Thursday, August 20, 2009


(8/18-8/20/09) It had been 16 yrs since Nancy & I last visited Madrid (when we spent a week). Of course, lots of changes but also much the same. Biggest change was 'sticker shock' --- damn Euro". Really only had a day and half, and first half day we were Jet-lagged, so after arriving in the morning we just spend a couple of hours walking around in a daze until we went back for a nap at the Hotel. Although I won’t say we awoke refreshed for the evening, we were anxious to once again experience our favorite part of Madrid – the famous Tapa ‘Pub-Crawl.’ For those unfamiliar, that just means we went to one of the neighborhoods loaded with quaint tavern eateries, where the purchase of a drink (our preference Wine, of course) is always accompanied by some small but delicious appetizer. Of course, some places are better than others in terms of what they serve, so the object is to keep moving on after each drink to a new Pub and hoping for the best. Either way, it’s always a blast and you can skip dinner since a night of drinks and Tapas is plenty to fill your tummy. One memorable experience for us, was to find that our favorite little Sherry Pub was still around after so much time had passed, and still quirky in that they ordinarily forbid the taking of pictures inside (who knows why?). But, because we struck up a nice conversation with a regular who was apparently a favorite of the bartender, he was allowed to take our picture there.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


PART II – The Best of Quito and Surrounds

(5/21-8/17/09) The first thing you notice about Quito is its natural beauty, situated in a valley between highlands and volcanic foothills. Given the amount of annual rainfall, the hills are continuously green. Second, and somewhat surprising, is the nearly perfect year round climate. Despite being located on the Equator, because of its elevation the temperature remains virtually steady averaging 70F daytime and 60-65F nighttime. Indeed, they say there are only two seasons in Quito – Dry and Wet. The "Dry" season runs from about June through September, though occasional short rain can be expected once or twice a week (again, keeping the foliage green). The "Wet" season, we hear, is not so bad either – merely consisting of steady (not monsoon) rains usually mid-late afternoon, with clear mornings and evenings. The other wonderful "bonus" of life in Quito, is the amazing diversity of topography located within in relative close proximity of the City. Within just a few hours driving time (or a short inexpensive commuter flight), one can venture to the Pacific Ocean, the Amazon rain forest, the high Andes Mountains, rolling countryside farmlands, and experience the different cultures of various indigenous peoples many of whom live the same way as their ancestors of hundreds of years ago.

Another benefit of such geographical diversity in this small country of Ecuador, is a cooks delight. The first time you step into a large supermarket or wander one of the many street markets, you will find an incredible selection of Produce that is available. Not only do they have the familiar fruits and vegetables offered year round which appear so much fresher, greener or brighter in color and huge in size, but then you discover scores of strange and exotic fruits and vegetables you have never seen before. Best of all, with few exceptions, the produce is also very inexpensive.

Naturally, since our first apartment was located in the old historic center of Quito, we thoroughly explored this area first. Initially, of course, we head straight to the heart of old town and Quito, Independencia Square/Plaza Grande. Here, you will find the Presidential Palace (Palacio de Gobeirno), the Cathedral, and the very pricey but fine Hotel Grand Plaza. Of course, the pretty plaza is always busy with a mix of persons, both local and tourists, some who come to sit and gaze at the procession, some who come to take their photos, and some who come to hawk all kinds of wares. On all sides of the square (even including street level rooms in the walls of the Presidential Palace) are shops of all kinds, and small mall attached to the Hotel Grand Plaza houses several restaurants including two on upper floors with views overlooking an interior courtyard.

One somewhat exciting experience we had during the first week or two of our stay, was the visit by controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. We hadn’t heard he was coming, but happened to be strolling around the Plaza, when we noticed scores of police and heavily armed military security roping off the street sides around the Palace with hundreds of people beginning to line up. Obviously we knew something was afoot, though just assuming it was the Ecuadorian President arriving for his occasional residence at the Palace. After waiting about 20minutes, finally the motorcade began with dozens of official, media, and police/security escort vehicles. Near the end, the limousine carrying Chavez along with the Ecuadorian President slowly arrived, with both of them waving out the windows. Finally it stopped not 15feet from where we were standing and they both exited the vehicles waving and shaking hands, to the shouts and applause of the locals. Then they proceeded up the steps of the Palace to the center lookout, and continued to bask in the warmth of the adoring crowd. Clearly, to the consternation of Washington, Chavez is quite popular in Ecuador (as well as much of Latin America). We got a few choice pictures of the two Presidents. Much later in our stay, with a little help from Bob’s Associated Press "credentials" (shhhhh!), we were permitted to tour part of the Palace, and obtained an amusing picture of Bob pretending to be the President standing in the center of the balcony where the real Presidents had stood.

Among the best ways to get aquainted with the City, is to make a trip up to Cerro Panecillo, the Virgen of Quito statue, which stands atop the southernmost steep hillside. Providing excellent views of the old town and as far north as Carolina Park, the observation platform and grounds around the statue are well worth the taxi ride up. But, we chose to spend an hour or more hiking down from Panecillo, in order to further immerse ourselves in the local neighborhoods that line the hillside down to the colonial center. Another very similar experience, which we also did at a later time, is to go to the top of the eastern hillside above the old town, where there is a park called Itchimbia (or as Bob liked to say "itchy bumba"). Again providing great views of Quito from a different perspective, the park also houses an architecturally pleasing glass exhibition hall and a small restaurant serving sandwiches and some decent (albeit overpriced) local fare.

Speaking of local fare, particularly while residing in Old Town, where there are few if any (reasonably priced and decent) international fine dining establishments, we tried quite a few local spots featuring traditional Ecuadorian dishes. Most were open only for lunch, offering incredible ‘value’ meals called Almuerizo, which is an all-inclusive meal consisting of a starter Soup, an entrée usually of meat, chicken or occasionally fish along with rice and vegetable, a desert of small pastre or fruit, and a drink (usually fresh squeezed fruit drink) – all for only $1.50 average. Bob, especially, also liked to separately sample different local Soups at small streetside cookeries and in the Markets, including Locro de Papas (potato and cheese soup), Caldo de Patas (cowheel soup with mote), Sancocho de yuca (Vegetable soup with Yuca), and Cebellado (a fish soup with vegetables and potatoes). Unfortunately, despite a desire inspired by watching both Andrew Bourdain and Zimmern’s Bizzare Foods, we never got to try a specialty from the Ecuadorian countryside called Cuy (roasted farm-raised Guinea Pig).

And, speaking of money, it is worth mentioning that the official currency of Ecuador is the actually the $US Dollar. The country has no paper currency of its own, using only US Bills as paper currency, though they do have some of their own coins (including a $1 coin, half, quarter, dime and nickel), which circulate alongside US coins and Bills. For travelers from USA, that’s mostly good news because it eliminates the necessity of any currency exchange and the usual hassles and excessive fees. Even the ATM machines here all dispense currency in US Dollars. There is one ‘negative’ that we quickly discovered (since we had arrived carrying 5 or 6 US$100 bills we had received from our apartment Sec. Deposit refund in Guatemala), and that is that No One, No Shop, No Grocery Store, nor even regular local Banks or Currency Exchanges, will accept a bill larger than US$20. In order to change our $100 bills, the only place that would do it is the one Central Bank in Quito – out of the way, and of course, a wait in line. Another ‘quirk’, is that apparently Counterfeiting is quite a problem here. So, whenever you pay for anything in cash, whether it be a $5 bill or a $20 bill, everyone always closely examines the bill in the light to make sure it has the requisite security strip and embedded images. Likewise, if you’re smart, you will similarly examine any bills you receive in change.

Completing our ‘tour’ of the Old Town Historic Center of Quito, since it is the country’s Capitol, there are numerous other government buildings located in a few square blocks, including the Vice-Presidential Palace, National Police Headquarters, and several Ministries (although many others are dispersed in other sections of the city). In addition, there is the Central Library and Cultural Center, several Museums, and Churches including the famed La Compania with its ornate gold leafed sculptured facade and interior. A few blocks walk from the Center, you will find Plaza San Francisco, where stands the large Church and Monastery of the patron Saint of Quito. At the base of the structure, once again shops are located including one that contains very fine artwork in a mazelike cavern of connecting rooms.

Although we don’t tend to frequent many Museums, partly because these days most charge foreign tourists an extravagant extra fee for entry and also because we find many of the history-oriented ones to be a little boring (especially when they narrate solely in non-english language which we don’t understand). However, one Museum we did enjoy and would recommend, is the Casa de Cultura, which actually houses four separate museums under one roof, including a large offering of indigenous art, sculpture, and dress. And, unlike many other museums, this one did a nice job of providing english-language descriptions.

Nancy and I were happy to find a decent Fitness Gym/Club in Quito’s New Town, which we promptly joined upon our arrival. We had grown accustomed to a nice workout facility during our 3mo. stay in San Miguel and an even nicer one during our 3mo. stay in Buenos Aires. But ever since leaving Buenos Aires, including Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala, there were no Fitness Clubs with modern equipment and we passed. Though we do plenty of walking, hiking and even moderate climbing providing a fair amount cardiovascular exercise, muscle building and toning on modern machines was missed.

The New Town area of Quito, basically in the south central section of the City, is also home to the largest concentration of bars, nightclubs, touristy restaurants and numerous Hostels. We did find a decent Indian restaurant, which we ate at several times. We also tried a Mongolian BBQ restaurant, but were quite disappointed despite the fact that it did indeed have an authentic Mong. BBQ cooker, and was all-u-can-eat for only $5.95. The problem was owner had obviously not taught his local Ecuadorian staff how to properly cook on it – which requires high heat to sear in the juices of the meat and not totally boil away the various sauces the customer chooses. Instead, perhaps to try to unwisely economize on propane fuel costs, they would cook on low which not only took an inordinate amount of time, but when the dish was finally served the meat was totally dried out and all the sauce flavor lost. In addition, they did not offer all the traditional dry herbs and seasonings, which might have continued to impart flavor after the liquid sauces had disappeared. The real experience of New Town is to come later at night, especially on weekends, when the area really comes alive. All of the young college-age visitors (probably many staying at the dozens of nearby Hostels), flood the streets creating a New Orleans party like atmosphere that is vibrant and fun.

Following our apartment move, a whole new neighborhood opened up to us. Known as the Carolina Park sector, it is naturally dominated by the Park the largest in central Quito. Approximately 2-3 City Blocks wide, and about 15 City blocks long, the park is a great place to stroll particularly on weekends. There are a dozen or so Volleyball Courts, at least as many Basketball courts, several soccer fields, a hilly mountain bike track, an equally challenging in-line Skate Track, a Botanic Garden, a built-in canal park with rental paddle boats, and an unending parade of food hawkers cooking and serving everything from BBQ Kabobs, Ceviches, pork and potato/vegetable stews, and the usual assortment of sweets and fruits. In addition, kite flying is a popular pastime in the park.

Diagonally across the park from where our apartment is located is the Jarden Shopping Mall, one of the largest in Quito, containing 4 levels of the usual fine clothing, electronics, furniture and houseware stores, along with a huge food court with both fast food and several upscale decent dining choices. At the opposite end of the park, and a shorter walk from our apartment, is another somewhat smaller Mall known as Quicentro. Next to it, is Quito’s "Olympic Stadium", which is used for soccer matches, concerts and similar productions. And, all throughout the neighborhood, are scores of large modern upscale Apartment/Condo Buildings, such as our own, which also typically house commercial businesses and offices in their street level and lower floors. Of course, sprinkled throughout the area are many nicer restaurants, steakhouses and cafes, two of which we would highly recommend as our favorites in Quito. One, known as the Sur, is a Parillo Argentine-style Steakhouse Grill, with fantastic cuts of beef, lamb and pork, along with a good wine selection, fine service and nice ambience. The other is Il Risotto Italian Restaurant, which besides having a nice window view over the city, has a huge selection of entrees organized in the Menu by regional cuisine (e.g. Tuscany, Sicilian, Umbria, etc.). The grilled thinly sliced Octopus appetizer, and the black ravioli stuffed with fresh crab were to die for.

An easy day-trip by local trolle and bus, was a sight not to be missed by any visitor to Quito. Known as Mitad del Mundo, it is about 23km north of the city, and is the monument designating the equatorial line (i.e. the center of the earth). Although quite impressive, along with its surrounding tourist trap shops, restaurants and bars, somewhat amusingly it is in the wrong place. Originally, built before GPS was invented, the true Equator line is about a ½ mile away, where a much smaller and more humble monument and museum now mark the spot. At the true equator, it is possible to balance an egg on end, and witness other interesting anomalies permitted by the gravitational center the earth.

For us, no stay in any country now seems complete, without a visit from our good friend and fellow adventurer (at heart) Mike Shaker (a/k/a Mr. Monk, of Monk’s Pub in Chicago). Quito was no exception. Towards the latter end of our residence, Mike came for a week of usual jam-packed touring, fine-dining and wining, lots of laughs, and country-side adventures. At this stage in his life, Mike likes to say he "lives vicariously through us". Besides showing Mike all the typical tourist sights in Quito previously described and our 2nd visit to Mitad del Mundo, as usual Mike chose to rent a car for 3 consecutive days, so we could venture out of the City. On the first rental day, after some surprising difficulty finding the one and only highway north out of town (which happens to be the Panamamerica), we drove for about 2 ½ hours, until we got to large town of Otavalo. It is well-known as hosting the largest Saturday Market in all of Ecuador. Even though it was not a Saturday when we visited, it is still quite an active town, with a huge assortment of shopping stores, along with smaller weekday street markets and permanent markets. After strolling about town, we in fact ate lunch in one of the permanent Markets, having some well-cooked Ecuadorian dishes and typical Soup. After lunch, and a little bit of searching, we found the nearby Cascada de Peguche, which is a really spectacular Water Fall park, with a nice hike through some forested area to reach the base of the Falls. Well worth the stop.

On our second car rental day, we drove in the opposite direction, south of Quito. Once out of the metropolitan sprawl, the drive pleasant through rolling countryside and dairy farms. We drove past the well-known Cotopaxi National Park with its impressive and active Volcano, one of the highest in the world – we really didn’t have the time or desire to stop at the park as it really takes a full day of hiking to appreciate. We made it to the mid-sized town of Latacunga, which in my opinion, has many similarities to Otavalo in terms of its size and layout. However, I found that the people here seemed much more ‘indigenous’ and laid back than in Otavalo, probably due to the fact that it is farther away from the metropolis of Quito. As it was a bit farther a drive than the prior day, following lunch and after a brief stroll near the central square of the town following, we headed back to Quito.

On our third and final rental day, we again headed south, but left earlier (around 10am) and proceeded past Latacunga before stopping for lunch. Our goal, was to reach and partly traverse what is known as the Quilotoa Circuit, which is a popular tour through back country roads (albeit mostly paved), past numerous small villages and hamlets. We did reach the town of Pjilli, more or less the starting point for the Circuit, where we had lunch. Despite the ‘late hour’ (2pm or so), we unwisely pressed on. It was unquestionably a beautiful and even awe-inspiring drive, on winding roads up and down steep rolling highlands, that were completely parceled into farm plots tilled by local Andean folks living in small circular straw huts. About 3:30pm we finally reached the small Hamlet of Tigua, famous for its indigenous artwork. We did a little shopping, and finally decided it was time to turn around for the long drive back. Naturally, we didn’t get back to the metropolitan outskirts of Quito until after dark (maybe 7pm), and because of the contributing darkness got lost and missed our exit somehow, and had to travel through some questionable neighborhoods and Barrios, retrace our tracks, and ultimately got back to the apartment at about 8pm, tired, hungry and a bit cranky. But, a few quick showers, and we headed out to a fantastic dinner at the Sur, and we all were finally able to relax and enjoy after a very long and taxing day (albeit with some fantastic scenery none of us would have wanted to miss).

On our last full day with Mike, we decided to go up the Teleferico, which is the only Cable Car in Quito. It climbs the western highest slopes surrounding Quito, all the way to altitude of 4000meters (about 12000feet). Despite being sunny and warm at the base, when you reach the top, it is not surprisingly quite chilly and very windy. Mike’s choice of shorts were not such a good idea (LOL). But, we did enjoy spectacular views of the City and its miniature buildings, and took many photographs. We also watched as some young local daredevils rode mountain bikes down from the top managing not to kill themselves as they skidded over gravel and rocks.

Unfortunately for our friend Mike who would miss one hell of a grand meal, after he had departed we were invited out to dinner by a local friend, Marcello Aleman (the cousin of our Landlord). Marcello who was educated as a Lawyer, but who has been employed previously in marketing; now has his own Crisis Management consulting business, and apparently has done well with many clients from some of the largest Corporations in Ecuador as well as some governmental ministries as clients. In any event, Marcello wanted to surprise us so he didn’t tell us ahead of time where we would be dining. As it turned out, he took us to a place not yet well publicized, and nearly impossible to find unless you have been there before, known as Hacienda Rumiloma.

Amazingly, although it is really only a 15 minute drive from our apartment in Quito's city center, its like being in a whole new world yet so close to the busy metropolis. Located midway up the western slopes of Quito's surrounding volcanic mountains, the first thing you notice is of course the spectacular views down upon the city. If you come for dinner (as we did), the twinkling lights of the nighttime city are breathtaking. The grounds of the Hacienda are surrounded by pristine forest, which we were told have many trails for daytime walks and hiking tours. Although we did not stay overnight in the Hotel portion of the property, nevertheless we were taken for a tour of the newly refurbished rooms. The rustic wood beamed exterior, is easily matched by the extravagant yet tasteful interiors of the suite-sized guest rooms. Complete with copper bathtub, large showers, comfy king-size bed, antique wood furnishings, and even a wood-burning pot-bellied fireplace, there is no doubt that a stay at this awesome Hotel would be something to remember. Unbelievably, we were told that the original Hotel had burned to the ground only a little more than a year ago, and had been completely rebuilt in less than a year. After our tour of the property, our appetite having been worked up, we selected our window side table in the restaurant, with the views over the city. The newly hired Paris-trained Chef, made her introductions and recommended that we let her choose our appetizers and tapa-sized entrees, so that we could really experience her broad range of cooking styles. Following her advice, a non-stop meal of dishes were delivered, including cold avocado soup, duck breast, pork chops, seared tuna with wosabi dressing, fried camabera cheese, and a beautiful array of sweet deserts, accompanied by fine Chilean Wines. The meal was truly exquisite, and the new Chef is clearly destined to earn her Michelen rating. Following our meal, we were shown downstairs to the quaint and inviting Irish-tavern styled Bar, complete with huge open fireplace blazing away.

Accompanying throughout our meal and for drinks thereafter, was the effervescent hostess Amber, and her husband Ozzie. Born and raised in America, she spent about 15 years in Ireland, married into royalty, and hobbed-knobbed with European High Society. After her divorce, she married Ozzie, and Ecuadorian, who had inherited his property that is now Hacienda Rumilona. Now, besides running the Hacienda (with Ozzie), she does charity work for indigenous tribes in the Amazonian Jungle. Joining us at the restaurant and later for drinks in the bar that evening, were the Chief of one of the Tribes being hosted by the President of a large multi-national Resort chain working with them to develop a jungle lodge resort; and at a separate table the Ecuadorian Ambassador to Ireland with some friends. Quite an interesting evening – so much so, that we didn’t get home until 3:30am. Great memory to end our stay in Quito.

Final Impressions of Quito: Unquestionably it is a beautiful city to see and visit, with a generally warm peaceful and friendly populace. Contrary to some rumors we heard prior to our arrival, we found the City quite safe to roam, including public transportation. Would we consider living here permanently? Probably not. Why? Simply not enough to offer in terms of culture, or business/employment opportunities, compared to our favorite place thus far, Buenos Aires. And, frankly, even though Ecuador remains "Third World", we actually find Buenos Aires more affordable in most ways important to us. (ie. Apartment rent about same; food particularly meats cheaper in BA; and Wine … no comparison at all .. BA has some of the best wines in the world for incredibly cheap prices). Another "negative" about living in Quito … not previously mentioned … is that there is actually a serious Air Pollution problem, due to its locale in a valley and the far too congested automobile/bus traffic situation (with apparently little or no pollution control regulation). Perhaps we might have moved up Quito on our "list" of possibles, if we had seen more of the country. But regrettably, we did not have the opportunity to visit other areas of the country beyond the previously described day trips. We would love to have seen the Ocean and the popular beach-town destination of Manta, and Guayaquil the largest city in Ecuador which reportedly has a newly renovated and secure beautiful beach-front promenade. We also had hoped to spend time in the popular colonial town of Cuenca. And, a trip into the Amazon Jungle would surely have been memorable; along with a tour of the famous Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately, as we have tried to stress in prior writings and private communications, we are not traveling as "Tourists on Vacation", with money to spend frivolously. Rather, as we currently are not employed, we are living solely off limited savings and must carefully watch our budget. We cannot afford to simply leave our paid-for rented apartment, and spend time and money traveling to other parts of a country we visit, staying in Hotels at considerable additional expense. Rather, we take seriously our true purpose of searching for a new permanent home (or homes) abroad, spending time living among and as the locals do in a particular City or Town that we choose based on its long-term possibilities. (FYI – For those who strongly urged us not to miss Galapagos, we are well aware of how special a visit would have been. But, even though we are in Ecuador, the Galapagos is more than 600miles off the coast, and can only reasonably be reached by a not inexpensive round-trip Flight, and then can only be toured by an even more expensive Cruise Ship not to mention steep Entrance Fees, all-in-all definitely a separate vacation destination costing several thousand of dollars to do right!). Maybe, someday if/when we are residing permanently in South America and bringing in income, then we can take a real "Vacation" and travel to such tourist destinations.


We end (for now) our stay in Central and South America, leaving the Continent to finally fly overseas first to Europe and then on to SE Asia. We depart Quito the morning of August 17, flying to Madrid, Spain for a 2 day layover, before proceeding on to our longer-term destination of Budapest, Hungary. As usual, we already found on the Internet what we hope will be a nice 2BR apartment in the heart of Budapest, which we have rented for 2months. (Some may recall that a couple of years ago, I nearly landed a job there until negotiations fell through at the last minute. Though it was left on good terms, and I have already contacted my almost-employer, who has pre-invited us for Dinner already. So who knows where it may lead). Thereafter, we have already booked a mileage-award flight from Budapest to Goa, India (on the Arabian Sea, on the western Hindu-populated side of India). After that … not set in stone … but tentative plans to head on to Thailand and Vietnam.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


PART I – Our Arrival and . . . Another Apartment Horror Story

(5/21-8/17/09) On May 21, 2009, we flew non-stop from Guatemala to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Located only about 20km from the Equator, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, at an elevation of approximately 2850meters (9350ft). The City proper has a population of around 1.5million, while the larger ‘metropolitan’ area population is probably twice that number. Quito spreads out from north to south in a valley between pretty green volcanic highlands in a relatively narrow but limitless length as far as the eye can see in either direction. As a result, it is fairly easy to navigate the large city, because there are really only 4 major arteries that traverse the city along its length, and upon which the local and express (Trolle) public transportation buses run. Starting with the Airport which is located in the northern section of the central City, traveling south you quickly pass the well-known Quicentro Shopping Mall and Olympic Stadium, then past the huge Carolina Park and neighboring upscale highrises, then about 2-3miles later you would enter what is known as New Town with its 4 or 5 square blocks of touristy restaurants and bars, and finally after another 2-3miles, you would get to the Old Town or Colonial Center of Quito at Independencia Square where the Presidential Palace is located, along with the main Cathedral, and the exclusive Plaza Grande Hotel with its $500/nt rooms with views over the square.

As usual, we found an apartment on the Internet, which was described as 3bedroom 2bath, with living/dining room, and fully equipped kitchen, in the Old/Colonial part of town, only about a 4-5block walk to Independencia Square. Initially, the only apparent ‘downside’ of the apartment’s locale, was that the ‘short’ walk to the center was actually a steep hill (down to the center, and a hardy climb back up to the apartment). Great exercise, of course, but for those of us who have arrived from normal elevations it is to say the least quite a strain on our poor lungs unaccustomed to the thin air. No problem – we’re young (at heart) and tough in mind (hard-headed?). Really, we were quite pleased with our choice of residence at the start, in a secure gated courtyard Condominium Complex, including a 24hr guard, all at a very reasonable negotiated rental rate (US$600/mo., including all utilities).

Soon, however, some unfortunate realities and problems would put a major damper on our stay. To begin with, and somewhat surprising, there is actually a very limited choice of dining options in the Old/Colonial part of town. Apart from 3 or 4 relatively expensive tourist hotspots around the main square, the only dining options were lunchtime oriented local diners, most of which closed by dinner time. Similarly, for groceries, there were only 2 small-medium sized stores, with limited selections of staples and even more limited selection of meats. The bulk of dinner restaurants along with the major Grocery stores known as SuperMaxi and MegaMaxi were all located miles away in New Town and the Quicentro area, requiring either a bus or taxi ride. And, compromising our usual mandatory requirement, we accepted an apartment without Internet or Cable TV (though, the owner did kindly install a limited access satellite receiver, but there were still only a couple of english movie/entertainment channels, and no news channels). But the lack of Internet access was the biggest problem – it meant no Vonage phone, and the inconvenience and added expense of having to use an Internet Café to even occasionally check emails). Nevertheless, none of the above ‘minor inconveniences’ would alone have spoiled our stay, until we had to deal with another far more serious at our apartment.

Our first brief encounter with what was to come, occurred immediately upon our arrival at the apartment, accompanied by the owner’s cousin who kindly picked us up from the airport. (Note: Our owner lives full time in New York, and rents out the apartment as an investment in between her occasional visits, and has her older Cousin who is a property owner and wife of a Developer, watch over her affairs). When we tried to switch on the lights, we found that the kitchen along with the entire 2nd floor of the apartment had no electricity. I promptly checked the inside Circuit Breaker box, but all looked ok. Stumped for nearly an hour, and growing increasingly frustrated, I finally speculated that the apartment must be have two central circuit breaker switches and one could be off. So, I went to check down in the central courtyard building circuit breaker boxes, but not surprisingly they had locks. Shouldn’t be a big problem, right? The Security Guard or someone in charge at the Condominium, surely must have key and should want to help us – at least, you would think so? But, when our spanish-speaking owner’s cousin and her assistant first asked the Security Guard for a key and assistance, they were told he did not have a key and no assistance was offered other than that they should call the Electric Company (yeah, right, how many hours or days would that take until they came – in the meantime, we’d have no hot water which worked off electric water heaters, no refrigerator, coffee maker, laundry machines, TV, or lights in our 2nd floor where are bedroom and main bathroom is located). After another half hour waiting, I went down to try to talk to the Security Guard (who of course didn’t speak english). Somehow, my increasingly angry tone persuaded the Guard to finally acknowledge that he did have a key to the main building Circuit Breaker after all. Opening the Box, he pointed to the apparent markings and what he said was our apartment’s Circuit Breakers (yes, I was right, each apartment had 2 switches) and they both looked on. But, I quickly spied the remainder of the other apartment switches and saw one that was definitely ‘tripped’ (in the middle-off) position. I promptly switched it on, and was reprimanded by the Guard who was indicating it was not our apartment’s switch. But lo and behold, Nancy shouted out our Apartment window, that the electricity was now working in our Apartment. (Obviously, the main circuit breaker switches were mismarked – gee, big surprise there). Ok, crisis resolved right --- wrong.

Over the next several days, our apartment’s electricity went off about once a day, requiring me to seek the Guard’s assistance to open the Box and turn on the electricity. But, so far, not that big a deal nor that big an inconvenience to spoil our stay. Ah, but that not so atypical Condo politics reared its ugly head. When our side of the entire building’s electric went off, and the Electric Co. was called out (only to discover it was simply the MAIN MAIN building Circuit Breaker switch that had now ‘tripped’, the Condo VP (a real A...hole), tried to blame us (and our apartment) for their faulty electric system, and tried to get us (and, then our owner’s cousin by phone) to pay the $40 fee for the Electric Co. men to come out. A big argument ensued between him and our owner’s cousin, with the Cousin finally agreeing to privately hire the same Electric Co. men to come and check out our apartment’s electrical connections. Sounds reasonable. But, in the meantime, after he hung up the phone, I watched as he went to the Guard and got the Circuit Breaker key, and then proceeded to walk away to his apartment. I shouted after him, that we might need to get in the Box if the breaker tripped again that evening, and he just gave me the brush-off wave. Luckily, no further problem that evening; but "the War of the Key" had begun!

True to her word, the Cousin arranged to have the Electric Co. men come back late the next day (of course, our ‘inconvenience’ had begun, now having to be present for their arrival). They changed the one main breaker for our apartment that kept ‘tripping’ with a newer better one that was unused in the Box, and then changed ALL of our inside apartment breakers with supposedly higher-rated switches. But, after the promised 1hr repairs, turned into 3hrs (5-8pm), and testing of the apartment continued to trip the main breaker, we finally grew tired and hungry (not having been able to even eat dinner), we told them they would have to come back the next morning. At my request, the Electric Co. men left me the master key to the electric box locks in case of any problem overnight.

Early next morning – JUST IN CASE, Bob was ‘smart’ enough to run into town to find a key copy place, and made a copy of the Master Key.

It was Saturday morning, and again we had to be inconvenienced, and stay around the apartment, for the arrival of the Electric Co. men, and wait and watch while they spent another few hours ‘repairing’ the electrical system. Supposedly they found a bad wire after an ‘explosion’ and major spark, and bypassed it with a good wire to the main box. After some further testing, it seemed to work ok. We had our doubts, especially when, turning the hot water heater control up and down, initially turned all the lights up and down. But, they left, and we kept our fingers crossed.

But, it was not to be. After another failure or two over the next couple of days, the owner’s Cousin in consultation with the owner, agreed to bring over her husband Developer’s personal Electrician to check things out. But after making the trip with the Cousin (and, again our having to be there), when he arrived and they asked the Guard for the key, he claimed not have the key and said the VP had it, and unbelievably said they should come back the next day. (Yeah right, like he and the Cousin have nothing better to do, then to come back again). Lucky for all of us, Bob pulled out his ‘secret’ Master Key, and opened the Box himself. (Otherwise, there would be no further repairs today, and Cousin and Electrician – and, us, -- would be inconvenienced yet another day).

When we opened the main Box, it was readily apparent to the Cousin’s sharp assistant and myself (both of us had closely monitored the original repairs), that ‘someone’ had changed back our apartment’s bad breaker switch to the old bad one. (We all knew that ‘someone’ had to be the Condo VP, who not only had the key, but despite being an Accountant had previously claimed to be a knowledgeable electrical repairmen whose offer to do the repairs was turned down by our NY owner). Ironically, we also discovered that the ‘someone’ had stupidly put the switches back upside-down so that the "on" was opposite position from all the other apartment switches. Unbelievable, Mr. VP was actually sabotaging our owner’s diligent attempts at her expense to repair the problem. Unfortunately, the Electrician did not again change the old switch again with the newer better main switch, and what I suspect to be the root cause of all the problems – since our inside circuit breakers had NEVER tripped, but only the main one downstairs.) However, he did change ALL the inside apartment Circuit Breakers (again), now replacing the ones the Electric Co. men had put in with yet different size ones, claiming they had got it wrong (I do believe he was more knowledgeable than the Electric Co. men, who were much younger and from watching them fumble and bumble, didn’t inspire much confidence). He also rewired all the Breakers to more evenly balance the electric load. However, suspicion remained that one problem was the instant-on Electric Water Heater was causing some overload – of course, if the building’s main electric system were up to par, that should not be a problem.

After he left, and it was obviously reported by the Guard to the VP that we had got into the with our own Master Key, Mr. VP now put on his own lock in place of the Electric Co.’s on our building’s Circuit Breaker Box. Naturally, the problem did not resolve, and actually grew worse over the coming days and week. This resulted in a couple of major confrontations in the Courtyard with the Condo Officers and Staff, when they refused to help turn our electricity on or open the Box for us. I finally, had to use my Master Key to open their side of the Building’s Main Circuit Breaker Box and threaten to shut off their entire building’s electricity, if they would not turn ours back on. It worked temporarily. That evening our NY Owner called (again) to speak with the VP and the Pres., and supposedly they were acting the way they were because they wrongly claimed we had been turning our Circuit Breaker Switch on and off "every 5 mins." and they feared this could cause a fire. Well, first of all, of course it wasn’t true. At most, we had turned the switch on once (maybe on one occasion twice) in any given day; and, second, it is absolutely silly and false that switching the breaker on and off (however often) could cause a fire or any damage. Indeed, when the Electric Co. men or the private Electrician had been undertaking their repairs and ‘testing’, they had switched the breakers on and off dozens of times in minutes without fear of causing any damage (let alone fire). In any event, we told our owner to tell the Condo folks we not only didn’t do that, but really didn’t want to touch the switches at all (and have them be able to claim we caused damage), if only they would do it for us if our electric went out. Our NY Owner supposedly extracted a promise from the VP and Pres. that the key would be left with the Guard or otherwise available and they would help us in the future with any further problem. (Yeah right, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn!)

In the meantime, our NY Owner called in a favor at the Electric Co. and had them send two supposedly high-level Inspectors to come and look at the system the next day (and, at my request, to cite the Condo for improperly putting their own lock on the main box). Well, the Inspectors arrived next day as promised, and ironically (and even FUNNY, if it weren’t so serious), were unable to get into the main box because the Condo’s private lock was still in place. When they asked the Guard for the key, (as usual) he denied he had the key, looked at me and suggested I use "my key". I actually laughed aloud, and said I don’t have the key – it’s YOUR lock! After more arguing, and at least half an hour of time passed, finally the Guard "found" a key to the lock (claiming he didn’t know he had it in his guardhouse). Well, the Inspectors then just visually looked at the main box and our apartment, and concluded …. Nothing. No suggestions, no help, no nothing. In addition, with Cousin and her assistant also present and translating, when I pushed them to do something about the illegal private lock on the main Box (which had even initially prevented them from getting in), they just shrugged. Realizing they weren’t going to do anything about it, and concluding that ‘what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander’ – and, as usual, being one step ahead of Mr. VP and his 'soldiers' – I quickly pulled out my own lock from my pocket, and before anyone could blink shut the Box doors, and snapped on my own lock! Most amusing, was the look of shock on everyone’s faces, especially the Guard who stood a few feet away (holding the Condo’s lock in his hand). After a moment, the Electric Co. Inspectors actually sided with me, and told the Cousin that it would be okay if I kept my lock on to have access to our switch, until the problem were ultimately repaired. In the meantime, a little while later, the Guard and two of the cleaning women, were seen holding a hammer and pliers, obviously intending to try to remove the lock. I then had the Cousin then call the Pres. then on her Cell phone to tell her that I had the okay from the Electric Co. Inspectors to keep my lock on, and supposedly she told the staff to stand down (for the time being). But, after all that had gone on – would you trust them? I knew as soon as Mr. VP came home from work to the Condo, he would blow a gasket at my having ‘outsmarted’ him, and would try to remove the lock. So, in the interim, I went shopping for a virtually impervious titanium cased bolt-type lock, and quietly replaced my standard fitness club clock that I had originally used. Checkmate.

Notwithstanding the foregoing temporary resolution to the "War of the Locks", our electric problems continued, we could only literally take 2min. lukewarm/lukecold showers, and continually face confronting the Condo officers and staff if we tried to turn our electricity on. Our sympathetic NY owner, in the meantime, had very kindly offered to release us from our Rental Agreement if we found another apartment. We began our search, and were quite fortunate to find one of the rare short-term rentals available. Actually, it was a brand new beautiful 2BR 3BA high-rise apartment, located in the upscale premier Carolina Park neighborhood, filled with high-end restaurants and bars, 2 blocks from the MegaMaxi Grocery/Dept. store (the largest in Quito), and 2 blocks from the main red-line Trolle. The apartment is furnished with top-quality furniture, comfortable beds and high thread count sheets, unlimited central hot water (finally, we could again enjoy a nice shower!), two large flat-screen Plasma TV’s, and broadband internet! And, no more steep hills to climb. Paradise found. Of course, the rent’s a wee-bit higher, but after nearly 3 weeks of non-stop problems, we could finally begin to enjoy our stay in Quito, and actually have some free time to explore the City and surrounds.

(To Be Continued)
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