Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Touring Loja, Ecuador in No Time Flat

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Apparently, Loja has not compelled me to sit at the computer, to write about our experiences. Quite honestly, I am slightly underwhelmed, but this could be a déjà vu experience of what happened in Cuenca in 2013. Our choice of accommodations may have left me cold for all other experiences. It was not until 2015 that I really appreciated, in fact, loved Cuenca. No number of years will raise the scale to loving Loja, but it is enjoyable for what it is.

Tuesday, we took the tour bus. At the tourism office, they claimed it would cost $5 per person, the same as in Cuenca. The first departure of the bus is 11am. Ready and eager, we asked the ‘guide’ if we could get off at one spot and catch the

next bus a few hours later. No, sorry! You get on the bus, go the entire route, you get off the bus. End of story. Then it turned out to be $6, not five. How can it be more expensive than Cuenca? Are you kidding me? This is a smaller city. Fine, we paid it.

As it turned out, Ron and I were the only two people on the entire bus. Due to the bus not stopping at other points in the city, there was no chance for anyone to join the tour. The likely reason is that you only get one go around; it is not an all-day ticket. It would be impossible to track people coming and going.

The guide spoke negligible English and stood directly in front of the two of us with a microphone. He could have spoken to us without props, but he must have been following company rules that required the use of the mic. Feeling ridiculous, I occasionally turned to verify no one was secretly occupying other seats. Rather than the microphone aiding in enunciating his speech, it just made it worse. On top on this, he had a habit on recreated verb tenses. Instead of made, he said made-ed and builted. Strangely, he did the same thing with regular and irregular verbs. With each new kink in his speech, it made-ed my mind wander and wonder how he learned English.

After an hour and a half, we were departing ways from our

guide. I with a sense of being distracted more than educated, there was no opportunity to retrace our route with a different guide. That said there were some highlights that were comprehensible. On one corner of the city, they built a castle like structure to pinpoint one of the old cornerstones of a city wall. Across the street is a wonderful mural, but one will observe that none of the people have eyes. As a tribute to his blind father, the artist purposefully composed this art piece this way.

In another area, where the treat was to view one of the best
panoramas of the city, we were also privy to one of the strangest private homes we have seen. It resembles a castle. Thinking it had to be an ex-pat gone wild, like the Dutch couple in Boquete, Panama, I was wrong. This is Ecuadorian built and owned.

Espresso coffee cafés are as rare as hen’s teeth, but from the bus, I spotted what looked like a significant find. We headed
back there once off the bus. It was an excellent find with a proud owner who displays the entire process on one wall. After enjoying an excellent cappuccino, we could continue our exploration.

Discovering the Museo de la Musica, with free admission, why not explore it. Most rooms had multiple photos and displays of various famous Ecuadorian musicians. Quizzically, there were few instruments on display. Not one musician was recognizable by our US education, but there were DVDs available of all of their recordings. Interestingly, there was only one woman in the main display rooms. There was nothing in English.

However, one large room had a wall filled with female musicians of all genres. However, it is telling that this room also happened to be the dining room for the cafeteria. The kitchen adjoins it.

Calle Lourdes is the street famous for stores and doors that are brightly painted. If you have ever seen the Painted Ladies of San Francisco, this is a similar concept.  They are lovely to view from the distance as well as walking down the street. However, the shops themselves have similar trinkets, jewelry, and other money wasting souvenirs that are available just about everywhere else in the city of Loja or anywhere else in Ecuador. As much as I love shopping, by the second store I was bored.

No day in Ecuador would be complete without visiting churches. Of course, this means Catholic churches, but I
honestly do not mind. I find the décor in each highly individualistic and often times creative. There is a repetitive theme here, the Virgin of El Cisne or Virgin of the Swan. This has almost become mythic in proportions.

The town of El Cisne is in the mountains, 70 kilometers from Loja. Apparently, there is a Marian shrine there. Envious of the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, the people of El Cisne wanted their own shrine. The locals commissioned sculptor Don Diego de Robles to create the Virgin de El Cisne statue, which he did using a cedar tree. The story goes that once delivered to El Cisne, there was rain, after a long drought. This was considered a miracle.

Droves of people, by the thousands, begin a three-day pilgrimage ever year on August 17th. They start in El Cisne leading a religious procession to Loja. The six-foot tall cedar statue of the virgin is transported to the Loja cathedral. A major festival begins on September 8. The statue lives in the Loja cathedral November 3 when it is returned to El Cisne.

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Loja Discoveries

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Our first full day in Loja started out with disappointment. When in Cuenca, we sat at a table to have breakfast together each morning. We are not able to do that here, unless one of us sits on the bed to eat. Of course, there is no chance of sleeping in with roosters that start crowing at 3am and the workmen who are installing a new non-essential sunroof arrive at 8am.

Not understanding James’s directions for getting the bus, we got lost instead. After walking a half-mile out of our way, we finally broke down and took a taxi. The good thing about Loja is that taxis are cheaper than in Cuenca. Our very long ride from the shuttle to the apartment yesterday only cost us $2.

Of course, we directed the driver to the central square, which is San Sebastian Square, which of course has San Sebastian

Cathedral sitting on it. In the center of the square is a 96-foot high four sided statue depicting the colonization by the Spanish. In 1548, Field Marshal Alonso de Mercadillo created the town of Loja, naming it after his home: Loja, Spain. It is one of the oldest cities Spanish cities in Ecuador. This is only true if one ignores the fact that those who were
conquered and colonized did not have cities of their own.

At the base of the church, there are additional examples of E. Varga’s work. He is the ceramicist whose studio we visited in Cuenca. He is Ecuador’s most famous ceramic artist. The differing plagues offer depictions of musicians, Ecuadorian cowboys, and other types of culture, reinforcing that Loja is the Music and Cultural Capital of Ecuador.

We walked high and low looking for a café that offers espresso coffee drinks. It took us a multitude of blocks before we were successful. Told that these types of drinks are not popular in the city surprised us.  This is strange, hearing the Loja regions has numerous coffee plantations. 

Finding a small restaurant offering almuerzos, we stopped in for lunch. What we did not pay attention to was the variety on offer. Later, we discovered there were three choices of entrée. When the waiter came to take our order, he asked what we wanted to order. We replied the almuerzo. Then he rattled on rapidly, but pleasantly. Neither of us could comprehend a thing he said. We asked for a repeat twice, but still it was worthless. His words were like rapid-fire artillery. Frustrated, we settled for soup. When we were leaving, we realized there were two choices of soup as well as the three options for entrées. We did leave him a generous tip for his encouraging smiles and agreeable nature.

When Ron found the tourism office, I wandered around next door. There is some fabulous public art there by E. Varga.
Later I joined Ron, looking at brochures, while he waited his term. Interestingly, there was not one thing in any language other than Spanish. This reminded me of the tourism office in Bari, Italy. Nothing was in anything but Italian and no one working spoke English. As it happens, this was a repeat situation. When Ron was finally able to ask his questions, the tourism worker did not speak English. She turned him over to a colleague who was as fluent in English as we are in Swahili. Finally, a third worker appeared to the over joy of the first two workers. They literally clapped their hands when she walked in. She does speak English, so was able to answer most questions. With maps in hand and information overload, Ron felt like his mission was accomplished until we forget most of what we learned and have to return for a refresher course.

Just by luck, we found ourselves at the Museo de la Cultura Lojana. The guard was rather brusque at first; we had to
show our passports or copies, so he could sign us in. After he was satisfied we were not illegal immigrants, he shows us into the first three rooms where a modern art exhibit is on display. Some of the painting were quite fun with offbeat takes on historical paintings or mythology. 

Beyond these, in the center of the gardens a circular display of 12 pieces of art depicted the signs of the zodiac. At first glance, they looked childlike, but after a faithful examination, I realized they were simplistic, but not at all childish. Each was a clever portrayal of the represented sign, each with a girl as the main character.

Upstairs was a hodge-podge assortment of important Lojaians who have achieved something spectacular within the country or the world. As there was nothing in English, it was a brisk survey. Some other rooms held archeological remnants of jugs, jewelry, and other artifacts found in the area. These were delightful to observe.

Coming upon a large Mercado, we scanned the offering for fruits and vegetables. The upper level was most intriguing. There were numerous shoe stores one after the other. Turn and corner to find cubby hole stores that functioned as beauty parlors, most only large enough for one operator. Continue a little more, there are dozens of independent kitchens with women cooking a variety of offerings for those in need of a meal. Interestingly, the food was cheaper here than in Cuenca. Buying two avocados, two large mangoes, and two tomatoes, cost us $2. We were grateful to find a TIA supermarket downtown; we were able to get the matches for lighting the stove, vinegar, and wine that were not available at the Mercado.

Back at the apartment, the construction is still going on and did not end until 6:30pm. Dogs are still barking, and in another couple of hours, some rooster with sleep disorder will be crowing his lungs out.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Ecuador - Cuenca February

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Hola Loja - Or We Came Here for What Reason?

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Karen, our neighbor on the first floor had offered to drive us to the shuttle, so we did not have to worry about getting a taxi. Being early by almost an hour, we sat in the office reading our books.

“Ryan, they are boarding” Ron said to me. I think he momentarily forgot we are not flying. The very new sturdy looking van could accommodate seven passengers comfortably. There were two young women sharing the back row with me, but only one young woman used the middle seat in the center row. Ron chose to sit up front next to the driver. 

We take off and I am trying to read. The roads are fine, but it still feels like we have hit turbulence. The captain never warned us to fasten our seatbelts, but all of us did so out of habit. Eventually, we reached the highway where it was smooth flying. Oh right, we are in a van, but honestly, we were flying.

The route from Cuenca to Loja has more curves than the famous Lombard Street in San Francisco. Our driver, who was older than a youngster and seemed competent, drove as he was trying to make the finals of the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique. I could not see the speedometer or the scenery. All I did see was blur of differing colors. If I had a dollar for every vehicle we passed on a winding road, it would reimburse us for this trip and buy us lunch. Our driver seemed to treat the double yellow lines down the middle of the road as decoration or a suggestion for staying on the lines.

After an hour, we stopped for gas. Climbing out of the van for the men’s room, my real need was to move my stomach back in place. It along with my heart was stuffed in my mouth. What really set me on edge was rounding a severe bend in the road only to find a calf standing in the middle of the highway with its rope dragging behind. The driver slammed on the brakes, which were thankfully, very efficient. No animals of any variety were harmed in the making of this journey.


The two women to my left had the good sense to keep their eyes closed the entire 3 ½ hours. Sitting placidly, eyes opened wide, the woman in the row ahead of me had a rosary going. After the calf incident, she started lighting candles
after pulling her statue of Mary of the Highlands out of her coat. She probably would have started with Gregorian Chants next if she were not fearful of scaring the driver. I tried alternating sleep with reading, with keeping from letting out primal screams. My life passed before my eyes so many times, I was sick of reruns. The return trip may require drugs: sleeping pills, anti-anxiety, or the very least, a bottle of scotch.

When we arrived at ELITE tours in Loja, I was beyond underwhelmed. As soon as we reached what looked like civilization and not highways through the mountains, there was nothing impressive. Standing on the sidewalk trying to hail a taxi, eventually two of them stopped, but when they read the address we needed, they just pulled away. One said something as he drove away, but I could not catch it as he was closing the window at the same time.

Ron went into the office to ask them to call for a taxi for us. Within minutes, a taxi showed up and we were driving, and driving, and driving. As we traveled, I had the impression we were staying in a suburb or even a neighboring town. Ron and I looked at each other with ominous thoughts hanging over our heads. When we reached the street, the driver could not find the house. We had been given intensive directions by the American renting out the apartment, but I assured him it was too lengthy translate to Spanish. His e-mail response was that they were for us. A hell of a lot of good that would do us.

Finally, we made it and met James a rather robust American. As three dogs are jumping all over us making more noise than a nursery school class at recess, we are trying to follow

James. Oblivious to the commotion, he is explaining that he rents these two apartments from Sonia who lives in the house in front. He also ‘manages’ another apartment in a different location. “By the way”, he states “there has been some construction replacing part of the roof. They generally don’t start until 8am. Oh, and the dogs bark. Be careful when you leave, because one dog likes to shit on the welcome mat. If she does, just throw it on the lawn.”

By this point, I was ready to test my survival skills with ELITE Tours and head back to Cuenca. James shows us the shower, proudly stating that they just replaced the head. It is
the type where you risk being electrocuted when you shower. After asking if it was set or needed to be turned on, he demonstrated by turning it on. No water pressure – no hot water. After sighing, saying he did not know how it worked, he walked out. This is a one-room apartment. Bed, kitchen, dresser, TV, and two tables are all in one room. 

When asked about shopping, James suggested a small tienda on the corner a block away. We did stop in there, but they had limited supplies of things that were of interest to us. He also suggested the SuperMaxi “10 minutes” away. There were also multiple restaurants in the same mall for our dinner options.

Twenty minutes of walking later, we asked someone where SuperMaxi was, thinking we had gotten it wrong. We were on the right trail; we just had not walked far enough. The mall, basically a strip mall with a food court in the center, was nothing to rave about. We bypassed the places such as Kentucky Fried Chicken settling on something that looked more Ecuadorian. Though it was edible, it certainly is not worthy of a TripAdvisor review.

Mentally, I have been writing my AirBnB review for this apartment. I cannot forget the roosters that start crowing at 3:30 am. Dogs join the medley at 6am. There is only a
stovetop fueled by propane, but the tank was empty. Water pressure, which is so low, it cannot stimulate the water heater into action and the real kicker: the “coffee maker” looks like a windsock. You have to put the coffee in and pour boiling water over it.

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Cuenca Completo

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We covered a lot of territory during our time in Cuenca. In 48 days, we visited just about every cultural or historical place we could fine open. Some places we revisited, while other places we revisited only to try to find them open, but without success.

Churches

New Cathedral (Catedral de la Immaculada)

Del Sagrario Old Basilica
El Carmen de la Asuncion Church 
Todos Los Santos 

Old Cathedral of Cuenca

Iglesia de Santo Domingo St. Dominic’s

San Blas
Others I cannot even remember

Museums
Michael J. Hamilton Photography Exhibit
El Museo de Las Conceptas
Pumapungo Museo
Pumapungo Museum and Arqueological Park - MCYP
The Ruins of Todos Los Santos 

Mirador de Turi

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno - Twice

Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes

Museo Del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla
Museo de la Medicina
CIDAP Museum - Centro Interamericano de Artesanias y Artes Populares

Galleries and Public Spaces
Artes de la Tierra Galeria
Plaza Civica –
Plaza Abdon Calderon
Casa de las Posadas - Twice
Ceramica Vega
 
What we missed due to their never being open:

Art Cuenca

Casa De los Arcos
Galeria de Arte Contempora neo Ariel Dawi
Prohibido Centro Cultural
Museo de Esqueletologia
Museo de las Artes de Fuego - Tried three times

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cap and ReCap

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This is a recap of our week, but before I re-cap, I thought I had better give a cap first.

Sunday – Ron went to church again. I swear he is obsessive with this tradition. Again, I sat in the park to read and people watch. When he was done, we decided to check out this mall, we have heard so much about called Mall del Rio. Having a bus card makes it easy to hop on and off buses, but sometimes it take extra skill to discover which bus to hop on in the first place.

Mall del Rio is not as impressive as I had expected from the varied reports. If you like variety, the food court is like a restaurant city unto itself. There must be 30 different eating options. Beyond that, there are few stores selling products or services. Based on the food choices, one would thing a clothing store for over-sized people would flourish.  No such store was obvious.

The highlight for me was the pet store, because of the puppies in the window. This sets off a love-hate relationship. I hate seeing puppies cooped up in small display cases, but I love puppies. This little critter refused to awaken even when the

beagle was biting his ear; this made me wonder about the health of the dogs. The one anchor store of the complex is the Coral Hipermarket (sic). This two story mega-commercial outlet has everything from major appliances to sexy lingerie to a full supermarket.

Since we were already here, the Coral Hipermarket was convenient for getting our grocery shopping out of the way. Remembering the problems at SuperMaxi, we divided our groceries into two orders; each was under $15. Ron’s part came to $10.26. They asked for his passport. I was blown away. I said if you want a passport, you had better put all of this food away, because it is in the locker when we were instructed we could not take our bags into the store. Suddenly, our purchases were approved. What insanity. We were not about to apply for a Coral card knowing we would never return.

Monday – We had plans to have Barbara and Bill Wolfe, our past home exchange partners, plus Howard and Mike over for lunch. Originally, we were going to cook chicken breasts, shred them and have a full salad bar with chicken. However, Ron had the bright idea to return to the area where Museo del Artes de Fuego is located and get empanadas for lunch tomorrow. We called Edgar, the owner of Empanadas de las Herrierias and told him we would be there by 3pm to collect nine chicken and nine beef empanadas. Ron thought ahead to bring a large metal pan to bring them home. We were able to take the bus there, but we had to take a taxi home. After we dropped them off, we headed out again to stock up on beers.

Tuesday – Everyone arrived at noon. We sat around drinking beer while the empanadas were warming per Edgar’s instructions. Lunch turned out to be lovely, sociable and entertaining. Unfortunately, all the guests had later afternoon engagements, so by 2:30pm, we were alone.

Wednesday – Our days in Cuenca are running thin. Ron wanted to return to Casa de Las Posadas to see once again the

exhibit of the flowers. As a compromise to me, we stopped at the Jodoco Belgian Brew microbrewery to sample their February selections. They change each month. Across the park is the Museum of Modern Art.  Ron had wanted to revisit it
and surprisingly they had a new collection. This time, most of the work was ceramic, with offbeat designs, some fantasy, and others an artistic take on reality. Regardless, it was refreshing to get another dose of culture before we left the city.

Thursday – Close to airport is the Homero Ortega Panama Hat Museum. This was supposed to be superior to the one on Calle Larga. Ron thought he knew how to get there, but we took the wrong bus or at least took it too far. We took it to the end, thinking we could walk from there. When the bus driver recognized our confusion, he offered assistance in English. He was so kind telling us to stay on the bus so we would not have to pay again. He instructed us to sit close to him so he could tell us where to get off on the return trip. He instructed we would need to walk five blocks after he left us off or take a different bus.

As we were walking, we stopped for an almuerzo (lunch). In Ecuador, almuerzo signs reflect a full meal that is served from 11am to 3pm. We had a berry flavored drink, a lentil-potato soup, followed by beefsteak with gravy, rice, and French fries for $2.50 each.

At the museum, a guide is assigned to guests. Maria Elisa was ours. She was charming and very well informed, not only giving the guided spiel, but answering questions as well. This is a real museum and working factory. Woven in the
countryside, the hats are brought to this facility for bleaching, dying, shaping, ironing, and shipping. It was quite a comprehensive tour and well worth the hassle getting here. Homero Ortega, who founded the company, died in 1998. Though he had multiple children who are all involved in the company, his eldest daughter is currently the president.

We were able to walk to another Super Maxi from the museum to get our last stock of groceries in Cuenca. It did take us 2 buses to get back home again.

Friday – We wanted to do the tour bus one more time. We picked up the noon bus at Parque Calderon, but this time when we reached the summit at Mirador de Turi, we checked
out the E. Varga Ceramic Studio. Varga, considered one of the premier ceramists in Ecuador, created the giant ceramic mural at the University of Cuenca. We discovered he has another large mural in Ohio as well as European countries. His work knows few boundaries as he has pieces large and small, simplistic and highly intricate. Walking through the four rooms of his showroom, our mouths were hanging open most of the time.

Deciding to have lunch on the hill while waiting for the bus to return, we discovered that the restaurant with the most glamorous adverting never opened for the day. We climbed the poorly created steps up the hill to the first level only to find a less than thrilling craft store loaded with junky tokens for the unaware tourist. Alongside it was a ‘café’, which only offered drinks.

Climbing up the hill an additional landing, prompted by a restaurant sign, we only found a heritage photograph display of Cuenca past. Discouraged, we walked the perimeter of the church, but the only options were a fast food truck without seating or a small restaurant that only sold salchipapa. For the uninitiated, this is French fries with a hot dog on top. We ate most of the fries and donated the hot dog to the stray dogs of the area.

Saturday – Finally, today we went to buy our tickets for Loja. We leave Cuenca tomorrow on a shuttle at noon. We will arrive in Loja at 3pm. I am having a little bit of separation anxiety about leaving Cuenca, but we know that there are other adventures and beauty ahead of us.

With tickets in hand, when I scanned through my e-mails on our return ‘home’, we now have home exchanges planned for Belfast, North Ireland just prior to our two week exchange in Dublin. We have a request for one week in Marseilles, France in August and a five-day exchange in Oslo for October. 

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Disaster Before Dinner ~ Flood Before Food

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An apartment equipped with a washing machine and dryer is usually a blessing. However, the washer/dryer combo here is part Australian and whirling dervish. Once it begins the spin cycle, it loses all sense of being and goes on a walkabout.

Yesterday, we did a load of clothes, but by the time it had completed cycling, it had shuffled all the way

across the kitchen to the dishwasher. Appliances in love, is not certain, but what was certain, the path was blocked. As we had to do in the immediate past, I push the machine back where it should be living, by wiggling it back and forth.

Just as I completed the task, I heard a heavy hissing sound.  Peeking behind the contraption, it did not take long to realize water was spouting out of the faucet where it converged with the tubes to the washer. I tried turning off one faucet and then the other, but to no avail. Screaming for Ron, he came and found by holding the faucet tightly, the water would stop temporarily. Within minutes, the kitchen was flooded.

Grabbing our thick and heavy bath towels, I spread them on
the floor to keep it from continuing into the dining room area. With Ron holding the pipe, I went downstairs to see if the young woman was monitoring the front door. She was not there. Then I remembered we had briefly met an American couple who said they lived on the fourth floor. I went up there knocking on doors. Shane answered his and came down with me. He had no idea how to turn the water off within the apartment for the kitchen, but was able to shut off all of the apartment’s water supply from the basement. That worked.

For two hours, we mopped up water with towels after finding the mop to be less than adequate. Hand wringing those towels, which are heavy when dry, were really challenging when soaked with water. I was so nervous about breaking someone else’s equipment I was shaking. From looking at the faucet, I thought they would certainly have to remove tile to get to it.

Not knowing what to do, I called Malena, the property owner from our previous exchange. She promised to try to call a plumber for me, but had doubts about a Saturday house call. Promising to attempt it and then call me back, we left it there. I sat on the sofa and shook with anxiety.  After 30 minutes, Ron decided to see if the front desk person was there yet, we did not realize no one is there on weekends.

Failing this, he knocked on the doors of the first floor, where Karen and Will live. They are Canadians who have been here about three years. They are retired teachers who taught in Egypt and Russia, but moved here sight unseen when they quit working. As fortune would have it, Karen just had a plumber leave about 25 minutes before Ron found them home. She immediately called a friend who in turn would call the plumber back. While they were waiting, Ron and Karen were chitchatting. After Ron mentioned that we had a B & B in Budapest, Karen said, “I think I met you two years ago.”

As soon as Ron mentioned this to me, I had instant recall. We were on the corner at Parque Calderon watching a Christmas parade go by. Karen asked if we lived in Cuenca and we said we were just visiting. They mentioned they had retired here and we chatted some more learning they were Canadians. It is such a small world. We caught the plumber who promised to return 30 minutes later.

About 15 minutes went by when the doorbell rang. It was Malena, her boyfriend John, along with Barbara and Bill the couple with whom we did our first Cuenca home exchange. They all came to see if John or Bill could assist in any manner. In the meantime, Karen popped up and the plumber arrived. Thankfully, Malena translated. He had to run to the hardware store to get a part. Minutes later, he returned and with 15 minutes had the entire thing fixed. Cost $20. I was so grateful, relieved, and blown away by the insignificant amount I tipped him. Malena told me I should not have, but I said I was so thrilled it was something minor, I would have kissed him. 


We had arranged with Mike and Howard to go to dinner at Joe’s Secret Garden. We had heard about this fabulous event that only takes place on Saturday evenings. Joe and Joseph
fill the entire downstairs of their home with tables and chairs seating up to 100 guests. They publish the fixed menu on Mondays and then take reservations until they fill capacity. From what we heard, it is easy to be turned away for lack of room. This was going to be an event we would not want to miss. The plan was to meet Howard and Mike at 5:30 for the cocktail hour. Until the miraculous plumber showed up, our being able to attend was 50-50.
 

Arriving at the house, there are servers waiting at the gate to check guests off the list. They then show guests where the location of their particular table, before showing pointing out the bar and the gardens. All early birds were sipping drinks in the garden. It was here where we found Mike, Howard, Curt, Scott, and Jack.  


When dinner is ready, Joe rings a bell to signal people it is time to take their places at their respective tables. Within minutes, the serving staff has glasses filled with water followed by bowls and bowls of food served family style. 

The chicken fried steak could make a catcher’s mitt pale in comparison in size, but it was moist and tender, not chewy leather. Smothering the steak and the potatoes with the roasted chili gravy was damned on this night. The cornbread arrived as sticks and as wedges. I did not realize that they were both the same, but the sticks were my favorite. Both had pork cracklings in them.heavenly and calories be
Grasshopper Pie
  Those seasoned guests around us made it clear that if we ran out of anything, they would refill the bowls. I only wish I had smuggled in some Tupperware. 

Not my greatest shot, but you get the idea.
Ron and I both had a large beer and then later a large glass of wine. The total bill came to $40 with taxes. Unbelievable!

Only the company made the evening more delightful than the dinner itself.

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Did It, But I Never Want To Do It Again

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Wake me when it is over!
After reading TripAdvisor reviews and listening to Mike and Howard give the Amaru Zoologica rave reviews, in spite of the warnings, we wanted to visit. Karenfromchicago who wrote a review on TA was spot on. We heard it was 'challenging', but nothing prepared us for what we encountered. When you have been a smoker for 40+ years and with only 10 years reprieve, this was more like the Mighty Man challenge.

Here is the story. We are living in Gringolandia, which is away from downtown Cuenca. We took a bus to near Museo Todos Santos beyond the downtown area; from there, we walked down the hill crossing the river to hail a taxi. The driver knew exactly where we needed to go. Expecting to pay upwards of $8 for the taxi, it was $2.80. The bus ride was .50 for two of us. So far so good. Pre-warned that some taxis would let you off at the bottom of the hill off the highway, but if it happened, we should insist we be taken to the top. Otherwise, it is a 600-meter climb.

Our driver knew the drill. He took us directly to the parking lot, the closest place to take a car. However, once you reach
the parking lot, you start the ascent to the ticket office. Ascent means a whole lot of stairs and inclines, which have to be navigated before handing over $4 per person for a ticket. With the ticket, you get a map. What we did not find were respirator or pickaxe rentals. They could really clean up if those were available. 

As others have shared, the zoo built on
the side of a mountain needs careful climbing. Before you leave the ticket area, looking at the vista of the city, you realize this is way higher altitude than expected. Cuenca is 2,560 m (8,400 ft) in altitude. There is a significant gain in altitude just at the ticket office. We will reach great heights still as, the fun has yet to begin.

All of the paths to follow are dirt, rock pebble, old trees, or a combination of all of the above. What you will not find is concrete, but only
natural materials in various forms. Do not even dare to come here if it is raining or slightly moist out. Paths are marred by overgrown tree roots and tree stumps, but there are also tree branches that need to be ducked under or pushed back in order to pass. Old tree branches create handrails and though they are as pliable as overcooked spaghetti, they are significantly comforting giving the impression you will not slip and slide breaking an ankle or foot. Speaking of which, if anyone tried this without good sneakers or hiking boots, serious trouble is predictable.

Good excuse to catch my breath.
I lost count of how many times I was bent over gasping for air. At those moments, I would have settled for any air, even pollution would have been welcomed. I think rock climbing would have been less stressful. The exertion gave new meaning to wearing your heart of your sleeve. I seriously think my heart moved out of position from the efforts involved.

You walk, walk, walk and then climb, climb, climb. Just when you think you are about to touch the clouds, that false
The end is out of reach.
security hits you that still is still another climb around the corner. Thinking we have already climbed over all of the halved tree trunks, some rotting and others missing their mission by covering the path altogether, there we were still more to conquer. Descents downward are illusions of false hope. Each time, I thought, "Great, we are finally descending" around the corner was another staircase to heaven that needed mastering. I swear we passed some saints on the way.


Bless me Mother Nature, I have sinned by smoking, but I quit yet you are still punishing me. Some restful spots are provided here and there, but certainly not enough for older folks who are not in shape. Thankfully, the trails are not inundated with people, so we could stand still, heaving and gasping before moving on again.

We never did see the local bears, alpacas or a number of
other animals that the signs led us to believe they would be. No one home at the forest. What we did find fascinating was the monkey area. There are wire circular cages for monkeys to run rampant around an area in safety. There is an underground tunnel for them to run over to monkey island.
You're kidding me~
In one area, a tiny monkey was running free and was within arm’s length, totally oblivious to our existence or aware, but not giving a rip.


The ticket seller mentioned that it would take us about two and one-half hours to get through the zoo. Taking into consideration false stops to regard the vista when we were really sucking in oxygen or trying to keep our hearts from exploding, or sitting in places where there were real benches, it took us more like 3 3/4
We were watching to see if you would make it.
hours. We did take full advantage of large rocks for resting.


At the end, the ticket office was very pleasant about calling for a taxi and he arrived within 12 minutes. Going back, the traffic was extremely heavy so the fare was $8 with a tip. To be fair, we had him drop us off closer the city center so this added to it. I was so grateful to be sitting in one place. I would have paid
We are now proud members of the 2 1/2 mile high club.
him more.


It was a great experience now that it is over. Been there, done that and now it is wiped clean from my bucket list. My back and muscles will keep the memories going for quite some time hereafter.

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