Sunday, April 1, 2012

Exploring Ecuador (Part 2)

The purpose of this blog post is to relate our experiences on a two week expedition in Norther Ecuador with my parents and 4 other friends from near Morrisburg, Ontario.  Our tour was set-up from Canada and included transportation, accommodation, guide and other services.

We met my parents (Age 82 & 80) in Quito.  They are truly world travellers and although it is a little more difficult for them to handle rough terrain they were ready, willing and able for everything else.  Jennie and I feel very fortunate to have family members and friends visit us here in Ecuador so we can share some of our experiences.  Please let us know if you would like to come.
We started our tour in the morning exploring colonial Quito followed by a trip to the "Middle of the World".
Later, we travelled to Banos de Ambato.  Sleeping under the lip of an actively erupting volcano was an interesting choice for an overnight stop.  The waterfalls around the area with the deep canyons were spectacular.
Our next day took us into Amazonia.  This was one of those "bucket list" things for me.  Although it was very hot and humid - I loved it.  
I particularly enjoyed the wildlife rescue centre.  Lots of birds ......
...monkeys and other critters.  It was a wildlife photographers paradise!
One of our four days in Amazonia was rained out.  When they say "rain forest" they are not kidding - Wow!  It did give me the opportunity to take some more photos of tropical plants though.  Great fun!
The heavy rain just added to the joy!

All-in all the Oriente was truly a highlight for me.  After four days we travelled from the heat and humidity of the jungle to the altitude and the cold of Pappallacta.  This pueblo is famous for its thermal spa.  It was almost like being in a Canadian outdoor jacuzzi in winter.  Hot water - cold air.  Very soothing.  The following day we left for the area near Otavalo, Cotacachi, and Ibarra.  We stayed at a Spanish Hacienda that has been in continuous operation by one family for over three centuries.  Hacienda Pinsaqui is highly recommended.  From here we visited the leather stores of Cotacachi, the indigenous market of Cotacachi and travelled by rail to Salinas from Ibarra.

One of our highlights was the hat factory near Otavalo ....
...visiting some of the smaller indigenous markets .....
 and Condor Park - a raptor sanctuary.
 I got one more stab at bird photography before we left Hacienda Pinsaqui.  Lots of hummers around.
In summary we had a very neat vacation with family and friends  It was great to explore other parts of this beautiful country of Ecuador.  Hope you enjoy the photos.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Exploring Ecuador

Since my last post in December we have moved to Vilcabamba and have had the opportunity to explore a few other parts of Ecuador.  I hope to bring readers up to speed with both of these in this blog post.

Life in Vilcabamba
We made the move to Vilcabamba (southern Ecuador) on Jan 14th.  The move went very well and we are pleased with our new apartment.  Although friends and neighbours have told us we haven't hit the best weather yet - we love Vilcabamba.  The air is clean and the weather is always warm and pleasant.  Our landlords Bruce and Jenice have become friends and they have introduced us to many other new friends.  We are thankful for the warmth and the openness of the people here.

Our apartment is a beautiful and modern three bedroom, two bath home, fully furnished, secure and all inclusive for less than we paid in Cuenca.  Many here are choosing to build homes, but for now we are very happy with our accommodation.  Java has adjusted well and now knows more people in town than we do.  

As I said in my last post, Vilcabamba is not for everyone.  This is a small town with lots of cafes and restaurants but it does not have the amenities of Cuenca.  Loja is about 45 minutes away and is a significant city that has almost anything we might be looking for.  We have replaced the car alarms and fireworks of Cuenca with the many boisterous roosters and clip-clopping horses and burros of Vilcabamba.
Many people told us that Vilcabamba is full of hippies and poets.  One of our friends called Vilcabamba an "open-air asylum".  Some of that is true.  We find the community very eclectic and interesting with people from many countries, different languages, and different motivations for being here.  People here tend to be "out of the box thinkers".  We are appreciating the diversity of age groups, financial means, walks of life and the differences in thinking about life's-journey.  Weekends bring many people from Loja to relax and enjoy life in the Valley of Longevity. 

There are a few things people might find disconcerting.  There are relatively frequent power and water outages.  There is quite a bit of new construction going on in town and on the Pan American Highway.  This activity brings with it some extra noise during the daytime.  Horses  frequently trot up and down the streets - for us it adds to the charm.

Travelling in Ecuador
We were joined by two of our boys and one fiancee over the Christmas and New Year period.  We lured them to Ecuador with the promise of beautiful and warm sandy beaches.  Ecuador delivered!!  We stayed in the Montanita and Olon area in a rental house and were happy with our choice.
We visited and played on five different beaches:  Montanita, Olon, Ayampe, Puerto Lopez and Los Frailes.  Each of the beaches are unique and offer different types of fun.  After Connie Pamba's rave reviews we couldn't miss Los Frailes.  It is simply an exquisite and tranquil beach.  Jennie and I liked it the best.  The kid's (young adults), favoured the action and surfing available in Montanita.

Los Frailes
New Year's Eve in Montanita was quite the exciting and somwhat anxiety provoking event.  Like other parts of Ecuador the papier mache figures are ubiquitous as are the fireworks.  The twist in Montanita is that a parade to the beach by everyone launches the burning of the effigies in bonfires while somewhat inebriated younger people leap over the flames amidst the booming fireworks.  Quite a show!
I got the chance to pursue my passion for bird photography right from the sight of our rental property.  I will only include one photo here (to spare you), of a Green Honeycreeper.

 It was so terrific to spend time with three of our adult children.  Ecuador just made it that much better!

In the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable size I am going to conclude it here and pick up in Part Two with our trip to Northern Ecuador with my parents and some of their friends from near Morrisburg, Ontario.  


Monday, November 28, 2011

Catching Up

I have been ignoring this Blog for many months now and have had people contact me to ask what is up.  Mostly I just got busy with daily exercise, gardening and other pastimes.  Having said that, I do want to keep in touch with friends.  I have been sending lots of e-mails to family and doing the facebook thing but I have neglected the blog.

The photo above is taken on our terrace that overlooks El Centro on Nov 28th.

In our 5 months in Cuenca we have loved almost everything about the city and its surrounding pueblos.  There are a couple of things that we had some trepidation about when we were doing our research in the year before our move and both of those have come to fruition.  The most significant is the air quality in Cuenca.  We do about two hours a day of walking and Cuenca does not have great air quality.  This is borne out by the data provided in the recent WHO Report on air quality in cities around the world.  That is not to say that it is in the category of Mexico City, Lima or New Delhi but neither is it as good as almost any city in Canada or the US.  The principle problem is the diesel-using heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks.  They have not put the necessary controls on these vehicles or the fuel to limit the pollution.  El Centro is worse than most other areas of the city because of the diesel buses.  I am not reporting anything new here.  Expats have been observing on this for several years - some have decided to live with it and others have decided to move to cleaner air.  We have made the latter decision in favour of our respiratory systems.

The photo above is of the town square in Vilcabamba.

Pending finding appropriate rental accommodation we have decided to move to Vilcabamba.  This would not be a move for people who need the amenities of a city to energize their lives.  Vilcabamba is a pueblo - small town of about 5000 people.  It has a significant foreign population - mostly english speaking.  The air quality is perfect.  The climate is warmer.  The setting is more natural and we have decided, at least for now, that it is a fit.  More to follow on that issue in the future.

We returned to Canada for a fantastic visit with our families last month.  It was a beautiful time of year, Thanksgiving, fall colours etc.  We are thankful for our families and friends - we are working hard to stay close despite the physical distance.  We will have several visits from family in the next 4 months and we feel very blessed that they are wanting to stay connected.

St. Georges Cathedral, Kingston, Ontario in October 2011.

I want to report that after almost a year it looks as if we are going to get our residency visas.  This has been quite an adventure in bureaucracy.  I don't think this is any different in Canada or the US.  Lots of hoops to jump through.  We are happy for the support of our new attorney in Quito, Sofia Altamirano Barriga - highly recommended.  I took a photo last week in Southern Ecuador that speaks to the nature of bureaucratic processes wherever they are.

I made some excuses earlier in this post about why I have not been blogging regularly.  On reflection, I think it is about freedom.  Having been retired for only a year, I am resistant to doing things that I feel obliged to do.  I don't like schedules - for the first time in my life I am trying to live in the moment.  It feels very good!  Best regards, David.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Travelling In and Around Cuenca

As readers know, Cuenca is a beautiful city with a colonial centre, four fast flowing rivers and surrounded by mountains. It is truly a special place. Often overlooked are the surrounding areas with so much natural beauty and charming villages. Many of the villages have accomplished artesans: weavers, ceramicists, potters, guitar makers and the list goes on. Attached are a few photos that we have collected in our four excursions in the villages surrounding Cuenca.

LJ negotiating a price with the Canari manager of the Sigsig Panama Hat factory.

Bet you haven't seen the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in panama hats before!

Eduardo Vega is an internationally known ceramicist.  We visited his gallery / workshop and bought a couple of beautiful pieces.

It is very common to see families doing their wash in one of the Cuenca rivers.

Java and his friend Star came with us to visit the Incan ruins in Cojitambo.

A view of the Incan site of Cojitambo.

This is one of my favourites.  The church in San Bartolome with the Andes in the background.

Until next time, hasta luego.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Learning and Adapting

For Linda and I, one of our many motivations for moving abroad was to experience and learn about new cultures and to learn a new language.  We believe that to move into a completely new language and culture successfully requires of us a "spirit of adaptation" and an openess and eagerness to learn.  I wanted to reflect here on some of our early "learning and adaptation opportunities" and how we have dealt with them. 

It is far easier to play the observer that sits back and passes judgements from the bounds of his/her current frames of reference rather than to adapt to another person or culture's frame.   We all have developed and own "personal frames of reference" for what we believe is acceptable or "proper" in a given circumstance.  We use these "frames" everyday to manage our own behaviour and sometimes (unfortunately) to attempt to manage the attitudes and behaviours of others.  In moving into a new culture and language there are many circumstances where our current "frames" simply don't fit.

I will offer a few simple examples of our need to re-adjust in our first few weeks:
  • When asking directions my frame of reference is that if the person you ask does not know the answer they will say so.  In Cuenca, a person that does not know how to direct you is just as likely to guess and give you a vague idea of where to go.  There is no point in our passing judgement, about whether that is good or bad, rather, we have to adapt by asking multiple individuals as we go along our way in order to be sure we are headed in the right direction.  We have now learned this cultural difference and have made the necessary adjustments to our frames of reference.
  • When Linda asked to buy wine in the supermaret last week we were told there was a three day embargo on liquor sales.   As it turns out several Ecuadorians had been poisioned by bad liquor.  As a matter of public safety, President Correa, banned all liquor sales in the country for three days to ensure the supply could be verified for safe consumption.  On refelction I thought how sensible that response had been.  In Canada, this may have led me, and many others, to respond with considerable indignation (huffing and puffing).  I can't imagine the hue and cry if PM Harper had done this.  My reframe is that we charge our governments with the role of protecting public safety - we may just have to put up without wine for a few days to allow that to happen.
These two simple examples are typical of the everyday adjustments and learning that we need to do in coming to a new country with a different language and culture.  We strongly believe it is our duty as guests in our new country to make our best efforts to learn and to adapt.

On a different note we are loving the architecture of our new city.  I have included a few photos below.

The food and the flowers are great too!

Lot's of love, Linda and David.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Early Impressions of Life in Cuenca

When we fly off to a new country and a new life, we are filled with the anticipation and anxiety that goes with that.  I am pleased to say that the dust has started to settle after our first couple of weeks.  We are beginning to enjoy exploring our new city and beginning to appreciate some of the cultural differences.

In our first couple of weeks, I have to say that there were moments that provoked some anxiety.  For example, we were buying some needed supplies at a local hardware store and the clerk at checkout asked me a question.  I had no idea what she was trying to communicate and neither she nor anyone else in the vicinity could reframe it to help my understanding.  Finally, a manager in the store was able to reframe it in Spanish so I understood that she was asking whether I wanted to buy the item on credit for one or for three months.  I was able to respond that I wanted to buy it right now.

We studied Spanish both in a class and on our own with an excellent software program, off and on over the last six months.  We are committed to learning the language as quickly as possible.  Nonetheless, there are challenging moments when we are unable to make ourselves understood or we are unable to understand someone elses communication.  So far, we have found the Cuencanos to be patient and helpful.  It is hard for them to slow their speech down to the pace of our understanding.

We stopped to have my shoes shined about a week ago at one of the many spots around Parque Calderon - the beautiful central square of the city.  The shoe shine and newspaper operation were operated by an elderly Canari couple.  The Canari are the aboriginal people from this area of Ecuador having lived here long before the Incan empire.  They looked like they were in their 80s but it is difficult to tell.  When I asked he said it was $1 to shine my shoes.  We helped him up from the sidewalk and he sat me in his chair and indicated for me to put my feet up.  When he saw my size 13 feet he started to laugh and said in Spanish that he should have charged $4 or $5.  We all laughed out loud.

This morning they were cutting the grass in the lovely Parque Las Americas beside our building.  Instead of one man on a large tractor they had about a dozen men with gas powered trimmers cutting the park.  At first I thought this was quite a curious practice.  On reflection, it was employing many people in a rewarding activity instead of employing one and having the rest on social assitance.  Perhaps we could learn from the Ecuadorians.  The building in the foreground of the photo is a community police station that is staffed 24/7.  The road to the right of the park is being newly constructed.  Almost all of the work is being done by hand and "wow" do they ever work hard.  I think about the number of times in Canada where we see 4 men watching one do the work.  It simply is not that way here. 

The park is used every day and night - they play soccer and volleyball with people of all ages involved.  The play equipment is used continuously.  In Kingston, our parks seemed to get little use and I often speculated that kids were inside playing computer games.  These Ecuadorian children and their families are very active and engaged in community life.

Thank you for following our blog and for writing notes to give us feedback. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Our First Two Weeks in Ecuador

Again I feel I must apologize to family and friends for tardiness in communication.  Our first two weeks have been very busy, - mostly occupied with the activities of setting ourselves up in our new apartment in Cuenca.  I now step back to provide a bit of a chronology.

We lived in a hotel from June 14 -20 after the closing date of our house in Kingston.  We used this time to make sure we had all the things we wanted and to make final visits with family.  On June 18th I decided to confirm with our travel agent about baggage and other issues.  We had been told that we would be allowed up to 4 bags each with the appropriate fees etc.  Much to our dismay the travel agent checked again with Continental Airlines only to discover that they would only allow two suitcases each during the summer period from June 1 to August 31.  One can imagine our utter despair at the idea of cutting our belongings that we planned to take in half.  Linda put on a braver face than I and began to jettison things she felt she could do without.  It took me a while longer to overcome my frustration and anger at our travel agent for failing to advise us of this issue.  In retrospect, we feel blessed that for some reason I decided to check this on the 18th rather than arrive in Toronto and be told of this restriction.  That would have been devastating.  So that was our first wrinkle.

After a wonderful June 19th Father's Day breakfast and a walk along the beautiful Kingston waterfronton with my Mom, Dad and Jacob - early on the morning of June 20th we set out for Toronto.  We had arranged to meet the "Pet Shipper" at 8:30 am at the rental car check-in.  Unfortunately, he was held up by an accident on the 401 and by confusion in our meeting location.  We had Java all set to go but for about an hour we were in a bit of a panic because we could not connect.  Thank God for Sean and Joyti, our son and his fiancee.  They rescued us.  They took Java over to the shipping location and met with the Pet Shipper there.  Had it not been for them meeting us that morning to say goodbye and a final hug we would have been up the proverbial creek.    That was our second wrinkle.  Linda and I were so thankful for the support of our family that morning.

We flew to Houston that day and Java overnighted in the Continental Airlines kennel.  We flew on to Quito the next afternoon / evening.  We were met by a lovely lady by the name of Sandra Baquero.  She is an international shipping agent that has a special affinity for pets.  Sandra had arranged for a van to pick us up at the airport and take us to our hotel.  It was so good to see her face in the crowd when we got off the plane.

On the morning of June 22nd we were geared up to get Java out of "lock-up" (customs) as early as possible.  Those that think that they can do this on their own should reconsider.  Sandra knows the system and the people that she needs to talk to.  It seemed like an eternity to us but we sprung Java by about noon that day.  He was a bit dehydrated but otherwise came through quite well.  We had been been told stories by fellow Canadian's in Cuenca, the Pangborns, that it had taken them three days to get their pets out.  We feel very fortunate to have found Sandra and thank her for her excellent service.  It was a very emotionally exhausting morning for us until Jav was released from custody.

We spent the day on June 23rd in Quito, unfortunately Linda experienced a bit of altitude sickness that day and needed to lay low for a while.  We were staying at the Hotel Cuba Vieja.  They suggested that LJ drink som Manzanilla Tea, later we found out that this is camomille to us.  It settled LJ's stomach distress and headache quite quickly and we were able to go out walking for awhile.  The hotel staff were very kind to us and Java and we were thankful for their hospitality.  The photo above is Java with two of the wait staff in the hotel.

On June 24th we were picked up by a gentleman by the name of Efrain.  He is the brother-in-law of our friend Alberto Ordonez.  He runs a tour company from Cuenca called Mio Tours but was available that day to come to Quito to pick us up.  Efrain spent 20 years in New York and is very capable in English and Spanish.  It was a long day of driving through the beautiful Andes and we we waited with great anticipation to see if the apartment Alberto had identified would meet our needs.  It was already quite dark by the time we arrived in Cuenca.  At the apartment was our friend Alberto and the landlord and our friend Guy from Oklahoma and his wife's Dad, Tom.  We met Guy and Shelley at Christmas and had the opportunity to develop a friendship.

The apartment was not particularly well lit, but the space seemed to meet our needs very well.  It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and an incredible terrace overlooking El Centro.  We spoke to the landlord and asked to stay there overnight and make a decision in the morning.  In the morning we realized that there would be quite a bit of cleaning and a number of repairs to do before we would be prepared to sign a lease.  We liked the space of the apartment very well so we decided we would move forward.  Over the last 10 days we have had a lot of cleaning done and the landlord with some prompting from Alberto has made most of the repairs.  We are very thankful for the support of our friend Alberto as we have gone through this process.  The first photo below is of our living and dining area as you get off our elevator.

This photo is of our kitchen.  You can see we have purchased a number of appliances.

This view of El Centro is from our terrace.  The terrace is huge and will give me lots of opportunity for growing flowers.  You can see the signature, blue domes of the "new cathedral"  in the heart of the downtown area.

Love to all of you and our sincere thanks for helping us prepare for this challenging and adventuresome part of our lives.  God bless, Linda and David.