You may have noticed that a couple recent blogs have had moving images in them (symphony and magic as examples). These are animated GIF images that I have been experimenting with. Both those were made starting with videos that I shot during the event. With some masking magic, I am able to obtain a moving image where only one portion is moving in the frame, and which can played in a loop on a browser without requiring you to press a 'start' button.
Yesterday I discovered a new trick in Photoshop that I think is rather cool, and which I may use now and then in the future too. In the image above, I had a single still image (no movie involved) from a waterfall in Iceland we visited in 2014. The basic trick is to select regions that are wanted to move, transform them in Photoshop along the desired path, then animate the result. A bit of cleanup masking, and the waterfall here is the result of my first attempt.
There was a restaurant in El Centro that we enjoyed, called Magica Cuchara, or "The Magic Spoon." It was owned by a very talented local magician, Juan Estrella, who is a member of the exclusive Magic Circle of international magicians. Juan also performs around the world, and in many places in the United States. When you dined there (and the food was enough to bring you in), the owner would often show up unannounced and perform table magic right in front of you. It was always amazing, and we would spend the rest of our meal trying to figure out how he did that!
Unfortunately, the restaurant is right on the Transvia path, which means the street has been torn up and almost unreachable for more than a year. Juan had to close the restaurant... but like the magic Phoenix, it has been reborn as a weekly magic theater.
The Magic Spoon is now a theater each Thursday night, alternating between Spanish and English presentations. Juan intends to have each of the 23 magicians from his Cuenca Magic Association perform at the new theater. He also hopes to open the restaurant again next year, after the Transvia rail system is operational, and business returns to Gran Colombia (the street of his theater cum restaurant).
Last night, we went there for the English performance by Juan Gonzolas. His English patter was a bit stilted at times, though he was easily understandable. His first tricks looked rather clumsy (intentionally, as it turned out), only to then end with a flourish that left you wondering "How did he do that??!"
This show was called "Elements", and had a series of tricks based on the elements of traditional Chinese beliefs. You can see above where he is lighting a series of envelopes on fire, each of which you think may have a $20 bill in it. After all are burned, he has the audience participant open his hands, unfold the empty envelope in his hand -- only to see the $20 bill there.
The magic is all "close up," with a tiny theater seating only about 40 people (we were in the first row). He was never more than 6 feet from us, and most of his tricks involved someone from the audience right at the table with him. As far as I know, nobody in the audience figured out how he did any of his magic.
Definitely a fun evening, and one we will be repeating when future magicians come to this theater.
We spent a full day last week at a cooking school here in Cuenca. Unfortunately, I got rather sick shortly afterwards (sore throat, etc -- not related to the school) and my brain went offline for most of the past week. I am only now getting around to writing about the experience.
The class was at the San Isidro institute, a local cooking college where many of the best chefs in Cuenca restaurants learned their trade. It was organized by the Cuenca Expat Magazine, a relatively new magazine that has organized trips for expats to experience unique places around Ecuador.
We opened with a tour of the facilities, where we came across a class of children learning to make pastries (bottom row), as well as college students preparing our lunch (middle right). We then spent about an hour in the classroom (upper right and middle left) where we learned something about the different cuisines of Ecuador's four regions (coastal, Andes, Amazon and Galapagos), and then some initial directions relating to the meal we would make that afternoon.
After classroom time, we went out for school Final Exam. That is, the students had prepared lunch for us, and our grade of their taste, presentation, texture, and service was part of the student's final grade for the semester. Each student was required to create his own personal dish, based upon the lessons of their most recent semester of training. As such, every table had a different meal, and there was no menu to choose from.
We ate outside, where it was a bit cool (this was late July in Cuenca after all, close into August, which is out coldest month). The meals were pieces of art (middle and lower left are examples from our table) that were almost a shame to eat. The taste and presentation of each course would feel right at home in an expensive 5-star restaurant. My only regret was that these were not courses we could return to have again in the future.
After lunch, and just before we entered the kitchen for our own cooking lesson, we got together for a group shot (lower right).
We then entered into the teaching kitchen to prepare our own meals. We learned to make plantain and cheese empanadas. We then made "seco de chivo" (a goat stew). Goat tends to be a rather tough meat, but the recipe and directions we were given resulted in a very tasty and tender meal -- one that will find its way into my home cookbook.
With every class, we learn something new, like how to chop onions without crying (by freezing them 15 minutes prior), as well as why knives are shaped a certain way. This was the first experience with San Isidro cooking school. Though there were a few rough edges, it is pretty clear this is something we will attend again next month, for the second session.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Ecuador on April 16, 2016. We were in Istanbul, Turkey at the time. The couple that was staying in our Cuenca, Ecuador apartment said they could feel it, though we were 180 miles from the epicenter. More than 650 people were killed in the quake. 200 schools and thousands of homes were also destroyed. There was an immediate international relief effort, with over 13,000 police and military mobilized to help those affected.
Though the quake has moved off the front page, with other world events taking the focus on other parts of the world, there continues to be charity events held throughout Ecuador. Today was one such, called Solidaridad con la Gente de Manabi (Solidarity with the people of Manabi). The upper right poster was for a Concierto por las Victimas del Terremoto (Concert for the Victims of the Earthquake), which was held in May (while we were still in Turkey).
The fair was held across the street from Parque Calderon, in the center of Cuenca. The San Luis Seminary courtyard only recently opened again to the public. It had been closed since a major fire on August 15, 2012. The view of the New Cathedral (though built in 1885, that is still the name it is best known as) is spectacular, as seen in the upper left image. The highlight of the festival was the unveiling of a special tent for temporary housing for those who lost their home (upper right image) designed by Peter Dudar and an architect. Though small, the tent is cleverly made using umbrella material, PVC, rebar and recycled bicycle spokes to provide protection from the sun and heat on the coast, as well as provide ventilation. Designed to sleep 4, it was large enough to fit 35 dancers the night before. Each tent costs $150 to produce, and the charity is attempting to raise enough money for 1000 tents.
As always, families with kids enjoyed the day at Parque Calderon across the street.
As we have noted before, the symphonies in Cuenca are always free, and in this case, jointly sponsored by the US Consulate and the Ministry of Culture . Tonight was a special performance of "Portrait of Lincoln" celebrating 240 years of independence in the United States, featuring all American composers and music, with the Cuenca Symphony directed by American conductor Jeffrey Sean Dokken, from West Virginia. Music was from composers Aaron Copland, George Whitefield Chadwick, and ending with John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" march.
The program opened with the US Consulate General Patricia Fietz speaking, in both English and Spanish, about the ties between Ecuador and the US. She said this same program was given earlier in both Guayaquil (where the US Consulate is located) and Loja, and they decided to also bring it here to Cuenca. Also featured was the renown solo violinist from Guayaquil, Jorge Saade.
After the concert, we walked home, and passed by the gallery of Miguel Illescas (located on Calle Larga close to the Pumapungo Theater), and in our opinion the finest gallery in Cuenca. Miguel is a locally well known metal sculptor, and when we saw that he was open, we decided to drop in to see what was new. To our surprise, he was having an ad hoc reception for the symphony guests in his gallery, since the conductor had stopped in earlier that evening prior to the performance. Later, a number of attendees from the symphony, orchestra members, the Consulate General, all stopped in for some wine and h'ordeuvres. We continue to drool over his works. As usual, we saw several more we would love to have, and came home looking for places to put them. To top off the evening, we explored a new sushi restaurant enroute home. Such is our life in Cuenca, which provides continuing surprises for us.☺
We have heard about La Yunta since shortly before we went on our Turkey adventure last March. This is a restaurant / tienda / deli that is about a 15 minute drive out of Cuenca, enroute to Loja. Being so far out in the sticks, they have to be creative to get people to come. Along those lines, they have started having free (yes, free!) cooking demonstrations most weeks. They even send a bus to pick you up in Cuenca, charging only $3 round-trip.
The demonstration chef is Patricio Coronel, who owns the Corvel restaurant in Paute. Sole, owner of La Yunta, translates everything into English for the mostly Gringo audience.
We learned about the foods, such as the difference between "loma fino" and "loma faldo" and an explanation of why their fino is better than most of what is available in Cuenca. (Most cows around Cuenca are raised in hilly fields, and develop a lot of muscle, whereas cows raised on the flat lands in Tarqui develop more tasty fat.)
We learned how to make "Lomo del Diablo" (top image on this post), "Corvina a la Manzana" (bottom left) and "Langostinos La Yunta Callimanta" (bottom right image).
Also, we learned tips on seasoning meats, preparing "tiestos" (the ceramic cookware), sampling quinoa empanadas, and how to make flambé meats and bananas. And, we learned what not to do ... fire in the kitchen (yep, their stove skirt caught fire, which is why only one image above has a skirt).
We each got a sample of the recipes to taste, and later had the recipes emailed to us. La Yunta also has delivery 7 days per week to the Cuenca area of prepared meals, spices, and deli items such as their lomo fino. Send them an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get a price list. We will certainly be using them in the future!
The flight from Istanbul, Turkey to Guayaquil, Ecuador is a lot longer than we prefer to stay on an airplane. We therefore decided to break up the long flight home with a night in Amsterdam on the way back. We weren't expecting very much, other than a chance to stretch our legs and grab some dinner.
We checked Tripadvisor for things to do in Amsterdam, and the local Artis Royal Zoo ranked quite high, so we decided to spend our last afternoon there. To our surprise, it was one of the most enjoyable zoos we've been to in the world, with lots of shade trees and play areas for kids. It was built in 1838 and one of the oldest zoos in the world, so there were a medley of neo-classical and new buildings, and well-maintained classical gardens lined with statues. There was some major reconstruction to build a new elephant environment, but the rest of the zoo was intact, with some enclosures that were surrounded by moats without fences, allowing some unobstructed photographic opportunities. In other displays, you could get quite close to photograph the iguanas and other animals inside the pavilions.
There were some animals we had never seen before in a zoo setting, including African wild dogs, some large Komodo dragons and South African penguins. The anteater (middle left) appeared to be wearing some kind of animal fur coat, until we finally realized those were young ones on the back of the mother.
After dinner, we wandered the canal zone. The wind was very calm this time (unlike our last visit 3 months ago), providing colorful reflections in the water for sunset. All in all, this stop made for a great last night for our vacation.
Now that our latest vacation is complete, this is a summary of what it feels like to live in Istanbul, even if only for a couple of months. First, mosques are everywhere and a part of daily life, even for those who are not practicing Muslims. There are 2,995 active mosques here, and every one of them has loudspeakers on their minarets, so the call to prayer can be heard 5 times a day throughout the city.
Those calls to prayer create noise at those times. The rest of the time though, the city is surprisingly quiet. Not "out in the countryside" quiet, but much more so than a city of this size would suggest -- and much quieter than Cuenca. In 11 weeks in both Turkey and Cyprus, we never heard a single car alarm (yeah!) nor house alarm, which has become an almost constant background noise in Ecuador. In Cuenca, we have church bells that ring at multiple times before sunrise, and hear rockets that are fired off frequently. None of that annoying noise exists in Turkey, which balances out the sound of the calls for prayer from the mosques from morning to night.
The skyline of Istanbul is that of a modern city, punctuated by frequent mosques. There are very old structures, dating back more than 1000 years, sitting right next to modern buildings put up in the last couple years. Istanbul is quite picturesque, and a real treat for photographers.
Construction is going on everywhere, including a new 5-level apartment building right across the street from where we were staying. There are more than a dozen new apartments going up within a few blocks of where we have been staying. Many mosques and museums are also being renovated as part of the construction boom. We could hear sounds of drills and hammering 7 days a week. For each building under construction though, we only saw a few workers each day, and it seemed like it would take a long time to finish at that rate.
Istanbul is a city of 15 Million people, concentrated into an area of 2000 sq miles. Compare that to Ecuador, where the entire country also has 15 Million people, but spread out over an area of 110,000 square miles. Ecuador has 50 times more land with the same number of people in Istanbul itself.
With that many people in such a small space, crowds are a given. The streets are clogged pretty much 24/7, and there have literally been times when we walked a couple miles faster than the traffic next to us. Very long commute times appear to be common, and we have been told that 1-1/2 hours each way to work is not unusual.
On the Asian side (where we were staying), very few people use the sidewalk. Instead, everyone walks in the street, even though cars are rushing past inches away on narrow streets with cars parked on both sides. People complain about the sidewalks in Cuenca, but they pale next to Istanbul, where the sidewalks are both uneven and usually completely blocked from cars or equipment every couple hundred feet.
We have found that most people in the world are proud of their home country. That is also true in Turkey, where flags are hung from numerous apartment windows and most parapets.
We never really got a solid answer as to why there are so many pharmacies in Istanbul. There will be one every few blocks, and one corner near us has four pharmacies -- one on each corner of the intersection.
There is a dizzying array of transportation means to get around town. Modern subways and buses criss-cross the city, with the stations nearest us opened in 2012. We used every form of public transportation shown above! And, although the ferries take longer to get from the Asian side to the European side, the views from the ferries were stupendous and such a pleasant way to commute. All the transportation systems were efficient, and waiting times were so short, that it became fun to use the discounted Istanbulkart that was accepted by most of the transportation forms. Imagine walking to the station, traveling by underground subway, riding across the Phosphorous straits on a ferry, taking the T-1 tram across the city, riding a mini-bus to another part of town, traveling up a hill on a funicular, then taking the Marmaray train under the Phosphorous all in one day.
And, when you're riding on a ferry, you cannot believe how many different types and sizes and boats are crossing the Bosphrous simultaneously. There were so many cruise ships, dozens of lines of ferries of all sizes and shapes, private cruisers, pilot boats, trash removing boats, cargo ships, speed boats, coast guard patrol boats, fire boats, boat taxis, party boats, row boats, barges, all going in different directions at high speeds, we were shocked we didn't see any incidents.
Cats are everywhere in Istanbul, including hanging out in the ancient ruins. Whereas, Cuenca is a dog-friendly city. Even those that do not own a cat themselves will often care for feral cats in the neighborhood. It is common to see a cat sitting at the entrance to every restaurant, and common to see platforms where dozens of cats hang out and are fed by some elderly local.
Turkish Delight is the national candy here. When buying some, the trick is to find a store with high turnover, so the Delight is fresh.
American fast food restaurants are still relatively rare, but they are there.
Pretty much everywhere we traveled, there was someone taking a selfie. Even though the "smart phone" cum camera and the selfie stick are not new, this is the first time we have seen it being so prevalent.
And of course, the people. I have said this before, but need to say it here again at the end -- the Turkish people are the friendliest we have ever met in our wide travels. We traveled with a camera almost every day, and came back with 19,913 images, most of which included one or more persons. I can count on both hands the number of times someone indicated they did not want their photo taken. The more common response was a big smile, followed by a "thank you" for taking their photo. When we got lost, people would take time to personally walk us to the bus stop across the street, talk to the driver in Turkish to take us to our destination, or when we were trying to figure out which ferry to take, people would go out of their way to point out the correct stop.
The one negative for us is the language. The Turkish language is much different than English, or any Romance language, and the written language does not seem to have any relationship to the spoken language (I am sure it would seem closer if we really understood their alphabet). When listing to someone speak, I am not even able to tell where the words are in the sentence, let alone have any idea of what is being said. It was common for us to practice a word over and over, then say it to a local, only to be met with a look of bafflement. When it was finally understood what was meant, they would repeat the word -- and I swear it sounded just like I said it! (Of course, that was true our first months in Ecuador too...).
At one mosque, I met two university students who were studying English, and who wanted to talk to a native English speaker. We have become "pen pals" for the past several weeks. At one point, she asked "Why don't you learn Turkish? It is such an easy language. Not difficult like English!" I smiled, and pointed out that she had learned Turkish as a baby, and thus now considered it easy, just as I had learned English the same way. It was interesting that she had never thought of that, and had little concept of learning as a child vs learning as an adult (let alone a retired adult...).
Turkey is a unique country in many ways. It's mind bogging to know that ancient civilizations evolved here, and you can still see both the old and the new together in one location. I think you will be surprised at what you find if you come and visit.
[NOTE: This post was written before the bombing at the Istanbul airport. The contents here still applies though. Such mass attacks have occurred in Belgium, Paris, London, and... Orlando. The world seems to be rapidly going crazy. Anytime you choose to leave your home, you at risk of an attack... or simply being hit by a car. We choose to continue to live and enjoy life, and not worry about things we cannot control.
That said, the death rate (from all causes) is much lower in Turkey (5.1 per 1000) than it is in the US (8 per 1000). We will be returning to this part of the world again in 2017.]
Now that we have completed 11 weeks in Turkey, I want to address one concern that came up repeatedly. Not with anyone in Turkey, but with friends and family back home. Whenever we said we were going to Turkey, we could count on the response being along the lines of "How can you go there? It is so dangerous!"
Well, not really...
There have been some attacks in the Southeast part of the country, with ISIS crossing the border from Syria, and some bombs set off in a few crowded tourist areas before we came. (The incidents are occurring randomly around the world whether in Brussels, Paris, etc. these days, and not just in the middle East.) Almost all casualties on the Turkey side on the border involve military personnel, and we were never closer than 600 km from the trouble. Never a threat to us.
I have often said how safe we feel in Cuenca, Ecuador. Istanbul felt far safer than Cuenca. In Ecuador, we have the constant worry about petty crime. Nothing big. Murder and assault are rare, but pick-pockets, or drive-by snatches (e.g., a motorcyclist grabbing a phone or purse) are quite common. Leave a phone on a table while going to the counter, and you will probably find it gone when you return.
Not so in Istanbul. Many people casually carry their phones in their hands while walking, yet I never saw or heard of any phone thefts. People leave items on a table while walking away frequently, and their stuff is always there when they return. Our photo tour leader told us many times not to worry about leaving our camera bags unattended, since people in the villages all knew everyone. People are required to leave their shoes outside when entering a mosque. With dozens of pairs of shoes outside every mosque, I never heard of anyone having a pair stolen. At the Turkish Cyprus airport, we were told to just leave our luggage outside while we went in for rental car paperwork. "Don't worry. Nobody will steal it in Turkey or here" we were assured. Yep, no problem when we returned for it later.
In Ecuador, as in the US, when you enter a store carrying a bag, you are required to leave it with security at the entrance. Bags are often inspected upon leaving, to be sure you didn't steal anything. Not so in Istanbul. Just walk in with the bag from another store. When you check out, nobody looks twice at the bag you didn't put on the counter. It is just assumed that if you got something inside the store, you will pay for it on the way out.
Some small neighborhood stores will even let locals have an account, and goods purchased to be paid for later.
In Ecuador and the US, most larger stores have security cameras, where a guard is in a room scanning the crowd for shoplifters. Not in Istanbul. I never saw a camera security camera anywhere, and never had a store employee follow me to be sure nothing was stolen. Again, they just assume you are honest, plus the punishment for getting caught is quite extreme, up to 20 years in prison (one minor received a sentence of 7 years for stealing a pack of cigarettes).
We are often warned that crowds are a playground for pickpockets in Cuenca. We never felt the slightest bit threatened in Istanbul, even in the largest crowds. We lost the habit of checking our pockets after someone bumped into us -- because in Istanbul it is simply the large number of people who bump into you, and not someone trying to get into your pocket.
All of this is with very few visible police. In Cuenca (at least in Centro, where we live), it is unusual to go more than a couple blocks before seeing one or more policemen. They are there to discourage crime, and they do a pretty good job of it. Once again, not in Istanbul though. Large parks with hundreds of people will usually have one police car parked somewhere in the vicinity, with two to four police inside. We averaged walking 6 miles per day in Istanbul, yet there were several days that we never saw a single police officer.
Istanbul does have obvious concerns about terrorism. That is visible in only two instances though, both of which are unique to Istanbul in our recent travels. Every group of turnstiles entering into the metro has one security guard with a "magic wand" that he passes over all backpacks and luggage, to detect explosives. Also, you must pass through an X-ray and metal detector going into any shopping mall, plus go through double security lines at the airports before going through passport control. Both are done very efficiently though, and have almost no impact on traffic flow (unlike TSA...). And, you cannot get a SIM card unless you are a resident, as cell phones have been used as remote triggers.
Overall, we have never felt any safer in all our travels than we have in Istanbul, and Turkey in general. Newspapers tend to distort and generalize, making problems seem much worse than they are. We could point to many examples of situations we have actually been involved in, where we saw that up close. It is true for the problems in Turkey too. In summary, we highly recommend people come and enjoy one of the most friendly countries we have visited.
How can you be afraid when broad smiles greet you at every turn?
We read about a large market on the Asian side (where we are staying), and decided to go there. We got the address and directions from a web site on local Istanbul markets, and off we went. First we walk to the metro, take that to the end of the line, then find bus 8A, and take that for seven stops and get off.
When we got off the bus, there is a 40,000 sq ft hole in the ground with a sign for the Mandarin Hotel construction project! Huh??? We walked into a local store and ask about the bazaar. He looks quizzically at us until we find an alternate word in our digital dictionary. The owner then says in broken English "Pazar. No more" as he swipes his hands together to emphasize the point. He then says we can walk a kilometer to get to the new location. Off we go.
A couple block later, we decided to stop in a little tienda for a drink, since it was getting hot and we suspected 1 km might be an underestimate. Evelyn asked that owner for confirmation. "Yes," he said, "Pazar has moved. There is a free bus that takes customers to the new pazar" as he points for us to go a block to the signal light, then turn right.
We walk to the shuttle location, where we find one matronly woman waiting. Through hand signs and "pazar" as our only word in common, she confirms we are in the right location, so we wait. Half an hour later, the shuttle (a minivan) arrives, and we are off again -- for roughly 5km (not 1...), including a stretch of freeway we would not have been allowed to walk.
Where do we find ourselves? At the largest neighborhood bazaar in Istanbul... right next to a metro station halfway back home (Göztepe)... We took a very long way and time to get here, but at least the route home was short.
The first section was filled with fruits and vegetables, just as we would find in any of the larger mercados in Cuenca. The food appeared more fresh and larger than ones we've seen at our local markets, and the prices much lower than the other markets we have visited. We ended up buying a few bags of fruit to sample. Since we were leaving Turkey soon, we couldn't really get much.
There were also large sections of the bazaar dedicated to dry goods of all types. Designer blue jeans (meaning pre-ripped...) for 25TL (about $8 US), blouses for 5TL (less than $2US), etc. Women gathered around vendors, sizing up clothing items (no dressing rooms), picking up and feeling plates, tossing linen and towels to test their weight. There was clearly a LOT of merchandise sold, and you could sense a buying frenzy whenever new stock were brought in. We saw many women with wheeled carts and large shopping bags filled with goods all day long.
Mehmet (the guide for the photo tour we took back in April) says that every neighborhood has a local bazaar, but that this is the largest one in Istanbul. When we visited the Grand Bazaar in April, we found most of the shoppers were tourists, with vendors constantly hawking their wares, trying to get every passing tourist to come into their shop.
The vibe here was very different. There were only a few hawkers, and those were generally busy slinging their goods into bags while singing out their pitch to attract others. Even more important though -- we were the only tourists in the entire place. It was packed with people actively buying, but everyone apparently lived in the area, buying goods they would take home and use that night. This was clearly a successful, active market used by locals, rather than a tourist trap.
Whenever our cameras lifted, there was always a vendor shouting out "take picture of me!" This was another place where the people were universally friendly and inviting. It was quite a treat to take a photograph, and have that person then say "sağol" (Turkish for "thank you") and hand us free samples of their food to show their appreciation.
I just had to add one more block of the friendly faces we saw today. Turkey will always stay in our memory as one of the most friendly countries we have ever visited.