Thursday, January 15, 2015

Trip to Ecuador (December 2014 and January 2015)

New Cathedral in Cuenca...
Kristin and I traveled to Ecuador in December 2014 for four weeks. The primary purpose was to learn Spanish intensively. We stayed primarily in Cuenca, but we traveled to other towns and cities over the Christmas and New Year breaks.

Learning Spanish

It is the most effective way to learn any foreign language in its own culture.

Learning Spanish in countries where Spanish is spoken has been on Kristin's bucket list for many years, probably 30 years or so. We chose to do it during this sabbatical leave and in Ecuador and Peru.

Amauta Fundacion
Among many cities in Ecuador, we chose Cuenca because: 1) it is in the Andes, meaning highlands and cool weather, 2) its cost of living is very affordable, 3) its population of a half million is large enough to have most of the amenities but small enough to be "manageable" and 4) it has the first class medical and dental services at the third world price. We traveled ten days in 2013 to explore several cities in Ecuador for this purpose.
With teachers for viejo ano (New Year's Eve)
We studied at Amauta Fundacion in El; Centro, downtown Cuenca. The Spanish learning was intensive with a 4-hour study everyday. Moreover, the verb conjugation was so complex that we were deeply frustrated. But we survived and learned a lot with much emphasis on grammar.

Our teacher was Isabel Tosi, in her 50's, who studied Spanish literature at the university and has been teaching Spanish for many years. Her slow speed of talking and great deal of patience with us helped us a lot. We developed a good friendship and agreed to stay in touch. We were the only students in her class mainly because we started during the holiday season, which is one of the slowest seasons. They organized several programs that were related to Christmas and New Year's Day.

With Isabel Tosi
Over Christmas, we held a gift-exchange program among all students. I found out that I was not the oldest student. There was Jonathan who was a retiree of the U.S. and was living in Cuenca by himself.

Over the New Year's Eve, or Ano Viejo in Spanish, the school organized an event in which people gathered to burn a paper puppet to ridicule any undesirable situation of people. One of the owners of Amauta had inflammation on her elbow and teachers and staff gathered to ridicule and burn a paper puppet that looked like carrying the inflammation. That was a custom in Ecuador of wishing the good-will for people. They jumped over the burning puppet and it was the way to ridicule the puppet that carried the little disease of the co-owner.


In front of the New Cathedral and Parque de Calderon
Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, following Guayaquil, the commercial capital, and Quito, the state capital. Also, it is one of the UNESCO's World Heritages. Cuenca's colonial architecture is just beautiful. Cuenca's representative structure is its new Cathedral. Its blue domes stand out even in a distance and its huge structure matches well with the Parque Calderon in its front. People gather in the parque and merchants flock in the vicinity to attract their clients.
Azuay Governor's Office and colonial buildings

The city has four rivers that look like streams during the dry season but swell high during the rainy season. Isabel told us that during the rainy season people can hardly survive the deep current if they fall. Along the rivers, jogging and walking trails have developed and their beauty and serenity have naturally attracted developed to build residences along the rivers.

Parque de Calderon in front of New Cathedral
We enjoyed sea food with rice, or Arroz con mariscos, a lot. It was our favorite food. But we also enjoyed other foods, such as ceviches, almuerzos, chicken dishes and shrimp dishes. The foods were delicious, but their prices were even better.

While we were in Cuenca, we intended to live with a host family. The idea was to learn the family culture and practice Spanish more. But our host family consisted of a single mom with two children. They wanted to practice their English more and their English was far better than our Spanish. Naturally, we rarely had opportunities to interact most of the days during the week. Moreover, the bed was too small for two of us to sleep comfortably. So we ended up changing out lodging to a hostal or a guest house. It ended up costing us a little more than the original budget, but it was worthwhile.
Hostal Emilia where we stayed for 9 nights

Cuencanos hold a parade, called Paseos de Ninos (Passage of Children) on Christmas Eve. We learned that it is the largest in Ecuador, if not in the entire South America. Unfortunately on this past Christmas Eve, there was a rain, but all participants did not care. Fortunately, the rain stopped soon after the parade began, I heard. We did not see the parade because we traveled down to Vilcabamba over the Christmas break for three nights.


Vilcabamba is located approximately 250 km south of Cuenca and 45-minute from the capital of the province, namely Loja. It has a population of only 5,000, but it has attracted people's attention for quite some time. It is because of its beauty surrounding the town and the fact that the town has many people of longevity. Many people live beyond 100 years of age. No wonder that Vilcabamba is called "Town of Longevity."
With Greg and his wife

We traveled to Vilcabamba over the Christmas break in a small SUV for four hours through winding and curly roads crossing over the Andes mountains. There were several "close-moments" based on my standards. But the driver did not care. We were relieved when we arrived at Madre Tierra or Mother Earth, a high-end guest house. It had a sub-title of Spa and Resort, but it was not what it implied. It was rustic although the setting and surrounding were beautiful! We felt so relaxed and well-pampered there.

The place was managed by a couple who moved from Washing state in the U.S. They must be in their 50's and said that they moved to Vilcabamba three years ago. They intend to live there for a long term as part of their mission work.

They had one teen-aged daughter and she was educated through home schooling. Her mom was grateful that she was disciplined enough to follow the curriculum without failure.
From the swimming pool

We drove around the town and there were several mansions or big houses that are owned by foreign expatriates. Some retirees settle there for various reasons, but primarily for a relaxed, healthy and simple life style. It was too "boring" for us, but we thoroughly enjoyed our 3-night stay.

I have not been to Shangrila, but I was suspecting that it would look like Vilcabamba. Vilcabamba was that much beautiful.


At a local street market
For the New Year's break, we chose to travel to Salinas, the most popular coastal destination to a lot of people from Guayaquil and other cities. It reminded me of Miami, of course in a lot smaller scale. It had many high-rise condominium buildings along the boardwalk or Malecon and the entire town, let alone the beach, was packed with people. We stayed at a hotel approximately 15 minutes away from the beach, but the entire city went crazy on the New Year's Eve with fireworks exploding everywhere the whole night. Even the New Year's Day suffered from explosive noises. I suppose it is the custom of the city and the country and there is nothing we could do about it. It was hot and muggy, and we felt that our decision was not so smart this time.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time over there with foods, walking and looking around.

On return, we bumped into this llama family on the road
Traveling to Salinas was not as seamless as the trip to Vilcabamba. We had to travel first to Guayaquil via a mini-van that was a bullet vehicle with several scary moments. From there, we had to take a taxi to Salinas. We initially planned to take a bus, but the ticket line was far too long to wait. It set us back $60 but it was worthwhile.

Paper puppets to be burned on New Year's Eve
On return, we took a taxi to the bus terminal and took a bus to Guayaquil. It cost us only $3.30 for the 2-hour bus ride but the bust was air-conditioned and very comfortable. So, we planned to take a bus from Guayaquil to Cuenca as well. But again, the waiting line was far too long so we ended up taking a mini-van. Fortunately, this time the mini-van driver was not as wild as the previous mini-van driver. Nonetheless, the vehicle had a mal-functioning windshield defroster while the roads were foggy for at least half of the trip. I was sitting next to the driver and felt just uncomfortable with fuzzy front view. Thanks to God's grace, we came back to Cuenca in one pieces.

A street scene of the New Year's Eve burning
This and That

We had a reunion with Dave and Kristy who were also on the 10-day Ecuador Crash Course that we were on in 2013. They had moved to Ecuador soon after the trip in 2013 and have since been living in Cuenca. It was a great joy to see them again. They shared their experiences of relocating to Ecuador and using medical services.

We also met Frank and Angie who moved from the U.S. to Cuenca four years ago and have since been writing countless number of blogs and even books for "do in yourself" to relocate to Cuenca, Quito and Costal cities. They have emphasized on "going local" for the expatriates and our get-together over lunch was a joyful one.

I met with Pastor Bolivar and later his wife Ximena. Both are Ecuadorians and have been missionaries to Guatemala and El Salvador. Now they provide marriage counseling services for Cuencano couples and share the gospel. They also run a church where believers gather to worship God and also a day-care center for children of the couples who come for counseling and worship. Our meeting was fruitful and we would stay in touch. Missionary Youngmin Lee, who was a missionary to Ecuador for many years and was in Korea to take care of his ill wife at the time of our stay, introduced me to Bolivar.
With Bolivar and Xemina

On the way to Lima, Peru, we had to travel via Quito. At the Quito Airport, we had a short but sweet reunion with Sarah, who organized the 10-day Ecuador Crash Course. She is a nurse and volunteered in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer. She has since married a Ecuadorean military officer and has been living in Quito for a few decades. It was a great joy to see her in action again. She is such as pleasant woman always with an upbeat spirit.
With Sarah at Quito Airport

We also purchased my allergy pills and Kristin's blood pressure pills in Cuenca. The products were reliable but the price was much lower than in the U.S. We also used dental services in Cuenca for cleaning and some repair works. The dentist, Cristina Tosi, Isabel's niece, was very pleasant and detailed in her service. She was running a dental office by herself. Again, the service was good and the price we paid was much lower than we would have paid in the U.S. for the same service.

While we were in Cuenca for four weeks, we attended three churches: Centro Cristo de Cuenca, The Gathering and International Christian Community. They all offered unique services, but we were grateful that we were able to worship to God with His people in Ecuador.
With the pastor David at International Christian Community

I met with a lawyer, Rodrigo and his associate Maria, to inquire about the requirements for the resident visa. The meeting was fruitful.

On the last day in Cuenca, we drove around the city and its neighboring towns, such as Paute, Challuabamba, Valle de Rios. We liked Valle de Rios very much, which had a housing developing along the river.

Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our 4-week stay in Cuenca with a lot accomplished during this time period.

We thank God for His grace in allowing us for this trip. Praise the Lord! - Amen.

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