Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Season's Greetings

"I am a sojourner and foreigner among you. . . "  (Genesis 23:4 ESV)

Greetings from our land of sojourn, Ecuador!  It has now been almost a year since we first came here to Cuenca, Ecuador to live.  We thank God for this place and the many blessings Cuenca has bestowed upon us, including lost weight, better health, a better financial outlook, and the opportunity to get to know and minister to the needs of the Cuencanos and Cuencanas here, as well as a number of expats from our country of origin, the United States.  

Rather than give once again a recap of what we've done in the past year - which many of you already know by reading the weblog here - I'd rather give you a view of what's happening with us now.  Carolyn Anne continues with her Spanish learning (in this holiday and vacation period without the tutoring of her twice a week Spanish teacher) via Duolingo on the Internet where she is beginning to internalize more vocabulary for spoken use, including the use of verbs, which are so vitally important to communicate with.  The repetition inherent in the Duolingo algorithim and programming is helping her to solidify her knowledge of different words as she refreshes skills, and she feels better about learning verbs than she did a week or so ago.  Conversing with me helps, I think (I hope).  As the language teacher in the house, I try to help her make connections from what she knows to what she needs to know so that she can make sense of the words and get the spelling right (Spanish is by and large easy to spell words in due to the phonetic makeup of the language).  

She uses Spanish in conversations with certain native friends she sees on a regular basis, too, which is good practice.  I happened to see her with a married couple at their vendor stand cart at a well known transit bus stop in the downtown area (El Centro) yesterday and she was pleased to see me while she was with her native friends.  Conversation and practice is key in learning a new language, and she is doing well.  We speak more and more Spanish at home, and I revert to English when Carolyn Anne doesn't understand me and she requests it.  

As far as the Duolingo program goes, she is at Level 12, which is fairly high (shows months of practice), and has 1500+ words in her vocabulary (~2500 is the complete set of vocabulary words).  She has passed all three checkpoints in the Spanish skills tree and now in the process of finishing the last, and largest, skill set before completion of the tree.  35 skills completed and 29 more to go.  She is considered 53 per cent fluent in Spanish, which actually means she is at the highest range of language knowledge given her lessons/skills learned to date.  Duolingo states that the highest fluency rate one may achieve is between 50 to 60 per cent, so as you can see, she is doing rather well considering where she started from a year ago.  

Her Spanish teacher who has been concentrating on verbs and their usage in conversations and sentences will continue with her in that general path.  Carolyn Anne's is now understanding longer sentences in conversation, and will in time speak them as well.  

I too have been progressing in my knowledge and usage of Spanish.  I completed my Duolingo Spanish skills tree just before Christmas (early Christmas present, eh?) and now I am working a little bit each day on completing what's known as a "reverse tree" where you learn English starting from the Spanish language.  The English to Spanish skills tree teaches you to hear and understand Spanish, but the Spanish to English skills tree teaches you to write, and therefore speak Spanish.  Being able to initiate conversations with minimal to no effort using Spanish is a worthwhile goal, and one that I am already in the process of doing.

My Duolingo stats: 56 per cent fluency, Level 14 reached, ~2500 vocabulary words learned, and virtual completion certificate awarded (pretty snazzy item, if I may say so myself!).  I still need to practice and refresh daily, and the newer lessons, such as subjunctive mood (which has to do with opinions and emotions, for instance) are still somewhat fuzzy in my mind at present.  !Si se puede!  I've gotten this far, haven't I?  The subjunctive is usually taught in high school Spanish 2 and 3 courses, which shows you what level you have to attain to get to that point in learning.

Speaking of which, when I test myself on my Spanish abilities, I test out as Advanced Proficient (level 4 of 6 levels, 6 being the highest).  Cambridge English calls this B2 (Vantage).  Only two other levels higher, C1/Effective Proficiency and C2/Mastery.  Much thanks and praise to Almighty God for helping me in this foreign language journey!  

With communicative bilingual abilities comes more opportunities to teach a foreign language, English in my case, to the natives.  You don't have to know Spanish to teach English, but it can be useful as you teach words and phrases as well as concepts to students.  Out in the real world of living in Latin America, knowing Spanish is a life skill, and the more you know, the more you can learn from and get to know the native population.  

Our good friend Joan has let me know of a missionary here in Ecuador who is in the process of assembling a team to teach English to prospective missionaries who will be traveling to lands and continents that have populations that use English as perhaps a secondary or tertiary language.  In that way the Gospel - the Good News of Jesus Christ - may be shared with others.  The three most used languages in the world presently are Mandarin, English, and Spanish.  I'm using two out of these three (not touching Mandarin, perhaps ever!) and those bilingual and fluent in Spanish and English can hold a definite advantage in communicating the Gospel to others around the world.  The English teaching team would concentrate their efforts on pronounciation and vocabulary development, especially as it relates to having spiritual conversations about the Gospel.  These students would then be placed where needed worldwide.  That is exciting to me, and the teaching team looks to be put together in the first part of 2016.  I aim to be a part of it.  

Our missionary friend is working under the auspices of OM, which is Operation Mobilisation.  They may be found at http://www.om.org/  Perusing their site, it becomes quite evident that OM is very interested in furthering the Kingdom of God by loving the people in the world in relational, tangible, sacrificial, caring ways.  Never heard of OM before, but they sound like an organization worthy of support.   

My wife Carolyn Anne continues to offer her time and efforts in arranging medical supplies for the upcoming year's Medical Brigades that Clinica Hogar will be putting on in 2016.  Clinica Hogar is the ministry under Fundacion Hogar which is under the purview of our church here in Cuenca, Iglesia Verbo Cristiana.  She spends a couple days a week with other volunteers in the church's third story attic sorting out the supplies.  The Medical Brigades are conducted as an outreach to the Cuenca community around three times a year, reaching the poorer residents' medical needs through offering medical procedures and operations that aren't done the rest of the year at Clinica Hogar.  They do dental work, physical therapy - Carolyn Anne herself received PT and a dental checkup through Clinica Hogar this year - and much more.  The reputation of Clinica Hogar is so well known amongst the residents, they know about it and its location even more than they know about the church that sponsors and supports it!  Not your regular run of the mill clinic. . . smiles, hugs and prayers gladly offered and accepted there between staff, volunteers and patients.  

We are continuing to work through how we reach out and communicate by telephone, especially internationally.  We are coming to the conclusion that we need a Smartphone in order to 1) use a service such as Skype Voice to make very low cost international calls back to the US, for example and 2) use the Whatsapp app to make local calls in and around Cuenca.  Believe it or not, local calls placed on our Claro cell phone can cost up to $8 or more for just 20 minutes or so for outbound calls to a non Claro cell phone (inbound calls from others are free - that's how the system here in Ecuador works).  Carolyn Anne has a phone list of friends and they with a couple of exceptions all have cell phones (wired phone calls are free from what we know both inbound and outbound locally).  So it's time to reevaluate the phone usage situation and avoid those incredibly insane $8 local phone calls by getting something better in the long run.  

The other big project is figuring out what to do about health insurance.  We as legal indefinite residents (Visas and Cedula cards in hand) are eligible for the Ecuador government's Social Security system health plan called IESS, and we'll sign up for it in January.  That will in the long run save us around $300 a month in prescription drug costs - quite a relief!  It will also allow the use of primary care doctors and specialists within the IESS hospital system.  The Ecuadorian government only at the start of 2015 made the IESS system available to non citizen legal residents (expats), and the cost for a married couple is around $86 a month from what I've been able to find.  Very inexpensive and with modern facilities and well trained doctors, some of whom speak English.  IESS could be compared to Medicare in the US, but you go to the government doctor in the government hospital, which is a bit different procedure than in the US.  The IESS system does allow you to use any hospital, public or private in the case of emergency. 

There's the free "safety net" healthcare system which never turns away patients in Ecuador for any reason, which is Hospital Vincente Moscosco here in Cuenca.  We know them well after going through Carolyn Anne's two previous falls to the ground.  They do procedures and operations too, I found out.  Even open heart surgeries that expats have had done there.  So that's one option to consider as needed - though primarily for emergencies.   

Lastly, there's the private hospitals and clinics that one can self insure and pay as needed for services (likely the choice we will be making).  I have read and researched and read again until my mind has been worn down to nothing, and I am coming to the conclusion that in Ecuador and Latin America, health insurance isn't what a North American is used to in terms of paying claims when needed.  These insurance companies seem to not pay the majority of the time, sometimes never, and thus are in effect what one expat calls "premium collection agencies."  We are concluding that private insurance in Ecuador is not a wise use of limited funds and so we'll self insure and pay as we go.  For more serious events, traveling back to the States and using our Medicare (Carolyn Anne needs to get enrolled in Medicare ASAP. . . a reminder to self) is very likely the path we'll take.  There's talk of medical evacuation planes that fly from Ecuador to the United States.  Need to check into that more.  So much to study and research on regarding this subject, and so little answers from those who have experience to share.  But we are making some headway.  

There's a Senior Health Care decisions seminar we have been going to that has been held a few times last year, and it will be held again in January and will present more information.  They also discuss end of life situations as it relates to expats in a different language, culture and country than what they are used to.  Very eye opening.  We are in these folks' debt for them putting all this information together and presenting it (and likely getting it into a printed booklet of some kind in the near future).  Wendy Jane Carrel spearheaded this effort earlier in 2015, but there's some other fine ladies that are assisting nowadays.   

We love and miss so many of our friends from the States, and hope and pray you will have a joyous and fruitful 2016 ahead.  And we thank God for each one of you.  As you can see, God is not done with us yet.  Our work here in Ecuador is just beginning!  Your continued prayers are coveted and much appreciated.  Please let us hear from you, either by the usual ways - email, Facebook, or even Skype (the few of you who do that with us) or you may leave a reply here at the end of this post.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The English Teacher

It came to pass in November.  I had finally been accepted as a profesor de Ingle's - English teacher - at Arco Language Institute, a ministry of Iglesia Verbo Cristiana here in Cuenca, Ecuador. 

Cate Messenger, the newly appointed coordinator for Arco, and herself an English teacher on Arco's staff, had let me know she needed to hire me due to a request by an Ecuadorian national to get tutored in English in order to prepare for English language tests for his Ecuadorian pilot's license.  Ecuador, of course, doesn't use English at its airport towers to the best of my knowledge, but internationally, English is used by Air Traffic Control towers all over the world.  We figured the man would show up for a meeting with us to discuss how his tutoring would be done, but after two attempts he never showed up.  That would have been two months worth of work for me, around 80 hours of instruction. 

Nevertheless, I was hired on as an English teacher, and there was an upcoming substitute (how I have hated the word when spoken in disrepute by my previous students and even staff Stateside) assignment coming up for Saturday December 12th.  I would take the place of Cate and another teacher who both taught a Basic English level class Saturday mornings.  

But first, before all that, there was an Arco Language Institute student cultural event which was planned for the Wednesday before (US) Thanksgiving, which of course is not a holiday in Ecuador.  Time to thank God for everything he has provided during the past year.  And what a year it has been for Carolyn Anne and I!  Looking back, we were living that past November in a motel in the Antelope Valley in California, waiting after the sale of our house to get permission from our airline, Delta, to move our 17 suitcases and dog crate to Ecuador.  We moved that following January of 2015, of course.  After several months of going through the Visa application process, we finally obtained our Pensionado Visas this past October, and have our Cedula national identification cards in hand as well.  We've survived falls - and a hospital visit, getting lost (yet again, taking the transit bus the wrong direction in town), pain from Carolyn Anne's ongoing osteoarthritis, computer and Internet problems (see our previous post) and taken a trip back to the States to see friends and family, which we were glad to be able to do.  Now was the time to give Thanks to Almighty God in the presence of our new friends in Ecuador whom we've made acquaintance with over the last year.  We sang - in English - "Give Thanks" as well as some other worship songs in both English and Spanish.  The Thanksgiving style supper event was largely conducted in English, and different groups of students from the different English classes would sing a song, say a poem out loud in unison, or even put on a puppet show!  All in English, of course.  Much rejoicing and enjoyment in what the students have learned thus far.  Turkey and Ecuadorian accountrements were served to all on paper plates.  Desserts abounded, too.  (The Ecuadorians don't know how to make a North American pie, so cakes were abundantly available, as were fruit concoctions.) 

Next up was Arco's annual student Graduation Night, which was in December.  Here, students, parents, friends, faculty (I was now part of the teaching staff and invited to attend) and staff were all present to congratulate the students graduating from their programs for the year.  Students had to pass their exams first, of course, to attend graduation.  Maybe 15 or so school aged students and adult students were called up to the stage and awarded their paper diplomas of recognition.  One student gave a short speech -in English - on how her learning English opened doors to her and allowed her to know more about the world around her, especially involving foreigners outside of Ecuador. 

Besides these student convocations, we teachers had an inservice meeting with the author of our Arco Language Institute textbook, Steve Nine.  Four new teachers and the teachers already on staff attended for a couple of hours.  I learned a lot from this meeting, and found out - confirmed, actually - that the program was sound and vocally based, centered around phonemes, or sounds of words that make up words.  We went through a lesson (truncated due to time limitations, though) and played the part of students doing the work as instructed in the classroom.  Gives one a different perspective, and lets the teacher understand just how important proper enunciation and sounds are to the writing of the letters that make up the words that make up. . . the language known as English. 

Finally the week came where I needed to put everything together that I had learned to date.  I was going to take the place of two teachers and teach one lesson jointly to both classes!  I had shadowed the teachers involved, as well as the other teachers of English at Arco, and gone over with Cate the lesson plan devised by her, which was quite well put together with sounds - phonemes - that were repeated in more than one exercise and activities that reinforced the learning of the day.  All that was left was reviewing the lesson, and preparing for the big day Saturday the 12th. 

I wisely decided to rest the afternoon of Friday the 11th.  Good thing I did, because I was on my feet for over four hours of teaching the next morning. 

Some of the items were not available to me until the morning of class.  The textbook, flashcards, and attendance sheet were not in my possession until that morning.  This wasn't a big problem, as Cate had emailed me a lesson plan previously, but the flashcards with the sounds on the back had to be put into order for this class, covering what had been already taught to date, omitting what had not.  That took a bit of time in front of the students. . . unavoidable. 

My sense of humor was intact and working, my life vignettes popped up at opportune times, too.  Thank you Lord!  I could communicate with my students by and large - although there were a couple of times with the younger students where I had to ask them to repeat likely due to the large room we were in that had not the best acoustics.  We had fun, too!  I read a poem to my advanced students in the earlier hour, and played a song on my laptop to my basic students towards the end of my time with them at the end.  I even sang the last stanza of it. . . "Do You Hear What I Hear?" as famously performed by Andy Williams.  The students really enjoyed my on key tenor vocalization as I hit the high notes. . . thank you, Lord for moments like these where we can worship you and give you all the Honor and Glory due your Wonderful Name.

Several students thanked me for being there to teach them.  I haven't had that happen in ages. . . decades.  I had been so used to teaching the incarcerated kids in the juvenile hall and county camp system in Los Angeles County, who were never grateful in public if they could help it.  What a nice end of the day that was! 

Yo soy un profesor de Ingle's en Instituto Arco y yo lo disfrute muy mucho.  !Gracias adios por este regalo de eso posicio'n!

The Long and Winding Road Towards Computer Functionality

Pardon the extended time away from updating our doings here in the ever lovely city of Cuenca, Ecuador.  We have been experiencing (ahem) technical difficulties of a repeating nature that are hopefully on the way towards staying resolved and being resolved.  Life's no fun when you cannot communicate with those you love, and for that we largely rely on the Internet and our home computers.  When those fail. . . well, it gets tough and takes time away from the tasks we really would rather do, like say "hello" to friends overseas in the States, for instance. 

How it all began: Windows 10 - the self installs on both our computers.  At first I thought I was saving some money by doing it myself - after all, I am self taught at home computers and have been doing several regular maintenance tasks for years without any serious negative consequences.  I did both installs of Windows 10 at different times and even different weeks, and both were quite a snap.  Easy to do from all appearances, and the computers seemed to work well after the new install of the new operating system. 

But then I noticed that one Internet site I frequented was with what turned out to be a bug of some sort: when I wanted to return to the previous page, it took several clicks of the mouse to get to where I wanted to go.  Actually, I overshot my goal, and ended up on the search engine page instead.  I did that for weeks, saying it's just peculiar to that one website. 

I had after the Windows 10 self install also installed Apache Open Office document software.  It appeared on screen, and I had used Open Office previously without any bad effects.  I said "yes" to the install, and away it uploaded effortlessly on my part.  Little did I know that this new version somehow would not let me edit my documents, which previous to Open Office were Windows document software.  I should have considered what the free "gift" of Open Office might mean in terms of consequences that would cause me more problems.  Shareware - free software - often isn't as good as it is made out to be, I have learned.  I couldn't even open and start a new office document with Open Office.  Not good!

Then I couldn't use my mouse on my desktop computer.  It wouldn't function any longer.  That did it. . . I had to get a computer tech to look at my 'puter and get it working again.  First I had already purchased a new mouse, which didn't fix the problem.  Off I went with the computer to the computer shop, which I found out about using the laptop computer that still worked. 

The technician found out that I had some loose connections inside the computer that prevented communication via the mouse.  Once those were resolved, the computer worked fine.  We talked some more and he recommended getting a "clean install" of Windows 10 that would allow my computer to have the speed and functionality it was supposed to have, but didn't.  So I let him have it for more time.  Clean Windows 10 install completed, things looked good at that point.  Still didn't have my document software working correctly, but he had run out of time for the day to look at my problems.  So it was put off for another day. 

In the meantime, the Internet service here from TVCable was going on the fritz.  Later on, I found out it was not the fault of the Internet Service Provider - TVCable in this case - but an issue of how to properly disconnect and reconnect the wires from the router (a white box here from TVCable with two small antennas) and the modem (which is a black box affair similar to what I was previously used to from TimeWarner Cable in the USA).  After several false tries, reboots of the computer(s) involved, and - prayer - which needed to be foremost in mind, not something done approaching desperation - forgive me, Lord - I had connection again with the Internet.  Sometimes I had to get a computer technician (second supplier, different from my first supplier) here at the residence to fix the Internet connectivity problem, sometimes it was resolved on my own.  But it has proved vexing for several weeks continuously. Several times we have had only one computer up and running with Internet working, and sometimes it's been both computers not able to connect to the Internet.  Frustrating to say the least!

In the midst of dealing with the ever vexing Internet connectivity issue, I found I could not contact via telephone my second computer technician shop.  Movistar , their cell phone provider, said in perfectly good Spanish that their account was suspended.  Suspended?  For cryin' out loud!  So I contacted a third computer tech guy, and got him to take a looksee. 

His advice was good, especially on how to use the Internet router and modem and do the connections and disconnections to ensure the computer(s) were connected to the Internet.  However, he mentioned that my laptop seemed slow.  Had I done a self install on Windows 10 lately, he asked?  Of course.  I answered in the affirmative, of course. . . and so away the laptop computer went with this third tech to his residence for a clean install of Windows 10.  So back to only one computer available for the next three days. 

All this time, we were harder pressed to keep up on new emails, Facebook - if we really had the time, which depended on the person on the other end and the message they left - and most importantly on our Duolingo Spanish lessons on their Internet site.  With only one computer working for weeks at a time, and sometimes not any of them working at all or with no Internet service for any of them, life got tough.  We somehow managed to keep our Duolingo daily practice streaks alive. Mine's at over 150 days currently and Carolyn Anne's at about 80 days now - I sometimes sign in for her and do an easy refresher lesson to keep her streak alive, taking maybe 3 to 5 minutes to do so.  She appreciates that, of course. 

After tech guy number three comes back with the laptop computer, I notice he did a number of significant and unasked for changes.  He set up the computer so that one no longer has to type in a password - if you ask me, that's a safeguard for our laptop that we once lost in a rental car in California last year.  The way the new rental car customer found out how to contact us was by the email address on the beginning start up page, right above the password entry slot location.  It turned out to be a film studio in the Los Angeles area that emailed us.  Thank God for honest people like that studio, which was a smaller one run out of someone's house in the El Sereno neighborhood of LA.  The way it was set up by tech guy #3 was to press a button, and whoever had it - friend or foe, rightful owner or not - could use the laptop to their hearts content, not to mention possibly find out personal info about us.  Not good.  That has to change immediately. 

Tech guy #3 also got rid of a lot of the Lenovo icons and such that were never used and actually "fluff" that wasn't ever used, or wanted.  Not a bad idea, but again, he never asked me first.  He also disconnected our AVG antivirus software, saying to me that AVG was known to be inferior in Ecuador (that will come as a shock to my computer tech shop guy in Lancaster, California who installed the AVG antivirus software *and* charged me for doing so!) and he had installed a free antivirus software instead.  Again, I let him know of my displeasure. 

Icing on the cake for tech guy #3: he had also not reinstalled and uploaded the Skype software for the laptop.  We bought the laptop expressly for that very purpose - to use and communicate via Skype.  The reinstall was taking too long on the laptop for the Skype reinstall, and likewise an install of a Windows Suite for Office on the desktop computer was not installing at a fast enough rate - it hadn't finished downloading just yet.  So tech guy #3 told me that he had an appointment with another client to fix their computer, and that I could do the work from here. 

Nice try.  I later found out from getting ahold of computer tech guys #2 that he possibly was installing a $300 version of Windows Office 2016. . . or I had not known which version (true, that) he was trying to install, likely a free version that *still* needed a competent tech to supervise the complete installation.  Either way, he was going to get me for an extra $300 for the Microsoft officially licensed software suite for Office (which I doubt since he never mentioned the extra cost to me) or do half the job needed to be done by cutting short the time spend supervising the install of the Microsoft "pirate" software, which was free to me.  Computer shop guys #2 did the MS "pirate" Office Suite software installation and ensured that I could edit my existing document pages. 

By the way, the reason why I had to contact computer shop guys #3 *again* was due to computer tech guy #2 taking out my RAM in my desktop computer, and putting it in again. . . in a different slot, apparently.  After a day, the computer ran, but nothing appeared on the screen from the data from the computer.  Computer tech guys #3 took out the RAM and reinstalled it properly.  The desktop computer has been running fine ever since. 

Lessons learned through all of this: *don't* install Windows 10 yourself.  Get a competent computer tech to do the job instead.  Be willing to admit what you don't know, and get help where and when needed.  Be very specific and upfront in telling specifically what you want done, as well as what you don't want done in terms of changes to how the computer operates.  Don't use computer technicians who also advertise on their business card that they drive customers around and are Facilitators (personal assistants).  "And more. . . " is a dead giveaway phrase on a business card that the provider doesn't care what kind of job they do, they just want to work. . . and most of all, get paid.  Once you find a competent computer technician, keep using them.  

The reason why computer tech guy #1 didn't get further work from me was that he was out of town the next time I needed him.  Besides that, he almost always wanted the work to be done at his shop.  With the Internet issues at hand, it was important to check things out where I was using the computer(s), not where it was convenient for the technician.  He only came one time to my residence, due to there being an issue connecting to the Internet and him being available that time and day to check it out.  So off to computer tech guys #2 I went.  I think I have found a reliable shop in #2, and have confidence in them that they will continue to diagnose and correct the issues at hand correctly.  

As you can see, we have several backlogged issues relating to computer operation that needs to be dealt with ASAP, no thanks to computer tech guy #3, who actually through all of this ended up costing us more money that what we paid him.  Expensive lessons, to be sure.  Not to mention at the very beginning of all of this trouble, we had to get the laptop cleaned up inside and get some loose wires reconnected due to - you guessed it - the inability to use the internal touchpad mouse.  Tech guy #1 did that job, and quite well at that.  Total costs currently for computer service calls and repairs are around $200 of late.  That would be $600 or more if the same work was done in the United States.

Here in Ecuador, quality of work isn't always reliable or uniform, and there are people who don't perform the way you want them to.  It *is* the Wild Wild West here in Ecuador, and you really have to practice the saying Caveat Emptor (buyer beware).  We're living proof of that!  Learn from our experience if you choose. . . but only if you choose.