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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

Murder He Wrote!

Cast of murder mystery dinner at Riox restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador

The body of prominent Reaper Junction resident, Grimsby Graves, was found early this morning at the bottom of a newly dug grave in the Reaper Cemetery. The eerie find was made by sheriff's deputies after they received a call from a local resident.
Graves, whose ancestors helped found the town in 1770, owned the large estate that borders both the cemetary and the pumpkin farm of Jack Lantern.

So began our evening as deputies during the murder mystery dinner at Roux restaurant tonight.  There were six suspects that the local sheriff had identified, and it was up to us to determine who the real culprit was.

After each suspect gave their deposition to the audience, the court was kind enough to provide us with a delicious meal.  Of course, anyone who has seen a crime drama on TV knows that work often interrupts meals for the best detectives.  Sure enough, the suspects were all out on bail and each made their way to our table at some point during the meal, giving us a chance to interrogate them further.

Costumes worn at the murder mystery dinner

With Halloween just around the corner, many of the deputies working the case were dressed out in their finest.  In the end, each team had to come together and figure out whodunnit. Our team, composed of Beverly Ayler, Evelyn Johnson and your faithful reporter (Burt Johnson), nailed it by identifying who the culprit was (the clairvoyant), but also who was her unwitting assistant (the pastry chef), and how she pulled it off (combination of hypnosis and drugs).  We never figured out a motive though -- it turns out the clairvoyant was the granddaughter of Evil-Eyed Emil, who had been escorted out of town on Halloween night 100 years earlier by a mob led by Grimsly Graves relatives, and she had promised to avenge her grandfather.  

For our success, we each each awarded a free dessert at Roux restaurant, which we will almost certainly use. :)

Happy Halloween

Magic in Cuenca

Magic show at Paladar restaurant, Cuenca, Ecuador

Tomorrow marks our one year anniversary since we officially moved to Ecuador.  In that time, we have become a bit jaded. With so much to do every week (and most nights), we often hear or read about an event, then ask each other "so you want to go?"  The answer is often becoming "it looks like it might rain, it's cold outside,  and <enter your own excuse here>."  As a result, though we are now more connected and hear about more events, we no longer have the urgency to see and do everything in this magical city.

Tonight was a special event we did not want to miss though.  Juan Alvarez Estrella is the only South American member of the prestigious Magic Circle based in London, and has performed more than 600 "close-up magic" shows around the world.  We had seen one of his performances a while ago at Cork Proctor's comedy show, and loved his stage presence.

The night opened with a half-hour show by Juan with a variety of tricks.  He always includes volunteers from the audience, and his magic performance was no more than three feet from my seat. Yet, I never once figured out how he was doing it, so clearly it was magic! :)

After the show was dinner at the Paladar restaurant.  Soup and dessert were delicious, though I am afraid I can't say the same for the main course...   During dinner, Juan came around to each table to perform more in-your-face magic that left you wondering about the true physics of nature!  Bob Higgins had earlier acted as master of ceremony, and showed up at each table with his own display of magic.  Though his tricks were more "standard fare," his execution was flawless, and left the table gasping at how well he pulled them off.

All in all, an excellent way to end our first year in Ecuador.  Happy Anniversary To Us! :)

Approaching Our First Year Anniversary in Cuenca


2014 Art By Evelyn JohnsonHard to believe, but we are only a couple days short of our one year anniversary of moving to Ecuador and starting our lives as a retired couple.  So much has happened in this past year that it is hard to get my head around it. I find I go back and reread my own blog posts to remind me of all we have done -- and get tired just reading about it! :)

One of the highlights of our first year's anniversary is Evelyn's devotion to developing her skills as an artist.  She has had talent for decades, but never really had the time to spend.  In this last year, she has found a strong and supportive art community in Cuenca, and has been taking lessons from a world-class painter, Alberto Soriano. This year, she also had her first art exposition.

We have finally gathered together her new work from this year, and updated the gallery.  You can click on the "art" tab above, or here to see it.

Cuy, Family Style

Cuy Dinner (guinea pig)

Back in the USA, they are called guinea pigs and kept as pets.  Here they are called cuy and are a gourmet feast most often served for special occasions and celebrations. We were invited to a special cuy dinner by Gloria, Evelyn's Spanish teacher, last night for a night of feasting, music... and Spanish.

Only one member of the family speaks fluent English, so aside from some quick computer assistance I provided (my Spanish ain't good enough for that! :) ), the night was entirely in Spanish.  For those of you following our progress in learning the language, you would be right in expecting that some conversations were stuttering and pidgin. As we have found throughout Ecuador though, if you try to speak Spanish, most people are more than willing to help and work with you.  It can be frightening at times, but with a cuy meal as a reward, who could say no??

Cooking Cuy Dinner

Dinner preparation was a family affair.  All the more so the cooking of the cuy.  We have had cuy in restaurants before, and found them somewhat dry.  We were told that these cuy were "grown naturally, and fed all natural foods -- not like those production cuy raised on food pellets." (all said in Spanish, of course)  We were eager to help with the cooking, and then taste the difference.

The cuy were already skinned and prepped when purchased, much like a chicken would be at your local butcher then marinated the night before.  Special sticks, the size of broom handles, are then stuck through them from mouth through tail. The cuy must then be slowly rotated by hand over a BBQ pit, being periodically basted with achiote oil, for an hour.  I commented that if I made this at home, I would use a motor for automatic turning.  Gloria responded that they have a rotisserie, but that the thick poles needed for the cuy would not fit.  Also, we had four people rotating four cuy, which would have been pretty hard on a normal rotisserie.

After about an hour, the cuy expert chef examined the mouth.  I was told she was looking for any moisture, which must be gone for the cuy to be done.  Sure seemed to me like the moisture was gone after half an hour, so we have eaten raw cuy if I had been doing the examination! When the meat was done, she used a cabbage leaf as a hot-mit and pulled the hot cuy from the stick.

When the BBQ was complete, the meal was assembled, and we sat down to the feast shown at the top of this post. The cuy was definitely tasty and moist, and the best we've had in Ecuador.

Music After Cuy Dinner


After dinner everyone moved to the living room, where the music began. This is an incredibly talented musical family, where everyone either played an instrument or sang (or makes craftsman quality guitars!).  We spent the next couple hours listening to music, and sometimes joining in -- picking up words off a smart phone when they were not known.

Learning To Cook Italian in Cuenca


For the last three weeks I have been taking Italian cooking classes at a restaurant a little over a block from our condo.  I am still amazed whenever I process that sentence -- I have never lived somewhere with a good restaurant only a block away (let alone the 20 or so we now have), and certainly not one that would give excellent cooking lessons.  Three weeks for $80 including all materials, and a dinner to take home each time.

Rafaela - restaurant owner and chef / instructor

L'aperitivo is a relatively new restaurant, only open for the past six months.  It is on Benigno Malo, just a couple doors downhill from Calle Larga in Centro portion of Cuenca.  Rafaela is the owner, chef, and sometimes pastry instructor.  She speaks English quite well, and tells stories of her parents and their olive oil presses, as she reaches under the counter and brings up a 2 liter coke bottle filled with olive oil from her father's press and lets you sample it.


The first week we made Pizza Margherita, which is a simple pizza with dough (made from scratch, of course), mozzarella cheese, tomato, and basil -- giving the red, green and white of the Italian flag.  The second week, we made fresh lasagna, fettuccine,  and spaghetti.  The final week, we made an Italian dessert, shown above, and which I must admit I forgot the name of...  I plan on dropping by next week and getting that name written down, as the Italian name just didn't stick in my mind as I had hoped.

Note that all this was being taught to a gringo that had never used yeast before, and normally only used the oven for a final crisping touch after slow cooking ribs (recipe coming soon -- just realized now that I haven't written it up yet).  After Only Three Lessons (!), I am now an accomplished Italian pasta chef! :)

Comedy and Magic


Cork Proctor, Stand-up ComedianAs we have noted several times, there is always something going on in Cuenca. You would have to be a hermit not to find something to do every week.  We started this morning with a going away party for some friends that have decided to return to the States after several years in Cuenca.  Walking to that party, we came across a food festival at a church (they are roasting cuy -- aka guinea pigs -- in the upper right image above).  We left that party to meet with two other couples for brunch at a new restaurant (those crop up every week too!) a block from our condo.

If that wasn't enough, we then headed over to a comedy show headlined by Cork Proctor -- a Las Vegas performer for five decades, he is now living in Cuenca, with stories dating back to Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and others from that era. You can see him in the upper left image above.  Hard to believe he is 82 and still going strong.  The show was a sell-out in a small auditorium seating 100.

He was opened by Buddy Winston (center right above), a well known Cuenca resident who was a lead writer for Jay Leno for several years, and gave a very funny comedy launch to the show.  When Cork started his routine, he introduced several people in the audience that were neighbors living near him in Cuenca.  One was a very talented magician, with excellent "up close" magic and an excellent stage presence, named Juan Alvarez Estrella.  He said he will have a show of his own here in Cuenca on November 19, but we will be out of the country on that date, so will have to miss it.  He will also be part of an open air performance at Parque Paraiso on Oct 19, from 10:00 to 2:00.

We were actually planning on going to the free circus at the Pumapungo theater tonight too, but by the end of the comedy show, were tired and went home to relax for the rest of the evening...

Ambassador Sings The Blues

USA Ambassador to Ecuador Adam Namm plays with his blues band

Music is largely free in Cuenca, Ecuador.  We could go to multiple music venues every week without spending a cent.  Tonight there was a free Blues concert at the Teatro Sucre -- about 4 blocks from our condo.  It was starring Adam Namm, the US ambassador to Ecuador, on keyboard and as lead singer.  We enjoy the Blues, and thought it would be interesting to hear our ambassador, so of course we went and the theater was jam packed.

They played mostly an hour+ of "covers" plus one song of their own.  Unfortunately, they followed the Ecuadorian habit of maxing out the volume of every mic on stage.  That not only nearly made my ears bleed, but made it nearly impossible to hear the words.  Blues is supposed to be about the words, but you couldn't tell it by the performance tonight.  If I didn't know every song by heart, I would have had no idea what they were singing... :(

The Riot That Never Was

Police surrounding park during protest

Walking home in Cuenca today I came across a group of protesters and an veritable army of police, many dressed in full riot gear with shields, helmets and tear gas canisters.  The were two demonstrations going on, about three blocks from each other.  One was at a plaza filled with anti-government protesters, while the other had government officials giving speeches, and a few (maybe 100 or so?) supporters standing around listening.  The police surrounded the pro-government group, with the show of force clearly intended to dissuade any violence.

The same demonstrations were also going in Guayaquil and Quito.  The one in Quito did turn violent, as protesters attacked the police with burning sticks and molotov cocktails.  In that one, reports stated that 76 protesters were arrested, and that some police sustained unspecified injuries.  The Cuenca demonstrations ended peacefully though.

Protest signs at rally

The anti-government protesters outnumbered the government supporters by maybe 3 or 4 to 1. There were a variety of groups and topics included, from labor unions (the main organizer of the protest), to those objecting to the congress allowing President For Life (actually allowing unlimited reelections), protests over the oil damage in the Amazon, over the loss of water rights for indigenous peoples, and some others I didn't really understand.

Speakers at protest rally and their crowds

The top image shows the pro-government speakers and crowd, while the lower two are from the anti-government rally about three blocks away.

Guayaquil Art Show


Today we traveled to Guayaquil to attend the opening reception of an art show by four Ecuadorian artists. We were traveling with one of the main artists -- Alberto Soriano and his wife Maite. Other painters exhibiting included Boris Ordonez and Pepe Luque.

We had always fled Guayaquil as soon as our international flights arrived, so this was our first time to really visit the city.  Unfortunately, though the Malecon and museum were nicer parts of town, in general I found it reinforced my earlier visions of the city -- hot, humid, smoggy, dirty, and generally dreary.  Not a city I recommend to anyone for visiting...



Eduardo Segovia was also there showing his ceramic art.  Eduardo is another local favorite of Evelyn, and we have one of his pieces in our home.


The artists were all on hand to autograph programs and mingle with the guests.


Musical entertainment was also provided.

Art Watchers

Attendees were fascinated with the art on display.

Art Show Attendees

Attendees also mingled and were there to be seen.

Karen Kennedy provided vocalist entertainment.

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