Monthly Archives: October 2014

Cuenca, Ecuador–Polite Is Out

Cuenca is an interesting place to explore, rich in culture and history.  Ryan and I chose to live in the center of the city so that we could walk everywhere we need to go.  We walk to the markets, to the parks and right into hidden restaurants.  In this process, we have learned a few things.  One.  Americans are exceptionally polite.  At the market, we learned to not wait in line because there is no line.  Hanging back patiently only means that you are indecisive.  Walk right up to the vendor at her stand and get to business.  She is ready to help you and will do so when she can.  Two.  Seat yourself in restaurants.  Wait staff is very good at keeping tabs on you.  They do notice that you have come in and have not yet been given a menu, even if you are sitting at a quite table on the roof.

This brings us to lesson three which deals with walking.  People in Cuenca walk in groups and everyone holds hands.  Young couples, families, and school friends all stroll with hands happily clasped.  They stand visiting in groups at intersections and take up entire sidewalks waiting for public transportation.  Navigating these situations can be difficult, frustrating, and even scary.  Ryan and I generally walk in single file, as the sidewalks are narrow.  However, this consideration doesn’t stop an entwined couple from brushing us into the wall, or an entire family from knocking us off the curb into on-coming traffic.

There seems to be no speed limit in the city of Cuenca.  The cobblestone streets, however, help limit the speed of moving vehicles for the most part.  From what we’ve seen, there are more one-way streets than not.  This helps street crossing immensely because you can only be hit from one direction.  There are stop lights at most intersections, at least on one side of the road.  This, we’ve learned, has to do with right-hand turns.  You can, however, cross the street on either side of the road, or anywhere in-between.  As long as there is not an elderly woman squatting nearby next to her boxes of bananas or a couple of kids walking home from school, the sidewalk is yours.  You have the right-of-way.

This of course means that we never have the right-of-way.  Instead, the right-of-way must be negotiated with body language.   Americans may be especially polite, but we are also impatient.  Ryan and I walk much more quickly than the people of Cuenca.  This means that we have to navigate around A LOT of people.  Or should I say, groups of people.  In doing so, I have found that it’s best to make my intensions clear from the beginning.  I look straight ahead at my pocket and I move into it as smoothly as possible, without pausing, even if it requires me to briefly step into the street from time to time.  Focusing on my path also allows others to stay out of my way.

It may be a different story for Ryan, who insists on walking behind me, but he manages to keep up as we slip between that couple, around this toddler and that one, to the left of the banana woman and then, for a moment, the sidewalk is ours.  I pull him up beside me and link my arm through his.  We have achieved smooth navigation and won the right-of-way, however brief it may be.  If not for our blond-hair and light skin, one would think we actually belong here.



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Cuenca, Ecuador–The Cleanse

Since Ryan and I moved to Ecuador, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find food.  This sounds worse than it actually is because it’s fun and easy to go out to eat and the food is fantastic.  But if we don’t want to eat out three meals a day, which seriously decreases our productivity and generally raises our costs, we’ve got  a small problem.  Our apartment doesn’t have an oven or a microwave.  Instead, there are two gas burners.  Snack food does not seem like a big thing here and is very expensive.  Forget canned soup ever existed.  Bakery bread is fabulous but shouldn’t be eaten by itself all day long.  Going into grocery stores, with their endless Spanish labels, makes me feel like an alien.  The meat markets still scare me, with flies buzzing around the swinging slabs of meat and the pig heads.  I could grill chicken but I am not ready to buy a whole chicken and remove the breasts myself.  Eggs and milk are not refrigerated here.  Fresh produce doesn’t last long.  The leafy greens are too cold in our mini fridge and too hot left out on the counter.  Within a day or two they begin to look fairly pathetic and dead regardless of how they’ve been stored.  Lastly, eating only white rice or beans depresses me greatly.

Our solution turned out to be a ten day liquid diet challenge inspired by the documentary “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.”  Although fruits and leafy greens don’t last long, they are very healthy, inexpensive and readily available.  Somehow, Ryan was able to fit a Ninja blender into his only suitcase.  Don’t ask me how he did it but I am very happy that he did, although originally I looked at him and said, “Seriously, if you want to give me crap about bringing a Snuggie, let’s talk about your blender.”  We are currently blending a variety of produce, mostly veggies, and drinking them throughout the day.  This is all we get.  Endless veggies and fruits in liquid form.  We go to the market about every other day and return with bundles of health that ultimately taste like zesty grass.




People who know me will no doubt be shocked by this news, as this is not this farm-girl’s style.  Remember, we are from Wyoming people.  We love our meat and potatoes.  Ryan once went on a bacon-only diet, eating a package of bacon every day for three weeks.  Simply put, without protein, I panic.  But surprisingly, I’m feeling pretty good on this liquid diet.  My energy and cognitive levels are fine.  The drinks fill me up and I’m not having the digestive side-effects that I’d anticipated.  For about $3.10 a day total for both Ryan and I, we are provided all the sustenance that we seem to require.

Fantastic, but for us, this will not be a long-term solution.  I’m already beginning to dream about chicken parmesan and Summer Sausage.  However, this trial has paved the way for what might be a perfect solution during our remaining time here in Ecuador.  The biggest meal of the day in Cuenca is lunch.  Lunchtime is also the best time to eat out, as the choices are endless and the prices are extremely reasonable.  Most restaurants offer an “almuerzo” which is like an ever-changing lunch special.  For $1.50-3, you can get all of the following: a glass of fresh squeezed juice, a soup, an entree often consisting of a meat and rice combination, and a small custard-like dessert.  The portion sizes are small and the food is excellent.  In five days, when we’ve finished our ten day challenge, we are going to go out for one meal a day which will be lunch.  The other meals, we will continue to supplement with the liquid diet of leafy greens and fruits.  A glass of grass.  That being said, I’m not going to lie.  I’m REALLY looking forward to my next almuerzo.


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Cuenca, Ecuador–Small Inexpensive Pleasures


If you visit Mercado 10 de Agosto, which is a two-story market in Cuenca, Ecuador you can purchase five mangos for three dollars.  Then, if you go back the next week and spend a little more time, visit more than one stand, ask how much it costs for five mangos and look very thoughtful when the vendor gives you an answer–like you’re really thinking it over–you can probably get five mangos for two dollars, instead of three.

Regardless of how successful you were at bartering, take comfort in the fact that you have secured your prize.  And what a prize for these are not just any mangos friend.  They are the best mangos in the world!!!  At the very least, they are the best mangos that this fruit junkie has ever tasted.


It is my opinion that a large portion of true happiness is made up small pleasures.  Little things like hot showers and kind smiles really do matter.  Therefore, it is important to not eat the mango too quickly.  The longer you can enjoy it, the happier you’ll be.  Instead, set it on a clean white plate and consider it for a moment.  Appreciate the rich mixture of color.  Anticipate the tender sweetness of the fruit, the juice sticky on your skin.  Lean down and take a whiff.  What a smell!  This fruit is as fragrant as a flower.

Believe it or not, there is a correct way to cut a mango.  These mangos are soft enough that you can cut through them with a butter knife, if need be.  Stand the mango on your cutting board and slice that fruit along either side of the seed.  This will give you two cheeks of fleshy fruit which you can then slice cross-wise if you wish, being careful not to break the skin.  You can then turn the skin inside out to remove the fruit.  I peel back the skin and scrape it with my teeth for good measure.  The part around the seed is more difficult for me because I usually naw around it like a bone.  This step usually requires dental floss immediately following your feast.


So to summarize, eat your fruit, floss your teeth, and sit back in satisfaction knowing that you have discovered another small pleasure and are well on your way to achieving happiness on this new adventure.  You even learned something in the process.  Not bad for something as simple as a mango.




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Cuenca, Ecuador–Garden Café Refuge

As all travelers know, there are different degrees of jet lag.  But when considering jet lag accompanied by that strong strain of cold contracted from the Portland Children’s Museum, it’s a recipe for disaster.  In the least, a certain amount of discomfort can and should be expected.  Discomfort is exactly what my husband and I experienced when traveling from Portland, Oregon to Cuenca, Ecuador earlier this month.

In our specific case, the trip took a grueling 26 hours with several layovers in places like Houston, Texas—days before the CDC was urged to set up an Ebola quarantine station there (yikes!)—and an overnight stay in Quito, Ecuador.  My husband was the mastermind behind this adventure and the research that he did revealed that an overnighter in Quito was very hard to avoid.  So there I was with my congestion headache, my red scaly nose, and my wet TB cough, making constant runs to the rest room—thank God they didn’t detain me in Houston—sleeping on the cold ceramic floor in Quito, Ecuador swaddled in my stowaway Snuggie.  Ryan was horrified that I’d snuck it into my personal item at the last minute, but I tell you what, that Snuggie was my salvation!

It was a miracle that I slept, but I did.  Ryan sat patiently by watching our mountain of luggage, pale, red-eyed, and sniffing quietly every so often while trying to relieve the pressure which had built up in his ears.  It was one of the only times in our four-year relationship that I’ve seen him take Ibuprofen.

Overnighter in Quito Airport

Overnighter in Quito Airport

Morning came and once we checked in with the correct kiosk and my 68 pound bag (Killer Case) was again tagged “HEAVY”, we flew the short distance to our final destination, Cuenca, Ecuador.  Ryan, in all of his cleverness, had managed to secure a ride from the man renting us our apartment.  Juan was waiting at the terminal with a sign that had our name on it and I could have cried with relief.

Once at the apartment complex—Ryan was kind enough to carry Killer Case up the three flights of stairs—I realized that for the second time since our travels had begun, eight hours had passed since this little hobbit had eaten.  And BOOM, just like that, I was famished.  We were now in Emergency Quest Mode.  But where does one go to get a bite in a foreign country when one does not speak a word of Spanish?

The answer turned out to be The Loft Garden Café which was about 100 meters from our apartment.  As we entered the little hole in the wall, the traffic noises faded away and behold, a gorgeous indoor garden, lush with yellow, white, and pink flowers as tall as my waist.  The morning air was crisp and fragrant.  For the first time in 26 hours, my spirits lifted.

The Loft Garden Cafe

The Loft Garden Cafe

We were greeted by an Ecuadorian woman who spoke English and kindly provided menus written in both English and Spanish.  She returned to take our orders and conversed with us about our visit.  It turned out that Monica (along with her friend Marta) is also the proprietor of the establishment.  All of the food is cooked to order and cost an average of four dollars.  They serve breakfast all day and offer lunch as well.

Monica let us know that her lease would soon expire but invited us to come and visit her new location which would not be too far away.  In addition to offering American-style food in two languages and gorgeous ambiance in a cozy courtyard, The Loft provides a book exchange service and is also the home to an international writing group that meets on Wednesdays.

Fueled by this wonderful news, I began to shovel pancakes with fresh sweet berries into my mouth.  Ryan calmly ate his breakfast sandwich and considered my mood.  Had it in fact improved?  Was I no longer a Rage Monster or did I still need to be approached with caution?  I had been fed, yes.  I was much more conversable, true, but I still had to subtly blow my nose into my napkin and excuse myself to visit the restroom more than once.  Yet sitting by that lush garden with a warm cup of mint tea, I decided and vocalized that I was ready to explore this new country, learn a new language, and would be ok with not throwing my toilet tissue into the toilette as I was used to doing.  I now accepted that toilet tissue went into the provided trash can and it was no big deal.  Though relieved, I don’t believe Ryan was entirely convinced of my declaration when we paid our nine dollars and rose to leave.

As we skirted our way around the edge of the flowers, Monica gave us her business card and told us to call her if we had ANY questions about anything.  It was icing on the cake.  Thanks to Monica and The Loft Garden Café, my spirits were completely restored.  We still returned to the apartment immediately after that and slept most of the day, but when we woke up, still sick and still jet-lagged, I took a hot/cold shower because yes! I was ready to go out into the world and explore.  My mission—to find another garden café, as it had been another eight hours since I had last eaten.  I was hungry for more.


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There are all kinds of travelers out there.  Some form traveling communities with people they have just met and migrate from place to place in peaceful loving herds.  They watch each other’s backs and prop each other up.  These are some of the most laid-back people on the planet.  Other travelers wander from place to place carrying a notebook.  They are quizzical and approach strangers without hesitation to pick their brains.  If there is a language barrier involved they will figure out how to get around it.  There are those fashionable or trendy travelers who move to their own music and tend to pull others to them like magnets.   And then there are people who stand back and watch how the world works.  They feel like strangers in new surroundings, strangers even to themselves, and worry a good deal about looking stupid or uncomfortable because that is exactly how they feel.

I would not normally consider myself a timid person.  In a familiar situation, I am just the opposite.  I walk quickly, laugh loudly, and ask a lot of questions.  I am blunt and rarely get embarrassed, stating things like “No thank you, grapes give me gas” without missing a beat.   I make it a point to remember people’s names and will cross a street to help someone who looks like they are lost or confused because I myself hate being lost and confused.  I will walk them to where they need to go.  I will sit right next to them on a coach.  I will ask to try their pasta and then offer them a bite of mine because it is so stinkin delicious.  We will likely correspond for years to come.

But take me out of my comfort zone, like to Ecuador where my husband and I have recently moved, and I shrivel up like a sad little prune.  All of that energy and confidence just disintegrates and I find myself lurching out of people’s way on the sidewalks and murmuring “Lo Siento” in horrible Spanish with flushed cheeks.  In restaurants, my eyes skim the menu like a scared rabbit and that is when I quickly point to a random item written in a language I don’t yet read and mumble “Por favor.”  When the waiter leaves with an amused expression, I hang my head.

It is no secret that traveling can be intimidating.  I myself have never been much of a traveler and I have recently married a wonderful person who has also never been much of a traveler.  One of many major differences between the two of us is that my husband has a passionate desire to travel.  While I’ve always thought that it would be a highly worthwhile experience, I never imagined that I would actually be brave enough to try it.  But behold!  The stars aligned and we had the opportunity to try something new and so we took it.  Who cares that we’re two unemployed, blond-haired, fair-skinned country bumpkins from rural Wyoming.  He said “What do you think?” and I said “You bet.”

We are beginning our journey in Cuenca, Ecuador where the city’s population of 500,000 people is roughly that of the entire state from which we’ve recently sprung.  Ye-haw.  Our plan is to continue traveling through South America for the next two years to visit Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.  As I have mentioned, neither of us can speak Spanish or has much experience traveling.  But Ryan is good at research and I have a travel wig and a willing attitude.  During this time, it is my goal to become a less timid traveler.  Wherever I am, I want to feel like I belong there.  I want to find a way to make a home away from home in any way that I can, for Ryan, but more importantly, for myself.

Wide world.  Here I come.  Hola!


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