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.