Friday, May 23, 2014

Go, Gone. Zo!

Time to wrap.

I've tried twice to do this expat thing, and I'm not ready to die so I'm going to not-die.

I can't stand living around old people, much less living like one. Cuenca is fine, such as it is, but I don't belong here, don't have a life, don't want to be one of the gray potbellies sitting at a table.

Not one of those experiencing lunch, after a full morning of anticipation. Not one of those reminiscing lunch, during the long slow afternoon.

Don't want to wait for dark so I can sleep and resurrect and wait for the next lunch.

Won't post pictures of supper. Won't pose in front of the pool. Am not going to turn off my brain.

Don't care to act my age — I still have things to do, and as long as I can do them I will, since I have the time and enough money, and no responsibilities. It's time to be irresponsible and be irresponsible in a serious way.

Maybe in a month I'll be back, or six. Maybe when I'm still breathing but can't walk no more. Or maybe I'll die on the plane back here, or elsewhere. I don't care. No one cares.

I'm free. To come or go, and right now.

I go.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Step, Shove, Walk

We're all happy here, except some of us.

You'd think that with the typical sidewalk around four feet wide (1.2 m), there would be issues. This can go one of two ways. Either people go out of their way to accommodate each other, or they bump a bunch.

It's some of each.

I've been slammed from most every side, and had several of my feet stepped on, the latest incident being this morning. That's inadvertent, the stepping-on. No one goes out of their way to step on anyone else, not even on me, but you need to pay attention.

Walk too close to the curb and you're often only a foot from motor vehicles. When it's a 12-foot-high (3.7 m) bus you almost get sucked along, though after a couple of days you don't worry so much, but I'm still expecting to be brained by one of the side mirrors. Unfortunately, I worry about this only after the latest bus goes past.

Cabs? Almost unnoticeable, they're so tiny. Normally, but anyone can get killed by a cab as easily as anything else.

And then what?

Walk opposite the curb, and skim along the storefronts. This is probably worse. Get creamed by a cab or bus and it's over, at least the walking part of your life. Skip like a stone along the open doorways of hundreds of shops and you'll soon be t-boned by another pedestrian. Because no one looks.

People shoot out of shops at any time, at every velocity, and in any number. No one looks.

You're on an empty sidewalk and then someone's is on you — crash. If you're slow. And not watching. But you can't watch everything, and mostly you want to watch the pavement for holes, dropoffs, lumps, dog shit, curb cuts, random debris, and dog shit. Secondarily, as your mental processes allow, you watch for _Bumping Bennies_ bouncing out of buildings.

And no, you walk either along the curb or along the buildings. You can't walk in the middle or you'll never get anywhere at all — it's too crowded for that. Families walk in the middle three abreast, four abreast, in packs, and in small herds. The singleton walker must skirt them to get anywhere.

Still, no matter how careful you might be, you get sideswiped, especially at street corners. Come to one and stand, waiting for the light to change, or at least for the traffic to thin enough to allow a proper jaywalk, and you'll be bumped and jostled from every angle.

People want to get places, like getting to the next corner where they can repeat the process, as soon as possible. Anyone willing to preserve safety by not threading through moving traffic to get across the street against the light is not respected.

But the cake. It was taken one day, a few months back, as I was headed on my way back from lunch, by a local couple.

A circle of teenage girls was standing on a sidewalk, a particularly wide one. It measured five feet or so (1.5 m) across, and the girls took up all of it. I could have gone round to my left, out in the street, which was safe at that point (a parking lane with an empty slot at that location), but a man and woman were approaching from the girls' other side, making the scene even more congested, so I waited.

And I learned something.

If you're a suit-wearing, gray-haired man walking with your wife (or adult daughter, or mistress) and there is a group of girls standing on the sidewalk and blocking it, what then — What do you do?

  • Stop and wait
  • Ask them to move
  • Go around
  • Cross the street
  • Something interesting.

Of course the answer is Use your hand and shove one of them out of your way.

Yep. 'S what he did. Just shoved one of them about a foot and a half, and continued walking with his woman.

Conveniently for me, I was stopped, and was able to witness it all, and as an added bonus I was able to scoot around in the old gent's backwash, because the girls did not re-form their ranks.

They didn't pull knives either, or even say a thing. They looked at him, especially the one that got shoved, but that was it.

Pretty slick, but I'm not going to try it. Not this lifetime. No, better not.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Decorate Me A Mouse

I live around the corner from Cuenca's flower market.

This isn't anything like New York's Fulton Fish Market. That covers 400,000 square feet, and it's full of dead animals.

Cuenca's flower market covers maybe a tenth of an acre, roughly 4000 square feet, or 0.04 hectare. That's about right. And it isn't fancy.

It's an open-air place, on a corner, between the blue-domed Catedral de la Inmaculada and El Carmen de la Asunción, and is called, according to my map, either Plazoleta del Camen or Parque de la flores, or both.

What's notable about it is how low-key it is. There are roughly a dozen square white canvas pavilions, each sheltering one female vendor. That woman sits or stands in the shaded middle, surrounded by her wares. People go by. Morning arrives .The sun climbs into the sky, and again declines. Rain showers pass by. Day comes and goes.

At night the pavilions remain in place, some surrounded by fencing, and others seem to be bound by line. I'm not absolutely clear on this since I don't go out at night, but have been out early. Today I went by there within kissing distance of six a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, in the near-dark, and people were already at work.

Once they're set up, the place is a riot of color. Most flowers come in tight arrangements, in shallow bowls. A few are sold loose, but this is no slipshod operation — all the flowers are well-presented. The vendors know their goods, how to present them, and what their customers want. Each seller is solidly walled in by by her flowers, hundreds of them, professionally set out.

And there are a few benches there, and a few trees, a major park a block away, and a major market a half-block in the other direction. It is always busy.

I'm glad I'm here.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Love Over Foamy Water

Lock it to the rails.

I guess it started in France. At least that's where I hear it's going gangbusters. On a bridge over the Seine. Which is about where everything happens, isn't it?

Once upon a time the gods decreed Carve your initials in a tree. And then they got chalked on sidewalks and spray-painted on buildings. Inside hearts.

It was hearts everywhere.

Now it's locks, and there are even a few here, on one bridge.

I gather that, to show one's true forever-love, it's necessary to buy a padlock and go with your sweetie to the designated spot (the place where everyone else is doing this), and then fasten that padlock to the bridge.

If this was an ideal world, the next step would be going for pizza and beer, but I don't know what they actually do. Après verrouillage. But pizza and beer has to come up every now and then. In an ideal world.

I guess people feel insecure in the world of ideas. They need to throw in a hunk of matter here and there to make their lives seem real. Symbolism I get but I've never quite understood that lust for relics and other lumpy stuff. Could be a lack of imagination for them, or maybe I really am from another planet.

You know, I could almost get it if they took not just the padlock, but the whole toolshed and put that up on the bridge with the lock still attached. Especially now, during the rainy season.

I'll leave a note, get back to you if anything happens.

For now, this is me, signing off yet again.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What Color Is Your Pared?

See it? Right there. Look. Color.

Color is certainly different here. I.e., there is color here.

North America, you're way behind. Way, way behind, but you may not be able to do anything about it.

I was just thinking about this a few minutes ago.

For example, you build a house, or you buy an existing one — doesn't matter. Then you put up a wall, effectively putting your property inside a courtyard, with an opaque wall around it. And a locked iron gate to control entry. Or a solid iron door.

Done. And then what? Everyone would go nuts. They'd suddenly want to know what you're doing in there. Right? What it is you've got to hide?

Satanic rituals? Animal torture? Weird experiments?

Maybe you just like privacy, but that doesn't work in North America. Forget that normally you don't need eight-foot-high stone walls topped with electric fencing in North America to keep yourself safe, so you'd at least need a severe desire for privacy to do this. Followed within weeks of the wall's completion with you being run out of town for not being like everyone else.

OK then, skip the wall.

Instead, paint your house bright blue. Orange will do too. Or brilliant, screaming yellow.

No matter — you'll get about the same response.

Color isn't allowed unless it is dull brown or dull green, or slate gray or white. No crimson. No neon green with purple trim. None of that.

But here? Yes, it's OK here. Almost required. Something is required. Some color that indicates life and enthusiasm and a desire for celebration. No one seems to care how any particular building is architected or constructed, or whether it's next to an office or a junkyard, let alone what color it is, or used to be.

A huge number of buildings in the historic center of town even show, around to the side, where their weathered walls are visible, that they're made of mud brick and wattle, and they are still standing after 500 or so years. So that gives you some perspective. In the sense that those buildings just are. And so what?

If it's there it's OK, or you don't care, or if a building is especially noticeable you have a landmark.

But if it's colorful, in and of itself, then what?


Monday, May 5, 2014

Flowers For America

Stumpy The Patriot said, Simply eliminate the cut flowers coming from Ecuador (a country that supports the traitor-facilitator Assange) and replace these imports with American grown flowers. Why buy something from a country whose interests are contrary to those of the US?

I've often wondered why U.S. politicians spend so much time trying to fart themselves to death over what the Cubans do in their spare time, what Hugo Chavez used to have for breakfast, whether an elected government can be democratic if it doesn't look to Washington for instructions on every item.


Do you really care what clothes Iranian women want to wear? Was it really a good idea to spend a trillion dollars to take Iraq from a dictatorship all the way around the dial to a dictatorship before we once again declare victory and pull out for good?

But not a single one of them to my knowledge has ever proposed dealing with the vast commie conspiracy in China, the country whose economy will be the largest in the world by the end of this year. That's 2014.

Based on eating our lunch. Handed to them by BigBiz. Because BigBiz would rather use slave labor than have to pay for it.

Why not start another war and deal a deadly blow once and for all? Why give away everything we've ever built for cheap Wally World T-shirts? Anyone up for going over the top?

I'd say, given the lack of jobs for the currently unemployed, graduating college seniors, and the bleak prospects for succeeding generations, let's give guns to everyone over the age of 12 who is not currently working, and blanket China by air-dropping them into that dark and evil country to take it apart from the inside out. That'll give them a few lessons on free enterprise, fair trade, and democracy.

Meanwhile, what was that about flowers?


Right, Sparky. It appears that the U.S. flower market is now dominated by foreign people of dubious pedigree, shipping in thousands of tons of the soft-petaled, gently scented, herbaceous, purely-frivolous decorative items. Living as I do at the moment just around the corner from Cuenca's flower market, I have seen what they are offering, and I think we can take them.

If the Ecuadorians can plant flowers hardy enough to not only sprout but also to push up through several feet of drifted snow in sub-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit, no less), and blossom — well then, those same plants can make it in Ohio. We don't need no stinkin' imports. We'll do fine reducing our minimum wage to match Ecuador's $340 a month, and happy for it. (Better than working at Wally World, right?) Screw it. We're tough and we can do it.

But why stop once you get rolling?

How about the U.S. grow all its own coffee? Move off Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Vietnam, Brazil, and all the rest of those countries who are ignorant of our truth and beauty, and grow the pure rich stuff right in Kansas? Same with bananas. Plenty of room for them in Montana and Idaho, and they're fun to use for target practice. (Easy to sight in on with that clean bright yellow color. Maybe have a NRA brand with little target stickers?)

And where the hell did we get the idea to buy anything from Vietnam? Was that part of the unconditional surrender terms? I say go Kansas.

Then again, why not all U.S. grown for everything? On U.S. government plantations? True freedom. Totally free enterprise.

Ditto Julian Assange. He's a non-issue, serving a self-imposed life sentence. Until Rafael Correa leaves office anyway. Heh. Sorry about that, J.A. — asylum was only a gesture. Move along now, there's a good lad.

No one cares about him, certainly not here in Ecuador. No one has ever mentioned him. Anyway, he's not a traitor unless Australia gets into a snit and has some reason to engage in a round ankle-biting. He's just a guy, and Australia seems to have real business to take care of.

Meanwhile, Ecuador doesn't sell flowers or bananas or avocados to the U.S. Ecuadorian businesses do. Following a private-enterprise model. Like this guy: Ecuadorian rose exporter finds profit in mixing business with social and environmental consciousness.

Or this company: One of the world's largest orchid growing and exporting facilities is only 22 miles from Cuenca

Oops. I forgot chocolate. The U.S. can grow its own cacao, right? Sure, why not? Forget about Pacari Chocolate. Pacari is family owned and is a bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer, as well as fair-trade, Kosher, and Certified Organic. Family shmamily. Let's have the government declare that U.S. citizens can't buy from them because families are by nature communistic. (Your spouse ever charge you for sex? You ever charge your kids rent? Diaper-changing fees? Didn't think so. Join the club, commie rats.)

And forget about Kallari too. Same kinda commie cooperative subversive crapola. (When did that ever work?) The only native American chocolate. We are a cooperative of 850 families of the Kicwha Nation and our people have lived in the Napo Province for over a thousand generations.

So what does that mean?

One thousand generations. What if their tired old relatives invented chocolate? They don't even have a single toxic waste dump yet. No mass killings carried out by law-abiding citizens who love their guns and hate everything else.

One thousand generations. So what?

We can now make chocolate out of good old North Dakota crude. Any day now. We got plenty the stuff comin' out all over. As someone who grew up back there in the Land of the Frozen Dead before it got trendy, I can assure you that my people need work too and can probably figure out something that is both gooey and chewy and leaves practically no bitter aftertaste and is both brown and very seldom either immediately toxic or explosive. Just like the real stuff.

Sure. Let's do it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Wicked Wallslicers

What's cheap and deadly?

Lots of things.

You can pound nails through a board and lay that on your outside windowsills if you don't want anyone parking their butt there. And you see this, even on windowsills five feet off the ground. Mostly it's more elegant — wrought iron spikes seem preferred in these parts as the proper reminder to keep moving.

And then there are other problems. Padlocks seal doors. Multi-fanged dogs discourage callers. Razor wire and high-voltage lines strung across wall tops attenuate the enthusiasm of most night-creepers.

If you have the money. Even dogs need to be fed.

Razor wire is a high-tech item here. Has to be crazy expensive. Electricity too, not considering the fuss of putting all those parts together after they've been bought. And remembering to turn the switch on when it needs to be on. Or was that the other way around? Let's see...oops — I guess I had it right the first time. Sorry, Alex. Alex?

To hit the high peak of recycling and the low valley of cheap, nothing can beat broken glass set in mortar on top of any wall whatsoever. I think. Probably so. Because the evidence is plain to see. It's used everywhere.

Have another beer or two and you've got your raw material. Put the bottles in a gunny sack, apply hammer, stuff your hands into work gloves, and pull the spears of death-dealing shattered glass out of the bag. Which cuts better than anything. Doesn't rust or corrode. Comes in colors. Is cheap.

Did I say cheap?

Can't repeat that too often. It's here and it's cheap. And the technology is well understood.

What could be better?

Monday, April 28, 2014

What's That Jiggling There?

Walk for life. No, wait. Run for it.

It's a challenge.

Getting around.

Lots of gringos come here and are amazed at how much weight they lose. Collectively, I'd say tons. Tons of gringo-fat, just vanishing like that.

Some ascribe it to the altitude. Some say it's the water, or the fresh, pesticide-free food. Others get more kinky and refer to Bio-Schmetz frequency oscillators, Vortex Imprinters, Fischer-Fueller Hauptmeister Flower Therapies, and other fundamental sciences that they partake of. Mostly, not, I think.

Mostly it's that these people get off their fat asses for the first time in their lives, rear up on their hind legs, and walk around. Because you have to, to get around here at all. Doing that (actually walking) is such a profound shock to their systems, that in a last-ditch grab at self-preservation their bodies jettison huge amounts of flab.

And then they praise themselves for a purely unconscious physiological reaction to getting woken up after a life of sloth. Their bodies, that is. Their bodies wake up. Their minds generally remain tiny and torpid.

The body is usually the smart one, instinctively knowing right from wrong, survival from death, and wishing to remain among the living regardless of what that brain thing up there thinks it ought to be doing.

But there are problems. That's life. Life always comes with problems, and the more people you have to live around, the more problems you run into. Or vice versa.

Which is an issue here in Cuenca, because of three things

  • Narrow streets.
  • Motor vehicle traffic.
  • Crazy pedestrians.

Let's take that last item first. Go ahead and peek at the photo up top. See anything?

The first thing, aside from the posture, is that this doofus is wearing a suit. That's not typical. Jeans for men and tights for women, aside from office peons. The latter wear uniforms (for women it's skirt, heels, vest, blouse, and for men it's not quite so much a uniform, generally, but not a suit either — more like slacks and a sweater, in subdued colors). Office-worker non-peons in suits are out only occasionally, between roughly 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., in selected areas.

A doofus wearing a suit (i.e., anyone in a suit) is almost but not quite exceedingly rare, so I don't get why this person got printed on a sign. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is the posture. Just as weird. There are even fewer zombies around here than office emperors in suits. To date, after roughly a year's time spent here, total, I can say what? What I can say is that there are no zombies walking around in suits unless they wait until I'm looking the other way to do it.

From everything I've heard, zombies are not that fast, so how did one get on a sign? Nuts.

We might as well have zombies though, because pedestrians are pretty crazy. They flow through traffic like fog in a forest. I started late, and have to deal with traffic on a conscious level, but the locals almost don't see traffic. It's like they're wading through a herd of sheep. They sort of decide that they've had enough of standing and waiting to cross a street (three to four seconds of it), or they look and see only 16 or 18 vehicles approaching from a quarter-block away at speeds between 20 and 40 miles per hour (32 to 64 kph) and deem it an acceptable risk.

I wait. Normally. People flow around me, nervous about waiting, anxious to get out in traffic, which seems to be their preferred element, while I run through my head the hundreds of different scenarios succeeding the impact of a chrome bumper against my brittle little self. So I keep waiting. Most of the time.

Unless waiting gets to be too much, and even then I typically cross against the light only when it seems that most of the laws of physics would have to be bent to the point of audible screaming for me to actually be hit. And even then it's a squeaker for me. Too often. I haven't been brought up to this life. I'm still learning. Slowly and fitfully.

I have heard that it is the law that vehicles must yield to pedestrians, at least when there is a stop sign, or a crosswalk, or a traffic light that indicates it's safe for a pedestrian to go ahead and pedestriate. But no. It ain't so. This is true. So true. Which, in a way, makes life simpler here.

The real rule is, if there is any motor vehicle traffic either visible or audible, or potentially so, the pedestrian has no rights. In other words, it's your life — run with it. Which is how you cross the street. Which means, either stand and wait forever because no one is going to give you a chance, or sprint. Or, if you've been brought up here, develop psychic powers that enable you to float through moving traffic somehow. Anyway, it's a driver's world.

Which brings us to the real question — How in hell do you cross the street then?

And that brings us back to the first bullet point above. Narrow streets. That's it. That's how.

A wide street in Cuenca is two lanes, at around 14 feet wide (4.25 m), all-inclusive, maybe less. If it's a one-lane street, you have around 10 to 12 feet. Not much. Easy to cross as counted in strides — four or five. Maybe six.

Walking down a street? Want to cross? Whatcha gonna do?

Listen, then look over your shoulder. If there's no traffic, just cross.

In other places this is called jaywalking. Here it's self-preservation. Life as usual. Whatever. Normal.

This is actually much safer than crossing at corners, because you never know what the hell is going to happen at a corner. Every time you cross at a corner you've got to keep looking for people who don't believe in red lights, and what's even more frightening, you've got to keep looking over your shoulder for someone driving on green while you are walking on green, with the driver making a turn onto your street. Over the top of you. Unless you catch sight of them before they can do that.

No wonder the guy on the sign is walking that way, right? Am I right? Yes.

And if you don't believe me, look at the rest of the photo, a little off to the left and a little below the yellow sign. See it? Bus. Coming his way. The way things go around here, the guy has about three seconds to get his ass out of the street or become dogfood.

Doofus or bus.

Which one would you bet on?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Walk On The Mármol Side

Polish my bricks.

There isn't much of it, but it's here, randomly, along Gran Colombia, a major east-west street not far from where I'm staying. Marble.

It goes on for blocks, on one side of the street or the other, in small paving stones roughly eight inches (20 cm) on a side. These are spaced loosely, each block surrounded by a generous application of mortar, or maybe ordinary concrete, and set into it at drunken angles.

Most public walkways here are randomly dumped clods of concrete that has hardened into whatever shape it had when it left the truck, or the mixer, or the wheelbarrow, except that it ordinarily also shows paw prints, or footprints, or bicycle tracks, or has a few random items embedded in it.

And what isn't concrete hardened into facsimiles of breaking waves, is large squares of tile that look nice but turn into death traps when they become wet. The closest thing possible to wet ice, if you've walked on that. If it's a level area, you have to skate along, keeping your feet in contact with the tiles or you crash, and if the area is inclined, and steep at all, you can't walk, period. It truly is that slippery.

It's a surprise to come across marble paving stones then, since they occur only in one area of Cuenca, and seem to have no kinship with the surrounding architecture, and as far as I can tell, there is no significance to the area — it's only another random part of the city.

But what do I know?

I'm constantly finding that places I've walked past a hundred times, or two hundred, have little secrets I've never noticed, or big secrets I've never noticed. And I'm only a fleeting shadow of a visitor here. I'll never know half the stories behind a quarter of the places in an eighth of the city during a sixteenth of its history.

So it's better not to fret over anything. I'll just enjoy the special pavement when I walk over it, and the random marble building facades, some of which share the same general location as the paving stones.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Purrless In Paradise

The evidence is everywhere.

This city belongs to the dogs.

And when I say evidence, I mean real, shoe-scraping, stinkpot evidence. It's all over. Each sidewalk of every block has its own load. I guess this is the true paradise pavement, not gold. But, short of experiencing the actual evidence afoot, I would never have guessed.

One thing I have discovered is that loose dogs are usually docile. They have dog business. Upright bipeds have human business. The two species interact only rarely. This is fine.

Another thing is that the dangerous dogs are the ones behind bars, confined inside yards, locked. Which might seem like a contradiction, since an imprisoned dog is incapable of doing anything beyond ripping off your arm if you go and stick it through the bars.

But guard dogs that have nothing to do, well they get ornery. To kill time they growl and bark. They growl and bark when they're happy, and when they're hungry and when they've just been fed. That's all they got. They're frustrated.

And so, when one of them does get loose, look out. They aren't nice.

Third, if you see two or more dogs in a group, go back. Make a detour. Retreat. Climb on top of something. They are bad news.

Not always, but the only way to find out is to mix it up with them, and where does that get you? They have the teeth and the attitude. You have your hide and a chance to go home without it. What's the point of that?

Once you get a group of four or more dogs you're facing enemy for sure. They know their turf, want to defend it, need something to do, and know they can take you. At best you get surrounded for a while, and spooked. At worst, your next of kin will be called in to see if they can identify the few remaining recoverable blood-stained scraps of cloth.

These are normally-penned dogs that all know each other from across the fences, dogs that somehow manage to get sprung every now and then, and then hang out, looking for trouble. Which would be you. Blithely, stupidly, cluelessly traipsing across their turf.

But cats, you don't see.

In roughly a year's total time spent here I can remember seeing six. All skittish. They used to publicly burn cats here, for fun, starting with live cats and ending with empty ashes. No wonder.

That quit a while back, but overall people here do not enjoy cats. And given that there is almost no free space for a cat to sniff around in, or chase bugs in, or hang out in, you don't see what cats there are, even when there are some.

It's the walled gardens and gated-off, paved courtyards, or the interiors of houses where you might see a cat or two, but you can't see in there.

Where I'm from, everywhere I've lived before this, you might encounter a cat at any time, outside of business districts.

Every residential area has its complement of cats, and finding them is only a matter of walking by at the right time. There are enough public brushy or wooded areas, and enough private trees and shrubs, and porous-enough fences, if any at all, that cats feel comfortable, and make themselves known, though they might be visible only at select times. But they are there.

And not here, at all.

Which is kind of a bummer, because I like cats. And have never had to run for my life from one.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jesus Day

Well, this is almost it. Only one more day to go.

That would be tomorrow, Easter Sunday, after which things return to what passes for normal here.

Although perhaps that ain't quite right.

It seems that if there is no religious holiday or celebration of independence from this or that, or the founding of whatever, then it isn't a true Day in Paradise (which is what they call this place, despite the whale-sized clouds of diesel smoke, tons of liberally-scattered dog droppings, and skull-fracturing noise that goes on day and night).

But who am I to fuss? Just another old fart. Semi-old fart — aging but still able to climb stairs two at a time. And I have hair. And it's not gray.

Anyway, just another random dingdong gringo here for the weather and enjoying the cheap eats.

Unlike Jesus, who is now gay. And, as you may have noticed, has been for quite some time. My grandmother had a picture of him, arms stretched out beseechingly, hands folded in prayer, eyes cast heavenward, hoping for his big break in that upcoming musical. More old-fashioned than the picture included here, but it's definitely the same guy.

I'm being stereotypical. In case you hadn't noticed that either.

Just because a man is handsome and well-groomed, or even beautiful in whatever way it is that men can be said to be beautiful, has nothing to do with homosexuality, and probably around 99.98% of Catholics and Christians in general would go straight for my throat if I said that Jesus was gay, which is, I guess, what I just did. But I'm not, really. Saying that. Exactly.

It's the image of Jesus that is gay. And in the worst sense — gay and not simply gay.

The whole story is mucked. Jesus was an illiterate Palestinian Jew who poked the government one too many times, the way nationalistic political rebels do, and the government whupped him. Sometime later, through the public relations efforts of his followers, combined with accidents of history, we got a new god.

Now he's a poster. No longer a sweating, swearing, strong-armed fighter. No longer someone you'd probably swear back at and maybe take a swing at for always being in your face and giving you problems, and mostly being a dick, but who now is a soft-sell symbol of kind of being nice to people and combing your hair and waiting.

Waiting is the key.

It is an idea that infests all bureaucracies, all monarchies, all oligarchies, all empires, even the empire of religion and the more secular world of business-as-usual.

Want something? Wait.

Keep quiet, don't rock the boat. Be nice. Keep playing on the team you've been assigned to, and wait.

Eventually, you know, it'll come along. What it is doesn't matter. Who you are doesn't matter — just get out of our faces, and go talk to Jesus, that nice guy over there on the poster, and try to be like him and wait. Or go to church and pray.

Something will probably happen eventually.

And if it doesn't, then pray some more.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dump Town

Some of it's in your head. Maybe all of it.

Take a walk. What do you see?

Around here it's a lot of everything.

People are on the streets, dogs are ranging, pigeons are hammering their pecking organs at every speck, car horns are kicking us all in the head, buses are laying down block-long loads of dark, lingering, opaque diesel exhaust.

Look up then. What's there?

Mud brick, wattle, clay half-pipe shingles, peeling paint, tangled electrical and telephone wires. Cracked or smashed windows. Fading signs. Drying laundry. Decaying wood.

This is a dump. It's rotting, even some of the new stuff. Nothing in old town is straight, not any more, even if it once was, and there is damn little of that.

Many sidewalks, those of tile, are constantly dusty, or permanently stained by pigeon crap, or those plus dog excrement, even after the latest torrential rainfall yields, recedes, and dries. Cobble pavements are buckled as though the stones themselves want to pry themselves up and make a run for it.

Other sidewalks? The graveyard of concrete. Where it goes to die. Disaster zones. Lumpy, roiled, rolling, broken, cutting, split. Finding ten paces of solid, flat walking space is a treat you take your friends to explore.

This is paradise. They call it that. Mostly those selling real estate, or tours. Hey Mom, hey Dad, come see. Greatest place in the world to retire. We say so right here, and we can make it happen for you too. Sign here, 'K?

You know what? This is a place. Maybe you like it and maybe not. Maybe some of it, or only parts.

Don't like it? Maybe you aren't paying attention — not noticing the parts you'd like.

One thing — it's alive.

Go out at six a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, and people are working, setting up for the day, having at it. Putting up their stands, filling buckets with water, arranging flowers, waiting for the soup lady. City crews are somewhere close by, with their water truck, spraying down this area today, that area yesterday, the other area tomorrow.

The street sweepers are already out too, with their brooms and scoops and wheeled trash cans, diligently chasing down all those tiny scraps that you never see, because they got there first.

Delivery trucks, a few, sneak along here and there, and later, when the sun is higher, there will be women and men and boys and girls pushing their wheelbarrows of strawberries or grapes or cherimoya. The sun does it, gets it started and then accelerates it, until day definitely gets its hold on the world and makes it bright and warm again.

And all those old, cracked, faded, lumpy, sagging buildings showing their bones in those side walls and such? Some of them begin to look really fine after all.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Receptionists Have Shotguns

Would you like buckshot with that?

I haven't seen any violence but I've heard of some. A friend relayed a story, second-hand, about a man taking a shortcut home through the park at around 7 p.m. one evening. This would set the scene at roughly full dark, sunset being at 6:30. The sky fades fast here.

The man woke up on the ground, stripped of all his valuables, including a ring that didn't come off his finger anymore. His attackers found a way, and the man just barely kept the finger, after several reconstructive surgeries.

So things happen.

There are subtle clues, and you don't need to look far for them.

Every one of the "fancier" or more "important" businesses like department stores has guards out front. These are normally armed with shotguns. Western Union has one. He stands in the doorway all day with the 12-gauge slanted across his torso. Coral, a major department store chain, does. All banks do.

Even a pharmacy I went to has a guard with a nightstick. No shotgun needed there, for some reason. I had just come from SuperMaxi, a grocery, with cheese in a brand-marked plastic bag. The guard stopped me as I blithely traipsed in, and indicated that he needed to have the cheese. He got it.

I'm sure he could take me even without the nightstick, but regardless, when you encounter a guy in uniform, wearing a bulletproof vest, and carrying a stick, why make a fuss? And in truth I have to confess that I didn't look to see if he also had a sidearm, which would definitely tip the balance of power even more in his favor.

The bank I go to has three or four guards, outside. It has a parking lot to one side, and a sort of long plaza leading up to the door. One lot over there is another, associated building, behind its own fence, and one of the guards stays there. The ATM is what I go for, and there are two of them quietly waiting, outside. That is as far as I go. Coming in, I raise my hat to expose my face, pull out my bank cards, get my money, and leave. No loitering, no fussing, no wasted effort. I don't want to get a bad reputation. Not surrounded by uniformed firepower.

Overall, in my extremely limited experience, the guards seem to be at their posts to indicate that there is someone there, on alert. It's like having a sign. Many guards are quite young, and it is hard to imagine a man in his early twenties, probably married, and with a child or two, getting into a shootout along a street chocked with pedestrians, over a bag or two of paper currency. I guess that isn't my line of work.

But good jobs are not common here, where labor is cheap. Even if a guard has nothing to do but stand at the ready all day, it's clean work, and the uniforms look good. No doubt many guards get to know regular customers, and the pay has to be far better than for pushing a handcart and selling ice cream cones or pineapple slices.

And in many ways it seems to be a social job. The guard at the transit center was happy to shoot the breeze for a minute or so as my friend and I came in to get me a bus pass. To me he looked intimidating, standing behind and eight or ten foot high fence topped with tooth-like spikes, and carrying a weapon. But in practice he was friendly, obliging, almost breezy.

And ultimately, what I've come to think is that these people act primarily as guides, sources of information, and...receptionists. They are there, out front, screening who goes in and watching over the public face of the business, handling inquiries, sorting out minor confusions, keeping it all running.

Isn't that a big part of what receptionists do?

Except that where I come from, receptionists can't open fire even if, some days, they really, really want to.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Passing My First Bus Exam

Caught between wheel and fender.

A bus pass debit card cost me $1.70. To buy it, I had to visit a guarded facility. The facility is a government office, hence the guard. Steve was showing me around. He's good at that. It seems to be his job now that he's retired and living here instead of there.

He learns, he makes friends, and then helps those friends to learn what he knows, about living here, getting around, coping, finding things.

Steve spoke to the guard, who let us into the compound. Didn't I mention that? Oh. There was both a guard and a gate. The gate is locked, the guard is armed, and you have to say Please.

Steve speaks Spanish well enough to communicate. This is true. I know because the guard opened the gate and allowed us in, and he was friendly about it. People like Steve. Steve is friendly. He gets things done. And likely there are very few attacks on government facilities by retired gringos in this neighborhood, so the guard felt comfy all-around.

Inside? Things were better than you might expect. This is an old city, in a country not known for its excess wealth, so you get, on average, an improvised, patched-up experience. But this office could have been one in a renovated historic building on any of a thousand well-off college campuses. The building? Not new. The office? Yes — clean, up to date, orderly, and well lit. The staff were polite and efficient. I was done in a few minutes.

First, one of the clerks took my information, made a copy of my passport, and generated me my very own plastic ID card. I had them put $5 on it. All my personal info, and my balance are encoded in a magnetic strip. At 25 cents per ride, my $5 entitles me to 20 trips, and now that the system has transfer stations, one ride can take a person here, there, and everywhere at almost no cost.

They told me to come back after I turn 65. That's when the cost of riding is cut in half, and I will also get a photo for my pass. So, twelve-and-a-half cents per ride. Which leaves me wondering how that gets paid in cash if a person doesn't have a card, or forgets it at home.

It is completely possible that I will never know. I have a collection of things like that. Right now, and for at least a while, this question has joined the crowd inside that darkness.

After that short visit, we went riding. The buses have unwritten rules, but they are important.

Rule Number One — Be nimble, and quick, Jack. The bus is reluctant to stop and impatient to continue. If you aren't ready for it, and don't grab it, you don't ride it.

Rule Number Two — Hang on. The bus accelerates from its millisecond pause like a bull with fire on its ass. Don't have a solid grip on something? You become the entertainment.

Rule Number Three — Move back. Way back, if you intend to get off somewhere. Buses swallow passengers up front and emit them out back. Easy to remember, but problematic when a dense crowd blocks the route (all day, every day). Too bad about that missed stop. No one cares.

Rule Number Four — Signal your stop. You do this by pushing a button. The button is near the back door. If you can't get to it, then your ride goes long.

Rule Number Five — When the bus stops, get off. Now. If you can. Assuming you are near the exit, it is unblocked, and you move quick like a bunny, and that is all you need. Luck is a major player here. Nothing is guaranteed. The driver knows when everyone has gotten on, in case he cares (not that much). But those others way, way out back? Well, why should he care about them? The driver's short attention span keeps him twitching, and after a few clock ticks it takes control and the bus leaps ahead and there you are with only one foot on the pavement. Again — your fault, and you go spinning.

When I am initiated into the next level, I will certainly write more. If they catch me first.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Walk This Way

It's harder than it looks.

You don't see them coming.

Approach any street corner and you're likely to get creamed by someone coming the other way. The best technique is to slow, swing wide, and peer around the corner as you approach it, especially if you plan to send your whole body in that direction. Next best is to slow, possibly to a stop, and look cautiously.

Neither works reliably. You're likely to get creamed about half the time on most busy corners. It may be one person coming at you, which isn't all that bad, or what is more likely, it'll be a family of six, and you can't take on all of them. Usually the best you can do in that case is to stop, flatten your back against the wall of the building, and wait. And hope for the best.

If you are very lucky, you will find a street light standard or a traffic-light post there, and you can shelter yourself behind it. But don't count on it. There aren't enough of those to go around.

Sure, I've probably said it before and it's true — the sidewalks here are narrow. And that is only part of the story. I'm not certain that I know the full story, and probably will never know it, but here are a couple of observations.

Even if you have nothing but almost-collisions all day when walking, you are not responsible for that. You are probably the only person watching where you are going. It isn't entirely your fault. Somehow, the locals seem to know what is going on in traffic, and can drift through a stream of moving motor vehicles like smoke passing through a picket fence, but on the sidewalk it's a wholly different story.

People saunter three and four abreast, completely blocking the whole walk, and are oblivious to everyone else. Even when walking two abreast, they center themselves so that no one can pass either on the right or on the left.

If they come to a stop, people will stand in a knot and talk. Everyone else in the world will have to go around. You don't count.

Curbside car doors spring open at random intervals for someone to get out or for someone to get in, or for no apparent reason.

People charge straight out of businesses without looking, either right or left or ahead — they just come. One day two women were exiting a shop to my right. I was moving smartly, at about three miles an hour (5 km/hr). Both women were looking back into the shop over their right shoulders, and talking, possibly to someone inside. They had no idea what was happening on the sidewalk and they didn't care, because people don't think of that here. I strode past. My right foot was the trailing one. Before I could lift it and be completely past them, one of the women stepped on that foot.

This is not unusual. I get brushed past, nudged, and bumped all the time.

All day long, on every street, pedestrians cross willy-nilly, with or against the light where there is one, or randomly, mid-block, block-end, or anywhere else, as if they are choosing their timing by coin flips and their routes by dice throws.

They stop and stand, or stop and turn, change direction, wobble, weave, spin around, and do anything and everything you don't expect people to do. Everyone is everywhere all the time.

As you can see by the yellow footprints that appear after the street gets striped, and which continue for several blocks in different shoe sizes.

Monday, March 31, 2014

On Duty

They never sleep. They only sweep.

I tripped down the stairs — four flights or three, depending on how you count them here — and exited the building. I was once again in the realm of noise, dust, dog droppings, and diesel smoke — on the street.

No matter what hour, there is always something happening on the streets here. I haven't been out late at night, but I can hear them. They're out there, often with dynamite-sized fireworks, or thumping on musical instruments at frequent, randomly-located concerts.

I have been out early though, before dawn, and it's the same, without the noise. At the odd early hours, or during rains, people are more sparse on the streets but they are always there.

So it was this day, an ordinary day in every way. I headed out, intent on finding breakfast.

I saw a man coming toward me, draining a small white paper cup. Then, when done, he chucked it to his left, toward the street, where it fell and came to rest. One casual motion by someone who actually lives here. A true resident. I, as a visitor, was shocked at this disregard for his home, but waste gets into the streets somehow, and this was proof of how.

Oddly, I saw four more of these cups before I made it to the next corner. I began to wonder if this was a special day. Was there a holiday with its own drink, served in the traditional paper cup? I asked later, of someone who has been here a while. No, not that I know of.

But the cups would be taken care of. Cuenca has that figured out. The city has street sweepers, all over the central part of the city. Individual human employees and not machines. They wear distinctive blue coveralls, blue baseball-style caps, and many of them also use matching blue bandannas to cover their lower faces (nose on down). Each has a small, wheeled cart with a broom, dustpan, and tall cylindrical trash bin.

These people are out early, and are always at work. They stand in traffic and sweep the gutters. They hunt along sidewalks for scraps of this and that. They never stand still. They never quit moving. They only work. At times I see two together but they are not leaning on their brooms, talking, joking, or laughing or smoking. They are always working at making the city clean.

I don't recall seeing any sweepers Christmas Day, but I did see them New Year's Day, using their brooms to shape piles of ash and burned sticks, the residue of the previous night's effigy burnings, and brooming up the remains of spent fireworks. All sweepings went into the dustpans, and then into the trash cans.

They are quiet, almost anonymous, these people — they all, in their uniforms and bandannas, almost seem to be copies of one person, almost always the same height and shape, whether male or female, young or not so young, and they never pay attention at all to what is going on around them.

Except to find trash, and to remove it.

As much as anything else, they are the iconic symbol of this place.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Buzz Bath

Shower fumes.

The knock on my door came at 7:22 a.m., and I was naked.

I had just finished warming two gallons of water on a hotplate that I bought the day before. This was my bath water. I was going to use it because I'm afraid to get in the shower again. The shower head smokes, and that is never a good sign. Not for a shower head it isn't.

Marina (let's call her Marina), is my landlady. Really, I think, she's more of a go-between, a matchmaker, a wholesaler, a jobber. The apartment I'm in is one of her wares. I am the mark.

She doesn't own this place, or any of them. She only sells it, over and over, to a slow but never-ending trickle of gringos flowing through town. Sells it in the sense of advertising and marketing and talking. She makes herself available and then makes the apartments available, and then gets an apartment and a renter to stick together for a spell, a process which includes an exchange of money. But others own the apartments she deals in. Who they are is unknown.

I rented this place for two months, paying rent up front. It's OK for what it is. Mostly I have a decent internet connection and decent security. Beyond that, some things work better than others, though the things that do not work perfectly work well enough.

Except for the shower.

Have you ever seen a suicide shower? I have one here, if you want to try it, but I would advise you not to.

A suicide shower is a plastic shower head with a heating unit inside. Wires come out and water goes in. When you turn on the water, the heating element kicks in, warms the water, and, down below, you do your thing. Adjust the water flow too low and the heater turns off. Set it too high, and it's like trying to warm the Pacific Ocean with a candle. Too much or too little, and you get cold water. Somewhere in the middle is moderately warm to nearly-kinda-hot water.

Unless you try showering here. My unit shudders and jumps, and suddenly the optimum water flow makes itself a slow drizzle, the heater kicks into suspended animation, and the water temperature dives toward absolute zero. Unless I grab the knob, in time, tick the flow rate up by 1.73 to 2.14 notches, and convince the heater to re-engage before any damage gets done. Like me going into an instant, full-body pucker-and-shrivel, for example.

Then it happens all over.

And sometimes I overshoot by cranking the water flow up by 2.63 notches, or more, and chillfully self-freeze my nubbins into dire submission.

But I can live with that.

I can also, sort of, maybe live with the bare wire coming out of the shower head. I think it's a ground. Call in an air ground because air is all it connects with. So far it seems to be harmless. I guess.

And also sort of, but less so, I can possibly survive the two live wires coming out of the wall and connecting to their counterparts reaching toward them from the shower head. Four wires. Two coming and two going. Connected. By electrical tape.

When I first saw that setup, my jeebies scared my heebies so bad I almost jumped out of my own skin, as all of them were doing, the wires. It was a multi-way panic. It took a while for calmness and equanimity to regain a vice grip on my consciousness. Good thing I have a mind like a steel trap. Too bad it's clogged with the carcasses of past misjudgments.

Well, anyway, it worked.

For a while. The shower head did.

Then the smell started. Toward the end of each shower.

There is an (get this) intrusive corner in the shower stall. By that I mean that one corner of the shower stall juts into the shower area. I think it hides plumbing. Or something I don't want to know about. And it is wood paneling.

No, I don't know either. But.

Sometimes cheap wood or wood laminate gets a particular sort of smell when wet, and this smell seemed that.

No. Sadly, no.

As the days went by, the smell came earlier in my shower time. And got stronger. Until.

I noticed that the electrical tape covering the bare wiring had melted, shrunk, and turned crackly. Because it was getting that hot. And so were the wires coming in, though their insulation didn't melt. Hasn't melted yet. That kinda official-looking, kinda-factory-like wiring only got too hot to touch.

And then a day or so later I noticed, while drawing hot (only warm, really) water into a pitcher (because the shower is my only source of heated water), that there was smoke curling upward from what was left of the electrical tape. Which is entertaining, if you have nothing else going on in your life, and also somewhat thrilling, to tell the truth.

It was about this time that Marina showed up, wanting to talk about my request for extending my stay here by two months.

She is actually quite nice to deal with. Shows concern. Treats you like the best person within spitting distance. All of that and more. And told me that the next day she would have an electrician come around to check on the shower head, which, strange as it seems, she said, was new only a little while back. But I was worth the effort, and was in my room the next morning at eleven, when the electrician did not show up.

The electrician also did not show up and 11:30, or 11:45, or 1:17, or 3:46, or any other time, but Marina was back. At 4:47 p.m. the very next day, on the dot, asking if I would be there at 5:00 p.m., because she had another electrician coming then, a very good on, better than the other ones she had scheduled, who had told her that they were afraid to touch a shower like this one, but her much, much better real electrician wasn't, and he would be by at 5:00 p.m., so would I be there for her, and for him?

Oh, sure.

And I went to bed at 9:18 p.m. that night, having missed whole herds of electricians, scared or not, who, if they passed by, did so in great silence and profound invisibility. Until.

This morning. At 7:22. When there was a gentle, mellow, and soft rapping on my door. Which came just seconds before I was going into the shower stall with a great, wide plastic tub of warm water and a scoop made from a used Chlorox bleach bottle (plastic), where I would crouch on the floor, wet my self with water, soap up and rinse and hope I had enough water to close the deal, but at least there would be no smoke, or fire, or electrocutions on that watch.

But the electrician did come, 14.5 hours late. It may be a new record. I'll have to check the registry, though sad to say, I had to turn him away.

I think it was the electrician. He did mention ducha, which is shower, but with one ear out of commission and the other operating at only half its capacity, and not being too incredibly good at Spanish, I could be wrong. But here's the deal, you see.

I was naked, alone, had a small tub of warm water waiting, and didn't need an unfamiliar guy in my room talking Spanish to me, or doing anything else. I didn't need none of it, except for the water, and nakedness (and privacy, as a pre-requisites for proper bathing technique, having found via extensive rounds of trial and error that bathing with my clothes on was sub-optimal, as is nakedness in public).

I didn't need no stinkin' company, and so convinced him to bug off. And bathed, and it was fine. As in OK-fine. Good enough. Passable. Mostly effective. Warm, at least, and completely lacking in electrical excitement or smoke.

Which illustrates the value of two things.

One is planning.

Yesterday I decided to buy a hotplate, and did, and used it to heat my bathwater, though it took nearly an hour to do that.

The other valuable thing is money. Which I have enough of, for here, for now. So it was easier and cheaper for me to spend $21.72 on a hotplate than to find another place to stay for two months, and then to move there, and then to put up with other, as yet unknown things going wrong.

Because, aside from the possibly homicidal shower head I have, and the strangely sticky tap water which I've quit drinking, and the occasional fly or moth that comes to visit, and the odd few minutes of cigarette smoke that comes up the stairwell and hunts for my room, and the dead cable TV, and something else I can't quite remember now (OK — got it — the sour-smelling bedspread and comforter that Marina gave me for the bed, and the blanket with so much hair on it that it effectively has its own pelt), you know? Not that bad here.

The internet connection is adequate, and I'm afraid to lose that by going elsewhere, so unless Marina and the local gremlins find something else to torture me with, I'm getting by.

I am, aren't I?

Monday, March 24, 2014

May I Interest You?

Sell it on the street if you can.

Out front of where I live you can get yourself weighed. Twice.

There are two guys there with scales. One has a scale and that's it, the other also sells lollipops, chewing gum, cigarettes, and coca tea.

They're out there at least five days a week, standing in the shade of the white west wall of the church (Iglesia del Carmen de la Ascención), and they know when to fold. Early afternoon rain showers slide in quietly from the east and from the west, circling the city in a gentle headlock before wetting it. Much of the sky is hidden from these vendors but they know their turf and begin packing up long before the downpour pours down.

Around the corner, north, is Plazoleta del Carmen, also known as Parque de la flores, or simply "the flower market". You want flowers, go there. They gottem.

Continue east on Mariscal Sucre, along the facade and under the pale blue domes of la Catedra de la Inmaculada and you might see anything, or nothing special. It depends. Festivals and holidays come and go, and with them the vendors. Near Christmas you'll find white, aluminum-framed tents where small women sit behind piles of plush toys and dolls, and myriads of other small items, and collections of children's clothing, and tinsely bits and odd things that tiny persons are attracted to, or that are sold only here, though most of these things are made in China. It's cheaper that way.

Around the next corner, turning right, is a covered walkway, which continues at the next corner, if you turn right again, so that you are once more headed west, but still under cover. People wait here for their buses, which come to them in great thundering herds and lay down intense thick black clouds of diesel smoke that spread along the street and turn whole blocks a dirty blue-gray.

A few women, crouched on steps there, sell cookies from small baskets, waving away the occasional fly, and readjusting the single layer of plastic wrap they might have as protection for their goods from the smoke, dust, bugs, and trampled, powdered dog excrement. At the corner there is another woman selling espuma in ice cream cones. Looking like a great, basketball-sized lump of white cake frosting, it sits, gathering in and accepting without discrimination everything that the air carries to it, until she scoops a scoop of it out, and relocates that scoop to a crispy cone. Which she hands over to the customer.

Lately she too has taken to covering her goods with a bit of transparent plastic, which helps to ward off the greater part of the exhaust effluvia that wash over her corner like smoke from forest fires.

She works all day and has nowhere to wash her bare hands, with which she handles all food sold.

And then, across Padre Aguirre, still going west, is Plaza San Francisco with its half-acre of sheetmetal roofs, and secret runways darting among the tiny puestos, the stands, heaped high with shoes or sweaters or tin pots. Not to mention the line of similar goods across the alleyway to the north, where you can find knit gloves so small you can barely fit even a single finger inside. And knapsacks, and jewelry, and ice cream, and a small pharmacy squeezed in among all the rest.

It's like that all over. Wheelbarrows full to the brim with grapes or strawberries. Women plunked down anywhere with a basket of custard-apples, a pile of newspapers, unidentifiable odds and ends. Freelance vendors roam up and down, pacing, calling for all to buy lottery tickets while they can. Everywhere. All over the city. All day.

Today, returning from Spanish class I saw a few things I hadn't before.

First, a man carrying four large and hefty magnifying glasses in one hand, each at least four inches across, while touting them loudly as he walked, to any passersby. It was another WTF moment, but that's only what I think. Maybe I just have not been paying attention.

Or maybe it was my day to see things, like the four-foot-tall yet well-proportioned woman who went by just before that. And then, immediately following magnifying-glass man, and across the street, there was a man carrying kerosene lanterns, and offering those for sale using the same standard technique of calling out to other pedestrians. You know (or maybe you don't) — the clunky old, cheap, pressed-metal lanterns that have been manufactured continuously for 150 years. Those. As if anyone needed them. And they might.

And again, after I interrupted this post to go have lunch, and while executing a mid-course trajectory change, I skirted a corner where a man was standing in place and advertising rabbit-ear TV antennas, with a box of them at his feet and a fresh display model sitting in one hand, which he waved around. As if. And maybe it is.

Best of all, I think, are the New Year's effigies, the ones made for burning. Cloth, and stuffed.

Stuffed with sawdust or leaves or straw. Or manure, in some cases. They are burned when the year ticks over, but before that can happen they have to be sold, and. You guessed right. They are sold all over — on street corners, in stalls, in empty lots, in shops.

You don't see much of that back in North Dakota any more.

Friday, March 21, 2014


In relation to the moose's orifice.

Creepy Ed and Vangeline have a blog. It's called something like Being Cheap-Ass in Cuenca Ecuador, and they're proud of how little money they spend living here, compared to Dink Spot, Arkansas. Or maybe it's Oink, Kansas. One of those places.

They go out to eat a lot, pay a dollar each, and complain to management because the food isn't made to their standards, with the ingredients they prefer. So they bring along some of their own food from home and add it to what's on their plates. Then they eat, and after that they complain. And write about their experiences so other expats can go, eat, and complain.

Ed and Vangeline also do a lot of videos. Maybe you've seen some. They're the ones with that distinctive photo-epileptic look. Every twenty seconds or so the camera stops shaking and you get a glimpse of someone's jacket sleeve or shoe, or a door frame, just to re-establish context, and then the camera begins convulsing again and it's back to heebie-jeebie time.

Yeah, so they pretty well have the video market cornered here, but they aren't the only ones with opinions no one wants to hear.

A person named Becky-Ann or some such put up a post on the GringoTime forum here. Something about "Do you leave tips and how much, because I do and I think people deserve it? And being an 'economical refugee' doesn't mean you have to be cheap."

She might have been a ringer, a kind of troll, because I saw a post some time later which was totally hard-butt and opposite in tone, but I didn't know that at the time and answered anyway, partly because of all the retro-moose-fart comments that showed up calling her all kinds of names. Saying she should go the hell back where she came from, that people like her were spoiling it for the rest of "us", that she didn't know the culture, which was dirt and poverty and should stay that way.

All the, like, you know, fun stuff that smart people say. Which they do on on-line forums, where they can remain unidentifiable and out-gas endlessly.

Especially Anonymous. That Death-to-All-of-You Anonymous person. And Anonymous's best friends and supporters, Anonymous and Anonymous.

So I said what I thought.

Isn't it odd how eager "Anonymous" is to reply, yet how little s/he has to say?

I am an economic refugee. I never tipped in my home country. I tip here.


  • Now I can afford to.
  • The people here need the money more than I do.
  • Laying money on the table is why I am allowed to stay.

No expats are encouraged to come here and live because they are intellectually, physically, spiritually, or morally superior. Expats are encouraged to come here to inject money into the economy.

Buying goods and services is one way to do this. Whether or not we "overpay" is beside the point. The point is for us to spend money, which helps the economy. Tipping does the same - it moves money from our pockets to the pockets of Ecuadorians.

That said, how I spend my money is my business and no one else's. If anyone disagrees, then let them post all their tax returns, bank statements, and medical histories here. After that, I will decide whether to criticize their private and personal decisions.

But probably not, because I have a life.

So I guess I can be a dick too. But I try to be a decent one.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Water World

The leaking wall.

Why does la Asociación de Hoteleros del Azuay stink of urine?

That is the question, one I had often wondered about, especially when passing on the south side of the building.

What was it about the Hotelier's Association of Azuay Province, specifically, that made it reek? Could it be their bylaws? The shape of the building? The color of the paint? The plaster used in its construction? The building's specific spatial orientation? Its fung? Its shway?

Evil spirits?

Maybe. Anything is possible, and not just here, but everywhere. Anything at all.

True. And that is what makes life special.

Life is special because it is composed of living beings, each and every one of which, in its own way, is capable of noticing odd situations and strange events, and then (again, each in its own way) of understanding the weird, and reacting. Even plants.

Plants can tell that the sun moves across the sky. This is basic understanding. We, of course, know that the sun does not move across the sky because we are brighter than plants, and confine ourselves to speaking about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, but not about it traveling across the intervening distance. In other words, we are more perceptive, and are wrong in a more subtle way.

But the real point here is that plants (even plants) are sensitive and smart enough to know when something is going sideways, and are capable of dealing with it. By bending their stalks to compensate, in this case. Rocks can't do that.

Now, with regard to la Asociación de Hoteleros del Azuay, I noticed. I noticed the funk. You can't avoid it, sometimes even from across the street, but I didn't catch on.

Some clues follow.

  1. Every now and then I see cab drivers standing side by side, facing the river, with their backs to the street and their hands down in front of their crotches. I know what that means.
  2. Occasionally I'll notice a pedestrian or bicyclist, facing the river, and so on. I.e., ditto.
  3. It's common to see a vehicle stopped along the highway with the driver and passengers standing, hands down in front of their pants, facing away from the road. Check.
  4. Downtown, guys facing a building, wetting it, in plain view of everyone else. OK, right, got it.
  5. A mother at a bus stop, coaching her five-year-old son on how to do it right. He is standing next to her, facing a wall, letting fly. She is there for him.

Hmmm. But what do those so-called clues have to do with la Asociación de Hoteleros del Azuay and why it stinks of urine?

Boy, that's a real pisser of a question — I had no idea. Really I didn't. Could there be any explanation, I thought?

Well, maybe. Maybe not, but maybe.

La Asociación de Hoteleros del Azuay stands at the corner of Presidente Córdova and Padre Aguirre, two thunderingly congested streets in the very center of Cuenca. Padre Aguirre is a major bus route. I finally caught on to that, and now walk one block north, on Mariscal Sucre because of the diesel smoke. Because there isn't any on Mariscal Sucre. Seriously. I do this now. You don't know diesel smoke until you try walking along Padre Aguirre. You can't.

You have to swim. While holding your breath, with your eyes closed. At the right time (about every 10 minutes, all day) you can see it. You can't avoid seeing it. Two or three buses heave themselves up onto their feet, tumble forward, roar, and spew gigantic black clouds out of their rear orifices. Eventually these clouds thin to the point that light again reaches the street, but leave the entire street blue and hazy for blocks. North American buses don't act this way. Not at all.

And on the northwest corner of Padre Aguirre's intersection with Presidente Cordoba is a large public market, taking up a full city block, so it's really busy there. People. Cars. Trucks. Buses. More people.

Guys stand on that corner, behind la Asociación de Hoteleros del Azuay and bleed their lizards.

That's it.

Guys standing approximately 10 paces from one of the busiest intersections in the city, whizzing away at the back wall of the building. But it's OK, because their backs are to the world at large. Only their backs are visible, and their other parts are not, since they face the wall, and around here, it's proper etiquette.

A stream flows under their feet, diagonally toward the street, trickles over the curb, and puddles.

And really stinks.

That's it. I finally caught on, though I had to see a guy out there going at it before I realized what the cause was. Of the pungency.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Today Smells

I scream, you scream, we all stink.

It's that hint of coconut, or verbena, or butterscotch, the one that removes paint from buses, that knocks pigeons from ledges, that cracks pavement. That one. That's how I know you're coming. And my nose is no longer that good, but here it needn't be.

Even I can smell you. Through the door. If you bathe.

Because if you bathe here you use their soap. And it's based on an alternate reality.

I'm south of the equator. This is true, but there is more afoot than being physically upside down. Other things are askew, inverted from what I used to think was right side up.

Walk along any U.S. street as you are, today, South-America scented, and you will leave a trail of dizzy citizens stumbling and swerving, crashing into one another, dazed and blinded by your aroma. The aroma of Latin America. And we are not alone, you and I, it is not a thing we and only we two share.

We broadcast it. We have to. Our industrial florescents follow us everywhere. We are neon-odored.

I chose my soap as carefully as could be, given my location, given what was available, and now I am using bars labeled blanco and also neutro. Blanco they may be, but neutro is relative. Not neuto. No. At all.

Neutro here, in the realm of scents, is practically an anti-aroma, a nothingness, merely imaginary. But on an objective, absolute international scale, even the thought of it is more than sufficient to kill termites by mail.

The soap stinks in a way that is beyond stink. It stinks by day and by night, never stopping to rest, or to sleep, or to go for a walk, or to take a break. It is on the clock more than 24 and on the calendar more than 7, stronger than my ability to resist. It lunges at me from the bathroom every time I come home, and when I go out, if I have bathed, it rides on my shoulders and scurries to and fro under my clothes.

Resistance is futile. I have been assimilated.

And compared to the other options, the other bars, the other soaps on the shelf, at the store, all of which surged toward me and left me gagging for hours, well, the soap I did buy is only a slow death — the mere hint of a distant, intriguing, inviting fragrance by comparison.

Damn. I don't know how they stand it here.

Ivory I get. Ivory Soap is what I've used for decades. I can't it get here. Ivory too has a scent, but you have to hunt for it, to stalk it, to search it out — it is furtive and timid. It hides away. It does not come for you, leaping for your face whenever you stray too near. Ivory is a rare and ephemeral wisp of almost imaginary olfactory stimulation, and refreshing. I miss it.

I miss, too, the other things I once used. Unscented laundry detergent. Unscented diswashing detergent. Unscented sunscreen.

Yes, even the sunscreen.

I bought a tube. You have to. Or you pay with significant sheets of skin that die and slide painfully away after only short outings, the sun here is so fierce. When I use this sunscreen I become Falana Banana Coconut Man.

This is not how I want to be remembered.

Too bad then.

This is my life now.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Blowing Hot Blowing Cold

While sitting here growing old.

Winter is a hunting beast, stalking dark streets in search of heat. It patiently treads on silent feet, padding from home to home, sniffing for that first hint of escaping warmth, that initial taste of what it seeks, before it begins to gnaw at a loose shingle, pull at a weak window-frame, rip at a crooked door, hoping to gain entry and have its prey.

Things are not like that here.

I arrived on December 5, sixteen days before summer began, if I can imagine summer or winter here. The city is 2° 53' 57" south of the equator, and seasons are opposite those of the northern hemisphere, but on the other hand — what seasons?

There is a time when there is more rain, and another time when there is less, and sunrise and sunset times oscillate by a few seconds per month, and some days are sunny and some are not, but winter? No winter. No spring, summer or fall either, only minor variations.

Probably the most amazing thing is how hot the sun is. I left at the end of last April, and walked out into the sun of northern Washington state on the first day of May, 2013, and was shocked. The day was bright and clear and nearly perfect, but the sun did not pound against me with its raging hot hammer. I immediately missed it. And kept missing it until I returned here seven months later.

In every practical sense, I am on the equator. But I am also over a mile and a half high, above 7710 feet (2350 m). This makes a difference. I have spent time in Guayaquill, at 2° 11' south, and an elevation of 13.2 feet (4 m). Guayaquill is tropical. Cuenca is not. Cuenca is nearly perfect that way.

The average high is 68.5° F (20.3° C). Pleasant. Hot if the sun is shining. Stinking hot at times, but then, to deal with it, you cross the street and walk on the shady side, and it is as cool there as you need it to be.

The average low here is 48.6° F (9.2° C). This is overnight, of course, so you don't much notice. Unless it's one of those cloudy mornings following a clear night, and especially so given a breeze. Breezes are light here, but they are breezes. When this happens you have a chilly day. When this repeats for a second day, you have an annoyingly chilly day.

Not outdoors, but indoors.

Outdoors you are moving. Most people walk a lot. Everyone walks, even the rich who have cars. They still have to walk, and the rest of us have to walk more than that. We wear sweatshirts or sweaters, or a windbreaker over the top of whatever, and walk, and a bit of walking is enough to deal with a cool day.

But that doesn't work indoors. Being indoors here is like patio time in Wisconsin. Many buildings are always open to the sky, and windows close fitfully and imperfectly, and none of them even have screening to buffer puffs of air. No residence has a heating system. North sides of buildings never see any sun.

Take a building, warm it in the sun, and still, overnight, the next morning, it is comfortable. Let that building cool for a day, or for two days, or longer, and all of it, inside and out, reaches ambient air temperature. If that temperature is 55° F (31° C), then you are not comfortable inside your home, and there is not much you can do about it except to put on all your clothes and wait.

This is surprisingly unpleasant. Even for me, and I lived almost 20 years in an apartment that I did not heat, winters. I ought to be used to temperatures between 55° and 65° F. But I'm not, somehow.

I guess that I'm used to my friend the sun, which thumps me most days with its large glad hands, and keeps me feeling young and fluid and welcome.

It's a beating I always welcome.

Friday, March 7, 2014

What's Pink And Has Whiskers?

Lap it up.

My sister gave me a cat in a can.

I was hoping, when I opened the can, that it would be

  • A live cat.
  • Not dead.
  • Etc.

But of course I knew better. Right on the label, under the Cat-In-A-Can logo, it says Inflatable Feline.

No live cat, even one small enough to fit into a can of that size, even one that small and which would hold its breath while traveling through the U.S. Mail system, would let itself be inflated, either before or after the can part or the getting-mailed part, let alone both. And I wouldn't put my lips to either end of such a cat to try inflating it.

Or any cat, really.

In other words, I was onto that game. I was clued. I was dialed in. I knew it was plastic. And thereby OK. (Clean, non-scratchy, low probability of hissy fits.) And gladly inflated it, and gained a new friend.

But it wasn't the same as Ernie.

At this point in my life I don't remember anything about Ernie except for two fairly important facts.

  • The cat's name was Ernie, and
  • Ernie was a real cat, and
  • Ernie was not made of plastic nor was she inflatable.

Sure, those were three facts, but when you're dealing with facts, more is always better. And the extra typing gave me a few seconds more to recall some of those fond memories of Ernie.

Wasted seconds, I guess, because I still don't remember who in the hell Ernie was, cat-wise, aside from the name. (I threw in the she part because it sounds better, though I don't remember requiring Ernie to stand for a close inspection, nor was I ever inspired to put my lips there and blow, either. You don't do that. I don't.)

So, ultimately, we are left with a residue of things we may say we understand. In this case, they are that real cats are real and not-real cats are inflatable, and as far as I am willing to take this research, I hereby declare that there is a difference, and real cats do their own inflating, after supper, if they do it at all.

The same goes for things that you do put in your mouth. Like horchata. I've had it in tea bags. It's good. It's OK. It's acceptable. It isn't all that bad. Well, if you get "horchata con miel". I like the "miel" part. That's honey. Or something honey-like.

I hear that it can also be a sugar-based syrup, which is fine by me, since horchata tastes good that way, regardless of how it actually got to that particular address.

The straight horchata I had in tea bags was not my favorite, but with honey-like sweetening, it's yummy. But still too much like honey and herbs in a can, waiting to be inflated by the correct amount of applied liveliness, in order to achieve OK-ness, not-all-that-bad-ness, a level of mediocre acceptability with hardly any bitter aftertaste.

And in the other corner, there is live horchata, fresh-brewed — it requires no blowing. It self-inflates and breathes on its own. It's good.

No, I haven't said what horchata is. Here are a few words on that subject from someone who does know:

The herbs and flowers that are part of this drink include some better known herbs such as chamomile, mint, lemon verbena, lemon grass, and lemon balm. Some of the flowers that are included in this tea are rose geranium, small roses, violets, begonias, carnations, fuschias and malva olorosa/malva blanca — which are flowers from the mallow family. The horchata herb mix also includes some lesser known and harder to find herbs which include cola de caballo or horse tail (also known as shave grass), llanten or plantain plant (not to be confused with plantain bananas), borraja or borge, linaza or flax, a red leafed herb called escancel, in English it is known as bloodleaf, this herb gives the drink its red pinkish color. Another plant used in this tea is called ataco or red amaranth, this one also contributes to the color of the drink. There are a few other plants that are used, however these seem only grow in Ecuador and, at least according to my mom, don't have known names in English, in Spanish they are called pimpinela, shullo, and cucharillo.

Mine was tall and cool and pink, like pink lemonade, but not lemonadey. Not like something liberated from a can, or brewed in a tea bag, or retrieved dry by the handful from a box under the sink in the back room before boiling.

And it did not require me to put my lips on it and do anything but suck. So that's what I tried.


I'll have to do it again.

More: Horchata lojana or herbal tea mix

Monday, March 3, 2014

Drip Grind

When water, when?

We had rain yesterday. All day.

Then all night.

Not this morning though, or this noon, or this afternoon. I think the sky ran out. It can happen.

Things run out if you use too much.

Like the other water. That too. The stuff in the pipes. That ran out, though I don't know the exact true cause.

As a believer in cause and effect, if I see the effect, such as no water coming out of the tap, then you betcha, right away I'm guessing there is a cause. And sometimes — maybe a lot of times (I'm not absolutely clear on this part, but maybe a lot of times) — you never find out what that cause is, and you have more important things to deal with at the moment anyway, so you forget about Why? and begin thinking about What the eff do I do now?

Like today.

My fallback What now? position notched over to drinking water from the toilet tank. I mean, if there was no alternative. If there wasn't a better alternative, then that would have been it.

Scoop, boil, drink. Like that, with the boiling part providing the KO punch to any residual cootie-bugs hiding down there in the water, but it would have been a little hard to swallow nevertheless. Especially tomorrow, after having gone to bed bathless, with unwashed hands, and being generally pissed on principle. You can imagine, right?

But there were alternatives, two that I could think of, and they went like this...

  • Take my knapsack and hoof it the better part of a mile over to the supermarket, and buy bottled water there. If the place was open, which it might not have been, because this is the second-to-last day of Carnival, and almost everything is closed because when they have a party here, they close everything up tight and leave town. All that's left behind is hungry, confused tourists wondering where the party is, and where to find food.
  • Or, option two, my preferred choice, which was to go over to the WH Cafe, buy lunch, and see if I could cadge two Platypus 2.5 L bladders full of water, or as a last resort, buy it from them. If their water was working. And if they were shut off too, then I couldn't get water and also couldn't get anything to eat, because they would have been closed — can't run a cafe without you have water, you know — but then there was still SuperFutzi and the possibility of bottled water. If they had been open, which was uncertain, but definitely a second option.

Yeah, Life In Paradise, Episode XII: The day of WTF.

Now for the happy ending. I got eats at WH Cafe and tanked up on water too, so's I be OK now.

On the way to the WH Cafe, wouldn't you know, down by the corner of where I live, almost right outside, there were three guys in the street with a slab of pavement pried up, and one guy had a long iron bar and was leaning into that bar, which was stuck in the spokes of a large wheel, which I'm guessing was the underground faucet for here. And it looked like he was turning that faucet.

Anyway, after lunch the guys were gone and the water was on.

Now I only have to wait a day or so until the pipes get properly flushed before daring to drink the water, due to backflow or back-sucking or whatever it's called, which contaminates water supplies when this happens, but meanwhile I have five liters of WH Cafe's Clear And Sparkly Best sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting to duke it out with my thirst, whenever that may come along again.

So, once again, could be worse, you know?

I don't want to be speculating, but maybe that's why they call it paradise here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Sole Abraders

A lesson in cleanliness.

Call them anachronisms. They are.

But still, I've seen several around here.

Boot scrapers.

They look like ladder rungs, or flat grab-handles, set into the pavement, and they wait outside doors, until someone comes along, soles heavy and caked with gumbo mud, and then they spring into service.

But passively, because they are after all solid iron, and are anchored at each end in concrete, and can't spring. And are now useless, since not only the walkways (sidewalks as we gringos say), but also the streets are paved, and there is no mud to be found.

So it makes a person wonder just what things used to be like, and how long ago they were like that. I certainly don't know.

A local friend, another gringo, knows a woman from up north, who said that when she was a child it was common to see bare feet in Quito's streets — say about twenty to twenty-five years back, which isn't that long ago.

And would be as startling to see today as barefoot brokers on Wall Street.

I have no idea what Cuenca was like twenty-five years ago, but there might have been close-in unpaved streets then, or a little farther back, and these boot scrapers might have been welcome, and frequently used.

Wait. Cancel that — there are unpaved streets around the city's edges today. I know that because I have walked there. These streets may technically be out of the city limits, but if so, that is only an irrelevant political detail — they are easily reachable on foot within half an hour by someone setting out from the city's center, now, today, at this moment, which is what I have done.

Which, in turn, brings history closer. Which puts these anachronistic boot scrapers into a more contemporary context.

They are only slightly out of date.

And can still be used to remove dog excrement, if it should get thick enough, which, in some locales, on some days, it might, because unlike mud, excrement today is both common and ubiquitous.

You don't want that in your house, now, do you?

Mind the scraper then.