Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Taking Steps

What's a prisoner to do?


Luckily, my cell is large. I can take big steps.

I have room to rattle around aimlessly between the walls. I can go out the door, hit the street, and as long as I don't get lost, I'm OK. But this isn't really hiking, let alone backpacking, which I miss.

I spent most of the summer back in the U.S., sort of randomly backpacking around Washington State, living in a car I bought in July and sold in September, parked in nooks I found in the woods or in state parks when not on the trail. It was good enough. My time was limited and I didn't have any real plans other than to be there and enjoy summer.

My time was limited because I'm in the middle of a sort of probationary period defined by the Ecuadorian government. I'm kind of a refugee, a refugee from winter, so I'm now an Ecuadorian resident. An official, legal, recognized Ecuadorian resident. For the third time. Yeah, right — did this before. Blew it up twice. On my third round now. They let you do that.

The deal is, if you meet the requirements, which in my case is being able to prove that I have a permanent lifetime income of at least $800 a month, and no criminal history and so on, then it's basically a matter of filling out the paperwork and waiting a couple of months, and then you're in. You can stay. Forever. You can even vote. Such a deal.

And the climate here is crazy good.

Typical temperatures:

  • Overnight low: 50° F (10° C)
  • Daytime high: 68° F (20° C)

Wind: not bad, usually light. Sunshine: YES! Rain: Now and then, around 35 inches per year, or 889 mm, but things usually dry up shortly after a brief shower.

I'm also a former burrowing mammal from North Dakota (Land of the Frozen Dead), who moved to western Washington in 1979 and was amazed that winter never came that year. Things got darker and cooler and wetter and then started getting brighter and warmer and dryer. Summer turned to fall, which turned to spring, and then summer again. Wow. No winter, even though I grew my usual fur in anticipation, out of lifelong habit.

It was like that for a long time. A real treat for someone who grew up where the weather could kill you dead any time of the year, but especially in winter. Winter is an OK season too, but not eight months of it. That's nuts.

Well, eight months of cold or at least cool weather. In North Dakota my favorite month was October, when everything got dry and crispy and clean — no bugs, no snakes, no poison ivy, no humidity, no heat, no storms. Just progressively colder, and mostly calm-ish. Cool trending toward frosty trending toward frozen.

After that was November, which was more of the same, but a little closer to the killing edge, and then December and the holiday stuff, and after that January. I'm not sure what January is good for, but it was right in there like clockwork.

And then after January things got cold. Seriously, truly, uncompromisingly.

February was usually the coldest month in North Dakota. Brighter but colder. It's a characteristic of continental climates. There's a lag. It's like the earth way out there doesn't quite know what's going on, a communications lag or something, so the earth is always a couple of months behind, and keeps getting colder even after the sun begins getting hotter again. It's a thing. You have to deal with it. Or you die.

The last winter I lived in North Dakota, I worked outside. Delivering lumber and other building supplies by truck, around town. Just local driving. I walked to work. The coldest day was in February. Minus 35° F in the morning, minus 7 for the day's high (-37° and -22° C, respectively). Chilly. Not windy though. When it's that cold, at least the wind gives up and stays home in bed, so overall, not so bad. But North Dakota winters go on for friggin ever. That's the deal. You get tired of it.

And then you get older and it's not fun any more. So I left.

And after a few decades in western Washington I got tired of the gray winter skies. True, you can get by wearing only a windbreaker for most of most every winter (and by carrying an umbrella), but you start to go crazy too. In western Washington, it's the same kind of deal as in North Dakota, but with gray skies and drizzle instead of world-killing cold, world-killing cold and wind.

In western Washington, endless humidity and drippy skies drive you nuts by around January 4th, but things don't clear up until mid-July. Yeah, right. July 12th or 13th. I forget which. One day or the other. Like someone flips a switch. After that it's summer. Summer, and it all seems worth it once again. Summer's a killer in western Washington. In a good way. Best summers ever, anywhere. Usually lasting until the third week of October. After that, you start to see some rain again. Then more rain. Then November. November is the stormiest month, especially around Thanksgiving, but it sort of feels cozy. You get to stay indoors and eat stuff and watch the world blow around outside and the ground is suddenly covered in colorful leaves.

Which begin rotting pretty quickly. So they liquefy and then there is more rain and every day is a gray day, and later on sometime there will be a nice sunny day and you feel good again and then it rains for another two weeks after that, and so on. Yeah, right.

I spent several years living in Bellingham. Since I was busy starting over, learning math and physics and such I didn't pay much attention to the weather until I read the newspaper headline one day: Sun Visible for First Time in 60 Days (paraphrasing here, but a true story — from about 1982). It was actually front-page news.

It does make you crazy after a while, so when I got old enough I figured Hey, enough already, and moved to Ecuador.

And then got bored, and moved back, and then got bored with that and moved back to Ecuador and got residency a second time. And then got bored, and moved back to the U.S. and got bored with sitting around all winter (but summer was nice), and got a severe case of the galloping dreads looking at my second winter back there, and moved back to Ecuador and got residency an effing third time, and now here I am again. (Slow learner, wot? Cost me a bunch too, but money's free these days — it just rolls into my bank account toward the end of every month, so it's only numbers. I don't really have enough to live in the U.S. any more, but here I'm actually rich-ish. Can't complain. I'm free to do stupid things now and don't have to get up and go to work and be around morons any more.)

Oh hang on — I can complain.

First, I'm a dick. But then, someone has to be, so deal with it. I don't care. (Yes I do, but I'm trying not to whine.)

Second, there's this problem with Ecuadorian law. See, if you get residency, you have this probationary sort of period that goes on for two years. For those first two years you can't be out of the country for more than 90 days each year, or you lose your residency, and I've done that already, so this time I'm biting the bullet and living with it.

I was gone what was it, around 82 days in 2016. My anniversary date was December 7, so I have another 251 days to go until I'm totally permanent. After that I can be out of the country for 18 months at a time. That would work. Meanwhile, I can be gone up to 90 days again between now and next December 7. Happy Pearl Harbor Day, me.

After I see another year go by I can spend eight or nine months backpacking while maybe living in a van, and three or four months here, enjoying not-winter. (By the way, the UV index for today is 10. That means if you spend more than 12 seconds out in the sun your skin starts smoking and bubbling. After a minute or so your skin is fully cooked and starts to slide off. Been there, done that too. A week or two back the UV index hit 13, which will take paint off a cattle truck. But them's the benefits of living at 8000 feet or 2438400 mm. And no bugs neither.) For the rest of this week, the UV index will be just extreme. I'll write you when it's over.

But hey I'm bored again, even with all this bubbling, smoking skin going on.

The big humpy part of my day, the pinnacle, the acme, peak, summit, crest, crown, tiptop, the height, the supreme pointy part, is lunch. I do lunch now. That's my day, most of it.

After lunch, it's downhill. Not a whole lot going on, unless I go for a walk. So I walk too.

But I'm in a city. This isn't like hiking, let alone backpacking.

There are places I don't want to go, and places I can't go, and other places I shouldn't go, and then there's night. Days are relatively short here, year-round, since we're 2.54 degrees south of the equator. Sunrise at 6 a.m., sunset at 6 p.m., and then it's dark, and anyone with any sense doesn't go walking around after dark, and if you do, you quickly find out why not, so it's lunch and daytime tramping for me. For now. Though I'm still bored. And haven't figured out where or when I'll spend my 90 days of freedom during the next 12 months.

So I'm back where I started: What's a prisoner to do? Pace. Luckily, my cell is big.

And it has high walls. Maybe I can't quite escape, but I can climb up the walls. That's what I do sometimes.

"Cuenca" means "basin". The city is in a football-shaped valley. Officially, it's "Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca", Saint Ann of the four rivers of the basin, whatever that's about. Basin, watershed, catchment area, socket, bowl, hollow — take your pick. Valley. The city is in the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley.

To the north, the nearer valley wall. It's a short steep walk up to an overlook. Then it's a short steep walk back down. A decent workout that takes around 45 minutes if a person meanders around somewhat. Not too bad, but not a hike. But there are stairs. I like the stairs.

You can walk along streets and sort of make it an up-the-ramp walk or go the other way and end the ascent with about a hundred feet of stone steps (30m). Well, maybe 70 feet, but it looks intimidating from the bottom. Maybe only 50 vertical feet. Who am I, some kind of damn expert or something? It's a workout. Which is what I need. I go up and then come back down, huffing and puffing and snorting and farting with the effort.

But that's the toy workout. Nearby, accessible, quick, easy. Something I do when it's late and I have to do something but can't do the real thing.

The other one is the real thing: The Turi Trudge. This one can kill you. I love it.

Instead of going north, go south. See, the deal is, there is another valley wall over there. Conveniently, valleys have two walls. This second one is farther off and it's higher, and has extra special benefits.

Benefit Number One is, you get to tromp across the full width of the city. (Well, I live kinda to the north a bit, on the edge of what they call the "Historic Center", or el centro, so my walk covers most of the city's width.)

Benefit Number Two is, you get to work on your traffic-dodging skills. Which you have to do any time you step out of your door, anyhow, but let's gloss over that, 'K? And pretend that this here mess-a-words is, like, you know, imposing and important stuff. And that this is extra-special traffic-dodging.

So it's about a two-mile walk to Turi from where I live, starting with the across-town part and vehicle-avoidance, which includes running for your life and swearing, and all kinds of other fun things. But then you get there, to the south side of the city. And then the fun starts, because things suddenly get vertical.

Benefit Number Three is, stairs. Lotsa stairs. Stairs going up. To Turi. Turi is a sort of little town on the edge of town, and there's a church up there. (There's a church everywhere here — can't swing a dead cat without hitting several of them, even with your eyes closed on a cloudy day.)

Turi must be 500 feet up from the last road crossing, let alone the main part of Cuenca. Even in metric that begins to sound a bit imposing: 150 meters or thereabouts (152, eh? In case you're literal).

Cuenca from Turi.

OK, so first you walk the full length of Avenida Solana across town, and if you've managed to dodge all the deathtrap intersections, you get past the last traffic circle and there you are at Bocatti Tres Puentes. ("Hacemos lo que mas te gusta". OK, whatever.) In case you're in a deli mood and want to stop there and buy raw meat and just go home again. Again, whatever, all right? Get over it.

Which you do (get over it) by veering left and crossing the street. If possible. Because traffic, etc.

And then you take a right down the next street, and you begin ascending just about there. No fooling. By now the time for fooling is over. It's about to get serious.

And if you didn't think I meant it about traffic, well a year ago a bus ran into my hotel. Crash. Just like that. Slammed right into the corner of the building, maybe because it thought the hotel was issuing a challenge by not running for its life, or simply out of cussedness. You never know around here. Bang. Lucky for me I'm in an apartment in a separate building out back, so the first I new about all this was when I went out to to go lunch. (See the importance of lunch now? It teaches you things, like WTF is going on out here? I head out for lunch on a normal, quiet Sunday and here's this damn bus crossways in the intersection with its teeth sunk into the hotel and police all over, and about a million people all standing around waiting to see what will happen next, and all kinds of whatnot and you never know.)

So if you live long enough to make it that far, you go about a block more and there's a street going off to the right but you make a tiny jog left and enter what looks like a private driveway but isn't, and after another block the street ends and the stairs begin, but these are just the pretend stairs. They're there to fool you. To bluff you into going the other way, which will take you to a dirt road leading around the shoulder of the mountain and into some sketchy semi-farmland territory where it would be all too likely to find yourself facing a pack of angry dogs who need some tooth exercise. So guess who went that way once and lived to tell about it? Luckily the dogs were on vacation or something that time, but I'm not pushing my luck by going that way again.

Anyhow, the stairs.

Much nicer.

Houses on either side, with their gates and walls topped by barbed wire, but you mind your own business and stick to the stairs and that's work enough. Don't mess with them people and their barb wire, prolly they won't mess with you.

Just start climbing. Stop to catch your breath, turn around, and there's the city behind you, getting lower as you get higher, but that's not why you're here, so you get back to the stairs and climb some more, and after you're about ready to die you keep climbing and then you're over the hump and descend to the autopisto.

And it is a pisser. Four lanes, divided, death trap. But that's part of the fun, innit? Vehicles coming at you faster than light, with evil glints in their bumpers. You cross if you can.

After that, it's another block or so, and then another, smaller road to cross. Also a death trap, but what isn't around here?

And then...

A crude view of the Turi climb. (Can't find nothin better.) About a million times tougher than it looks.

The Stairs. The Real Climb. Death On A Stick. Pant-O-Rama. The Ascent Of Endless Pain. Around 500 feet up and no one to get 'er did but you and you feets. You there, with the legs and the attitude: Take this, Smartass. Just try.

So you do.

And after you've been there a few times (up once, down once), you think about doing two laps. Up once, down once, up again, down again or die puking. And then, later, you wonder about doing three laps. Hey, since you're already there...

You know. Life — something you do to kill time while waiting to die. Relieves parts of the boredom and whatnot and it's exercise.

So if I can't get out and do real hikes, or go backpacking right now, at least I've got this.

OK, sure, I should have friends and do stuff but I'm a dick, remember? So I don't get out much. I'm awkward, like a turd at a pizza party. No good at hanging out with other people and enjoying life. Haven't found them other people that gotta be here somewheres that I can do stuff with. I do know a couple of cats around here, and they're nice, but they've been avoiding me lately too, and one bites, but without them I'd have no friends at all, so I just suck it up and carry bandages when I go a-visiting.

I'm mostly deaf too. Did I mention that? On top of the rest I'm mostly deaf now too.

Yeah, right. More fun stuff. Mister Dick-O-Rama.

Woke up May 15, 2012 and my left ear no longer worked. I happens. Leaving me with my right ear, which is only slightly more useful for hearing with than a rusty shoehorn. So I'll never be any good at Spanish, or even at learning Spanish, which makes me even more of a dick whenever anyone on the street stops me and asks for directions, or just the checker at Coral or SuperMaxi trying to be helpful, and saying something, or asking me something, and I'm standing there like an ugly (though tiny) moose, with my tongue hanging out, all puzzled-looking and dopey. (Tiny — at least I'm not ugly and huge. Then again, neither is a tapeworm and you know how much fun they are.) And with moose, you know, you never know, even with the small ones, so I scare people once they catch on that I'm not actually a reasonably predictable human thing. So life in paradise. Ain't all you'd expect sometimes. For me nor them.

Somebody's working on setting up a Hash House Harriers chapter here, and that might help. "Drinkers with a running problem," they call themselves. Active people. I can't run (back problems) but I can walk like crazy, so maybe I could fake it. We'll see. No matter how fast they try to run away, there I'll be, coming up the backstretch. There's always hope, even for me. Woot!

Does anybody say Woot! any more?

Maybe just me.

Later then, if you haven't had enough yet. Maybe see you on the steps.

(Anything here you don't understand besides me, it's on Wikipedia.)

P.S.: Hey! Wanna go hiking sometime? Just kidding. Ha! Bite me.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Kindly Walking In Cuenca

One of the things I vividly remember after spending my first six months in Ecuador and returning to the United States was a brief episode in a Safeway parking lot.

I was coming out of the store and heard angry male voices. I turned my head. I looked. To my left were two men, deadlocked.

One was in a monster truck, one of those jacked-up pickups with the huge tires, so high off the ground that you need a stepladder to get into it.

The other was in a wheelchair. He was trying to cross what they call the "fire lane" from the parking lot proper to the store. Apparently, this disabled guy in his tiny, hand-powered sit-up bed was an offensive inconvenience to the other guy in his thousand-horsepower muscle truck, and they were having it out.

I felt threatened. I cringed. My soul hurt. I left.

A few days before, a man angry about the placement of a fence fired up a bulldozer and began ramming into things. Depending on which account you read, he destroyed two, three, or four houses plus a truck and a boat. He did "knock down a utility pole, cutting power to thousands". I know this last part to be true. I experienced it.

The cause? "A long-standing property line dispute between two neighbors." Resulting in violence.

Life as we know it. Life as I used to know it.

Things seem to be different in Ecuador.

Last week, for example, I was waiting to cross a busy street. On the other side were two men. One was on foot, the other on a bicycle. They were both going the same direction and came to their own private, two-person bottleneck. One had to yield.

They stopped. The man on the bicycle stretched out his arm, holding his hand palm-up, signaling that the other man should go ahead. He did, and the bicyclist followed. Problem solved.

No fights broke out. There were no threats. End of story.

Last year I came out of Good Affinity, a Taiwanese/Ecuadorian restaurant where I frequently have lunch. There was construction in the area. The city is building a light-rail system and many streets have been torn up for over a year. Wires were hanging loose from the surrounding utility poles. That happens here. Things are different. You have to deal with it.

Back to the story.

I saw several people in a car. They were trying to get past the hanging wires. A man was in the street. He held some of the wires, lifting them up high enough so that car could inch forward and get past them. Done. Problem solved. But.

Now the man who held up the wires had to get his own car past the wires. He got into his car and began to inch it along. Hmmm.

I'm not quick on my feet as they say. I'm better at analyzing things after they happen than while they're happening, but I got it right this time. I walked over to the car, bent down, and picked up the wires. I raised them above the roof of the car so the driver could get past them without getting any part of his car tangled in the wires. He crept forward until he was clear, and then I dropped the wires and went on my way. Done. The end.

Things are like that here. No one stood in the street swearing or throwing things or making threats to the sky. We just got past it.

Another story from this week and then I'll get to the point.

I was taking a late-afternoon walk. If I don't schedule some exercise, it's easy not to get much. I walk to lunch, and, well, I walk everywhere, but I usually don't get out before noon, and I don't go out after dark, ever, so late afternoon is my last chance to do some moving around.

Anyway, I was walking near the Tomebamba River, a small stream flowing through town, and came to a place where some construction work was going on. The construction was separated from the sidewalk by corrugated metal. There was a gate, a doorway, of painted plywood. The gate was open. A man was backing his pickup truck out, across the sidewalk, and into the street. I stopped, waited.

Then I noticed that the right side of the truck was barely clearing the door on my side. Then I realized that the truck's right-side mirror might be close to hanging up on the plywood door. Yep. I reached out and pulled the door toward me — away from the truck — as far as I could. This helped.

The truck cleared the door and then the sidewalk and I was able to resume my walk. Another problem solved through cooperation.

The man had to get his truck into the street, and I had to get the truck out of my way. We worked together. Then it was all over. I don't know who he was and never will. Ditto for him. We just worked together to get past it. That's how it is here.

Now, last summer I saw something else.

Again, this was related to the endless light-rail construction, which should have finished last June, but shows no signs yet of coming to a conclusion. So anyway.

The street was torn up. You could walk on the right side or the left side, but down the middle was a muddy trench. This was fenced off to keep people out of it. At one or two spots down each block there was an opening in the two fences, and a plank-and-plywood "bridge" spanning the trench. That's how you got across the street.

These cobbled-up "bridges" were points of pedestrian congestion. You can imagine.

Right then, when I wanted to cross, it was busy. I held back a bit, unlike everyone else. People here don't stop and wait. They push ahead, rub elbows, bump into one another, jostle, work their way through somehow. I'll do some of that if I have to, but mostly I stop and wait. That works too, and I'm not so good at politely shoving others aside. I have yet to learn that art.

Right then, when I wanted to cross, things were busy. Especially so since an elderly woman was working her way up to the "bridge", supported by a walker. You've seen them. She and her walker took up two-thirds of the bridge's width. It was slow going too. One slight mis-step and she'd have been down, walker or no walker. But she had help.

Behind her and a bit to her left was a woman, guiding her along, steadying her, holding one hand against the small of the old woman's back. In front was a man, also guiding her and lifting the front of her walker over rough spots in the jury-rigged bridgeway. Eventually the woman was across. "Nice," I thought. "It's nice to see how people here care for their elderly relatives." You see a lot of that here. And a lot of extremely small children out walking with their parents too, all holding hands as they walk the streets.

So the way was clear and I began crossing the street too. And then I nearly lost it.

Once the old woman was safely across the street the man turned and walked away. So did the younger woman, in the opposite direction. They were not a family. They did not even know each other. They were three strangers. Two who were young and healthy, and one who was not, but who needed just a touch of help. So they helped, and that was it.

I had trouble crossing the street. You have to watch where your feet go but I couldn't. Because my eyes were full of tears. Just as they are now, yet again, remembering.

Things are like that here.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


I still haven't gotten used to dog droppings in the business district.

Well, true, every district is the business district, so I guess that means that crap is a universal commodity.

And I'm not entirely sure that they're all dog droppings. Men still urinate in any old corner that calls to them. Boys too. And I once came around a corner to see a man in front of a restaurant rising from a squatting position while pulling up his pants. I know that he was pulling up his pants because he was pulling up his pants and because I could see his peepee, which you don't see when a guy already has his pants up, which he didn't.

That was enough proof for me.

I didn't go over to conduct an investigation about what exactly his mission had been, though I can guess, which is where the comment about poop types came from.

Not cats though. Cats don't go out. They stay inside the walls of their home territories, so it's dogs or humans, I'm guessing, but mostly dogs. Who do a bang-up job of keeping the sidewalks supplied with shit.

Never the streets. Only the sidewalks.

Maybe the streets are too dusty.

I don't know. But I'd probably try there first, if I was to do that, but not having done it, I don't know the relative advantages and disadvantages, so let's give it to the dogs. They know more than I do about where to crap and why to crap there, and it's my job to deal with it. Which I do.

Which invalidates my opening statement, because I deal with it, by watching for it, and by walking around it. So in that sense I've gotten used to it.

Maybe I should have said that I haven't gotten to like it, and don't expect that I ever will, but I'm used to dealing with it, which is sort of one small step toward becoming someone who belongs here. In a way. Though I'll never fit in. I know that. I can't help it.

I'm like a rat in that respect. I've seen a few rats around here, and we have some things in common.

Except that most rats that I've seen have been dead. We don't have that in common. OK, fine. Remove one more point for inconsistency.

But one thing that rats and I do share is that we all prefer to be invisible. Think about it. How many rats have you seen today?

Not that many, right?

Same as yesterday? Same as forever? That's my goal. I want to be that invisible. It just feels better. For me. I don't care about you. Go ahead and be whatever you want to be, and I'll be invisible, thanks. It's my natural cozy-zone, same as a rat's.

Whenever I say this, someone asks me what I would do if I was invisible. Just watch me do something, then imagine that I wasn't there, and you've got it. Stupid question. Being invisible would be like being able to punch holes in buildings with my fist. If I could to punch holes in buildings with my fist, then I would to punch holes in buildings with my fist. Duh?

If I was invisible then the thing I would do would be being invisible. Go ahead and extrapolate that up to the period in the previous sentence and you have it. That's it. Period.

So one day I saw a rat appear before my eyes. This does not happen often. In daylight no less. Just after lunch.

Rat came out of a house, under the big wide door in the front wall, ran across the sidewalk and out into the street, then turned to the right and ran in my direction along the street until it saw me. Oh-oh. Caught being visible. Stalemate. Couldn't go forward, couldn't go back. I stood and watched the motionless rat. The motionless rat stood and watched the motionless me. Then I decided to move a little, or maybe I whistled softly, and the rat bolted (once again in my direction) to a hole in the street along the curb, and scuttled into the hole. Done — invisible again.

That was a couple of years ago.

A few months ago I saw another day-rat on a busy street. Most rats that I've seen in daylight on busy streets here have been dead, and tended to be somewhat flat. I don't have the expertise to tell if they were flattened before or after death, but the results are similar: flatness, and being dead.

This other rat wasn't either dead or flat, but running, again in my direction. Running in the gutter, like all getout. Flat out, you could say. Pedal to the metal. All four on the floor. Truckin. A fast rat.

I'm a rat magnet. I stopped to watch. I watched as it came at me, watched as it passed me, watched as it continued to run like a scared rat farther down the street, until it came to a curb cut. Whereupon it veered left, crossed the sidewalk, and went into a shop. Shops here have big doors, often as wide as garage doors back in the U.S., and they are always wide open. This one was. Both wide and open, and now the shop had its own rat.

That's about it. About all I know. One young woman stopped as the rat came her way, and watched it cross in front of her and enter the shop, but no one else seemed to see it, or care if they did see it. No one seemed to see me watching, so that was nice. Made me feel cozy and invisible, which is how I'd like to feel all the time, but it's hard to pull off.

Somehow it almost feels like I've got it down, here, more than in the U.S., even though I stand out here like a burning bush in a wine shop. If that doesn't work, use whatever metaphor for incongruity that seems to work for you, but no one much around here seems to notice me. Maybe that's one reason I like it so much, me and the rats.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Still Stranger In Motion

Here I go again.

This time though, my absence is planned to be temporary. Previously, my temporary absences were intended to be permanent. So hey then. I'll have to wait and see how this turns out.

I can't stand sitting in one place too long, and I hate traveling. Noodling along by car is OK, as is backpacking, my preferred vehicle of locomotion. And by "backpacking", I mean backpacking, staying outside and sleeping in the dirt. I don't mean attending drunken teenage parties in various countries recognizable only by their entries in a rumpled copy of some Lonely Planet publication.

Anyhow, by the time I leave I'll have spent 11½ months in Cuenca, continuously. My previous limit was six months, give or take a day. Besides being a record, this stay signifies a couple of other things. One being the fact that I'm older, and Cuenca ain't bad for geezers.

I have to watch what happens these days. Every few months, it seems, some other part of me goes off the rails, and I can't afford to be sick in the United States.

I can here, even without insurance, which is another whole separate topic. You know the phrase "get what you pay for". Here, referring to insurance, that has to be mended to "don't get what you pay for". Although the IESS (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Seguridad Social) seems well liked. By those anti-socialist ranters as well as by actual humans. The private insurers, no.

So if I actually have a problem with Age-Related Macular Degeneration rather than another scare as I did about two years back, then I can both get it treated here, and afford to get it treated, here. Unlike the Great and Grand Exceptional United of States in the America. Where I can't even get an appointment with a doctor. That's one thing. Gettin' older, gettin' more cautious, justifiably so.

Another reason is that it's just cheaper here. I'm finally getting used to that. This time around I have two income streams instead of one, and the difference between living here and living up north is substantial. I can't spend enough money here to make a significant dent in my income. Lunch is either $2.50 or $3.00 at the two places I eat. Either way, it's cheap. Rent is $450, which is around the middle, or slightly on the high end, but I've got what I like and $450 it is. I don't care. Utilities included. Maid service included. DirecTV included. Wireless internet included. No probs.

And though I'm close enough to being deaf that I basically can't communicate with anyone who speaks Spanish, life isn't that different from being in an English-speaking country where I still don't have much of anything in common with anyone anyway. My companionship comes from what I read and write whether I'm in Ecuador or any other country. I don't do smalltak anywhere. So that's all a wash.

So I'm still an outsider, a stranger, a philosophical wanderer no matter what. I don't fit. No matter which round spot I try to dip my squareness into. It never works. I mind my own business and keep out of trouble, and stay on the lookout for interesting things, but life gets slow sometimes. And as for where I fit in — I'm still waiting to find out. If nothing else, a change of scenery refreshes my attitude from time to time, and if, as now, I'm headed for several weeks of backpacking, well that's good.

Outdoors, off and away somewhere, is about the only place I don't feel like a stranger. And I'm going there.

Bye soon. For a while.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Fly Me, Just Fly Me Already

I think I'll make it out of here but it ain't easy. Life these days — y'know?

It's the airport. The airport is still here but it's on vacation. It has problems so they said, "Hey — why not take a few off?"

Stories about the ultimate cause vary, but a couple of months ago a jet passenger plane did in fact slide sideways off the runway and come to a stop on the grass. Some say the root of the issue is that the runway was improperly resurfaced not too long ago. I don't know, but it needs work now.

The runway is apparently lumpy, with the problematic bits being the low-lying pockets that accumulate rainwater. Sky leaks rain, rain fills pockets, aircraft wheels hit waterpockets, hydroplaning happens, plane goes sideways, people get cranky.

The usual, except nobody hurt yet. Yet. But soon maybe (you never know), so they gotta do something. Until then the airport closes every time there is rain. At least too much rain, which is a judgment call. Even up to 10 minutes before you're due for a fine and tidy wheels-up situation you don't know if it's going to happen to you.

Reports vary.

Some say that half the recent flights in/out of here are not occurring. The story seems to be buy a ticket, show up, see what happens. If you make it into the sky, you're good. If the plane doesn't land, then you're on your own. No next flight, no bus, no refund, no nothin. So long, sucka.

I'm checking into the bus. Those who know say it's the way to go. Check. Eight bucks from Cuenca to Guayaquil in three hours. Versus maybe $80 to $100 bucks if you hire a private driver. Fifty bucks seems to be real steal deal lately but there are problems there too.

For years small companies have been driving vanloads of people back and forth, but that isn't legal for one reason or another. I guess they don't see the need of buying a license and insurance and all them other bothersome things.

One of the police forces has been stopping vans, confiscating them, and leaving six or eight gringos that were formerly inside standing by the side of the highway. I haven't heard anything about taxis, SUVs, regular autos full of traveling gringos, but I bet some of them get hammered to, special $50 rate or not.

Yeah, so if you take the bus you have a fairly high probability that someone will at least try to make off with your luggage. Keep it on your lap if you can, or at your feet, or sit on it. Never accept help from kindly strangers. Hope for the best.

One of these travel options will be mine, all mine, all too soon. All a part of the joy of living in paradise. (Eight bucks is really cheap, though.)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Roof Cats

Find the cat, eh?

Cats are where you find them. Always. This is what I found here:

  • Place: el Hogar Cuencano, "back yard".
  • Time: Morning, noon, and night.
  • What: The neighbor's cat.
  • Justification: Because.
  • Result: Frustrated delight.

I like cats. Don't ask me why. Or ask, but don't expect an answer. I've given up on that sort of thing. Answers are not definitive, only descriptive.

I had a friend — knew him since second grade, had several consumer-grade falling outs with him around the age of 30, following his wife running off with someone else, lost contact, but.

But he was a strong believer in rationality. He liked reasons. Reasons as proof and verification of reality. I go the opposite way. Reasons are not definitive, only descriptive. As a Zen master said (bear with me) Life does not come from ideas. Ideas come from life.

Seems self-evident to me, but as it happens, my friend's brother argued this. First the universal sound, The Word, the fundamental vibration, the ur-idea, and then everything else, then the Golden Age of humanity, then corruption and evil, and now we have to struggle to get back there. Pretty standard drivel, but this was not from the usual Xtian theology but from Sant Mat. OK fine. Same bureaucratic crap.

Just another pseudo-rationalist reaction to life. When you are little, the world is great, expansive, good, and golden. When you grow up, not. Therefore, the human tendency is to extend this to cosmic proportions, and declare that in them olden days we lived in and under (and through, of course), the grace of god (or God, or GOD, etc.). And now we don't.

Because evil. Because hard. Because confusing. Because whatever. So, pseudo-rationalism, the twin assertions that "It just makes sense", and "It doesn't make sense". So "it" either has to be, or it can't be. Whether it is or not. Because arguments define reality.

My friend from second grade once argued that realistic paintings such as Rembrandt's were more accomplished because they were more realistic than anything Mondrian or Picasso had done. Because non-realistic art was not precise, or realistic. Right. He was like that. Probably still is.

Lay your face in a Xerox machine and what you get is better than any Rothko. Sure.

He (and his brother too — I wonder how this can run in families) also said things leading to assertions that all of life was rational, or should be. Like walking or digesting food, or having feelings. This is the sort of argument you hear when someone asserts that people choose to be homosexual or transgendered (or Norwegian, I guess, or white, brown, black, or green). Try digesting something in 10 different ways. Try shitting gold bars. Via consciously-controlled processes.

Rationality? No. Most of everything that happens in life may be understandable but is not conscious, and therefore cannot be rational or under deliberate control.

Like cats. I like cats. Don't ask me why. Or expect an answer. The only answer is that I like cats.

In North America houses have big open yards. Front yards. Back yards. Side yards. Go for a walk, especially early in the morning, and you'll eventually see a cat or two. If you're a decent person and learn how to do it, you can pick up a bunch of friends this way. If you like cats, and if you think that a cat can be a friend of yours. I do. Don't ask me why.

In South America, at least here in Cuenca, Ecuador, things are different. From what I've read and hear, I'd say that things are different in this way throughout Latin America, but I haven't seen Latin America, only this once city. But I think that things are pretty much the same: you don't see cats running up and down streets and climbing fences from one yard to another. Because that world does not exist here.

Houses here are slammed up hard against one another. There are no front yards or side yards. No back yards either, really. Places inside the embrace of their respective architectures, like the old Roman style of house, a courtyard-hugging quadrangle, have secret spaces inside them. And roofs. There are roofs. Roofs attract cats.

Roofs are safe, and cats like the high ground, away from dogs, bugs, and random annoyances. The high ground is clean, open, and mostly bug-free. "Bug me not", thinks the cat. So they climb.

Cats can do that. Dogs can't. People can't, hardly. Bugs stay low. Birds can't climb but they can land on roofs, which is a plus for cats. Cats like birds, in several ways, including as entertainment. Roofs provide that.

So what's the point here?

I like cats. That's it. And I had the chance to pssst! at a nice cat on the neighbor's roof and talk to it and photograph it. And that's how I entertain myself. When I find a cat and can't get close and patiently befriend it.

So there, then.

Monday, May 23, 2016

I Really Didn't Expect This

I had to leave my apartment today. I have to leave my apartment every Monday, but the time varies. The maid comes to clean.

The maid comes to clean when she comes. The schedule says "2 p.m.". The schedule is not authoritative. The maid is, because when she isn't here, she isn't here, and when she is here, I have to leave, no matter what the clock or the schedule say. I hate maids.

This maid is OK. I don't hate her. I don't hate maids — it's maids I hate. I'd rather do it myself. I can. I know how. I'm good at cleaning. I don't mind. I prefer it.

But here they have maid service and I have to comply. That's one reason I hate maids. I don't hate maids. I hate having to work around a maid, no matter who it is. I always clean better than a maid because I know what needs the most cleaning and I know what my standards are. No maid knows either of those as well as I do. But I'm stuck.

I need to put all my things away before the maid comes. I need to put everything back where she expects it to be before she comes. I also clean up things like wild dust bunnies, spots on the floor where water splashed and looks like a stain, random bits of trash. And things like that. It takes time.

I hate that part. I'd rather do all of it myself but I can't. So I leave, and guess when the maid will be coming this week, and when she will be done. It's a crap shoot. Today I walked around.

On the way back I saw a blonde schoolgirl. This shocked me. Blonde nine-year-old. In a school uniform. They wear uniforms here, but all other schoolgirls here have black hair. My second blonde so far. The other one was waiting for the bus around 5 p.m. a few weeks back, wearing sunglasses, heels, and a fur coat. This was possibly stranger, but she also was not nine years old, so I had some other thoughts too. She looked good.

Totally out of place in a sort of Twilight Zone way, but good.


Closer to my apartment I had to cross the street. Check. But it's harder now, in places, because some streets are chewed up by construction, and the only way to cross is to turn right or left and walk to a sort of temporary footbridge laid across the construction trench. Today my side was full of a woman creeping along using a walker.

So I got there, and stood to one side behind her, behind the corner of the fence, intending to wait well out of the way until she was across. A younger woman trailed behind her, keeping watch, offering encouragement. Then I noticed a middle-aged man on the far end, holding out his arms, ready to grab her walker or her herself, and prevent any falls. Then, eventually, she was across, and I advanced.

When I myself got across I noticed that the old woman with the walker was alone. No young woman, no middle-aged man. The woman and the man had gone their separate ways. They were not her relatives or friends. They were just there, and offered their protection to the old woman while she might have needed it. My eyes filled with tears.

Yet closer to my apartment I passed a small tienda. I'm not quite sure what all they sell there, but some of it is dry pet food. My friend was there today. My friend is a cat.

I don't see the cat often. If I pass the tienda 10 times in a week, I might see the cat once or twice, but we have a relationship. I cultivate cat relationships because I like cats and I guess partly because it is a challenge. Cats are cautious, some more than others. The first time ever I saw this cat I kneeled, called to it, and it came over and climbed up my front side and gave me a hug. Then I didn't see it for roughly a month, but it knows me now.

It was a treat to see it today. I always look but usually it is attending to other business, and elsewhere. Sometimes I see it but it is sleeping on a plastic barrel just inside the door. Sometimes, and all too rarely for me, it is visible, awake, and out front. Like today. I stopped.

The cat climbed on me and squeaked is rusty-hinge voice every now and then while I rubbed its ears and cheeks and neck and head, and we had a great time. The cat lost some shed fur and I gained it. The cat is my friend. My friend is a cat. I like that. I don't like carrying cat fur home on my shirt but I like spending time with my friends, especially the cautious, choosy ones. I have no problems saying that one of my friends is a cat. In fact, I know some others around here. I like that too.

And today (even better) the cat decided when it had had enough, so the cat was the one to disengage, which is always easier, and then it turned away from me, stepped a few inches into the tienda, half-turned back toward the street side to gain the right angle, and stuck its head directly into a 25-kilo bag of dry dog food. It became a cat without a head, since its head was fully inside the bag.

I may try that some day. It would be easier. Probably not at that tienda though.

And also, something else, equally unusual, and strange too.

As I was coming around the stadium I had to cross another street where there is a roundabout. I stopped at the curb, letting my toes hang over, and looked left. One truck was coming. Clear after that. I stood, my head turned fully left, watching for whatever might be coming behind that pickup truck. Clear...clear...clear. And then the truck slowed. Then it stopped. Just short of the crosswalk. Surprised? Me?

Traffic here does not stop for pedestrians. Unless they are already directly in front of the vehicle. Sometimes not then either. Almost never is there a "courtesy stop", or even a slowdown. Mostly you stay put well back from the street where you are mostly safe, or you run like crazy. Like crazy and then some. I've seen too many people here missing one or more legs. I run then. I don't want to be like them. Except today.

Go figure — a pickup truck stopping to let me cross an otherwise empty section of street — still a shock. You never know what's going to happen around here. Maybe it's a stain on a sheet of plywood. Maybe it's a stain on a sheet of plywood, and it happens to seem like it has a certain meaning, whatever that might be. You really never know.

But things do happen. They do.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

It's Just Like Backpacking

Living in Cuenca is a lot like doing a long backpacking trip. Maybe my longest one yet. I'm not sure.

One thing I have to do is improvise. You do that a lot on a backpacking trip. Need to do something? Try hitting it with a rock, poking it with a stick, avoiding it, going around, over, under, or running away. See if that works.

If not, then maybe that's it. Maybe you can't do anything about it. Just live with it. Stay as close to what's pretty much OK as you can, and stay as far off as you can from the parts that don't agree with you. Whatever works, mostly.

Mostly is the key. Nothing is ever perfect, or if you want to be honest about it, no one knows the perfect, but a lot of life is learning what is pretty much OK, and then doing that. Same as life here. I think I'm getting by.

Life here isn't always pleasant, but it is most always interesting. Often in the same way as discovering that you are bleeding from your arm is interesting, especially if you didn't know that you were wounded. Life here is confusing to navigate. I never know what's going to happen next.

Mostly, nothing. Nothing interesting or notable anyway. Something always happens, but a big part of life is learning what to ignore, or more catastrophically sometimes, ignoring everything and learning by painful results what not to ignore. But either way I never know what's going to happen next. More so here than in the U.S.

After all, I grew up there and not here. I guess part of the deal here is being clueless and still getting by, which is, again, much like living on the trail. We are clueless animals, by and large, insulated from many of the realities and harshnesses of life by our social infrastructure. That would be agriculture, industry, education, medicine, packaged food, clothing, and all those other necessary and universal attributes of human society. We don't need to live by our wits or our instincts, fighting for the next meal. We can cruise along almost cluelessly, but being in a different culture highlights a lot of things.

Things are not always pleasant here. Navigation is confusing. I never know, really, what is going to happen next, and sometimes what does happen is dangerous, requiring adaptability. And there is shit on the trail at times. Shit is everywhere here, always.

The correct response, though, is the same — walk around it. I know how to do that, so I'm OK with that, mostly. Mostly is mostly working out. I've had to clean shit off my shoe only once in eight months. That isn't bad.

Little things. (That was one of them.) Little things are happening all the time. A person has to roll with them, just like while backpacking. Not everything is bad, either. Not everything needs a response. Most of it, not. Mostly, it's interesting. I notice something and either think about it or I don't, and keep walking either way. The things I think about are kind of interesting, to me. Or odd.

A few days back I saw a motor scooter go past. Then I saw a helmet rolling down the street, going like crazy. Then a motorcycle rider came along and hit it. Then the helmet kept rolling until it went up onto a grassy median strip, slowed, and fell over. Then I saw a man come trotting back toward me along the median. He went to the helmet, picked it up, and returned to the motor scooter. OK fine. Just another thing.

And another thing I never saw much of in the U.S., a whole family on a motorcycle. Dad was driving. Mom sat in back. Junior was in front of Dad, between his arms and sitting on the gas tank. I assume that it was Mom, Dad, and Junior (or Missy). Horrifically dangerous for the little one regardless of gender but you see some of that here. Another passing event like a cloud in the sky or the bark of an elk in the woods. Either way, I'll never know more of the story than what I saw, just as it happens while I'm backpacking.

See this, see that, see whatever, and keep walking. It's not my game. I'm not a participant. I'm just here, as much by accident as anything else, and it's only scenery for me. A luxury, I guess. Again, just like backpacking, which is one of the finest luxuries. You just walk, stop to eat, look at this and at that, make a quiet little camp and sleep, and then walk some more. No need to try understanding anything, although that is a fun game in itself — there's really only the detached walking and gawking. Just like living here, in this foreign place.

Which is foreign and still not too foreign. So it's entertaining. Mostly. Again, mostly.

A couple of weeks back, while returning from an early-evening walk, I got water dumped on me from over the wall of a raised playground. Water-dumping and squirtgun spraying go with carnaval, which was long past, but people are inventive. Someone had not got enough, and I guess I should have taken the wet spots on the concrete as a clue, and I did, actually, but disregarded them, and then I got dumped on. Eh.

I didn't even bother to look up. Didn't stop and look around in puzzled incomprehension. Didn't pause, or swear, or anything. I knew. I wasn't ready for it but I knew. It was obvious the instant it happened — someone had dumped water on me from above.

'K, so now what?

What else? Keep walking.

Again, that's just like another backpacking experience, because out in the woods, you never know. Something always happens before you expect it to. Or it doesn't, and something else happens. Or that doesn't either. You never know.

And right after I got dumped on, maybe three minutes later, I had to cross a street. It was at a "real" intersection, meaning that there were traffic signals there, which people obey here, for some unknown reason, because they don't obey any other traffic regulations, but I had the green and could legally and (kind-of safely) cross, except.

That someone coming along made a right turn as I was almost fully across the street (on the green light), and didn't slow down. At all. And almost brushed the front of my pants with his left-side door. Which isn't that unusual either. I once had the toe of my left shoe run over by a car's right rear wheel, which is a close call but also not too unusual. Which is what then?

Which is about average for here, which is a lot like backpacking, when I (you, we) have to deal with ordinary recurring hazards, like getting from one side of a stream to the other. No matter how ordinary and simple and usual it seems, there is always a surprise hidden somewhere in there. Somewhere.

Maybe it doesn't bite you this time. Maybe it's napping, or looking the other way, but it's in there, and suddenly you can find yourself facing a real problem, and mostly you bend a little or do a side-step, or stop and think and then try a short detour, and then it's on to the next thing. Or else you get killed. But you never know.

It's like living here, I think. Living in Cuenca is a lot like doing a long backpacking trip.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


They're everywhere.

I don't understand dogs. I do understand dogs. As much as I need to.

Dogs are as American as gunfire on the Fourth of July. Dogs are as American as spilled beer on a pickup truck seat. Dogs are as American as the smell of cigarette smoke and dried puke in a dark bar. Dogs are like drinking buddies. Dogs are like that belligerent guy who directly approaches you at the bus depot, completely unselfconscious, full of confidence, and tells you to give him a sandwich, or a cup of coffee, or a handful of your money. Because he wants it.

I understand dogs as much as I need to, and that amount is only enough to keep myself clear of them. I like dogs as much as I like some flabby, stinky, 200-pound ignoramus who has decided that his time and thirst and hunger and need for a pocket full of change are more valuable to the world and more important than mine.

Dogs are everywhere here. Dogs are everywhere everywhere. I guess I can't help that. If I could I would. If I had a little gizmo about the size of a pack of those cigarettes, and it had a big red button on it, and I could push that button and instantly kill every dog on earth, I'd do it. Before you could clear your throat. For better or worse.

And I understand the use of dogs. They are tools. Humans found that out early on. Dogs are self-mobile, self-cleaning, self-feeding, reliable tools. They make noise. That's the point, most of it. Dogs are alarm bells with teeth. Fences that chase intruders. Killers for hire, and all they require is a bit of meat, some water, and a place to sleep.

That's good value for a paleolithic hunting team. And for neolithic gardeners and gatherers. For medieval farmers. For suburban commuters. And for Latin city-dwellers. I get it. Tools. Some love them. I don't. That's me.

Today is Sunday. I'm up. It's 7:11 a.m. I've been up since 4:57, before even a hint of daylight.

One of the first things I noticed this morning was the sound of dogs barking. In the city. Here.

That's unremarkable for several reasons. One reason is that you'd expect to hear dogs — dogs are everywhere, remember? People like dogs, as a rule. I'm in a country that isn't that rich. So people rely on dogs. Dogs are cheap security. Granted.

But noticing the sound of dogs barking is remarkable in some ways.

I'm in the very center of a large city. I call it large. It's officially got 350,000 inhabitants. Some say more — closer to half a million, but that's the city and the rest of the province combined. But a lot. For me. It's definitely an urban area here, and I'm in the middle of it.

So hearing dogs barking at all hours in the middle of the commercial district of a large city is not normal for me, because I don't frequent such places, and because, where I come from, there are only faceless building facades and machines in the middle of large cities.

Different. Different here. I realize that. Fine. I still dislike dogs. I dislike dogs the way I dislike raw sewage flowing in the street. (I've seen that, not here but in Seattle, so don't assume I'm only in the mood to disparage a place that isn't like home. Seattle wasn't like home either, but the sewage was real, surging up out of a break in the asphalt, spreading itself and its load of turds and wiping-paper in a wide apron across the southbound lane.) That much is how much I dislike dogs.

So, what? What now?

Not much, just an observation. No point to this. Only a note scribbled on the wall.

I don't like dog shit on the sidewalks either. I expect that someone does, but in this case I'm willing to bet that I'm in the majority, even if most actually appreciate the source of that shit while I prefer the shit to its producer. The good news in the world of local shit is that this is the rainy season. Rain washes. But there is bad news here too.

The rain doesn't seem to do anything for the shit. Shit falls. Shit sits. Shit dries. Rain falls, wets shit. Rain quits, and we got soft, smeared wet shit to deal with, because if there is one thing that people do with dog shit, it's to step in it and smear it around as much as they can. The rain doesn't seem to wash anything else away either. I still can't figure this out.

After the rain dries, the sidewalks are dusty and dull again. They're tile, not the rough concrete I'm used to, so I'm still surprised by this. I don't know about tile, except that when it's wet, it's as slippery as snot on a doorknob, so I keep expecting it to wash clean in the rain but it doesn't. We're always left with dusty shitty tiles. And barks.

Even at five Sunday morning.

You want some dogs? We got 'em. As many as you can carry. I'll even help you load them in your truck.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cuenca Is

Cuenca is like a long exploration of Grandma's enormous old attic. To me. But what do I know?

Not that much, as world travelers go.

I've been to Canada a couple of times, along the southern border (or along the U.S.'s northern border, if you will). I've been to Bismarck, North Dakota, to Minneapolis, to Denver, and Sante Fe and Tucson, and I lived in Seattle for a while. Almost two years. Just two blocks north of Seattle's city limits. That qualifies. And Bellingham, Port Angeles, and Olympia.

So I don't get around. Not that much, but I've seen a bit. I've seen more, I think, than my former friends and acquaintances who never left Bismarck, who never left permanently anyway, or who left but didn't make it outside of North Dakota. For long.

It's odd what a backwater will do for you. A backwater place, a quiet corner of the world, like Bismarck, like North Dakota. In a way — odd to me. I had friends there who moved in from Chicago, for work, and became permanently affixed. They went native.

Maybe it was already in them, or maybe the place changed them. I don't know now and I never will. I've lost them. We have no more contact, not for 11 years, since they decided they no longer wanted to have anything to do with me.

In a sense that's good, though I'm still a dick. I'm not easy around people, even people I've had long-standing relationships with. Friendships, working relationships, relationships with relatives — all the usual. I'm still awkward, and sometimes I don't meet expectations, or I say the wrong things, or miss the cues, and come off as a dick. So I'm a dick. That's who I am. Stand back then.

But for a while, while I still had friends, I noticed something, especially with Nick and Patricia, my friends from Chicago. Though I never could stand Patricia. She came with Nick. Part of the deal, so you had to put up with her. But back to our story.

I returned to Bismarck after being away six years, and went to visit Nick. At that time I was still welcome in his home. I went there, was welcomed in, and sat down. Nick and I began talking. We picked up our conversation from six years earlier, as though we'd last seen each other just a week before, instead. The place is like that. Friendships last forever. People don't change much. They don't grow either.

That's one thing I noticed while visiting Nick and Patricia, and Norman, my former boss and co-worker, and John, former friend and former co-worker. And my parents. And others. I had changed and they hadn't. I had changed a lot and they had only gotten older, and were still talking and complaining about the same things as always. In 1993, Norman and John were still complaining about the same problems at work as when I'd left that job in 1975, and John had not worked there since 1974.

Cuenca is like that too.

I can feel it. I am not an expert, and nearly deaf, so I can't converse to any extent. But I've seen some evidence.

Two years ago my Spanish teacher chided me when I related a story of trying to enter a department store by walking in through the checkout aisle (you know — the passage between two cashiers — in the U.S. you go through backward when it's handy). "What if everyone did that?" she said, annoyed at my gringo ways.

I had been stopped halfway through by the cashier and made to go back "out" where I had to loop way around and enter the store's inner sanctum via the official entrada. Even though nothing was going on — it was slow that day. There were no customers trying to pay for things. The coast was clear. Which is why I decided to do it. But I had to go back and enter the right way. Because.

The whole city is like that. It is full of old buildings and old ways. The old is piled on top of the old, with some new sprinkled here and there. Both customs and things. Sprinkled. It is charming in a maddening way. I notice things nearly every day.

At one place I eat, when locals enter, they leave the door open. A staff member has to go over and close the door. I eat there three times a week. This happens four or six or eight times during each half-hour period I'm there eating. Every single day.

It's how things are done. They just go over and manually close the door again and again. They've always done it that way. It doesn't look like they'll change. Even with my help.

I tried.

I bought a pair of cheap door closers. Really cheap. Five bucks each. Simple springs that you can affix to a door at a hinge. I brought these along and when I had a chance to bring up the idea, I gave them to the restaurant's owner. He was happy to get them. This was eight months ago. He still hasn't used them. He and his staff prefer to stop what they're doing, walk over to the door, grab it, and close it. And to repeat this all afternoon, six days a week. Rather than to use what I donated, or find something similar.

I knew a cat once too, in Bellingham. It was the neighbor's cat but we were buddies, and the cat came to visit me every morning, climbing up the half-ladder, half-stairway fire escape below the back window. It had learned to do this on its own to get to the roof of a shed where it would nap. It continued this way to visit me, first climbing up as high as the roof of the shed, hopping off the step to the shed's roof, then immediately hopping from the shed roof back onto the stair it had just left, and then climbing up the rest of the way to my window. It worked.

But there was no reason the cat could not have climbed up the whole distance to my window without making a stop on the shed roof. Except that the first time the cat had gone up the ladder it went to the shed roof, so that was how it was done. The trip to my window got added later, and the roof detour remained a part of the routine, even though there was no point in it.

Got it?

Living here is like that.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is probably the maxim I hate the most. Or it's at least close. "We've always done it that way" is another great one, and is interchangeable. I think I hate that version even more. It's rolling stupidity. My home town is full of it. My relatives were full of it. Everyone is full of it. People do what they've always done, because. Just because, you know?

Don't question. Don't cause trouble. Don't make us think. Why do you always have to make trouble?

Because I'm a dick. It's what I do. Though I'm not complaining about Cuenca. I like it here.

Because I don't have to be a part of it. I'm a perpetual passer-by. Because I can be. Because I'm rich.

I'm philosophically opposed to being rich, but I am, here. My income, relatively small by U.S. standards, puts me roughly in the top 10% in Ecuador, though there are many locals who have far more income than I do, but still I'm hanging with them, statistically speaking.

And since I'm rich, because I'm rich, I don't have to belong, so I don't have to play by the accepted rules, so I can be an outsider as long as I want, though I think I can understand some of how this all works. It works because people don't want to lose what they have. They're poor and isolated. The poor and the isolated are conservative and seldom think new thoughts.

I learned this from North Dakota.

Taking a chance is taking a chance. Taking a chance is dangerous. You don't want to do that. There is no reason to do that, if what you have gets you by. If what you have gets you by, then fine. You do that. But you don't get creative and risk it. You don't dare. You stay the course, conform, fit in, do it the way it's always been done, and then your children take over, and then your grandchildren, and on and on.

And Ecuador is not North Dakota. Which is why I'm here. Ecuador is much more of what I liked best and liked least about North Dakota. My friend John used to say (when he was still my friend and when we talked) that North Dakota was 20 years behind the times, and that was what he liked best about it. Ecuador, until the last half-century or so, was several hundred years behind the times, and I'm right in the middle of the slow region. Inland, in the mountains.

Along the coast things were never so slow, never so isolated. There was contact with the outer world. Ideas flowed. Cultures mixed. Change was a constant. Inland, no. Things stayed the same for half a millennium. Then they changed. But slowly.

OK by me. I like the climate. I wander around in the balmy bug-free weather at 8000 feet enjoying the sights. I like the peeled paint and cracked adobe walls, the broken pavement, the sounds. It's fine. Even the dust and the dogs. It's interesting, especially so since I don't have to be part of it. There is always something going on up and down the pedestrian-choked streets. I can use my imagination, just like I did exploring my grandmother's basement and my grandfather's garage. Looking at all the odd stuff and trying to imagine how people could live that way.

Which is what I'm doing here, in between trips out to lunch, or naps. So who am I to complain?

Sunday, April 17, 2016


It's always a surprise, and never scheduled.

There are no announcements, there is no setup. No one marks the date and time on a calendar. It's always a surprise. Quake.

I've been wondering about this. About when it would happen and about how bad it would be. Well, it's bad enough to be bad, but it is still too early to know the completeness of its badness. Unfortunately, however the results of last night's earthquake shake out, the bad one is still to come.

The good news is that last night's earthquake was centered off the coast. That means that it did not happen right under any city, although it was only 12 miles deep, which is shallow. I experienced the February 28, 2001 Nisqually earthquake in Washington state. That one was deeper, but epicentered only seven miles or so east of where I was in a meeting at the time. And it was 10 times less intense than last night's shaking. This all matters.

Depth and nearness matter. A shallow nearby earthquake of lower intensity creates more damage than a far-off or deeper earthquake. And around here, any earthquake is extremely dangerous because many structures are only piled-up bricks lightly attached to one another with a bit of mortar. At best.

Many, many more structures here are also made of bricks but not of real bricks, but dried mud. "Adobe", if you will, if you want to sound fancy, but it's dried mud all the same, and about the worst material to have your home made of when an earthquake hits. Which will happen. Not that last night's earthquake wasn't significant, but it wasn't directly under Guayaquil, or Quito, or Cuenca, or another city of significant size. But that will happen.

And when it does, the city will fall. Its existence will suddenly end. It will not be.

Ecuador is not now a rich country, with long-established standards for structure and infrastructure, and it has never been a rich country. Until roughly half a century ago, it was one of the most "backward" countries in the world, according to Luis Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea, former president, and author of Portrait of a Nation: Culture and Progress in Ecuador. So the country, or at least one of its cities, will suffer extremely when an earthquake hits, one not somewhere under the Pacific Ocean, but beneath one of its cities. Especially so if that earthquake is shallow, and if it is strong. Today, a city, tomorrow a dump, an endless pile of rubble, a moaning disaster as far as one can stand to see.

And there is nothing I or any other individual can do. Only time, and perseverance, and a guided communal effort can slowly rebuild the entire country before it needs to be suddenly rebuilt. We can hope for the former while dreading the latter. Let's hope then. Let's hope.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Monkey Mind

I can't say I'm special. Everyone is special. Just like everyone else.

But I try to notice things. Goofy things. Even my own goofy things, my own goofiness. But especially yours. It's like a hobby.

If there is one thing I'm really good at, it's keeping track of inconsistencies. Even my own, I must say, though I'm a bit slow on the uptake of the latter if you will. All that lack of perspective, viewing from the inside, emotional involvement, vesting. And so on — you know it too.

It could be due to my upbringing, plus a few natural predispositions. I won't go into my family life except to say that I think there is a connection. One of my parents was erratic, tempestuous, threatening, blustering, contrite, bullying, repentant, immature. Like a typical alcoholic, but without the alcohol. So I had to keep a sharp lookout on the moods, and the clues about when the next eruption might be rolling into the station. For self-preservation.

Pattern-matching is important, and inconsistencies matter in a world like this. It's like weather forecasting, or you could say whether forecasting. Whether this, or whether that, today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not. Maybe it will blow over, subside, or build up to something terribly ugly day after tomorrow. Without paying attention and developing the right forecasting skills, a person is totally clueless, and survival is a less likely outcome. And I was alone.

My sibling didn't come along until eight and a half years after I did, so I really, really needed to be on top of this game. So I notice things.

I'm not highly social. I am socially inept. Partly I don't care, partly I can't. I don't do it well, but I have some skills. It's akin to mind reading. I can read people if I care to, even people I've never met before. It's a matter of opening up and letting the broadcast be received. Everyone broadcasts but usually the broadcasts aren't worth receiving, except sometimes.

Starting a job, meeting your boss, your co-workers. Checking out a potential landlord. Meeting someone at a party — Maybe she...? Maybe he...? Maybe they...? Maybe now, maybe later, maybe not. File the mental notes for reference. First impressions count. They are fresh and clear and the signals are all there, waiting to be swept up by the armful and stuffed into the sack of memory, in case.

So, as I said. yesterday. Nothing much around here surprises me any more. And that's true.

Just seconds before I was to step into the shower, I found that the water was off. Thirty seconds before that, the water was not off. If I'd been only a little faster yesterday, I would have been in the shower, wet and soaped, and then the water would have gone off. They normally don't warn you, they just do it. It wasn't the city this time.

This time it was the owners of this place. They are doing some remodeling. They are running late. They should have had the apartments ready I guess two days ago, but they blew it. I imagine that they have tenants waiting at the door to move in. They said I'd have new neighbors last week. But no. Things aren't done yet. So they have been working both days and evenings, up to nearly nine at night, so the niceties of planning and courtesy have to run thin. They had work to do, had the work bubble up to the top of the stack, had the workers on hand, and the fittings, and went for it. Which included shutting off the water because they needed to, which left me without the possibility of bathing. And by luck and by luck only, I wasn't wet and soapy.

And that dismayed me in a minor way, as it does, but did not surprise me. It happens.

Sometimes it's the local government shutting off power or water to whole sections of the city. They just do it and then later it's over and you continue with what you were up to at the time it happened. Which is why I wash in parts.

First wait for the shower water to warm. Then step into it and rinse. Then wet my hair and soap it and rinse. Then repeat. Then wash and rinse my torso, rapidly. Then lower. Then, if the water continues to run and still happens to be hot, or at least passably warm as it is someplaces no matter how long you let it run, keep rinsing and enjoying the feeling because now it's possible. Following a wash and a rinse, all over, the rest is gravy. By then if the heat runs out or the water does, it's all over anyway but the towelling.

But before then it's a crap shoot. So it pays not to fully commit — wash this, rinse this. Wash that, rinse that. A bit at a time, so you're not all-in, completely soaped, blind, slippery, and screwed. It works so far. I'm ready for surprises, and so they don't surprise me. Much. You never know.

Roll with it is a good approach.

Like crossing the street yesterday after lunch at Place Number One, on the way to Place Number Two for dessert. The bus came, and slowed, but seemed to have an aversion to the near curb. It stayed out in the middle of the street. It blocked traffic. Hmmm.

Maybe I could cross now? No wait. Wait a bit. Yes. Definitely. Traffic backs up behind the bus. The other traffic can't squeeze around it. Check the bus. Still there, still stationary, good. Make my move, across the street quickly threading a path between stopped vehicles. Safe. I made it. I'm on the far side and then the bus pulls forward, accelerates, frees up the street, and all the traffic moves again but now I'm across and it doesn't matter. Fine.

Inside Place Number Two there is a bit of hubbub. A bit. But it is real. Real hubbub. Something about the street, what is going on in the street. The one I just crossed. There is an issue.

Of course it is a slow day at Place Number Two or they wouldn't notice anything at all because it is a small thing, but still a thing because business is light. Monkey mind at work. If you don't have anything to do, you do something anyway. Little things become big. Like that motorcycle parked in the street. I didn't notice it, but the owner of Place Number Two goes out to see why the traffic is slow and sees a parked motorcyle. Ah, so. A parked motorcyle then. No wonder.

Owner returns inside, alerts staff. Staff of Place Number Two go outside with owner to observe parked motorcyle. Owner of other place next door comes over to talk about it. It's a police motorcycle! Policeman is inside third business. How interesting. Something. Definitely. Unusual. No parking in street, here, but there is a motorcycle parked. In the street. And it's a police motorcycle. Most unusual. Most surprising. An event. On a slow day.

Meanwhile, I eat a piece of pie. The pie is my big event of the day, and the rest? It takes more than suddenly missing water or a parked motorcycle to surprise me any more, but the pie is always there, always surprisingly good. The rest I don't really care about any more.

Just roll. Just roll with it. Whatever it is, it will be over soon and the monkeys will move on to the next thing. At least I had two liters of bottled water in my apartment. I heated the water and was able to wash my hair and face and that was good enough. No need to be surprised or startled or annoyed or make a fuss. Roll. Only roll. I turned an aborted shower into a smaller but adequate cleaning event and got on with it, had lunch, had pie, saw a motorcycle parked in the street and got over it. Without being stranded, wet and fully soaped, in the shower.

For that, let us say, I'm pleased. That was enough excitement. Close enough to a close call to rate a score. I call it five out of a possible five. The rest I didn't need to get excited about. Let the monkeys range elsewhere. I'm at ease over here.

But that is also what expat life is like. Just like it is everywhere else. Full of monkeys.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Day I Wet Myself In Cuenca

This is the first time this has happened to me. Here.

Back home, sure, I've been through it. When you move to Western Washington you have to deal with it, for months, every year. It starts in the fall — say about the end of October. Maybe the third week of October if you're slightly unlucky, or sometime in November if you are a bit lucky, but in the fall sometime.

And there are exceptional years, like last year, when the problems began at the end of August. Or, going in the other direction, like, say, 2003 was it? I'm not sure any more, but there was definitely nothing happening until way, way into November. Way into November. Very unusual. And pleasant, too.

I'm originally from the Northern Plains, as they are called. Way north there where times are tough, where the summers are hot and dry and buggy, and the winters are cold and dry and crunchy (the ground is, anyway, when you walk on it, being all frozen and everything). And anyway, it's different there, but when I moved to Western Washington, I had to get used to wetting out, and that went on for a long time, and now I'm in Cuenca, and that was another change.

Another change which itself changed today. This is the day I wet myself. Here.

Because it's raining. During the day. And not a thunder shower, or a shower at all, but drizzle. Drizzle doesn't happen here.

This is my third winter here, winter being the span of months that includes December and its neighbor, January. Although technically, here, just a nibble and lick south of the equator, those months include mid-summer as judged by the sun. But I'm here, again, for the third time, and this is unusual.

September, October, November, December, January — they're really dry, and sunny. This is nice. It has been 38 years since I moved out of North Dakota but I still remember winter. The last year I lived there I worked outside. The coldest day was -35°F when I walked to work that morning, and the high for the day was -7°F (-37 & -22 C, respectively).

It's not like that here. Typically, in December and January, the high for the day may be 65 to 70 degrees F (18 - 21 degrees C), but the sun adds about a thousand degrees on top of that, if you go and stand in it. It actually feels sometimes like your back is on fire, so you cross the street and walk on the shady side. But there's no rain.

Except at night, or in the late afternoon when a random thunderstorm rolls in, or sometimes if there is too much moisture in the air blowing in from the Amazon Basin, and there are a few sprinkles sometime after lunch. But not all day.

Like today. Days like today don't happen here. Until now, I guess.

Sure, I've spent three of my winters here, and that isn't all that much, but this is an el Niño year, so maybe that's it. It's wet. Outside. Today. And the day keeps re-wetting itself. And I have to go out there. So I'll be wetting myself today. Which will be a novel experience here, though not one I relish.

Because for the last few years anyway I've prided myself on not wetting myself. Shoot.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


I'm in them, through them, under them all day, approaching and leaving. This is a city of doors and of doorways.

This is a city of handles and grasps, of latches and locks and keys, of knobs and knockers and bangers and hasps. It is a city of permissions.

You are either allowed or you are not. If you are known, you enter. If you are not known, you are left to yourself, out there, outside, on the street, where the world is public, and where you are but another passerby.

If you are known, and are welcome today, you may enter and find another world. You see the walls as the owners do. You find coolness on a hot day, or warmth after an outside chill. You are admitted to silence. The traffic, the dogs, the screeches and moans and shouts and hoots of life in the street remain in the street when you enter through a doorway. You shuck it, let it slide, let it fall behind you, allow it all to stay where it must stay, out there, when you move from one world to another. From public to private. Through a doorway.

It is mystery you never even speculate on, when you arrive in this city. There is no reason to wonder, because you have no crack or crevice or walkway or tunnel or view to entice you. There is no visibility. You see the pavements of the street, you see a slit of sky, you see walls. Walls exterior and smooth, with closed doors. Locked doors. You see nothing else. There is nothing to speculate about.

Then, if you watch, if you look, if you remain alert, you catch a glimpse. Of businesses set back, inside buildings, of bits of the normally external world wrapped inside architectures, used to house vehicles, temporarily. Now and again you do see a dark inside stairway through a door left open for a moment. You do see one or two coming or going, but usually you do not look, deliberately, for that would be a curiosity too forceful, too intrusive, rude. You do not try to intrude or to be rude. This is a city of privacies after all. You respect that. But you do, without intent, now and then, see a slice of one, of those other worlds, in there. Behind the doors.

From above it all seems different. It is different. That is where you realize the successive shells of multiple worlds, when you see them. Below, laid out before you like mazes, but that perspective is hard to achieve. The high places are also private, unless you are invited in, but if you should find yourself up high, and can look down, then you see. The walls within walls, the courtyards behind and within and side-to-side with the other courtyards, the gardens wrapped in gardens, the hanging laundry, broken windows, blind balconies unseen from the level of the streets, from outside.

All, all this is mediated by doorways, which are everywhere, of all colors and sizes and shapes and locations — opening onto the steepest of stairways, fronting onto walls, behind walls, leading to empty tiled spaces, choked with vendor's wares, full of purses or shoes or flowers — it's all there, but yet it isn't. Everything can fold up and close in a minute, a second, an instant.

Which you may see or not see. It depends. On when you are there, and if you are going to or going fro. Whether you are looking ahead, or around, or full of your own thoughts, or whether you are lolling your head free of thoughts, allowing your eyes to wander without intent. And then it is there, or not — it all depends. If you see it, something, whatever, it is because of the doorway and its door and the state of the doorway and the door and the time of day, day of the week, season of the year, and chance.

You never know.

But if you walk here and walk there, and watch, eventually you see this and that and the other — bits of evidence fluttering. Doorways opening onto — what? Something? Nothing? You never know. So you wait and watch. Slowly, you learn.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Guardians Of Darkness

The guys hanging out inside the planetarium. Them. They're guards.

I haven't been to the planetarium in Cuenca, but I'm familiar with the idea. Planetariums are dark inside. That's the point, confirmed by my one sighting, in Moorhead, Minnesota around 1971, when I took a sort of astronomy for noodle-heads class.

Planetariums are dark so you can see better. Which I don't have to explain because even if you think about it and come to the rational, reasonable, sensible conclusion, you know better. You know that inside a planetarium you don't want to see everything. In fact, you don't want to see much — just a few tiny points of light.

Which means that the darkness helps you to see better.

Another characteristic of planetariums is that they're empty. They have seats below and a dome above. And air. Most of the place is air. That's about it — like a movie theater. The place is about ideas and not things, and is full of dark air.

So it's funny (to me, still) to walk past the Cuenca planetarium and see one or two or three guards just outside it, or just inside it — What?. I should know by now. Guards. They're everywhere.

I did, during a previous incarnation here (at least a couple of years ago now), finally realize that guards, even armed guards, who are everywhere here, aren't so much armed guards. They are receptionists. And as with receptionists everywhere, their primary role is to maintain order. Their secondary role is to provide information. Their tertiary role is to control access to whatever inner sanctum that particular place has. And in Cuenca, a receptionist's ultimate role, the one of last resort, is to shoot you if you misbehave.

But only if you're exceptionally naughty, you see. Not usually.

Usually you see guards standing around hour after hour, five or six days a week depending on the hours of the business, or seven days a week even if the place is closed but important, like Banco del Ecuador down the street. You don't want anyone kicking their way inside that place and making a mess, so you leave at least one guard in place after the lights go off and the doors go into lockdown.

Which still, despite my getting used to a lot of things, or at least at least my witnessing of a lot of things, many of which I remain completely and eternally clueless about, leaves some room for wonder about the guards at the planetarium, because For why?.

I don't know why.

If I wasn't functionally deaf (meaning that I can hear but not too good no more) and thereby incapable of becoming functional in Spanish, I could ask. Most receptionist/guards seem happy to talk and why wouldn't they? They got nothing else to do all day, but I can't ask, you see, so I'm going to guess.

My guess is that to get into the planetarium (legally) one has to buy a ticket, pay a fee, pony up some coin, so. So this means that somewhere in there they have a box full of money. A box with a bunch of money in it. Some cash. At least a little. Possibly. Though who can say for sure? It's a guess.

Therefore the guards. In case someone might think that there is enough money in there to make robbery seem like a reasonable thing, even if there might be only $25 in quarters and dimes in there. This isn't a rich place, and people don't walk around throwing $50 bills in every possible direction — it's more like a dollar coin, a quarter or two, and a handful of pennies. If you can find pennies, but then again, if you do manage to find pennies you get really cautious about spending them, so maybe not. But maybe.

Again, I'm guessing. It's called for in this situation, so let's keep running with it and see what happens next.

So in essence, the guards at the planetarium are there protecting an idea. A potential. Putting up a barrier for anyone who gets his own and opposing idea. It's an intellectual standoff, a practical application of performance art: We are here with guns and clubs and uniforms and a big room full of darkness and you are out there, misguided, misinformed, with no income but not lacking in ambition and an urge to try something desperate on spec. And we say No — probably not a good idea there — don't try that, OK? Please? Just keep moving, go somewhere else if you would.

Maybe that's it. My best guess for now. Go figure.