Dispatch from flight level

August 2011
By Nat Goodale | Oct 08, 2011
Photo by: Not Goodale

Cuenca, Ecuador —  

I have been writing every day about life here and our reactions to it, about the unexpected, about the stunning thrills (driving) and each of our biorhythmic adjustments to this foreign land.  The 80 pages are unabridged and raw, and probably too unpolished to send out as an attachment, so here is an aimed (taking a bead, so to speak) distillation.

Two score and one day ago, at 6:45 a.m. and just after a lunar eclipse, we touched down in Guayaquil with four dogs and 15 bulging bags of luggage, the Boeing 757 chock full of Ecuadorians with just as much baggage.  We are father, mother and three daughters.

It seems like we have been here longer, maybe because we have actually accomplished so much.  You will understand in a moment.

Driving:  We now own two cars – a 2009 four door, four wheel drive Chevy DMax pickup truck, diesel, white and as common here as cows in vacant city lots, and a 1998 Vitara 5 door, four-wheel drive.  We live enough out of town to require two vehicles.  Independence has its price.

I feel comfortable behind the wheel, Anna a little less so, and Lily just getting her bearings and gumption. Imagine driving in Manhattan, but with less predictability.  We share the city with 500,000 Ecuadorians.  Automobiles are expensive here, and are a cherished commodity. Because we are at 9,000 feet and close to the equator, there is no rust. If you take care of the mechanical aspects of your vehicle, it will last a long time.  I have seen a vintage BMW 2002, and tiny Datsun pickup trucks, like dinky toys, are everywhere.

Chaos reigns, or, everyone does just what he or she wants to do.  Stop in the right lane to let someone out, decide at the last minute to turn left and make a U turn, stopping because of oncoming traffic and thereby blocking this left lane, decide that you too want to make the Uey, and snuggle up to the right hand side of the neighbor vehicle, even if you are a huge cab-over Mercedes truck laden with goods bound for Quito.

Because cars are expensive and the per capita income in this country is in the low four figures, the public transportation system is cherry.  The big blue belching black diesel fog buses speed along the wider avenues and wind their way into the narrow cobble stoned streets of colonial downtown, in total command of their space and with little regard for your space.

Size matters here. The buses yield to no one. The trucks come second and the cars and taxis are last.  Don’t even think about the pedestrian.  For a person who got every pedestrian question wrong on the driver’s written test, and this was pointed out to me 41 years ago in Atlanta when the police official scored my test results, this is heaven.  The walking person has no rights here, and this is as it should be, finally!

We are all left to our own devices. The auto is the bull, and the pedestrian is the bull fighter. There is logic here, and don’t you ever, ever violate the system, for if you do, then smashing pile-ups will ensue. Traffic circles are big here, and if you nudge your way into the roundabout, then you have the right of way.  Approach with some speed, because you might dovetail into the flow.  But have your left foot on the brake pedal just in case.  Speed around the circle and confidently spin out with centrifugal force to your spoke of a road, confident that those anxious to enter the circle will in fact stop, because you do have the right of way.

The whole experience is fluid, the cars are speeding, lanes are not respected, hazards are both left and right and apt to conspire to crumple your precious vehicle, and you had better keep your eyes darting side to side.  Be ready for anything, because anything will happen shortly, maybe started two cars over when the taxi swerved to avoid the guy juggling fire.




Ecuador is an alarming country.  House alarms and car alarms go off on a regular basis. Cry wolf anyone?  And what are you supposed to do at three in the morning when the neighbor’s alarm, two houses away, goes off to screams and whoops?  I have not bought my shotgun yet (though plan to soon, it is legal), but I do have several pickax handles leaning on door jambs. Am I supposed to rally to the defense?  Or do I figure that the owner’s dog got up to have a drink out of the toilet bowl and set off the motion detectors? I take the latter approach and roll over and try to get back to sleep.

Every car has an alarm.  We are at a rental house (why will become obvious soon), and the apartment across the shared entrance road has a car that has an alarm that has issues – the alarm goes off about two times a night, in the middle of the night.  I can lean out of bed and part the curtain and see the lights flashing and no one there trying to steal it.  The lights pulsate to the musical sirens that change cadence and themes every several seconds and then blissfully finish the rendition I know so well, assuming that the neighborhood is coming out the doors with bats and guns.  Everyone is actually sleeping though the ordeal.

And every car here is victim to the threat of theft.  Each car has a key fob that requires a set of button punches to light the fire, to ignite the motor. God forbid if you stall on the train tracks and the locomotive is bearing down. I have to hit the number three button five times in a row, then the universal button. Then the system gives a little burp, a chirp like there are little birds in under the hood, twice, and then I can turn the key and start the truck.  It works three out of four times.  When it does not, then you try it all over again.

Our rental car’s trick was the number 2 button twice, then 1 and then 3.

The Vitara, being older, has a hidden secret button under the dash. The alarm goes off and you have four seconds to hit the little bugger.  If you do not, the car stops. You cannot get out the driver’s door when the car is running. The alarm will go off and the car will freeze.  We do not know what will happen if this happens.  We were told just to never let it happen.

I figure the procedures make ever the thieves too busy to steal.

The doors lock automatically.  I have locked the keys in the rental car once and had to call a key master to slide the flat steel down the window and release the lock.  I have locked the keys in the running truck two times. You must think I am stupid. I am not.  It is just so easy to do.  My diesel needs to warm up for ten minutes each morning.  You start it up and get out, go for coffee and the doors lock.  Now I always put down the window so I can reach in.  We have also invested in a second key fob, which I have used it twice to spring the truck.


The rode-hard, put away wet, the dragged through the hedge backwards heavily-laden dump trucks grind and lumber off the block as the light turns green, spewing clouds of black diesel fumes and wobbling on drastically off balance rear tires.  Even some smaller school vans projectile vomit toxic smoke, and it goes without saying that the big blue, grime covered, overly aggressive city buses are the first class abusers of the air.  The local people cover their mouths as the buses go by, waiting for the cumulonimbus swirls of darkness to dissipate in the narrow cobblestoned arroyos called calles here.



Dog eat dog.  Literally.  This is a dog culture and many are well fed and cared for behind the walls and gates.  But there are many strays, too.  And packs, and unfortunate doggies that die, and are the eaten by the others.  This I know because the girls have given me running commentary as I drive down the hills in Misicata.  I refuse to look because I am, after all, driving.  And it is too gross.

Many dogs get killed by cars and trucks and buses.  I figure you don’t want them breeding – the Darwin philosophy.

Ecuador is diversity. There are a number of races here, and a few black Ecuadorians.  I hear that of the half a million people in Cuenca, only two to three thousand are gringos, which stands for people from away, a concept we know well in Maine.  But the diversity comes in the stretch of culture, history,  tradition and time.  You have the people from the campo, the county side, who flock into the trading markets in their rickety trucks crammed full of family and produce from the farm.  The older women are dressed in the full velvet skirts in bright orange or purple or green, and a warm and comfortable sweater or jacket.  She might have a bundle of faggots or freshly cut grasses slung over her shoulder, or she might be carrying her child or grandchild.  These women have strength and stamina and a quiet dignity that runs deep. Their hair is black and twisted in one or two thick braids and is topped by a sharp white panama hat.

At the other end of the spectrum are the modern youth hanging out at the mall, or the well-dressed business men in suit and tie. These dissimilar strains of Ecuadorian blood, the Quechuan, Inca, Spanish, all run like the four rivers that come down from the Andes into this valley of flowers and produce and cows, goats and llamas.

We have super markets and malls and cinemas and Internet and then the local markets with stalls piled high with the spectrum of color that encompasses every vegetable known to man, and then some that I do not recognize. There are sides of beef hanging next to the full pig and the yellow plucked, hanging upside down from their feet, chickens. They do a great chicken here.

We have hospitals. I met a man from Vail, Colo., (here with wife and two young children on a two-year sabbatical) whose father came to visit, but came down ill.  He is a doctor, and his wife is high in the nurse/evaluation business. He was hospitalized for three days with such a low level of oxygen in his blood that it was a miracle he survived, they say.  At the end of three days and two specialists, he was released. It cost them $1,200.  They were both more than impressed by the quality of care, the medical expertise, and the cost.

Our own experience with the medical profession was accomplishing one of the many tasks required to get the girls into school here. They needed a check-up.  I went to the local cooperative (produce, finance and medical clinic) and paid $5 each for the girls to be checked out.  When we join the cooperative ($3/month) we will pay $2 per doctor visit.  Dental care is included in the plan and cleaning will be $2.  A filling will be $2.  These prices do not include a crown ($200).  I just paid $1,000 in Belfast for a crown.

I got a referral for the eye and ear evaluations for the girls.  The eye exam was free and was the most extensive eye check-up I have ever witnessed, including color blindness and two look-into machines.

We walked into a huge medical clinic building and paid $20 for each kid and were seen by the ear doctor.  He ran them through a full hearing test with computer printouts of their evaluations.  I have never had such a thorough exam.  It was expert, cheap and on demand.




Ecuador has a dismal global credit rating: B- but stable.  It is on par with Suriname. Just recently President Correa orchestrated the judiciary to jail for six months and fine for $42 million a reporter and three directors of the main paper in Quito. They had the gall to call the president a dictator and claim that he manufactured a false coup attempt last fall in order to gain sympathy from the poor.  The world is in an uproar about free press and suppression of dissent.

But the government is so far out of people’s lives here that you hardly know they exist.  There seems to be a level of personal, every day freedom here that makes the U.S. seem like a police state.

The local bank pays 7 percent on my savings account, and the Cooperativa pays 10.5 percent for a one-year CD.




It is official.  This country runs on paper and God knows how they keep track, and where they store all the piles of stamped and signed and dated and stapled officialdom. At every legal turn, you must have copies of the original document that you then take upstairs to the notary.  There you wait in line with other second and third class humans like yourself, close to begging at the Alter of Authentication.  An assistant will organize your stack, ask to see the originals, and then you may stand or sit on the dilapidated sofa and watch as the wizard behind the desk, well turned out in business suit and snappy tie, old in years but smooth and blissfully confident in his place as the Cog of the Machine.

He looks over your paperwork, glances up at the throng and with spiritual intuition catches your eye, and you hope all is in order because you have already spent two hours trying to accomplish this next step.  He seems to nod and reaches to his right and grabs the stub handle of a big stamp.  Bang on the ink pad.  Bang at the foot of your first page, then second page.  Stamp down and Bic pen.  The signature starts slowly as if momentum is needed and he does not want to exhaust himself on the first jolt. Concentration is complete, though I wonder if this is not all so automatic that he is thinking about what his wife is buying at fancy stores in the Millennium Mall or how their lovely Peruvian maid is looking in her tight subservient uniform. (All the notaries must really like their handwriting, and if not that, then the classic, patented signature that resembles no known or recognizable pattern of letters).  Then there is a flourish and a swirl and perhaps a dot to finish the job.

I describe the simple process, but I have seen the complex.  It was a she at the Department of Education in the Austudillo Building off the traffic circle on Gran Columbia.  Education documents must be something special, and there is much legalizing of adolescent citizens slotted into the public and private matriculation grades.  She had a stack of 16 pages (I counted), which she laid out on her open desk, front down and overlapping like flat dominos so that half the back page was vulnerable to the stamp.  Nobby end grabbed and ink pad pounded and three quick bops, one, two, three, then back to the ink for fortification and another hop-scotch down the line until all of the two rows of eight pages are official.  But wait, there is more.  She grabs a different stamp, the more modern kind that self-inks and is placed on the virgin parchment and acts like a plunger as she applies swift downward pressure.  Bang, bang, bang along the line.

I wait for this scene to end, because this process belongs to a parent that got to the office before me.  The Education official is not finished.  She then takes hold of the date stamp, you know the kind, that you can rotate to show that it is today and not yesterday or tomorrow.  And it makes a likable jingly sound that is easy on the ears.  Sixteen times.

This official likes her job.  She is amiable and in good spirits as the procedure draws to a close.  The parent, a slender well-dressed young woman with her seven year-old daughter adoring her mother from her lap perch is in good spirits, too (she is almost done).  Senora Official finally takes pen in hand and signs each page, somewhere between the second and third mark,  rich shades of blue that are lighter than Navy but not as flashy as aquamarine.

She sweeps the stack together and taps it on the desk to align the pages and then turns it 90 degrees and aligns it again and then staples it together with a smile.  It is now official (at least to this stage, because there are perhaps steps to come that remain unknown to me at this time).  It is my turn. I have two daughters.

It must be noted that there is a level of pleasantness and acceptance of how officialdom happens in this country.  I have dealt with third world officials before, notably in the British Virgin Islands, where the power is thrust and swaggered and used against you in a hard and unfriendly manner, showing you who is boss, and you better believe it, mister.  Everyone there is in a bad mood and the process is very slow, as if they are inventing it as they go along.

Here in Ecuador everyone is helpful, including all the poor fellow slobs waiting for their turn. They will help guide you to the right window, through the throngs of people waiting in chairs with the little number stub that declares their turn.  Heaven forbid if you wait for 45 minutes in a crowd only to find out your path was the open and empty window over there to the left.  And the lofty officials are friendly and take pity on me because I understand only so much, and I need everything explained in a manner that a six year old would understand.

This is all a lesson in Taoism.  If you go with the flow and bump against the rocks in the stream, jostle around the next bend and accept the pace and unknown and enjoy the feeling of the water and the slant of light along the bank as the sun dapples the shade leaves, then you can smile back at the notary as you pay your two dollars, shake his hand and say good afternoon to you, and safe travels.




And then this perspective: We were once told we needed to clean and cleanse and replace and renew each and every square centimeter of the house, to do ritual and ceremony to replace the spiritual aura of Fausto’s murder and death in the house with our regenerative and fresh energies, to harmonize the dramatic past with the promise of the future, and at the time of the advice I said “ha,” why go to that kind of trouble when all we really have to do is move in?

So God conspires and laughs at my plans, and requires that we do what we were told was necessary.  There will be no shirking of responsibility here, now.  The calling is too important, the mission to severe, though we do not know the ramifications of the future.  We are destined to do this, to be here, to accept the calling and to be ready for the next thing.

This is a good perspective to have, one of the good shepherd, the Taoist priest who accepts the flow of life without the need to understand each twist, but to have faith in the process and enjoy the travels through the swift current, flowing over the sharp rocks and into the swirl of eddy, captured for the moment in suspension, a break in the trip, and then on down the rapids to clearer and calmer waters.

It is almost inhuman to have such peace of mind and clarity of thought while in the midst of the pressures and the disappointments etched in the faces of my loved ones.  But all the while I have the faith that this is the right move, in all respects, for the girls and for the wife.

So we are living with the unexpected and renting a house for the month that our home renovations take place.  It might be hard to imagine how disruptive it is to have your main floor ripped out.  It had settled into a series of waves and the joists needed to be replaced and repaired.  So away went our floor, weeks ago.

This country really tests my optimistic nature.  Each day I start with high hopes and grand expectations.  The carpenters will return and start to replace the floor.  The new door to the guest room will be installed.  The window guy will come and put in my office windows.  The painters will continue their good work.

But then the Vitara needs some brake work so I have to drop it off at the mechanic. The painters are late. I drop by the carpenter’s shop and get assurance that they will come up to the house manana.  I have to laugh.  Momentum is hard to come by, but little by little we are moving forward.  Each day I came away with partial progress.  I am enthusiastic.

I have avoided “gringo pricing.”  You can imagine that we are astonished at the low cost of labor.  The renovations are labor driven, and the formula is the old one, like years ago when labor was half the amount of the materials.  That calculation has reversed in the US, but here the materials are cheap and the cement workers and the painters and the gardeners are cheaper.  They get $20 a day, and that is good money.

I have fallen in with my locally born, raised and educated Cuencan neighbor.  He has steered me along, first to an architect who thought the project and renovations would come in at X, but add on another 15 percent for his supervision.  I looked at the list and wondered how much extra I should pay for convenience and delegating responsibility.  Then I looked at the list of things to do – tear down a half wall here, open up this wall for a new door.  Knock out the cement and cinder block wall in what was the laundry room but will be my office, with the wall that faces east and looks down on the valley and city below, tear out the floor and have the wood re-milled and reinstalled after the joists are better supported etc. This is not rocket surgery and who trusts an architect to not inflate his position and the cost of the work?

My neighbor and I decide to do the general contracting ourselves and I will end up with a construction book of all the best providers of cement and windows and the best local workers who show up on time and work hard till the job is done.  And so far it looks like we will come in at half the cost, and I get the local education for free.  How cool is that?

The weather has gotten a bit warmer and the days sunnier.  The first two weeks were cold and dismal and rainy.  Lily especially was stunned, thinking we were headed for sunny South America.  But it is their winter here, it is 8,000 to 9,000 feet and the weather pattern was abnormally wet.  But the mornings are cold enough for a down jacket and UGGs on the feet.  The locals just jacket up and wait for the sun to warm the day into the low 70s. I think it an ideal place for a McLaughlin wood stove.

We live in Misicata (rental) and the big belching blue buses labor up the hills, twisting and turning, stopping at a hand signal from a local person along the road, or from a “thank you” from a passenger.  In the huge front window a sign says “Banos.”

We live on the indirect, smaller mountainous route to this little town of thermal hot water, gushing up from 3,000 meters into the earth.  There are several ports where the water surfaces, and we have driven this back road to this little dusty town just outside of Cuenca. The terrain is hilly here at the foot of the Cajas National Park, grand mountains that climb to the continental divide and bring to mind both Tibet and Nepal.  As the road turns back on itself you catch glimpses of views across the way to the red tiled roofs of clustered communities, and especially the one we are aiming for – Banos, with its twin spired blue domed church in the center of town.

Cuenca has spread itself out to embrace the surrounding small towns so that the neighborhoods blend together and the towns proper can be identified by their individual Spanish churches. This is a valley of four rivers and a multitude of hills and hillocks, of forest and field, lush green in the afternoon sun, on all quadrants of the compass rose.  The high ground can held by a long time family with cattle in the pasture and 180 degree view of the city below, or by the up- and-coming, the people with money, Ecuadorians from the valley or the ones from away, scooping up the million dollar views and dealing with power and water issues later, sure that as the city grows out the amenities will follow.

We are five weeks into an eight-week project. Our rental house is inexpensive ($400 and room for four dogs) and in a safe neighborhood, but not that attractive.  We are really looking forward to getting back in this house, Casa Esperanza (House of Hope).

We have wheels and we know our way around.  The girls are in a good school.  None of us has been sick.  The transition has its effects on each of us and we have our individual ups and downs.  We have explored some.  Anna took a 2.5 hour hike up the one lane dirt road we live on, up into the mountain, through a small village and up an up  with spectacular views of the city below and hardly a house along the way.

I trust that the charm I feel in this Andean valley will gradually have its effect on the girls.  The scenery is spectacular.  The mountains are our back yard.  The local people are warm and friendly and helpful.  The city is 15 minutes away and 800 feet downhill.  The streets are cobble stone. The spires and domes of the churches rise above the terracotta tile roofs and dot the horizon.

If you appreciated reading this news story and want to support local journalism, consider subscribing today.
Call (207) 594-4401 or join online at knox.villagesoup.com/join.
Donate directly to keeping quality journalism alive at knox.villagesoup.com/donate.
Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.
Note: If you signed up using our new subscriber portal, your username is the email address you registered with and your password is in all caps