Tag Archives: expats

Climbing the Steps of the City of Zaruma and Climbing the Ladder of Success in Loja

Zaruma, de la Provincia de El Oro, is unquestionably the most vertical city that I have ever visited. Roads, at least those planed for motorized vehicles, are at best an afterthought throughout the entire municipality. In a city, a village really, of barely 20,000 residents there is a developed and inhabited area that marches up and down the mountain for more than 1,000 vertical feet.

Zaruma Steps

Zaruma Steps

This isn’t a place for someone with a fear of heights. Since as you move about in just the commercial area of Zaruma alone, you move along in the street, up steps, down steps, over curbs, up more steps and then repeat. A still active mining town, Zaruma is like no other. And because of this, Ecuador has petitioned the UN to place it on the short list of World Heritage sites. It certainly has my vote.

Though as beautifully unique as it is, a village this size only has so many things one can do, and with wi-fi being something that not all of the residents had heard about, keeping myself plugged-in was it’s own interesting challenge. It’s a nice, no it’s a great place to visit, but you know the rest.

Three days later I hopped on a bus out of town for the most beautiful yet frightening bus ride yet. The first hour was pretty tame: we coasted downhill to the smaller town of Portovelo where I changed buses after a long wait in the town square. Within 3 minutes of leaving Portovelo the pavement ended and we started climbing up into the Andes.

Zaruma to Loja Road

Zaruma to Loja Road

I was thrilled to be on this route because near the end it would meet up with the road I had taken out of Catemayo in April to attend the Natem retreat. That path ended at the door of the finca we stayed at and this ride would complete the rest of the journey coming in from the opposite direction. However these interprovincial buses are very tall affairs with great stretch out seats.

They are far taller than a Greyhound back in the US, so that when we rounded bends on the one-lane gravel road and overtook an overloaded mining truck, or met an oncoming pickup, my heart lumped up in my throat as the cabin swayed along the hardpack. We weren’t making much speed, since the gravel and washouts prevented over-jouncing along the way. But we were moving about, perched 8 or more feet above the road surface.

We did of course survive the trip. The drivers of these buses do this every day and know the twists and turns of their routes intimately. So at the times when I knew we were going over the edge, the driver carefully and methodically maneuvered this beast easily along to our destination. The days in Zaruma were a true march back in time and this bus ride punctuated the divide.

But now that I’m in Loja, life is different. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 people call Loja home (accurate population figures and, for that matter, municipal boundaries are more of a concept than a reality in much of South America). Considered by the rest of Ecuador as the jewel of the south, this city holds a long memory of mining and agricultural wealth. But it’s the 21st century. The old days were nice and there will always be respect for history (Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador), though I get a clear message here that folks want nothing more than a comfortable middle-class life.

And who can blame them? With the wonders of cable/satellite TV, dubbed Hollywood movies, and the Internet, all the excitement of the outside world beckons, and many here have answered. They have seen much that favors the attraction of a comfortable life and have decided to follow this dream. It’s the American dream, but it’s not exclusive to the US. This is also America, America of the South, and let no one forget it.

With a city of this size, geographically isolated though Loja may be, one can find most anything imaginable for leading the comfortable life. These days that also means that Loja has caught the eye(s) of travel and retirement media as the “new” Cotacatchi, which everyone who’s anyone knows is the “new” Cuenca. And for those who have followed these types of publications, we cannot forget that Cuenca of course was at one time the “new” Ajijic/San Miguel de Allende, and they of course were the “new” on and on and on…

So there is a small and slowly growing expat population here, and these retirement publications are all singing praises for Loja. Of course the result of this favorable press is that expats are moving here. But they are in no way as visible in Loja as the expats are in Cuenca, where they have seemingly taken over the Centro Historico, or are they as visible through sheer numbers, as they are in tiny Cotacachi. But expats are here and they do blog and the blogs make for some interesting reading.

Bolívar Enters Loja

Bolívar Enters Loja

As regards expat life, Loja is still in the first stages of “colonization” and this means that the transplants here are a hardy bunch, by necessity speaking Spanish, and who are quite content flying under the radar and not flocking or swarming as in the other locales. These new Lojanos are happily leading the middle-class life too and fitting in quite well with families tracing Lojano roots back in some cases to the founding of the city in 1546. Ah, but nice though it may be, that same middle-class longing is where problems arise.

Rafael Correa has changed the face of Ecuador like no other president before him. Regardless of how one applauds or rejects his views, his redistribution of wealth essentially made a new country. In multiple comparisons to other South American nations, Ecuador has lifted itself from an also-ran to a contender in virtually all aspects of social metrics. Correa’s administration has lifted more people from poverty than all of his predecessors combined and the country is now in the top tier of wealth, prosperity, and individual contentment across all factors of life in Latin America. Crime is down and happiness is up.

Because of the wealth re-distribution there is now in Ecuador a large sector of the population that not only can simply dream about material gain, but actually achieve it through individual effort. This has never happened before and the people who this message was intended for have embraced it whole cloth and gladly worked hard to move up the ladder; out with the old ways and all aboard for the new ones. Yet differences exist here in the beautiful and rugged south.

Unlike Cuenca, the cultural capital of Ecuador, or Cotacachi, near to the world market of Otavalo, or the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil, Loja is off the (international) tourist trail. It is at the bottom of an isolated valley, nearly 7,000 ft above sea-level, and surrounded by rough and mountainous mining country. Loja therefore is at the mercy of its geography, and as a result of these defining landforms the city, like any city anywhere in similar circumstances, has an insular outlook on life and the values that define it as a community.

Seeing the world of the outside and how the Loja of old compared to that world, and seeing progress as good thing, it was only natural that Loja too would be moving forward. If hard work and a clear vision were the antidotes to stagnation, then Lojanos were ready for their share of the rewards. It would be worth it for now and for the future. But at what cost?

When I arrived here last Thursday I had several immediate tasks before me. In order to stay on the road I have certain regular chores and the occasional “one-off” task that come up. This last week I needed to have some laundry done, a haircut, and some forms filled and mailed back to a US bank. I also wanted to purchase some palo santo.

This sweetly aromatic wood is burned in curandismo ceremonies and next week I begin a 12-day retreat hosted by 4 curanderos. The plan was to purchase quantities of palo santo for each of the shamans as symbolic offerings. Once I leave Loja I will be again in isolated country south of Cuenca and unable to locate such things. So Loja is where I had to find my palo santo.

Booking a room in a centrally located hotel in colonial cities has many benefits, not the least of which is convenience. There is a reassuring sameness to the layout of old Latin American cities. Each has a parque central: a green-space (sometimes more green in concept than in currency) which will have fronting it the city cathedral, the local governmental offices, and provincial and/or federal agencies as well.

Radiating outward from the park will be the supplementary and complementary businesses, shops, and other modes of commerce that keep the community operating. The tailors, the hardware stores, the cyber cafés, and pharmacies, restaurants, and more. Big cities and small pueblos; this layout is both regular and reassuring.

Loja Mercado Centro

Loja Mercado Centro

Among these surrounding stores will also be the mercado central. This will be the grand market selling everything from local produce (which in Ecuador is astounding in variety, beauty, taste, and incredibly low prices), meats: both the butchered and often the live still clothed in feathers or fur, toys for the tots, sweets for both the tooth and the heart, umbrellas, shoes and boots, basketware, items for the kitchen and home, and many, many other items in a large warehouse or series of warehouses with running kids, pleading mothers, hawkers for both licit and illicit goods; a fascinating place to watch one’s belongings while weaving through the always crowded aisles.

Loja’s grand market is barely 2 blocks from my digs, the Hotel Podocarpus, and after scouting it out on Thursday just before the 6pm closing, I knew that checking off my tasks would be a snap; there was even an internet café, so I could print out the forms for the bank. The central post office was 2 blocks in the other direction from my hotel. Perfect! At least mostly so.

After finishing up most of my tasks at the mercado with a $2 haircut (and it looks like a $2 haircut too!) on the top floor amidst the row of barbers, I set out to find the palo santo. In Quito, Cuenca, and many other communities along the major transportation routes, tiendas de remedios (shops selling folk remedies) seem to be on almost every street corner. Yet I couldn’t see any, either in the mercado or along the side streets lined with shops selling everything but remedios.

Mercado Produce

Mercado Produce

So I asked one of the vendors in the mercado who gave me a puzzled look and then pointed me off in some vague direction elsewhere, a common gesture when someone doesn’t know something but can’t bring ones’ self to admit it. So off I went to another sector, got the same treatment, and repeated this a number of times until the husband of one of the earlier vendors found me several aisles over and pointed out a tiny closet of a shop one more aisle down.

Finally! Success with what turned out to be the last remedio shop in Loja. It was getting late with rain threatening, so I was thankful that I did find my palo santo, and that the old man selling the flower-waters (floristas), trinkets, salves and such had 4 bundles left. He was both quite pleased and puzzled to find a gringo as a customer, and after our transaction admitted that not only was he the last, but that his supply of palo santo had dried up from over-developing the forests for farmland. He also told me that for 10 years or so, fewer and fewer people are following the old ways and that he was going to close down this last of the remedios in Loja.

In their climb up the material ladder, Lojanos have willingly forsaken indigenous ways and plowed up the once plentiful palo santo forests. For progress. Other communities here in Ecuador, ones located on busy and regular transportation routes still accept the old ways and have comfortably integrated them into newer ways of living. There is no real conflict in those cities and both beliefs of health and healing exist symbiotically. However, these folks here in Loja, walled in by the beautiful but culturally stifling mountains, concluded some time back that it was an either/or choice and made their move forward by saying goodbye to traditions that had been in place for millennia. Something was lost here in Loja.

Ecuador Calls and Hostal Curiñan Answers

Otavalo, Part III

Comfortably into my 2nd week here in Otavalo and I’m at somewhat of a crossroads. I could easily stay here, even while Inti-Raymi is winding down. Though today is the official end, more festivities go on until Friday, and then there are 3 “spill-over” religious rites that last until early July.

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

Tomorrow, with my senior discount 20¢ fare, I plan to visit Cotacachi via a 30-minute bus ride. This small village, known around Ecuador and beyond as the Nirvana of leather goods, it is also home to a growing number of expats. Sue, one of the guests at Hostal Curiñan is one of them.

She and her husband are “mule farmers” in Alberta and are also homeowners in Cotacachi. They have just sold their original home in the pueblo and are in the midst of constructing their 2nd one. Sue is a true expat in that she speaks a passable Spanish and knows how to always have a backup plan.

Plan B is critical for when the plumber doesn’t show up as promised, or her Ecuadorian lawyer disappears at a critical junction in her property negotiations. Or worse yet, when he asks for double the original fee for handling the legal papers. Not only does Sue have a Plan B, but she plugs it in with a laugh and a smile.

Ruth blew in and blew out of the hostal this past weekend. A retired physics professor somewhere north of age 70, this New Zealander has been a solo traveler for decades and she taught me a thing or 2 about bargaining with alpaca weavings vendors, traveling light, and converting inches to centimeters on the fly. We had a great (but frigid) boat ride on Cuicocha Lake the day after she bought me a pitcher of tomate de arbol (tree tomato) juice for my birthday.

Judy Goldberg is another one of the Hostal Curiñan clientele crew. She and I share acquaintances in Santa Fe that go back more than 20 years, though the 2 of us had never met when I lived there. She and her husband have lived in New Mexico for more than 40 years and she’s in Otavalo for the next stage of her anthropology grant. A professional videographer, Judy is interviewing Matilde and José Miguel for the 2nd year running and she recounted to me a bit of the extraordinary lives that brought them together and that they are even now living as the hosts of this wonderful inn. 

Years ago Judy created a non-profit in Santa Fe that is now very alive and healthy. As time moves one she wants to pass it on to others as she grows her Ecuadorian projects.  In addition to recording the Hostal owners, she is also making audio recordings of a family split apart during the Ecuadorian diaspora. I had no idea that the 4th largest Ecuadorian city is NYC! I do now. Now that she’s interviewing the brother of a New York Ecuadorian radio-show host. The brother lives here in Otavalo. Where else?

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Judy was having some issues with language subtleties during a few of the interviews, so Marcela stepped in to help. A young Chileña psychologist, beautifully fluent in English, she had the room next to Judy at the Hostal. Marcela is here buying medicinal herbs to use with her curandera during an upcoming San Pedro (mescaline) ceremony. She felt comfortable revealing this after I recounted my own Natem experiences from last month.

Marcela, even while directing a UNICEF program on a farm outside Santiago, is a fellow traveler in the spirit world. She and Judy, José Miguel and Joselito, and I all journeyed to Peguché at midnight on Monday to enter the waterfall for a ritual New Year’s bath.

We all swapped e-mail addresses and my pals: synchronicity and serendipity, being what they are we may well and we may easily cross paths sooner or later. But the hostal is quiet today. Sue and I are the only ones left and she’s headed back to Alberta tomorrow.

Yet even as she’ll be hopping buses back to Quito’s airport, the Hostal is set up to greet a dozen new faces scheduled to arrive on the same day, some for the night and some for longer terms. Among them will most certainly be some worth knowing. Hostal Curiñan and the loving people who own and operate it attract guests who also bring with them this energy and this love. Should I go or should I stay? I’ll have to answer that question at some other time. Right now, more people are dancing in the street outside the restaurant, and I’m going out to watch

Lima Interlude During the Multiple Inti-Raymi’s of Imbabura Province

Preface: I had written this piece at the beginning of the month (June 4th) and then after I returned to Quito a number of events crowded out the time to post it in it’s rightful order. Now I’m thinking that rather than trash it, I’ll wedge it into the Otavalo/Inti-Raymi postings and disrupt them too. Since I’ve left my comfort cocoon I see that each day is bringing me nonstop experiences. Until now I had been collecting and perfecting them for larger posts, but that presents its own problems.

With so much daily input I could end up waiting forever for the perfect wrap. A wrap that really, will never come. So rather than try to bring organization, a totally foreign concept in my life, I will henceforth spew shorter but more frequent postings. Let’s see how this works for me. For you, fractionally more e-mail. At least for those who “Follow” and therefore receive notifications.

Cement, Sand, and Gravel

I’ve been in Lima now for 2 days and I can find some interesting differences between here and Quito. For one, more people I meet seem to know at least some English and are willing to switch languages for my benefit; even when I’d rather continue speaking Spanish. Maybe that’s a hint that my Spanish is worse than I’d like to think. If so, I’ll just refuse the hint and keep on butchering the language.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed is that they seem to know how to pour (AKA “place” in the trades) concrete here. After 20yrs in construction culminating in a general contractor’s license, I do know a thing or 2 about mixing cement, sand, and gravel with a bit of water. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Ecuadorian construction.

I’ve already suffered from poor pours by breaking a bone in my foot stepping on broken concrete pieces a few months back. The sidewalks in Quito are deplorable and inexcusable. And I have stood there and watched new pours and lived in Quito enough months to judge the results of those same pours: the crap they place is so badly mixed that it’s decomposing almost as soon as it cures. COME ON FOLKS: concrete mixtures are not a lost art; 3 components plus water, it ain’t that complex!!

Thing is, when I was working in the trades, it was a given that whatever you built, you did so with the expectation that it would last for generations. Nothing was more devastating to a tradesman than to have his (and now, thankfully with gender liberalization, hers too!) work fail. When you built something, by God that construct was going to outlast your grandchildren!

I can’t begin to tell you the feeling of pride I got when I revisited something I built 30 years later and saw it looked as solid as when I put it up back in the late 60’s. You don’t see that as much as I’d expect with so many projects in Ecuador. I’d love to meet an Ecuadorian builder for some in-depth discussions about this. I love the country and its people so very deeply but I cannot fathom its construction practices. By contrast, I truly appreciate the sidewalks I’ve seen in Lima so far.

Yeah, well I never claimed to be normal, anyway. You have your loves, I have mine.

One puzzling issue twixt these 2 Andean countries is economics, and I have no recollections as to whether its micro- or macro-economics that I’m talking about. My college econ courses were too many years ago to remember now which was which. But everything I read and hear says that Peru is a poor country. OK, I get that. Then why are things more expensive here than they are in Ecuador?

It’s a given, at least to everyone who talks to me, that the cost of living is higher in Perú than in Ecuador, but why? Please, all you closet economists out there: I’ll buy you a beer if you can enlighten me. Food costs, taxis, hotels and hostels are noticeably higher and I have no clue how that is related to a country being designated as “poor.” Somebody, help me!

Chicklet Seller, Lima

Chicklet Seller, Lima

Another major difference between the 2 capitals is the climate. With Quito kissing the Equator one might expect it to be far warmer than it is. Not so, amigos. Many’s the time I’ve been bundled up in long-johns, a fleece jacket and wool watch-cap, and still feelin’ the chill. Of course sitting on a valley floor at more than 9,000 feet above the sea, surrounded by 16,000 foot volcanoes does have a mitigating effect.

Quiteños never tire of reminding me that June is the best month for weather in their city. But, except for 2 days next week, I’ll miss being able to verify that claim. By the middle of the month I will have “closed shop” in the capital and moved on. Perhaps Quito really does have great weather then, but I can say that the first 5 months of the year were less than appealing, with changes every 10 minutes, from sun to clouds to rain to cold and back to sun all over again. The city itself is endlessly fascinating, but the climate is not my favorite to be sure.

And yet what I hear about the climate of Lima is also not attractive at first blush. I’m here during the heavy cloud-cover time. It can be downright cool at night and even though my eyes are troubled by bright days (glaucoma), I can leave both my hat and my sunglasses back at the hostel. The clouds never seem to leave and the overcast is very complete and persistent. And when it does get sunny (December to February), it is also hot and humid, which seems like an unpleasant time too. I’ll have to wait and see because the hot season is when I think that I’ll be back for an extended stay.

I discovered my “traveling style” while in Quito. Initially planning to be there for a month, I was seduced by its charms, its noise and chaos, and just simply wandering its streets watching it work. So that month became five. I expect the same will happen here in Lima. During an initial meeting with the SAEX/Lima director, Michael Goldsworthy, I learned that the Club has a number of ways for the newcomer to ease into the capital.

They publish a hard copy guide to services and attractions of interest to travelers and have updated it regularly. As opportunities arise, Michael invites local experts to present talks about the arts and politics of both the city and the country. There is a Spanish language teacher who includes “hands-on Lima” classes that visit markets, examine how to ride public transport (no simple skill with a completely private “system” of buses, renegade taxis, vans, minivans, etc.), and other immersive activities which are so vital when landing in a capital of a new country and culture. I’ll be ready for those field-trips to be sure.

This past Friday evening I attended a Machu Picchu lecture at the Club. The overall theme, delivered by an explorer who has an intimate 40+ year history with the ruins, seemed to be that a great conspiracy exists. This collusion I’m told, wants to keep the “truth” of Machu Picchu from the rest of us through some apparent Indiana Jones machinations. Entertaining to be sure, but I was actually more drawn to the expat characters who made up the bulk of the audience. The youngest seemed to be from early-middle aged (whatever that category is in these changing days) while the oldest seems to have been on intimate terms with Hiram (the “discoverer” of Machu Picchu) Bingham’s youngest son. This Club, the oldest branch of SAEX, demands further investigation. I’ve accepted the assignment.

And I’ve also accepted Michael’s invitation to apply for a room at the club when I do return. Like each of the SAEX branches, Lima has rooms for both short-term and longer stays. It has a kitchen large enough for several travelers at a time, a common area with a large map table and a very large lending library with a separate book exchange.Michael tells me that soon they will also inhabit the downstairs and begin hosting monthly socials like the successful ones held in Quito. This should be in effect before I return.

Cuenca, for a While Only

The Gran Hotel, 3 blocks from Parque Calderón, the center of the Historic District, has a delightful interior courtyard. Like the majority of buildings in this old section of town, the courtyard here is hidden from street view, but once inside, we are treated to a jungle of plants, some as high as the 2-storey enclosure itself.

imageBoth breakfast (included with the room-rate of $35/night) and the 4-course lunch ($3.50, no tipping allowed) are served here from 7AM until after 2PM. I’m here in-between the 2 meals, wondering how they will remove the body from the 2nd-floor room before lunch.

Since all the rooms front the courtyard, the platoon of EMT’s, local and state police, and the criminalistics team, along with the hotel staff are working out the logistics. I’m sitting off to the side at a small table watching the staff move the dining tables for what appears to be an over-the-rail descent. Really, it’s a front-row seat and unless they tell me to move, I’m here for the duration.

Two hours ago, while finishing up a late breakfast, I heard running feet from the floor above and looked up to see the First Responders entering the room. Shortly after, the initial cadre of police arrived, and then later the CSI group. I knew from the lack of urgency that whomever was checked into the room had left for good and now it was time for all the paperwork.

I can’t help but think of Sir Terry Pratchett, who just died a few days ago. It’s been 15 years since I was introduced to his “Discworld” satires, and if I haven’t read all of his several dozen books in the series, plus other similar works, it’s not from lack of trying.

But Cuenca is far more than dead bodies. It’s now Friday and Frank and I arrived here in Cuenca on Monday. We’re flying back to Quito Sunday morning with Frank returning to the US early Monday morning. So we still have some fascinating sights to take in.

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This is a very interesting city and like Quito, selected as a World Heritage Site. Cuenca is Ecuador’s 3rd largest population center, at about 1/2 million people in the city proper, with an extensive suburban development.

This beautiful city, with 4 rivers running through it and defining it’s internal boundaries, is regarded as the cultural heart of Ecuador. It’s easy to see why, with 3 major universities, both an old (16th century) and a new (19th century) cathedral, plus a dozen or more beautifully preserved churches, period buildings with balconies like those in New Orleans (or France, for that matter), museums, Inca ruins, and more. Cuenca is a delight to the eye. In fact Cuenca is such a delight that I’ve concluded that I cannot live here.

Since we got here Frank has developed a passionate love-affair with the city and he plans to return with his wife for a visit very soon. With it’s bite-sized colonial district that can be walked end-to-end, both north-south and east-west in less than a day, and with a climate far friendlier than Quito’s, Cuenca seduces very easily. And that is my problem.

Sometime in 2009 Cuenca was selected as the most desirable retirement destination in the world. This singular prize, decided by any number of international living periodicals, and seconded many times since by other publications has not gone unnoticed by an ever-growing number of expats. Earlier this month the federal government released its figures of approximately 12,000 expats living in Cuenca, with about 8,000 of them from North America.

Yet walking the Historic District, or limping along with a cast in my case, some things catch my eye. Perhaps the decades I’ve spent in Honolulu and Santa Fe have soured my soul towards hot tourist destinations, I don’t know. But here in Cuenca I feel a distinct division between the expats and the local population. There is a palpable disconnect between the 2 communities even though they trod the same paths. It’s as if a colony of ants and a colony of elephants occupied the same land, with both populations busily going about their business and not a clue that the other colony exists.

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I realize that this is a gross over-simplification, but it feels real to me and I don’t want any part of moving here. Though the 2 of us dropped in on 3 very competent Spanish language schools to see about enrolling in their immersion programs, I just can’t do it. All 3 are within 4 blocks of each other, a few blocks from the hotel and the central plaza as well. It feels as if I would suffocate from the claustrophobic closeness of everything. And living with ants and elephants is not something I would willingly do.

Would I come back to Cuenca for a visit? In a minute! The place is gorgeous and known for some of the best food in the country. Its venues host world class symphonies, dancers, writers, painters, sculptors and much more. But I prefer losing myself among the millions in cold and rainy and chaotic Quito.

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