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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

[Recipe] Stuffed Bell Peppers

[Recipe] Stuffed Bell Peppers
Recipe type: Main Dish
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
This is a quick and easy one-pot meal that has become a favorite of guests. It also makes excellent left-overs. Just spread a little tomato sauce over top and toss in microwave, for delicious meals on following days.
  • 4 ea green peppers -- In salted boiling water for 5 minutes
  • 1.5 lb ground beef
  • 1 cup rice -- cook normally
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • dash pepper
  • 1.5 tsp Worchester sauce
  • 3 tbsp chopped onion
  • 3 ea egg
  • 16 oz tomato sauce
  • dash cayenne pepper -- big dash -- twice as much as pepper
  • 16 oz stewed tomato
  1. Cut tops off green peppers and precook in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Drain.
  2. Combine ground beef, rice, salt, pepper, Worcester sauce, onion, eggs and stewed tomatoes.
  3. Stuff peppers. Pour ½ tomato sauce over top.
  4. Cover and bake at 350º for 45-50 minutes. Baste with remaining tomato sauce halfway through.


Independence Day, Cuenca 2015

Today is officially Independence Day in Cuenca, Ecuador, though the celebration has gone on for four days already.  See our earlier post here and here for the start of the weekend.  We started the day by taking the bus to Parque Paraiso, the largest public park in Cuenca, and one that we hesitate to admit we have not visited in all our time here.  We had heard about a "parade of the giant mannequins," but never saw any sign of such.  Instead, we saw the typical Cuenca park, filled with families having a good time and having fun together.  There was a kid's racetrack, where they could peddle around the loop, or (more commonly) the younger ones were pushed by their parents.  There is also a lake with paddle-boats, but surprisingly, the boats were locked up today.

Of course, what is an Independence Day celebration without street food?  There were plenty of vendors for candied apples, papas fritas (freshly fried potato chips), watermelon, cuy (known as guinea pigs in the States), chickens, and our choice for the day -- BBQ pork (they BBQ the entire pig, and you can choose which part of the remaining pig you want).

After leaving the park, we went to the Metallurgy street ("avenue of blacksmiths") in Cuenca and wandered through their displays. To our surprise, we saw and fell in love with a bicycle converted into a plant stand and bought it for our apartment (upper left and lower right above).  A clever use of recycled materials (the theme of the exhibit) for $50.  How could we refuse?

As we carried our new bicycle planter treasure back, we were surprised there were no taxis to help us with the load.  We carried it a couple blocks, then noticed a hundred or more people lining the streets.  We asked one couple that came up with chairs to wait, and they said Correa (the president of Ecuador) was coming.  We knew he would be in town today, so apparently he was coming here. We sat and waited.

After about half an hour, police on motorcycles came racing down the streets, clearing it of pedestrians (cars had been blocked a long time earlier).  Shortly after that, kids on go-karts came racing down the street.  Seems we had stumbled upon an Independence Day Go Kart race!  I had seen one of these before, where they send off teams 3 or 4 at a time, and that was what we saw today.

After about half the kids had passed us, ten adult men dressed in drag came dancing down the street!  No signs or other indication of reason, but I am guessing they were Cuenca's version of Gay Pride parade (lower left image above).  Most people ignored them, other than to glance and then look to the next karts.  As soon as they passed, the rest of the kids came by. One very young boy had trouble, and the drag queens joined in to give him a push to get him back in the race.

Such is another day in this paradise called Cuenca.  We never did see Correa though...

Day of Remembrance

Cuenca Independence Day weekend celebration continued today. There was a children's puppet show at the base of the Escalinita steps next to CIDAP, and there were much more arts and crafts being displayed on closed city streets and plazas throughout the neighborhoods compared to prior years. We also attended a party for Día de los Disfuntos ("Day Of The Deceased") party (center image above), where we each received a guagua de pan, a traditional Ecuadorian bread served at this time of year, which appears as a swaddled baby, and represents those infants who have died.

We then crossed the street to the Cemeterio Municipal, the largest cemetery in Cuenca.  Families come on both Nov 1 and 2 to honor their deceased, and to care for their graves.  As in much of Latin America, many graves are of a "condominium style" and are only rented for as long as the family continues to pay the rent for the space. A few wealthier families are buried in full ground graves, while the very wealthiest families have entire crypts.

Send In the Clowns

Halloween is not a big holiday in Cuenca. However, with more expats moving in and their kids grown up, the adults have gotten into the spirit of Halloween celebrations. This year, there were several Halloween parties held at local restaurants, as well as some private parties with people in costume. Evelyn went out earlier this week, and ended going to one of the party stores to find hair and make up. The selections were quite limited, unless you made your own outfit, so we went out as clowns. The kids were shyly waving at Evelyn (center image above) on the public bus, as they weren't expecting to see a clown on their bus.

Today also marks the start of a four-day celebration of Cuenca Independence. There will be more than 20 streets in Centro Cuenca (the old historic district, where we live) closed to cars for the next four days.  Many of those streets are devoted to showing and selling crafts, such as these above.

Many of the craft sellers were more interesting than the crafts themselves.

Art Expo Plus Outdoor Symphony

Saturday will officially kick off the Cuenca Independence celebrations. There are over 300 different events planned in town between now and Tuesday, the majority of which are free.  Cuenca expects 100,000 visitors to come to town over the weekend, and this is in a city with a population of only 450,000, so things will almost certainly become rather crowded for a few days.

Some events get an early start on the festivities. One example was a private art exhibit tonight at Casa Asvoria, Plaza Otorongo, a 15 minute walk from our apartment.  I happened to run into Eduardo Segovia yesterday, a world-famous ceramicist. He told me that he was showing off some of his art tonight, so we had to go. When we arrived, and looked around, I discovered he meant some of his collection of art, rather than new art he had created. That was added to by the collection of Karen Kennedy, whose husband Boris Ordoñez was also exhibiting. We had seen a few of these pieces before, at Segovia's home, but it was an impressive collection of 19 renown Latin American artists shown together in a pleasant temporary gallery.

The gallery is also where I take Spanish language classes, which is how I happened to run into Segovia yesterday. Our Spanish professor was also there, and was surprised when she discovered that Evelyn and I were married. We have both taken classes from her, but never together.  It was interesting holding the entire conversation with her in Spanish.  Talking about it later, we realized just how good she is at putting conversation at the level of the person she is talking to, and putting them at ease.  I always leave Ana thinking I can really speak Spanish... and then realizing that is only true when speaking to someone willing and able to keep the conversation at my 3 year-old level...

We could only stay a short time at the art reception, because the Cuenca Symphony had another free concert tonight too.  For the first time since we have been here, it was an outdoor venue, at Parque de la Madre -- also about a 10 minute walk from our apartment.  The Cuenca Symphony concerts are all different, frequently including music I have never heard before.  The symphony is also often whimsical at times, and tonight was a guest conductor, Patricio Alomoto.

About half way into the concert tonight, the conductor started speaking to the audience (in Spanish, of course).  I only picked up part of what he said, but he appeared to be talking about a "tourist musician who be joining us tonight."  A man then entered stage-right, looking confused.  One of the violinists approached and gave him a rubber apron.  He gestured to the crowd that he didn't know why he needed it, then put it on.  Another violinist then got up and handed him two hammers.  After more comedy of gestures, the man walked over to a tree stump and tapped the hammers on an anvil that was sitting on it.  At that point, the symphony went into their next piece, while this "visiting musician" played the anvil with his hammers with them (man on left in center photo above).  Typical Cuenca Symphony humor.

Symphony performances here often also include either a famed soloist, or a famed singer.  Tonight Linda Alvarado joined the symphony to sing with the last several pieces.  She was obviously well known and loved by the audience, who joined in singing on one piece (that I had never heard before), and clapping at her encouragement on another (photo lower right above).

Random Walk After Two Years, Part 2

Now that we have been in Cuenca for two years, we are going on a Random Walk of thoughts about living here.  Part 1 of this walk was posted yesterday.  We'll open today with a collection of mosaics on walls around Cuenca, shown above.

Perhaps one of the largest changes for us in coming to Cuenca is our social calendar.  I rarely mention this in our blog, because I don't want to put guests on the spot, and doubt you are interested in who was over for dinner last night.  In California though, we would have guests over for dinner maybe 3 or 4 times per year.  Last week, we were with guests 5 times in 4 days (one lunch and four dinners) within a single week.  Though that was a particularly busy week, we have had guests over 97 times in the two years we have been here (yep, I keep a list, with what we serve, so we don't cook the same meal if they come multiple times ).

I had expected to get more involved with volunteer activities once I retired. We have done some, but so far only photographically, providing publicity photos for the Alliance Francais Music Festival, CinterAndes, Madre Tierra Festival, and the Cuenca Art Walk.  We have recently agreed to start working with a local orphanage as a guest chef, and we will see how that goes.

Which brings up the next big change.  I started cooking in 2002, when Pauline (Evelyn's sister) jokingly gave me The Four Ingredient Cookbook. After Evelyn had done all the cooking for 30 years, it seemed fair for me to start that chore.  Though I found I was reasonably good at cooking, it was just that -- a chore.  Now that we are retired in Cuenca, it has become more of a passion.  I now try at least one new recipe each week. Not all are winners, but a surprisingly large percentage are quite good and are then made multiple times.  I have posted a few of our favorites in my blog over the past couple years.

Perhaps the largest surprise is that I have not really done very much with photography since arriving here, other than for posting in this blog.  Without the constant high level competition of the Berkeley Camera Club, I find I have little motivation to do highly creative photography anymore.  There is a camera club in Cuenca, but their quality is nowhere near the level of the BCC, and they generally don't like Photoshop, which is used heavily in all my creative efforts.

Our Spanish is definitely improving, though much slower than we would like.  We both take classes each week. We can now hold basic conversations with taxi drivers, or with our few Cuencanan friends that do not speak English.  It will be a long time, if ever, before we can have a free flowing rapid discussion in any language other than English though.  Fortunately, there are a lot of expats in Cuenca, and we meet new friends every month.  A few are also leaving.  One couple moved to Ireland earlier this year, and another friend is moving to Portugal soon. A couple others have returned to the States.

Which brings us to our travel.  When we were working, we traveled a lot, but always 3 weeks then rush back to work, and only once per year.  Now we are free to spend more time when we wish, and to travel more than once a year.  In the two years here, we have made separate trips to California, Florida, Peru, Manhattan and New Jersey, Iceland, Argentina, and throughout much of Ecuador.  We have been partially constrained by Ecuadorian immigration law for our first two years of our resident visa. In January, when our visa 2nd anniversary occurs, we will be allowed to be out of the country for longer periods.  We already have plans for trips to Colombia, Turkey and Europe in the coming year.

I can't very well talk about our experience in Cuenca without mentioning our apartment.  We are in probably the best part of town, on the Southern edge of the Old Town, known as El Centro, in a spacious 4 bedroom penthouse.  We estimate there are roughly 30 restaurants within a two block radius (a future blog will actually count and report on them), many of which are quite excellent. We are only three blocks from the main square (Parque Calderon), half a block from the Jazz Society, four blocks to the local mercado (where I buy enough fresh fruits and veggies to fill two large bags each week for about $6), six blocks to SuperMaxi (where I get milk, meat and other items weekly), etc.  No need for a car, when the bus costs 12 cents or a taxi costs $1.50 anywhere in town.

We did have a frustrating period earlier this year when our elevator broke down.  After much negotiation and payment up front, we finally got it working again... after three months of needing to take the 5 flights of stairs to get to our penthouse apartment.  We were thankful the building was not higher for that three months...!  Our internet connection is also maddeningly slow. Even though we pay for 10 Mbps, there are days when it is only 30 Kbps -- slower than the dial-up lines we used 30 years ago.  We have been told that fiber optic cable is supposed to be laid to our building, but it was to be here last February, and it is still not available.  Neighboring streets have gotten it in recent months though, so we still have hope.

I could keep going with more random thoughts about living here, but I think this post is already getting too long.  For summary, we are quite happy here -- more so than either of us really expected to be.  We may not live here forever, but for now, this is home, and we like it that way.

Random Walk After Two Years, Part 1

Today marks the two year anniversary of when we first moved to Ecuador.  We had visited Ecuador four times prior, and Cuenca specifically twice, but Oct 23, 2013 was the date we arrived with the intention of staying as residents.  Many people since then have asked if we expect this to be our last move.  My answer has always been the same -- we did not move here to die. This is just the "next adventure" in our life, and it seemed like a good way to kick off retirement.  Some day we may find another place that calls to us, and we will move again.  It might be Europe, or another South American country, or even someplace back in the US. We do not have any long term plans, and that is exactly how we like it at this stage.  That being said, we moved to Berkeley, Calif in 1988 with the expectation of living there three to five years.  We did finally move -- 26 years later, when we retired and came to Ecuador.  Who knows? We might be in Cuenca for the next 26 years too!

I thought I would wind up our second year with a collection of mural photos from around Cuenca.  I will also go on another "random walk" of ideas and thoughts about living here.  I haven't done that in quite a long time.  The following is no particular order. It is largely "train of thought," and if you think my train gets derailed sometimes, well, that in itself may say something about learning to live and love a South American city...  [Note: It turned out my Random Walk got a bit long, so I have broken it into two posts.]

First up. We had an earthquake last week. Woke both of us up at 5:10AM. We laid in bed feeling the building sway... then stop... then start to sway again.  Lasted a total of roughly 8 seconds. Felt like the building would fall over.  When it was done, we discovered it was a 5.6 quake centered about 50 miles from us.  No damage anywhere in the city.  I am surprised and impressed that a city built well over 100 years ago holds up so well to shakes like this.  Coming from California, I have been in several big shakes, but this felt as bad as anything I ever experienced there, and the damage was no worse (or even better) than in California.  I think Cuenca was just trying to make feel at home...

Second, politics.  I have heard lots of comments from those still in the States, wondering if Ecuador is about to explode with political turmoil, or implode with economic collapse.  Yes, there have been a few political protests lately, but nothing as violent as many in the States in recent month. And no mass killings here...  There are many challenges facing Ecuador -- falling oil prices, two volcanoes likely to blow soon, el Nino looking like it may hit our coast with a bulls-eye.  I could write an entire post on the politics and economics of Ecuador, but the short story is that they will likely survive.  And if they do collapse under the Perfect Storm of problems?  We can easily pick up and move to our next adventure somewhere else.  In other words, I don't spend a lot of time or anguish worrying about it.

Before I get off that topic though, President Correa is immensely popular in this country, and for good reason.  After 12 presidents in 15 years, including two that only lasted three days we finally have stability here.  Unlike other South American (and elsewhere) heads of state, Correa spent the money on improving schools, roads, social security, and improving the lives of the people here.  I can shake my head at some of the seemingly stupid things he says, or his occasional paranoia, but there is no denying that he has improved the country dramatically in his tenure, and there is nobody else obvious to take up the reins and continue his progress.

Back to what makes Cuenca and Ecuador special. Celebrations. Always. These are people that will celebrate almost anything at the drop of a hat. Starting next weekend, we will be celebrating Cuenca independence. After a two day battle, Cuenca became independent on November 3, 1820.  Though the battle only lasted two days, the celebration will go on for five days!  You can see an agenda listing more than 300 events over that weekend by downloading here.  With links to my blog posts from prior years, in the next couple months, we will have Dia de los Muertos, a massive Christmas parade, a very unique take on New Year's Eve, Fiesta de los Inocentes, and of course, Carnaval.  That doesn't even count the numerous parades and fireworks that are unannounced pretty much every week.  It is a rare week that we cannot see fireworks from our apartment windows.

And then there are frequent music activities.  The Jazz Society is less than a block away, where you can have a decent Italian meal while listening to jazz four nights a week. The music is free, though they ask for a $5 donation, to pay the musicians and provide musical training to students.  The Cuenca symphony plays roughly a dozen times per year, in various concert halls and churches around town, and is always totally free.

Tune in tomorrow for more of a rapid-fire conclusion to this Random Walk around Cuenca.

Iglesia La Merced Symphony

As we have noted before, the Cuenca symphony is free. They play at a few different venues around town.  Tonight is the first time they have played at the Iglesia La Merced that we can remember.  This church is only a block from our apartment, and we had never been in it, so it seemed that we should attend another symphony tonight.

There was heavy rain for several hours before the concert, which probably reduced the attendance.  Still, the church was mostly full, with only a few seats here and there vacant.  As we entered this magnificent 18th century church, we were handed programs, telling us (in Spanish, of course) what would be played, and why the symphony was here tonight.  This was to celebrate the 131st anniversary of the opening of the La Merced church.

The music consisted of selections from Mozart, Haydn and Franck, and was done with humor as well as typical symphonic musical talent.  Towards the end of Haydn's Symphony #45, the orchestra began to leave the stage in groups of 5 or 6.  The conductor waved with his baton for them to return, but they continued to leave.  The piece ended with a solo violin (as the music is intended to be played) and the rest of the stage empty.  The audience was clearly amused and confused. The woman sitting next to us jokingly said that maybe the orchestra was leaving because they had not been paid by the government.

After the main program was over, they received a standing ovation.  At that point, many (mostly gringos, I noted) started to leave.  However, the orchestra then came back with an encore, which included individuals and small groups standing while playing solos, as the audience continued to erupt in applause.

As always, an enjoyable (free!) evening for those that enjoy music in Cuenca.

Madre Tierra Festival 2015

This weekend was the first Madre Tierra (or "Mother Earth") festival in Tarqui, a town about 15 minutes from Cuenca by taxi.  The eco-festival was organized by Sarah HB, a long time expat friend here in Cuenca.  It consisted of 43 workshops, dozens of vendors, music and theater. The festival was very well attended, with many of the workshops being filled to capacity.  Above is a small collection of some of the vendors, selling their organic and sustainable wares.

Workshops were held in four tents plus a geodesic dome.  There was a campground available for the weekend, where many of the attendees and instructors stayed for the entire festival.

There were a dozen vendors making lunch for the attendees, mostly chicken and cuy (known in the US as "guinea pig").  We opted for cuy, choosing a nice fat one off the BBQ spit, and had a delicious lunch.

Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves -- even the kids.

First Cuenca Art Walk

Last night was the first official Art Walk in Cuenca. We had these in California when we lived there, and it was always interesting to browse through the artist's open studios.  The California ones were open to any artist that wished to participate, and frankly some of the art was not very good...

This Cuenca Art Walk was a very pleasant surprise in contrast.  The art ranged from good to excellent, and showed just what a range of fantastic artists exist in Cuenca (plus some surrounding communities, where some artists drove in from).  The only disappointment was that all 40 venues were only open for 3 hours, from 5PM until 8PM.  There was so much to see that it was impossible to visit them all in that amount of time.

We only visited half the 40 locations ourselves, because of the restricted time.  I am only showing a tiny portion of a very few of my favorite pieces in this blog. With over 500 photos taken between a friend (David Owen) and ourselves that night, this would be a record setting blog entry if I attempted to show a larger sampling.

If you would like a copy of the full catalog, listing all the venues and artists, you can download it here.

Most exhibits were attended by the artist, so we had a chance to talk (albeit briefly, because of the number of spaces to cover) with many of them.  One artist was unable to attend in person, so he had his partner represent him, while he attended via Skype (lower middle image above).

As we were walking between studios, these mimes approached us, asking for a donation for a local orphanage. This is a fairly common activity for High School kids to reach out and do community service, while practicing their theater skills.  We gave a small donation, and they were eager to pose for our cameras.

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