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.