April 29, 2010

So Long, Farewell

So, this phase of my Ecuador adventure will end on Saturday when I fly back to New York for approximately two months. I rented an apartment today so I will have a home to furnish and decorate when I come back. I took lots of pictures and measurements and knowing me, I’ll probably spend the best part of the next two months endlessly laying out the apartment and dreaming about the rooftop terrace. What I am not looking forward to, in fact I’m dreading it, is the next phase--getting rid of a house worth of belongings. It’s not so much the getting rid of stuff—I am the kind of person who loves a clean sweep once in a while—but the effort and work it entails. Halfway through I will probably just give everything away so that it’s done and I can start with a clean slate.

Coincidentally I had scheduled to take an Indian cooking class today with Leslie (check Rich and Nancy’s blog soon for more details, richandnancy.blogspot.com). It was the perfect occasion to say hasta luego to my very favorite people in Cuenca. Rich and Nancy, Brian (Shelley didn’t make it today but I saw her yesterday and we said our goodbyes) and Holly.

These are the people who have made my stay here such a pleasure and who have made me feel that I am a welcome addition to Cuenca. I’ll miss them. Here’s a toast to them and to Cuenca!

April 26, 2010

Odds and Ends

I’ll be returning to the States at the end of the week, for a couple of months, and I find myself with oodles of pictures that I’d like to post but I’m running out of time! So here are a few odds and ends that I’ve noticed as I’ve been walking about town.

I was struck by the visual juxtaposition of the clean lines of the beautiful old church and the spare modern architecture of the newer building. They work wonderfully well together.

Vaqueros, on Bolivar and Estevez de Toral, supplies both cowboys and wannabe cowboys with everything they need, from harnesses and bridles to fancy and colorful cowboy boots. So should you find yourself hankering for Scalloped Jingle Bob Spurs head on over and say howdy.

El Mono Chico Soda Fountain is supposed to have some really tasty sanduches de pernil (roast pork sandwiches). Haven't had a chance to try them yet but I plan to when I get back.

I’ve walked by this building, The Commercial Drivers Syndicate, dozens of times but it was only recently that I noticed that it also houses the syndicate’s Funeral Home. I wonder if commercial drivers--given how they drive here--have a greater need for a funeral home.

This is the Christ the King Home of the Little Sisters of the Forsaken Elderly. It is run by an international order of nuns who provide a home for the elderly who are unable to take care of themselves. I am very glad they are around to provide this service.

And finally, this is the university’s School of Medicine. I just thought it was lovely.

April 25, 2010

Marvelously Useless Things

I walked by the Museo de las Conceptas today. The museum is part of a convent, which was founded in 1599 when the building was given to the Church by a prominent Cuenca family to become Cuenca’s first convent--it still houses cloistered nuns. The building is enormous, taking up an entire city block. The museum was closed today so I’ll have to return but as I kept walking I noticed that there are narrow store doors inset along this massive blind wall and I was struck by their poetic and evocative names.

This is “Dulceria El Suspiro”, the literal translation is “The Sigh Sweet Shop”, but I prefer the more evocative, “The Sweet Shop of Sighs”. It makes me think of the young novices yearning for the world outside their walled compound.

On a happier note, this is “El Rumor del Rio”, “The River’s Murmur”, which is poetic enough but what I really like is the tag line--“Libros Viejos y Cosas Maravillosamente Inutiles”, which means “Old Books and Marvelously Useless Things”. I can’t wait to take a look at those marvelously useless things.

April 23, 2010

Funny Face

I was on my way to an appointment when I noticed this striking mural. When I stopped to look I saw that each face is distinctive and fully realized, not just quick caricatures.

Their personalities are so individual that I think they may be portraits of actual children. There are a couple dozen faces and they’re worth a longer look--I’ll have to go back when I’m not pressed for time.

The mural is painted on the wall of the Escuela Fiscal de Ninos Hernan Cordero Crespo, on Gran Colombia, just past Convencion del 45.

I'd like to find out more about it--this is outstanding work.

April 21, 2010

Maria's Alemania Bakery

I met Shelley and Brian for lunch today. I had suggested Maria's Alemania, on Hermano Miguel and Sucre, because I had read on adventureyes.blogspot.com that they had shrimp quiche and light and flaky empanadas. This bakery is known for its bread but they also have a very pleasant patio in the back where you can have lunch. We were there at noon and the sun was directly overhead and brutal so it’s probably better to get there around 1PM when the sun has moved enough so that half of the tables are in the shade.

I had not intended to write about the food so I didn’t take any pictures of it. I did, however, take pictures of the setting because the sun shining on the scallop-textured walls made them glow and they looked gorgeous. Then I thought I might as well mention the food if I’m going to post pictures of the walls!

I had so been looking forward to the quiche. Now that I’ve been here close to two months I feel like I’m going through a bad case of food withdrawal because, living in New York, I can eat a huge range of fantastic cuisine from pretty much any country in the world. As much as I adore Ecuadorean soups (really some of the best soups I’ve ever tasted) I would kill for some authentic Chinese food (dim sum, I miss you terribly!) or a nice cheese plate.

So you can imagine my disappointment when neither the shrimp quiche nor the beef empanadas were available. Brian and I split the lone shrimp empanada that was there and I ordered the lasagna. The empanada was wonderful, light and flaky and lovely. Other empanadas I have eaten in Ecuador have been tasty but the dough dense and heavy. The lasagna, on the other hand, was not as successful. It did not have any ricotta at all and it had peas and carrots--not what I had hoped for. There are enough Italian restaurants in Cuenca that it’s probably a better idea to eat lasagna elsewhere. Brian and Shelley had the beef crepe (a large crepe rolled around a beef filling) and the vegetarian empanada and rated them quite good. Shelley also had a slice of the Hawaiian pizza and thought it was fine but I would guess that this is not the best place for pizza.

We also bought some pastries to take home. I got a slice of a chocolate and nut cake because it looked amazing. I’ve been nibbling at it for the last hour or so and I still can’t make up my mind what I think of it. It is extremely dense--a layer of cookie dough at the bottom, topped with a thick layer of a nut and fruit compote (figs?) and the whole thing is covered with a hard chocolate coating. And yet it is dry and not particularly tempting--the fact that it's been sitting next to me for over an hour and half of it is still there? Not a good sign. I shall continue my search for a scrumptious chocolate pastry.

April 19, 2010

The Local High School

This is the local public high school, which I pass every time I walk to the centro. Colegio Benigno Malo was founded in 1858; however, its present location was built in 1924. It was the first coed high school in Cuenca and it's one of Cuenca’s largest buildings, as well as one of its most beautiful landmarks. Its alumni include several prominent politicians and writers, among them the president of the National Assembly.

It’s located on Fray Solano and Daniel Cordova and attended by close to 2000 students, which is over capacity. It is not in good repair and a couple of years ago its students went on strike demanding improvement in both its physical and academic infrastructure. Imagine, high schoolers demanding a more rigorous education! It does my heart good.

It is a truly grand structure, in spite of the broken panes in many of its windows and the graffiti defacing some of its walls. Like many beautiful buildings in Cuenca, it is a monument to the faded glory of days gone by.

April 16, 2010

Sakura Restaurant

I ran into Jason and Donna on my way to lunch at Sakura, a Japanese/sushi restaurant (2451 3 de Noviembre). They had not eaten at this restaurant so I promised them I’d write about it in the blog--this is for you guys!

It’s hard not to use my past experience eating at Japanese restaurants in New York as a baseline for comparison, because that’s what I know. Given that disclaimer, I thought the atmosphere was pleasing, with elements of authenticity, such as the sushi bar. The greenery and cloth banners hanging by the large window provided soothing decorative touches. We were the only customers at that time and service was excellent. However, I can't say what it would be like when crowded.

The menu is extensive, including sushi and sashimi, as well as other traditional main courses. We ordered the mixed tempura to share as an appetizer and while the coating wasn’t the light and airy texture that I would expect in tempura, it was fine, and not greasy, specially the vegetable pieces which were nice and crisp--the shrimp was a little mushy. We were both in the mood for sushi and both ordered the Light Combo, which included half a sushi roll, two pieces of sushi and one of sashimi for $7. A 12-piece assortment of sushi selected by the chef, is $12. For Ecuador, the prices are on the high end.

Unfortunately unagi (eel), which is my favorite, was not available that day—this was surprising as I think of eel as a Japanese staple. They were also out of a couple of the other choices we had made so we had to scramble to rethink our order. Apparently choices are limited on a daily basis, so it would make sense to ask what’s available before you decide.

Here’s a picture of part of my meal—unfortunately I didn’t remember to take it until I had already eaten the roll! While the sushi I had was tasty, the flavors were not crisp and clear. I found that, because the flavor of the ingredients in each sushi were indistinct, the 3 different sushi items tasted rather similar. The salmon sashimi, on the other hand was fresh, buttery, and delicious.

For dessert, I recommend the homemade green tea ice cream--I love that earthy taste and I was very happy to know that I can find it in Cuenca if a craving should strike. All in all, I can’t say Sakura serves the best sushi in town, as it’s the only sushi restaurant I’ve tried here. I would say that while not the best I’ve ever had, it does adequately satisfy the need for something different.

April 13, 2010

Smart Mouse

I went to take a look at the Cuzco and Otavalo artisan crafts sale that was held yesterday at Plaza El Farol as part of the April 12 celebrations. Nothing really stood out from items sold at any of the markets around town. However, one street seller, who I don’t think was an official vendor, caught my eye and I bought one of these walking mice. I was pleased by the ingenuity of its design and mechanics. It is a piece of packing foam cut and glued into the shape of a mouse, with a set of little cement wheels added. When the string on top of the mouse is pulled it winds up the crank and when the string is released, turns the wheels so it walks on its own.

You can also pull the string and use it as a sort of leash, since the wheels will turn as you pull the mouse by the string. This man had turned inexpensive industrial materials into whimsical artifacts, which he could then sell at a profit (a decent one, I hope). I was impressed.

April 11, 2010

Running for All

I was walking to meet some friends for breakfast this morning and on the way noticed a crowd of runners milling about and apparently waiting for a race to start. I was puzzled to see a real mix of people, anywhere from what looked like serious athletes to middle aged matrons with a few extra pounds, elderly men, stylish young women, and young kids--all dressed in running gear and clearly raring to go.

I took a few shots and then asked this guy what it was all about. He told me it was a 15 km (approx. 9.3 miles) race, organized by Jefferson Perez (an Olympic medal winner from Cuenca) and that it was considered a fairly prestigious event, with runners coming from all over South America and other parts of the world. I figured the serious athletes would probably be running in front but what impressed me was that, from the looks of some of the runners, anyone could participate. It didn’t look to me like they had to meet rigorous criteria to participate and I thought that was just great.

Here are some runners stretching (and a little beefcake).

Once I had walked away I saw this guy coming up the street clearly headed for the race site, skipping along like a little kid, but with big strong strides, as a way to warm up. He looked pretty focused but I have to admit he looked quite comical.

And here are a few runners who appear to belong to a team, an Ecuadorean team I presume, because of the giant Ecuadorean flag-colored hand.

Once I got to the restaurant we saw that the race was being broadcast on TV. I tell you, anyone who runs here has to have some really fit lungs. Between the high altitude and the hilly terrain those lungs will get as serious a workout as anyone could wish.

Here's a shot, taken from Hoy, a local newspaper, of Byron Piedra, a native Cuencano, as he nears the finish line to win the race. He was followed by Patrick Nthiwa, from Kenya and another Ecuadorean, Miguel Almache, in third place. For the women, Alene Amare from Ethiopia took first place, Diana Landy (Ecuador) second, and Julia Rivera (Peru) third.

April 10, 2010

Cheap and Cheerful

There is a crafts sale going on right now, through April 12, at Parque de la Madre at Federico Malo and 12 de Abril. It’s sponsored by the Otorongo Artisans Association and it’s very much like any street fair.

I wasn’t planning to buy anything until I spied these rings. I had seen similar ones at CEMUART and I had wanted to get some but the stall that sells them has been closed every time I've stopped by.

I was so happy to see them for sale at one of the stands here and I bought a bunch, for myself and as gifts. I l have a soft spot for vintage cocktail rings and these oversized rings have a similar exuberant feel to them. Looove them!

April 9, 2010

On a School Day

Today was a beautiful day and I was happy to be feeling OK and out and about. I walked by the park on my way to lunch and heard some marching band music. At first I couldn’t tell where it was coming from because I expected a parade and all I could see was the usual assortment of people walking around. Then I realized that the music was coming from a ragtag band of kids who seemed to be moving in a haphazard forward fashion, not exactly with military precision but playing with great vigor!

I wondered what that anarchy was about and I finally saw what looked like a professor leading them. I thought it was great that they were holding their own private parade in what appeared to be no more of an occasion than a music lesson--that’s the kind of teaching I like. There were too many people around to get a clear shot of them marching, so here they are playing in place.

Then walking a little bit more I noticed a toddler crocodile—little kids holding each others' shirttails on their way from the park back to nursery school. Even the normally very serious policemen were smiling at the sight. And look at that head of hair on the little girl in the green top!

April 8, 2010

Who’s Afraid of the Ponies?

I’ve been laid low by a surprisingly vile stomach virus for the last few days and it hasn’t been fun, not at all. This is was the first time I had doubts about living here, mostly because being sick was the first occasion I had to actually feel how far away I am from a long-established circle of friends and family. I knew that as a single person, without the built-in companionship and support of coupledom, there would be times like these. However, I hadn’t foreseen how being sick would be a particularly troubling one because I tend to be fairly matter-of-fact about being sick. I wasn’t feeling horrible enough to need help but just knowing, that if I did, I could easily call on someone was a mental comfort I really missed having.

I’m on the mend today and looking at shots I had taken of these ponies (used for taking pictures with kids at Parque Calderon) reminded me of how both retro and peculiarly creepy I find them. They remind me of a particular episode of The Twilight Zone (for those who are not familiar with it, it was an American TV horror show from the 1950s). The plot of that episode centered on store mannequins, which would come to life at night. These ponies look to me like they are waiting to do just that. I think I'm still feeling a little light-headed.

April 5, 2010

It's All About the Candy

Easter celebrations were going on in earnest on Friday, when I heard the unmistakable sounds of a marching band. By the time I got my camera and stepped out on the terrace most of the parade had passed. It was a sea of people, most carrying umbrellas because of the very bright sun. The kids horsing around on the street are wearing scout uniforms-- who knows what else I missed?

Fortunately, the leader, whom I couldn’t see at this point, decided to stop and give a speech and I was able to take a shot of some of the members of the wind section, who were looking very dapper.

I walked to the central plaza on Sunday, hoping to see more celebrations but I guess the weekend was winding down and all I got to see were the people streaming in and out of the main cathedral.

There was definitely an air of festivity around and I was told that eating candy after mass is a huge part of the Ecuadorean Easter tradition. All kinds of sweets were on sale right outside the steps of the cathedral, including candy apples. The candied grapes on a stick were an interesting innovation on the theme.

The most popular sweet appeared to be this frothy sugary concoction (it’s some sort of airy brittle meringue thing)--just looking at it made my teeth ache. It would take a stronger woman than me to brave something this scary.

April 3, 2010

Bowling at the Fun Center

A cousin and her family took a brief Easter weekend vacation to visit Cuenca. School starts on Monday so it was the last school vacation treat. The kids wanted to go bowling at the Fun Center (Bowling Club!) at Mall del Rio, so off we went.

Besides bowling lanes the Fun Center has a bunch of video games, which people of all ages seemed to be enjoying.

Here's my young niece bowling for the first time. I’d never bowled before either but I had the highest score! I won’t say what the score was, because it was so pitifully low. It’s possible that the frozen margarita I had while I was playing ($3.50) didn’t help my coordination but it was pretty tasty.

There are only a few lanes so we had to put our name down and come back in an hour but that might have been because this is a big holiday weekend. I've never seen the mall parking so full. The cost to play is $2.99 per person on weekends and $1.99 on weekdays plus 70¢ for shoe rental. It WAS fun, as promised by their name. Such a traditionally American past time--who’d have thought that I’d do it for the first time in Cuenca.