Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ex Pats of Cuenca

Before we arrived in Ecuador, Omar had made contact with an individual (Monica Mac Naughton) who turned out to be a legitimate and gracious host in so many various ways, that I cannot truly describe what an asset she was to us. Her other half (Tom Mac Naughton) was a man after my own dreams and actually bought a Honda scooter to tool around with, the second or third day we were in town, on the spur of the moment. There are no better human beings on earth than these two individuals. They were most recently from Florida, before relocating to Cuenca a couple years back and are a wealth of knowledge in regards to Ecuador and any assistance you would need to relocate. True Americans (Or at least what we used to think of as True Americans and are sincere and forthright in their recommendations and information (Not always the case in Ecuador).

They had plans the first evening we were in Cuenca but (almost, but in a polite way) demanded we meet them for dinner on Sunday night at the Dorado restaurant (I hope I got the name correct). We accepted the invite and were eager to meet the couple.

Omar and I could not decide whether we should dress up or go casual. Given it was a nice restaurant and the fact that we hadn't met Monica and Tom, we thought we should wear nice shirts and slacks. When we met them at the restaurant we were slightly overdressed and I deduced that they were comfort driven and not concerned with image (obviously, if you know me I was attracted immediately to that characteristic),

We shared a fabulous meal and they discussed several "survival skills" necessary in Cuenca along with the do and don'ts of the indigenous people and central Cuenca interactions.  They suggested a Trout dish that was superior according to Omar, but I had to have the Paella and man was it delicious (including shrimp, fish, clams, A Langostina, octopus and other incredible and scrumptious seafood (The rice, sauce and peas were also excellent).

The next day we ran into Tom (In only 400,000 people what are the odds) at a shopping center. He volunteered to accompany us on a condo visit and give us their feedback and knowledge, as to the value of the residence and whether the area demanded the price point.

Tom and Monica are also looking for another condo, in addition to the unit they own currently, to provide additional rental income. So they had a dual purpose on their agenda. We all met at the condo and it was priced at $91,000 with tons of potential and great views, but the primary living space was just too small. In addition, there were other issues that Tom and Monica discussed that made it overpriced. The outdoor living space was great and there was a rooftop area that could have been done up, but together you are talking another $20,000 roughly.

Tom, Alberto, Monica and Omar

Omar descending from the rooftop deck

Mountain view from the Patio Deck

When we left this condo, Jose the owner, Tom, Monica, Omar and I all piled into his little Isuzu SUV and went up to a overlook (I believe it is called Turi)and it started raining and the pea size hail started falling. Very unusual. We passed Eduardo Vega's studios, where he actually creates his artwork and basic Ceramic work. I think under normal weather patterns you could walk down to a small park below and experience the view from a different perspective and vantage point.

We then went to Tom and Monica's condo to see what a different value would return. It was in a section of Cuenca named "Gringoland" and I am sure you can deduce the reason for the area name. Their Condo was breathtaking and was on the 5th floor, if my memory is correct. The reason we went initially was to get Coca Tea for my altitude sickness. They validated the authenticity of the product and had used it many times to help. I did not decline and took their entire inventory.

They have a gorgeous 2 bedroom, 2 bath, 2 story condo with more than ample living area and beautifully decorated with local artwork and a patio with an extreme outdoor kitchen area. Words cannot completely describe the shock and awe I received at the first glance. It was a condo I could reside in the rest of my life and I am sure Kim could. In addition Tom has a love for Hummingbirds and they are ever present on the patio. You literally have to duck as they fly through and around the patio's furnishings and support columns. It was fascinating.

Tom grows and obtains Orchids that are unavailable in my price range in the US. This one set him back $25, if I recall correctly. I didn't take a myriad of pictures, as I should have, but trust me it was an unbelievable condo.
Monica sent us a 2 page list of restaurants in the central area with specialties and descriptions of the fare at each place. They directed us to markets, shops and other sightseeing prospects. They are working hard to help Omar secure a condo in his price range and do this just because they are good people. They have stayed in contact with Omar and myself, since we left Ecuador.

The second couple we met through Tom and Monica was William and Valerie Lacy from Wisconsin. We met them the last night and had dinner with Tom, Monica, Will and Val. Prior to dinner we went to their condo (this time I took many pictures). They have a sixth floor condo that is in the central part of old Cuenca and is inhabited primarily by businesses (Dr and Dentists mostly I think). This was a building that when they acquired it had a roof falling through and walls caving in (More project than I have left in my body!) and decided they wanted the view. After all it is a penthouse with one of the best views in Cuenca. Lots of glass, fantastic decorations, up to date appliances, counters, etc and a collection of cedar cabinets that cost them probably one tenth of what they would have in the US.

Yours truly and Omar on the deck

A bookshelf in the Library with probably a good 4" to 6" shelves

Val in the Dining, Great Room
We left and ate at a wonderful Italian place and had our last meal in Cuenca. It was fantastic as all other meals had been in Cuenca. Will and Val talked about a favorite Helado (Ice Cream) place (The Mixx) near the San Blas cathedral, (can't remember if it is a Canadian or Scandinavian that runs and owns it--but the product is made fresh daily including the sugar cones. OMG!) that had the best ice cream in town. Of course we had to substantiate his verdict. He was correct and I had the cherry cheesecake I believe or something to do with cherries and it was excellent. We said our good byes and left our new found friends, headed for Salinas the next day.

I am sorry we didn't get to spend more time with Will and Val as they appear to be very genuine, caring Americans that want to help. That is the distinction between the ExPats in Cuenca and Salinas. In Cuenca they are sincere and approach you to sincerely aid in your dilemmas. In Salinas the majority of them just want to make a buck and will misdirect you, overcharge for less than desirable food and have no customer service to speak of. It is like night and day.

Funny (actually,not really) Alberto, Monica and Tom, Will and Val were all in agreement that I/we would not enjoy Salinas and would want to turn around and come back to Cuenca immediately upon arriving. Even Efrain a guide that we hired to help drive us around, show us the Incan ruins, show us property and comment on the areas, etc agreed on this principal. Not one even waivered a tiny bit. I knew I was going to be in a situation upon arriving in Salinas, but that comes later.

Cuenca is a place that I would definitely review and explore again to see if I could overcome the altitude. Who knows I might make it permanent! If you find you are headed to Cuenca, by all means make contact and I will be glad to furnish their info if they agree.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In a Class of Its Own!

Omar secured reservations weeks ahead of time, at a boutique hotel in Cuenca, named Casa Ordonez. I feel compelled to define this hotel's pristine and prime attributes, as it will be lodged in my memory for eternity and yours, if your path runs through Cuenca. The Boutique Hotel is run by Alberto Ordonez and members of his family, that in turn open their arms and make you feel like a King or Queen depending upon your gender.

Instrumental in the operation are his sister Ines and his charming and gracious Mother. As I told her when I left, I lost my mother in 1977 and no one has made me feel at home as much as you did in the past week. She and the family are unusual in their fascination with customer service and go to any length to ensure your satisfied.

Alberto, Omar and Alberto's Mother
Ines works untold hours and handles situations with complete control. The week we were there they had an "Ugly American" dispute his reservation and even though they had a trail of emails stating that his needs could not be met the first night and would be addressed after the first night, he went ballistic, screaming and cussing in a fashion that was uncalled for and embarrassing. She handled this with a smile on her face and a demeanor that was totally reserved. She was amazing. I probably would have hit him in the mouth!

There are no irons or ironing boards in the rooms. When Omar asked if he could have one they asked what was in need of ironing. We both had a couple of shirts and within a matter of minutes we had them back, ironed and on hangars. When is the last time that has happened to you? Alberto got Omar and I a reservation on Saturday night at Tiesto's which is impossible for a newcomer as it is the premier restauarnt in Cuenca (later I will describe it's attributes in another blog). He has a connection for anything you can think of and is more than willing to help you with any task.

A local traditional treatment for altitude sickness is Coca Tea, drank about every 2 hours and it resolves the issues, if consumed per instruction. He helped me locate some and sure enough it helped (without any side effects, I am sure your mind is reviewing the possibilities). If you need a guide to tour the city, if you need a guide to help look at real estate, etc Alberto is there for you. He actually stopped working and drove Omar and I to several appointments and was honest and up front about specific areas in the city; where to live and where to work.

He helped me with a medical issue and kept apologizing for the speed of time it took and how much it costs. Unbelievable. I have dealt in the customer service business for years and never have I encoutered such a individual with the passion and spirit that Alberto shares daily.

In addition Edwin works the early shift and helps serve breakfast daily. He is fantastic and always has a smile on his face. I do not believe he ever sits. He sweeps all day and mops as needed. Rene works the evening shift and ensures your safety at all times during the night. They keep a padlock on the interior of the Rod Iron Gate and keeps a vigilant watch on the entry door. There were several nights Omar and I did not lock our room door and any others did the same.

Breakfast is served from 6:00 AM until 9:30 PM so there is no excuse for missing it. You have fresh squeezed juice that varies daily, fresh flavored yogurt that is hard to describe as it is more liquid in nature, but verry sweet, fresh bowl of fruit that varies daily, choice of breads with prserves and butter and finally eggs cooked your way. This is obviously accompanied by fresh brewed Ecuadorian coffee. It is amazing and very filling.

The hotel is over 100 years old and has been remodeled. It has an older Spanish look and the stairs are original and 75 years old. It has three stories and I am guessing accomodates around 20 to 25 guests. Upstairs is a wonderful library with skylight.

I would recommend that any of you that travel to Cuenca, stay at this hotel and take advantage of its hospitable family. You will be happy you made this decision.

Contact info is as follows:

Casa Ordonez
Telefono: 282-3297
Celular: 094 366-885

The Road to Cuenca

It took over an hour of riding in and out of heavy traffic before we obtained our shuttle and started on the way up the mountain to Cuenca. I had worries, but not serious thoughts, about the prospect of Altitude Sickness. As we left the outskirts of Guayaquil and rid ourselves of the ultra poor and fanatically dirty "Industrial Area", we began entering the tropical and green segment of Ecuador, that is responsible for a majority of the fruits and vegetables.

It was breathtaking and I was awestruck at the size of the banana, papaya, guayabana, cacao, lime, orange and mango trees and bushes. It was literally intoxicating and stimulating at the same time. Our driver was only interested in getting us to the destination so he could turn around and come back. So....photograph opportunities were few and far between and some were so fleeting, to be of no use.

It is difficult at best to attempt any description of the scenery, plants, waterfalls and rivers that border the brand new highway (It took 10,000 men over ten years to lay the rebar and smooth the concrete for this 90 mile stretch). It really is a feat considering the modest equipment and the frontier workforce. The canyons and wonderful nature portraits could not be duplicated, with a simple photograph and it was of no use to attempt to make such an effort.

I have a very weak bladder, my wife will tell you and at about 12,000 feet I suddenly had to go and it seemed that time was of the essence.When the driver stopped the van and I unloaded, the entire world spun on its axis. I was mortified and stumbled to my knees. A combination of the altitude and uneven ground left me with no choice but to fall to the ground. I was worried I couldn't rise and thanks to Omar I managed to ascend and get my business done, leaning against a tree. I got back in the van quickly and told them I couldn't possibly go through that again. Yet 15 minutes later it hit once more and I basically replicated the afore mentioned incident. I am not sure why, but the coffee really hit me bad that day.

Finally we got off the top of the mountain and started our descent (Thank you Lord!). We passed a great deal of lakes (I think there are 253 in that area of the mountains--they were gorgeous). The beauty escalated as we drew near Cuenca, and the indigenous population became more and more pronounced. As we entered the center of town the streets narrowed and the architecture grew more aged and beautiful. I was in a very great place and ready for the adventure. Thank God my altitude sickness was more restrained at 8500 feet than at 12,000 feet. We were at our destination.

Guayaquil Day 2

Omar and I stumbled out of the hotel after a huge breakfast and discovering I had left some of my meds in Austin. Damn my memory. It is starting to really bother me that I can't still balance 152 projects at the same time, like I used to in the old days. We go looking for a Farmacia and investigate whether the prescription issue is a loose as we have heard. As we turn the corner we run into a huge parade that apparently is pretty special (turns out it is Dia de Guayaquil--each major city has a day of freedom from Spain and October 9th is this day for Guayaquil).

There are bands and bands from local schools carrying their banners and some have more military orientation than others. About a block or two down we see a "Dignitaries" stand (elevated about 20 ft in the air and covered on top and from the rear) that probably has the mayor and other city government officials among the participants.

There are National Armed Forces, Guayaquil Police and a myriad of law enforcement people, all armed with a substantial display of weaponry. The corner we turned at must also be the end of the parade as disbursement from this area is a madhouse. We locate the farmacia and fill my needs with a small issue, but none that couldn't be handled with American greenbacks.

Vendors were hawking sliced pineapple rings on spears and other candies and drinks. Omar asked one young vendor how much a plastic container of water was. He stated $.25 each. This was our first encounter with the cheap cost of living. Amazing the same bottle of water in the US is around $1.29 to $1.49.

We arrived back at the hotel just in time to catch our shuttle to Cuenca (At first they wanted I believe $180 and Omar got it down to $105--be ready to negotiate everything if you go). We left the hotel and tried to force our luggage into the smallest vehicle I have ever seen. I looked at Omar "like there is no damn way I can ride to Cuenca in this tuna fish can of a car".

We discover that this is only a car that will take us to the real shuttle by the airport. So....another bill is added to our original bid and when we arrive at the shuttle office I stayed with the bags in the shuttle (a 5 seat large Ford van) and Omar went into the office. He thought and I worried if he would come back out in one piece! Soon as Omar paid the fee we were on our way to Cuenca.

It Begins

I am standing in the Austin airport, waiting for the culmination of five months preparation to begin. I am elated, scared to death and three hours early, as usual. My OCD is at warp speed, hyper overdrive and Omar is cutting it close again. We are about to embark upon an escapade to verify whether Ecuador meets with our expectation.

We have a three legged trip that takes us to DFW, then Miami and will arrive in Guayaquil late this evening, if all goes as planned. I am afraid that my back brace will not do its thing, that I may have under estimated my medical needs and the journey may take a great deal out of me before we have all wheels on the ground. Will the windows provided offer ample enough time to make all connections?

First leg went down without any issues. In DFW I notice a young man and a older individual in "Dominican" workout suits. The older man turns out to be an Olympic coach for the young athlete that just finished competing in the pentathlon event in Denver Colorado and carries a countries dreams on his shoulders at only nineteen years old. He probably still has another five or six Olympics he can compete in. Pentathlon athletes reach their prime in their early 30's.

The coach knew Jose Alou from West Palm Beach, who blew his knee out and had to turn to Budweiser for a career. His father Felipe is a well known professional player along with the other two brothers, Matty and Jesus. Felipe is now a well known manager/broadcaster. We talked baseball the entire leg.                         

In Miami we had a time change and we were exposed to several airline agents who did not really have command of the English language. It was odd since we were still in the good old US of A. Boarded and set next to a young Ecuadorian who spoke no English and had no interest talking with a Gringo.

Omar on the other hand met an acquaintance from Victoria Texas prior to loading on our flight who in turn introduced us to individual down the road in Salinas, that would prove beneficial. Our arrival at Guayaquil was timely and their processes were extremely easy. Going through customs took all of 10 minutes and only Omar had his bags checked. Mine were loaded on a belt for X-Ray, by Ecuadorians who were more than cooperative.

The airport was warm and muggy, but not impossible and after clearing customs there was a receiving line for all arriving passengers that rivaled prince William's line after his marriage to Kate Middleton. Some passengers would have 15 to 20 family members there to greet them. etc. It was quite a display of "family values". Something I think we are missing these days.

Omar and I got to the hotel and ate something and then to bed. We were completely worn out (Or at least I was).