Monday, April 30, 2012

Say Ouch

April 29, 2012

Todd and I have just returned from our second trip to Cuenca for our first round of fun dental procedures.  Our appointments were scheduled for last Tuesday, so we left on Monday, planned on staying through until at least Thursday morning, but ended up adding an extra day just because we were enjoying the city so much.  We got back to Olon on Friday afternoon.
I’ll talk more about that later, but first I want to answer a few questions and comments that my friend Tami Herrington made on my last post. Tami is a very soon-to-be expat who currently lives in Alabama and writes the blog “Tamster’s Travels”.  Tami and I became friends through the various expat forums and through Facebook, and have always hit it off great! …Tami and her husband Ken are coming back to Ecuador in a couple of weeks . Tami asked:

… “You have given me the balls to take the bus this time around, from GYE to Manta, to Bahia, and back down the coast. Got a question for ya that maybe your other readers would be interested in too (?). How easy is it to manage with luggage? I know the tip to sit over the luggage bin, but how does one do that - are tickets assigned seating or do we elbow our way to that side? Also, how is security handled? Thanks girl, looking forward to sharing a drink or three with you soon”.

Okay, Tami….I was just getting ready to “reply” to your questions, but  didn’t have time before we got on the “CLP”/”ejecutivo” bus  (in Olon to Guayaquil) last  Monday morning, and my response is going to be a little different than what I would have originally said.

A couple of caveats:

·         We are only familiar with the GYE “Terminal Terrestre”. We know nothing about Quito’s primary bus station. There are nearly 100 numbered windows to purchase tickets to the various provinces/locations in Ecuador. The current window number to purchase bus tickets to Montanita and Olon is Window #83 for $5.50 each, and departs 5 times a day (starting at 5AM; last bus leaves at 4:30PM), and goes directly to Montanita/Olon without any stops between, except an occasional drop-off in Ayangue or Manglaralto. It terminates in Olon.

·         The “executivebuses are several steps up from the local chicken buses, and I believe most of the inter-provincial buses are of this type. The “CLP” brand bus line is the one that runs our coastal route, and we’ve always been comfortable on them, and felt safe to store most of our luggage in the under-bus bins. We carry important papers, laptops, etc. on the bus with us and put them either in front of us, or in an overhead bin that we can keep an eye on. DO NOT PUT THEM UNDER YOUR SEAT – we’ve heard too many stories about luggage slashed and stuff stolen from behind.

Window #83 (s)

·         Yes, you will get an assigned seat number. While it’s nice to have seats over the beneath-bus carriage luggage bins to keep an eye from a window, we feel that the “CLP” bus guys keep a good watch on the luggage as it’s being loaded/unloaded, although we jump right out when we arrive in Guayaquil to keep an eye on our stuff as it’s being taken off.

The large food court at the
Guayaquil Bus Terminal

We have never been ripped off on the buses….until last Monday, when Todd’s brand-new laptop was stolen during the Montanita boarding stop (although we didn’t notice it until we arrived in GYE). There is generally some busy chaos during the Montanita embarkation; Todd’s computer was in the overhead bin right above us/zipper side facing in, the computer strapped firmly in its case. While passengers were boarding, we got distracted talking to a friend when a non-passenger jumped on board and snatched it. As we pieced it together later, he must have grabbed the bag, taken it to the back of the bus, removed the computer, and then returned the laptop case exactly as we had stored it (i.e, not slashed) before running off the bus with the computer. Several passengers did notice him run in and out of the bus, but no one saw what was taken. Todd and I weren’t concerned, because at no point did we see anyone near the overhead bin above our seats…I’m telling you these guys are FAST.  We’re sick about it, and feeling pretty sheepish, because WE KNOW BETTER. A hard lesson to learn, but a mistake we won’t make again. From now on, all carry-on luggage will be in front of us on the floor, especially during stops.

Anyway, from the Guayaquil bus station we caught one of the more or less hourly departures of the Operazuaytur vans to Cuenca. It was a pretty glum 3-hour drive (though through the breathtaking "Parque Nacional Cajas"), but we cheered up a little after we got checked into the Hotel Inca Real, got a bite to eat and had a couple of drinks.

Our dentists' appointments on Tuesday went well, and probably the worst of our scheduled procedures is over (we both had extractions done). We are using Dr. Juan Fernando Vega who came highly recommended by several people. We really like him, feel comfortable with his expertise and gentleness, and he speaks ingles.

To give you some idea of the costs:

·         Our initial consultations were $25 each.
·         Simple extractions cost $35 each.
·         All of our x-rays last week (and there were a lot) cost $80 between the two of us.
·         Crowns cost between $350 for metal or $480 for ceramic crowns.

We return in two weeks for more work, and couldn’t be more delighted with the results and the price (a third of what this would cost in the U.S.).
Because we expected to be pretty much flat on our backs on Wednesday, we had also reserved that night at the Hotel Inca Real to pamper ourselves. Surprisingly, we both felt restored and pain-free by noon that day, so we took the opportunity to explore Cuenca some more on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. We’re getting braver on our expeditions, and broadening our walks around town.

Cuenca is such a picturesque and charming city – we certainly have fallen under its spell – and can understand why so many expats choose to live there.

Todd had a chance to attend noon mass at the stunning Catedral Nueva, and I joined him after that. 
We explored a few more churches that were open, poked around the bazaars on General Torres, sat on the banks of the Rio Tomebamba to relax for a while and then just kind of stumbled onto the “CoffeeTree” outdoor café on Calle Larga (near Iglesia La Merced) for an afternoon beer.

The CoffeeTree

Vickie & Todd
As luck would have it, we bumped into Vickie Capers who I’ve been wanting to meet for a long time. Vickie writes the blog “SmilesAway”, and is another expat friend made through Facebook. Vickie recently moved from Vilcabamba to Paute, and was in Cuenca for the day running errands. We had just a great chat – so fun to bump into a friend like that, which seems to happen often in Ecuador…It is a small country, and most of us expats either know, or know of each other.

Iglesia La Merced

Also, as coincidence would have it, 
our friends and neighbors from Olon – Doug and Pam – arrived in Cuenca on Wednesday afternoon (staying in a hotel less than a block from ours – the lovely “San Juan”). We all had dinner at the popular Raymipampa" (next to the Catedral Nueva), that had an extensive menu at reasonable prices.
Doug and Pam recently bought a house in Cuenca, plan to remodel it, and are looking forward to spending time in both Olon and Cuenca.

Once again, we really enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Inca Real. The staff is friendly and accommodating, the food is stellar (the tapas are particularly scrumptious), and the ambient “Akelarre” adjoins the hotel. Inigo Sagarna is the “Gerente” of the bar and restaurant. Inigo is a charming and interesting man from Spain who we enjoyed getting to know over quiet nightcaps at the unique and comfortable bar.
We are completely seduced by Cuenca, and it wasn’t too hard to decide to tack on Thursday night too (especially since the hotel agreed to discount our room price considerably because of our extended stays and frequent future reservations).

We look forward to our next visit, and we'll be a hell of a lot more careful with our valuables on the bus….That was a big OUCH – worse than the tooth extractions – because computers (especially with English keyboards) are expensive and difficult to replace.

At any rate, I hope by sharing our “smack down” on this one, it might be a lesson for someone else.

PS ---- I know my pictures are small.....I've only recently discovered that you can click on any of these pictures to see them bigger.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cuenca Bound

April 22, 2012

Todd and I both need extensive dental work/oral surgery done, and we deliberately waited until after our move to Ecuador to do that. 

Ecuador has good medical and dental care available, at affordable prices.  We did a lot of asking around, with those who have had work done, and through the various expat forums. We decided on a dentist team in Cuenca that came highly recommended by a number of people, including a native Cuencana girlfriend of ours, whose family has used them for years.
Guayaquil is closer, and obviously more convenient for the on-going procedures we will be undergoing for the next couple of months, but we chose Cuenca because of its reputation for having the most modern and up-to-date technology and more competitive pricing than Guayaquil.  We also chose Cuenca because neither of us has spent any time there, and figured it would be a fun place to explore, if and when we are NOT flat on our backs recuperating from the fun stuff coming up.
Our initial consultations were scheduled for last Monday morning and we headed to Cuenca on Sunday to spend Sunday and Monday night there (and prepared to spend a couple of more nights, if needed). Because we both need a lot of work, we are grateful to our primary dentist in helping us coordinate our appointments and maximize every visit to Cuenca for this purpose.
It is surprisingly easy and cheap to get to Cuenca from Olon. We caught the 9:45AM “CLP” bus at the Olon station (virtually across the street from our current rental home) for $5.50 each to Guayaquil. The “CLP” buses leave about 5 times a day between Olon (and also from the Montanita station) to Guayaquil, and we recommend you buy your tickets in person a day or two in advance. It’s a three hour trip on comfortable/air-conditioned buses. We got to Guayaquil at 12:45, in plenty of time to catch our 1:15PM reservations on one of the many/(hourly?) vans operated by “Operazuaytur” departing regularly between the two cities.

The “Operazuaytur” office is only a short distance/$2 taxi from the GYE bus terminal. The cost per person is $12, the vans each fit 7 passengers and luggage, and it’s a beautiful 3-hour drive to Cuenca through the “Parque Nacional Cajas”. We made phone reservations ahead of time (some Spanish speaking ability advised), but we think that on most days, one could just show up at either their GYE or Cuenca offices and catch the next van to fill up (as near as we’ve been able to determine, there is no “set” schedule for these vans)...So, in short, our travel time was around 7 hours total to get from our door to a hotel check-in and expenses amounted to $17.50 each (not counting the “sanduches de chanchos” we pigged out on at the Guayaquil bus station).

We have many friends and acquaintances in Cuenca and in particular, Karen and Randy Kimbler (“Kimbler’s Exit to Ecuador") invited us to stay with them during our visit (thanks, guys!), but Todd and I wanted the opportunity to check out some of the Cuenca hotels on our trips to the city, and to perhaps enjoy a few mini-vacations with “hotel-pampering”.

...When I say “hotel-pampering”, I mean that we’re pretty sure there is a likelihood that after our appointments, one or both of us is going to want to do nothing but lay in a bed, gargle salt water, and commandeer the satellite TV remote control.
We’re sorta thinking we could easily wear out our welcome quickly with our Cuenca friends using that M.O.....
So, we did a little math, and budgeted in extra money for rooms in the $40 to $60 range we hope to find with comfy beds, good reading light, and yes...with satellite TV mollycoddling, if need-be for future visits that could be for as long as a week at a time.
In-room wi-fi would be a considered a bonus.

We arrived in Cuenca on Sunday afternoon and made headway to the Hotel “Villa Nova”, which has nice comments on Trip Advisor, and other recommendations from many. It’s located along the Rio Tomebamba, next to those iconic killer-ass steep steps towards the nearby historic/Colonial/Church district around “Parque Calderón.”   We were checked in by 4:30, with some time to explore a little bit of the city before dark. The Sunday afternoon check-in staff was friendly, and a few spoke ingles.
But, frankly, we were disappointed in our room. It was windowless, dark (one tiny bedside light between two twin beds, plus a dim overhead), the cable TV wasn’t working, nor was the wi-fi that was assured during check-in. Cuenca tap water is generally considered safe to drink from the faucet, but there were no water glasses in the room, nor was there a bar of soap (which we discovered the next morning as we were getting ready for our dentists’ appointments, while the toilet was gushing stinky water from the bottom seal after a flush, about the same time Todd was standing 4” deep water in a shower that was not draining).
The morning staff didn’t seem too concerned about the 2” of water overflowing into the bed quarters, though Todd and I were frantically moving luggage and laptops onto higher ground.

The Rio Tomebamba in the foreground.
The Villa Nova is the brown hotel
to the left of the large white building.
In all fairness to the Villa Nova, maybe we just caught them on a bad day. We showed up on a Sunday afternoon, without reservations right on the heels of a busy holiday weekend (“Festival of the Virgin”), but we felt that $55 was too much to pay for such a cheerless and charmless room. We boogied out of there as fast as we could after checking-in, to explore the Parque Calderón area before dark, and to find another hotel room for the following night(s).

Cuenca is a beautiful city (and a World Heritage Site because of its many churches, Spanish colonial architecture, and numerous cultural museums and historic locations). Todd and I spent the next couple of hours poking around the center of town; I think the churches are even more beautiful at night, when they are lit-up (unfortunately the night photos we took that evening don’t do them justice).

Eventually, we wandered into the “Hotel Inca Real” (on General Torres, between Mariscal Sucre and Av. Simon Bolivar) for a drink and a bite to eat at the bar/restaurant located there.

The ambience of the Hotel Inca Real was warm and inviting, the food was GREAT (a reasonably priced menu that includes a large selection of yummy, yummy tapa hors d’oeuvres; the staff was stellar, gracious, and accommodating (in particular, Pablo). They let us check out a couple of the spacious rooms (impeccable, with satellite TV, comfortable beds) and, and we quickly slammed down our money to reserve a room for the next night ($70.79 to be exact, and well-worth the extra $15 over our planned budget). It’s in a great location, the hotel is around 200 years old, and has an interesting history too.

The lobby of the
Hotel Inca Real

We’ll probably still check out a few other hotels on our visits to Cuenca, but for now our money is on the Hotel Inca Real, and we have reserved a room for at least several days this coming week, when we will be returning there (and our check-out clerk mentioned to us that if we needed to stay a week/paid in cash, a discount offered). 

The flower market next to the
Santuario Mariano
We really like our primary dentist (who speaks English, thankfully, because our comprehension of medical Spanish sucks). We had back-to-back morning consultations, starting at 9:00AM, needed to walk a few blocks during those to another office for quick x-rays (more or less along the picturesque Rio Tomebamba-view sidewalks – an unexpected treat). The x-rays were processed within 15 minutes, and we walked them back to said primary dentist. By noon or so, we had several written estimates to choose from. The Ecuadorian cost of these dental procedures is probably about a third of U.S. quotes and we feel we are in good hands.

In future posts, I will go into more detail about specific costs and our experience with our chosen dentist, because it looks like we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time in Cuenca.

I really enjoyed the colorful and creative
ways the construction barriers were painted.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

It is What It Is

April 14, 2012

It’s been an unusually hot and rainy season, though our area of the coast is not experiencing the more severe flooding and damages that have occurred in the provinces just north of us. And the heavy rains that some predicted to continue into April (when the weather is generally mild) have not come, thankfully. Still, the weather varies from scorching to sweltering, and a sense of lethargy has overcome most all of us (locals and expats alike, though I think the locals are taking it in a little better stride). Everything just seems to take so much more energy.

Because of all the rains, it’s been “buggier” than normal, and many of us have experienced at least a day or two of down time in bed with vague, “blah”, sorta-achy flu-like symptoms. That, and because the heat outside is unbearable, we’ve all retreated to the shade or indoors most of the day. I have watched a lot of movies, and reading like a fiend, parked in front of a fan in our bedroom.

Fortunately, I haven't come across
too many mutant size bugs this year
except for this scary looking guy who
flew into the kitchen last week.
I swear I can see the whites of his eyeballs!

Which is to say, there hasn’t been much to write about, unless you want to hear about how crazy I am about “The Sopranos” (can you believe I’ve never seen this series?!), and spending waaay too much time cruising the internet, too languid to write.

We also had 4 days of
unusually high tides last week.

An article called “Ecuador Seen as New Retirement Hot Spot”, written by Alina Dizak, a freelance writer for  Reuters was recently picked up by Yahoo and several other publications. The scope of the article was more or less limited to the financial benefits or economic reasons that gringos move here and did not address in much detail other reasons that folks choose to “expat” to a different country (Ecuador, specifically).

True, for the most part, it is cheaper to live in South America than in North America (and also true – good and reasonably priced health care is available in Ecuador, and relying on naturally grown remedies is a given. That was certainly a factor in our decision to move to this country, as for many people our age who come here to “retire”).

But Ecuador is not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t “like living in the States, on the cheap", as some promoters of this country indicate. Those who come to Ecuador with that attitude or expectation are more than likely going to be disappointed and probably won't last long here. Especially for those who have no desire to learn the language, the customs, or the culture (which completely befuddles me – why move to a new country if that is not one of your first aspirations?).

There were almost 2000 comments to the article, and I’ve actually had time to read them. As would be expected, they ran the gamut of anti-US sentiment, to some really naïve and uninformed perceptions about Ecuador, to the I.R.S., to the space aliens, to those who envy expats making the leap, and to those who scoff at us. One comment in particular irked me:

Some jerk from Irvine, California wrote “moving to a third world country only says you screwed up here”… I beg to differ.

Many of us moved here because we love Ecuador.  We love the people. We love their simpler lifestyle, their values, and their kindness. We CHOSE to live in Ecuador because it is a beautiful, multi-cultural country, on an enchanting and magical continent that we hope to explore more. We CHOSE to hug the adventures and the challenges.

Moving to a strange land is not without its challenges. Living in a new country – any new country – which is not your homeland can be, at times, very isolating. Generally, the language is new to most, the customs and culture of your new país can take years to learn. Often, the simplest tasks, such as grocery shopping, paying the bills, catching a bus, etc, can be very intimidating for quite some time after the re-location.

It can be tough on even the strongest and most optimistic travelers, whether coming on their own or coming with spouses and/or family. Expect daily physical, mental, emotional, spiritual “tweaking” to happen. Expect to be stretched in all these areas, if our experience is any example.
Yet we feel it’s been worth it. Furthermore, we embrace it.

It takes flexibility, patience, endurance, a desire to learn, open-mindedness, a sense of humor and curiosity to commit to this journey…

And to you, "Mister Constipated-Thinking Asinine Nitwit in Irvine":  I think you should probably just continue to hang around Dave & Busters at the Irvine Spectrum playing pin-ball machines for your thrills, because you would never make it here.

Okay, I’m done ranting. On a lighter note:

Daisy has another new playmate buddy (aside from Scott’s two chocolate labs, Denali and Yost that he brought with him a couple of month ago, and Daisy’s best buds).
This dog is also a chocolate lab, and he arrived as a rambunctious puppy several months ago with his very friendly and nice owners who are renting long-term at Randy and Fonda’s place. The dog’s name is "Barty", and he’s all big feet, as he clumsily “galumps” around the yard of our old house (now Sarah’s).  He has not exactly endeared himself to Todd because he has managed to trample and stomp all over Todd’s carefully planted and tended plants that line the front walkway.

But I get a kick out of him (have you ever seen a tongue that long on a dog?!) and Daisy and he have a grand time chasing each other around playing tag.