Monday, December 30, 2013

I Nominate

Tortuous tootling.

I don't think I've yet heard the Ecuadorian national anthem, the official one. But I have a thought, based on my experience here – let's nominate an unofficial one.

The car alarm.

Why? Because it's

  • Ubiquitous
  • Constant
  • Unvarying
  • Soulful

Only a national anthem (or a de facto stand-in) would be played so often, in so many locations, for so many occasions, and so faithfully. In fact, there seems to be one going off somewhere, at every hour, day or night, without fail.

You do hear car alarms always and everywhere, and there is only one version. It always honks, beeps, buzzes, and whoops, in the same progression, at one million decibels.

And the tune is played in earnest, with such sincerity, gravity, solemnity, and pomp that the only comparable music is indeed an actual national anthem.

And, most importantly, like a national anthem, the car alarm is completely ignored by everyone.

Unless you are trying to sleep.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Snow Idea

Yeah, right.

There was an inflatable plastic snowman on a second-floor balcony overlooking one of el centro's busier streets here in Cuenca, and I being me, there was no camera in my pocket at the moment.

No matter, I thought – I'd just go back the next day. And I did.

No snowman.

Hmmm – it was early in the day – perhaps I could come back the next day, in the afternoon, since I had other things to do that afternoon.

Nope. No snowman the next day. Or maybe it was there, but I couldn't get close enough to tell because there was this annual Christmas parade ripping down that street like a river in flood.

This was the Pase del Niño parade, which has been said to run up to 16 hours, from around daybreak until well after dark.

There was no way I could have swum up that street against the rush of dancers or through the thicket of onlookers.

No matter, I thought – I'd just go back the next day. And I did, and that day was Christmas, and there was no snowman.

None today either, or yesterday, so I guess I missed my snowman photo-op.

But there are other Christmas decorations up – you know – Santa, reindeer, fuzzy red and white caps, bits and pieces of fake holly and so on.

This being a scant 2°53'57" south of the equator, there isn't a lot of snow around, ever, even though we're at 8000 feet (2438 m), and it never gets cold enough for snow, mostly.

The record low, ever, actually was 28.9° F (-1.7° C), but the temperature never drops below 45° F in real life, and 45° F is insanely cold for here.

So it's my bet (a safe one, I think) that people here (aside from transplanted North Americans and those Cuencanos who have lived in North America or Europe) don't know diddly about snow or cold weather, and if they had to endure some actual snow-level cold, they'd rip down all those Santa Clauses and reindeer and cute snowmen and burn them and then stomp up and down on the ashes and go have lunch and sit in the sun and be glad that they've got it so good here.

But people don't know, not here. Here the snow idea is quaint and novel, so people stick up their decorations and call it Christmas and carry umbrellas to keep the sun off.

Which seems right and proper to me, and I'm from North Dakota, so I know a thing or two about snow and cold.

More: Pase del Niño

Monday, December 23, 2013

Streetlights And Roofs

Score one for agile lighting technique.

I finally noticed this, after more than six months of walking around Cuenca: there are places where streetlights poke through overhanging roofs.

Even more oddly, these are mostly the old-style Spanish-colonial tile roofs.

The issue seems to be that the sidewalks, where there are any, are often so narrow that there is no room to mount the lights beyond the roofs' overhangs.

Since there is little room, the light poles had to be poked through existing roofs.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Meaning Of Coffee

Some of this, some of that, and a bit of whatever.

My Spanish teacher says that instant coffee is quicker – sometimes you don't have time to brew the other kind of coffee, so you make instant.

Yes and no.

Most Americans, these days, would say ", that's not even coffee."

While viewing an apartment owned by a very nice family, I was offered coffee as an honored guest. The coffee was instant. And decaf.

I appreciated the gesture, and for instant coffee, it was good enough, but if you are a gringo, imagine offering your guests a choice of two instant coffees – one in a jar and the other, pre-mixed, sugared, and seasoned, in a paper packet that came from a factory.

It's a difference of cultures – not good here, bad there, or vice versa. Only a difference. And not all brewed coffee is good, as you know. My mother insisted on drinking swill made from the scorched brown sawdust that came in a can. It was what she knew. I made good coffee for her once or twice, but she couldn't handle it – it didn't taste like Folgers.

Mom was right about that.

Surprisingly to many, not all Latin Americans are heavy coffee drinkers. A lot of them do not drink any kind of coffee. I am not an expert on this, but I gather that Central Americans drink coffee, Colombians drink coffee, and maybe Venezuelans. After that, as you travel south, not so much. Maybe Brazilians, since Brazil is a large coffee producer.

But Chile, for example. Definitely not there. It's not a coffee place.

A good online forum I found discusses all things Chilean. The gringos on the forum constantly lament the instant coffee culture in Chile. If you ask for café (coffee), you get instant. If you want real coffee (i.e., brewed), you ask for café café. And you may or may not get more than a blank stare if you do.

Try Ecuador then. Ecuador's not a coffee place. There is coffee here if you want it, and where I live (Cuenca), good coffee makings are available at a gringo-owned bookstore for $4.50 a pound, as grounds or beans. And that at least is is equal to the coffee I paid $15.95 a pound for at one of the U.S.'s best roasters in Olympia, WA.

And coffee is available brewed, in a cup, though the quality varies, as it does everywhere.

My Spanish teacher, who was born here, says that here brewed coffee is often called café pasado, when you want to be absolutely specific. The idea being that since the coffee has passed through a filter, it was definitely brewed. Instant coffee – no. It has no reason to touch a filter unless your water comes with bugs, but that is not part of city life, so pasado equals brewed.

Some terms I've come across:

  • Café con leche: coffee with milk
  • Café americano: black coffee, maybe not all that strong
  • Café solo: stronger black coffee
  • Café tinto: black coffee that is definitely strong
  • Capuccino italiano: cappuccino
  • Capuccino con crema: cappuccino made with cream
  • Mokaccino: latte made with steamed chocolate milk
  • Café con leche: strong coffee (espresso, maybe) and scalded milk in a 1:1 ratio

So if you want it you can have it. And you get a little fun too, from the treasure hunt you engage in, searching for it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Please Stop The Cute

I'm now using unapproved words.

Adorable is a word I never use. Adorable is not a guy word. Adorable resides beneath contempt in a dark hole where guys do not go, and its roommate is cute.

Cute pukes chunks. Adorable? Ack!

But I have to say it – Ecuadorian kids are adorable.

They make me regret not having gone that route. Hell, I've had only one, ah – how you say in English – girlfriend, and she couldn't have children, by choice, since her only pregnancy had been so terrible for her, which in turn says a lot about family life.

Then again, why bother? The Ecuadorians have all bases covered. Los indigenos, los mestizos – that about covers it. I haven't been to the Amazon Basin, but I'm sure that los indios or whatever they call people there have cute kids too. (Notice how I just used the word cute? I think I'm losing it.)

They are tiny, the kids. I suppose they grow up somehow, but I see mostly the teensy ones being carried on Mom's back in a sling, or sometimes walking alongside Mom and Dad – a li'l nipper barely tall enough to stand, but putting on a good show of keeping up, tiny legs pumping randomly, and the faces – really indescribable – I have to force myself not to stare. They are (there is a word for this, isn't there...) adorable.

While standing in line at Coral Hipermercado at Mall del Río on Sunday, I looked down. In front of me and several feet below my modest eye level was one of the adorables, looking up, at me, fascinated. I know I'm ugly, but this was still fun.

I smiled.

The child smiled, all black hair and dark eyes and incredible delicate features.

I shifted my purchase-to-be, money, and cap to one hand and did a child-wave (keeping the hand still and flapping all my fingers in one motion).

The tiny child way down below waved back in just the same way, then lifted her right hand, palm up, and held it still, expecting. Something.

Expecting what I did not know, so I put one finger into her hand, expecting her fingers to close around mine, but that was enough – just a touch. She seemed satisfied.

A parent in a parallel line called the child back and she went and that was that.

But I will never forget the magic of that quiet moment.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Creeping Feelers Of Cholesterol

Beefy-like greasiness defeats cleanliness.

Having relocated (i.e., having returned to Cuenca, Ecuador after an absence), and no longer holed up in the small hotel I inhabited for six months, I find that nearly everything about my situation has changed.

Like where to do laundry.

The hotel strictly forbade washing clothes in the bathroom sink, but that's where I did mine. And since I had the bathroom all to myself, and didn't break the sink, no one was the wiser.

Break the sink? Yep.

Management had a sign up specifically mentioning this possibility. It appears some passers-through got carried away once upon a time, applied too much vigorous pressure, agitation-wise, in the general direction of their jeans, and cracked the sink, destroying it.

I didn't, managing to wash socks, undos, T-shirts, shirts, jammies, and even my largish knapsack and definitely very large duffel bags, all in a sink whose liquid capacity was around a gallon (speaking generously).

But now I don't live there. Got a private sink, but no private shower stall where I can hang my wet stuff to drip, and not that much privacy overall.


I went looking for the self-serve laundromat I remembered seeing months ago. It ain't' there no more.

I did find another one, but it's at least an extra quarter mile out, although it is there, which is nice. The self-serve part is nice too, since Ecuador is a place where labor is cheap and machines are expensive and beyond the experience of 95% of the populace. Especially highly technical machines like photocopiers, washers, and dryers.

But hey. Where was the one I remembered? I'm sure of the location, but there is a McDonald's there instead.

Hmmm. Could it be? I think so. I think I know what happened. McDonald's embraced and extinguished the scrubbery.

McDonald's, Burger King, KFC – all of them – are considered high culture here, by some. Exotic. Trendy. Forward-thinking. New Age.

And eating at any one of them is proof of wealth and status, since a meal is equal to half a week's pay for lots of people here.

And no matter what norteamericanos think of the nutritional quality or relative status accompanying these calorie-shovelers, eating at any of them is definitely a mark of distinction here.

But McDonald's doesn't do pants.

So, overall – Boo. Two thumbs down, accompanied by an appropriate amount of feces-hurling.

I need clean pants, and for under three bucks I can get a fresh, locally-sourced, and delicious meal. Served in four courses, by waiters, with tablecloths no less, so, if anyone had asked me, I'd have said McDonald's stay home.

Why doesn't anyone ever ask me about these things anyway? I could run the world so much better, with reduced grease content and more flavor to boot.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Surviving Traffic

Bouncing around the bumpers.

It's been a while.

I know the rules, but since I'm not the only player in this game, I have to keep learning their new variations. Hey – it's evolution. Or something.

Definitely not survival of the slow and stupid.

Take crossing the street on a green light. Yep. I made that mistake on Saturday.

I waited to be sure that the next car coming my way was not going to turn, by not turning. Signal lights are like Christmas decorations – some use them and some don't. Anyway, they're only lights. You can't judge an advancing army by what it's PR team emits – you gotta watch what they do.

OK so far. This cab was decidedly going straight across, so I stepped into the street and began striding across at a brisk clip. Past the halfway mark, I noticed that the next car in line was making a tight left turn and accelerating.

Toward a point that would put it right smack on top of me.

So I sped up. And so did the driver.

Then I stopped. And so did the driver.

Then I backed up, out of the driver's way, and circled around the rear end of his car as he zoomed out of there, once again free to roam.

Both of us lived. I guess that's a win for me, though I care about only my half of that equation. Screw the driver.

For a while I had fantasies about having hopped up and rolled onto the car's hood in an attempt to survive, then lying there and refusing to move, maybe with the driver jerking and swerving, accelerating and braking in an attempt to slide me off.

But that didn't happen, and I'm glad not.

Win #1: I walked away. Win #2: I thought about refining my technique.

Modified Rule: Cross streets only when and where it is safe. (As soon as I can figure out a good definition of safe.)

Might be a while, but until then, I've still got two working legs. Not all bad, I guess.

Weight And Feathers

Did you ever wonder where your luggage went?

Or, more precisely, since it usually ends up where intended, Why? As in Why did my baggage go over there, at least for a while, when it should have come over here?

Well, I don't travel much, but yesterday I found a clue, relevant in at least in some cases.

See, I was on a long flight, a series, from San Francisco, USA, to Cuenca, Ecuador. First we went to Atlanta, Georgia, and then to Quito, Ecuador. OK so far, right? (I assume you're with me on this part.) Those two legs are in themselves quite a feat of modern technology, and, as such things go, went well.

Aside from the lack of sleep, inability to move for five or six hours at a time, advanced thirst, and extreme lack of calories – the usual. More or less. I chose to get sketchy on the water to keep from having it drain out the bottom of me, which is a nuisance at the best of times.

p>Skipping eats also means that less of you-know-what wants to come out and start life on its own, and there isn't so much raw material for natural gas eruptions that way either. Reduced calories also means that the body doesn't have to work as much, and can concentrate on putting up with sitting, being uncomfortable all the time, sitting, being scrunched while in a sitting position, being unable to lie down and sleep because of the sitting position, and related issues, like seat-kickers.

OK, done, for the most part.

After arriving in Quito around 11 pm local time, I found that I had to wait five hours to check my luggage, and another two after that for the actual boarding. You know – the usual sort of miracle-filled hell that is modern travel, also known as not being able to sleep all day because of jostling and bumping and general random pain, and then sitting up all night with nothing to do, to make up for it.

And then, something fine happened.


We got on the plane on schedule, each passenger in the right seat. The baggage was loaded, and all the rest.

But people milled in the cockpit. Well, two or three did, in yellow vests. The door was open, so I could see.

Eventually someone or other announced that there was a technical problem. Later on there were words about a circuit breaker having to be replaced, and yet later someone mentioned having to recalibrate or re-program something. This brought us up to about twenty minutes past takeoff time.

Then one woman in the first row got up and surrounded the lead flight attendant, virtually howling her outrage and waving various fingers around. That lasted five minutes or so. Still with me?

Someone then announced something or other about landing weight limit or whatever, and this was the green light for a second woman to go up front and howl for a while. She did an absolutely stellar job of it too, going on for at least ten minutes, going right up to the edge of thermonuclear war.

The gist, if there is one, for someone perennially at the rudimentary level of Spanish, was that a simple technical issue which might

  1. prevent the plane from taking off
  2. prevent the plane from landing
  3. make the plane blow up at an inconvenient location
  4. make the plane do something even more interesting

was not to interfere with someone's schedule. (Illustrated by hand gestures.)

OK, fine.

Eventually the extra yellow-vest people left the cockpit and the exterior door got closed. Then the plane moved a few feet. Then the plane stopped.

Then the plane sat still for ever. Then, about a year later two men came on board and the lead flight attendant called Woman Number 2 to the front. At this point spontaneous applause broke out behind me. (I was way up front, close enough to get my eyebrows singed from the action.) Woman Number 2 then picked up her argument where she had earlier run out of breath, and waved more of her hands and fingers, but not all of them at once, keeping a few in reserve. This impressed me. She must have been a pro.

All was fine with me. I was waiting for the the handcuffs to come out, and to see the two guys carry her off the plane screaming and spewing curses, which seemed the least they and she could do for our entertainment (and satisfaction, both).

During this second episode of hooting and accusing and general hollering, no fewer than four other passengers got up, one at a time, and joined in the discussion. Woman Number 1 made a comeback tour, and three others who hadn't been on stage until then got their big breaks. You might see them soon on or near a plane containing you, depending on your luck and the phase of the moon.

Somehow the exterior door got closed again, and all passengers were once again strapped into their seats. I doubt that this had anything to do with one English speaker who shouted Let's get this plane rolling – NOW! at about the time that Woman Number 2 seemed virtually certain to become the contents of a gunny sack tossed into the nearest river.

No such luck. And the plane didn't move either. Nor did anything encouraging happen when a bunch of passengers in the rearward rows began yelling Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!, the equivalent of Let's go, Joe!

But something like an hour and a half behind its schedule the plane did leave the ground, after which it flew to Cuenca, and landed, and we all got off with our original numbers of fingers, toes, heads, torsos, and internal organs. Nor were there any brightly-colored flames (that I noticed) to amuse us or stimulate onlookers.

However (we're getting there), as all of us former passengers stood around the luggage carousel, which sat there quiet and not running, a man came in and gave a long speech. I was hoping that we were the recipients of a national award for perseverance (with the exception of Woman Number 1, Woman Number 2, and their supporting cast). Or that we had each won actual prize money because they were short of award plaques at the moment and couldn't let us go home without something. You know? Something fine. Like a bag of cash for each of us.

Instead, we were back to the landing weight. We thought we had heard the last of that, but no. (Brace yourself for another gist, coming up any moment now.)

The gist being that in Quito they had the choice of either removing all passengers from the plane or removing all baggage, which is what the luggage carousel oration was about. So I guess they chose to keep the luggage for a while rather than to have a couple hundred raging ex-passengers roaming around the airport waving fingers and hands, and throwing epithets. Baggage is so much more docile, isn't it?

I don't get why this happened in Ecuador, but maybe that's Ecuador. I don't get around much so maybe this happens all the time everywhere.

So back to the story – they removed the baggage and told us about it at a location well to the south, where it was impossible to do anything about it but fill out a form and believe their words saying that all baggage would be on the ground in Cuenca by 1 pm.

No. Seriously – oh so no.

I went to the airport after 2 pm and got instructions to come back at 7:45 pm. I guess weight is a tricky thing, so they put all our luggage on the very last flight of the day (on another airline, just to be safe), and then went away and closed their eyes and put their fingers in their ears.

Well, you know. Things.

It all worked out in the end, right? Matter was neither created nor destroyed, only hidden from view for a while, and around 9 pm it was released to us, so we could just get over it and do things.