March 31, 2010

On a Rainy Day in Cuenca

I’ve been laying low for the past two days (my relatives left Monday morning). I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m an introvert, which in my case means that while I absolutely love being out and about and spending time with people, I also have to spend quite a bit of time alone to balance things out. The amount of time I need to spend alone is proportionate to the time spent with people and/or the amount of “busyness” that has transpired. So even though I promised myself that two days alone, just puttering about, were enough and that I would most definitely venture out today, that hasn’t come to pass. The fact that it has been raining on and off all day today (mostly on) wasn’t exactly promoting the idea.

So instead, I once again spend the day reading, watching movies, rearranging the furniture, emailing friends in the States and just generally re-energizing myself. I have to admit that I love rainy days because I find them soothing and non-demanding. Sunny days seem to challenge me to go out and accomplish worldly things! So here are two photos I took recently, while I was out there enjoying the world.

These parrots live in Ecuagenera, of which I posted on March 15. They seemed very happy and social and while we were watching them, appeared to have a minor scuffle but they soon made up and continued chattering away.

Doesn’t this look like a charming cottage on a country lane? And yet, it is actually on a side street off Solano, a major urban avenue. Walking down Solano, I wouldn’t imagine that I would see this image just by turning a corner. Knowing that I will soon be living here I am happy to get to know this city slowly, certain that there is an opportunity to find something interesting around practically any corner.

March 30, 2010

What Remains

This family visit really got me thinking about family history and about my Mom, who died this last December. She was always curious about the world, near and far, and about 15 years ago we visited France and Italy together, she for the first time. It was the longest amount of time we had ever spent alone together and that trip solidified a strong adult friendship for which I’m very grateful.

My most powerful memory of that trip is of the two of us having dinner, seated in a private corner of a small restaurant in Siena. We were having coffee at the end of the meal when she began to tell me the history of her family. She told me that my great-grandmother, at the age of 15, had married a very wealthy 91-year-old man. My grandmother had been born a year later and my great-grandfather had died within a few months, leaving my great-grandmother an extremely wealthy 16-year old widow, owner of coffee and banana plantations and responsible for the dozens of families in her employ. And that was the beginning of a convoluted family history, of which I had known nothing.

Years later, when we were visiting Ecuador, we were again having coffee, this time with her sisters, when she mentioned an incident that had taken place when her mother died. She was 17 at the time and her sisters were 13 and 8. Her grandmother, Doña Goya, who had grown into a fairly miserable person, did something so cruel that even I, 50 years later, could not imagine forgiveness. My mother actually had tears running down her cheeks as she recounted the experience and this was perhaps the third time I had ever seen her weep in my entire life, she was that stoic a person. She told us that she had never told that story to anyone, not even to my father.

This incident was so significant that I was able to understand my mother in a way I had never been able to in the past—it explained so much about her emotional structure. And I had to imagine the whole of my great-grandmother’s life to put into context the level of pain she had been capable of inflicting on her young grief-stricken grandchildren.

The picture above, taken when my great-grandmother was 71--50 years ago, at my aunt’s wedding and accompanied by my mother's stepfather (my Mom's father died when she was 7)--is the only one left of her. I’ve been told that she was formidable and I guess she had to be--a woman who, over 100 years ago, was capable of running a fairly extensive business in Ecuador. It must have been pretty hard.

March 27, 2010

A Family Affair

My mother’s entire family, with whom I reconnected 3 years ago, lives in Machala, a town on the coast, within blocks of one another. I’ve been staying at one of my aunt’s apartment in Cuenca, which she keeps as a holiday home for her children. My other aunt keeps an apartment in the same building for her children’s use on holidays as well. When my aunt called me to let me know she was coming, I knew that it went without saying that an assortment of family members and friends were coming as well. It is not unusual in Ecuador for extended families to regularly vacation together and for friends and their children to join them, here and there. All in all, within the course of Wed-Sun, with varying arrivals and departures, 9 adults and 7 children were around laughing, talking, and playing, going from one apartment to another.

I did not grow up this way and I think how much fun it must be, especially as I was watching the kids interact, to grow up with this kind of day-to-day contact with the extended family. My cousins recount with great pleasure, and often with much laughter, tales of their adventures growing up together. I get a little jealous and then I realize, given how much I need and enjoy time alone, that it might have been difficult for me to have that number of people around. I grew up in a large family (6 siblings) so I wasn’t lacking for company, and that actually felt like too many people to contend with. I learned to tune them out by reading all the time, so maybe having oodles of kids and adults around would not have been an ideal situation for me! In any case, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

We went off to Azogues, about an hour northeast of Cuenca but before I continue, I want to point out another Ecuadorean custom. One way to accommodate varying numbers of children at any given moment is to bundle them up on the cargo area of the vehicle. Here you see an assortment of nephews and their friends, who were riding in the back and one niece, who happened to be sitting there while we were waiting for something (we were traveling on two vehicles). The kids seem to have a blast riding al fresco. Is this safe? Possibly not, but they haven’t lost any kids this way so far.

On the way we stopped for lunch at one of the many small roadside restaurants, which dot all roads in Ecuador. This one served roast pig and something I’d not seen before.

Cesina is aged pork or beef (salted and air dried for at least a week), which is then grilled to order. I didn’t try it this time as I had a hankering for crispy pork skin but I’m keeping it in mind for the future.

The kids were getting antsy so we stopped at a park, where the adults immediately joined in the fun (see the top picture as well).

We then went to the town center, where the contest for Miss Azogues was taking place. We didn’t stay for long but here are a couple of pictures of the entertainment. I would venture to guess that these are little Miss Azogues in training.

And here is a performer in native dress waiting to go onstage.

We ended the day with an ice cream, which was so good I didn’t get a chance to take a photo before they were all gobbled up. As I’m writing this in my room, I’m listening to the family continue to socialize, the adults laughing as hard as the kids. I, on the other hand, being the introvert that I am, will hide out until I recover from this very full and social day. As much as I enjoyed today, I think it really might have been a good thing that I didn’t grow up with an extended family!

March 26, 2010

Galeria-Taller Eduardo Vegas

As promised, here’s some of the work of Eduardo Vegas, one of Ecuador’s most renowned artists. He is known for his pottery as well as for his murals and public sculpture. His pieces are shown and sold at his gallery/workshop located at Via Turi 201. Given their quality and beauty I’d say they’re quite affordable and it’s worth spending some time in the gallery and finding a couple of special pieces for your home. Here are a few that I’m thinking about acquiring in the future—I already bought the vase above, which I couldn’t resist. As you can see, I’m partial to the color orange.

However, I’m always open to adding color combinations I’d never cared for, such as in the dinnerware below, when they are presented so delightfully.

And, of course, there are quite a few tile designs, ranging from abstracts to indigenous scenes, which would add a great touch as accents in a kitchen backsplash, a bathroom, or on a tile floor. Because I love birds, here are some with a bird motif.

I can’t wait to start working on my home!

March 25, 2010

Artesa Ceramica

One of the great things about starting from scratch is that I’ll get to carefully choose every single thing that will go into my home and so, I’ve been holding back from buying anything for the home until I actually have a place for it. But today we went on a pottery outing and I just couldn’t stop myself from buying some gifts and then once I take out the wallet, I might as well buy something for myself, right?

First we went to Artesa (Av. Isabel La Catolica y Av. de Las Americas) and then to Eduardo Vega’s atelier in Turi (I’ll write about that tomorrow). The damage was minimal at Artesa as their stuff is primarily utilitarian—mostly tabletop items like serving pieces, dinnerware, and vases.

What I found most impressive at Artesa was the amount of actual hands on labor in the making of the pieces, in spite of the volume of production. We did a tour of their factory and it appeared extremely clean, orderly, and efficient. The items are completely handmade and the prices are quite reasonable. Here’s a craftsperson drawing the design on a piece.

Then it goes to another craftsperson, who’ll carefully apply the color before it goes into the kiln. There are several steps before and after this part of the process--it’s worth taking a look backstage if you go to the showroom store.

However, what really excited me was the gallery in the back of the showroom, where pieces from past collections are displayed. I don't know when the change in design direction took place but the pieces here are spectacular collector items.

I’d love to get my hands on any these—truly gorgeous.

March 23, 2010


When I first visited Ecuador 3 years ago I did a bit of traveling around and I noticed how many rivers were practically dry, which made these areas look barren and desolate, when they used to be lush and green. I asked an Ecuadorean why this was the case and I was told that it was because so much vegetation had been cut down or killed in the Amazon rainforest. Therefore less humidity and less water production, which equals dry riverbeds all around Ecuador. I’ve totally simplified the process but it made vividly real to me, perhaps for the first time, exactly what the destruction of the Amazon rainforest means, to Ecuador, and eventually to the world.

So when I found out about the lawsuit brought about by indigenous peoples of the Amazon against Texaco (now owned by Chevron) I looked into it. Here’s a synopsis:

“In 1964, Texaco, now owned by Chevron, began drilling for oil in an area of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest called the Oriente. Upon its departure from the region in 1992, Texaco left behind a cataclysmal trail of destruction. Having used obsolete drilling tactics in order to save money, Texaco is responsible for the spillage of close to 19 billion gallons of oil. Much of this excess oil has found its way to main waterways, including streams and rivers the local people use for drinking, bathing, fishing, and cooking.

The aftermath of the oil extraction has destroyed essential plant life, killed native animals, and rendered Ecuadorians (in the area) cancer-ridden, prone to miscarriages and birth defects, and immune deficient. Even today, almost 20 years later, Oriente residents are struggling to survive in the face of extreme poverty and hunger due to exceedingly depleted resources.

Yet Chevron refuses to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever. The oil conglomerate has repeatedly refuted the link between its operations in the rainforest and the current state of the environment there. Chevron has even gone so far as to claim no tangible connection between oil (in the main waterways) and cancer.”

If you’d like to find out more, watch “Crude: The Real Price of Oil”, a documentary of the story of this controversial and groundbreaking legal case. You can watch the trailer on youtube:

And if you'd like to act, here’s the link to sign one petition (it will take less than a minute).

I've chosen this country to be my home, I figure it's the least I can do.

March 21, 2010

Light on my Feet

As I was walking around today and having a great time with the usual suspects, Nancy asked me about my shoes because they looked so comfortable. Coincidentally I had been thinking about recommending these shoes for walking in Cuenca. I have several pairs of Terrain and Trekker shoes from Land’s End (, from sandals to weatherproof boots and I found, while living in Pennsylvania, that these are the best for casual wear—great quality, extremely comfortable, and for prices you wouldn’t believe. I wear them for gardening, for walking, for hiking, in rain and snow. If you’re going to be walking in Cuenca (and you will!), you couldn’t do much better.

They no longer carry the style I was wearing today, which has velcro straps, but the Toe Strap Mary Jane Trekker comes close. I also like the Terrain Mary Jane Shoes, the Terrain Ballet Shoes, and the Everyday Mary Jane Trekker--all on sale right now! Keep in mind that Land’s End shoes run about a half size large so if you’re an 8, order a 7.5 and so forth. And no, I don't work for Land's End!

March 20, 2010

Taking it Easy

Yesterday was a quiet day. I’ve been taking care of business--getting a haircut, going to the dentist, getting my cedula, getting internet service set up--so I needed a day to do nothing and just look out the window. I think the color palette of this tiled roof, which is what I see out of one of the windows, is what I’ll be keeping in mind for my home decor when I get settled.

I have to admit that I’m really taken with the aesthetic aspects of Cuenca (the colors! the textures! the light!) and that this is what ultimately convinced me to move here. As an art director and designer I tend to focus on the visual and I would find it extremely difficult to live somewhere where I didn’t have lots and lots of engaging things to look at. However, as anyone who knows me well knows, I’m also a very practical person and I think it’s time I give some current information on a couple of practical matters.

I highly recommend getting dental work done here. Brian and Shelley ( recommended the dentist I’m using and he’s great and the prices are very “comodos” (comfortable), as one of my aunts would say. For example, a crown costs $280, so much less than what it would be in the States, the quality couldn’t be better, and he speaks English. Here’s the info in case you find yourself in need of a dentist while in Cuenca.

Dr. Jose Acosta
Eduardo Munoz & Gran Colombia
282 2561

Getting internet turned out to be fairly easy except for a small delay. If your place has a landline phone you can get Etapa broadband easily. Installation is $30 and a modem is around $40 (wifi modem is $90). In terms of speed, 512 kbps is around $30 a month (the most popular plan), 1024 kbps is $56, which is I what I got, and 2048 kbps is $90.

You need to go in person to Etapa Gapal (10 de Agosto and Paucarbamba) with your passport or cedula (know your address and phone number) and they give you an appointment for a technician to go take a look at your connections to make sure everything checks out.

Once he’s come, you go back to Etapa Gapal, pay the installation fee, make an installation appointment, and buy a modem right there, which you take home. The first appointment went fine, though I was given a time frame of 8AM-7PM, which seemed pretty broad! They came around 2PM, so that was fairly painless. However they never showed up for the appointment to install (again a time frame of 8AM-7PM), which was on a Friday.

I figured I’d call them on Monday and went out all day Saturday. The doorman told me that they came by Saturday afternoon. Why, I don’t know, since they wouldn’t know if I would be home. In any case, I called Monday, and made an appointment for Tuesday. They were very apologetic and helpful and gave me a direct line to call on Tuesday morning to make sure I was on top of their list. The technician came around noon and installation was quick. So far the connection is reasonably fast, though a bit slow when streaming, and I’ve had no problems. All in all, it wasn’t too bad, though I don’t know if this was a typical experience.

Getting my cedula was easy and fast but that’s because I was born here so I don’t know if providing information on this process would be helpful to most expats. If an Ecuadorean out there is thinking of moving and would like this information, just let me know.

The big thing on my plate now is finding a place to live when I come back in June-July. I’m leaning toward renting, as I don’t want to buy something I don’t absolutely love and I think that may take quite a while to find, if ever (the perfect tiny colonial!). Because I’m single I don’t really need or want 3-4 bedrooms and most houses and apartments here are that size. What’s so tempting is that you can readily find a nice 3-bedroom, 2-3 bathroom unfurnished house in a good location for around $400 a month but I’d really prefer not to have that much space.

For example, I found a really lovely 3-bedroom (plus an office), 2-bathroom house with fireplace, 3rd floor loft and terrace for $440 a month. There’s also a similar 4-bedroom house for $420. Then there’s a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom townhouse with fireplace for $420 and then there’s the second floor of a brand-new townhouse with 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms for $330.

There are also new, very modern, condo apartments for rent and those are less than $400 a month unfurnished so that might be more practical in terms of upkeep. I found several like this. For example, a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom with terrace for $385, a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom with great views for $308, and a really cool 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom with fantastic views that just rented for $400. I’ve included the monthly condo fees in these rents, as condo rentals often have the renter pay that amount in addition to the rent. For example the $385 rent is actually $330 a month plus monthly condo fee of $55 a month.

I’ll start looking in earnest next week now that I have a few things crossed off my to-do list.

March 19, 2010

Secret Gardens

I was walking around yesterday looking for the Registro Civil (Hall of Records) so I could get my cedula (national ID card) when I noticed this courtyard through an open street door (that blue door on the left opens right out to the sidewalk). That would be my ideal type of home but unfortunately small colonials are very difficult to find. These traditional homes, built around an interior courtyard, tend to be enormous, with upwards of eight or ten bedrooms. They used to have big families back then--so most likely, no colonial home for me.

Walking around I realized that the weather advisory warning to make sure to use sunscreen and sunglasses because the sun has been so strong was right on the money. Since I tend to get going slowly in the morning, I have the inconvenient habit of not getting out until noon or so, which is, of course, just about the worst time to be out and about. So I actually used a parasol today! (Well, it was just my regular Totes collapsible umbrella, which I always carry with me because you never know when there’ll be a quick shower but a parasol sounds so much better!). I felt a little self-conscious at first but then I noticed how many Cuencanos were using them as well and then I felt just like a native.

I found the Registro Civil and because I was born here, it was just a matter of minutes to get my cedula, so that’s another reason to feel like a native--I now have official ID! I’ve been feeling a little chagrined because a Cuencano mentioned that I sounded like an Ecuadorean who had learned Spanish abroad. So even though I am completely fluent in both English and Spanish, I apparently have a slight accent in both languages! Rats!

I know this has been mentioned elsewhere but another thing to be aware of is the heightened possibility of tripping because of the cobblestones. I took a pretty spectacular fall the other night, though in my defense, it was dark and raining. Women in particular need to wear proper walking shoes, I think. That doesn’t mean hiking boots! Just low heels and preferably not backless sandals, where your foot is not held securely. And walk slower--I am still given to walking at my New York pace when I’m waking alone but the longer I’m here, the slower I’m walking, which is all to the good.

March 17, 2010

Stormy Skies

Something else I love about Cuenca is the fact that it rains practically every afternoon. Sometimes it is just a soft drizzle, sometimes it falls down pretty hard, but almost never for long. The approaching rain creates the most amazing cloud formations, which combined with the darkening sky and the sun still managing to shine through, paint brilliant cloudscapes.

Forget the Turners in the museum, just look up at the sky and you can see pretty fabulous masterpieces every day.

March 15, 2010

Orchid Paradise

I’ve met some fantastic people in Cuenca, first Shelley and Brian, who welcomed me as though I were already a friend and soon after, Rich and Nancy, who have been just as kind. Rich and Nancy treated me to an eye-opening morning at the orchid enterprise, Ecuagenera, on Saturday.

It’s hard to believe that these gorgeous flowers begin their life in these glass bottles at the nursery, where the seedlings are sealed and safeguarded from any contamination until they are ready to be planted. The nursery holds between 13,000-15,000 bottles at a time and approximately 15 plants will be harvested from each bottle.

We saw a glorious variety of orchids and took so many photos that I had a very hard time deciding which to post. Of the 3787 species found in Ecuador, some of which can only be found here, roughly 2500 can be found at Ecuagenera, where they are exported around the world. This is just a small sample of what you’ll see.

And finally, here’s the startling and somewhat eerie “Cara de Mono” (Monkey Face) orchid.

March 14, 2010

Faded Glory

Its colonial beauty is what initially drew me to Cuenca. I fell in love with this type of architecture and urban layout, which centers around its many plazas, the first time I experienced it, over 30 years ago in the Mexican town of Merida. I remember thinking how much I would like to some day live in a town that looked and felt like that.

There certainly are some well-preserved and stunning buildings here in Cuenca but I have a weakness for the painterly visual texture of those buildings that are well worn, unpretentious despite their architectural grandeur, and clearly lived-in, often by the same family for generations.

And then there is this elaborate aerie perched atop another well-worn colonial building. I wonder what its use was originally--a studio perhaps? I immediately start thinking about how I would restore it and renovate it into a living space. Can you imagine how great (and impractical!) that would be?

March 10, 2010

Speckled Beauties

Shopping at the local supermarkets is one of my favorite activities when I’m traveling. I went shopping for staples at Coral Centro (similar to Walmart) and found these gorgeous quail eggs right next to the regular eggs. Twenty “huevitos” (little eggs) for $1.68. As far as I know quail eggs are considered a luxury in the US and to be quite honest, I don’t even know where I would find some if I were in the mood (unlikely, given that I’ve never had one).

So, anyone have a recipe for quail eggs? Let me know if you do--I have 20 of them waiting to be eaten.