Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ecuador 2010 May June (Part 5 of 5)

Exploratory Trip to Ecuador May 2010 (Time to wrap it up)

Shit man, it's getting close to a month. Where's my replacement passport?

After several emails to the Embassy in Quito, we are told that the passport is on its way to Bahia by private courier. It will be delivered to the DHL office in Bahia. We keep dropping in, and the man keeps telling us that he will call us as soon as he gets it. I'm getting nervous.

World Cup Soccer is in full swing in South Africa. Most of the uncivilized world is watching the games. The DHL office is closed. What? My friend gets tired of waiting but suggests that I hang around alone while the office manager tries to track the clerk down. Long story short, the courier showed up at the same time the clerk did (i.e., just after the game ended) and I did get my passport on this -- the -- day before I plan to leave for Quito.

Back on the bus. a 6 hour drive up the mountains. Grab a taxi at the North Terminal (man this place really creeps me out now). Make it to the hostel. First thing in the morning the next day, I take a cab to the airport. Check my luggage in. Get on the airplane. And, Good F'ing Bye to Ecuador.

Back in Panama City, switch planes again. Will the luggage make it this time? It is too big to take onboard, otherwise -- believe me -- I would have. While waiting for the next flight, read some brochure about Hard Rock Cafe condos for sale. The small print essentially says that they are renting the Hard Rock name for the promotion (scam?). Fly to Houston, no problem. Wait until I get on my flight to Austin. Ah, it's good to be back home. Where's my luggage? It didn't make the switch at Panama. C'mon! I pick it the next day, and we're done.

What have I learned from this? I think there's a "bwana complex" that makes some people search out rustic places. There, one is taller than the locals, richer than the locals, better traveled, "smarter". Think about it: you can buy a double-wide trailer home, park it in a rural camp ground with a septic tank, be nowhere near a hospital, etc. and what's the difference? Okay, you would have clean running water, and no language barrier, and less crime (maybe?). But, essentially, you will be getting what you are paying for, although you would not have that superiority factor.

As for me, I'm now looking for somewhere a bit more like home: Spain in 2011.

Ecuador 2010 May June (Part 4)

Exploratory Trip to Ecuador May 2010 (Still In the Bahia de Caraquez area)

As long as I'm "virtually" waiting for my replacement passport to be printed in Washington D.C., sent by diplomatic pouch to Quito, and then DHLed to Bahia, this would be a good time to fill in a few details that I had not mentioned before.

There is a place on the Pacific coast called The Center Of The World. We didn't go there but as I hear it, there is a sink right on the ecuador, a sink about a yard north of that, and a sink about a yard south of the ecuador. These are used to demonstrate that water goes down the sink without a whirlpool right at the equator, whereas the water turns counterclockwise on the north sink, and clockwise on the south sink. This effect should exist at all points on the ecuator, not just here. BTW, this monument is not really on the equator; a frenchman got it wrong, whereas an ancient Ecuadorian tribe got it right (the real site is nearby).

There are some towns south of Manta that people used to say one must visit: Cuenca, Guayaguil, Vilcabamba (river valley). Word now is that crime, especially petty criimes against foreigners, is rampid in these towns.

I did see a big housing development under construction north of Canoa. Very nice houses.

As I mentioned earlier, there ARE building codes here. This area was devastated by an earthquake a few decades ago. So, the building code that is most adhered to is the one that will keep new houses from falling apart in a quake. New houses are built with lots of rebar, and concrete, cinder blocks, and tile.

One thing that's a bit strange is that the flat roofs (azoteas), have shallow aprons along the sides of the buildings. These give better views of the ocean and the terrain from the rooftop, but could be dangerous after a few margaritas.

In towns, however, there are so many "code violations" it is ridiculous. An overhead pipe drips water to the middle of the sidewalk below. People have been going around the puddle and the drip for years; nobody does anything about it. There are several instances of this. Also, there are several manhole covers missing; somebody said they were stolen to melt and sell the raw metal. You can fall several feet into a manhole if you are not careful; nobody does anything about it.

You can get satelite TV dish service. We never saw TV nor listened to the radio.

Food shopping has one foot in the past and one in the present. We did go to the local produce markets -- odd shaped "organic" carrots, probably healthier than the fertilized ones at the grocery stores. The stores are modern. I found it interesting that some items have no Spanish at all on the labels. Good thing the label has a picture of the product.

These items will improve with time: Internet speeds, very slow; The San Vicente airport, out of commission because it does not have a fire department; pongas and the car ferry, will make way for the bridge linking Bahia and San Vicente.

RE: Medical services. While there, I had my teeth cleaned and whitened by a dentist, saw a chiropractor several times, and bought antibiotics over-the-counter without a prescription. Every medical service/product was very inexpensive and done well. I did not see the hospital in Bahia but I hear it is barely adequate; I did see 2 hospitals in Quito and they were absolutely perfect. In Quito, a Canadian ex-pat told me he had a major operation, which cost very little and turned out fine.

Buzzards(?) hawks(?) fly all day long. No dead fish has a chance to rot on the beach. There are also bats -- they come out at night in search of flying insects. I didn't see the birds as a problem; the bats, though, creep me out.

Everyone has their version of what paradise is. Living in Denver, we would see young couples come from NYC only to return a year later because they missed their friends and relatives. I'm not sure why some people like Ecuador. It was way too primitive for me, but the ex-pats there like it.

More later ...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ecuador 2010 May June (Part 3)

Exploratory Trip to Ecuador May 2010 (In the Bahia de Caraquez area)

"Hey, you made it!" My retired friend introduced me to the family that takes care of the building. Nice folks. They immediately take to calling me Don Ronaldo. My friend shows me his 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo. It IS really nice. The equivalent would cost you twice as much or more in a major city in the U.S. and then there's the coastal factor, for right out the windows and sliding glass doors is the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, there is no smell of fish, the wind blows west-to-east, but it's low humidity and no fishy smell.

Anyway, I was there for a month. We caught up on old times, traded war stories, argued about political affiliations and who looks like they belong in the U.S. and who doesn't. I love it when EuroAmericans say that the indigenous people don't look like they belong in the U.S. WTF? I'll plant a flag on your car and claim it for my god and country; I'll put improvements on it (dingo balls are not an improvement; paving paradise isn't either); then, to protect my interests, I'll keep you from coming near this car. There! Well, we didn't kill each other but 1 month was too long for both of us.

While there, I was introduced to some other retired Americans. These are very smart and very successful retired couples. They are building huge houses right on the beach. Who hasn't dreamt of building their own house? Oh, there are building codes here, but the real advantage is the low price of labor. Now, who are they going to sell these houses to? Beats me. I guess the houses are going to stay in the family, if any child wants to move here(?)

Bahia is a small community. There isn't much crime here, but one family had a tank (water? propane?) stolen from their property while they slept. What is it with Ecuador and crime? It's like "don't take this personally but ...". And, actually, all of Latin America is out of control. Even killing you is not an everlasting sin; they just go to confession and the sin is forgiven. NO! How do you expect me to spend my retirement money here? How do you expect foreign companies to invest here? There are plenty of good people here, but there are also plenty of people here that are going to take what you've got from you. If you resist, you will get hurt.

So, without a passport, I'm not running all over the country. We did fill out a "denuncia"  -- like denouncing the foul deed makes a difference -- and filled out an application for a new passport, complete with new pictures, and took it by bus to the US Embassy in Quito. My friend says he is really scared of the South terminal. Well yeah, you can add the North terminal to that too. It would have been nice to know this before I got here. Passports are printed in Washington DC; it will be shipped to Bahia via DHL. We spend a few days in Quito, where I perfect the Tourist Twist (don't stand in one spot for more than 2 seconds, turn around, zig zag, do figure 8s, just don't stand still!) We visit an Australian hardware store -- bbbbeautiful; AND! there are 3 armed guards downstairs and 3 armed guards upstairs! I feel so much better. While having some beers with some expats from other countries, it turns out that everybody has an "I've been robbed" story. One man says his Ecuadorian wife was complaining about how a relative stole from her. What is this?

My friend is afraid of the bus ride down from the mountains, so we find a cheap flight ($50 each) to Manta. No sooner has the stewardess finish saying to turn off all computers and cell phones than a passenger decides to call his wife. An Ecuadorian military officer on board (in Spanish) tells this jerk that he would like to continue living so (no please) turn your phone off, which the jerk does. Maybe Latin America has problems respecting laws and authority? Or maybe they just don't think about consequences?

The flight to Manta was uneventful as was the hour-and-a-half cab ride to Bahia. Another ponga cheats death (actually there never was even a close call), and we're back at KAOS HQ, okay my friend's condo. Oh, around early 2011, Bahia will have its bridge finished! This is really going to change things.

Can you hear me know? It turns out I didn't have to take my computer. There are internet cafes everywhere, pretty cheap, but they have slightly different keyboards and internet speeds suck although Skype phone calls can be made on the internet. Oh, we ran out of water 4 times in that month and the electricity failed 4 times as well (for a minumum of 1/2 hr each time). Also, ASK THE LOCALS BEFORE YOU GO SWIMMING; there are some undertows that will take you out to sea. Wonderful, just wonderful.

So for now, I'm back in Bahia, waiting for my replacement passport.

More later ...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ecuador 2010 May June (Part 2)

Exploratory Trip to Ecuador May 2010 (Quito to Bahia de Caraquez)

The bus line is called Reina del Camino (Queen of the Road). There are 2 terminals in Quito (North and South). I boarded an Ejecutivo (Executive) bus at noon at the North terminal, just a few minutes after being robbed of my computer and passport. I was allowed on with a copy of my passport and was patted down for weapons (as are all the passengers). There are no "executives" on the bus; there is a person riding "shotgun" next to the driver.

What the hell am I doing here? My retired friend told me "You've got to come and check this out!".

The trip out of Quito requires a stop at the South terminal. There's a lot of opening-and-closing of the luggage door, but I only see stuff coming onboard, not off (whew). A very beautiful, young blond woman boards the bus. She says she's from Czechoslovakia and has been traveling from Argentina by bus. Wow! (why?) She's going all the way to the Pacific and then down to Chile. (okay) Oh, the bus is more than half empty. The fare is really high for locals. I guess that's the executive part. Also, I could have flown to Manta (south of Bahia) ($70) and then taken a cab north for a 1 1/2 hr drive. There are some stories about crime in Manta, as well as on the cab ride north. Pick your poison. I chose the bus.
The trip starts by snaking through the city showing how the population is spread in Quito. BTW, the altitude was not a problem. The exhaust from cars and buses is; it smells bad. Once out of the town, the road snakes its way down to Bahia de Caraquez. This is a very long ride. Lots of vegetation all the way down. Small towns here and there. Cinder block shacks on stilts everywhere. Everything is decorated in poverty and neglect. Corrugated tin panels for roofs, held down with old plastic chairs or rocks. Rebar rods protruding from roofs tell the taxman that these are unfinished buildings and therefore not taxable.

The bathroom on the bus is locked. The guy riding shotgun has to let you in, and he locks it up as soon as you are done. There is no way anyone is going to hijack this bus. He did, however, once open the bus door just a crack to throw out an empty water bottle, which joined the uninterrupted trash that litters both sides of the highway all the way to the coast.

There was one stop midway to the coast for food. The concession sells hot meals as well as snacks. The food is good. And, there are stationary toilets there. BTW, in Ecuador you don't flush toilet paper; after you wipe, you put the dirtied paper in a bin next to the toilet (dang). I'm afraid this is going to make me sound negative (what? I've been nothing but negative) but IF YOU DRINK THE WATER, IT WILL KILL YOU. Drink only bottled water, brush your teeth only with bottled water. Tap water is okay for flushing and for showering.

About six hours later, we arrive in Bahia. My luggage is still here (yea). The Czech lady and I take a ride into town (about 2 miles). The vehicle is a bicycle with a 2-wheeled bench up front, $2 for the trip. Bahia is touted as an eco-friendly city. So someone pedaling a bike-cart makes it eco-friendly, even though all the cars and buses stink to high heaven. We drop the lady off at a hostel she had previously arranged to stay at.

Now to make it across the bay in a ponga (motorized canoe for 20 people) before the sun sets. Sunrises and sunsets are very close to punctual here: 6am and 6pm. Ponga operators don't like to pilot in the dark because they can hit a sand bar and capsize. This has happened and most of the passengers drown, probably because the life jackets are worthless (but required!). The trip costs 30 cents. Oh, Ecuador uses US currency but they also have their own coins. Also, the time in Ecuador is the same as that on the US Eastern coast.

Once we have 20 people, the sandbar lookout (the man at the bow) shoves us off and we're on our way. About 5 minutes later, we're on the north side of the bay in a little town called San Vicente. Here, a motorized tricycle takes you to your final destination. Luckily, that is nearby for me, because the motor on this tricyle smells like it needs a valve job, a new set of rings, and a tuneup. (cough) Someone light up a cigarette so we can get some fresh air here. Also, the automobile windshield held by bungee cords is just pure genius, pure genius. 2 bucks.

I'm finally at my destination. It's just past 6pm and it is getting very dark.

More later ...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ecuador 2010 May June (Part 1)

Exploratory Trip to Ecuador May 2010 (US to Quito)

Going from the US to Ecuador for a 1-month stay does not require a visa. It does require a passport to get in AND OUT.

I bought my airline round-trip ticket (around $700 after taxes) about a month in advance, using an online travel service. The airline was Copa, which is a child of Continental Airlines. There were no problems at all flying there. It was a very long trip with a lot of time wasted in the airports waiting for the next flight. BTW, I used to smoke then and smoking at airports is pretty much a thing of the past. But, when you are a smoker, not smoking for a whole day is sheer hell.

First leg, Austin TX to Houston TX, checked my luggage, no problems. Waited in Houston.
Second leg, Houston TX to Panama City, Panama, didn't have to retrieve my checked in luggage but did have to go through customs because of switching planes, no problems. Waited in Panama City.
Third leg, Panama City Panama to Quito Ecuador. tried to retrieve my luggage, oops it's not here! The luggage missed the plane change and will be in tomorrow. Off to the hostel by taxi ($2).
Hostels are really, really inexpensive -- I mean, $12 a day! Why? Because the average person makes $6 a day. Everyone is broke (poor). BTW, locals have a habit of coming near you; they can be walking down a wide sidewalk and they will gravitate toward you leaning on a wall. Strange.

Next day, another cab ride to the airport ($2) and back ($2). I'm telling you, the people are poor. They are as short on cash as they are in height. Talking to a cabbie (my Spanish was easily understood) I told him I was planning on retiring in Ecuador as some of my friends on the coast had already done. "Don't worry, I'm not here to take you job". "But sir, we need you to start a business and hire us". Huh? I never thought of it that way. What business? A 200 pound bag of rice sells for $28!

Anyway, got my luggage and back to the hostel. BTW, my chicken-shit friend who is retired and living on the Pacific coast didn't travel to Quito to meet me. WTF? The 240 mile bus ride costs $9!

Next day, bought my ticket and waited for the bus. There are a lot of people on the sidewalk. Many are gravitating toward me as they pass by. I feel a tugging at my pant leg. "Hey mister, your money" "Oh, that's not mine", looking at the coins on the ground. I turn to look at my computer and small bag and they are gone! I turn back and the guy is gone. Really, it happens that fast. Before the trip, I had put my data in password-protected Word files and the computer requires a password to sign on (although the disk drive can be accessed in other ways). BUT, my passport was in the small bag (It does require a passport to get in AND OUT). Anyway, I still have my clothes, I didn't get stabbed, and the bus is here, so it's off to Bahía de Caráquez, and a view of the country side.

More later ...