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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

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.

20/20 (and 19/20)

ANT agency logoWe are both now legal Ecuadorian drivers -- we both received our driver's licences today!

The process here is almost silly in the number of steps required, but we completed the last of the hoops today and walked out with our licenses. We can now rent and drive cars within Ecuador.  (The International Driver's License is not valid past 90 days after receiving your cedula, so that was no longer an option.)  These were steps we took:

1) Obtain our California driving history from California.  Get it notarized, then apostilled, then translated into Spanish, then have the translation notarized.

2) Go to the Red Cross and get a blood test and obtain a blood card showing our blood types (this info goes on the final license).

3) Fill out a bunch of paperwork in Ecuador and turn it into the ANT (Agencia Nacional de Tránsito), the Ecuadorian equivalent of DMV -- which is an hour's drive from Cuenca.  That paperwork included the driving history noted above, our California driver's licence, our cedula, and a bunch of paper forms filled out.

4) Wait about a week for all that paperwork to be approved in Quito (the capital of Ecuador), upon which time we were told we could go to the next step. Then, we studied 215  practice exam questions, all in Spanish, of which 20 would be randomly picked by the computer.

5) Drive to a different location and go through a battery of tests:  eye test (left and right eye, distance and near, color blindness, recovery speed from dazzling, distance perception); hearing test (left and right ear on 7 frequencies); reaction speed (look at a screen and move from gas pedal to brake pedal when a red light shows); dexterity test (use two hands to move a pin around a complex curved track -- think of the child's game of 'doctor'); and a test something like the whack-a-mole game.  It was pretty exhaustive, compared to California!

6) Drive back to the ANT with all those results, plus blood card, another set of photos, the original apostiled driving history, plus approval from Quito and fill out more paperwork.

7) Drive to a bank about a mile away to pay the $38 per person for the license.  Yep, can't pay at the ANT...

8) Drive back to the ANT and take a written test -- in Spanish -- of the driving laws of Ecuador.  Surprisingly, they are very similar to the laws of California, though you wouldn't know it by stepping on any street in the country.  These laws are completely ignored in the real world, and there is essentially no enforcement of them at all.

9) See the magic "aprobado" on the computer screen, meaning we've passed!

10) Get our picture taken, and a few minutes later get handed our laminated license.


Oh yeah, the title of the blog entry.  You see, Evelyn will never let me live this down.  She got 20 correct answers out of 20 Spanish questions, while I only got 19 correct.  Oh, the shame of it! :)

Always a Parade

As I have said before, Ecuadorians will start a parade at the drop of a hat, and for almost any reason.  Apparently this applies to Peru too.  We went in the town of Tumbes, and quickly came across these school kids preparing for a parade on the theme of ecology.

Taxis in Cuenca are plentiful, but are the normal cars we would see in San Francisco.  The weather in Tumbes, Peru is much warmer though, and the taxis there are small motorcycles built on a three-wheel frame.  In Peru, they call these "mototaxis", but we saw the same taxi transport system in much of Asia, where they were called "tuk-tuk".  Each driver painted and decorated his taxi to his taste (all drivers we saw were men), and many also had advertisements painted on them.

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