Sunday, March 27, 2011

There Are Always Two Sides To A Coin

It seems that we are being reminded of this very old, but wise adage on a daily basis now. The last couple of weeks have proved to be quite difficult in communicating with our architects and making them understand what we expect. At one point tempers flared so badly on both sides that all parties involved were ready to throw in the towel and severe the relationship leaving us to start over from zero once again.

The architects were at the end of their rope and likewise we had made up our minds that we would go it on our own, with the help of Carlos of course. We would hire contractors, laborers and carpenters at our own discretion and be in charge of buying the building material ourselves. The relationship had by now become to strained and to stressful for all of us and the frustration level was at its peak.

Working On The Terrace

After everyone vented and the waters began to recede. I had time to try and look at the situation from both sides. From the very beginning we have been frustrated at the unwillingness of whoever we are dealing with on the house remodel to give us a firm commitment. It has always been understood that all estimates were just that and we never expected that a bid that was given to us would include unforeseen circumstances.

The Canasillos Under Our Roof

We knew that when the workers opened up the roof, if there were rotted beams that needed to be replaced that would be above and beyond the original price. We also knew that any changes we made to the plans would equal out to more money. I don’t know why it works differently in Ecuador, but it does and getting even a ball park estimate is like pulling teeth or at least that has been our experience thus far.

The Terrace Walls Going Up

Now for the work that is exact, such as installing the glass roofs, we then of course expect a firm price barring any changes on our part. In our minds the contractor should be able to take his measurements, know how much material he will need and his labor costs and be able to give us a firm price. This however has not been the case and we are constantly being asked for more money midway through the project, because something was measured wrong or more materials had to be purchased than originally quoted.

The Terrace Floor. What A Beautiful Tile Job

This way of doing business is something that we are not used to, but apparently from what I have read and am currently experiencing is quite common in Ecuador. Nobody wants to take the blame for their errors and will deny what they originally stated in their quote. We are constantly being told that “No that wasn’t included in the price.”

Another View Of The Tile Floor

The architects see it in a very different light. Our architects are a Father Son team, one being very experienced with very good connections. The other, fresh out of Architectural school, full of ideas and ready to sink his teeth into a good project. The Father having years of experience and working on many important projects for the City, brings to the table his own ideas about how things need to be done and a high regard for the original style of the structure.

The Tiles Being Grouted In

Sebastian, the Son doesn’t have a lot of experience under his belt, but he is attentive to our wishes and full of fresh ideas. It is our intention to preserve many of the architectural features and the facade of the house, but there are certain elements that we want to change and we need someone that is willing to see our vision while guiding us along the way.

Another Glass Roof Structure

Rod is our appointed spokesperson/project manager and is doing his best to keep on top of the project via emails, Skype and photos, but the stress is definitely taking its toll and the past two weeks have reflected everyones impatience and frustration. None of us are at our best lately and the tension has gotten the best of us. 

Laying Yet More Tile

We have also come to realize that a big part of the problem probably lies in the fact that we don’t speak the language. Yes we have Carlos to translate, but a lot of the nuances are lost in translation therefor resulting in a lot of miscommunication and or misunderstandings. I say just chalk it up to the two sides of the coin theory.

A Wonderful View Of The Church From The Terrace

In light of all the turmoil, surprisingly this has been a very productive week. Our terrace is almost complete and the workers have done a beautiful job on the brick and tile work. The crew that we have is fantastic and thus far has done a very professional  job. Of course the Terrace has now cost us almost seven times the original quote, but who’s counting?

Hand Notched Beams, No Nails Here

Next is the glass roof that goes over the courtyard. The frame has been built and the glass is ready to be installed. This particular contractor we hired ourselves and it turns out to be a bad decision on our part. This is one of those cases where something was measured wrong and the original quote shot up quite a bit. We’re holding our ground on this one and the contractor has agreed to finish the work for the original price he quoted, but not without a big argument ensuing with Carlos.

On top of everything else we received pictures last night showing the structure for the glass roof along with broken clay roof tiles around the base of the structure. Apparently the crew walked on our new tile roof without putting anything down to protect it and broke many of our new tiles. Rod has officially gone Postal now and I watch helplessly as the steam rises from his ears and he has a meltdown.

Our Newly Laid Roof Tiles Crushed By The Glass Man

There is a hopefully happy ending to this weeks saga though. It looks like we may have worked our differences out with our architects. It seems Sebastian’s Father may be moving to Quito to work on some projects and he has given Sebastian his blessing to take our project over and work with us. We are extremely happy to hear this news as we have always felt that Sebastian really understood our ideas and expectations as well as our desire to make this property something unique.

It is our hope that together we can see this project through to the end. One day Sebastian can tell his Grandchildren about the project he did for the Crazy Gringo’s and how he survived. That ought to be quite a story. Something tells me we will have many stories to share.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Battle Ecuador

This past weekend Rod, Lindsay and I went to see an action packed movie called “Battle Los Angeles” It was basically a story of a Marine platoon that faces off against an alien invasion in Los Angeles. The platoon runs into what seems like insurmountable obstacles at every turn, losing good men along the way. I can’t say I cared much for the movie, but it did give me the idea for this weeks post title.

Ever since we returned home after our last trip to Ecuador it has been an uphill battle with the property project. One of the first things we did when we got to Cuenca was shop around for another architect in order to get competing bids and to make sure that we were absolutely getting the best deal we could without compromising the work. Ultimately at the end of the day we decided that for several reasons, the architects we were currently working with were the best choice for us.

A Rendering Of What The Back Of The House
Will Look Like From The Garden Area

Much of our stay in Cuenca was devoted to fact finding and negotiations. We spent countless hours going over the plans and discussing with the architects how we wanted things designed. We spent a couple of days just looking at tile, flooring, fixtures and lighting. We talked about bringing our things over in a container versus downsizing considerably and only bringing what we can fit into suitcases. In the end we agreed it was best for us to ship a container, especially since we have such a huge space to fill.

Many Of The Building Materials Are Cheaper In The States.
We Will Be Loading Up Our Suitcases With Electrical Items
And Carrying Them To Ecuador.

There was a lot of discussion about costs of materials, labor and fees. It was  a battle to get any of the architects to give us a bid on the project so we would at least be able to put together a budget. No one seemed to want to commit to a bid, but we refused to move forward until we had one. Just days before we were to return to the States we were finally given bids and we were able to make our choices.

What Was Under The Ceilings In The Butler’s Pantry Yuk!
See The New Ceilings Further Down The Page

We met our architects at the San Juan Hotel one evening so that we could show them the overall look that we were going for.We had a very long meeting going over the bid line by line and detail by detail, making sure we fully understood what we would be charged for. A word of warning...budgets and bids in Ecuador do not work the same as they do in the U.S. and contracts are a rarity. Even though we thought we had everything worked out and agreed upon, when we returned home once again things started to change.

Rod Couldn’t Stand The Suspense And Had to See What Was Under
The Column Facade. We Were Excited To Discover An Old Round Column Underneath With The Original Green Paint.

One thing we did decide upon while we were in Ecuador was that we needed someone at the house constantly overseeing the project, taking inventory of materials orders and making sure everything goes as it is supposed to...well at least close to what it is supposed to. Carlos had expressed an interest in this position, so we were happy to take him up on it. Carlos knows our expectations, he is bilingual, lives in Cuenca and has many connections and after everything we have been through together we now consider him family.

Mom Trying To Clean Up After Rod

Now that we have been home awhile we have already had numerous battles with the architect via Skype. Have you ever conferenced called on Skype with seven different people at once? It can get pretty hairy, especially when everyone is trying to talk at once and two different languages are being spoken. A conversation that would have normally taken an hour in person takes at least two if not more via Skype. Several nights a week we would hold our pow wows over the internet and end the night mentally drained and exhausted. If anyone has ever built or remodeled a house they know what I’m talking about. It’s hard enough in person much less in another country over the internet.

The Workers That Made Our Canales Did A Great Job.
Downspouts Will be Added.

The first phase of our project (the rooftop terrace and a portion of the ceilings) are nearing an end. Mom, Rod and I will be returning at the first part of May to prepare for the second phase, which will be plumbing and electrical. This will be when the house looks its worst as channels will be cut into the adobe walls to run the conduit and our floors will be pulled up in order to run the plumbing. Needless to say despite the daily barrage of photos that we receive from Carlos documenting the daily progress, it will still be tense the first time we walk back into the house and get to actually see the progression first hand.

We Had Already Decided To Replace The Wood Flooring Throughout The House And The Carpenter Wasn’t To Pleased That We Insisted On Using The Wood Floors To Make The New Ceilings Instead Of Buying Him New Wood. The Crew Was Pulling Up Flooring From Everywhere And Almost Ran Out At The End.

In Order To Keep As Many of The Original Elements As Possible, We Came Up With The Idea Of Re-Purposing The Wood Flooring And Using It On The Ceilings. After It Is Stained It Is Absolutely Beautiful And A Big Money Saver.

It looks like after the terrace is finished and our plans are approved, we will
become our own contractors and hire workers and carpenters on an individual as needed basis. Our luck with architects thus far has not been to fruitful and the stress level may end up putting us in the hospital where we will never get to enjoy our Ecuador house.

This Is Hard Manual Labor, Hoisting A Few Bricks Up At A Time To Build The Walls On The Terrace.

Hoisting The Cement A Bucket At A Time To The Terrace

Pouring The Cement On The Terrace A Bucket At A Time

Laying The Foundation For The Terrace

For those of you hanging on the edge of your seat. It is now official. Our house is not the Arch Bishops house. The Arch Bishop lived next door and his brother who was a priest lived in our house. Still makes a good story. Unfortunately we still do not know the whereabouts of our alter piece. It went missing sometime after our September trip and has not been seen since. Mom and I are just sick over losing our alter as it was such an important part of the house and we had to fight to have it sold with the house in the first place. Sigh...another battle another day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Banking In Ecuador

O.K. I know a lot of you think that we fell off the map or maybe even gave up on the house project and are looking for ways to dig ourselves out of this gigantic project we have taken on, that is not the case at all. I was only able to post two entries on our last trip to Ecuador and we were there almost three weeks.

It seemed like every waking moment was filled with meetings with the architects, gathering information, making rough sketches of our plans, only to change them five minutes later or discussing progress or should I say lack of progress amongst ourselves.

On our way home our flight connected in Houston and due to the weather that a lot of the nation was experiencing, our flight was cancelled. Luckily all we had to do was catch a shuttle to Rod’s parents house and spend the night in order to catch our connecting flight in the morning.

Once we were home the pace didn’t let up as we had backlogs of work to catch up on and Bob and Mom had experienced some issues with frozen pipes. I’m still trying to catch up, but at least I’m able to take a breath now and again. There is lots of news on the property, but you will have to wait until the next post to catch up as that is a whole story in itself.

Many of you may recall that Mom and I opened our Ecuador bank accounts on the trip before this last one. We managed to get them open before we left, but there were still a lot of loose ends to tie up. Since this last trip to Ecuador we have had many encounters with the banking system and I thought it would be a good idea to write about our dealings so that others may be aware and even maybe even avoid some of the pitfalls we have encountered.

Let me start by saying...number one rule, if you are a foreigner wanting to bank in Ecuador, PATIENCE is a virtue! When Mom and I originally opened our bank accounts, we had done our research and talked to several of the other Expats that now call Ecuador home. We decided to go with Banco Pichincha for three main reasons;

Almost all of the Expats that we spoke to had at least one of their accounts at Pichincha.

Banco Pichincha was established on 11 April 1906 and managed to weather the financial crisis of 1999 while many other banks failed.

This is the only bank in Cuenca that we are aware of that has a dedicated department for the Expat account holders with a bilingual officer in place.

One thing that I found interesting is that the Ecuadorian Government will only insure accounts up to $20,000.00. Even if you have multiple accounts in Pichincha you are still only insured up to $20,000.00 as a cumulative total.

Our initial experience was pretty much as we had expected in a foreign country where we didn’t yet know the ropes so to speak. The process was long and we had to produce several documents including a letter of reference from our banks here in the States, another letter of reference from someone who also had an account at Pichincha, lucky for us our lawyers were account holders at Pichincha and were able to provide the needed documentation for us. We also needed full color copies of our passports.

After what I recall to be two trips to the bank, we were able to open the most basic savings account. This last trip we had to finish up what we had started and have Rod and Bob added to the accounts, get set up with online banking and get our debit cards, sounds pretty simple? not so. For all the years that I have been banking in the states I have always carried the signature card to Rod, had him sign it and returned it to the bank to have him added as a signer. In this case both Rod and Bob were required to be present at the bank and show their full color copy passports in order to be added to the accounts.

When we got there several other customers were waiting in line in the special Expat department to take care of their business. We waited patiently for our turn to be called and soon realized that people were just walking in and taking care of their business without first taking a seat and waiting their turn. It seems in Ecuador the custom is if there is an office with no customers in it, you are free to walk in and take a seat even if there are others seated outside waiting their turn.

Once we were able to get in the office, Mom and Bob went first as there is only one head officer that is appointed to take care of what we needed to do. He has associates that work under him, but that is once your account is already set up. It seemed like we were there for hours and we had scheduled a meeting with the architects, so after Mom and Bob got their business taken care of we had to leave before Rod and I could finish ours.

Several days later we returned to the bank once again to pick up Bob and Mom’s debit cards (they do not mail them to you) and to have Rod added to the account and order our debit cards as well. Once we got that set up and Mom and Bob had their debit cards in hand, we had to walk downstairs to activate the debit cards in the ATM machine. Carlos was with us and thank goodness for that. Of course the ATM machine was in Spanish and we had no idea what the prompts were saying. It turns out you use a code that the bank gives you in order to activate your card. Once you insert your card into the ATM with the bank code, you are then prompted to create a code that is unique to you and you will use that code from now on (yikes!) We had to go get a banana spilt and some gelato after that one.

Mom and Bob Get Their ATM Cards

A few days later it would be our turn to go through the same process. In the meantime our bank officer had shown us how to use the online banking while we were in his office. We were given little plastic cards that have a row of letters across the top and then a column of numbers down the left side and a whole lot of three digit numbers in between. Every time you log into your account you are asked to enter a code from this card. For instance the prompt will say F5, you then have to look in row F and follow it across to the number 5, that is where you will find your three digit code to enter. The code prompt changes every time you log in and everyone’s card is unique to their account.

Of course the first time Mom and I tried to log into our accounts with our Spanish translation book in hand, we got locked out. Turns out we didn’t know that the very first time you log in you have to use another code that is provided by the bank. Back we went to Pichincha to our special idiot department to get that straightened out.

Needless to say this is a time consuming process and can take you quite some time just to make a simple change or deposit. We have been told that the expats must do all of their business through this special department, there is no walking up to the teller and handing them your deposit or withdrawal slip. Also if you do not live in Ecuador, you will not receive a bank statement. If you wish to view your activity you will either have to go to the bank or view it online.

One of our first banking missions was to transfer funds from our accounts to the architect’s and Carlos’ account (they also bank with Pichincha). This seemed the lesser of two evils for the mere fact that if you wire transfer money to or from your Pichincha account it would cost upwards of $60.00 per transfer. If you transfer it online to another account holder it is free. With the help of Carlos we were able to complete this task relatively painlessly, but when we returned to the States we would be on our own.

Our bank officer had warned us that the online system was due for a change and pretty soon we would basically have to reset our account with new passwords and secret questions (Oh Boy!) Oh I forgot to mention in case you have not already guessed, the entire Pichincha web site is in Spanish with no option to translate. I have had some success with google chrome and google translate, but not to the degree I would like.

After returning home to the States I promptly forgot about the impending change to the online banking until of course I needed to transfer money. As soon as I logged in it was apparent I was in trouble. I felt absolutely defeated as if I had never used the internet before. The website was in Spanish and looked completely different than in the past.

The Log In Page On Banco Pichincha’s Website

I immediately Skyped Carlos (my lifeline) and through the magical screen sharing feature he was able to walk me through the process. The website kept logging me out because I wasn’t entering my secret questions, answers, passwords, user ID, etc. fast enough. We finally made it though and I felt empowered.
The next day I called Mom via Skype to help her set up her online banking, but the site was moving at a snails pace and once again we were logged out several times. Mom was finally able to complete the task later on that afternoon. Now taking my new found courage I was determined to show everyone I could transfer  money on my own. Right out of the shoot I must have mistyped a password or something just as important because I was immediately locked out of my account. I didn’t need English to tell me that. There was a big red blinking stop sign icon on my page and lots of lettering in red (uuuugh!)

Determined that I was not to be beat, I pulled up my google translate page and pulled up the Pichincha page once again. Each prompt that came up, I copied and pasted into google translate and then entered the correct answers. I ended up having to reset my password all the time being kicked out of the system for taking to long, but victory was finally mine. I was once again in the system and was able to complete my transfer.

Banco Pichincha’s Home Page

This morning I had to laugh as I pulled up the Pichincha log in page to look at my account and the picture below is what I saw.

Need I say more? Patience is a virtue when banking in Ecuador.