Comerford Dam, Vermont

Friday, June 24, 2011

Back in Vermont, it's Raining

A big thank you to all the readers who contacted me with support and advice following my homesick post of a couple of weeks ago. One person suggested that I buy some Velveeta Slices and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to alleviate my symptoms. Another person suggested that I marry a Cuencano.

More interesting were the responses to my experiences on the streets of Cuenca. The first occurred on a Saturday morning on a busy street in El Centro. A man came up behind me and removed my earrings from my ears - leaving a slight scratch on one ear, but scaring me. I soldiered through that, going on with my planned activity for that day, determined not to be cowed.

But then a week later, three young men surrounded me and hassled me for several minutes, scaring me again. The two incidents started to wear on me, and I found my behavior changing.

Everyone who moves to a foreign place brings their own history and perceptions to their experience, and mine led to a feeling of claustrophobia and concern for my safety. I found myself staying at home, hence the claustrophobia, and then when I did go out, I would worry the whole time. I told friends that I felt like I had a big red X on my back.

Reaction varied from "you need to just get over it" to "yeh, it's a hard go for a single woman here."

Then I started to hear, "don't take anything valuable on the bus", "don't go out alone at night", "don't walk or jog by yourself."

So, all support aside, I felt unsafe and unable to lead the kind of life that I wanted to. So I made plans to leave and arrived back in Vermont a few days ago.

In the end, the lesson that I learned was that I had to experience living in Cuenca for myself before I could decide yea or nay. A short trip down to see the city wasn't enough.

I would encourage everyone who is thinking about moving to Cuenca to try it out for awhile before making a commitment. And I emphatically encourage everyone to give it a shot. Don't be discouraged by my experience, because it is uniquely my own and partly based on experiences from earlier overseas living situations.

Cuenca is a lovely city, the people are incredibly friendly and helpful, the food is fresh and plentiful, and there are plenty of adventures to be had close by. Spanish lessons are easy to come by and there are expatriates to lend support and encouragement.

Meanwhile, back in Vermont, I am looking for a place to live and a good Internet connection, so I can begin working. I'll have to go into town and park in the library parking lot to get WiFi for posting this blog.

Finally, frustration is universal. Stuff happens. Yesterday I bought a brand new car and today someone scraped my rear fender!

And, it's been raining since I arrived!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Cuenca Blue Bus Blues

The blue buses are the stuff of legend here in Cuenca. There are 29 different routes that criss-cross the city and continue a fair way out of town. Each of those routes has buses that run 7 days a week, with a frequency of 10 minutes or less. Do the math, and you'll see that Cuenca is crawling with blue buses!

A lot of bus stops serve several different routes, which results in a line of buses jockeying for position when they approach the bus stop.

The upside of this is that for a fare of 25 cents, you can hop a bus and get just about anywhere in the city. Well, after a few false starts in the beginning - I'll bet everyone who rides the bus here has a story to tell - here's mine.

After studying the city's bus guide, and a map, I determine which bus I need to take to reach my destination. I'll have to get off the bus and walk a fair distance to get where I want to go. No problem, I'm a walker. Coins in hand, I board the bus and off we go.

The bus driver often has a pal sitting next to him, helping with change or just talking. The rectangular box in the upper left hand corner of the bus is a rolling sign that shows the current stop and announces the next stop. Very helpful when you don't exactly know where you're going! Note: not all buses have this amenity.

I get off the bus, take care of business, and then, because I've already walked awhile, I get on the first bus that comes along. I can tell by the guide that this bus will eventually stop somewhere close to where I live. I'll just have to ride it to the end of the line - which is okay - another blogger mentioned that she did this all the time.

From my vantage point in the back of the bus, I watch as the bus moves through El Centro, out past the airport, into an industrial area, and then heads up into the hills. Now we're in cow and corn country, and I'm getting a little nervous. I'm starting to feel a long way from Cuenca, almost into Peru, and the bus is showing no signs of stopping!

Hey, is that a llama??

Finally, the bus stops, on a dirt road surrounded by little farms. A couple of other buses are standing idle at the bus stop. The bus driver gets out and heads towards a little bodega. So much for staying on the bus until it loops back to where I want to get off! I suddenly feel very alone in a foreign land!

A short conversation with the driver, and I realize that all I have to do is get on one of the idle buses and wait and eventually the driver will appear and start driving the route again. In fact, this is what happens, and the bus slowly winds its way back through the industrial area, past the airport and into the center of Cuenca. As soon as I see anything that looks even remotely familiar to me, I get off the bus and walk the rest of the way home.

Out in the sticks, I was the only passenger on the bus for quite a few stops, but the bus gradually filled up again, and was packed when I finally stepped to the rear door to get off.

That experience taught me to pay closer attention to the bus routes, and study the map a little closer, before hopping onto any old bus. But I have to admit, it was quite a ride for 25 cents!

Bus guides, guia de buses, are available at Cuenca's tourist information offices - free. There is also a website,, which shows all routes and has a tripfinder - and is in both English and Spanish.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Visit to Artesa Ceramics

This morning, several of us took a tour of Artesa Ceramics, sponsored by the Cuenca Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has created a great program for expats, that includes tours, speakers and email notices for upcoming events, like concerts.

It was so noisy in the Artesa work area that it was hard to hear the guide, but my observation was that a staff of about thirty people turn out this ceramic ware, from start to finish. I was surprised at how few people were working, considering the stacks and stacks of drying ceramics that filled the workspace.

One of the first steps - vats of clay, waiting to be processed. Once the water has been pressed out and the clay has been formed into cylinders, it's ready for the molds, shown in the photo below.

The warehouse work area was filled with stacks of drying mugs, plates, lamp fixtures, bowls, pitchers, ladles - and much more... 

I've never seen such a large kiln! Pieces move through this kiln in an assembly line.

Once fired, they are ready to be hand decorated. The artwork is applied with wax, which melts when glazed and fired, leaving the finished design.

I'd say there were about fifteen women applying the designwork. It takes a steady and deft hand to do this!  

 In the photo above, you can see the black wax pencils that are used to apply the designs. 

Howdja like to do this all day, every day?!

Once glazed and fired, the pieces go through a rigorous inspection, and if perfect, they are ready for sale. Artesa also makes pieces that are solely for museum display.

The adjacent showroom is a colorful and cheerful place, and the finished pieces are beautiful. It's hard to pick just one!

There is a seconds shop for bargain shoppers, which is open every Friday morning.

Artesa is located at Av. Isabel La Catolica 1-102 y Av. de las Americas in Cuenca
Tel: 2881 755

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Second Thoughts and Reservations

It's time for me to 'fess up to some extreme tunnel vision in planning this adventure. I failed to take a couple of things into consideration and they are now staring me right in the face.

I failed to consider how my medical problems (resulting in part from my earlier travels) would play out in Ecuador. And they are not playing out well. I haven't been able to sample the vast array of restaurant food here, because my digestive system is not tolerating the food well. Yuk!

And while I was thinking about all the things that I wanted to escape from, I failed to take into account all the things that I valued in Vermont. Washed out roads and lousy weather aside.

I didn't think about what it would mean to miss Friday night dinner at my friend's house every week, or how much I would miss my opera buddy.

I'm thinking about it now, that's for sure!

But, in fact, the real issue is that I don't feel safe in Cuenca as a woman alone. I have been all over the city on foot, and I have walked the parks and neighborhoods, and I am constantly looking over my shoulder. I don't feel comfortable going out at night. I feel constrained.

So now I'm going to spend some serious time thinking about what's important to me at this point and I'll let you know.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Spider Plants follow me to Cuenca!

When I got out of bed Monday morning, my right ankle complained painfully. After a little limping around, I decided it might be a good day to stay home, instead of putting in my three to four mile daily walk!

So I started poking around in the yard. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was weeding and pruning. I was surprised to find so many familiar plants.

Allium, I think.

The people in the yard behind this one have a coconut palm, and there are a couple of small trees in this yard, as a result of drops from their tree. There's a fairly ancient grape vine, and ivy covering the back brick walls.

These white irises run around all four walls of the house.

I picked out the two trees to suspend my hammock from, but Maria Elena, my landlady, pointed out that one of them was a lemon verbena. For years I've been buying a lemon verbena every spring for my yard, and now I have a tree to enjoy all year round.

Growing around the lemon verbena are geraniums and creeping charlie, blooming with small white flowers.

These purple wandering jew plants are everywhere, but I've never seem them flower before.

Some of the houseplants that I had in Vermont are growing here in the yard. Geraniums, ivy, impatiens, and spider plants are all thriving outside here. I even found a little potted violet and some allysium.

All the trees, and even the jade plants, have these air plants growing here and there on their limbs. You can see a tiny one at the very top of the photo.

I spent a very pleasant day, limping around the yard, weeding and discovering, pruning and watering. An afternoon breeze made for very pleasant work, and I was very happy that I had chosen this place to live, and not a seventh floor apartment!

P.S. The fruit in the top photo is called a Chinese Cherry. I think Maria Elena said you could eat them, but they're not very good.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Now, to Make this House a Home

What a pleasure it was to be awakened this morning by roosters crowing and dogs barking. No more roaring traffic and beeping horns, even though I've only moved about a mile and a half. I'm still on a busy street but back far enough from the street that the noise is muffled.

So, welcome to my new place!

Downstairs is the living/dining area on the left and the kitchen on the right. Tucked under the stairs is a tiny bathroom - what's called the 'social bathroom', for guests.

Little dining area - big windows!

Living room with small furniture, but just my size, and big windows onto the back yard.

Kitchen area, just big enough for one person. Brand new stove w/oven (lots of kitchens only have cooktops) and refrigerator!

And note my Vermont license plate in the window! Back door opens out onto the yard.

Today I took a good look around the yard, and I'm looking forward to puttering around back here and planting some things of my own (I brought seeds with me).

Needs a little TLC... but plenty of room for a little dog!

That white rectangular box on the wall over the sink is the hot water heater for the whole house. It only gets turned on when hot water is needed. That means you can't just step into the shower and hope for hot water - you have to plan ahead.

Upstairs there are two bedrooms and a bathroom, and I'll probably use one bedroom for working.

Here's a view of the 'big house' from a bedroom window. Notice those closed iron gates? Those are the second set - there's another one on the street. Very safe and secure!

There is a bus stop literally across the street from the front gate and it's about a 15-minute walk to the middle of town.

Next step is to walk around the neighborhood and start settling in.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Casa Sweet Casa

Tomorrow I am moving into my casita, and I am anticipating being unplugged and offline for a few days. Amazing how cranky this is making me - after a couple of weeks, I am totally wedded to my iPad and Facebook!

I'm consoling myself with the fact that I can walk a couple of blocks to a WiFi oasis, if I really get the DT's!!

I am so looking forward to being able to unpack my four suitcases, stock my refrigerator and relax in my own space. Seems much longer than a month since I put my suitcases in the car and pulled out of the driveway of my Vermont farmhouse.

We'll take a tour of the inside of the house once I'm moved in and connected to the cyberworld again.

In other news, and in keeping with my plan to get my blog out to the entire world, it is now being posted on, which is a summary and list of blogs about moving to and/or living in Ecuador.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Excursion to Paute - Un Dia Maravillosa with New Friends

My new friend and potential landlady, Maria Elena, invited me along for a day at her country home in Paute, which is about 35 minutes outside of Cuenca. Her original invitation was to Len and Sharon, an American couple who are staying in the little cottage in Maria Elena's back yard, but when Rebecca (my conversational Spanish teacher) and I arrived to look at the cottage, Maria Elena graciously included us in the invitation.

It was a glorious day for all of us. Imagine it - two Americans who are beginning to learn Spanish, me, with some Spanish under my belt, Maria Elena, with no English, and Rebecca, who understands English but speaks only Spanish. This was Spanish immersion at its finest for the three of us students, and Rebecca and Maria Elena were patient and helpful throughout!

We were also treated to a typical Cuencano meal that included roast chicken, roast pork, rice, a little potato, egg and cheese croquette, two kinds of tortillas, and two salads - avocado and tomato and carrot and broccoli. It was a wonderful afternoon of eating, laughing and talking.

Maria Elena's parents owned a larger house up the way and all the surrounding land; now the land has  been split up for three small summer houses; one each for Maria Elena and her two sisters. This little country house is about 30 years old, with a well established garden - mature trees laden with avocados, mango and papaya trees!

There's just enough room in the house for all of Maria Elena's grandkids to come and stay with her!

The climate is great for cacti, succulents and just about everything!

Those white flowers to the right are Datura, a hallucinogenic, although here they tell me it's used as a sleeping aid.

Check out these Hens and Chickens! They're huge!

This is the view from the front of the house.

You can see some of the greenhouses for roses and other flowers that are exported and sold locally in the lower left of this photo.

All in all, a really fantastic day with new friends and new discoveries.

5/28/11 Finding a house update:  Len and Sharon have found an apartment and will be moving in soon. This means I'll be able to take a good look at the cottage and hopefully, will be able to move in myself, soon. This is good, because there's a white mini Schnauzer nearby that is calling to me!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking for a Place to Call Home

From my computer desk in Vermont, it seemed like there was an abundant and continuous flow of available apartments, condos and furnished rooms available for rent in Cuenca. Almost every day, a new housing opportunity was posted on one of the websites for Cuenca wannabes. I figured this would be the least of my worries.

Not so, it turns out. All those listings, with enticing photos of rooms and views of the city aren't actually available. "Sorry, I don't have any listings at present," from one agent who has six or seven places posted on his website. WHY ARE THEY POSTED IF THEY ARE NOT AVAILABLE? If you can't keep your website updated, how efficient are you at the rest of your job? Just sayin'.

So, my first lesson in how things don't exactly go according to plan here in Cuenca.

Suggestions from expats who have already survived the looking-for-a-place-to-live ordeal include: "Buy a paper." "No, don't do that, most people don't advertise - just walk around and look for 'se arriende' signs."

Bueno, based on the great tour that I took in April with Karen Cornell and Juan Perez, who drove me around Cuenca and pointed out areas of the city where gringos live, I consult my bus guide and head out.

First stop - around the Oro Verde hotel - lots of condos and apartments in this area.

Here are the condos with the views of the city that I saw on the Internet. But they are all gated and locked up tight. I scan the buildings for 'se arriende' notices, but can't find any.

Bueno, across the river is a residential area where there might be something. I hoof it over there, but not before noticing this lady doing her laundry in the river alongside the condos. This is actually a pretty common site all over Cuenca, but a little more striking next to these luxury buildings.

Over in the residential area, I crisscross the streets, but find no signs, just very nice homes, many with their own security kiosks. Again, a nice area, but further from the city center than I'd like to be.

Fortunately for me, my conversational Spanish teacher and new friend Rebecca has a suggestion. Her friend Maria Elena has a little 2-bedroom house behind her house that she wants to rent. During Friday's session, we walk over to Maria Elena's for a look around. It's right across from the river Tomebamba, and a large green space covers the hill across the river - I think it's a public garden.

This is the house from the street - flower gardens in front and back, with the little house in the rear. Even though the house is on a busy street, once those gates close, it's quiet and secluded.

Located in theVergel neighborhood, it is within walking distance of the center of town, and there is a bus stop at the end of the block. Rebecca lives in this neighborhood, so she shows me around, pointing out good restaurants, a place for a hair cut, doctor's office. Me encanta - I love it.

There is an American couple in the house right now - looking for a permanent place (!), so I can't get inside to take a look. I have to be satisfied with walking around the outside on this first visit.

Maria Elena says that for a long term renter she would be willing to get WiFi and provide laundry facilities. A small dog is okay with her and there is a storage building nearby for my shipment when it arrives.

It all feels good to me, and I can only hope that the couple currently in residence has fantastic luck and finds a permanent place soon, so I can take a look at the inside and seal the deal. Oh, did I mention the rent?  $300/month all utilities included!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stairs, Gasp, Stairs, Wheeze, and more Stairs!

A newcomer to Cuenca might be forgiven for cursing the city's many stairways. While much of the city is relatively flat, there's only one way to get to the old center of town, and that's to climb some stairs. A lot of stairs.

And these are not simple flights of stairs, as you can see. These are monster staircases that leave you gasping for breath after the first flight because of the altitude (8300 feet).

After the second flight, a heartfelt thanks goes out to the staircase builders of old for putting landings every so often, where a novice stairclimber can rest and walk slowly back and forth to catch her breath.

By the third and fourth landing, not only is the novice stairclimber out of breath, but thighs are burning and water is desperately needed.

My first ascent of the steps above, the day I arrived in Cuenca, was illuminating, to say the least. Maybe it was just oxygen deprivation, but it seemed to me that a lot of people were stopping on every landing for a breather. So why not me?

Then I noticed that street vendors had their wares laid out on the landings - must be a lot of people stopping, I figured.

Okay, there were some guys who could trip along all the way to the top without stopping. Awe inspiring, to say the least. And my Spanish conversational teacher suggested that taking the stairs two at a time was easier. She actually did that as we went up the stairs together, lightly taking the steps two at a time, with me gasping along behind her.

It is true that one could avoid the stairs altogether by taking a bus or a taxi. And it's also true that coming down the stairs is delightful, with the city spread out below and the Tomebamba river gurgling along.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the day that I can climb one staircase all the way to the top without stopping. Forget about that two-stepping, though.