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.  

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