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They are only slightly out of date.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.

Monday, February 24, 2014

True Pixels, False Hopes

It's all in your head, Fred, especially the delusions.

Another thing I learned — things are never as good as they look in the photos.

So when did I learn this? About 1952? A few weeks later? Surely not within the last six months, unless I am profoundly stupid. Which is a possibility, I guess.

Hard to say.

If I'm that stupid, then how can I tell? Ask someone? Ask lots? Ask enough people to get a statistically significant sample, then hammer on the responses with advanced math?


On the one hand, if I can do that, then I'm probably doing work sophisticated enough to qualify me as Not All That Stoopid. But on the other hand, if I do that, then maybe I'm so stupid that I'm auto-selecting myself for extermination. Because who would go through that kind of trouble to prove that they're not dumb — someone dumb would, right?


Which still leaves me wondering if I'm smart enough not to qualify as stupid, or stupid enough that I can't tell. I'll leave it to you. Come by some day and take a gander. Then deliver me the verdict, if you please.

And then stand back. I might not be as equable as you are imagining. Or as wimpy. You have been warned.

Among the other things that are never as good as they look in the photos: all rooms and apartments. That you see in photos. And which are unrecognizable in person. This is what I've learned, stupid or not. They always look better in photos. In the sense that they always look at least decent in photos, and usually much better than that.

One way they look different in person is how they smell. And another is how they sound. Photos always lie about these qualities in particular, even photos that try hard to be honest, and they do it all the time.

For instance, the place I'm in now.

It smells like an old man. Specifically, an accountant. With that turn-of-the-century staleness. Turn-of-the-century as in 20th century, folks. If you've ever spent time in an office building put up between 1890 and 1925, then you know it. It's unmistakable. My place is like that. No photo will tell you about it.

People too, of course. They're all different in person. They pop from two dimensions at best up to a minimum of three, and throw in motion and sound, and sentience and all those other dimensions, and you have what not even the truest color photograph can honestly bring to life.

And it's mostly marketing.

When you see a photo of a lawyer or a facilitator or a language teacher, or a place to live, you're supposed to feel sympathy, trust, longing and hopefulness, in different degrees depending on the subject.

But you're supposed to like it or her or him.

You see a plate of food, and it looks delicious, and you go there to have that meal and then you wonder WTF? Always happens.

Apartments? There are always surprises, like the electric tingle I get from the shower, or the slow drain that chokes on tiny nibbles of house dust, requiring daily unplugging. The leaky propane cylinder under the kitchen counter. Dim lights. Gallon-per-minute water flow in the sink. Stale closets. Uneven flooring.

You know?

Nothing is ever what you have been led to believe.

Which is why I, dearly, hope we never meet. So far I like you just the way you are.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Where Would Jesus Park?

Behind the fence.

I don't know how many times I walked right by it, unseeing, but it was there.

People here take their parking seriously.

They have to.

There is nowhere to park.

Well, of course that's exaggerated idiot-talk, really. Because there would be no way to take parking seriously if there were no parking. But there are so many crimps to vehicle use that, for those who do have vehicles, each trip is like a major military campaign.

Streets here — choose your description: Charmingly narrow. Pathetically narrow. Laughably narrow. Until you watch a full-sized city bus make a turn, and you are standing anywhere nearby. Whenever a bus turns, at least two street corners are in imminent danger. You don't laugh then, when you see that bus coming for you — you back away and stand off. Well off. To preserve your life.

The bus's blunt front plows toward the far corner while one of its heaving, thundering rear wheels lunges for the near corner, and misses. This is a good day. When the driver is paying attention, and hits it right, and the bus is compliant.

At other times the bus's front swings wide or goes long, tries to get at and destroy everything out there, and the rear cuts it short and tight, crushing whatever is within its reach — bollards, curbs pedestrians.

Navigating in a small car, you would think, is different, but no, it is very nearly as difficult, because every fit is a tight fit.

With most streets barely wide enough for cautious driving, and being one-way affairs, parking is also out of the question.

Off-street lots are used for parking, but they are not like North American lots. There are no acres of flat, wind-swept, asphalted emptiness with myriads of entrances and exits. Here, parking lots hide behind walls, inside the enveloping embrace of colonial architecture, out of sight, and they are stingy affairs, themselves cramped for space.

And then there is the Parqueadero de Jesús. It is different, in two ways.

It is open and airy, though behind a fence. Everything not behind at least a fence is subject to theft. Even, I think, the Parking Lot of Jesus. But that is a minor difference.

Being outside the city's central core, snuggled against a church's side, its topographical distinction may be due only to geography, with no deeper significance, but for the sign.

The sign does set it apart. To the eyes of those from elsewhere in the world. Definitely.

The sign alone would cause a major ruckus in Cleveland. Bet on it.

Monday, February 17, 2014


What's in your pocket? Can I have it?

It happened again yesterday.

I should have known. I should have been prepared. I should have expected it.

Notice those words? should and have. I should have. But why?

Life here is odd some ways. You have to be on guard. You have to remember to be on guard. Even if you know what's coming toward you, and from which direction.

I had to know that this one was coming for me. I should have known. I did know, because it's been happening every couple of days for a long time now. I've been through it before, this nonsense. Just not so totally absurdly.

Ecuador uses U.S. currency. It has since 2000, when the previous currency, the sucre, crashed to a value of absolute zero, plus or minus nothing. And the fun part, if you like crap, is that now, in 2014, there is still dust in the air.

What I mean is that a person has to be careful paying for which with what, and then expecting a reasonable thing to happen.

A twenty is the top end. You could squeak some deals with stacks of Benjamins, but not all. Some. Even then you'd get the big hairy eye. But some things you could do. Like paying your rent. Maybe.

Paper money is suspect. Always. The bigger the bill, the greater the bogus buck passing profit, so people check every bill. They have to. Twenties work. Twenties are acceptable and available, and I use them. Bigger stuff? No idea where to even get it.

I paid a $650 fee with 32 twenties and two fives, not long ago. Business as usual. You carry a wad in your pocket. Then you spend time counting it out, and hand it over. And then the other party counts, and then you're done. Eventually. Life in paradise, OK?

What I can't get over is the constant change crisis. Which is the other problem. The real problem.

For some reason, coins are an endangered species.

I understand a one-person shop not having bags of coins to cover every occasion. Reasonable.

I don't understand a multi-million-dollar businesses with its pants down, every day. Caught out. Permanently in drydock. Like SuperNutzi, the maximum grocery chain.

I believe I can still hear them sighing over my last visit. They pain me. I pain them. Because they have such a hard time getting the change they need from me. Because I expect to get change from them.

True, it could be that they do not know about banks, and how to use banks, and how to plan ahead, and I ought to be more charitable, perhaps, more cooperative. And, stupid me, I'm not.

Take yesterday — please.

I bought cheese and cookies. $6.31. I handed over $6.35.

Boom. Cashier Fuddle Event. Lights flash. Recurring Four-Cent-Problem eruption. Cashier requires pennies. From me. What to do? Emergency. Situation critical.

Situation critical because this giant company does not know how to have change on hand. Customers coming to buy is a big surprise. It throws them off every time. Every time they open the doors for business. Every time they open the doors for business, and someone comes in and makes a purchase, and needs change. Ow.

I always catch SuperNutzi flat-footed. Always. Over pennies and nickels and dimes. Even though Ecuador mints its own. I don't think they know this either.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Buzz Lunch

You hits it, you eats it.

I think it's the cabbage. What else would explain all those flies at a vegetarian restaurant?

Of course it could be me. I go and flies follow. Everywhere I am, they are too. It may be ordained by heaven.

Or it may not — it could be that I stink. But I think that it's the cabbage. And if not, then it's because I stink.

But if it is my stink, then that stink precedes me, and arrives before I do in locations that I hadn't planned on visiting.


But definitely, there is one place that I notice flies, and that is at the Salutary Relationship Chop House of Good Eats. It is marginally a chifa house.

Chifa is Chinese cooking using local ingredients. The U.S. version is chop suey, but in Peru it's huge. In Peru and Ecuador it's called chifa.

The Salutary Relationship Chop House of Good Eats isn't quite that. Not that close to chop suey. Not all that close to anything.

For the typical cafeteria-style almuerzo (lunch) there, you'll find four mostly-raw options of mixed salad-like vegetables, plus two deep fried items, and then two stews, all meatless, but often containing varieties of soy concoctions wearing meat-like disguises. You get to pick four of the eight selections offered, and the whole deal comes with rice, a bowl of soup, and a glass of juice.

And flies.

I think it's the cabbage. Cabbage has two prominent qualities.

  • It has a pungent odor not readily apparent to all humans, but there, and pungent.
  • It contains a lot of sulfur. This makes flies think it's poo.

One way to deal with flies is to spray bug killer indiscriminately. Or hang flypaper. (By a wide margin though, diners prefer eating poison to sitting beneath flypaper.)

A third way to defeat flies is by installing window-and-door screening, and then keeping those windows and doors shut.

The Salutary Relationship Chop House of Good Eats has another way — rubber bands.

These are used by Feng (pronounced Fung). Let's call him that, whatever his name is. He runs the cash register. And hunts flies when it's a slow day.

And the way Fung does it is the way you or I would do it — loop the rubber band around the tip of your off hand's thumb, point at your target, and use your other hand to cock the weapon and fire.

Except that not so many of us would do this in view of customers in the dining area of any eatery, be it Ed's House of Slop or Delmonico's.

Fung's prey of choice flits anywhere and everywhere — ceiling, tables, chairs, walls, and he shoots with deadly care. Whether he takes out any of those nasty buzzing disease balls is a matter of speculation, since I cannot personally confirm any hits, and do not actually know the effect of a rubber band strike on the diminutive but sturdy exoskeleton of Musca domestica. This may require more deliberate study.

Nor did I see Fung recover anything other than spent rubber bands, though it is possible that his den is chock full of fly heads delicately mounted, moose-like, on tiny plaques, out back.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Wait Run Walk

Dances with traffic.

I've heard a few theories about why people relocating here lose weight.

  • The high altitude and thin air.
  • The sunshine and additive-free, fresh food diet.
  • Bertha's SCOBY.
  • Zimlutz-Krantz Magnetic Phonons.
  • Giant Lizard People secretly living among us.
  • Something else then.

Most likely something else. Such as, for the first time in their lives, those who come here are forced to get off their fat asses and walk. Even if it's only a few blocks a day, to go eat.

Since it's nearly impossible to drive here, and inconvenient to own a car, people have to walk, or starve entirely.

But getting around Cuenca on foot is a learned art. Specifically, the art of staying alive by avoiding bumper bumps.

However, things are improving.

There are ever more traffic lights going up in the old part of town, the business district, or what is also known as el centro.

I was here for six months in 2013 and then left for another six months. Back now, I'm amazed by the changes that adding a few traffic lights have made. I hope they keep it up.

People still jaywalk. All the time, everywhere. I do too. The streets are so narrow that it takes only five or ten seconds, and generally you're safer by crossing when there's a break in traffic rather than depending on fictions like stop signs to protect you.

Or an idea called right-of-way.

Because pedestrian rights are zero. Stop signs are similar to U.S. yield signs, but less so. Even the police blow through them at full throttle.

Here, a stop sign means Maybe at this intersection you ought to slow down because there could be cross traffic. But maybe not. So WTF. Your call.

Traffic lights help. Drivers stop for red lights and go on green lights, more often than not, but things can still get odd.

I saw a driver stopped at a red light last March or thereabouts. There was one other car at the intersection.

When the light turned green the other car left. The car nearer me stayed put for ten or fifteen seconds. Then the driver honked once and drove off.

No, I don't have any idea.

And when you cross the street on a green light, drivers who are also moving with the green may try to go over the top of you, so you keep your eyeballs peeled, make your moves between turning cars, and look over your shoulder a lot.

But that doesn't solve every problem. Some drivers act like pedestrians and go when the going looks good.

A couple weeks back I saw a driver stop on a red. The cross street was a one-way going right to left from the driver's perspective.

After coming to a stop and sitting for a few seconds the driver inched forward, looking to the right. Parked cars in that direction blocked the view, so the driver inched out farther. Traffic came.

When that wave of traffic cleared the driver inched out farther, the better to see if anything else was on its way.

This dance repeated several times until two conditions came together:

  • The driver had edged half a car length into the cross street, partly blocking one traffic lane, and
  • Oncoming traffic was clear for half a block or so in the upstream direction.

Then the driver, satisfied that it was safe, regally drove through the intersection against the red light.

So, no matter what, if you're walking you gotta keep hopping if you don't want to end up flat.

And the skinny gringos?

Having a fat ass slows you, so maybe the skinny gringos here didn't slim down. Maybe they're the survivors.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What's Pointy?

And pokes you in the butt?

Go for a walk. Keep your eyes open. See what you see, not what you're looking for.

What? What is it this time?

Look, there, on the window ledge. Spikes.


Long ones, preventing you, if you should want, and the ledge is the right height to be tempting, from parking your backside on that ledge for an hour, or a minute, or even a second.

Instead, you keep moving because you have to. Obviously, this is not your place to perch, nor is it anyone's.

The spikes can be — what? What can they be?

Well, wrought, for example. Like some I saw just a day ago. Wrought, or worked by hand, of iron. Definitely wrought, a single spike split into three, each of which was then bent away from the central axis to form a bloom of spikes. A flower with a point to it, a definite attitude. An attitude which translates to, in effect, Butt out. Buzz off. Go away. NOW.

Some are not wrought. These, if metal, are sharpened bolts, or nails, set blunt end down, and pointy end up, protruding through a board or strap of iron. In case you don't get the idea by simply looking, and do in fact try to sit on them, or lean on them, or simply rebalance your balance following a slightly unsteady moment in the midst of an over-reaction to a clod of malingering dog-brown, then they bite, and bite quite well.

And the others, the not-metal? Well, anything sharp does it. Broken glass is more often used to top walls, but works along external windowsills, as you might imagine, and more decidedly catches your attention because everyone, at one time or another, has had an encounter with broken glass, and knows, sincerely knows, what broken glass does to flesh.

So that works too.

And as a result, you take your butt and park it elsewhere, along with the rest of your self, and leave those window ledges to their own thoughts, all alone, and butt-free.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I Found What Does It, Then

Observing the Mobile Beaker Patrol.

This is a reasonably clean place, this Cuenca, Ecuador.

No, you try it.


Eating off the pavement — I don't have that much to prove, especially to you.

When I say that Cuenca, Ecuador is a clean place, it is your job to then take that blanket statement and put it into perspective. Feel free to add as many grains of salt as you can find.

Suggestions follow.

Fleur de Sel? Fine. Sel Gris? OK by me. Flake Salt, then, how about that? Well, not to point any fingers, but if the flake fits, then shove it up your nose, Bub. Himalayan? Yep, from a place noted for its fine, clean beaches and abundance of cod. Shio? Surely. Curing Salt? If you be ailing you, and you got the prescription, then start shakin' it, mate.

Any other salt? Ditto, as if I really cared. Go do it or not. I'm only trying to make a point, so quit being literal or I'll come over there and whack you with a bag of pepper.

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled, one-way discourse. This is a reasonably clean place, this Cuenca, Ecuador. And "Why?" you may ask, including actual quotes to make you sound not only snooty, but worth taking seriously, in a dead old white man suit-wearing way.

Because. (My favoritest rebuttal, good for all occasions.)

Because there is a whole cadre of street sweepers here, in uniform, sweeping streets all day, every day, manually. Partly for that reason. And when I use the phrase all day, every day I do. Mean it. Including New Year's Day. At least New Year's Day of 2013, when I saw more than one of these public employees on the job, early, operating brooms with vigor.

Partly for that reason. And partly because many forms of "waste" in other parts of the world are properly regarded here as resources. Profit centers. Opportunities. What ends up on the street and does not get used is not useful. Dog poop, for example. Tiny scraps of paper. Things like that — things we, as of yet, as a species, have not found it useful to capture and carry home for resale or for folding into other products or into our foodstuffs.

And then there are those other substances — organic waste that is not dog poo or human poo (or, during the December through March holiday season, random surprise scatterings of horse poo).

Organic "waste" such as...? Spilled grain, or spilled food of any kind, like bread crumbs or pork bits. Anything. And this is where the auxiliary corps comes in — Cuenca's unpaid, volunteer sanitary engineers. Pigeons.

It required eight months of living here and a measure of imagination before I realized the truth. This place is swarming with pigeons, as are many cities. (That is not the truth part, yet. We will come to it shortly.) I have seen people feeding them (the pigeons), but when they (the pigeons) aren't being fed, they forage.

They forage. That is the key, the truth-part, right there. Did you see it go by? If not, then go back and read it now.

When foraging, pigeons peck at anything. Hell — everything. Everything, and especially anything too small for me to see. If it's there, it gets a peck, whether I can imagine a beakable peck target or not. Peck. Peck. Peck-peck-peck-peck-peck-peck-peck. All day. Everywhere.

That's the secret. Peckers, all over, going at it like crazy.

Pigeons. Pigeons and their insistent peckers.

They are always around, pecking at every damn thing, visible or not, and they probably clean up as much garbage as anyone or anything else. Because if they don't do this they'll have to go back to the countryside and try making a living there, or to New York City, or Dallas. Or Buenos Aires. Any of which might be seriously worse than country life with its constantly muddy feet and no movie theaters or sparkly lights anywhere.

No one wants to live in Buenos Aires or Dallas these days, if they can avoid it. Or the countryside where hard work is unavoidable, if you prefer a life of eating and pooping and not much else. Which is kind of the Way of the Pigeon, I guess.

So they're here. And they, too, do poo. On everything.

I'll let you know PDQ (which is slang for posthaste) if I find what eats pigeon poo. But I don't believe there is such an angel being, cuz that stuff there? That there stuff? That stuff (pigeon poo), no one cleans up. Not even the rain.

Paradise — love it or poop on it.

And so. This is me signing off again, and stepping around what I don't want to carry home on my shoes.