in the store. He's an architect who designs woodwork; beautiful cabinets and stunning wall plaques and mirrors. Shelley started talking to him when he commented in English that Fredi was "cute". Interestingly, Fredi continuously low growled the whole time Shelley was talking to him until Brian came over. In the end, we bought a set of ceramic table coasters; all depicting different birds of Ecuador. Having now spent way beyond our budget (a cactus or succulent would have been $1 or $1.50) we caught a bus home, prizes in hand.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Home Again, Home Again III

Home again, home again we really enjoyed the night's sleep in our own little bed, not to mention having our own pillows again. Ecuador specializes in hard mattresses & thin pillows in their hotels & hostels. We did a large load of laundry, studied our Spanish, Shelley fussed with our plants for awhile and then we headed to the 10th of August market to pick up some tomatoes & kiwi for our breakfasts. We filled our phone up with a $10 card and did a couple of other chores and then headed to the Oro Mar Restaurant which is on Presidente Cordova as it goes down the hill to the river. They specialize in ceviche & seafood. Friends had arranged a rendezvous with about 14 or 16 people. We told our stories of the Galapagos and caught up with their adventures while we were away.

Incidentally, we stopped in at the store to see if they had the blade replacements for Brian's electric razor. You may remember they promised us they would be in stock in 2 weeks. It's been 3 weeks since then. They absolutely, without a doubt, promised us they'd have the blades in less than a week.

"We're progressing" Shelley told Brian. "Less than a week means less than month here."

Brian too was pleased.

We had to head downtown to mail our Galapagos postcards. We, of course, forgot to bring an address book with us, so we couldn't mail the cards from the Galapagos. Each postcard cost $2 to go to Canada and we sent one to Holland that cost $2.25. We stopped at the 10th of August market and picked up some more fruit as we're going on an expedition on Sunday and won't be able to do it then. We're going to the Giron Festival which apparently has something to do with the "Lord of Pigs". More about that later. We walked down to the the street across the river and waited, and waited, and waited for a bus until we finally got tired of waiting and picked up a taxi. The taxi driver advised us the buses were out on strike protesting. When we were downtown we'd notice a large gathering of men in front of City Hall and we guessed this was part of the bus drivers' protest. We later found out they're protesting the removal of the turnstiles on the buses. These were put in to keep a closer check on people entering the bus but are difficult for those with disabilities and they were ordered to remove them.

Our friends from the coast http://bobnrox.squarespace.com/journal were in town for a couple of days picking up toys and presents for their Santa Extravaganza at Christmas and had invited us over for dinner. They are wonderful people and we really enjoyed our evening with them. Fredi & Coquita, as per their usual routine, played with each other until exhaustion.

The next morning, off we went to take Fredi for a free walk and do a couple of chores. We wanted to pick up some oysters & shrimp patties from the frozen sea food store but they were out of both of the items. We wanted to pick up some Advil from the drug store but they were out as well. We stopped at Punto and did pick up two different kinds of buns for dinner the next day so not everything we attempted to do failed. Arriving at home, we sat ourselves down to enjoy a marathon of "Brotherhood" on TV except the power went out. Seconds after the TV died, we heard deep thunder in the distance and the power was out for almost 2 hours. It never rained in our neighbourhood but we could see the black clouds off in the distance and it thundered for about half an hour. We dug out the crib board we'd brought from Canada and spent some time trying to remember the rules. They eventually came to us and we ultimately did get to watch 2 episodes of Brotherhood.

Up at 6:30 am, we puttered around and got ready to meet http://www.watsontravels.blogspot.com/ for our trip to Giron. Despite the hour, we managed to get it together and walked up to the Feria Libre market where we'd arranged to meet. There we caught a co-op bus that specializes in trips between Giron & Cuenca. The bus ride ($1) was about an hour and we arrived in Giron ready for whatever it had to offer. One of the main festival items in Giron is a blood letting of a bovine where you get to drink the proceeds. We, luckily, managed to miss this. We did, however, get to see a wonderful parade with dancing girls & boys & a band playing Sousa marches & multiple men in white shirts on horseback. We ran into several citizens who had spent time in the United States and enjoyed talking with them; they with their rather fast English & us with our rather slow Spanish. We ate at the public market; deep fried chicken & sausages for everyone else; Shelley had a wonderful sundae topped with mora (blackberry) sauce and then we caught a bus back home in time for Brian to connect with his friend in Holland via Skype and catch up on all our various "doings". Despite asking several times, we never did manage to find out why the festival was dedicated to the Lord of Pigs. We finally determined that this must be a translation glitch on the word "Giron".

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Galapagos III of III

Monday
Up at 5 am, we were standing at the front gate of our Hotel by 5:30 listening to the cacophony of roosters crowing, waiting for the funny bus to pick us up and take us to the pier for our boat trip back to Santa Cruz. The boat was supposed to leave at 6 o´clock but we didn´t board until 6:30. A lady waiting with the rest of us (about 40 people going on 2 different boats) complained bitterly about the delay, speaking loudly to anyone who would listen. Ultimately she gave the man checking people´s names off on a list, a very hard time and insisted she not be seated near the back of the boat. In any case, off we roared at 6:30. The trip is supposed to take approximatley 2 hours. At 7:30, out in the middle of the ocean, in pretty big swells, the boat stopped.

Although the Captain and his first mate never did give any explanation for the stoppage we finally determined that we were out of gas. There we were, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, floundering in the waves, out of gas (can you believe that?). They phoned to a buddy and we waited for just over 2 hours for the gas to get to us. Several people were sea sick. Please remember Shelley & Brian lived on a boat for 13 years. Never during that time did either one of us get sick. Out on the ocean, rolling in the swells, listening to the crabby lady complain "This is not acceptable!" Shelley succumbed and threw up about 4 times. Having had enough of the crabby lady and not feeling that great herself, Shelley yelled at her to stop yelling. The crabby lady advised her she was not talking to Shelley. Shelley told her she didn´t care, that she was tired of listening to a stranger yelling about something, when nothing could be done except wait. Several other people joined in with Shelley. Quelled, the crabby lady retreated into silence except for the odd, under the breath, muttering from time to time.

Throughout this ordeal, the Captain and his crew member retreated to the top of the boat and remained incommunicado throughout the incident. Other than the crabby lady, most of the people on the boat were magnificent; keeping up a good humour in a difficult situation. Brian hummed a few bars of the "Gillian's Island" theme but the rest of the passengers were too young to recognize it. Loyally though, Shelley laughed. Brian loves Shelley!

On the boat we did, however, meet yet another young woman from Canada; this time from Victoria, B.C. We introduced her to the Canadian woman from Vancouver and they decided to share a room when we got to Santa Cruz. They were both absolutely wonderful young people and we really enjoyed meeting them.

By 9:40 the rescue boat had arrived and refueled our boat. Soon as the boat got going again, Shelley´s sea sickness disappeared. Please note: she was not the only one to get sick - about 7 out of the 21 on our boat had to request a bag.

We arrived in Santa Cruz at 11:20. At the dock we were told we could make a "claim" for damages. We demurred figuring we were leaving in 2 days and nothing would ever come of the "claim". However, several of the passengers had missed their flights and had to pay for extra accommodation and no end of inconvenience. Throughout our stay on Santa Cruz, from time to time, we'd think of the crabby lady and wonder how she was doing. We assumed she continued to be crabby.

We arrived in Santa Cruz and having not eaten since the day before, booked into our Hotel (Suites of Wild Dreams) and headed out to find a burger. The Suites of Wild Dreams is so new it doesn´t even have a sign out front yet. In spite of the name, and Brian´s expectations that we would have mirrors on the ceilings and porn channels, it actually is very nice and in a quiet location so we weren't at all bothered by all of the activity taking place downtown at night. Ironically, the Suites of Wild Dreams only has twin beds. We pushed our beds together and held hands across the gap.

Walking into town we stopped at the first place that advertised burgers. We ordered 2 cervezas and found out that the last burgers were now on the grill and they didn´t serve pizza (which we´d thought might be good too) until 6 pm. We settled for a tomato, ham & cheese sandwich which in the end delighted us (!) because they were grilled and absolutely wonderful; very reminiscent of a panini back in Vancouver.

Santa Cruz, unlike Isabela, has lots of tourist shops lining the main road next to the ocean. These shops are not full of junk; a lot of them have high-end Ecuadorian crafts. You can also find several fine art stores in the area which is called Pelican Bay. Pelican Bay actually does have pelicans. We saw several at a stand on the water where local fishermen were cleaning the day's catch. On display were some absolutely huge lobsters. Brian swore that he was going to really splurge & have lobster for supper. We set out to buy presents and wandered the town looking into all the wonderful shops. For dinner Brian ended up having a seafood extravaganza made up of lobster, prawns, scallops, fish & calamari.

Tuesday
Tuesday morning arrived and since the Suites of Wild Dreams didn't provide any meals we set out in search of breakfast. Brian ended up having what he says is the "best breakfast I've ever had in Ecuador" with sunny side eggs on top of shredded hash browns & bacon.

It had been recommended to us that we must see the Bahia Tortuga Playa which is a stunning white sand beach a cab ride & a 45 minutes walk away from the town. The walk was down a wonderful Wizard of Oz bricked path the whole 2.5 k. Lining the path were the ubiquitous Halloween trees, white with no leaves, huge specimens of the flat leaved cactus plants and underbrush. Arriving at the beach there was only a scattering of people. There are apparently 2 beaches, one which has a vicious undertow and one where it's safe to swim. We wandered to what we thought was the second beach and Brian took a spin in the surf. Along came the Beach Police and sternly told Brian exactly where the second beach was. Since we'd had enough of the sun and surf we skipped our way back the 2.5 k, had a cervaza in town and then headed to the Suites of Wild Dreams for a well deserved nap.

That evening we had hamburgers at the place we'd tried before. They were wonderful!

Wednesday
Up at 6:30 am, we caught a cab to the Terminal ($1) and then a bus to Canal De Itabaca ($1.80/45 minute bus ride) and then a ferry ($0.80 this time) to Baltra. We arrived at the airport terminal with time enough to have a coffee (Nescafe) and an omelet. There were 3 different kinds of finches in the open air restaurant, sitting on the backs of chairs and flying around, waiting for people to leave so they could steal the left overs from their plates. Darwin's adaptations at work!

Arriving in Guayaquil with 4 hours until our flight to Cuenca, we took a cab to the Mall del Sol ($3) and looked around for clothes big enough for Brian. We managed to get him 3 pairs of pants and he was very pleased with our purchases. Shelley also picked up a red pair of Dorothy shoes that she couldn't resist for half price. There is no McDonald's in Cuenca, so we also had a burger at the McDonald's in the Mall. It was wonderful (!) but strange in that we'd rarely eat at McDonald's back in Vancouver.

Our flight back to Cuenca took 22 minutes this time.

Overall Impressions of the Galapagos
It's beautiful and you really get the sense of Darwin & history & the importance of it being preserved. It's hot but not unbearably so; bring sunscreen. Insects are at a minimum and the locals are very friendly. There is a very high proportion of people you encounter who speak pretty good English. There is definitely too much to see in just 5 days but it is possible to see sea lions, penguins, blue footed boobies, seals, sea turtles, giant tortoises, frigate birds, multiple finches, land iguanas, pelicans, marine iguanas and half a dozen varieties of wading birds not to mention flamingos. We were amazed at the number of iguanas, literally thousands of them and they are everywhere. Things we thought about doing but didn't get around to were visiting the lava tunnels (apparently you can walk inside of them), going to a place called the Wall of Tears & swimming in the lagoon just a couple of blocks from town on Santa Cruz.

As is the case just about everywhere in Ecuador bring lots of $1 and $5 bills.

You can see more of our Galapagos pictures on our FaceBook page here.

PS:- Fredi did go out of her skin when Brian picked her up from our friends' place.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Galapagos II of III

Saturday
Up at at 7 am, breakfast was at 7:30. We were to head out for our volcano adventure at 8:00. We took a van ride for about half an hour, a horse ride for about an hour & 45 minutes, then walked for about an hour. There are apparently 6 different volcanoes including the Volcan Darwin. There is no population at all on the North Side of the Island. The main volcano we encountered was called Volcan Sierra Negra which last erupted in 2005. The cone of the volcano is 7 miles wide (10 k) and at some points we were standing on lava that was 2000 years old. Volcan Chico is supposed to be the most explosive. Apparently when Sierra Negra erupted in 2005 the lava never left the 7 mile wide cone.

We had lunch under a huge spreading tree, watching the various finches begging for crumbs and then walked back to where the horses were tied up. Reluctantly we got back on our horses (everyone was sore; even the young people) and endured the bouncing in the saddle for another hour & 45 minutes until we got back to where the van was. People cheered when we saw the van!

The whole time amongst the lava of the various volcanoes, Javier our guide told us interesting tidbits about the floral & fauna of a lava plain.

We rode back to the hotel, spent half an hour freshening up and then headed out in the van again to the Isla Tintorera. Tintorera is a small island, only 10 minutes away by boat from Isabela Island, but it is completely covered with iguanas, penguins, sea lions, crabs & lots of birds including frigate birds, herons & American Oyster Catchers. We even saw sharks in the water in a designated shark resting area! Two of the young men put on snorkling fins & masks & snorkled for half an hour. At this point we saw 2 sea turtles.

When we arrived back at the hotel we felt it would be a really good idea to go to a bar and have a beer. Walking down the street we ran into a young woman from Vancouver, Canada and took her under our wing and made her part of our group.

That evening the hotel fed us a wonderful dinner of fresh caught tuna and again we went to bed quite early, sleeping the sleep of people who have had a very busy day.

Sunday
Sunday dawned with us having only a little difficulty getting out of bed. Brian made Shelley promise that if anyone ever asked us if we wanted to go horse back riding ever again that she would remember that the answer was a resounding "No Thank You!"

As the rest of our tour group had left that day, we were on our own to discover what we could. We wandered the town looking for souvenirs and were unable to find much of anything. We then went down to the beach and encountered seals, iguanas & small birds. We eventually found a sign directing us to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. We took a boardwalk through swamps & lagoons and eventually found ourselves admiring huge tortoises, some of them as big as four feet long! At one point we took a picture of two of them that could possibly have been mating. The top tortoise turned to us and emitted a deep hissing growl. We quickly departed.

We were told to bring insect repellent when we came to the Galapagos, but so far we haven´t encountered any bugs to speak of (just a few flies). Our guide Javier advised there were 180 or so different insect species on the island. An interesting fact is that there is only 1 species of bee and thus the Galapagos has hardly any indigenous flowering plants.

We ate lunch at a local restaurant; Brian had chaulefan which is a fried rice dish with shrimp, chicken & pork. Shelley had fried fish. The prices in restaurants in the Galapagos are a bit more expensive than the rest of Ecuador. This is probably to be expected in such a huge tourist centre and of course they have to bring everything in by boat or plane.

Back to our room we went for a sorely needed nap. Later on, we went for a walk on the beach and watched kids playing & swimming off a pier. Sea birds & seals were swimming & playing right along with the kids. It is really neat to see how much the local Islanders are in tune with their environment. It's very laid back and the ocean and beaches are just an extension of their daily lives. Once again we had dinner at our hostel (both breakfast & dinner included in our package deal), went to our room quite early and slept the sleep of righteousness on our king size bed.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Galapagos I of III


Thursday
Shelley spent the morning and early afternoon telling Fredi she was loved before they dropped her off at their friends' place. "Do you think she'll be mad at us?" Shelley asked Brian. "No" he replied "But she'll be out of her skin happy to see us when we get back." We proceeded to the airport and got on our plane to Guayaquil a day earlier than we had originally planned and with only the most minor of trepidation. "Poor Fredi!"

While waiting at the airport Shelley oldest daughter sent a text message from Canada about some sensitive banking information. "Good timing" we all agreed but managed to settle the problem through texting on our cells. That process is so much slower for us than it is for kids whose cell phones are an extension of their fingertips.

We stayed at the St. Rafael ($34) in Guayaquil as our flight to the Galapagos was first thing the next morning. Whereas the St. Rafael seemed clean although plain the last time we stayed there, this time it seemed a little seedier. Still, we would probably stay there in the future because the price is right & the location is wonderful. Note: Guayaquil has it´s own distinctive odour; somewhat reminiscent of papaya with that sweet smell just before decay.

Friday
We arrived at the airport the requisite 2 hours early and ended up standing in line for almost the entire 2 hours as they were having computer system problems. Fortunately, at the last moment all was well and we got on the plane to find out we´d been upgraded to first class! Brian took a disproportionate amount of pleasure in this. The flight from Cuenca to Guayaquil took 21 minutes in the air. The flight from Guayaquil to Baltra took an hour and 45 minutes. On both flights AeroGal fed us better than we were fed on our International flights to and from Canada.

Arriving in Baltra you see desert scrub land, flat everywhere with boulders littering the ground. Flat leaved cactuses (called Opuntia Cactus) are ubiquitous, they're huge with many leaves like giant ears, standing there looking like scare crows. It immediately makes you think of a Clint Eastwood movie. Apparently Baltra was at one time a U.S. military base set up to protect the Panama Canal during World War II. The personnel on the base didn't call the Island Baltra they called it "The Rock". This is because if you dig out one rock on Baltra there's 2 hiding beneath it.

In order to enter the terminal from the airplane, we had to pass through a shoe disinfectant system and on the plane before we landed, they sprayed disinfectant into all of the overhead luggage compartments. We lined up first with all the Gringo´s and then were directed to the Nationals' line because we have our Cedulas. The difference is that visitors pay $100 and Nationals only pay $6 for the park fee. There is also a $10 fee for entering the Province. This process took us the better part of an hour. The Police were there with a sniffer dog who took great interest in everybody´s luggage. We don´t believe he found anything though.

We all loaded onto a bus that would take us to Puerto Ayora in 3 stages. The first bus is provided free by the airlines. Next you pile on to a small ferry, a flat bottomed scow ($0.50) to get to the Island of Santa Cruz. We then boarded a second bus ($1.80) to get across Santa Cruz Island to Puerto Ayora. The vegetation was desert scrub with Halloween trees (white; sans leaves) and cactuses. About half way across Santa Cruz as we rose in elevation, suddenly the vegetation got green and lush. Brochures tell us that there are 7 distinct micro climates on the Island. Getting closer to Puerto Ayora, the ocean came into view, tourquois blue and beautiful with many Galapagos cruise boats dotting the bay.

After an hour or two and a tasty lunch, we climbed aboard a 30 foot high speed cruiser to take us to Isabela Island ($30). The boat sat about 20 people on wooden benches around the inside perimeter. We were all issued life jackets and told to wear them but the moment we left the harbour & were out of sight of the Coast Guard we were allowed to remove them. We had to put them back on, however, as we approached the bay at Isabela.

Brian remarked, “It´s ironic that we´re allowed to take our life jackets off out in the open ocean where we´d most likely need them.”

The trip took about 2 hours and was not terribly comfortable. We ended up with 2 victims of mal de mer (sea sickness) and were lucky there weren´t more due to the domino effect.

At last we arrived on Isabela and were greeted by our guide Javier who took us to our hotel (San Vicente) in a colourful jitney bus. After we dropped off our luggage he took us on a walking tour of the town, including a flamingo lagoon with one resident flamingo who apparently has a broken wing. The local dogs have harassed the flamingos so much they've all taken off to quieter locales, so our broken winged friend is the only one left. (And yes, it was a brilliant pink!)

Javier then took us down to the beach. On our beach walk we encountered tidal pools, seals, iguanas, crabs & pelicans. We left Javier to his own devices and dropped into a quaint thatch roofed bar at the end of a pier. Our group consisted of ourselves, a young man from Denmark, a young woman from London, England, another young man from the Cayman Islands & a New Yorker. We were the “oldsters” of the group but for our entire time together they treated us with respect, some humour & made us feel very welcome despite our age differences.

After a refreshing hour spent at the bar we trekked back to our hotel where supper was served as part of our package deal. The food was comida tipica but nicely sauced and quite tasty.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Reminders We Live in Ecuador

Off we went to catch the bus to the Parque Paraiso (Fredi's most favourite place in the whole world) and Brian noticed that several of the businesses in our neighbourhood had their shutters closed.

"I think it's a holiday" he commented.

At the park, Fredi showed her appreciation for the place and ended up playing with a small group of children and making lots of friends for us. They played tag for quite some time and then all sat down in a circle around Brian asking questions and taking turns petting Fredi. At one point a Dad came over to see what was going on but determined all was benign, gave us a smile and backed off again.

When we got home, the only thing Shelley could find on the internet re October 9th and Ecuador holidays, was that it was independence day for the City of Guayaquil. Apparently there are big parties and many artistic and cultural endeavors in Guayaquil but we didn't think this would affect Cuenca. While we were on the bus however, we did see what we thought were food booths set up in the Plazoleta del Farol at the corner of Av. Loja y Av. Doce de Abril. The kids were out of school too, so maybe the whole country celebrates October 9th?

The next day we were going out for dinner in the evening, so decided just to walk over to Feria Libra market and pick up a tube of tomatoes (10 for $1). On the way back home, a couple of blocks away from the market, we ran into a gaggle of geese being herded down the sidewalk by a man with a stick. There was heavy traffic on the road and the geese numbered about 5 adults and 6 goslings. Everything seemed to be under control with the geese quite happily following the man's direction. We've become quite used to Ecuador these days. The women in their indigenous costumes, the vibrancy of the markets, the cobble stone roads, the green green hills surrounding you thousands of feet in the air, the chickens in the yards, the crumbling sidewalks, the babble of language somewhat unknown; we now see this as everyday and normal and then Ecuador sneaks up on you, and you get involved in a gaggle of geese and it all seems very foreign and strange to you once again.

At the sound of our building's buzzer, we quickly grabbed our sweaters and went down to join our friends in their cab. We were going to go to an Italian restaurant recommended by another ExPat. The cab dropped us off out front and we went into the building, winding our way through a few hallways and sat ourselves down at a quaint table. No one else was there.

"You know" Shelley said. "Sometimes we've entered a restaurant and sat down for 20 minutes or so and ended up leaving because no one came to serve us". She'd said this jokingly and without expectation of the same happening here. However, after 15 minutes of chatter amongst us, Shelley sent Brian off to see what was going on. He came back with two pieces of advice: (1) We weren't sitting in the restaurant, we were sitting in their breakfast nook and (2) the restaurant was closed as the owners were on vacation. Friday had been a National Holiday and we had noticed a number of businesses closed for the long weekend.

After some discussion, we decided to go to another Italian restaurant we've been to several times. The owners are absolutely wonderful and when we arrived welcomed us with open arms. They even remembered that Shelley always orders a vegetarian pizza even though it's not on the menu. Our friends hadn't been to the Mediterraneo before and were delighted with the meal. We spoke of Obama, the Nobel prize and the pleasure of sharing good food with good friends.

We walked downtown on Sunday to see if we could see the procession in honour of the canonization of Father Damien, the "Leper Priest of Hawaii". The procession was supposed to include floats depicting Father Damien's life and dancing groups. The notice said 9 am - 11:30. We arrived around 11 o'clock and everything was all over. We did run into some friends of ours in the park and sat on a bench in the shade for half an hour chattering with each other. On the way home, we stopped at the market and picked up a roast pig lunch for Brian. It was very warm out and Fredi was panting and eager for water by the time we hit the apartment.

We got a phone call from AreoGal telling us they had to change our reservations for the Galapagos. (Oh No!) Brian spoke to the young lady in Spanish for a bit and finally they switched to a blend of Spanish & English. The call went on and on and on and when Brian asked for the young lady's phone number she was very reluctant to give it.

"It's in case anything goes wrong" Brian told her.

"But nothing will Senor" she told him.

In the end, we made our new reservations, new arrangements and advised everyone that was involved. Philosophically we said to ourselves "It's Ecuador". Hopefully (we thought) everything will work out.

The young lady was supposed to e-mail us our new tickets, but by the next morning nothing had arrived. Rather than make a phone call, we decided Brian would go down to the AeroGal office & find out what was going on from the horse's mouth. Our new arrangements involved us having to stay overnight in Guayaquil instead of catching a through flight to the Galapagos. We weren't exactly overjoyed at the prospect but had pre-paid for all of our Galapagos hotel reservations & much of the transportation, so felt we had no choice. Brian arrived home with new tickets and hopefully nothing else will throw a monkey wrench into the trip.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

50 Cents Return

About once a month the "goat guy" comes around to the strip of grass near the island just across the street from our apartment building. If the river is low, he'll herd the goats on to the island. If the river is high, they'll munch away on the grass near the road until they make their way out of sight. We always have to watch Fredi more carefully for about a week after the goat guy's been by, as Fredi has been known to enjoy goat turds (Yew!) a little too much. We've been told if you bring a container, you can get fresh goat milk from the goat guy but we haven't tried this ourselves. A friend of ours wondered, when we'd told her this story, if we'd ever put it on the blog. Now we have.

When we did go grocery shopping at the SuperMaxi it wasn't as bad as we had imagined from our friend's telephone conversation. They were low on paper products: toilet paper, napkins, paper towels etc. and we bought two 12 rolls of toilet paper (just in case). They didn't have some meats and no packaged salads but this was not a great hardship. Depending, we suppose, on how long the indigenous people keep up the blockades on the roads, it could get worse but we've no concerns we'll be without food. The indigenous markets continue to be piled with meats, vegetables & fruits from local farms and we did a bit of stocking up on plastic wrap & baggies etc. just in case.

We've since heard that the SuperMaxi got down to bare shelves in a number of areas and then was completely re-stocked the following day, so we assume a big shipment came through.

It's 12:53 in the afternoon. Brian & Fredi are down for their nap. Strident music & shouted instructions come from the school next to the hospital across the river. It's unusual for the demented school master to be making noise this time of day. A steady stream of cars exits & enters from the street beside the school so it's probably lunch break and the end of the school day for the early kids and the beginning of the school day for the late kids. A hummingbird feeds at Brian's feeder. Lately he's had to fill it every 2 days. We've decided it has something to do with the weather in that they're more active if its a bit warmer. It's not hot and it's not cool right now. You can easily walk on the street in a shirt but it's overcast. It still hasn't rained well for weeks and river is still very low.

Dreaming about empanadas and having run out of the supply we picked up, Brian wanted to take Fredi for a free walk at the base of the bank/museum and then stop at the Chilean empanada place and pick up a dozen. This is, of course, exactly what we did. The empanadas had just come out of the oven. Shelley & Fredi waited for Brian outside and were a little taken aback when Brian emerged carrying a fairly large box.

"How many did you get?" Shelley asked wondering how she'd fit them all into the freezer.

He'd only purchased the agreed upon dozen but the box was the only thing they had to put them in that was suitable for piping hot, straight out of the oven empanadas. He also got a bag of chips which they also hand make at the same place.

"There's a service area and an open door into the kitchen area" Brian told Shelley. "When I got in there, there was no one in the service area so I poked my head into the kitchen area. There were 4 ladies there with about 100 empanadas laid out on the table ready to go into the oven. I told them their empanadas were the best in Cuenca! They giggled."

We caught the bus home, not wanting to lug the awkward box any further than necessary. The entire bus filled up with the smell of fresh baked empanadas. Everyone seemed in a very good mood!

Ready for one of our magical mystery city bus tours, we hopped on a #16 heading East on Gran Colombia. It wandered it's way through El Centro and then headed into the hills North of town. Up, up, up we went into the hills until we finally hit a barrio called San Pedro. The air actually felt fresher and it was a bit cooler there. At San Pedro were hundreds and hundreds of fairly new row houses as well as acres of land with the infrastructure put in (roads, street lights, sidewalks, etc.) but no houses built yet. Brian conjectured that the row houses might be part of an initiative by Presidente Correa to provide low cost housing for the people. In any event, it was quite an impressive array of construction. Interspersed were small rustic adobe structures just down the street from very large, high end mega homes. We got out of the bus at the terminus and walked a few blocks to get some exercise and spent most of the time fending off stray dogs. The San Pedro area appears to be very pleasant; lots of activity, kids going to school and new construction. Once again, we had the pleasure of exploring a large neighbourhood of Cuenca that most people would never get to see; all for 50 cents return.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Road Work & Road Blocks

It's been a bit chilly the last couple of days. Still no major rain, but overcast and cozy blanket weather in the evening when we're watching TV. Today dawned warm and bright however, and even poor Fredi was panting big time by the end of our daily walk. Shelley is still into "stick close to home" mode and Brian even offered to take Fredi for her walk and let Shelley stay at home and read. Shelley demurred however, insisting she should get out just because it's the right thing to do. We took Fredi to her second favourite place in the whole world and let her free walk. We then walked up the hill and around our neighbourhood spending almost two hours wandering around more or less aimlessly.

"What did we do in Vancouver on Sundays when it wasn't raining?" Shelley asked Brian.

"Well, we'd go for walks and sometimes hop on the bus and go for an adventure and quite often the kids would visit. It's just that every day is Sunday for us now." Brian told her.

Downtown, this time on a quest for slippers for Shelley, we encountered about a dozen men working on the roads. Apparently, they're lifting up the cobble stones and setting them on the side of the road, and then re-laying the ground underneath (putting in cement & sand & stones & then pressuring it down with small road work equipment). After that they're putting the cobble stones back again and cementing it together. It's a huge job. They cordon off one block and finish the whole thing and then go on to the next block. By the way, although we looked in about 5 stores, we did not find any slippers satisfactory to Shelley. We even checked out the place at Borrero 8-35 entre (between) Bolivar y Sucre for "Toasty Toes" like Brian got, but they didn't have any small enough to fit Shelley. That's a paradox for you: usually we're looking for something big enough for Brian. On the way home we stopped at the 10th of August market and picked up a large papaya, 8 tomatoes, 10 apples & an avocado for $4. Shelley made apple sauce when we got back to the apartment.

The next day on our walk with Fredi we stopped in at the Fybeca (local drug store) on Crespo where Shelley remembered seeing slippers in the past. They had exactly one pair of slippers that fit & they were exactly what she wanted!

Sunday had us downtown as usual looking for the entertainment in the gazebo that doesn't appear to be coming back. We've read that they now have got a new tourist entertainment schedule in that on Thursdays they'll have live bands at the airport greeting people coming off the airplanes and later on in the evenings on Thursdays they'll have musical and dance events in various parts of town. Fridays apparently there'll be walking and bus tours and on Sundays museum tours. This, of course, is all very well for the genuine tourists coming into town for a week or two but we miss the Sunday afternoon entertainment. In any case, we sat in the park for 45 minutes and people watched. At one point a Dad & his 3 year old daughter came over to inspect Fredi and were quite pleased to get Brian's enthusiastic welcome. Shelley wandered off to visit a wash room and when she came back found that the little girl had brought over a friend; the Dad benignly watching from a bench several feet away. They left after petting Fredi and telling us their names. A few minutes later the 2 girls returned with a little boy in tow. After they left Shelley suggested it was time to go.

"I'm not going until 8 of them come all at once" Brian teased.

Passing one of the many churches downtown, we inspected the food stalls they had set up outside the church obviously in a fund raising effort. Brian's now on the lookout for empanadas. (Which incidentally we were told didn't freeze well; but they did for us.) In any case, we got roped into buying a ticket to win a microwave (2nd prize is a pig!) Brian got so caught up talking to the young people he actually started to walk away without picking up Fredi who he had given to a young man to hold while he filled out the ticket. Shelley shook her finger at Brian and startled, he turned back to get Fredi. The young people all thought this was hilarious!

Just got a telephone call from a friend of ours suggesting we might want to go shopping today (Sunday) as they're running out of things in the SuperMaxi. Apparently the indigenous people have been protesting by blocking the roads through to Quito & Guayaquil. We had known this was happening but didn't think much about it, figuring it wouldn't affect us as we weren't planning any trips. However, we never stopped to consider the supply chain. Trepidatiously, Shelley woke from Brian from his regular nap and discussed the situation with him. We decided to shop on our regular day and go to the indigenous markets for our food and produce if that's what we had to do. Fortunately, we've done a fair bit of shopping at the people's markets and aren't put off by the overwhelming colour of it all.