Friday, March 27, 2015

Suffering for Jesus in Cuenca

Our Pastor Pat Tanner at our "sending" church, Grace Chapel in Lancaster, California is the author of the above title, not your humble scribe.  We have in the past months explored to some length just what that phrase means. . . suffering for Jesus in (name the location).  Cuenca, Ecuador is much more exotic and mysterious perhaps than say, Ventura, California from a North American perspective.  Besides, we live in Cuenca now.  Hence the title of today's post.

You can suffer for Jesus in the Antelope Valley of California. . . a little.  You might get jeered at behind your back for identifying with Him out of earshot, or be reviled in local current event forums on the 'Net.  You probably won't lose your job, your residence, your car, or your family over your relationship with the Living Lord of the Universe.

Meanwhile, in places like Syria, Iraq, and Iran just to name a few more obvious choices in the news lately, you may lose not only those abovementioned items, but your very life!  ISIS takes few if any prisoners, it seems. 

Cuenca, our current "duty station" if you will, leans much more in the direction of our previous home in Palmdale in the Antelope Valley than (ahem) the Middle East.  Hard to suffer for Jesus in our expat living situation here.  We have no job to lose, our Social Security pensions keep coming every month (thank God for ATMs and Debit Cards from our USA based Credit Union), our landlady adores us, we have no car, taking the bus (Yes!  We have been learning the Cuenca Transit bus routes and have been reaping the savings over the taxi fares . . . only 25 cents for a bus ride, half that for Seniors/Disabled), taxi and walking when and where appropriate.  We are our own immediate family, and our extended family in the USA largely stays in touch with us thus far. 

So, no real suffering for Jesus in Cuenca, right?  Wrong!  I've heard testimonies from some of our new friends who are brothers (and sisters) in Christ about - and I am translating from the Spanish - "leaving the family religion and going to a strange church."  Because family ties have traditionally been strong here in Ecuador, these kind of comments from parents and siblings and other relatives sting . . . familial pressure is to stay within the accepted Roman Catholic tradition. Maybe ostracism is not directly done in full, but there are definitely strained relations due to one's decision to follow Jesus Christ and be Born Again.

This is one reason why Iglesia Verbo Cristiana has the "Iglesia en Hogar" house churches/home Bible studies and fellowships.  To one that is in strained relationships with authority figures like an abuelito (grandfather), the prayer support and friendships offered there are invaluable.  Still, Verbo has maybe 25 per cent of its attendance attending them from what I can see.  Not too much different from North American Evangelical churches, but for different reasons.  The biggest reason for the gap between church attendance in Sunday worship services and attending a house church meeting is due to not catching the vision of being a totally committed disciple of Jesus Christ, going with the cultural flow of letting the clergy do the work like one sees attitudinally in the North American church.  But I digress.

How are we suffering for Jesus in Cuenca?  In some less obvious but yet very real ways we are indeed doing just that as we continue to begin our forays in serving the Cuencanos among us in His name, teaching ESL and nursing at Fundacion Hogar in the El Centro of Cuenca.

Here's an example: this week, Carolyn Anne got a hankering for chili con carne like we might make at home in Palmdale (or buy in the can at Costco or Winco).  One small problem: where's the chili powder?  As Ecuador has been controlling its exports more and more in the past few months in order to live within its declining oil producing revenues, curtailing many imports, items like chili powder that used to be at Coral and Supermaxi are no longer there. 

Another item I miss is picante sauce in a 64 ounce plastic bottle.  Coral has a similar size plastic bottle of "salsa picante" but, as I soon found out, picante sauce in Ecuador is *HOT!*  We'll have to water it down with tomato sauce (more expensive here than in the US gram for gram) and see if we can use it up on some chicken tacos, chips or something.

Try to find a green pepper in the produce section like in the States.  Fat chance . . . It's easy to find hot peppers like chili peppers, though and there appears to be more than one variety of them at Coral.  I did find a yellow pepper that had some green to it.  Wonder what that will taste like?  We will find out!

Last year, Supermaxi had Campbell's canned soups available on the shelves.  At $2 or more a can, it was pricey, but something you could get if you had a hankering for food from the States.  No more.  Economic belt tightening, not to mention a "luxury tax" just instituted this month of up to 45 per cent put and end to that.  Buy Ecuadorian and help the country live within its means. . . we are doing that.

Oh, and back to the chili con carne topic: I tried in vain to find a kidney bean section among the multiplicitude of the beans found at my local Mall del Rio Coral.  Not anywhere to be found.  I picked up a bean called "chile frijol" which is decidedly *not* a kidney bean, but is red colored and appears to be used in the *one* offering of chili con carne I find at Supermaxi lately, the Facundo brand.  After soaking these beans for 24 hours, they appear to be soaked through, ready to be cooked and added to Carolyn Anne's crockpot concoction of ground beef, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and a bit of "picante" hot sauce added.  This is not North American style chili con carne, but it will have to do.  It did have good taste, though when it's all said and done.  More expensive ingredients than in the States.  I'd say with the ground beef used at $8, canned tomatoes at $2, Tomato puree at $3 (partially used bottle), and "chile frijol" beans at $3 a package, this crockpot took around $15 to $20 of ingredients.  Not cheap by US standards.

You want to know who is undergoing real suffering, economically speaking, in Latin America right now?  Venezuela.  Latest report states that due to the country putting all its eggs in one source of income - oil (95 per cent of foreign income according to Credit Suisse and Bloomberg sources) - and the downward worldwide price spiral, the average citizen now cannot find milk, flour, and toilet paper in the stores.  Venezuelans are leaving the country for other more stable countries, including Ecuador.  Even the Ecuadorians are leaving Venezuela.  A 40 per cent drop in National Income, and a 93 per cent risk of defaulting on its debts has driven the Venezuelan economy to its knees, and currently suffers the world's highest inflation rate - 63 per cent - amid hard currency shortages.  Hyperinflation could be in its future if there is no course correction by its leaders, or no price upswing in the price of oil.  Pray for Venezuela and its people, and for wisdom for its leaders post Hugo Chavez, please.    

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Beginning a Volunteer Adventure

Yesterday, Friday, we had a wonderful visit at Fundacion Hogar in the El Centro of Cuenca with our new friend Chio, who is the Director of the medical clinic there.  It was our first visit to El Centro in the non tourist dominated area north of Gran Columbia (think Sierra Highway if you want to know the role Gran Columbia plays in the street system in Cuenca and are from where we came from, the Antelope Valley).  No English language signs for the tiendas and cafes, a quieter vibe in the morning than in the more familiar part of El Centro, and definitely no Gringos in sight!  We took a taxi to our appointment and the chofer immediately remarked in Spanish, "not as much traffic here - I like that!"  You see, in a 450+ year old city which Cuenca's El Centro is, with one way streets narrower than in the tourist sections of San Francisco, California, and with the Tranvia subway under construction in El Centro beginning next week, it gets old driving in a street system designed for pre Columbian times.

Upon arriving at the clinic, we met the morning DJ of Iglesia Verbo Cristiana's Radio Familia 96.9 FM radio station studio - they broadcast uplifting Christ centered positive programming from this location in Cuenca 24 hours a day, and have for over a decade.  Something different and clean in the air, as Jack French of the SOS radio network  based in Las Vegas, Nevada used to always say.  She is a friend we have seen while attending the worship services at Verbo. Nice to see welcoming friends!

We went upstairs to the secretary's office and met both Chio, the Director, and one of Verbo's Elders, Boris.  Boris was there to provide the bilingual translation, though Chio, who we met previously the week before at Verbo, has some English speaking and understanding abilities.  I did not have to translate this time!  We had also met Boris two weeks ago in the course of visiting the Verbo church office when we were seeking a dogsitter (now obtained courtesy of Chio). 

The conversation was rather short and decidedly informal between Chio and Carolyn Anne.  Yes, the clinic could use her training and abilities.  !!!  They would provide a lab coat, etc. for her time as a volunteer so she would be recognized as part of the staff.  Comfortable and appropriate clothes are the dress code - no need to buy clothes while a volunteer nurse in the medical clinic.  She would start in the next few weeks assisting the efforts of Taylor University students currently here in Cuenca in one of the "Medical Brigades" held six times a year to help the poor and underprivileged here in Cuenca.  And again, no need to have any particular knowledge of Spanish - other staff and/or volunteers would assist in translations between her and the patients.  All good stuff, indeed!

At the moment, we are a bit confused on the reporting date in April, but that will be easy to confirm later since we have Chio's telephone number at home.  We're happy to have Carolyn Anne begin her Cuenca volunteer adventure, finally!

As for me and my application to teach English as a Second Language at the Arco Institute at Iglesia Verbo Cristiana . . . it's still here waiting for me to have some time to fill it out.  No worries . . . it'll get done soon. 

Back to Boris for a moment: it turns out he is the one behind the Clinica Medica getting started.  A humble man, but one with vision from God on how things could be for Verbo and the citizens of Cuenca.

Unlike a typical job interview, he concluded our time with what is really needed as one volunteers in the medical clinic setting at Fundacion Hogar: a loving heart - love transcends all linguistic boundaries.  The cultural kindness of offering a friendly !Buenos Dias! to all one comes in contact with, followed with a hug, is both desired . . . and right up Carolyn Anne's alley so to speak - it's her style.  These small niceties coupled with the medical help provided help soften people's hearts to be open to the Good News of Jesus Christ - that is, the Gospel.  In the case of the Medical Brigades, a Gospel presentation is also provided to patients and family.  A good number of people have come to know the Lord and attend Verbo now because of these Medical Brigades, to cite but one example.  Exciting. . . and definitely a new adventure as we explore the direction the Lord desires for the both of us.  

In terms of vision for Iglesia Verbo, Boris understands that all Believers in Jesus Christ who have truly been Born Again have Spiritual Gifts.  They are to be used to edify, build up, and grow the church and thus the Kingdom of God.  All Believers are to use their Gifts in service to the church body and to the community at large outside its doors, and not just a select few such as Pastors and church leaders - the great error known in the New Testament known as Gnosticism.  He gets it! 

I'd love to sit down with Boris for a while and pick his brain on topics related to Servant Leadership and Christian Formation . . . that may take some doing.  Boris has a job besides his Elder duties and is not paid for his pastoral role in Verbo.  He also serves as the pastor of the Verbo church in nearby Azogues.  Neat guy to know, but he keeps a full schedule.  Of course, the busy, focused, yielded person of God also gets things done - and that describes Boris in a nutshell I think.

I know I have been rather stingy in supplying only my words to these posts these many months.  Considering the breakneck speed we have been traveling in making so many changes to our lives, I hope you may understand.  Once I get a table for the desktop computer, get the printer working again, and get caught up that way I should be able to have time to download photos of our past trip to Cuenca last year as well as provide new photos of what we are seeing now.  Please stay tuned!

In the meantime, I found a couple of YouTube videos on the topic at hand - Cuenca, Iglesia Verbo Cristiana, and Fundacion Hogar and the medical clinic.  Both of these are several years old, and so some of the information is not the most current. Cuenca now has a population of over 500,000 and Verbo has attendance of about 2,000 on Sundays.   Both are by current longtime Verbo church leaders/pastors.  Enjoy the sights of Cuenca and Ecuador while you gain an appreciation for the work at hand for medical volunteers here in Cuenca.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Putting it All Together

Lots of good news to share with our family and friends!  Old news first, then the new stuff. 

We - hopefully - are done visiting the Cuenca Ministario de Relaciones Exteriores office.  Saw them today with our legal assistant, Javier, and paid the final $8 to the Ministario office for. . . I still don't know for certain, but I'm guessing we are now in the computer based information system the Ministario office has up and running.  We have a couple of documents received from them today (per person) which we need to safeguard and bring with us to Quito when it comes time for us to travel there to finally obtain our Indefinite Visas and Cedulas, Pensioner's version. 

We will according to Javier visit folks in an associated law firm in Quito who work in association with our law firm here in Cuenca, Coloaustro.  They will be with us when we go to the Ministario office, and assist us in the obtaining of the sought after Visas and Cedulas.  The timetable for that is in the next two to four weeks according to Javier.  We will wait for Coloaustro to give us a call on when we need to travel north to Quito. . . and hang loose so to speak until then.  Looking good so far.  We know we will get our photos taken for the Visas/Cedulas then. . . hope the photos turn out better than what the Cuenca office did with our visages.  I for one don't want to look like a criminal getting a mug shot or something like that!  We will get our fingerprints taken for our Cedula cards too.  Good luck on that one folks. . . they can have 'em, but it's hard to read 'em!  You know we will be cooperative, of course. . . and thankful to God for getting us to this important milestone. 

We now have a dogsitter for our pet Chihuahua while we travel to Quito on business.  Courtesy of Pastor Fernando of Iglesia Verbo Cristiana who is bilingual, we have a connection to a lady veterinarian and her student veterinarian daughter who have agreed to do the dogsitting at their house - with the added benefit of a fenced in green lawn backyard, which the little guy hasn't had in freedom since we sold our house in Palmdale months ago.  I imagine he will be supremely delighted to run around a yard free for the first time in months - a real treat!  All for a very reasonable price which the dogsitter services at cannot match. . . not even close!  So we know we are getting the local's pricing on the deal, and not being Gringo gouged.  Thank you Lord, for folks like Chio and her daughter Carolina who are fair and willing to help us in our time of need.  Another definite answer to prayer.

On to new news: meanwhile, Carolyn Anne has started a beginner's Spanish class last Wednesday.  Hitting the basics, and with the help of an Internet site I found called Butterfly Spanish on Youtube, covering the Spanish alphabet and sounds with numbers the first week here at home.  The class is taught at Iglesia Verbo by Laura, a church member, and Carolyn Anne is the only student enrolled.  One on one instruction for $8.50 an hour!  Two hours a day, three days (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) a week.  We can financially handle that for the time being. 

There is not a critical need for the class, but Carolyn Anne was set on getting formal instruction from someone other than - ahem - her loving husband.  Getting another perspective on learning Spanish for a time is fine for now.  In time she will realize that perfection - in this case perfect native Spanish fluency - is not a worthwhile goal for an expat.  What is worthwhile is joining local conversation groups that speak both languages for free - no charge except for the restaurant food/beverage costs.  There's several here in Cuenca she can participate in.  All in due time.

For my part, while we were getting Carolyn Anne enrolled at the Arco Language Institute offered at Iglesia Verbo Cristiana, I picked up an application to be an English as a Second Language teacher.  I don't have a Curriculum Vitae like so many other retired (or not) expats, but I do have my lifetime of experience teaching in the classroom, a good many years of them teaching some very difficult students in various K - 12 pubic school districts in my home state of California as well as Colorado for a short while.  They are not demanding I supply a professional C.V., but do want at minimum a resume.  That I can type up on my desktop computer, then send as an email attachment and get it printed on someone else's printer - don't have the printer working just yet still.  The pay is not huge at $10 an hour, but not out of line for what happens here in Latin America either.  Hours would be either six or eight hours a week, which would fit the US Social Security rules for what an expat receiving SSDI is allowed to make (45 hours of work a month).  An extra $200 to $300 a month income would be helpful, but not the reason why we came here to retire.  We came here to enlarge the Kingdom of God, and make the name of Jesus Christ famous!

Back to Carolyn Anne again: the very same person who has volunteered to care for our dog while we obtain our Indefinite Visas and Cedulas in Quito is also a volunteer coordinator for Iglesia Verbo's medical clinic located in El Centro here in Cuenca.  Connect, connect, connect. . . and, as I reminded my wife in Chio's presence, you don't have to speak a word of Spanish to volunteer at the clinic.  You just have to have a willing servant's heart!  So Carolyn Anne is going to add volunteering at the clinic to her schedule probably next week.  As with the Taylor University (Upland, Indiana) students already volunteering and ministering there at the medical clinic, there are people there who can translate for you on behalf of the patients and yourself.  It's not an obstacle from serving if you only speak English.  

We're getting where we hoped we would be, hopefully, by the Grace of God!  Please pray with us for Jesus to be made manifest in us, that the Cuencanos would see Him, not us. . . and therefore Glorify God for all He has given them through us as willing servants.  This is an exciting chapter in our lives.  We don't want to miss out on what God has in store for us!      

Sunday, March 8, 2015

!Funcionarios del Gobierno, Doctores, y Taxistas, Oh, Mi! (Government Officials, Doctors, and Taxi Drivers, Oh, My!)

Definitely time for an update. . . and some good news.  You can tell by the title of this post above that we have been, with God's great help of course and your prayers, that we have been - ahem - "Slaying the Giants."  We have. . . and in a foreign land, with a very different culture and language, you have to do it with all the energy and attention you can bear.  What looked like a few weeks ago like the proverbial "lions and tigers and bears" are just. . . life's little challenges, and indeed victories. 

Continuing the Wizard of Oz metaphor and imagery, let's discuss first the obtaining the "broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West" - I just love the Frances Gumm/Judy Garland/Wizard of Oz (1939 classic American film) connections as I recount this story - it actually fits rather well!  The "broomstick" in our case, of course, is the granting of our 9-I pensionado retiree Visas, and Cedula cards.

We had to go - according to our abogados at Coloaustro law firm to the Cuenca office of the Ministario de Relaciones Exteriores y Movilidad Humana.  If that office's name suggests in your mind the phrase "Immigration Office" like what the INS (now ICE) is in the US, you've got it - functionally - right!  These people are worse at times than DMV examiners.  Thankfully, at the Cuenca office, there are no longer any long lines in the morning like there used to be a year or so ago, and they have a walk up appointment system in place.  Enough chairs to sit in, too.  

Why we had to go to that office remained a mystery to us until we had a chat with Dr. Cardenas.  According to the Ministario office, our T-3 tourist Visas - the kind you have that last a total of 90 days in a 365 day period and are stamped into your USA passport - were going to expire before the Ministario office in Quito would be able to issue our Indefinite 9-I Visas (that last bit of info not released to the Cuenca Ministario office, but held close to the vest by our law firm).  So a 180 day extension of our tourist Visas were in order.  Oh, Joy.  

Off we went, with Javier the legal assistant, and Merci the bilingual office receptionist, to the Ministario office.   Three blocks - actual blocks - away from the Coloaustro office.  We went on a Thursday morning, and all the available appointments were taken up for the day.  We had to return Friday morning at the beginning of the day. . . 8:30 AM, which is considered early in Ecuador.

That Friday, after waiting over two hours, we got to see a real bruja of a woman, Francia.  (No, I'm not gonna translate the word for you.  Make your own inferences.)  We were told (she told poor Javier in rapid fire Spanish) that the dates on our Social Security pension letters were too old, and that we needed to obtain FBI Criminal Background checks in addition to our State of California DOJ ones already supplied and apostilled.  !!!  The dates on our documents were well before the Ministario changed the rules (late December, 2014 according to a more reliable source).  Our hands are so old and worn it's difficult if not impossible to get the black ink fingerprints that will read properly for the FBI.  

She had Javier type up two letters for us stating that we were deficient in these two areas . . . given to her, of course.  After a mistake made - gotta state both deficiencies, not just the one - the instrangient official was satisfied by the letters, and now we could obtain our Visa extensions.  Saturday.  No more time in the office was available, apparently.  

Saturday we waited three hours that morning to see the official, who granted us an appointment to come back for the actual Visa extension the next Friday (this last Friday).  This last Friday, we finally got the documentation for our 180 day Visa extensions, had them typed up, photos taken by their camera (DMV style. . . that's all I'm gonna say about that!)  and placed into a page in our USA Passports.  Whew!  And we're not even to our final granting of our Indefinite pensioner's Visas yet!  Patience, as always, is the key.

Ahead in the wings. . . a trip to Quito for the Indefinite 9-I Visas after we finalize one final small step in our Visa extensions.  Cost of that last small step: $4 (so $8 for a couple).  Cost of the Indefinite Visa for a married couple (good job by Javier in getting the best price per the regulations for us): $310.  Ouch!  But it had to get done, we found out.  

I contacted a couple of dogsitters here in Cuenca to see what could be done to have someone watch our pet Chihuahua.  It seems many dogsitters are booked up weeks in advance, which may pose a problem for us, who must travel on the spur of the moment to get to Quito for our Indefinite Visas.  Will check Iglesia Verbo Cristiana and see if we can find a volunteer.  A small but important detail, so please pray.  Thanks!
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On the Doctor front: once I got to see a different - and Spanish speaking one at that - cardiologist (my bilingual cardiologist was away on a conference in Washington, DC, btw) I was declared in condition to be prescribed Tenormin (atenolol) to regulate the heartbeat.  Once I got a chance to finally see Dr. Quizhpe again, he similarly agreed that I was on the proper medication, and that I didn't have to see him again for three months, provided no other changes happen.  Then four months before a successive visit.  Doing well with the heart and heartbeat, thank God . . . though I remain officially in A Fib condition.  It's regulated by the prescription medications now, and that's all there is to it. 

Hitting a plateau in the losing weight front at the moment, but not adding any back.  It's been time to rest after all this lawyer and Visa and Doctor visit stuff.  We have been talking about walking to a restaurant far enough away from us to make it a good walk - to El Centro for the San Sebas cafĂ© - to get that weight loss going again.  A walk to Panesa on Remigio Crespo Toral wouldn't be out of the question either, but that walk is flat terrain, unlike the hill walk up past the Rio Tomebamba to San Sebas.  Total weight loss since moving to Cuenca: 15 pounds.  Total weight loss while in Cuenca in 2014 and 2015: 35 pounds.  Total weight loss since I married my wife: 57 pounds.  FYI and Praise God!  I feel better, too. 

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Ah, now for a tidbit or two on the local chofers, or taxi drivers here in Cuenca: my wife has been going to El Centro on her own - and Praise God, not getting lost - for some meetings that would benefit her with local expats.  She reported a couple of taxi drivers lately charged her $2.50 for what I know to be a $1.50 to $2.00 ride, depending on travel time (the taxis are all metered here in Cuenca now, unlike last year).  !!!  I told her in no uncertain terms to refrain from doing that.  If necessary, get me to see the taxi driver and we would have a real long talk. . . in Spanish, of course!  I hate having my wife taken advantage like that.  Of course, any self respecting driver will just scoot along and get the next fare instead of having a discussion on their business ethics.  Initial reports are my wife is getting them to behave better on the apparent price gouging that took place.

I myself had a driver run his cab without the meter running.  I saw the red "ERROR" message on his meter on my last run into El Centro yesterday, and immediately and firmly requested he get his meter fixed. . . or I was going out of his taxi without paying him.  *That* got his attention, so he immediately parked and finagled with his paper receipt machine located at the left knee of the driver, and got the new roll of paper installed correctly.  The meter then read *BIENVENIDOS* as it normally does, and he profusely apologized. . . then and when I paid him at the end of the trip.  He knew better, and so did I.  I let him know I had *never* seen a driver run without a working meter before this year, unlike last year when meters were not in place in the taxis. . . in my good Spanish, of course.  He understood me quite well.  You simply have to politely yet firmly stand for what is right, or you get walked on in this Latin machismo Culture.