And Now for Something Completely Different

We left the Galapagos Islands for the opposite end of the spectrum: Mexico City! A city* of 9 million people, with a metropolitan population of around 22 million, Mexico City is a booming metropolis filled with parks, plazas, museums, shopping malls, world class entertainment and fantastic restaurants. The Mexica people (Aztecs to us) built their capital city of Tenochtitlán in 1325. The city is over 7,000 feet above sea level but was originally built on an island. As a result, it continues to sink at a rate of up to 4 inches per year. Conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s, and renamed Mexico City, it is the oldest capital city in the western hemisphere. After the cultural desert of the Galapagos, we are thrilled to be back in an environment where traditions abound, the climate is temperate and there is  more to do than go to the beach.

México!

We live in Cuajimalpa, the most western “delegation” or borough of Mexico City. Cuajimalpa is situated in the Sierra de las Cruces mountains at an elevation of 8,900 feet. It was a separate rural town until being engulfed by Mexico City’s urban sprawl. As a result, it has a local feel, similar to our home in Cajamarca, Peru, but minus the farm animals. We are not in a fashionable ex-pat district of the city, although there are both McDonalds and Starbucks within a couple of blocks of our house (not that those make it fashionable, just typical). While it takes us about 45 minutes to get into the city, Matt has 3-minute, door-to-door walking commute that can’t be beat in a place where 1 1/2 to 2 hour commutes are not uncommon. A large, Walmart-owned supermarket is around the corner, but the neighborhood also has a Saturday open air market, which are called tianguis here, and there is a permanent market about a mile from our house. There are countless shopping malls throughout the area, with a few nice ones 15-20 minute car rides from our house. With some very minor exceptions (decaf black tea, parchment paper, Shout colorfast sheets), we can find pretty much everything we want or need in the city. What a difference that has been compared to our last two moves!

We learned from our other moves that it is best to get settled in quickly by buying what we need to make our home comfortable. We spent our first two weeks here going to the mall or some big box store almost every day. It wasn’t that we had more than a car-load of things to purchase, but when you don’t own a car, you can only buy what you can carry. One day, in a Home Depot, Matt looked at me and said, “Are we in Wauwatosa or Mexico City?” Apart from the language, it is hard to tell when you are in American stores that look exactly the same. We were lucky to have our shipment from the U.S delivered 2 1/2 weeks after we arrived – it felt like Christmas! We didn’t waste any time and had a chair reupholstered, paintings framed, our apartment painted and our artwork hung. We are having a media console and end table built and have a few more odds and ends on the wish list, but it feels like home.

It hasn’t been all work since we arrived. I joined a book club and knew it would be a good fit when 50% of their titles matched the titles my Milwaukee book club has read. I’ve met nice people through the club and the International Women’s Club. While the drive time from the city makes it rare that we go there on a week night, we head to the city most weekends. Depending on who is counting, Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world, so we have plenty to choose from. In addition to visiting several permanent collections, we have seen a Pablo Picasso – Diego Rivera exhibit and an Andy Warhol one, complete with a reproduction of the Factory’s balloon room. Mexico City is famous for a movement to bring art to the people via enormous murals so those pop up in plenty of places too. But my best museum visit thus far was when our friends, Beth and Chris, were visiting last week because we were going to the U2 show and we ran into Bono at the Soumaya Museum! He was incredibly gracious with his fans and I even shook his hand. What a great brush with fame!

Cosmopolitan Panoramic

While I know that we are in the honeymoon phase with Mexico City, so far all signs point to it being a lasting love affair!

*   Mexico can refer to three political units. First, the country, officially the United States of Mexico. Next, the State of Mexico, which is one of 31 states in the union. Finally, Mexico City, or the District Federal (D.F.), which is separate from the State of Mexico and its own federal political unit, like Washington, D.C. in the U.S. While in 2016 the city’s name was changed from Mexico Distrito Federal of Mexico to Cuidad de Mexico (Mexico City, CDMX), many people still refer to the city as D.F.

No, Moving to a Foreign Country Won’t Help

 

i-voted

During this contentious election cycle, many state-side friends have said that they will move to a foreign country if Trump gets elected. Some of them are sincere when they say it. It won’t help. You can run, but you can’t hide. You will still feel bruised and battered by this unprecedentedly ugly election.

In the past, we could disagree in a civil manner. Our presidential debates were usually snooze fests with mediocre viewership. This year, the election became a reality show, full of insults, tweets, one-liners and misinformation. I shudder to think that any high school debater watched the debates and thought these were appropriate debating techniques. How did we fall so low that the two major candidates for President of the United States traded insults on par with dimwitted elementary students and couldn’t manage to shake hands? And while I think about 92% of the rude comments came from Trump, the times that Clinton stooped to his level made me cringe. Is this really how the American voters want their President to act?

And what about Clinton supporters? Yes, we are appalled that Trump is the Republican candidate and has a good shot at winning this election. But how about keeping our discourse at a proper level? It’s hard, of course, when Trump defrauds millions with his fake university, insults broad classes of people, and speaks of grabbing women by the pussy, but why stoop to his level? Often I read articles bemoaning Trump’s bullying comments only to read the anti-Trump comments that appeared to channel the man himself in crudeness and lack of intellect.

Make no mistake, I am not suggesting keeping quiet or refraining from respectfully disagreeing with those who think differently than you. But as a whole, this election seems to have brought out the most ugly things about America: our resentment, bigotry, callousness, entitlement and crudeness. When you move to a foreign country, you become an unofficial US ambassador. I have had countless conversations with non-Americans asking me what the hell the problem is with our country. It’s a terrible feeling to have to acknowledge that racism, misogyny, and hate seem to be the driving factors for many voters in this election.

When Matt and I became ex-pats, we didn’t do it because we disliked the USA. However, as with most people of privilege, we were ambivalent toward what we had. We took for granted our rights of free press and free speech, our judicial system based on due process and our fair elections. Living in two other countries has been an eye opener. In both, the press is restricted and one cannot criticize the President. We have seen governments that suppress news, including that regarding potential natural disasters, and change constitutions and laws to suit their ends. We witnessed a local election when the frontrunner was imprisoned by the incumbent government with no charges brought. We experienced a government that increased sales tax by 2%, restricted the money one could send abroad without a 5% surcharge paid to the government and placed an additional 3.5% tax on wages to pay for earthquake relief because of inadequate reserves. Until about 4 months ago, we were walking around proud to be Americans. It was as though we finally understood why the USA is the super power it is.

Now I question just how great the USA is. If we have so much as a country, why are many acting so terribly toward one another? What on earth are people afraid of? What do they think they lack? It is profoundly depressing to me to think that as a country we have not moved forward since the civil rights movement of the 60s. It is disturbing to see the distortion of facts and reality in the press, or outlets that currently pass as press. And it is downright horrifying to think that our 200+ year history of peaceful transfers of power may be challenged by a losing candidate.

You can move to a foreign country after the election, but it won’t help. You will still be an American.

 

Adventures in Cooking

I love to cook. Actually, I love to bake because I have a huge sweet tooth, but I enjoy cooking as well.

I told my sister how I was always cooking the same thing here due to fairly limited ingredients – chicken, fish or shrimp with a veggie side dish and the occasional hamburger. When Mick mentioned a chicken and artichoke dish our friend Chris made for her, I was excited because I had seen canned artichokes in the store. Mick passed along along Chris’ recipe that included Chris’ notes on how to improve the recipe: the type of artichokes to buy, additional mushrooms etc. As I made the dish, I thought that my Galapagos recipe notes would look a bit different. Here they are:
1. Take chicken that you had to skin and debone yourself out of the freezer to defrost. Place in microwave so the geckos and microscopic spiders that live in your kitchen don’t taint it. Write a note so you remember you have chicken defrosting in the microwave.
2.  See the note about 5 hours later, place the still-cool chicken in the fridge and pull out the recipe. Note you only have 1 can of artichokes and that you have only seen fresh mushrooms on the island 3 times in 6 months. Take out home-made chicken broth (added benefit of always having to buy bone-in chicken) from freezer to defrost.
3. Walk 3/4 mile to store in search of artichokes and fresh mushrooms. No fresh mushrooms at the store, but you are happy to find a can of artichokes. Snob (pronounced by native Spanish speakers as eh-snōb) brand because it is the only one. Debate over $4.65 can of eh-Snob mushrooms. Pass on it and then go back to get it rationalizing that you ate canned mushrooms on steak until you were about 16 and Mom started buying fresh ones.
4. Walk home 3/4 mile.
5. Start cooking and scream at the gecko you find licking the side of your chicken broth. Chase it around with the dedicated plastic cup and laminated award Matt’s friend gave him for his 2nd place fantasy football win that is now used to catch and “relocate” house geckos. Fail as it executes some incredible last minute leaps and you have been on vacation for a week and your trapping skills have suffered. Kick yourself for not defrosting the broth in the microwave but shrug and wipe down the side of the container.
6. Get out your pyrex from its carrying case. Note that the carrying case now has mold growing on it. Just like your purses, shoes, Matt’s suit jackets and half of the rest of the stuff in your house.
7. Wash the pyrex because even though it had a lid on it and was in its zippered case, what appears to be gecko poop is in it.
8. Turn on oven but look up the damn celsius to fahrenheit conversion that you can never remember.
9. Turn on burner but note that it is flaming oddly. Watch for rogue gecko as singed ones have run out of your burner in the past. No gecko appears. Carry on.
10. Continue cooking, smooshing any microscopic spiders you see because it is a lost cause and you have given up trying to eradicate them.
11. Keep cup and award handy for rogue gecko, but the little shit knows to stay away.
12. Hope that the cake flour, the only type you have been able to find on the island, means you will finally be able to whisk flour into broth without getting lumps. Fail yet again. Blame cake flour.
13. No sherry in town. Find some old white wine in the fridge that was too crappy to drink and kept for cooking. Smell it and add to lumpy sauce.

Enjoy!

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Open For Business!

Yesterday was the grand opening of the Tomás de Berlanga Open Air Library! In a few short months, we managed to build a new dedicated space for the student library, secure amazing donations of new and gently used books, cull hundreds of unsuitable books and label and index the remaining 900 books for the student library.

We went from this:

Conceptualized this:

To this:

The students were patiently awaiting the new library and getting their hands on the newly donated books. Finally, we were ready to open the English section of the library. (I need to finish sorting and labeling the Spanish books, but they are few in number and in even worse shape than the English ones were.)

I started checking out books right after we opened and had a steady stream of patrons the rest of the day. It was amazing! Students were coming during their recess and, I later realized, slipping out of class to come for a book. There was a lot of borrower’s remorse and requests to change books – I think the kids were so overwhelmed with the great new options that they didn’t know where to start. The cool, donated book marks were a big hit and the kids were amazed to find out they could keep them. We also have a lot of education to do about library procedures: starting with checking out books and not just taking them. As we have no computer for the library, the check out system is old school. It took me several nights to fill out a form for each student – they each have 4 names here and it is not always consistent which ones they use.

The best part of the day was when a few 5th graders came to the library during recess. One boy, Matias, picked The Giving Tree to check out and I told him it was one of my favorite books. Other kids chimed in and Matias started reading it at the checkout table. I asked if he wanted to read it aloud and he happily agreed. The other students gathered around and listened (shushing one boy who started reading his book aloud) and we all enjoyed the first story hour at the open air library.

Impromptu Story Hour

Impromptu Story Hour

A big THANK YOU to everyone who helped on this project, including

  • Matt for securing the funding to build the library
  • Corina Gallardo Nelson for designing the library and securing the contractors
  • Donna Daugherty and John Garate for securing the municipal donation of the lava rocks and machinery and man power to spread them
  • Paola Leguísamo and Martin Hoss for encouragement and assistance in getting the construction completed
  • Jo Browne for help with book labeling
  • Jessi Pfeltz for countless hours spent labeling books, making signs, and weeding books
  • Lisa Dell for giving up her prep time (and spare time) to index, label and weed books
  • Amy and Harry Torres for getting the donation ball rolling with a 500 book donation and Amy’s tireless library advice
  • Patty Wanniger, Sarah Wakefield and Maria Schmidt for wonderful library advice and suggestions

WANT TO HELP? WE NEED BOOKS!

  • Bring a book (or books!) on your trip to the Galapagos or send some books with someone you know who is traveling here. This is the least expensive way to get books here. Book guidelines are listed below.
  • Send books for the school from your home country. For US guests, the United States Postal Service is the most economical way to send books. Contact me for more information and the mailing address. If you are able to collect books for us but do not have the funding to ship them, my brother (in Wisconsin) has generously agreed to accept and coordinate book donations as we seek funding sources for shipping. Please contact me for his information.
  • Donate funds to ship books. US donors have collected books for the school, but the school does not have the funds to pay for shipping costs. For example, previous shipments from the United States were sent via USPS and cost $122 for a box of 40 books that weighed about 27 pounds and $80 for a box of 50 books that weighed about 18 pounds. If you want to donate, contact me and I will connect you with someone who has already collected books for us.

Book Guidelines:

  • Please collect new or gently used books that are interesting to children. Remember that English is a second language for our students. The school has an Amazon wish list with some suggested titles, but donors can ask a child what his or her favorite books are or talk to teachers, librarians or booksellers for ideas. While some books are great classics, many books that libraries are discarding are being discarded for a reason: they are dated and no one wants to read them. Library book sales, your own shelves and second hand stores are great places to look, but not every book needs a home in the Galapagos. The wish list can be found at: https://amzn.com/w/2OPJUUA6G2N4D
  • The school is pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and books at all levels would be appreciated. We currently have a special need for picture books (no board books please as their small size makes them difficult in the library) early readers and books at a 1-5 grade reading level. Multiple copies of books are welcome, as they would allow for a class to use them for a reading circle.
  • Books in Spanish are also appreciated. While we want to improve the students’ English proficiency, we also want to encourage a love of reading the their native language.
  • Gently used, please! Dust covers are not necessary, but scribbled in, ripped or grimy books are best discarded.
  • Coloring books, workbooks and sticker books are best for your local charity for a single recipient to enjoy, not for a school library.

For more information about the school, visit its Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/tdberlanga or its website at http://www.scalesia.org/tomas-de-berlanga-school

Happy Two Year (and a Day) Ex-pat Anniversary!

Two years ago yesterday, Matt and I landed in Peru and began our international living adventure.

Last Hurrah!

In the past two years we have:

  • Lived in 2 countries
  • Learned Spanish
  • Trekked to Machu Picchu
  • Acquired a donkey jaw as a musical instrument
  • Ate guinea pig
  • Swum with sharks, manta rays, sea lions and sea turtles

and so much more!

While the there will always be challenges and we miss our stateside family and friends, this adventure has been incredible. We have made new friendships that will stand the test of time and distance and had experiences we will never forget.

You only get one life, so live the life YOU want to live!

Young, wild and free

Young, wild and free

PS. This is my 100th blog post – thanks for reading!

Not as Easy as It Looks on TV

I have been back home on the island for almost two weeks and within days of my arrival had the rest of our shipment unpacked and our apartment feeling more like ours. Happily, the important breakable made it so I could celebrate!

But our visa/living permission journey was beginning yet again. In order to avoid an annual exile to Quito to get new work visas, we are now in the process of applying for professional visas that do not expire. We will still need to renew our Galapagos living permission on an annual basis, but if the renewal is done properly, we should not have to leave the island to do it. As part of the process for the new visa, we need an FBI background check. After some quick research I learned the process is straightforward – download a few forms, get your fingerprints taken, pay a few bucks and you are set. Our friend Ros was heading to the US and could mail the packet for us, so we were on a quest to get it done.

In Peru, we went to Interpol to be fingerprinted for our Peruvian visas. About 2 months after I received my visa, I received a notice from the FBI that stated it was not able to process my prints because they weren’t legible.  Apparently the fingerprinting was more form over substance in Peru as I already had my visa. But if Interpol couldn’t adequately fingerprint me, could I do it myself? I started researching the process – the FBI has a handy pamphlet of tips – and we asked around for places in town that might do it for us.

Armed with our ink pad and the forms, we hit the police station. The guy was confused – why did we want to be fingerprinted? In the end, he said that they didn’t use fingerprints on the island but maybe we could try on the mainland. Not an option. Our next lead was for the government offices: here all citizens, even babies, are fingerprinted for their id cards. We went to one office, waited in line and explained what we needed. Eventually the woman appeared with an ink pad for us to use but no one to help us actually take the fingerprints. Apparently they do digital fingerprints. We explained that we hoped the person who took the digital fingerprints could help us with the paper versions, but no such luck. She sent us to another office and we got the same story.

We were on our own. Matt was confident in his ability to take his own prints. I wasn’t so certain as a main component is to be relaxed throughout the process, not my strong suit. So I decided cocktails would relax me and Ros came over for moral support. We had a system: two practice prints before the final ink, ink up and then a practice ink to reduce the smudge and the real deal. It was stressful.

Ros tried her cat-calming tricks on me – the slow blink, but I think the booze worked better. The rules allow two do-overs, so Matt had to run out to get white stickers to give us another shot at a few messy ones.

Matt did an excellent job with a difficult subject. At the end of the day, I had a new appreciation for law enforcement – who knew taking prints was so hard – and some messy prints that I hope pass FBI muster. It takes 3-4 months for processing, so we won’t know if we failed until it is too late to redo them for our visas. As a backup, we are ordering our state criminal records, but we don’t think they will be adequate. If anyone knows a former law enforcement officer heading to the Galapagos Islands, please send them my way (and I am not kidding).

Out, out, damn spot – it took 2 days of scrubbing and swimming in the ocean for me to get rid of the ink stains!

Latest Adventure: Buying Furniture

Furniture shopping in Milwaukee was a pain due to the endless choices. When we were in the market for something, we could spend multiple days running around to furniture stores and department stores as we looked for the right piece and the best price. Matt and I are extremely decisive and hate shopping, so two weekends was about our limit. Furniture shopping on the Galapagos is the opposite: I ran around for the past month trying to find ANY furniture to buy. On Saturday, we committed to making it happen and finally were (mainly) successful.

Our apartment is a spacious one bedroom with an amazing patio that lends to the airy feel of the place.

It is above the doctor’s office/hyperbaric chamber (the doc who lives on site is our landlord), which is handy for telling people as street names aren’t often used here.

We rented it partially furnished; the main furnishings are included but few household items are. “Furnished” means some  patio furniture, a double bed (we thought it was going to be a king because that is what was in the apartment when we saw it, so I tri-fold the the king sheets we bought; one makes due on an island!), stove, refrigerator and microwave, kitchen table and chairs, and a sofa, wicker chaise and wicker chair. For a month we used action packers as our doorway table. In casual conversations with our landlord, I managed to finagle additional patio furniture and a computer desk (still working on a chair). But the living room furniture was abysmal. Matt referred to the sofa as an airport sofa, but it was actually less comfortable, disconcertingly grimy and unused.

As we have learned, it is best to bite the bullet and buy what we want to make life more comfortable sooner rather than later. We started asking around about furniture shops. “There’s one on Baltra past the bank,” Matt said one night. We headed over. “This?” It was a crowded shop with random items but there was a sofa and table and some dressers. “No, it can’t be this; she said it had a lot of good stuff. It must be closed.” After stalking the street for a few more days, I concluded that dingy shop was the place. I went in and asked if they had additional furniture or whether furniture could be ordered. The woman looked at me like I was crazy. Okay, I guess a furniture shop is anywhere that sells any random piece of furniture.

I continued to run down leads all over town, but never found what we wanted: a sofa, a cabinet for the doorway, some end tables. Or, I might see an okay sofa, but everything is sold as a set, so we couldn’t buy it unless we wanted the settee, two chairs and coffee table too. The coffee tables here are all small and out of proportion to the furniture. And they have glass tops. Matt still has the scar and PTSD from the exploding glass table in our Lima rental, so we were not interested those.

Exploding Table

Exploding Table

We did find one shop that had nice, handmade furniture, but it didn’t have the pieces we needed. We asked the woman whether we could have something specific made (at that time we thought we would have a cabinet made that would double as a doorway table and a bar for our glassware and limited booze supply). She seemed confused and kept pointing us to the items they had – a bookshelf or bedside table. Eventually she said we could bring in a drawing and dimensions, but we got the feeling that at the end of the day we would end up with either a bookshelf or bedside table. Ultimately we found this table at a different store and bought it on the spot.

Action Packer Replacement

Action Packer Replacement

The other option was to go to the “artisanal zone” and have furniture made. We asked questions: where is it, is there a person you recommend, do they have furniture ready to buy? The answers were vague and contradictory: someone would have a name, but we would never get it; someone else said they cater to the tourists but they have some furniture; another person would say the prices are expensive and it takes forever to get something made. We learned that we would need to have something made and then find an upholsterer to make the cushions for it.

Armed with this limited knowledge and the assurance that “any cabbie could take us there” we flagged down a cab late Saturday morning and asked to go to the artisanal area – where the carpenters are. The cabbie seemed to know what we meant and sure enough we headed out of town and turned down the road someone had pointed out to Matt. A few turns later, we stopped. “This guy does good work” our cabbie told us. We were parked on a dirt road in front of a gated lumberyard, complete with a chained, barking dog. What? Where are the shops, the wares, the storefronts? Our cabbie got out with us and called to the woman in the yard who sent out an older man. We chatted, explained that we wanted some furniture and then we all hopped back in the cab to head back to town where we understood the carpenter had a showroom. On the way back we drove through the rest of the “artisan area” – a cluster of probably 15-20 lumberyards and workshops scattered over a several block area, with no finished goods anywhere in sight.

Our cabbie (Angelo) and the carpenter (Rafael) chatted the entire way back to town. Matt and I sat in the back seat, ignored. Wondering what we had gotten ourselves into and sure that Rafael was Angelo’s uncle or other relation, we went with the flow. We ended up a few blocks from our house in front of a nondescript building. Rafael unlocked the gated and let us into the first level of a house where there were some lovely pieces of furniture. A few sofas, bedroom sets, tables etc. Matt and I had already decided on two chairs in addition to a sofa and we liked what Rafael had to offer. Next thing we knew, Angelo was helping us pick out our furniture, asking Rafael about finishes, explaining what we wanted etc. We  crossed a courtyard to the first floor of another house where there were some additional pieces. In the end we chose a sofa, two chairs, a coffee table (still small, but with a made-to-order wood top) and a small end table, which is a concept that does not appear to exist here.

More conversation ensued and we all hopped back into the cab to the upholsterer. We stopped here:

Upholsterer

Upholsterer

Rafael talked to a young guy, a kid really, and then we headed up an unfinished stairway to the work room, mindful of the edge the entire time. Rafael described the cushions we needed and asked what fabrics were available. There were some really hideous ones and a few that could work. To save time we wanted to choose something in stock and not wait for a cargo ship to bring some fabric. Once again, Angelo helped us choose our fabric. Where else does your cabbie pick out fabric with you? We selected one but I told them I didn’t think there was enough for all of the cushions (I’m no seamstress but it was pretty obvious even to me) and eventually the young guy conceded that was the case. More discussion and Angelo inquired whether they had a fabric that would coordinate. Go cabbie Angelo! We found one one from the limited options, placed our order and were assured it will be ready on Wednesday.

On the way to our house, we made arrangements with Angelo to pick us up at 5pm to go pick up the furniture (with the exception of the tables that Rafael needs to make for us). 5 came and went and no Angelo. I called him. ” I’m sorry, I’m busy now.” Okay, on to Plan B.  We walked over to Rafael’s store (thankfully Matt remembered where it is) where he and his wife were waiting. We apologized and explained that Angelo didn’t show up and Rafael says they can call someone for us to move the furniture. We talked more, established what we were taking and what he will make and then awkwardly kept waiting for the financial part of the transaction. Eventually we realized that they were politely waiting for us to do that part, because we had talked with Rafael about prices earlier, so we finally just said “okay, we want to pay do you want to pay here or in the other house” and got the deal done.

Rafael flagged down a cab for us and told the kid that he will be making two trips with our stuff. The kid looked reluctant, but helped load the furniture. Here is Matt taking the first load home.

Matt

Matt

All in all a successful day, even if the furniture looks somewhat like park benches until we get the cushions. Here is hoping they are ready on Wednesday. As an added bonus, our shipment from Peru is supposed to arrive this week, so we can finally get organized and settled.

A World Apart and Yet So Similar

My family spent all of our summer vacations, and many Sundays in-between, at a cottage on Lower Nemahbin Lake. Only about 40 minutes away from our home in Milwaukee, or, when we moved, Watertown, it seemed like the middle of nowhere. Probably because it was the middle of nowhere to my mom, who was a city girl through and through and hated to drive on the freeway. Now it is considered “Lake Country” where professionals live and commute to Milwaukee, but back then it was the boondocks – farm fields, one grocery store in town and the lakes. The cottage added to the boondocks feel: no indoor plumbing save a cold-water kitchen sink added in the 70s, mismatched furniture, tired kitchenware, one “parents” bedroom downstairs and a cobwebby upstairs where we kids fought over the ancient 5 beds. But to me, it was paradise. (Saying Goodbye to My Childhood )

Fast forward 30 years to Puerto Ayora, my and Matt’s new home on Isla Santa Cruz on the Galapagos Islands. This truly is the middle of nowhere – 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador – but as the largest town on the islands, it is a curious combination of isolation and tourism. We have lived here slightly over 2 weeks and it is apparent that nothing prepared me better for life on the Galapagos than those summers at The Lake.

Glorious View from Our Balcony

Glorious View from Our Balcony

I’m sticky. All the time. The temperature hasn’t dropped below 80º or the humidity below 70%. At the moment it is 7:23 am and the temperature is 81.1º with 79% humidity. I sit, as usual, with a fine sheen of sweat and frizzed out hair. We do have a shower but it is an island, so you are supposed to try to conserve water. (Yes, I realize that seems backwards, but while there is plenty of salt water around, there isn’t a lot of fresh water). So I try to shower once a day although sometimes I break down and have to take another one. At The Lake there was no shower. My mom would heat up some water and give herself a sponge bath, but the rest of us would just go jump in the lake. Literally.

The plumbing is a bit…primitive. It looks nice – huge shower, double sink, jacuzzi tub, but the apartment has cold water. To be fair, our landlord asked if we wanted him to hook up the hot water (sun heated, I think, without the aid of solar panels) so we do have some hot water in the shower, but it has a mind of its own and with the heat, I prefer a cold shower anyhow. We were told to turn the water off as we soap up to conserve water and not flood the bathroom. We wash dishes, and everything else, with cold water. You can’t flush toilet paper; it goes in the bin in the bathroom. So the bathroom smells like an outhouse. A bonus of our apartment is that the toilet is in its own little compartment, so at least that is the only room that smells like an outhouse. I realize that years of mouth breathing in the outhouse at The Lake come in handy here as well, especially when I take out the trash.

Indoor Outhouse

Indoor Outhouse

I live in shorts, sandals and swimsuits. For the first time since I was 12, I walked down the road (to the beach) in a swimsuit. A modest one, mind you, shorts and a tummy-covering top, but even so, it felt like being a kid again. At night it doesn’t cool off, so there is no need for jeans or sweatshirts like in Wisconsin, but we are told that will change. I’m not convinced and love wearing casual summer attire all the time.

There are plenty of bugs, inside and out. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, so the windows and doors are always open – day and night. We do have screens, but that doesn’t stop the critters (or dirt) from getting inside. The day we arrived, I noticed that our kitchen counters had tons of microscopic ants and spiders everywhere. I was appalled. I obsessively killed them and bought Raid to assist in the genocide. Now I just smoosh them and keep eating. I store food in plastic bags and sometimes in the microwave because I haven’t seen an ant in there yet. Like The Lake, every night at dusk we are driven inside by the mosquitos. Instead of daddy longlegs, our mosquito eaters here are the geckos. I’ve learned to co-exist with them and they have become a part of our nightly entertainment as we cheer them on while they catch the bugs.

Everything is a bit grimy. The water is non-potable and has a sticky feel. We don’t have a washer or dryer so laundry either goes to the full service laundry (no self serve here) or I hand wash and hang dry. When you pay by the pound, your definitions of clean and hand-washable change. But something about the combination of the detergent I bought and the water leaves the hand wash smelling less than fresh, so I am considering in investing in a washing machine though I worry that the dryer at the laundry may be what is killing whatever is stinking up my wash. I sweep, clean the floors and wipe up the counters constantly, but it is a losing battle against the dirt. I remember at The Lake wiping down the plastic tablecloth covered table after dinner and noticing that it was still sticky. That’s what it feels like wiping down the counters here. And the geckos poop everywhere! It looks like bird poop. I am currently trying to figure out how to clean it off my ceiling without it falling all over me.

Poopy Gecko

Poopy Gecko

We have plenty, but not exactly everything we want. Much to my dad’s annoyance, my mom used to pack two cars to the gills (and I swear at times things were tied to the top) to go to The Lake for 2 weeks even though it was less than an hour from our house. Now I understand. Like my mom, I packed my own things. We have 29 boxes, about half of it kitchen/household wares, in transit from Peru. It has been two months since it left my old home and is currently on a cargo ship. I don’t really expect it to arrive to the island for at least another month, but it will feel like Christmas when it does. Our apartment is partially furnished, so we have the basics but the dishes are mismatched and chipped, the sheets don’t fit the bed and we have one small frying pan and two pots. Unlike my mom, who would never buy anything, I broke down and bought two utensils and some dish towels to tide us over.

Kitchenware

Kitchenware

It is the same with food. We can get plenty to eat, but not the variety we are accustomed to (even less than in Cajamarca). My mom used to bring food from Milwaukee – the brands of pasta and sauce she liked among other things- and turned up her nose at the limited selection at the local grocery store. On the other hand, I embrace going to the Saturday morning market (the earlier you arrive, the lower the prices!) and buying from the farmers, but also look forward to next April when we will be back in the US and can eat lamb or Mexican food or countless other ethnic foods that aren’t available here.

Entertainment is both limited and limitless. There are no movie theaters, concerts, plays, or golf courses. Our internet is sporadic. The town has a minuscule library that I have yet to find open. At The Lake, the black and white TV was only turned on for the late news and Johnny Carson (except when Nixon resigned). Days were spent outside: swimming, canoeing, going for walks, goofing off. At night or on rainy days, we played cards and board games or read a book. So it is here. We have a TV, even cable and a DVD player, but we don’t turn it on often. We can go swimming and snorkeling every single day, there are great walks to take to beaches and in the highlands, and we can stroll though town at night and watch the sharks feed alongside the pier or the sea lions sleep. We play cards and games and just relax. Life is slower here and it is fantastic. Some might find it boring or frustrating, but I find it a return to the best part of my childhood: waking up to the sound of the water on the shore.

Paradise

Paradise

Beautiful Basilica de Voto Nacional

“Are these people nuts?” It seems that I ask this question frequently in South America although not often in a church. I am looking at a rickety, unenclosed, 3 story ladder (unless you count the netting and I do not) that leads to the top of the one of bell towers of the magnificent Basilica de Voto Nacional in Quito. A stiff wind is blowing and as I watch, a septuagenarian makes the very wise decision to turn around and descend the ladder on her rear. There is a line of people waiting to ascend and the look of horror on my face makes it clear that I am not planning the climb. Another lady confesses that she made it three steps and had to turn back. I console myself with the fact that the view from the base of the bell tower is fantastic and causing an international incident by getting stuck on the ladder isn’t really necessary. While I am a wimp when it comes to climbing – actually descending – open staircases, this climb isn’t for the faint of heart. The Basilica sits high atop a hill in the city and the towers are 377 feet high.

Basilica de Voto Nacional

Basilica de Voto Nacional

The funny part is that I didn’t feel that the rest of our climb around the Basilica was particularly safe. On the second story balconies we had to climb across crumbling corners and navigate electrical cords everywhere. Guardrails? Please. Apparently, your faith will protect you from harm! But touring the Basilica was well worth the risk – it is as spectacular as its views. It is patterned after Notre Dame and the Gothic design is fantastic. My favorite part was the native species gargoyles although the brilliant stained glass was a close second. The nave itself is unfinished and a bit cold feeling, but there is a small chapel, La Capilla de Sacramento, that is stunning in its decoration. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Chapel.

Pope John Paul II blessed the Basilica in 1985 and this welcoming entrance was one of my favorite parts of the building.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II